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.

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