Thursday, June 4, 2009

Beckett, Bees, Buddhism, Beavis & Butt-Head: "Sam I Am"

This "New Yorker" 2006 centenary essay on Beckett elegantly encapsulates the man who sought minimal expression, subtracting rather than expanding as Joyce, shifting to French to force himself into restricted vocabulary. Benjamin Kunkel sums him up well, never better than in his two concluding paragraphs:

Beckett’s work can lay a strong claim to universality: not everyone has a God, but who doesn’t have a Godot? Still, when it comes to exegesis, we are mostly putting words into a mouth constantly engaged in spitting them out. The bizarre horror in Beckett provokes such glib formulations as that of the Nobel Prize committee: Beckett “has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exaltation.” But much of the forlornness of the frightening spaces in Beckett—- the little rooms, the blasted heaths, the madhouses, the ditch in the rain, the country road with its one tree, the little glass jar near the slaughterhouse, and all the sequestered, jesting minds—- is that these are sites forsaken by meaning, bereft of sense. For agoraphobes, there is, in Beckett, the wide vacancy of the universe; for claustrophobes, there’s the bounded nutshell of the self, plied with bad dreams. It’s Beckett’s trick to allow you to feel the terrors of both emptinesses at once. And yet meaning always returns to the hole it has been torn from; interpretation probes the bareness of these works as insistently as a tongue returning to where the tooth was.

“I do not know this author,” Beckett said when he looked at “The Unnamable” a few years before his death, an admission from which critics could learn something. Take an idea to a page of Beckett, and usually the page will reject it. It will, however, give forth abundant mirth, fascination, fear, and pleasure. There is a moment in “Molloy” when Moran is attempting to drag himself home, where he hopes to see again his bees dancing near their hive. He describes at length the mysterious buzzing dance of the bees, controlled by “determinants of which I had not the slightest idea.” It may be the happiest, most fruitful moment in Beckett: “And I said, with rapture, Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand.”
The challenge, Kunkel begins his essay, lies with how we all want to push back into the minimalist prose what Beckett took out. The dialogue his monologists as well as his interlocutors delight in, creating on the page what lingers in the mind or passes across the limelight as fleetingly, allows us to recreate what time obliterates. As with Krapp and his tapes, we can hauntingly recover a voice-- but not the girl in the boat or the Kerry Blue terrier (see photographed the pair above, albeit author and dog, not girl or boat or dog and Krapp) once loved.

Looking for this photo, I came across this footnote at the Wikipedia entry on "Krapp's Last Tape." #30. D. Katz, "Beckett's Measures: Principles of Pleasure in Molloy and First Love", Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (Summer 2003): 246-260: "Collating the accounts of Beckett's two major recent biographers, it seems that in 1926 Beckett ran over and killed his mother's Kerry Blue bitch."

Out of such tragic impermanence, we build our spiritual craft to ride in. Will it be haunted by ghosts? Can we escape the "prison-house of language," the obscurities that both Joyce's maximal- and Beckett's minimum-security fortresses of thought and word constructed around us, within their bindings, to lure and capture us as well?

I stumbled upon the Kunkel piece, which I enjoyed three years ago, when searching for "Beckett Buddha." Only a few cyber-references beyond coincidental juxtaposition merit repetition. As Kunkel notes, the crucial one's from a book I found that he found, in an appropriate venue: One of the most purposely obscure writers of the last century has become all things to all people. On my bookshelf I also have a volume that I picked up as a nineteen-year-old trekker in Kathmandu: “Beckett and Zen.” Since Beckett got from Schopenhauer what Schopenhauer had found in Buddhism, the connection is not far-fetched. And, come to think of it, a long practice of za-zen might be required before we could so empty our minds as to open up one of Beckett’s texts and hear simply the words that are there.

I looked up "Beckett & Zen" not in Nepal but via Wisdom Publisher's site. I note the British copy's of Paul Foster's 1989 study's on sale for half-off; the American one's only 20% discount! Impecuniously, I've xeroxed an interlibrary loan; it may be his 1980 dissertation all over, but it's profound and meticulous-- from a long-time Zen practitioner returned to academia. The Wisdom website, fittingly, keeps rather mum about the contents of this exegesis of the writer's "dilemma in the novels." In time, given the density and pace of Foster's critique, I will review it here and on Amazon US-- which lists the author in a cosmic joke its inspiration may be chuckling over as I type, "RAND Corporation." Talk about chaos theory! There's yet another 1999 monograph, by John L. Kundert-Gibbs, that combines Zen with chaos in Beckett.

Lawrence Shainley's "Exorcising Beckett" finds the scholar disappointed. The author's dismissed any explicitly Zen interpretation of the futility shown for the protagonist (as literal puppet for this dramatization) in "Act Without Words." Beckett makes no mistake: his character's not liberated at the end, but "finished."

Finally, an article in the mysteriously titled "International Journal for Field-Being" out of what I thought was a Jesuit insitution, Fairfield U. in Connecticut, has Albert Shansky's 2001 paper on "Buddhist Motives in the Prose of Samuel Beckett". It's a brisk overview of basic Buddhism applied to the works up to the trilogy, not as far as Foster, who also tackles the formidable "How It Is." Neither Foster nor Shansky include, probably logically or out of weariness, the "dramaticules" that may look like prose but sound like verse.

Speaking of scholars, Kunkel's 8/7/06 "Sam I Am" alas does not cite my 2005 essay in "Beckett, Joyce, and the Art of the Negative" (Colleen Jaurretche, ed. European Joyce Studies 16; Amsterdam; Rodopi, 2005: 109-24), but we share the two nouns of his subtitle: "Beckett's private purgatories." He focuses on the prose rather than the plays, and argues that while much of his fiction's harder on the eye, it merits reconsideration for moments as transformative as that of "Molloy" with Moran's wonder at those unknowable bees. I read the other day-- perhaps in Alexander Theroux who seems the one who does know what the rest of us do not at least about such colorful matters-- that bees see in blue and yellow. What a universe they witness.

(See also my matched blog post yesterday, relating Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs" to random Beckettiana: "Notes Found in the Back of a Used Beckett Anthology.")

Illustration: That previous Beckett-meets-Buddhist piece featured Calvin & Hobbes as its icon; this time, why not another duo of animated philosophers on life's passing parade: "Beavis & Butt-Head"? Dana Stevens juxtaposed at Slate, the key search terms du jour in this 12/18/05 entry about the series re-released on DVD:
In the making-of featurette (irresistibly titled "The Taint of Greatness"), one of the show's writers reflects on the unique challenges of "writing stupid": "You have to go back to the place where thinking begins and stay there." To truly appreciate Beavis and Butt-Head, you have to watch from a similar place, a Zen rock garden of peaceful imbecility. There's an almost Beckett-like purity to the tedium of Beavis and Butt-Head's serenely empty lives; in one short, "Killing Time," the boys wait out the two hours until something good comes on TV by staring at the gas meter outside Butt-Head's house. "Time sucks," Butt-Head finally observes. Beavis' response: a chuckle, then silence.
(Screen-capture from Wikipedia; hard to find a Godot landscape to place our duo within, but maybe "One Tree Hill" might help here? Not U2's song.)

P.S. Bees need our help. So, please buzz by "Help the Honey Bees".

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