J.M. Coetzee: Eight Ways of Looking at Samuel Beckett
Imagining Professor Kafka and Beckett on the Beach
As Hugh Kenner explained to us long ago in his essay “The Cartesian Centaur,” Samuel Beckett is a philosophical dualist. Specifically, Beckett writes as if he believes that we are made up of, that we are, a body plus a mind. Even more specifically, he writes as if he believes that the connection between mind and body is mysterious, or at least unexplained. At the same time Beckett—that is to say, Beckett’s mind—finds the dualistic account of the self ludicrous. This split attitude is the source of much of his comedy.
According to this standard account, Beckett believes that our constitution is dual, and that our dual constitution is the fons et origo of our unease in the world. He also believes there is nothing we can do to change our constitution, least of all by philosophical introspection. This plight renders us absurd.
But what is it exactly that is absurd: the fact that we are two different kinds of entity, body and mind, linked together; or the belief that we are two different kinds of entity linked together? What is it that gives rise to Beckett’s laughter and Beckett’s tears, which are sometimes hard to tell apart: the human condition, or philosophical dualism as an account of the human condition?
Beckett the philosophical satirist attacks and destroys the dualist account again and again. Each time the dualist account resurrects itself and re-confronts him. Why does he find it so hard to walk away from the struggle? Why does he persist in his split attitude toward the split self of dualism? Why does he not take refuge in its most appealing alternative, philosophical monism?
I presume that the answer to the last question, why Beckett is not a monist, is that he is too deeply convinced he is a body plus a mind. I presume that, however much he might like to find relief in monism, his everyday experience is that he is a being that thinks, linked somehow to an insentient carcass that it must carry around with it and be carried around in; and that this experience is not only an everyday, once-a-day experience but an experience experienced at every waking instant of every day. In other words, the unremitting undertone of consciousness is consciousness of non-physical being.
So monism does not offer Beckett salvation because monism is not true. Beckett cannot believe the monist story and cannot make himself believe the monist story. He cannot make himself believe the monist story not because he cannot tell himself a lie but because at the moment when the dualist story is abandoned and the monist story is inhabited instead, the monist story becomes the content of a disembodied dualist consciousness.
An alternative and more effective way of answering the question of why Beckett is not a monist is simply to look at propaganda for a monist theory of mind. Here is William James in confident mood, expounding the advantages of having a soul that is at home in the world:
The great fault of the older rational [i.e., Cartesian] psychology was to set up the soul as an absolute spiritual being with certain faculties of its own by which the several activities of remembering, imagining, reasoning, and willing etc. were explained . . . But the richer insight of modern days perceives that our inner faculties are adapted in advance to the features of the world in which we dwell, adapted, I mean, so as to secure our safety and prosperity in its midst.
There have been plenty of people who have themselves experienced Beckett’s plight, which can be roughly expressed as the plight of existential homelessness, and have felt it to be a tragic plight or an absurd plight or a plight both tragic and absurd at the same time. In the latter half of the 19th century there were many people who, pace William James, suspected either that the high civilization of the West had taken an evolutionary turn that was leading it to a dead end, or that the future belonged not to the reflective, hyperconscious, alienated “modern” type of human being but to the unreflective, active type, or both. Cultural pessimism of this kind was still very much alive as Beckett grew up. Fascism, whose apogee he was fated to live through and suffer under, glorified the instinctive, unreflective, active type and stamped its heel on sickly, reflective types like him.
What had arrived to concentrate the minds of Zola and Hardy and Huysmans and people like them was the theory of biological evolution, which by the end of the century had been taken in and absorbed by most people who liked to think of themselves as modern. There was a continuum of life forms that linked bacteria at the one end to Homo sapiens at the other. But there were also phyla that terminated, became extinct, because over-adapted. Could it be that the huge brain of Homo sapiens, developed to bear the weight of so much consciousness, was an over-adaptation, that mankind was doomed to go the way of the dinosaurs, or if not mankind in toto then at least the hyper-reflective Western bourgeois male?
