Exhausting the Organic
Samuel Beckett's short stories aren't simply hard work, they are exhausting. Yet as Gilles Deleuze astutely acknowledges in an essay on Beckett in Essays Critical and Clinical, we shouldn't simply assume that tiredness and exhaustion are the same thing. "Being exhausted is much more than being tired...The tired person has merely exhausted the realization, whereas the exhausted person exhausts the whole of the possible." When we talk about tired writing, the prose hasn't at all exhausted the possible; it has merely settled into lazy language. Cliches, turns of phrase, ready-made idioms: these are linguistic properties of tiredness. But what would be the linguistic, aesthetic and ontological possibilities of exhaustion? While focusing chiefly on Beckett's short stories, let us think of three, and one for each category: the regeneration of the sentence, the boundaries of the form, the restless impossibilities of the organic self. The three will come together in a certain type of impossibility well expressed by Deleuze when he says: "exhaustion is something entirely different [from the problem of choosing binary options]: one combines the set of variables of a situation, on the condition that one renounces any order of preference. The goal is no longer to go out or stay in, and one no longer makes use of the days and nights."
In Beckett's stories numerous binary oppositions fall apart so that it becomes difficult to ground ourselves in the story. This usual grounding in many a writer's work (and not merely mediocre ones) is where the linguistic and the formal often come together to produce the tale. If one writes that last Friday I was sitting in my flat when I heard a hard knock on the door, we have by what most standards is the beginning of a narrative. There the narrator is quietly minding his own business and suddenly someone breaks into that safe world. We have the oppositions of inside and outside, the familiar (our central character) and the unfamiliar (the door knocker). The story is also firmly located in time (Friday night) and space (the central character's flat). We could extend this readerly assurance with local flavour (the flat is in Dublin, and even mention the actual street). We could also give the central character a name, and perhaps a bit of a back story. We do not create this example for the purposes of disdain. What we have offered has been good enough for Kafka (a stranger coming to Josef K.'s door at the beginning of The Trial) and Joyce: the specificity of locale in Ulysses. No, it is just to find a way of understanding the difficulties in Beckett's work.
If we think of 'The Image', how does it begin? "The tongue gets clogged with mud only one remedy then pull it in and suck it swallow the mud or spit question to know whether it is nourishing and vistas though not having to drink often I take a mouthful it's one of my resources last a moment with that question to know whether if swallowed it would nourish..." The story continues for three pages with no commas, no full stops, no paragraph breaks. Rhyme and reason have been destroyed: the syntactical expectations of the sentence and the exploration of a given situation evaporate. It isn't that there are no images in 'The Image'; it is that they cannot cohere into the givens of meaning, into a sense that can lead to narration. The best it can lead to is an interpretation or a reading as one draws together the disparate into the personally meaningful. An example of a 'reading' would be an attempt to say what the story is about by suggesting it metaphorically alludes to a situation that it has chosen to abstract. Such a reading of another Beckett story, 'Ping', is offered by David Lodge when he says that "I suggest that 'Ping' is the rendering of the consciousness of a person confined in a small, bare, white room, a person who is evidently under extreme duress, and probably at the last gasp of life." (Encounter) This would be a reading of the story, and he adds "the consciousness makes repeated, feeble efforts to assert the possibility of colour, movement, sound, memory, another person's presence, only to fall back hopelessly into the recognition of colourlessness, paralysis, silence, oblivion, solitude."
Yet perhaps Beckett's stories do not invite readings but the sort of interpretation Deleuze offers, and let us suggest for argument's sake that a reading 'reduces' the story to a form of narrative coherence, while an interpretation potentially asks more what the story is doing: how it exists in existence. When S. E. Gontarski quotes Lodge in his introduction to The Complete Short Stories, he does so to indicate that, for all Lodge's cogency over meaning, he defers, however, important narratological ones. "Who is the figure to whom all is 'known'? By whom is the image described, "never seen"; to whom is it repeatedly invisible?" This leads Gontarski to say that it isn't the story's meaning that should especially concern us, but the idea that "Beckett's subject here is, therefore, less the objects perceived and recorded, a process of necessity, "ill seen" and so "ill said", but the human imagination."
