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.

No comments: