I wear many masks. I have worn many. I will wear many, many more; I will have worn and re-worn uncountable many by the time I die. Who I am not as important as who I will have been? Remember Solon, my friends, if not, reexamine your Herodotus; it’s early on.
It does not matter when Samuel Beckett was born, nor does it matter where he was born, or how or why he was as he was when he was . . . his name, Samuel Beckett–no, just Beckett, right? What we call him, do not have to call him by any other moniker? I do not understand this litany of does not matter anymore than I do the litany of how much these things do matter to understanding what a writer wrote or who the writer is. I have never gone to biography when I wanted to write criticism in college. I never did agree with what has been said about authorship these last several decades either, particularly Foucault’s notions about authorship. I am the author of my work whether I have been published or not. Whose authority is there over the text, especially when it has not been published and there is no editorial license taken over the text by others who claim authority to say something because they think they see something? Could it be that I am the author of my text until it is published and thereafter only the writer–all writing being revisable or able to be edited–editors are a dime a dozen in their numbers, but great editors only ever a handful among too many? Authority having to be usurped is still authority?
Do I recall when Becket died? In fact, I do. It was near to Christmas back in 1989. Where was I? In my life? At the time, the day, the hour of my finding out. I recall seeing a photo of Bill Packard on a copy of The New York Review one day hanging in the window of a shop that sold journals and magazines. It was on the corner across from French Roast on Sixth. The shop was diagonally across from The Jefferson Market Library. I was walking to Bar Six to have a pint, I think, with lunch. I used to like their BLT lunches. He had died–Packard–and I was shocked? Was I shocked? I was saddened, for certain, but does the death of anyone shock me. How can the inevitable, and the often unexpected way the news of someone’s death . . . I was shocked anyway. Back in ’89, I was attending Bill Packard’s playwrighting workshops–I recall Bill insisting that we understood the distinction between the words wright and write. And they were?
We were to know that wright in playwright was not an older form of write, but was an old English form of builder or maker, in fact, what the Greek word poeta meant in Ancient Greece. Aristotle’s poetics of course discusses at length, writing for the theater. We were to read this–Packard quoted Aristotle frequently. Probable impossibilities before possible improbabilities, and all that about making what you were wrighting integral to the play. It did not matter if what you were building in your play was possible in the world, but was it derived from the parts of the play, was it integral, was it within the confines of the play, probable.
Becket was dead–that was all. I read it in the Times. I did not run about in a thunder storm carving in a tree that Becket was dead as Tennyson had carved in tree after tree the night he heard of Byron’s death. I was sad, of course, oddly meloncholic, but I won’t make more out of this than is necessary. No hyperbole about one of my favorite playwrights–I couldn’t say favorite, I still had Shakespeare, Strindberg and Tennessee Williams. But there you have my four favorites–what then does this say about me? It says what it does for me and what it does for you and what it does for yet another and another and a another, each of us creeping in our petty ways until the last tolling of the bell, every syllable spoken clearly, annunciation was important. I used to think you could tell everything you needed to know or would ever want to know about a person by what he read. I might still believe this, although how important this is for you I cannot say.
I do recall the first time I read Beckett. I was an undergraduate in a seminar on modern drama. Professor Pearse was an amiable and engaging enough professor to have made the course lively, intelligent and sensitive. The play we were reading was Waiting For Godot, of course; at least I imagine I could say, of course. But then the nothing new I had felt from what I had read that semester turned into the something highly unique. I didn’t really know what it was at the time; I’m not sure I do today or have at any time between since. I was hooked.
I still believe that Endgame is the better play, and sometimes I like Happy Days as much, but I do see importance in the play more than current relevance critiques can muster, or seriously disguised American anti-intellectualism levies against it. Utility in art is just what the divine Mr. Wilde (as one of my Professors called him [and the Professor was not gay]) said it was. Art must remain useless. Ah! To be completely non-Utilitarian; this has been my dream.
I still have the copy of Godot I had then. I won’t recollect how many times over the last twenty or more years I have re-read the play. I used to insist to writing students at CUNY that all good reading is re-reading; all good writing therefore was rewriting. Reading and writing were not separate as they seem to be in current pedagogy, but flip-sides of a singularly minted coin. No one reads a text really who only reads it once, even if you read it more than once the first time you read it. There is a way to perform multiple readings simultaneously, or virtuously simultaneously; the levels of a text, inter-text, subtext, how many considerations are there in our reading of anything we read, but especially what I had been taught was great literature. And yes, this can be discerned no matter how many graduate students jump on the critical bandwagon of resentment and anti-Canon diatribes now parading on American campuses for a couple of decades. I could stand under Beckett as I felt I could not anyone else, at least not yet, at least not until then?
Beckett spoke to something both human and grotesquely modern, contemporary pain incommunicable with words, the words that had always served the literary tradition; something mid-20th century, post-war, atomic age, what else have we in words to express the inexpressible Beckett expressed by showing us how language breaks down, or how language needs to be distilled, reduced, stripped bare?
I got arguments from many that Beckett was white and spoke from privilege and had nothing to say to contemporary African Americans, or to feminism, or to theories rooted in theories or hypotheses of gender identity, either revealing issues subtextual to cultural context or issues created to further diatribes as well as the occasional dialogue on identity. I vehemently disagreed. I did not want to succumb to the popular academic or academically popular myopia many on campus needed to suffer. I recall the readings of his prose I performed subsequently then and over the years, even this year. Ill Seen, Ill Said, Fizzles, Watt, Murphy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, How It Is . . . and so on. I will not list herein all the approaches or considerations I could make in reading or more specifically in reading Beckett. I will, though, discuss this idea Becket designs in “waiting.”
Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot first in French, then translated his own French text into English. The French title is En Attendant, Godot. ‘Waiting’ in French is a prepositional construction with the gerund, en atendant. Attendant comes from the verb attender which is the origin of the English verb ‘to attend,’ thus all attending in English has as part of its semantic residue this idea of waiting. Whenever I attend anything, I wait as well. We attend the opera, a meeting, the ballet, a ballgame. In this frame of time in a place within its parameters of operating and doing and being, there is this sense and act of waiting, but for what? This for what? is key.
Does what we are attending ever arrive? This French sense of waiting is different from the English idea present in the action of waiting. When we wait for a bus it is different than attending the opera–we do wait for something while attending, but do we thus attend when we wait as we do in English? The bus either comes or it does not come; it comes on schedule, or it comes earlier or later than. Nonetheless, this other waiting which is in effect attending is different. It is the waiting that seems elemental to our lives. But for what; for whom do we wait when we attend, principally and ultimately our lives. En vivant. The preposition is important. En is in. Sometimes it could translate on, but in this construction the better translation is ‘in.’ In attending, in living–there is an inclusion, we are subsumed by the act, brought inside of something.
For Beckett, waiting was the essence of modern life, for almost all of modern life is about divesting the individual of his responsibility, most pronouncedly by taking away from him the ability to act for himself by himself, most assuredly under the pretext of making him more social, but certainly not as an individual, but, as in the words of Fleetwood Mac, another brick in the wall. States love walls, the Berlin Wall was one devoted mistress, that is until the less permeable invisible walls of the international power elite did not need the Soviet Union nor walls of concrete.
Beckett’s voice is the voice of the last free man shouting into the abyss and waiting for his echo. In the way we all wait for something that never happens or comes, more often than we would be comfortable acknowledging, we are also attending, in attendance, we say in English, preferring the inflectionally morphemic suffix -ance attached to the verb root ‘attend.’ We shift from verb to noun, clearly, whereby the French opt for the gerund which is in fact a noun but a verbal too. There is more of the verb’s quality present in the verbal present participle, herein the gerund, which is the present participle used as a noun.
A verbal though is not a verb.
Beckett, Samuel, the Irishman in Paris with Joyce–he was Joyce’s secretary, which tells you everything or nothing, most likely both everything and nothing at the same time. His oeuvres has been a comfort to me, but then I used to read Kafka likewise, for comfort. I find humor in the stories of the German speaking Czech Jew from Praha, and I know many who imagine that there must be something wrong with me for doing so. I was comforted by the worldview of Kafka, if we can say that there is a weltanschauung in Kafka, which I insist we can say because there is a distinct worldview, but then I believe the literary is a branch of knowledge that must be entertained in any serious epistemology.
I am not insisting that the one I find in his works is the only one. I’ve read Hamlet five times and know it has not been the same text throughout the successive readings, not to insist that the difference in readings, in interpretations cancel each other or nullify one or another of the others. Multiple interpretations can easily be sustained by great literature and I am not talking about topical and timely writing that expresses a program or attempts to be didactic in a horribly bureaucratically correct way as we see in much of what public school teachers select for students to read, particularly at middle-school when public education has more to do with indoctrination than learning and acquiring knowledge. I do also find comfort in Beckett as I have already said. I find incredible humor in Kafka.
I won’t list what I have gone on to read since Godot. I do sense something primal in his works: all this passing by and going through; life and living, not necessarily the same thing; time, space, position, dimension, coordinately drawn human interaction stripped bare, how well could anyone else draw our lives since the Second World War. His novels, his plays, his poetry; I do understand why he won the Nobel Prize, but I am not so sure there are even many students of literature at a place like Harvard who do.
There was a time I only read writers who had won the Nobel Prize. I have always maintained that bad writing is bad for the soul and mediocre writing is often just as debilitating spiritually, if I am allowed to express a pre-modernist and never a post-modernist or post-post modernist sense of spirit and mind. I return to romanticism, in effect Beckett’s writing is almost an attempt to salvage an idea of the Romantic individual in an absurd universe, a universe set against him and binding him in his isolation.
I always saw Beckett to be a lot like Dante, actually, perhaps crazily. Dante inaugurates a great transformation in not only Italian letters and language but also for European letters. However, at the same time, he was trying to salvage a more comforting and familiar metaphysical system, that of Scholasticism. Beckett is almost trying to salvage a metaphysics incompatible with what he gives such poignant expression to in his writing, his wrighting.
We are all of us waiting for answers that either do not exist or remain for-always elusive. Will they come? We were all of us waiting for the end of the world. It did not come; it has passed its usefulness as a means of control, the fear, the ever constant weight on our shoulders, the perpetual worrying. There is no schedule for them who will come or who are supposed to arrive; what is it that is coming. Waiting is always for something not here but should be here needs to be here we want to hear. In Beckett’s universe these yet-to-be-here things or persons are not like trains no matter how much we subconsciously imagine them so, answers taking us away, liberating us, giving us at least the illusion of freedom, like our last vacation.
To attend, as I have said, we do forget means to wait. All students attending school waiting for answers that never come, like Godot. En attendant, je suis. In the French title, there is a comma not present in the English. The en attendant is set off from Godot. Literally, the title suggests, in/on attending, Godot, or, in other words, Godot is waiting, either exclusively or also.
In fact, Didi and Gogo are perhaps waiting for Godot, but Godot does not come because he too is in fact waiting. All waiting has implicit in the action, a locus. One must be relatively fixed in place for what one is waiting for. I don’t wait for a package to arrive at my home by sitting in the park. Waiting for Godot; Godot waiting for something or someone unnamed, each one is much the same as the other. It is the ground that rises to the falling man just before impact; his gravity its gravity, every body has gravity, all of us the gravitas of each other.