Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Paul Foster's "Beckett & Zen": Book Review

This aim nears an elusive target. Foster aligns Beckett's dilemma-- there is no God vs. we must seek God-- with the adjacent attempt by Buddhism to veer away from a "monorail" linear quest that traps his characters to see only before or behind themselves in their existential exiles. Foster argues that their author, like his subjects, lacked the ability to turn off this doomed road, where Beckett's dilemma's solved by leaving it and a/theism and existence as we know it and cannot know it otherwise all behind. Rather, the true adept rejects mental constructs of a panicked ego, for a Zen search for immersion into that beyond anguished thought, careless diversion, or misleading faith: into One Mind, the ultimate Unnam[e]able.

In fact, Foster could have called it a "trilemma," for not two but three horns rise. We face a world of senselessness without God, we lament our impotence to change this abandonment, and we endure our lives without solace. Foster, a longtime practitioner of Zen who returned to academia to write the 1980 dissertation that became this 1989 book (published by a Buddhist-themed press), employs Beckett's examinations of the mind in his major prose texts as a spiritual tool for exposing the ontological strengths, and ultimately weaknesses, of what happens when, like Beckett dared, you sit and contemplate your fate. Without bowing to a god, without killing yourself, without either total despair or total comfort. A grim scenario for many of his characters and we his readers, but Foster bravely delves in to formidable narratives to apply his Zen-mind to Beckett's men and women who hesitate to make the "great leap" demanded in Buddhism of those who would gain power over their impotent selves.

In "Murphy," hints of Buddhism surface, but I agree with Foster that these are passing and rather inconsequential. As with Scripture, one can read back into Beckett a myriad of critical intentions that the author may not have intended at all. For "Watt," sophistry parodied wearyingly may veer near a Buddhist solution, however unintentional, when it comes to nothingness. "The difference is between the two is that where the one ends in brilliant but brick-wall theory, the other finds a way over the wall in practice. Where the one, like Watt, screams in an impasse of despair, the other initiates a revolution of mind that transcends both self and impasse." (150)

The prose trilogy that Foster takes on causes him, no less than any other than the most shallow commentators, problems. As with the previous two novels, with "Molloy" and "Malone Dies" he ends both his chapters on the first two installments at what to me appears very much like a brick wall. Both novels break down, and while Foster excels at extracting fragments to shore up against ruin of the agonized narrators, I sense that he cannot solve the dilemmas that Beckett through his prose confronts without being able to resolve. The honesty of Beckett prevents him from doing so.

Foster, to his credit, as with his subject, does not back down from what Beckett sneered or sighed at as "always the big questions," and "the big answers" that we all seek in our own exodus from meanings that comforted our ancestors, and soothe our neighbors. For those among us who cannot be eased by such resolutions, the prose trilogy stands as an articulation of our refusal to submit, and of the pain this defiance by its honesty causes within the psyche. Can one say soul?

For Foster, no. As a Zen adept, he knows that Beckett's confrontation prevents the author from overcoming the dilemma that tangles him and his creations. "The Unnamable" tackles this in what superficially at times nears a Buddhist stance, but Foster knows that, given the cryptic and unstable narrative stance through which we hear the story, we cannot ascribe so reductively or summarilly any pat solution to the momentous portents and baffling situations the protagonist-- if he indeed acts at all in the final judgment-- expresses so forlornly. It seems that Beckett steps back from the abyss, from what Zen would offer as obliteration within the One Mind.

I might add here a problem with Foster's presentation (an index would have also helped, and typos mar the text along with an inconsistently formatted bibliography). Beckett has been said to gain whatever knowledge of Buddhism he revealed via Schopenhauer, but that philosopher appears to have confused the One Mind direction of Buddhism with more of a Hindu "atman" into Oversoul version that distorts Zen teaching. In turn, as Foster does not treat Schopenhauer's interpretations of Buddhism at any length, one's left to puzzle over what echoed philosophies of Mind and Nothingness Beckett inculcated. Here's a point where more elucidation would have helped ease what, given the textual and intellectual challenges, remain tough questions to address let alone resolve.

In the last text treated, the despairing (even by previous standards) "How It Is," we're faced with faceless terrain that Foster well compares to a prehistoric creature clawing through primordial mud. Meditation does approach the "monster silences vast tracts of time perfect nothingness" (cited 238) of "How"; Foster finds the abandonment of the narrator approaching that required by the contemplative. Yet, Beckett draws again away and thus this text as with his work's a "tragedy."

It's all "doomed to failure," for the monorail perspective locks his narrators into infinite space and time without change, undeviating from "mental tedium" of memories. The failure's not artistic, but mental. Foster compares our self to an onion, peeled down to its own essence but leaving us with emptiness at its truest core.

This impasse, Foster argues, presents us with a poignant encounter with how far Beckett comes, yet also how far he still had to go. Beckett failed to overcome the predicament that ties him and his narrators to the demands of the questioning ego, the relentless inquirer, the despairing pawn. No practitioner, he may be by Zen reckoning indeed doomed if he cannot escape "samsara" and the ties to the flesh, ego, and stubborn soul that keep one tethered, dragging, or bound to this tedious, dirty, barren, yet intermittently beautiful and fleetingly dazzling, plain of plain existence. (Posted to British and Amazon US 6-16-09. Happy Bloomsday yesterday, by the way, via this tribute by way of Joyce's one time suffering servant!)

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