What is missing from Beckett’s account of life? Many things, of which the biggest is the whale.
“Captain Ahab, I have heard of Moby Dick,” says Starbuck, the mate of the Pequod. “Was [it] not Moby Dick that took off thy leg?”
“Aye, Starbuck,” says Captain Ahab, “it was Moby Dick that dismasted me.” For that “I’ll chase . . . that white whale . . . over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.”
But Starbuck is dubious. I joined this ship to hunt whales, he says, not to pursue vengeance—“vengeance on a dumb brute . . . that simply smote thee from blindest instinct. To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”
Ahab is unswayed. “All visible objects . . . are but as pasteboard masks,” he says, offering a philosophical account of his vendetta against the white whale. “But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.”
Are our lives directed by an intelligence, malign or benign; or on the contrary is what we go through just stuff happening? Are we part of an experiment on so grand a scale that we cannot descry even its outlines, or on the contrary is there no scheme at all of which we form a part? This is the question I presume to lie at the heart of Moby-Dick as a philosophical drama, and it is not dissimilar to the question at the heart of Beckett’s oeuvre.
Melville presents the question not in abstract form but in images, in representations. He can do it no other way, since the question offers itself to him in a singular image, the image of blankness, of no-image. Whiteness, says Ishmael the narrator, in a chapter entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale,” is “the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind”; his mind throws up a picture of an all-white landscape of snow, of “dumb blankness, full of meaning.”
The question offers itself in images. Through images, even blank images, stream torrents of meaning (that is the nature of images). One image: the white wall of the cell in which we find ourselves imprisoned, which is also the white wall constituted by the huge forehead of the whale. If the harpoon is cast, if the harpoon tears through the wall, into what does it tear?
Another image: the whale, huge in its rage, huge in its death-agony. In the world of 1859, the white whale is the last creature on earth (on God’s earth? perhaps, perhaps not) whom man, even man armed for battle, goes forth to confront with fear in his heart.
A whale is a whale is a whale. A whale is not an idea. A white whale is not a white wall. If you prick a whale, does he not bleed? Indeed he does, and by the barrelful, as we read in chapter 61. His blood cannot be escaped. His blood bubbles and seethes for furlongs behind him, till the rays of the sun, reflected from it, redden the faces of his killers. It turns the sea into a crimson pond; it doth the multitudinous seas incarnadine.
In their white cells, Beckett’s selves, his intelligences, his creatures, whatever one prefers to call them, wait and watch and observe and notate.
All white in the whiteness of the rotunda . . . Diameter three feet, three feet from ground to summit . . . Lying on the ground two white bodies . . . White too the vault and the round wall . . . all white in the whiteness . . .
All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one yard square never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling . . .
Why do these creatures not grasp their harpoon and hurl it through the white wall? Answer: Because they are impotent, invalid, crippled, bedridden. Because they are brains imprisoned in pots without arms or legs. Because they are worms. Because they do not have harpoons, only pencils at most. Why are they cripples or invalids or worms or disembodied brains armed at most with pencils? Because they and the intelligence behind them believe that the only tool that can pierce the white wall is the tool of pure thought. Despite the evidence of their eyes that the tool of pure thought fails again and again and again. You must go on. I can’t go on. Go on. Try again. Fail again.
To Melville the one-legged man who trusts himself to the harpoon-thrust, though the harpoon fails him too (to the harpoon is knotted the rope that drags him to his death), is a figure of tragic folly and (maybe) tragic grandeur, à la Macbeth. To Beckett, the legless scribbler who believes in pure thought is a figure of comedy, or at least of that brand of anguished, teeth-gnashing, solipsistic intellectual comedy, with intimations of damnation behind it, that Beckett made his own, and that even became a bit of a reflex with him until the late dawning he underwent in the 1980s.
But what if Beckett had had the imaginative courage to dream up the whale, the great flat white featureless front (front, from Latin frons, forehead) pressed up against the fragile bark in which you venture upon the deep; and behind that front, the great, scheming animal brain, the brain that comes from another universe of discourse, thinking thoughts according to its own nature, beyond malign, beyond benign, thoughts inconceivable, incommensurate with human thought?
Try again. A being, a creature, a consciousness wakes (call it that) into a situation which is ineluctable and inexplicable. He (she? it?) tries his (her? its?) best to understand this situation (call it that) but never succeeds. In fact, the very notion of understanding a situation becomes more and more opaque. He/she/it seems to be a part of something purposive, but what is that something, what is his/her/its part in it, what is it that calls the something purposive?
We make a leap. Leave it to some other occasion to reflect on what this leap consisted in.
A being, a creature, one of those creatures we, whoever we are, call an ape (what his/her/its name for himself/herself/itself is we do not know; we are not even sure that he/she/it has the concept of a name; call him/her/it “It” henceforth; we may even need to question the concept of having a concept before we are finished)—It finds itself in a white space, in a situation. It seems to be part of something purposive; but what?
Before its eyes are three black plastic tubes a metre long and 19 millimetres in diameter. Below each of the tubes is a small wooden box with an open top and a door that is closed but can be opened.
A nut is dropped (we pause to note this “is dropped,” which seems to have no subject, no agent—how can that be?—before we go on) into the third tube (one-two-three: can we assume the concept of the count, can we assume right and left?). If the being, the creature, the ape, It, wants the nut (always, in these stories of bizarre situations to which you awake, it comes down to something edible), It must open the correct box, where the correct box is defined as the box containing the nut.
The nut is dropped into the third tube. It chooses a box to open. It opens the third box, and lo and behold, there is the nut. Greedily It eats the nut (what else is there to do with it, and besides, It is starving).
Again the nut is dropped into the third tube. Again It opens the third box. Again the box contains a nut.
The nut is dropped into the second tube. Has It been lulled by habit into thinking the third box is always the lucky box, the full box? No: It opens the second box, the box directly beneath the second tube. There is a nut in it.
The nut is dropped into the first tube. It opens the first box. The nut is in it.
So tube one leads to box one, tube two to box two, tube three to box three. All is well so far. This may be an absurdly complicated way of feeding a being, an appetite, a subject, but such appears to be the way things work in the present universe, the white universe in which It finds itself. If you want a nut, you must take care to watch into which tube it is dropped, and then open the box below.
But ah! the universe is not so simple after all. The universe is not as it may appear to be. In fact—and this is the key point, the philosophical lesson—the universe is never as it appears to be.
A screen is introduced: It can still see the top ends of the tubes, and the bottom ends, but not the middles. Some shuffling takes place. The shuffling comes to an end, and everything is as it was before, or at least seems to be as it was before.
A nut is dropped into the third tube. It, the creature, opens the third box. The third box is empty.
Again a nut is dropped into the third tube. Again It opens the third box. Again it is empty.
Within It, within Its mind or Its intelligence or perhaps even just Its brain, something is set in motion that will take many pages, many volumes to unravel, something that may involve hunger or despair or boredom or all of these, to say nothing of the deductive and inductive faculties. Instead of these pages and volumes, let us just say there is a hiatus.
It, the creature, opens the second box. It contains a nut. It makes no sense that it should be there, but there it is: a nut, a real nut. It eats the nut. That’s better.
A nut is dropped into the third tube. It opens the third box. It is empty. It opens the second box. It contains a nut. Aha!
A nut is dropped into the third tube. It opens the second box. It contains a nut. It eats the nut.
So: the universe is not as it was before. The universe has changed. Not tube three and box three but tube three and box two.
(You think this is not life, someone says? You think this is merely some thought experiment? There are creatures to whom this is not just life but the whole of life. This white space is what they were born into. It is what their parents were born into. It is what their grandparents were born into. It is all they know. This is the niche in the universe in which they are evolved to fit. In some cases, this is the niche in which they have been genetically modified to fit. These are laboratory animals, says this someone, by which is meant animals who know no life outside the white laboratory, animals incapable of living outside the laboratory, animals to whom the laboratory, while it may look to us like white hell, is the only world they know. End of interjection. Go on.)
