Friday, December 15, 2006

Language as Answer and Question: the Dialogue between the I’s of Beckett and Joyce

James Joyce and Samuel Beckett: pitted against each other by critics and historians alike, this literary couple gave birth to new forms of literature, alone and in collaboration, which continue to influence new generations of writers and critics. Though friendship seems to have less to do with literary movements than politics or painting, for instance, Joyce and Beckett are a particularly significant pair. Not only were they of different generations, but the relationship between their works illustrates an aesthetic movement from the high modernism between the wars to the less definable movements of post-modernism to come only after World War II. The importance of Joyce to Beckett’s work has been argued—“their only similarity is that they are both Dubliners” one critic suggests—though such an argument is long since disproved. Instead, the exact relationship between their works should be examined. Barbard Gluck concludes in her book on the subject, “Beckett is seeking an answer to the problems posed by Joyce’s works,” yet others still suggest he simply parrots his elder's prose.

There is no denying the powerful effect Joyce had on Beckett, both as a writer and a friend. Beckett described his first meeting with Joyce as “exhausting,” and Joyce himself made special efforts to get Beckett the best doctors in Paris after he was stabbed on the street. In a way, one can trace everything back to Joyce: he commissioned Beckett’s first published writing in the Exagmination of Work in Progress, perhaps gave him the idea to become a writer by trade, and had a hand in saving Beckett’s life when Beckett was only 32. But if Joyce’s role was that of a literary father figure, Beckett then could only be a kind of son. Indeed, Peggy Guggenheim thought so: “Joyce loved [Beckett] as a son.” But young love does not last forever: in its standard course, growth begins with infantile imitation, and necessarily continues to adolescent revolt. In the end, Beckett is certainly an independent entity, who defined himself by his difference from Joyce, but retains nevertheless a few surprising likenesses. Beckett’s later work holds traces of Joyce’s masterpieces, as many as thirty years after Joyce died.

Before he had even thought of writing, Samuel Beckett was reading James Joyce. At 21, in the last few months of his own years at Trinity College Dublin, he discovered the most influential author of his then-nonexistent career. Having already read Pomes Penyeach, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, Beckett was ready, in 1927 to meet one of his favorite authors. Both Irishmen in Paris, Joyce in order to write and Beckett in order to teach (Lecteur in English at the École Normale Superièure), they were introduced by a mutual friend. After this first meeting, the two met on a regular basis for many years: Joyce had Beckett over for dinner, they went on long walks down the Seine and onto the Isle of Swans (L’Allé des Cynes), Beckett read to Joyce to help with research for Finnegans Wake, and Joyce occasionally dictated to him. Though their personal relationship suffered when Beckett rejected the advances of Joyce’s daughter Lucia, and the regularity of his visits decreased (upon Joyce's suggestion), they remained friends and certainly their literary relationship too holds strong.

The writing of Dante…Bruno, Vico..Joyce, begins simultaneously the literary career of Samuel Beckett and the literary relationship of Beckett and Joyce. This congratulatory and wryly written piece addresses Joyce’s readers as potentially lazy and uninterested. As far as reading Joyce goes, Beckett took the opposite approach: not only did he interest himself in the work, he responded to it with his own creation, a response even more flattering than praise.

Beckett’s early writing career mirrors almost perfectly that of his admired role model: an attempted novel goes unpublished (Beckett’s Dream of Fair to Middling Women to Joyce’s Stephen Hero) and is thus turned into a collection of interrelated short stories that take place in Dublin (Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks to Joyce’s Dubliners). Extraordinary formal correlations between More Pricks Than Kicks and Dubliners exist. As Gluck notes, both collections begin with paralysis: "
'Dante and the Lobster' opens with Belacqua puzzling over the moon passage in The Divine Comedy. So impenetrable is the poetry that he is 'stuck in the first of the canti,' 'so bogged that he [can] move neither backward nor forward.' This image of paralysis…recalls the initial page of Dubliners and, indeed, the entire theme of that book."

Though thematic elements and the general organization can be seen as derivative, and Beckett even makes an homage to Ulysses in "Dante and the Lobster" (see Belaqua eating a gorgonzola sandwich like Leopold Bloom’s in “Lestrogonians”), the language of the young Beckett is much livelier and more satirical than Joyce’s was at his age (a mere comparison of titles can prove this point). From the very start, Joyce had a much more reverential approach to language than Beckett, who saw language not only as playful (surely influenced by Joyce’s writing of the Wake) but as a hurdle to overcome.

One more significant morsel of Joyce to be found in More Pricks Than Kicks and to continue in a later form, is “The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux.” A letter from Belaqua’s German girlfriend, ‘the Smeraldina,’ this epistle resembles Milly Bloom’s letter, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, and, later, Anna Livia Plurabelle’s monologue. Following the female monologue that Joyce developed throughout his work, Beckett too tried his hand at the “feminine letter” in his early days and later in his career. Complete with spelling errors and occasional lack or misuse of punctuation, Smeraldina’s letter follows closely on Molly’s. “My body needs you so terrible, my hands and lips and breasts and everything els on me,” she writes. Following Molly’s lead, Smeraldina briefly maps her body in words. Likewise, she too thinks often about physical desire: she thinks about finding another sexual partner (“sometimes I find it very hard to keep my promise but I have kept it up till now”), she can’t resist the temptation to flirt (“a man…asked me to go out with him to dance on Saturday evening, I sopose I will go. … A flirt is very amuseing”), and she finds the female body attractive (“I met a new girl, very beautiful, pitch black hairs and very pale”). Yet another parallel to the Blooms, Smeraldina writes to Belaqua that although they haven’t had sex for some time, she still loves him: “Is he the man I have always been looking for? Yes! but then why cant he give that what I have been longing for for the last 6 months?” Besides having the same sexual desires so frequently used to stereotype Molly, Smeraldina thinks in a similar way, connecting seemingly disparate thoughts, and returning to discussions of her dreams. In what seems more than a coincidence, her letter closes with a remembrance of coitus on a hill, signaling Molly’s own famous ending: "you will be by me and will feel that marvelous pain again that we did in the dark mountains and the big black lake blow and will walk in the fields covered with cowslips and Flieder and will hold once more in your arms..."

Point-by-point, Beckett reconstructs Howth head: the lovers on a mountain (which recalls Molly’s “flower of the mountain”), the water below (the Blooms’ Dublin Bay), the sexual suspense, the cowslips (taken from Bloom’s recollection rather than Molly’s of a the goat “dropping currants”), the flowers (Flieder in German is lilac, though sounds like English ‘flower’; the Blooms roll around in rhododendrons, and again references Molly’s name for herself). Thus, one can see “The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux” as one of Beckett’s first take-offs on Joyce’s work.