This doesn't mean interpretation can't be much more facile than Lodge's reading, and William Empson, talking of Waiting for Godot, has suggested it is a very Irish work: "We cannot believe in Christianity and yet without it everything we do is hopelessly bad. Such an attitude seems to be more frequent in Irish than either English or French writers, perhaps because in Ireland the religious training of children is particularly fierce." Thus: "a child is brought up to believe that he would be wicked and miserable without God; then he stops believing in God; then he behaves like a dog with his back broken by a car, screaming and thrashing on the public road, so that a passer-by can only wish for it to be put out of its misery. Surely we need not admire this result; the obvious reflection is that it was a very unfairly risky treatment to give to the child." Gabriel Josipovici quotes the passage in On Trust and sees Empson's common sense showing that he is as much a victim of his English upbringing as Beckett would be of his. If Lodge insists on reading the story to find coherence within the tale, Empson interprets Beckett's work through the larger idea of religion and society. Coherence is achieved, but at what price? Perhaps we could find in 'The Image' a story to tell by claiming it is about a man looking back on moments in rural Ireland walking a dog with a girl he starts seeing. There are images here that allow for this reading: "the girl too whom I hold by the hand", "here we are again as we dwindle again across the pastures hand in hand arms swinging", "she transfers the leash to her left hand", "the dog follows head sunk". But such images are to be found amongst numerous others less discernible that make extracting a story out of it not so much impossible as reductive. While Lodge and Empson extract from either Beckett's work or his life to read narrowly or to interpret reductively , what is more important is to propose a reading provisionally, and an interpretation tentatively, all the better to show the difficulty in holding to them. We can place the reading within an interpretation that doesn't simply lead back to the writer's life.
By taking off from Deleuze's remarks about exhaustion and tiredness, and proposing a threefold examination of the nature of the exhausted in Beckett, we can indicate the importance of Beckett's work without reducing it to the readily meaningful. The important thing is to suggest what the stories could be about in invoking a particular experience, while also wondering why Beckett writes in such an obviously demanding manner. If we can extract more easily from 'First Love' and 'The Lost Ones' a story this is a relative claim and a debatable remark. It is more that we can in the first instance shape an allusive narrative, and in the second delineate a clear sense of space. In 'First Love' the narrator leaves home at around the age of twenty five after his father's death and takes up with a woman whose name is initially Lulu but whom the narrator calls Anna. She has a place with two rooms and a kitchen and this is where he goes to live. "Gradually I settled down in this house. She brought my meals at the appointed hours, looked in now and then to see if all was well and make sure I needed nothing, emptied the stewpot once a day and did out the room once a month." Later she becomes pregnant. "One day she had the impudence to announce she was with child, and four or five months gone into the bargain, by me of all people!" For all the digressions, absurdities and name changes offered, we can say with relative assurance that the story is about a young man who leaves home on his father's death, takes up with a woman who works as a prostitute and has her own flat, and they have a child.
In 'The Lost Ones', the story concerns a huge cylindrical space where some two hundred bodies are crammed into an area fifty, metres wide and sixteen metres high, and where "those with stomach to copulate strive in vain." There might be married couples in the cylinder, but such is the nature of the space that as the bodies trudge round it, when the urge takes someone they place their member into the available orifice: the chance of finding one's spouse in this circular hell is slim as everyone is caught in designated limits. "One body per square metre of available surface or two hundred bodies in all round numbers. Bodies of either sex and all ages from old age to infancy. Sucklings who having no longer to suck huddle at gaze in the lap or sprawled on the ground in precocious postures."