Again there is an episode of something being shuffled behind the screen, which It is not allowed to watch.
A nut is dropped into the third tube. It, the creature, opens the second box. It is empty. It opens the third box. It is empty. It opens the first box. It contains a nut. It eats the nut.
So: no longer three and three, no longer three and two, but three and one.
A nut is dropped into the third tube. The creature opens the first box. It is empty.
So: after each shuffling, everything changes. That seems to be the rule. Three and three, then shuffling, then three and two, then shuffling, then three and one, then shuffling, then three and—what?
It, the creature, is doing its best to understand how the universe works, the universe of nuts and how you lay your hands (your paws) on them. That is what is going on, before our eyes.
But is that truly what is going on?
Something opens and then almost immediately closes again. In that split second a revelation takes place. It is trying to be understood (language creaks under the strain) how the universe works, what the laws are.
Someone is dropping nuts into tubes, and doing so not idly (not like a bored god) but with a goal in mind: to understand how my mind works, and more specifically to understand the limits of my mind. Can I link one with one, two with two, three with three? If I can, can I link three with two, two with one, one with three? If I can, how long before I can learn instead to link three with two, two with two, one with two? And how long thereafter before the penny drops and I link each episode of invisible shuffling of tubes with a revolution in the laws by which the universe works?
This is not a meaningless universe, that is, it is not a universe without rules. But getting to understand the rules of the universe counts for nothing, in the end. The universe is interested not in what you can understand but at what point you cease to understand. Three with three and two with two and one with two, for instance: will you be able to understand that?
Let us call him God or Godot, the little God. How much can this God, with his nuts and tubes and boxes, find out about me, and what if anything will be left that he cannot know? The answer to the first question may not be knowable, though it does seem to depend on how tireless his interest in me may be, on whether he may not have better things to do with his time. The answer to the second question is clearer: he can never know what it is to be me.
God thinks I spend my time waiting for him to arrive with his apparatus for testing my limits. In a sense he is right: I am in the cage in which, as far as I know, I was born. I cannot leave, there is nothing for me to do but wait. But I am not seriously waiting for God. Rather I am occupying time while I wait for him. What God does not understand is this “not seriously” with which I wait for him, this “not seriously” which looks like a mere adverbial, like “patiently” or “idly”—I am patiently waiting for God, I am idly waiting for God—not a major part of the sentence, not the subject or the predicate, just something that has casually attached itself to the sentence, like fluff.
God believes I am a body and a mind, miraculously conjoined. With my body I eat the nut. Something happens, and the nut, either the idea of the nut or the fact of the nut in the stomach, triggers a thought: Nut good. More nut. Understand one-two-three, get more nut. It amuses God to think that is what happens, to think that the miracle (that is to say the trick) of conjunction allows him to use a nut to get the mind to work. God reflects in passing that conjoining a body with a mind was one of his more inspired ideas, his more inspired and funniest. But God is the only one who finds it funny. The creature, It, I, the laboratory animal, does not find it funny, except in a grim Beckettian way, because the creature, It, I, does not know it is a body and a mind conjoined. I think, therefore I am: that is not what It thinks. On the contrary, it thinks, I am! I am! I am!
In the year 1937 the University of Cape Town in South Africa advertised a vacancy for a lecturer in Italian. Applicants should hold at least an honors degree in Italian, said the advertisement. The successful candidate would spend most of his time teaching Italian for beginners. Perks would include six months of sabbatical leave every three years, and a contribution toward the expense of travel, by ocean liner, to and from the old country.
The advertisement appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, where it was seen by T.B. Rudmose-Brown, Professor of Romance Languages at Trinity College, Dublin. Rudmose-Brown promptly contacted one of the better students to have graduated from his department and suggested that he apply.
