Saturday, June 1, 2013

"Beckett, Buddhism, and the Void"

Neatly inscribed, as if in a handwriting-imitative font in its precision, at the back of a secondhand copy of Richard Seaver’s  I Can't Go On, I'll Go On: A Samuel Beckett Reader, I found this meditation:

In each moment there is a question, made up of smaller questions, made up of smaller sub-questions, divided by both the senses and by experience, held together by emotion, logic, reason...Herein lies the playground of the mind, to seek understanding, weighing each answer according to its source, and only by the receipt of information are these moments connected. If by chance the answers aren't enough, or the questions not right, there is no space between then and now, and certainly no time to tell the difference. There is only repetition. Question everything. Experience the best of everything. Forget the questions and remember how you asked them.

Seaver, Beckett's editor, provided a reminiscence. It concludes:

For in his dimming landscape, peopled with clowns and misfits, has-beens and ne'er-do-wells, the malformed and the deformed, those on the threshold of death or already on the other side (‘I don't remember when I died’), he has created a stark world far different from our own, hardly recognizable, a nether world, a purgatory, or perhaps Antepurgatory, having nothing whatsoever to do with us.

Our world. (xlv)

Wherever it originated, that (for me) anonymous statement alongside these editorial comments reminded me of Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. This former Zen and Tibetan monk clears clutter around Buddha, karma, rebirth, gurus, and temples. He favors a therapeutic approach akin to a psychologist in his non-denominational, non-theistic guidance. He admits we-- as with the Buddha-- do not know what happened or will happen regarding our place in the universe.

He leaves it at that. He pushes us past sterility, ritual, and codified belief into a mature, democratic, and communally responsible morality that renews what has frozen into mantra, temple, and guru. He proposes agnostic confrontation rather than consolation, derived not from salvation or reward but existential honesty. How do we go on when we feel we can't go on? How long, O Lord, how long, as the Psalmist cried out —long before Godot?

Batchelor's brief but rich treatise can inform anyone. I think secular and atheist readers might benefit most. (I note his newest book — out last month — titled Confession of a Buddhist Atheist trumpets a blurb by Christopher Hitchens; this may indicate Batchelor’s desire to leap on a neo-atheist bandwagon waving a non-theist prayer flag.) In a section on ‘emptiness’, that fundamental dharma teaching, he tells us how:

much of the time we fail to register what is happening here and now. We are reliving an edited version of the past, planning an uncertain future, or indulging in being elsewhere. Or running on automatic pilot, without being conscious at all.

And instead of a coherent personality that stretches back into an unbroken line to a first memory and looks forward to an indefinite future, we discover a self ridden with gaps and ambiguities. Who ‘I am’ appears coherent only because of the monologue we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads. (24)

He explains that we are less the hero of a B-movie starring ourselves but as ‘more akin to the complex and ambiguous characters who emerge, develop, and suffer across the pages of a novel. There is nothing thing like about me at all. I am more like an unfolding narrative’. (82) Becoming aware of this impels us towards an ‘ethics of empathy’, refusing to cling to habits and routines. We cannot hold on to our ego to sustain our fragile and evanescent self; rather, Batchelor urges: ‘Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before’. (83)

‘The more we become conscious of the mysterious unfolding of life, the clearer it becomes that its purpose is not to fulfill the expectations of our ego. We can put into words only the question it poses. And then let go, listen, and wait’. (99) This reminds me of moments in Shakespeare or Beckett, this bold staring down of ‘shunyata’, ‘emptiness’ that we cannot define satisfactorily for its own notion ‘falls prey to the very habit of mind it was intended to undermine.’ (81)

Whether in an article I wrote earlier in this decade on Beckett’s purgatories and liminality, a happenstance scrawl in a secondhand book, or my ‘nightstand Buddhist’ study, I try to make sense out of my own monologues, waking and dreaming. They vanish. But scripts remain, as Seaver, Batchelor, Beckett, and even the Buddha know, ‘dramaticules’ enacted by others after we die and head towards whatever ‘unnameable’ emptiness will embrace us again.

While studying Batchelor, I wondered about Beckett’s affinity, if any, with Buddhism. John Calder, Beckett’s publisher and friend, considers the influence upon Beckett’s early work by a Belgian follower of Descartes, Arnold Geulincx. Cited in Murphy, the source of the first words spoken in Waiting for Godot, ‘rien a faire’ or ‘nothing to be done’, Geulincx proposed a proto-meditative reaction. (4) Calder stresses Beckett’s youthful quest for truth within meditative philosophy rather than dogmatic theology. Christian mystics such as Geulincx, Calder suggests, edge near Buddhism ‘particularly in the denigration or merging of the individual self into the whole nature of the cosmos’. (5) Calder posits Murphy seeking nirvana as ‘Beckett’s most Buddhist creation’, yet he does not elaborate. Nor does Beckett himself on the influence of dharma.

Three massive biographies, by Deirdre Bair, Anthony Cronin, and James Knowlson, make no mention of Buddhism within Beckett’s life; his works do not mention the teachings directly. Yet, Calder finds a connection, however tenuous. He claims that Beckett feared returning to life, and how ‘intellectual superiority of Buddhism over monotheistic religion, and the logic of reincarnation with the concept of even ethical justice, was not lost on him’. (43) Stoically, without religious belief yet never declaring himself an atheist, Beckett appears to Calder a dualist, between hope and despair, the material and immaterial. They might both have benefited from reading Batchelor.

Can philosophy align with Buddhist inquiry? Ben Howard cautions: ‘Zen questioning is not the same as rigorous philosophical inquiry. To be sure, Zen teachings engage metaphysical issues, most prominently the ‘Great Matter of life and death’. And insofar as they emphasize personal responsibility and freedom of choice, Zen teachings share common ground with existentialist thought. But unlike professional philosophy, Zen eschews definitions, abstract categories, and other components of systematic inquiry. Its way is more immediate, intuitive, personal, and concrete’.