These are 'easier' stories than 'The Image' because it is easier to find a foothold through time (the development of a relationship however odd, and however unreliably narrated) or space (the sketching of the cylinder however unusual and oddly populated). Yet the problems of reading and interpretation remain, and rather than simply turning the stories into allegories, or reflections of Beckett's social background and psychological upbringing, perhaps we can return to the threefold issue of exhaustion. First there is a sense of linguistic exhaustion, as though the words become tired not from clichd usage, but from being used at all, from demanding a grammar that something in the work can't quite countenance. A sentence like: "you win some, you lose some, but there is always another opportunity around the corner" is a tired sentence but readily comprehensible. But "...I feel like shouting plant her there and run cut your throat three hours of measured steps and here we are on the summit the askew on its hunkers in the heather" ('The Image') is exhausted as it deviates from ready sense. Even the more accessible sentence here from 'First Love' is hardly simple. "It had something to do with lemon trees, or orange trees, I forget, for of all the other songs I have ever heard in my life, and I have heard plenty...I have retained nothing, not a word, not a note, or so few words, so few notes that, that what, that nothing, this sentence has gone on long enough." It pushes comprehension as its purpose seems more to reflect the exhausted. In 'The Lost Ones' it is as though the need to make sense within a certain exhausted spatial non-sense tested even Beckett. He abandoned the story because of its "intractable complexities" and then saw that it originally contained a "most regrettable error", with the dimensions of the cylinder inconsistent. Just because language is always capable of nonsense this isn't quite the same thing as saying one can be inconsistent with internal logic.
Indeed it is often language's capacity for an external logic to the detriment of a deeper sense that allows journalistic writing to appear frequently transparent and opaque simultaneously. When a reviewer refers to the "profound ambiguity at work", "the subtlety of performance", "the astonishing camerawork", the statement is easy to read but begs the question. It is transparent on the page, but it can be difficult to know really what the writer means by such claims, especially when space doesn't allow for their expansion. What often generates exhaustion is to match external coherence with internal clarity: to say what one means and to mean what one says. This can be either expressive or descriptive, but it is as though one must go to the bottom of the chosen expression or description, and not assume too readily that the thought has been divulged, or the space delineated. In 'First Love', the narrator says: "Love brings out the worst in man and no error. But what kind of love was this, exactly? Love-passion? Somehow I think not. That's the priapic one, is it not? Or is this a different variety? There are so many, are there not? All equally if not more delicious, are they not? Platonic love, for example, there's another just occurs to me. It's disinterested. Perhaps I loved her with a Platonic love? But somehow I think not?" In 'The Lost Ones', Beckett describes the cylinder. "The bed of the cylinder comprises three distinct zones, separated by clear-cut mental or imaginary frontiers invisible to the eye of flesh. First an outer belt roughly one metre wide reserved for the climbers and strange to say favoured by most of the sedentary and vanquished." "Next a slightly narrower inner belt where those weary of searching in mid-cylinder slowly revolve in Indian file intent on the periphery. Finally the arena proper representing an area of one hundred and fifty square metres round numbers and chosen hunting ground of the majority." These are exhaustive observations: one expressive; the other descriptive, as they combine the problem of language, the problem of form and the problem of being.