However, there is a crucial difference: while one is tempted to take Molly for the sometimes flighty but generally complex character she is, Smeraldina’s broken English and over-sentimentality set up the “Billet Doux” as satire. She starts, “BEL BEL my own bloved, allways and forever mine!! Your letter is soked with tears death is the onely thing. I had been crying bitterly, tears! tears! tears!” Such straightforward expression of romantic sorrow can only be parody. Smeraldina’s repetition of words and exclamation points gives her letter an over-the-top quality from the start. Also, though the reader clearly sees “bloved” to be a vernacularized “beloved”, the humor in reading such a flat, “blah,” one-syllable word, like ‘bloved’ for the three-syllable lilting ‘beloved’ adds to the overzealous capitalizations and exclamations. Beckett carries this tongue-in-cheek style throughout the early stories, already clearly expressing the rift between the words and the intentions that will characterize his later mistrust of words.

As shown in the short examination of the end of Smeraldina’s letter and the end of Molly’s soliloquy, the more similar the basic narrative structure and components are, the comparison becomes the easier and more fruitful. In comparing Joyce’s work with that of Beckett’s that follows, one studies primarily how Beckett appropriated or rejected Joyce’s method. Certainly it is no longer a question of similarity and influence (as for that, the answer is yes), but a question of difference. It is then through the changed response of Beckett that one can return to the work of Joyce, seeing in them what a contemporary reader and close friend would have seen. To continue a concentration on the female monologue, an important element of Joyce’s work, one can examine a much later work of Beckett’s, the 1972 play Not I, again in relation to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Like in “The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux” Beckett retains certain elements of Joyce’s piece, but discards others. These slight differences reveal to the reader the main points of the great Joyce-Beckett divide.

The present understanding of the differences between Joyce and Beckett roughly generalize Joyce as the unifier and Beckett as the deconstructor. Likewise, most critics agree Beckett’s choice to write in French, starting tentatively in the late thirties and then taking hold in the mid-forties, was a response to his inability to shake Joyce’s style; it was an attempt “to escape…a relation of permanent belatedness to a precursor who saw Beckett as his son.” While “permanent belatedness” is perhaps not the appropriate term to describe a bitingly satirical take-off on Molly Bloom, it is true that Beckett’s earlier works seem closer to those of Joyce. Once he starting working in drama (first with En Attendant Godot in 1952), the divide seemed clear. The open-endedness of the plays (the curtain closes on Godot, Endgame, and Happy Days at moments of climax right before one of the characters makes a decision) were said to be “his response to ‘the overdetermined closure’…of Ulysses’ ‘yes I said yes I will Yes.’” Beckett represents for the critics an opening of closure, and an escape into French from the literary tyranny of father Joyce.

While the comparison of More Pricks Than Kicks with Dubliners would be (and has been) a fruitful work, in choosing later texts, Not I and Ulysses, one can more appropriately judge the whole of an author’s work with the later writing. In comparing the “Penelope” episode of Ulysses to Beckett’s short play Not I, one may demonstrate two opposed understanding of the function of language: one as an Answer to the problem of divide, the other as a reassertion of the Question of divide.

While stream-of-consciousness fiction is not to be confused with a dramatic monologue, in this instance, given the theatricality of the Joycean fiction and the lack of performance allowed to Beckettian drama, the two monologues can be fairly considered side-by-side. Form, content, audience, and language resemble each other so much in nature that the differences in the texts are much subtler and more telling.

First, to bridge the gap of genre, one must examine the performative aspects of Penelope to appropriately compare it to its theatrical counterpart. Despite the experimentation with the play ‘format’ in the Circe chapter of Ulysses, which in no way lends itself to actual theatrical performance (what with speaking gongs, ridiculous costume changes, and stage directions that give more can be physically presented), Penelope is the real dramatic piece of Ulysses. Not only does every word belong to Molly, but the words demand recitation in order to simply understand how to punctuate the phrases. Though the lack of punctuation is one aspect that would be missing to the viewer in a dramatization, this detail would only reinforce the reader’s understanding of the text as necessarily and unconditionally recited. Her songs as well are distracting as printed words (“loves sweet ssooooooong”) but moving when recited. Likewise, the nature of Molly’s vernacular is certainly one of spoken word. Instead of the silence of wandering thought, Molly fills moments of interrupted reflection with “well”s and “O”s and “yes”es. Her ‘soliloquy’ as it is so often called, could only be the enunciations in real time that one would expect of a drama.

Last of all one must not forget that Molly Bloom is a performer by trade, Madam Marion, always ready to put on a costume, take the stage, and open her mouth to the public. Likewise, she makes constant references to her own daily performances and costuming: she “[hops] around” “in [her] skin” for the student across the street who “used to be there the whole time watching with the lights out” ; she devises a scene with which to win Bloom back where she will “go about rather gay not too much singing a bit now and then…[she’ll] put on [her] best shift and drawer to let him have a good eyeful” ; and her final Yes is heightened only by the dramatic pause she has crafted for it, as she doesn’t answer at first, “only looked out over the sea and the sky” as if she had written her own stage directions as was waiting for her cue. Molly’s theatrical persona makes her all the more apt for comparison to Beckett’s play.

The form of the female monologue changed in Beckett from epistle, in “The Smeraldina’s Billet Doux”, to drama, in both Happy Days and the later, shorter, Not I, just as Molly Bloom’s chapter changed in Joyce’s drafts from a series of letters to its present dramatic soliloquy form.

To begin with the general likenesses, one must start with the most obvious—the female character. Molly Bloom finds her counterpart in the protagonist Beckett gives no other name than “Mouth” (mentioned in the stage directions alone), whom the audience perceives lit only on the mouth. This character, like Molly in her soliloquy, can act on the world only in language. Both are immobilized, mouth on stage and Molly in bed. Like the scene of Penelope, one gets a sense that Mouth too speaks during the night, not only from the black of a theatre, but because of her numerous mentions of “moonbeams”. And though Bloom is asleep by the time she starts her monologue, she is directing her words towards him, just as so many of his own worded thoughts were directed towards her. Mouth finds her version of the sleeping Leopold Bloom in the Auditor, an unidentified listener that says nothing, but “a simple sideways raising of arms” is a “gesture of helpless compassion.” Likewise, both Mouth and Molly spend their time reminiscing about childhood, young loves, transgressions, and focusing on a key scene in the wilderness (Molly’s Howth head is later Mouth’s Croker’s Acres). Mouth, too is a stream-of-consciousness speaker, the writing style thought of as “feminine” by Joyce and some critics, and describes herself as one—“and now this stream,” “stream of words.” Perhaps most importantly, Beckett takes from Joyce the form of infinity associated with Molly. While Molly’s monologue famously has eight sentences, which becomes infinity when the number is inclined to Molly’s own position, has little clear movement forward, and begins and ends with Yes, which one could read as circling back upon itself to form a never-ending reading, Beckett’s piece too has an initial lack of forward movement or organization as well as an infinite form: Mouth begins her monologue by a 10 second fade in from “unintelligible” ad-libbed mumbling before the curtain even rises, then leads, more and more intelligibly into her first words. She ends the same way, as if continuing to speak always, only growing more distant from the audience. From style to character to content and form, these two pieces beg for comparison.

The main difference, like in More Pricks Than Kicks, comes at the level of the word. While in Molly’s case an infinity of words establishes her as an appropriate conclusion to an entire novel, a kind of index of infinite information and feeling, Mouth is much more wary of her words. Molly admires and feels comfortable with her own body and the body of her text. Mouth, however, disembodied, feels no physical pleasure, uses her body awkwardly, and finds her text problematic. Though Mouth is no longer the shallow romantic that Smeraldina was, she, like Smeraldina has linguistic difficulties.

