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The Necessary Staying Put: Beckett and Social Distancing


After reading a witty reimagining of famous first lines rewritten for social distancing, it occurred to me that one really wouldn’t have to tweak much with Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre. (Though the meeting with Godot, alas, might have to be postponed.) Beckett doesn’t necessarily offer solace in these times; one can only grin, or grimace, at his buoyant pessimism: “What room for worse!” we read in one Worstward Ho. He is however, one of the great modernist chroniclers of isolation, and one who labelled his own mid-career burst of production from 1946 to 1950 as the “siege in the room.” So join me, dear, homebound reader, on a tour of Beckett’s circumscribed though capacious universe.

In an essay on Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian, the critic Walter Bauer described the young hero’s coming-of-age as “Die notwendige Reise,” or “The  Necessary Journey.” Coming across this phrase as a young man, Samuel Beckett noted in his journal: “Journey anyway is the wrong figure. How can one travel to that from which one cannot move away?  Das notwendige Bleiben [The Necessary Staying Put] is more like it.” Throughout his career, Beckett’s protagonists undertake journeys that are more and more stationary, compelled by their obsessions (Krapp), their hopes (Vladimir and Estragon), or their surrounding (Winnie) to stay put.

We begin with the eponymous hero of Murphy, who in the novel’s opening has tied himself up, naked, to a rocking chair with seven scarves such that “only the most local movements were possible.” Thus bound, he comes “alive in his mind…And life in his mind gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word.”

Murphy is eventually thrust into “the jaws of a job” and into the “mercantile Gehenna” of London—the novel is in some ways about the tragicomic impossibility of separating oneself from the world—though we can nonetheless look to Murphy, that “long hank of Apollonian asthenia” who rocks from home to avoid all worldly bustle, as one who strove valiantly to attain bliss-in-solitude.

Molloy, Beckett’s great road novel, sees both hunter, Moran, and quarry, Molloy, reduced to increasingly hobbled or immobile conditions—the latter recounting his troubles in a Wordsworthian vein: “It is in the tranquility of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life.” Like Murphy, Molloy is torn between the desire to stay put and the compulsion to advance: “For in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.” The novel tends to bear that out. We first see him bedridden in his mother’s room, where he hopes to “finish dying” after a journey that ends with him lying at the bottom of ditch.

And in this germ-conscious era, we must make brief mention of Molloy’s stone sucking. I won’t linger on his intricate, obsessive-compulsive ritual, but suffice it to say the cavalier use of saliva would give Dr. Anthony Fauci a panic attack.

The Unnameable supplies a starker version of social distancing. The Unnameable is a “caged beast born of caged beast born of caged beast born of caged beast born in a cage and dead in a cage.” He is a dyspeptic creation who spews invective at the shadowy creators who spawned both him and the other “miscreated puppets” of the novel. Among them is Mahood, who has lost all his members “with the exception of the onetime virile” and resides in a sawdust-filled jar on Paris’s Rue Brancion.

Perhaps Mahood shares a realtor with Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s ash bin-dwelling parents in Endgame. The peremptory Hamm is not brimming with empathy, begrudging them when they emerge from their cans to demand food: “The old folks at home! No decency left! Guzzle, guzzle, that’s all they think of.”  And yet if your own “accursed progenitor” insists on carelessly roaming about, it might not be the worst idea to toss them in a recycling bin for a spell. Desperate times…

Krapp from Krapp’s Last Tape is well-equipped for a prolonged seclusion, armed with his stash of bananas and tapes he has recorded as a young man. I am of the 99 percent of people mortified to hear their voice on tape, but Krapp listens to his confident younger self with an intoxicating mixture of fascination, scorn, and yearning. He is tethered to the tape recorder and the unfulfilled vision of the future it contains, even as it tortures him.

In contrast to the generally ornery Krapp, Winnie, the indefatigable heroine of Happy Days, has an obstinately roseate worldview. Her husband navigates his burrow with increasing difficulty, occasioning Winnie to reflect back on his happier, and more slithery, days: “Not the crawler you were, poor darling.” Winnie, though, is always ready to look on the bright side:  “What a curse, mobility!” she says, buried in sand up to her waist as the play opens, to her neck as it ends.

And then there are Beckett’s two most famous players, Vladimir and Estragon, rooted in place for their perpetually deferred meeting. Their entire existence depends on killing time—through improvisational “canter[s]” or squabbles or lyrical flights of fancy—between their sporadic encounters and interminable waiting for Godot: “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?,” says Estragon.  The strain, however, does wear on them, as made clear in a line some of us may have uttered over the past week: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”

Finally, there is Company, Beckett’s extraordinary late work in which a voice comes “to one in the dark,” identified by the second-person pronoun “you, and delivers a fiat: “Imagine.” Imagine what, exactly? First, a past, a series of formative vignettes involving “You” and his father, his mother, a lover, a diving board, and an unfortunate hedgehog. And second, a more companionable existence: “Devised deviser devising it all for company,” Beckett writes. “You” exists in a state of isolation and near-total sensory deprivation, and so imagines a series of pleasant additions to the monotony: a “shadowy light” in the dark; the “mercy” of an odd sound, “some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more”; or even—and here the “temptation is great”—a fly to swat away, “a live fly mistaking him for dead.” Crawling would also be a pleasant addition to company, but by this point in Beckett’s career, the mere possibility of movement becomes a theoretical, empirical, and ethical question: “Can he move? Does he move?  Should he move?”

This short novel is a highly refracted autobiography, an accomplished exercise in style and a fable of the artist’s mind, a “bourneless dark” in which creator and created, deviser and devised, create the momentary illusion of company:

With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you were always were.


Image Credit: Flickr/rich_f28

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