Samuel Beckett: The politics of vegetables

By David Prescott ‘Gardening. No hope for the future.’ Franz Kafka ‘At least he had gardening.’ Samuel Beckett At a time when words mean whatever powerful people want them to mean, it seems futile to believe in their (I mean words’) ability to bridge the chasms of loneliness between people that lead to war. But [...]

Arts & Culture, Books, Features - Posted on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 11:41 - 4 Comments

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By David Prescott


‘Gardening. No hope for the future.’

Franz Kafka

‘At least he had gardening.’

Samuel Beckett

At a time when words mean whatever powerful people want them to mean, it seems futile to believe in their (I mean words’) ability to bridge the chasms of loneliness between people that lead to war. But then, words have always been abused, by all but the most pure poets. Things are no worse now, just differently bad. Surely. Or maybe they are in fact worse, objectively speaking? Maybe the sum total of human horror was greater five minutes ago, or for a few seconds last Thursday, than at any other time in history? But this is a futile argument. Just get on and do things. Or not. That’s how we got into this mess, thoughtless action.  Don’t just do something, sit there. But how can you when… And round we go again.

Samuel Beckett answered the question of what on earth to do with a life by staring unflinching at the human condition and recording what he saw. He was, in Donald Barthelme’s description, ‘almost pure comedian’. His work is about as far from political as it is possible to be while remaining recognisably human. His characters shuffle and fart their way through anti-adventures until their ashes end up being flushed down the toilet. He offers a maddening lack of conclusions, saying things like: ‘The key word in my work is ‘perhaps’’. Just when you think he’s about to take his brain for a drive and produce some great philosophical insight, he pulls back again into the sphere of the strictly mundane.

‘I must have been quite one of the fastest runners the world has ever seen, over a short distance, five or ten yards, in a second I was there. But I could not go on at that speed, not for breathlessness, it was mental, all is mental, figments. Now the jog trot on the other hand, I could no more do that than I could fly.’

Away from his writing, there is plenty of proof of his moral integrity: he worked for the French resistance during the Second World War and drove a Red Cross ambulance during the aftermath. He gave most of his money away to friends and drove a neighbour’s son to school because they didn’t have a car. (As an irresistible aside, the boy grew up to become WWF wrestler André the Giant.)

André the Giant. Where was I? What the hell was I saying? Ah yes. Politics, Beckett, vegetables, absurdity… For a long time Beckett could not work out where to go after Joyce, what a man for a teacher, who tried again and again to cram the whole of human experience into a single book. One day Beckett realised that he would go the other way, he would reduce, minimise, remove those fictional artifices with which other writers sustain their work: plot, character, drama, until all there is left is ‘a fable of one fabling to oneself alone in a room’.

Obviously no one is non-political, not even Beckett. It is impossible. I once read that ‘apathy is not the same as turning away in disgust’, but that is sophistry. By doing nothing you are political because, as a human with visible brain function, you have chosen not even to try and address the colossal fiasco of contemporary life. But Beckett’s politics are subterranean rather than underground. I mean you really have to dig down deep.

So here is a manifesto inspired by Beckett’s politics, which for some unknown reason has come out like a recipe. What a shambles of an article.

Serves: 1

Cooking time: Two years

Ingredients

Samuel Beckett, Collected Shorter Fiction

Samuel Beckett, Murphy

Samuel Beckett, Watt

Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable

Jack MacGowran – MacGowran Speaking Beckett (Claddagh Records)

An ipod

Seed potatoes

A spade

Earth and air

1. Take Beckett’s four short novels, the ones that most resemble fiction written by humans: ‘First Love’, ‘The Expelled’, ‘The Calmative’, ‘The End’. Next, having earned your spurs, move onto one of the finest comic novels of the last century, ‘Murphy’, which is best read alone somewhere in Europe probably, in a café or a bar, at the back.

2. Now you are ready for ‘Watt’ and its ten-page sentences, one of the books that earned Beckett the Nobel, which is beautiful in a supermarket car park when you are feeling tired, and as you fall asleep the lilts of barely comprehensible prose add colour to the rhythm of car boots closing and trolleys being smashed back into place.

3. Then you are ready for the trilogy: ‘Molloy’, ‘Malone Dies’, ‘The Unnameable’. This verbal symphony, composed in France while the ashes of World War Two were still warm, this literary pinnacle of the twentieth century will change the way you read words.

4. One day you are at your vegetable patch digging up potatoes while listening to Jack McGowran reading ‘From an abandoned work’, a 40-year-old recording coming at you down your ipod, punctuated by Beckett’s only known musical performance (he plays the gong) and you scoop up on your spade a particularly fine potato and hold its cold earthy form while the baffling, lovely phrase ‘…tapping with his ferrule the noble bassimento of the united stores…’ drifts into your head. You don’t know what it means, you don’t know what any of it means, but the moment feels right, you’re a little bit less lonely as the wind blows around you and you breathe.

David Prescott is a writer and consultant, he lives in the countryside.

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4 Comments

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M
Feb 28, 2010 7:20

A refreshing and incisive introduction to Beckett!

Your citation of Barthelme’s view of Beckett as pure comedian seems to be the dominant one at the moment — cf. the latest McKellen production at the Haymarket. I think this is a bit of shame. Waiting for Godot might be funny, but it damn well better make you question the meaning of existence at the same time. A lot of the recent productions are far too keen to employ gimmicks, or exaggerate Beckett’s comedy, as if they think they need to retain the audience’s attention. Play it straight, I say.

Beckett’s plays ‘Without Words’ are also hopelessly underrated (probably because they’re so difficult to stage well): ‘Act Without Words II’ is one of my favourites:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvogo6gnJNU

Bozo
Mar 2, 2010 3:28

M,
Your assumption that somehow comedy and existential excavation are mutually exclusive is rather questionable… it could be well argued that Beckett’s humour probably IS his most potent tool/canvass for moral and philosophical investigations

Re: Underrated Beckett, one must not forget that in his adopted country (France) pretty much the entire Beckett Canon is, and has always been, in very rude health..

Pozzo
Mar 7, 2010 5:02

Beckett’s humour is tragedy reconstituted as farce. (That’s what the French say. Apparently.)

Bozo
Mar 8, 2010 4:12

Pozzo,
“the French”? shurely shome mishtake!

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