The comparison of the word to the body leads back to the Cartesian dilemma of the separation of mind and body—here, the separation of consciousness and word.

Molly’s confessional, tell-all style reveals to the reader a body that has remained mysterious throughout the novel. The long-awaited return to Penelope is more important to the reader than it is to Bloom, who does not even interact with her, save for a kiss on the rump. After suffering the complicated system of narrative and disembodied voices employed in Ulysses, Molly’s soliloquy is the reader’s homecoming to clarity of voice and singularity of body, especially after the lack of either in the previous two episodes. Generally, Molly is seen as a key to the rest of the novel; Joyce called ‘Penelope’ the “clou of the book,” that is, both the best part and the nail that holds everything together (as the saying goes, ‘sans le clou, l'édifice s'écroule’). Thus, Molly is both a support for narrative and a triumph for language. While she is generally seen as an affirming voice because of her wealth of ‘yes’es, Molly’s bodily presence has also been seen in key to affirmation. Van Boheemen-Saaf suggests, “Joyce is, apparently, trying to reduce the gap between culture and nature, matter and language, body and mind.” Rightly so, as it is this unity that Beckett later reproblematizes in Not I. Though Van Boheemen-Saaf sees this gap and “anxiety about being a body” as problematic in the contemporary culture of the time, it seems more likely in Joyce, that the division between matter and language is closer to home: throughout Ulysses Joyce systematically separates the matter of Dublin and the bodies of his characters from the language he uses to describe them. The most remarkable example is the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter which, through paralleling the embryonic development of Stephen Dedalus through language, the language becomes more central than immediate plot, which can only occasionally struggle through the style. In his own way, Joyce dematerializes the body to rematerialize the word. But then in ending with ‘Penelope,’ whose clear voice and present body act as a bridge between consciousness and word, Joyce re-empowers character and plot in its fusion with language. If Joyce is bridging the gap with Molly Bloom, it is only because the rest of the novel called for bridging.

Molly’s task is a heroic one—not only to solve the Cartesian dilemma for Joyce, but to resolve his entire novel. Among Joyce’s marginalia one finds the phrase “odyss of pen” supposedly shorthand for The Odyssey of Penelope, or the Odyssey of the Pen—of Writing. Molly triumphs over the rest of the novel because she enacts its true resolution—not because she is the point on the triangle of Stephen-Bloom-Molly—she resolves the problem of divide between language and action by acting only through language. Molly moves very little during her soliloquy, aside from the stream of blood from one “hole” and the stream of words from the mouth, she acts only in her language of the past and the future.

But is the removal of one element of a dichotomy equivalent to solution? It seems Joyce’s fireworks ending could only be a temporary solution to the problem of mind and body. Perhaps Joyce has no such issues with his writing. While to the reader the plot lies beneath, to Joyce there is nothing but the word. This makes ‘Penelope’ an especially important episode, since a character devotes herself exclusively to language with little to no coinciding temporal plot. For this the reader is thankful, and revels in the sheer materiality, uninhibited by action, of Molly’s text. Though the identity of “he” can be questioned, the reader always knows exactly who the speaking “I” is, ending the novel in a confirmation, not “of life,” but of the word.

Beckett himself acknowledged the Joyce’s achievement over language: “[it] was, epic, heroic, what he achieved. But I realized that I couldn’t go down that same road.” Beckett of course did not mean he would go down the road of failure—but his words would. In a more mature and subtle response to Molly’s monologue, over 50 years after it was written, Not I presents a rejection of Joyce’s cure-all of narrative voice. Whereas the “I” for Joyce and the modernists was the triumph of art over dehumanizing forces of culture, Beckett’s generation could no longer afford such a false triumph. Instead, Beckett presents a woman who cannot say “I” even though she is the subject of her ramblings. Rather than attempt to solve a problem of literature, as Joyce does, Beckett simply presents a problem of literature, leaving the spectator to perhaps find the solution himself, rather than puzzling over an incomplete one presented by the author.

Though Mouth’s monologue speaks of pastoral beauty, childhood, God, sex, and the body, the difference between Not I and ‘Penelope’ lies in the words, not the content. Every time Mouth attempts to say “I” (four times in all) she cannot; “what?..who?!..she!..” is rather what comes out. These four refusals divide the play into 5 pieces to mirror Molly’s 8-part monologue of Yeses. This is paired with the inability to feel, another inversion of Molly: “she might do well to…groan…on and off.” Mouth thinks of her sexual encounters and displays the lack of sexual theatricality given to Molly: “writhe she could not… …could not bring herself…some flaw in her make-up… …or the machine…more likely the machine…so far disconnected…never got the message…or powerless to respond…like numbed…” Mouth thinks of her body as a machine, and the its connection to her mind as faulty or nonexistent. While Molly talks from her body, describing how things feel (not to mention how sexual things feel: “his tongue is too flat or I don’t know…” ), Mouth can only talk of her body. Not I illustrates clearly in both form and content the disconnection between matter and language, body and mind. Not only are these two pieces of the self disconnected, but they are so permanently. “Nowhere in the play is it implied that the ‘I’ is willing to return purified, saved, deified. The ‘I’ is abject. Subjectivity is challenged altogether. The ‘I’ is negated altogether, subjectivity is destabilized…” The problematic is complete in Not I. Joyce’s unifying “I” is no longer possible, not even at the end. Beckett’s move towards a view of language as less able-bodied than Joyce’s is perhaps a delayed response to the conflict of linguistic technique and content as so easily resolved with the introduction of monologue.

To Beckett Joyce admitted that perhaps Ulysses had been a little over-formulated. Taking the words of the master as truth, Beckett embarked on a career that became impossible to formulate. While Joyce wrote for the English canon (Finnegans Wake is mostly English), Beckett became unclassifiable—he belonged to both the French and the English canons. With the same insistence that Joyce saw language as the penultimate resolution (of problems, of other languages, of influence) did Beckett see language as standing between the consciousness and its expression.

“I am not interested in a ‘unification’ of the historical chaos any more than I am in the ‘clarification’ of individual chaos,” writes Beckett still early in his writing career. Having witnessed first-hand the extraordinary capacity of words to signify all in Joyce’s composition of Finnegans Wake, Beckett nevertheless had to see beyond words. Just as the “I” of Not I can be seen vaguely beyond the surface of the text, Beckett found that all meaning was to be found not in the material body and the material word, but slightly beyond the word, hidden by behind the word. Beckett said of Joyce, “He never rebelled, he was detached, he accepted everything. For him, there was absolutely no difference between a bomb falling and a leaf falling.” Perhaps Joyce’s confidence in the power of language was associated with his inability to see language from a critical distance. To accept everything is precisely what Joyce does—and what Molly Bloom’s soliloquy achieves for the language of Ulysses. One of the reasons readers love Joyce is his excessive language that one can get lost in. Though Finnegans Wake and Ulysses both extended themselves beyond the plot and into the significations of world and literary history, they are at once trapped on the page as Molly Bloom is trapped at the end of Ulysses.

