Those who are constrained to find anything that can be defined as “joy” or “happiness” in Samuel Beckett’s work may have a formidable opponent in the author himself. (Perhaps one finds “courage,” but that’s a different quality entirely.) Beckett’s friend Harold Pinter once asked the dramatist to comment on the form of his work; Beckett replied in a letter: “If you insist on finding form [for my plays] I’ll describe it for you. I was in hospital once. There was a man in another ward, dying of throat cancer. In the silences I could hear his screams continually. That’s the only kind of form my work has.” In this one finds an echo of Rothko’s description of his work, which I paraphrased in an essay written in 2009 and which appears in my book Word Made Flesh: “Once, an observer called Rothko’s canvases of bright yellows and oranges optimistic ‘celebrations.’ Rothko responded that these colors, to him, were the colors of an inferno.”
It is not hard to discover the reason for the continuing, perverse misreadings of Beckett’s and Rothko’s work, but according to the artists themselves these are deliberate misunderstandings. Hypnotized by the surface qualities of comedy and beauty, not to mention the celebrity of these two artists (for no truly sensitive and cosmopolitan person, of course, could fail to admire this work), spectators remain on these surfaces and refuse to acknowledge the tragic qualities beneath. But the spectators lack the very courage of the artists themselves to confront the darkness at the center of these visions. If Beckett’s work were truly conceived from the perspective of Beckett’s own pessimism, as Rothko’s, it’s unlikely that the work would continue to be produced at all in the current atmosphere of a Culture Industry dominated by optimism above all things. The names Rothko and Beckett, as well as their work, are co-opted by this Industry, which utilizes them to their own blinkered ends. They represent not a will to power, or a will to life, or a will to express, but a will to renunciation and resignation, to transcend the screams through silence.