Now many a writer would simply have insisted that the love was Platonic just as they would say no more than that there were bodies crammed into a giant cylinder. We would in each instance have an idea of what Beckett meant, but if many of our ideas are tired it is because they are vague. They get stranded in a no-man's land of meaning that is half-uttered and half-received. The writer might not really know what they mean, and the reader might not really know what they meant, but communication has been made: this is expression as the communicative, a way of filling the airwaves of our everyday lives. As Deleuze says in Negotiations: "...it's not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say...What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there the chance of framing the rare, and ever rare, thing that might be worth saying." The expectation placed is the language of the tired; the removal of that demand can lead to the more intriguing problem of expressing from the place of the exhausted. This means that the language and the form aren't beholden to sense already made which leaves the human subject constrained by the well-written sentence, the well-told narrative, but instead allows the writer to attempt new linguistic structures and new structural forms. As Josipovici says, "Rabelais and Sterne could play games with the reader and with the forms of fiction out of a feeling of the absurdity of the task they were engaged on, but underlying their work is the sense that through these games they feel they can reach out and find common ground with their readers. The feeling of a common ground is lacking in Beckett as it is in Kafka." (On Trust)
In this sense Beckett would seem to differ from writers involved in Oulipo like Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. These are writers often ludic in their concerns and playful in their narrative inventiveness. A book like Life: A User's Manual doesn't just tell a story, it tells more than a hundred of them as it describes events in the lives of those living in an apartment block in Paris. At the back of the book the tales that are embedded in various chapters of the novel are listed. Perec's is a brilliant attempt at working with the notion that the novel has exhausted all its possibilities and finds new ones by changing the parameters of fictional form. No longer held to the limitations of character and situation, the novel and the story can be based on principles mathematical and structural, on palindromes, chess moves and the extraction of a particular letter that can vastly narrow your vocabulary. Perec wrote a five thousand character story in the form of a palindrome, while in A Void the entire book was written without the use of the letter e. This could be seen as Perec's answer to what John Barth called, in a rather different coinage from Deleuze's, 'The Literature of Exhaustion'. "By 'exhaustion' I don't mean anything so tired as the subject of physical, moral, or intellectual decadence, only the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities - by no means necessarily a cause for despair." Though Beckett is mentioned in Barth's 1967 article, the emphasis is on Borges, perhaps a writer who lends himself better than Beckett to the ludic and certainly less obviously indicates the despairing. While Barth explores exhaustion as a question of language and form, Deleuze sees in Beckett an exhaustion that goes beyond the literary and towards the ontological: towards the exhausted as a condition of the human, not only or even chiefly a problem of literature. Where Barth sees that fiction is renewed by the games that art can play, Deleuze wouldn't claim that art needs to be renewed on such terms. This leaves Beckett less as a figure of his time who comes out of a post-modernist aesthetic and who takes further experiments in language and form evident in late Joyce, but someone revealing a problematic in being. This is why Deleuze has no problem linking Beckett to Melville, to Bartleby's notion of preferring not to even if the American precedes the Irishman by over eighty years. The problem Beckett addresses might be one that preoccupies the mid-to-late 20th century more than it has in the past, but this doesn't make it modish; just that it comes more prominently to the cultural surface.
But what is this problem that can absorb both language and form, that obliterates the assumptions behind both and leaves writers like Beckett and Kafka from assuming the literary ground beneath them? Dostoevsky can help us here and his remarks about the man of action in Notes from Underground who doesn't act because of the necessity in the action, but that the lack of necessity in non-action anxiously demands a purpose. "He likes progress towards a goal, but he does not altogether care for the achievement of it, and that, of course, is ridiculous. In short, mankind is comically constructed; all this plainly amounts to a joke." Thus we can see the ludic taking two quite distinct forms: towards a literary game that has common ground underpinning it - which seems to be so in Barth's approach to literary exhaustion - and without it, as Deleuze explores in a philosophy of the exhausted. In the latter instance we can see that Perec (for all his apparent interest in the ludic), and Beckett for all his undeniable lucidity, coincide by presenting the game as an existential problem. In the most significant of the many stories in Life: A User's Manual, the figure of Charles Bartlebooth plans to devote ten years to learning to paint watercolours; twenty years travelling round the world painting them. He will then give the paintings over to a man who places the paintings on a hard surface, turning them into jigsaws that Bartlebooth will spend the next twenty years of his life solving. In Beckett's Murphy, as Deleuze notes, "the hero devotes himself to the combinatorial of five small biscuits, but on the condition of having vanquished all order of preference, and of having thereby conquered the one hundred and twenty modes of total permutability." Deleuze adds, "Beckett's entire oeuvre is pervaded by exhaustive series, that is, exhausting series - most notably Watt with its series of footwear (sock-stocking; boot-shoe slipper) or furniture (tall-boy-dressing table-night stool-wash stand; on its feet-on its head-on its face...)"