In actuality, words are much more complicated and unreliable than Joyce leads us to believe: they exist completely within themselves in time and space. After reading ‘Penelope’ one feels satisfied; very few rebel from her language to return to the chaos of earlier chapters. One has said ‘I’ in enunciating her words, and one has said ‘Yes.’ Questions have been answered, problems have been solved, and the book is closed. But after seeing a piece like Not I, one cannot help but draw conclusions after the curtain has fallen—Who? What? Why? And Where is ‘I’? Where am I? the viewer asks herself. Beckett’s challenge of language is a challenge to understanding; rather than making the viewer work for obscure literary references, Beckett makes the viewer work for an understanding of herself that extends beyond the moment of the word. Aptly, Joyce sees the falling of the last leaf in a book as simply a falling: a completion. Having admired this heroic achievement, Beckett could only ask himself—What happens afterwards? and What happens beyond? Though his works do not answer these questions, they do at least ask them. Certainly one must be able to decipher between a falling bomb and a falling leaf—though they fall at the same speed--32 feet per second per second--what matters is what happens after the fall.

Beckett concerned himself not only with what happened in Joyce, but what happened after Joyce. While carrying on the Joycean tradition in clever puns and homages to Molly Bloom, Beckett’s work can only be described as the aftershock of the fall of Finnegans Wake coupled with the shock of the failure of language within literature. “The danger is in the neatness of identifications,” Beckett began his first work on Joyce. He continued to question the ability of words to make things clearer, concluding at the end of his career that the answer lies in the question. “What is the word?” his last work asks; and answers: “What is the word.” Though Joyce developed in Beckett a love for language, Beckett himself rebelled, finding language to be more faulty and porous than Joyce could have imagined.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Photography and Death in À la recherche du temps perdu: A Reading in Inversion

Throughout his novel, Proust develops the unlikely resemblance between the narrator’s time-bending vocation as a writer and the instantaneous work of the photographer. Challenging the notion of any fixed reality, the narrator travels in time and space, expanding important moments into eternities and compressing forgotten years into a passing phrase. Unlike the subjective memory, the objective camera captures time and space with mechanical precision and disregard. The two perceptions are at odds: while the photographer concerns himself with only one subject for a fraction of a second within a narrow field of vision, the narrator concerns himself with a multiplicity of sensations traveled over an expanse of time within a vast and shifting space.

This apparent difference in process of the writer and the photographer is another example of the perfect inversion, propagated throughout Proust’s narrative. The photographer himself (Saint-Loup) is an invert, who makes inversions of his subject on film, which he then inverts again onto paper, bringing the subject through inversion back to her proper representation. The narrator alerts the reader to the necessity of reading inversion through inversion, like the photographer printing his positive from the negative: “particularités (comme l’inversion) peuvent faire que le lecteur a besoin de lire d’une certaine façon pour bien lire” (218, Le Temps retrouvé). Thus, the metaphor of the camera, full of mirrors and backwards images, reveals itself as the perfect framework for understanding the narrator’s and Proust’s literary work. The camera performs the double-function the narrator wishes to achieve in his work: simultaneous presence and absence, objective distance and subjective sensitivity, and a representation of reality as both material and a sign for the immaterial.
Moreover, his vocation, like the photographer’s, deals explicitly with death and remembrance. The narrator’s feeling that his work exists only at the price of the suffering (“au prix des souffrances”) and eventual death of others, mirrors the conception of photography as “an inventory of mortality” and “a catastrophe which has already occurred” according to Sontag and Barthes (213, Le Temps retrouvé,; 24, Sontag; 96, Barthes). In early twentieth-century Proust and late twentieth-century theory, both the photographer and the writer condemn loved ones to death in their desire to make impressions of the world and understand signs developed over time.

From the format of the camera to the development of the film and viewing of the image, photography mirrors the movement of text from the impressions taken by a detached artist, to their later recovery and postponed understanding. Through photography the narrator comes to understand the death of his grand’mère, and through the metaphor of photography he comes to understand the deadly goals of his work.

1. L’objectif
L’ouvrage de l’écrivain n’est qu’une espèce d’instrument optique qu’il offre au lecteur afin de lui permettre de discerner ce que sans ce livre il n’eût peut-être pas vu en soi-même. (218, Le Temps Retrouvé)

The narrator envisions his book as a sort of optical instrument that allows one to see one’s surroundings (and eventually oneself) in an unfamiliar way. The ideal perspective of the novel is quite different than that of the fragmentary perceptions committed to paper (like the steeples of Martinville section). Unlike the highly sensory, subjective fragments, the work as a whole should exhibit a more detached and objective viewpoint, as if transmitted through an optical instrument rather than human eyes. The narrator thus distances himself and readers by presenting his perceptions through the objective objectif of the metaphorical camera. This critical distance enables the artist not just to see, but to discern, as Proust writes. Unlike the paintings of Elstir, in which the boundaries between objects are barely discernable, through the lens of a camera, things are clearer; one does not just perceive—one discerns. Discernement gives a relative and quantifiable perception: one discerns the subject from its surroundings, contemplates its value, and sees it in its place in comparison to other objects. In this way the narrator’s goal for his writing corresponds less with the confused sensuality present involuntary memories, and more with the attempt to bring a subject into objective optical focus.

2. L’appareil
“…bien que la chose représentée eût une valeur esthétique, elle trouvait que la vulgarité, l’utilité prenaient trop vite leur place dans le mode mécanique de représentation, la photographie.” (53, Du côté de chez Swann)

Ever since his childhood in Combray, the narrator has been warned of the vulgar dangers of photography. The dehumanizing nature of photography convinces the narrator’s mother and grand’mère to remove all the photographs they can from his bedroom to be replaced with either photographs of paintings of the same monument or landscape, or, better yet, engravings of the subject. While the two matrons do their best to protect the young narrator from the mechanical aesthetic of representation, he is not at all bothered by the process and interests himself at this age much more in the subject than the process. “[C’]était certainement beaucoup moins exacte que celle que m’eussent donnée de simples photographies,” he complains (Du côté de chez Swann, 54). The young narrator’s preference for exact and simple photographs over artists’ interpretations foresees his interest as a writer both to portray the subject itself in its entirely and to discover the origin of certain feelings (the memory of Venice, for instance). The narrator’s interest in the outside world, a world beyond the purely aesthetic world of Swann’s collections, and not a penchant for the realist methods his mother scorns, drives his early preference for photographs.

Though perhaps mother and grand’mère shelter the narrator at his early age from a much more grave aspect of the camera: its connection with the reality of death. Sontag points out the correlation between mechanical nature of photography and mortal violence as displayed in the very terms used by photographers: one loads, aims, and shoots (this linguistic analogy works just as well in French: on charge, on vise, et on tire). Thus, the mechanics of the camera verbally link it to those of the firearm. “All photographs are memento mori,” she writes. “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (Sontag, 15). One would hardly want to confront a boy with time’s relentless melt at such an age. Not only is the narrator young enough to be negatively impacted by thoughts of melting time and impending mortality, also the grand’mère is old enough to not want to confront it herself. Ironically, for the narrator, his grand’mère dies in a photograph, and this photograph finalizes the tie in the narrator’s mind between death and photography. But for now, she contents herself with replacing time’s relentless melt with a suspension of time—in place of photographs of monuments in their present condition, she attempts to find antique prints of them in a former state (“…ayant encore un intérêt au delà d’elles-mêmes, par exemple celles qui représentent un chef-d’oeuvre dans un état où nous ne pouvons plus le voir aujourd’hui” 54, Du côté de chez Swann). She thus attempts to stop time for her young grandson and herself, so as not to be assaulted with the finality of the future and the hostility of the camera.