The student in question, S.B. Beckett, by then 31 years old, followed Rudmose-Brown’s suggestion and sent in an application. Whether the application was seriously intended we do not know. We know that at the time S.B. Beckett had ambitions to be a writer, not a language teacher. On the other hand, what writing he did brought in no money; he was living off handouts from his brother. So it is not inconceivable that penury might have forced his hand. It is not inconceivable that, if offered the job, he might have knuckled down and made the journey to the southernmost tip of Africa, there to instruct the daughters of the merchant class in the rudiments of the Tuscan tongue and, in his spare time, loll on the beach. And who is to say that among those daughters there might not have been some sweet-breathed, bronze-limbed Calypso capable of seducing an indolent Irish castaway who found it hard to say no into the colonial version of wedded bliss? And if, furthermore, the passage of the years had found the erstwhile lecturer in Italian language advanced to a professorship in Italian, perhaps even a professorship in Romance Languages (why not?—he was, after all, the author of a little book on Proust), what reason would he have had to abandon his insular paradise and set sail again for Ithaca?
The laconic letter of application S.B. Beckett wrote in 1937 has survived in the University of Cape Town archives, together with the letter Rudmose-Brown addressed to the selection committee in support of his candidacy, and an attested copy of the testimonial he had written when Beckett graduated from Trinity College in 1932. In his letter Beckett names three referees: a doctor, a lawyer and a clergyman. He lists three publications: his book on Proust, his collection of stories (which he cites as Short Stories rather than by its proper title, More Pricks Than Kicks), and a volume of poems.
Rudmose-Brown’s testimonial could not be more enthusiastic.
He calls Beckett the best student of his year in both French and Italian. “He speaks and writes like a Frenchman of the highest education,” he says. “As well as possessing a sound academic knowledge of the Italian, French and German languages, he has remarkable creative faculty.” In a PS, he notes that Beckett also has “an adequate knowledge of Provençal, ancient and modern.”
One of Rudmose-Brown’s colleagues at Trinity College, R.W. Tate, adds his support. “Very few foreigners have a practical knowledge of [Italian] as sound as [Beckett’s], or as great a mastery of its grammar and constructions.”
Regrettably, the dice did not fall in Beckett’s favor. The lectureship went to a rival whose research interest was the dialect of Sardinia.
Why does the title “Franz Kafka, PhD, Professor of Creative Writing, Charles University, Prague” raise a smile to our lips, when the title “Saul Bellow, BA, Professor of Social Thought, University of Chicago” does not?
Because Kafka does not fit, we say. True, artists do not easily fit or fit in, and, when they are fitted in, fit uncomfortably. (Such a short word, fit, three letters, one syllable, yet with such unexpected reaches.) But Kafka, we feel, exhibits misfit of a higher order than other artists. Kafka is the misfit artist himself, the angel Misfit. He would fit no better behind a lectern than behind the counter of a butcher shop, or punching tickets on a tram. And what would Professor Kafka teach, anyway? How not to fit in? How to make a living as a specialist in not fitting in, as one can make a living as a specialist in not eating?
Yet the fact is that Kafka was a perfectly competent insurance adjuster, respected by his colleagues at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Company, 7 Poric Street, Prague, where he was employed for many years. Do we perhaps underestimate Kafka—underestimate his competence, his versatility, his ability to fit in? Are we misled, perhaps, by the famous photographs of the man, with the brilliant, dark eyes that seem to bespeak piercing insight into realms invisible and to hint that their owner does not belong in this world, not wholly?
What of Beckett? Should we smile at the thought of Samuel Barclay Beckett, BA, MA, Professor of Romance Languages, University of Cape Town?
It helps to be lean, and Beckett was as lean as Kafka. It helps to have a piercing gaze, and Beckett had his own variety of piercing gaze. Like photographs of Kafka, photographs of Beckett show a man whose inner being shines like a cold star through the fleshly envelope. But soul can shine through flesh only if soul and flesh are one. If soul and flesh belong to distinct realms, and their conjunction is an everlasting mystery, then no photograph will ever tell the truth.
From LATE ESSAYS: 2006-2017 by J.M. Coetzee, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. “Eight Ways of Looking at Samuel Beckett” Copyright © 2008 by J. M. Coetzee.