Here in Perec and in Beckett we have the action generated out of nothing, out of a Dostoevskian acceptance that action has no inherent value: that it is merely a conceit over the void. Where Barth suggests literary modes of tiredness that need freshening up, here we have a ludic mode that asks what underpins the game, and the absence proposes all the better to show up literature for what it is: that there is no common ground underpinning it. It makes sense that the English translation for Perec's novel without an e is A Void. In W, Or the Memory of Childhood sections of the book focus on an island with increasingly cruel sports and games, with the benign system turning into a malign hell: the notion of the game becoming a horrible opportunity for the cruel as Perec reveals the link between the autobiographical sections of the book and games on the island: the island is an allegorical account of the Holocaust camps where the central character's mother has died.
The games here are not casual conceits, but opportunities to question what sits underneath literature. The frivolity points up the seriousness. It isn't an escape from it. This doesn't lead to the humourless, but the laughter invoked is irrevocable: it is humour that doesn't come out of the situation but captures an aspect of the human condition. When someone offers a practical joke by putting a fart cushion on the chair, or a bucket of water is arranged to land on someone's head, these are jokes without consequence. The laughter is ontologically light, carrying no greater significance than the moment. Yet the humour in Beckett's work is often heavy with grim realization, and we can look at further Beckett stories where this laughter creates not the comedy of the situation, but the dark humour of the human condition. 'The Calmative' opens with "I don't know when I died. It always seemed to me I died old." Later in the story, the narrator says, "That's the advantage of death by drowning, one of the advantages, the crabs never get there too soon." "My hat flew off, but did not get far thanks to the string." "But reality, too tired to look for the right word, was soon restored, the throng fell away, the light came back and I had no need to raise my head from the ground to know I was back in the same blinding void as before." The remarks indicate comedy, but they don't so much invite laughter as accept comedic inevitability in the human condition. The situational comedy we offered with the farting gag and the water pouring aren't intrinsic to the human as comic figure, but extrinsic to it: they generate situations to show less the ridiculousness of man, as man shown looking ridiculous.
Beckett's humour indicates a fundamental ridicule. Think of the opening of chapter two in the story 'Stirrings Still'. "As one in his right mind when at last again he knew not how he was not long out again when he began to wonder if he was in his right mind. For could one not in his right mind be reasonably said to wonder if he was in his right mind and bring what is more his remains of reason to bear on this perplexity in the way he must be said to if he is to be said at all." This is not humour as discrete, but ongoing. Where the practical joke leads merely to the situation of humour, Beckett is constantly pursuing a humour that is existentially evident and infinite. If for example the fart joke were to go on and on, with no end in sight, then that might indicate the Beckettian, but the practical joke has its practical use: a moment of fun, not an eternity of it. In 'The Expelled', the narrator says: "I have always been amazed at my contemporaries' lack of finesse. I whose soul writhed from morning to night, in the mere quest of itself. But perhaps they were simply being kind, like those who make game of the hunchback's big nose. When my father died I could have got rid of this hat, there was nothing more to prevent me. But not I. But how to describe it? Some other time, some other time." This isn't the humour of the irrepressible joker, the comedian who always has energy to keep an audience in hysterics, but the humour that tells us we needn't pay for a laugh at the door because man's condition is an absurd no exit.
If we choose to extend Deleuze's notion of exhaustion into the humorous, this isn't to 'read', one hopes, any of the stories as Lodge does with 'Ping', nor to interpret Beckett's life through some weakening of religion in Ireland. It is to do no more than wonder what is opened up by touching upon the existentially comedic, and perhaps seeing it as a variation of Henri Bergson's work on Laughter. Where Bergson sees humour coming out of man as an automaton ("The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine"), Beckett sees the individual instead as funny not because he often resembles a machine, but because he is an exhausted organ of nature. Near the beginning of 'The Expelled', the narrator falls down some stairs; later on he is trying to escape through a window: "So I was obliged to leave by the window. It wasn't easy. But what is easy? I went out head first, my hands were flat on the ground of the yard while my legs were still thrashing to get clear of the frame." These could be examples of clumsy humour if they weren't contained by the organically exhausted. James Lloyd talks of Beckett's predilection for slapstick in an essay, 'How Describe it?', and Beckett's chief involvement in cinema was Film with Buster Keaton.