3. Le plan de film
“Je venais d’apercevoir, dans ma mémoire, penché sur ma fatigue, le visage tendre, préoccupé et déçu de ma grand-mère…je retrouvais dans un souvenir involontaire et complet la réalité vivante.” (153, Sodome et Gomorrhe)

One speaks in photography of the latent image. The image registered on the film at the time the photograph is taken remains latent, hidden, until the time of chemical development. In perfect correspondence, a memory can lie latent for many years after its initial impression, before it is finally brought to light. The narrator’s involuntary, previously latent, memory of his grandmère comforting him reveals itself as he bends over to take off his shoes. At this point the development of the latent memory begins—more potent in the French is the introduction of the révélateur to the film, making it reveal. This memory begins to reveal itself and the narrator sees his grandmère’s face, “tendre, préoccupé et déçu.” Though the narrator has now determined what memory addresses him, it is still only a screen memory. The révélation must continue in order to fix and recontextualize this image. Finally, the narrator sees his grandmère’s preoccupation and disappointment as a screen memory, covering the a feeling of absence that reminds him of her photograph session with Saint-Loup—another more literal screen memory as the flat photograph itself shows only the surface of things which one must further read. Barthes reinforces the idea of photograph as screen memory when he remarks that the photograph “actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory” (91, Barthes). This counter-memory of the narrator’s grandmère as alive and coquettishly posing for a picture finally gives way to the sudden realization of her death. The latent impression then, once revealed, must be transformed into meaning and understanding.

4. Le tirage
“Seule l’impression, si chétive qu’en semble la matière, si insaisissable la trace, est un critérium de vérité, et a cause de cela mérite seule d’être appréhendée par l’esprit, car elle est seule capable, s’il sait en dégager cette vérité, de l’amener à une plus grande perfection et de lui donner une pure joie…Ne vient de nous-même que ce que nous tirons de l’obscurité qui est en nous et que ne connaissent pas les autres.” (186-7, Le Temps retrouvé)

The film révélé presents itself as a negative, a clear but inverse depiction of the impression of reality. Bright familiar faces appear dark and undecipherable; oftentimes the delicate face of the negative cannot be read. Only by projecting light through the surface of the negative, enlarging and inversing the image onto a piece of photographic paper, is the subject truly identifiable. This is the act of printing, agrandissement or tirage. Just as a negative brought to light brings about recognition of and identification with the subject, the writer’s impression too must be illuminated, and the memory reveals the viewer to himself. The fragile negative (l’impression chétive), which has been developed from direct contact in latent form with the light of reality, contains a truth that must be apprehended. This critérium de vérité, only a trace on the negative, is enlarged—amené à une plus grande perfection—by the photographer and by the writer into the familiar form of the subject. Not only does the artist enlarge truth, he also brings darkness to light. The phrase “tirer de l’obscurité” describes the photographic act of inverting the darkness of the negative to a lightness of paper (le tirage), as well as the writer’s act of intellectually pursuing obscure impressions in order to fully recognize them and drag them out of the dark and into the light (les tirer de l’obscurité). The tirage, a somewhat mechanical process for both photographer and writer conducted by the mind (l’esprit) must be executed with scientific exactitude. In this sense, the work of the writer, like the photographer, is the translation of dark impression into clear image (traduction: both to translate into language and to make something pass from one state to another; 197, Le Temps retrouvé). Only with active concentration can a mere impression transform into an object in itself; only with the help of the mind can feeling be put into words to form the novel. The tirage is thus equated with the writing itself, bringing the obscure to light by transmitting the darkness of ink or silver onto white paper in order to give oneself pure joy.

5. L’image
“Cette impression douloureuse et actuellement incompréhensible…ce ne pourrait être que d’elle, si particulière, si spontanée, qui n’avait été ni tracée par mon intelligence, ni infléchie ni atténuée par ma pusillanimité, mais que la mort elle-même, la brusque révélation de la mort, avait comme la foudre creusée en moi, selon un graphique surnaturel, inhumain, comme un double et mystérieux sillon.” (156, Sodome et Gomorrhe)

Due to the long process involved in the development, fixing, and drying of the photograph, one can only view the final image after the elapse of time. Coupled with memory, the photograph presents itself as an ambivalent body: while making past present, it affirms the absence of the past; it is both familiar and totally alien; and the subject is at once the mortal flesh-and-bone referent and the immortal sign. This complex relationship with the past typifies the narrator’s relationship to the death of his grandmère and the guilt associated with his own work.

The reading of the photograph is the final step to understanding the work of the writer and the photographer. The photograph, a clear but limited presentation of things past, becomes both an object to cherish as a relic of reality (the narrator has the photograph of his grandmother with him), and a mirror with which to reveal one’s own emotional relation to the subject. While one may delight in the beauty of a photograph or the style of a sentence, these formal aspects only prove to reveal the reader to himself: “En réalité, chaque lecteur est quand il lit le proper lecteur de soi-même” (217, Le temps Retrouvé). The changing of the perspective of a book from an outsider’s objective view of a (real or fictional) world to a mirror of one’s own subjective understanding, parallels the movement of the photograph from being possessed by the objective camera and the uninterested photographer to being fully owned by the viewer. In reading the photograph, the viewer enters into it, replacing the camera with his self, and the objectif with his loving subjective gaze. The narrator demonstrates the correlation between “The camera’s twin capacities” and the dual capacity of his own writing “to subjectivize reality and to objectify it” (178, Sontag). This is only one of the double and mysterious rifts presented by the photograph. While the comprehension of a photograph as objective reality lends it power, only to the extent that the viewer sees himself within the photograph can it gain true affective power.

The narrator sees himself present in the photograph of his grandmère only after fully recognizing her absence in his life. The narrator uses the photograph as an object for mourning: “je souffris toute la journée en restant devant la photographie de ma grand-mère. Elle me torturait” (174, Sodome et Gomorrhe). The narrator takes time to execute this deferred mourning, and the presence in the photograph attests to no more than an absence. The “that-has-been” of Barthes is for the narrator a key to understanding her death. The coinciding vision of her (that) coupled with the inevitable past tense of the photograph (has-been) provide the narrator with a sense of painful absence; it is the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of presence with which his grandmère’s memory tortures him. When the directeur pays the narrator a visit and reveals to him that she had been hiding her illness, the power of the photograph is reinforced. The narrator finally sees the suffering in her face as not just a result of his jeers, but as a material sickness destroying her body. The presence of this sickness is what prevents the narrator’s mother from ever looking at this photo—she sees it rather as a testament of fatal illness: “moins une photographie de sa mere que de la maladie de celle-ci” (176, Sodome et Gomorrhe). However, a few days later, the narrator’s vision shifts.

The photograph provides a framework for perspectival change: at one moment one sees the subject, sitting before one’s eyes in flesh and blood yet gone forever; the next moment, looking deeper into the photograph and even beyond it, one sees a network of meaning to which the self connects and through which suffering is dispersed. “Quelques jours plus tard la photographie qu’avait faite Saint-Loup m’était douce à regarder,” the narrator writes (176, Sodome et Gomorrhe). The change from objective to subjective, from third-person to first-person utterance, understanding is accomplished: “c’était avant tout abroger ses plus chères illusions, cesser de croire à l’objectivité de ce qu’on a élaboré soi-même, et au lieu de se bercer une centièmee fois de ces mots: “Elle était bien gentile”, lire au travers: “J’avais du plaisir à l’embrasser.” (203, Le Temps retrouvé). In ceasing to believe in the illusion of the flat objectivity of torture and of absence, one reads beyond the material to see one’s own reflection and position in the reality. By ceasing to see in terms of the referent alone (Elle était bien gentille, or Elle était malade) in which the referent is the subject and the viewer the object, one must invert the relation between the viewer and the subject, turning the viewer into the grammatical and photographic subject and the sitter into the object (J’avais du plaisir à l’embrasser). The narrator here demonstrates his understanding of grievance, as well as how the Proustian reader must perform a process of inversions in order to read well (bien lire).

Once grievance passes and perspective shifts, vast understanding becomes possible. “Les idées sont des succédanés des chagrins,” the narrator writes, “au moment où ceux-ci se changent en idées, ils perdent une partie de leur action nocive sur notre Coeur, et meme, au premier instant, la transformation elle-même degage subitement de la joie” (213, Le Temps retrouvé). Though his grandmère remains dear, the narrator now sees her as occupying a place in his life and his work, relative to others. Grandmère becomes connected with Albertine throughout Le temps retrouvé, and the two of them together become signs which the narrator can use to communicate patterns and sentiments that span across his life. Though they still exist as characters, they, the narrator’s hieroglyphics, represent more than material objects: they take their places as signs of death (185, Le Temps retrouvé).

Albertine, grandmère, and all the characters, places, and memories present throughout the Recherche in the end transform into a photographic state. At once referents and signs, present and absent, objectively and subjectively viewed, they are Proust’s photographic accomplishment of what Barthes calls “the unheard-of identification of reality (‘that-has-been’) with truth (‘there-she-is!’)” (113, Barthes). Proust’s truth is photographic, rather than painterly, as he presents to his reader the depth of signification present in reality itself.

Though pain cannot be completely dispersed, it can be transferred like a family photograph—from the dead to the living and finally into the work. The reader finds himself, like the narrator before him, confronted with a gallery of sorrow, which he, in turn, must translate into meaning and invert into joy within his own subjective mind.

The thought that photography, being a realistic medium bound in time and space, could be contrary to the project of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu suggests that one has not chosen a clear lens through which to read. But even Barthes and Sontag agree that there is “nothing Proustian in a photograph” and “nothing…more unlike the self-sacrificial travail of an artist like Proust than the effortlessness of picture-taking” (82, Barthes; 163-4, Sontag). Certainly realism does not inhibit mystery, as Sontag herself writes, “all that photography’s program of realism actually implies is the belief that reality is hidden. And, being hidden, is something to be unveiled” (120-1, Sontag). The Recherche is a project of unveiling, revealing, and inverting to be preformed by the reader as by a careful photographer. From camera to photograph, from impression and reinterpretation, and every step along the way, the reader must follow Proust’s mirrored path carefully in order to understand the key to reading à l’envers.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Critical Wars

What Samuel Beckett’s Territorial Readers Teach Us About Politics and Discourse

When one’s political leader declares war on correct pronunciation, when the burning of books is a regime’s first order of business, and when conventions of beauty are exploited to sell hate and ignorance, the temptation to sequester literature away from the burly grip of politics, history, and economics is overwhelming. Though some may dismiss literature as useless for political change in the first place, and others may attempt to dismiss politics from the sacred domain of literature, we are nevertheless confronted with politically engaged texts and critics. Many texts, especially plays, can be classified as didactic: simply diatribe disguised as drama or valid political points. Other times, critics with an agenda can appropriate otherwise nonpartisan texts to support their cause. The naming and claiming of literature result in a multiplication of genres and critical schools. Thus, political drama and ideology-driven critics emerge to place literature among the ranks of speeches, manifestos, and organized protests, leaving formal elements and different connotations largely unexplored. Likewise, a reader trained to see only form to the exclusion of biography and history (one trained by the New Critics no doubt) uproots the text from its native ground—an equally tyrannical act of appropriation. The desire to make signify is at once a desire to stop signification. Each successive critic attempts to make his commentary the last of them, to nullify the ideas of his predecessors, and establish his (if temporary) reign of truth. As if to admit the value of another interpretations were to be hung in the public square There is a mutual movement between writers and readers to delineate territories of interpretation and their borders are guarded by armed critics.

One such disputed territory is that of the work of Samuel Beckett. Claimed at once as a mouthpiece for theatre of the absurd, the nouveau roman, existentialism, nihilism, formalism, ahistoricism, and even Holocaust drama, Beckett’s words are no longer his own. Other critics simply divide into the camps of “engaged” or “indifferent,” not just to fight for their own interpretations but more to ward off the others’. Deirdre Bair, the first of Beckett’s biographers addresses this feeling even in the 1978 when she writes in her introduction, “I felt that critics tended to try so hard to place Beckett in whatever particular theory or system they espoused… It seemed to me that many of the leading Beckett interpreters substituted their own brilliant intellectual gymnastics for what should have been solid, responsible scholarship; that they created studies that told more about the quality of the authors’ minds than about Beckett’s writings.” Since then, Beckett has been a favorite of readers and critics alike, consistently generating each year more articles, conferences, and theses.

But why Beckett? The need to comment upon his often enigmatic works lies with the desire to comprehend what seems inexplicable and cruel. It is perhaps even from the same place from which arises the frustrated desire to comprehend global injustice. While for many, events like the holocaust can never be explained, art presents itself as an alternative method of approaching and understanding the world. Though one alone cannot comprehend the meaning of a complex international system of people and goods, one can very safely posit the meaning of a novel or play. This small triumph for aesthetic understanding we use as kindling for a global understanding. Thus, when dealing with the evaluation of complex, contradictory, or simply ambiguous works of art, not only does one feel more pressed to understand, but the outcome of this approach to literature will most likely parallel the reader’s approach to other aspects of his life, thus revealing a world view.

For instance, Beckett’s play Endgame, ends in a customary tableau: the abused son, Clov, stands silent and still in the doorway with his suitcase and traveling hat as his controlling father calls to him. “Do you think he actually leaves?” one spectator asks another after the curtain falls. Though speculations of this kind do little for the text (this is the equivalent of asking what Molly Bloom will say after her final “Yes”), they do allow the spectators to see where they stand in a general way. To answer, “No, Clov doesn’t leave, he can’t,” is to admit a general realism, even pessimism, not only towards the play but towards one’s own lived experience. Perhaps a feeling of guilt even arises in the spectator about his own obeisance before power. Then to answer, “Yes, of course he’ll leave,” is a gesture of hope and optimism (even blind optimism perhaps). Even more, each of these answers has a wealth of textual evidence to support it. Though the play itself takes no “sides” to the argument (if Clov were going to leave, he would have left on stage); as Beckett himself said to a friend after hearing his interpretation, “Well…if you think that’s what my play’s about, I expect that’s what it’s about.”