Yet it isn't the comedic set-piece that at all interests Beckett, which would be closer to the practical joke in its humorous brevity, nor the mechanical presentation of existence, but the human being as organically exhausted, astonished that it still has the energy to put one foot in front of the other, and aware of such difficulties once one chooses to think about it. "There were not many steps. I had counted them a thousand times, both going up and coming down, but the figure has gone from my mind. I have never known whether you should say one with your foot on the sidewalk, two with the following foot on the first step, and so on, or whether the sidewalk shouldn't count." This is the opening to 'The Expelled', with the narrator commenting on the steps that he will soon fall down, and we can see that often the problem with Beckett's characters isn't that they fall into the mechanical action, but that they often accept their organic ineptitude. Now Bergson reckons "If, as is undoubtedly the case, laughter is caused in the second instance by the hallucination of a mechanical effect, it must already have been so, though in more subtle fashion, in the first. Continuing along this path, we dimly perceive the increasingly important and far-reaching consequences of the law we have just stated. We faintly catch still more fugitive glimpses of mechanical effects, glimpses suggested by man's complex actions, no longer merely by his gestures." Bergson is certainly right to notice in many instances comedic gestures that are indebted to the mannequin, and some of Beckett's own work has taken on the process of the mechanical on occasion. Quad, for example, is a brilliant work of spatial specificity, as much mathematically arranged as existentially focused. Yet though this short performance displays Beckett's fascination with mathematical structures, it also indicates an interest in the shuffling bodies of the decidedly unmechanical. As up to four bodies are on the square stage at once, they move like the humanly half-hearted, covered in burka-like robes of varying colours. The design might be mathematical, but the result is existential.
Often the comedically mechanical does not produce the exhausted; it is closer to the enthusiastic, the dutiful and the sycophantic. Think of the bumptious lecturer, the servile butler and the obsequious waiter, each allowing the mechanical nature of their role to take precedence over their notion of self. They are not at all organically exhausted, but superficially energized by playing the part that allows their organic nature to recede. Beckett's work is funny because it frequently insists that one's nature as nature is pronounced: his characters' designated decrepitudes, their mindful meanderings, their sexual salivations. "What I understand best, which is not saying much, are my pains." ('First Love') "Memories are killing. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don't there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little." ('The Expelled') "But man is still today, at the age of twenty five, at the mercy of an erection, physically too, from time to time, it's the common lot, even if I was not immune, if that may be called an erection." This isn't the humour of the person escaping from the organic self, but bluntly confronting it.
Thus the threefold exhaustion we see in Beckett's stories indicate the search for a language and a form that doesn't hide a self behind a social faade that linguistic convention and formal demand often allows for, but searches out the absurd reality of organic man, a figure that knows a good rest won't reinvigorate him, knows that a fine meal and plenty of water won't refresh him, and knows that man has nothing much to say unless the words come out of manners and mores that belong more to the systems that produce him than any organic attempt at expression. In an essay in his book Encounter, Milan Kundera (like Deleuze in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation) draws useful comparisons between Beckett and Bacon, these two Irishmen in the mid-to-late 20th century who managed to insist on the organic over the structural, man as a cellular creature without necessarily point or purpose, but towards something beyond that basic organism. As Kundera says "Bacon's portraits are an interrogation of the limits of the self." But what is this self? As Bacon says in an interview with David Sylvester: "I think that man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason." (Interviews with Francis Bacon) Bacon's general remark incorporates well both Bacon and Beckett's project. This needn't lead to the hopelessly pessimistic; just at the very least to a realization that so much energy that man generates is closer to that of the automaton caught in social structures that define his ego but cannot begin to answer to the needs of the self. The former figure is never more than tired; the latter wonders what might come out of one's exhaustion, what happens when one tries moving beyond the organic without falling into ready-made structures.
© Tony McKibbin