Like the so many coins and bills, Beckett’s words are valid currency across the world, though only after exchanging his money into the critics’ own tender can his words weigh into the debate.

Who determines the bounds of these territories of meaning and to what nations do these colonies belong? Like Beckett himself, born in Ireland to live in France, the critics are a multilingual, international mix. As Beckett skillfully balances his oeuvre between two languages, his critics too will comment on the same subjects with different words. While America, heavily influenced by their own New Critics and relatively distanced from the war, declares a state of formal purity and apolitical aesthetics, France, under the reign of existentialism, the Thêatre de l’Absurde, and guilt of complicity in war, forms the post-Auschwitz colony of Beckett as hopeless cynic.

The real problem is not the war: like Beckett’s work, language lies beneath all conflict as the real problematic. The way one makes sense of words, phrases, and linguistic situations determines the words one uses to respond. In the sense that when one reads the word “tree,” one imagines a tree and nothing else, Beckett’s words trick readers and audience into assuming a one-to-one correlation between signifier and signified or between stage presentations and a metaphor for life. However, minimalist and obscure language paired with silence opens the realm of imagined signification; in the stunted references and long stage silences, readers and audience force themselves fill in the blanks and resolve the inconsistencies. Leaving the theatre, they are all convinced of their own readings, having had to sit for as much as two hours in weaving in their minds the correspondence signified by incomprehensible situations. But Beckett challenges the audience: he puts the words into question so viewers can no longer depend on a steady signifier from which to find themselves a signified. It takes a leap of faith for each of these viewers to find their signified, so when it is at last grasped, they hold onto it as if it were a part of themselves, arguing it to the death against any other ridiculous suggestion.

Like Joyce before him, Beckett draws attention to the surface of the word, though his is as unreliable as Joyce’s was all-encompassing. “Is there any reason why that terrible materiality of the word surface should not be capable of being dissolved?” Beckett writes to a friend. For Beckett and for his work, the word is a problem, a “terrible materiality” that can and must name, exercise ownership, and establish hierarchies of power, grammatical and political alike. It is the word surface to which critics cling and around which critical wars are fought.

Critics almost unanimously agree to cite the 1982 play, Catastrophe as Beckett’s most political work. Depressingly literalist as usual, most of these critics single out Catastrophe, an no other plays, as political not for its content but for its dedication to Václav Havel, the then-imprisoned playwright and future president of Czechoslovakia who had been forbidden to write because he had been one among others to stand up against abuses of human rights. For those seeing or reading the play out of context, the three words of paratext “For Václav Havel” are enough to launch the interpretations of this play before it is even performed, leaving its categorization as a “political drama” almost certain. But for Beckett this was a political gesture: among other playwrights, including Arthur Miller, Beckett was asked by the International Association for the Defense of Artists to write a piece to be performed at the Avignon Festival that year in “A Night for Václav Havel.” While nearly all of Beckett’s plays contain at least one instance of a character being oppressed or controlled in some way by another character, because none of them bear such dedications or even allusions to historical figures outside of literature, any other arguments for political engagement seem a stretch. But, curiously enough, some critics even see Catastrophe as only barely political, the dedication as an afterthought. It has been interpreted as a commentary on the nature of theatre, the difficulty of achieving an artistic vision, and the fear of public exposure.

Catastrophe enacts a rehearsal for the last scene of a play, which consists of the lights rising on the Protagonist, who is standing on a short pedestal, hands joined before his chest, then fading out to leave a light shining only on his bowed head. The Director, his female Assistant, and the unseen lighting technician (Luke) adjust and light the Protagonist as if he were a prop: they never address or consult him, and freely adjust his costume and position his body. The Protagonist’s only movement is at the end of the play when he to “raises his head” and “fixes the audience” after the Director has vehemently rejected the Assistant’s suggestion to have him “show his face…just an instant.” With this gesture, the Protagonist halts the “storm of applause” and the play ends.

The play can be read as the proletariat challenge to power. The Director is clearly portrayed as something of a caricature: wearing a “Fur coat,” a “Fur toque,” smoking a cigar, carrying a “chronometer” (a very expensive watch!) and getting ready to attend his “caucus,” he is doubtless an upper-class political entity who exists to be served and hated by those below him. Though his Assistant dutifully lights and relights his cigar the three times he calls “Light,” she nevertheless quietly usurps his director’s chair after he exits—but not before “vigorously” wiping it off with a rag . The Director and the Assistant form yet another of Beckett’s codependent couples which to illustrate power play (though barely a power struggle). The Protagonist adds one more link to the chain of masters and slaves, for the Assistant manipulates the Protagonist and the Director manipulates her. One can easily read Marxist concerns here: an alienation of the worker from his product—that is, the actor, the Protagonist, from the play which he has no say in—as well as the exploitation and dehumanization of the worker by his controller—the Director asks to “hide the face” of the Protagonist, calls the hands “Two claws,” doesn’t care if he shivers (“Bless his heart”), asks for “more nudity,” and continually asks to “whiten all flesh,” all of which attempt to rid him of his humanity. The Assistant even suggests at one point that they gag him. This certainly recalls the treatment of prisoners of war and concentration camp victims. But the final joining of the Assistant and the Protagonist in the action raising the head suggests the confrontation of the oppressors by the oppressed. Thus, Beckett’s most political play enacts a something of a worker revolt.

But there is another kind of revolt as well—the revolt of the imprisoned artist. One cannot ignore the reflexive nature of this piece. The very staging of Catastrophe points to its subject not only as the theatre, but as the present-day theatre, even as the play (Beckett’s play) itself. The audience witnesses not a representation of the rehearsal of a scene, but the rehearsal of the scene itself, taking place in that theatre, on that stage, before their eyes. Catastrophe is the playing-out of what happens when art and politics meet.

The Director presents a degree of fascist aesthetic: he forms his Protagonist to perfection in an attempt to achieve his ‘vision.’ This interpretation of the Director as a fascist force is reinforced by multiple productions: the 2000 Ohio Wesleyan production of Catastrophe even costumes the Director and his Assistant in what look to be SS uniforms, and the 2006 Barbican Theatre, London production had the Assistant marching to and fro, as a soldier, turning only on 90-degree angles. Beckett mocks the fascist aesthetic and its creator: what should be an inhumanly strong and rosy-complexioned character is presented as weakened, whitened, and dehumanized—the true state of those represented politically or artistically by fascist forces. In a reversal of imagery, the Director represents a catastrophe rather than a victory. Success, in this character’s world as in many totalitarian regimes, lies not only in the glorification of the chosen race or class, but even more in the humiliation and degradation of others.

Beckett would be one keen on refuting this aesthetic: it was the rise of Hitler in 1930s Germany that prevented a young Sam Beckett from seeing some of his favorite works of art, and endangered the freedom of those artists. In 1936 Beckett left for Germany to visit family, vacation, and improve his German. Only a month after he arrived, the government issued a directive for gallery owners to remove any ‘decadent’ modern art (it would later be confiscated and sold or destroyed). So Beckett went through galleries to see many emptied walls—the paintings he most wanted to see had been put in the cellars. While visiting and noticing rising power of the Nazi regime over art and consciousness, he wrote, “the expressions ‘historical necessity’ and ‘Germanic destiny’ start the vomit moving upwards.”

While the Director displays the negative impact of politics, the Protagonist demonstrates the political power of the artist to confront tyranny by rejecting his orders. He commends Havel and other for standing up to abuse, giving him the title of “Protagonist” and thus Hero.

Catastrophe plays out the politics of artistic reception and misinterpretation. The Director’s play doesn’t seem so far off from some of Beckett’s later works. The single body, on stage, under a single light source, uttering nothing or near-nothing, recalls such pieces as Not I, That Time, or Breath, a play without any actors at all. But, like the Protagonist, the Playwright too can be manipulated. In the alteration of costumes, makeup, lighting, and music, politically interested or indifferent directors can position Beckett however they want, using the body of his text as their Protagonist. In line with the Director of Catastrophe, many directors and readers reframe the body of Beckett as dehumanized or hopeless. The long-time European trend, for example, was to see Beckett’s work as the expression of the world as absurd, Godless, and hopeless—one irrevocably broken by the atrocities of war. In America, we see him as the formal perfectionist with some existential overtones.

One interesting staging of Catastrophe is the 2001 film directed by David Mamet, who displays in production a typical American interpretation. Mamet removes context, history, and politics from this production. He humanizes the barbaric Director (played by politically active Harold Pinter), taking away his furs as well as the cigar. The Assistant shows little disgust towards him, as Mamet robs her of the chance to wipe off his chair before he sits down. Likewise, the Protagonist’s raised head interrupts no storm of applause; the lonely claps of the Assistant continue well into the credits.

The interpretations that sympathize with the Director in his attempt to achieve an artistic ‘vision’ are no doubt products of formalist approaches. The Director’s desire to perfectly craft his work, to get the hands and the head in the right position, is an allegory for the artist. Such interpretations, in limiting themselves to the text, do not impose any ulterior political message, but by disregarding the political context and the paratext, they censor Catastrophe in another way—they impose political indifference. Though Samuel Beckett was known to accept almost any interpretation of his works, answering ‘I don’t know’ to questions like ‘Does Clov leave?’, the theme of Catastrophe seemed clear to him. When he heard that a critic called the ending “ambiguous,” he responded angrily, “There’s no ambiguity there at all. He’s saying: You bastards, you haven’t finished me yet!”

In the end, the play can tell us as much about the world we live in as the critical response to it. France, still under the grip of Sartre and of Nazi complicity, interpret Beckett with guilt: Everything is meaningless, We have failed, This is the end. America, much more distant from European history and run by New Critics even in the war years, takes claim of the words in Beckett, as we have no little claim over him socially or politically (Beckett only visited America once): A formal genius presents patterns of repetition and metalinguistic irony, Biography and History should be left outside the text. But Godot remains a favorite for high school students (perhaps because their search for meaning in their young lives coincides with the search in the play), as well as a rally for freedom chanted at the fall of communist Czechoslovakia (“Godot has arrived!” the people called), and Beckett’s name remains anthologized in studies and collections on atheism and Catholicism, nihilism and myth.
The Director and the Assistant of Catastrophe like so many readers, judging Beckett’s work from a critical distance, changing its context, and turning it into a symbol of which it is unaware. While this kind of critical primping may incite enthusiastic response (the brief applause of Catastrophe), while the body of the text is dominated. But the humanity of Beckett’s text keeps it alive, ever addressing new audiences who, in turn, provide new readings for new politics.

The forces that so many critics see as so many causes act really on one and the same plane. What appears to some at Beckett’s political activism is simply a concern for humanity. Likewise, a seeming disregard for history is an exploration of subjectivity. A.J. Leventhal, a friend, says, “Beckett, unlike many of the avant garde writers in France, is not engagé, is not committed to any political partisanship. He has no national axe to grind. … Beckett’s involvement is in humanity and its pain, in its hope as in its anguish, in its comedy as in its seeming futility.” What viewers and critics see as so many conflicting approaches is really one response to one world—though it happens to be that criticism, like politics, the economy, and education, has sectioned itself off from other aspects of the world in seeing itself as a discipline apart. Beckett saw everything as linked and interrelatable. When asked at a party why he wrote about distress, and if it was because he had an unhappy childhood, Beckett left immediately, unable to understand how someone could be so cut off from reality: “I left the party as soon as possible and got into a taxi. On the glass partition between me and the driver were three signs: one asked for help for the blind, another help for orphans, and the third for relief for the war refugees. One does not have to look for distress. It is screaming at you even in the taxis of London.” Beckett did not identify a difference between these three causes.

“The danger is in the neatness of identifications,” Beckett began his essay on Joyce’s then Work in Progress. Indeed, the identification of Beckett has become a dangerous business that has come serve as a paradigm for all literary reception. Whether we interpret for political or formalist causes, in the end, no reader or critic engaged in discourse can dismiss themselves from politics, as they are in the business of words. Even the followers of the flamboyantly uninterested l’art pour l’art movement fly their colors with every argument for pure indifference. Literary studies, which for so long has tried to declare itself as free from the market and outside of history, is even more fervently politically interested than the texts it presumes to study. Ideas are a currency, exchanged by critics, accumulated by nations, and enforced by institutions. Even in order to vie for humanity, one must enter into this political and economic domain.

The role of the critic today is to continue this exchange in order to keep the world market of ideas alive. Even though the author never intended for such loud dispute, he certainly demands a self-questioning. The critic dramatizes this self-questioning by splitting the response to one work into many critical players that enact a critical politics, whether they argue for or against politics in literature. Of course, this seems a bunch of meaningless play in the long run, but so does Waiting for Godot. Like the tireless Didi and Gogo, critics too must continue the exchange, arguing over words, meanings, origins, and titles in what would normally be meaningless politics.

by Two Critics Discussing their Last Articles, Agreeing on Something, and Preparing for their Next Articles

Vladmir: Moron!
Estragon: Vermin!
V: Abortion!
E: Morpion!
V: Sewer-rat!
E: Curate!
V: Cretin!
E [with finality.]: Crritic!
V: Oh! [He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.]
E: Now let’s make up.
V: Gogo!
E: Didi!
V: Your hand!
E: Take it!
V: Come to my arms!
E: Your arms?
V: My breast!
E: Off we go! [They embrace. They separate. Silence.]
V: How time flies when one has fun! [Silence.]
E: What do we do now?
V: While waiting.
E: While waiting. [Silence.]
V: We could do our exercises.
E: Our movements.
V: Our elevations.
E: Our relaxations.
V: Our elongations.
E: Our relaxations.
V: To warm us up.
E: To calm us down.
V: Off we go.