I found one book-length study on the topic. Beckett and Zen by Paul Foster presents a challenging monograph on two difficult conceptions, one from that fearlessly inquisitive but honestly unbelieving writer, one from two millennia of authors known and unknown-- also distinguished for their refusal to speak but of the ultimately Unnam[e]able, of our fragile place in this enigmatically silent universe.

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

In fact, Foster could have called it a ‘trilemma’, for not two but three horns rise. We face a senseless world without God, we lament our impotence, and we endure without solace. Foster, a longtime practitioner of Zen, 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, as Beckett dared, you sit and contemplate your fate. Without bowing to a god, without killing yourself, without total despair or total comfort. A grim scenario for many of his characters and we his readers, but Foster delves into 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.  Still, there's a poetic sense of life's fragility amidst the sharpened exchanges of cruelty and cant. Three of my favorite passages: ‘He thought of the four caged owls in Battersea Park, whose joys and sorrows did not begin until dusk’. (106) ‘Is it its back that the moon can never turn to the earth, or its face?’ (131) ‘Each leaf as it fell had an access of new life, a sudden frenzy of freedom at contact with the earth, before it lay down with the others’. (150)

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’. (Foster, 150)

The prose trilogy that Foster takes on presents problems. With Molloy and Malone Dies, Foster ends his chapters on its first two installments at what to me appears 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, 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 may 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 curing the dilemma that pierces 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 summarily 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 add here my problem with Foster's presentation. Beckett has been said to gain whatever knowledge of Buddhism he revealed via Arthur Schopenhauer, but that philosopher may have confused the One Mind direction of Buddhism with a Hindu ‘atman’-into-Oversoul version that distorts Zen teaching. In turn, as Foster does not elaborate upon Schopenhauer's interpretations of Buddhism, 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 compares to a prehistoric creature clawing through primordial mud. Meditation approaches 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 cerebral. Foster compares our self to an onion, peeled down to its own essence but leaving us with emptiness at its 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 practitioners, they may be by Zen reckoning indeed doomed if they cannot escape ‘samsara’ and the ties to the flesh, ego, and stubborn soul that keep us tethered, dragging, or bound to this plain, pained existence.

Foster borrows an image employed by Alan Watts. We’re two faces on opposite sides of a coin, subject-object attempting to figure each other out. Stuck in this binary opposition, the ‘coin's faces’ spin about, failing to realize the thickness, the whatness, the ‘quidditas’ of the coin's hidden dimension.

This third, unseen dimension for Watts (if not Beckett's searcher, dim-bulb as we more resemble Watt) equally runs in both — and permeates all — directions inside the coin to unite its two sides. The two sides do not know of another way out; locked side-by-side but on opposite ends, they lack understanding of unseen unity. A new perspective extends the coin's definition beyond obverse-reverse dichotomies. This awakening may then truly join us to what we live within but we mistake as without.

Foster tackles the definition of the Void. He corrects Beckett critics who misunderstood this notionless notion as if synonymous with nihilism. A Zen practitioner, Foster argues that the Void nears more Nirvana or better yet, what's beyond that extinguishment of categories or oppositions that we can conjure up from our Cartesian dilemma. We strive to escape this subject-object divide that traps us in ‘samsara’ and prevents us from attaining awakening into ‘samadhi’ that will eventually pull the disciplined and undeluded seeker into realization of release from our body-mind problem. Liberation that allows neither God nor universe, self nor soul. Perhaps an indescribable realm, but we are scared because we stay ignorant, small, and frail. Beckett's terrain crawls with stammering, cowed figures.

I wonder, then, how the Void that Foster finds Beckett and his characters wrestling with — Jacob in an endless night battle with his assailant angel, dawn breaking not with deliverance but death — fits into not only Batchelor’s playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before or Seaver’s Antepurgatory but a cyclical universe? The place that we may ‘know’ or posit that we cannot grasp. It's in this search where a Buddhist tries to release the breakthrough beyond time and space, mind or body.

Recently I found in Brian Clegg’s Before the Big Bang the notion of a brane, a multifold, crumpled, floating dimension a hair’s breadth from ours that may, every ten or twenty billion years, brush against our realm and annihilate it all, to start again, nearly ‘ex nihilo’ as it obliterates any ‘anxiety of influence’, any progenitor prior to a recurring Big Bang all over again out of background radiation that has never not been. This may be a Big Splat, this spiralling and colliding dance of not spheres but these ethereal planes, these branes. I recall an ancient phrase: ‘the Mystic Law, uncreated and eternal, of the Buddha of beginningless time’.

Our sister universe drifts forever out of our reach. Clegg explores how ‘Groundhog Universes’ may exist along the Big Crumple, the dodahecadron-shaped possibility of a universe that eludes our whole perception due to our inability to ‘see’ some of its directions. The Big Bang may be replaced with a Steinhardt-Turok ‘bouncing branes’ model. This may show another universe a millimeter away from ours with enough ripples in the space-time fabric to allow for gravitational anamolies and a sort of mirror-pattern that shows perhaps a universe previous to the creation of our own.

A cyclically reoccurring, ekpyotic brane may float, like a flipped coin’s edge, near our own universe that by ‘quidditas’ or whatness hovers nearly at our own point of entry.  Our perception escapes us by our own incomprehension or inarticulation to utter it and to frame in words what cannot be perceived-- let alone conceived-- within language. Out of this encounter we cannot bear witness-- for in it lies our cosmic formation and termination.

Yet, we can't help but wonder where we came from. The Buddha mused about this life-essence out of the Void as form from emptiness: nirvana ‘Uncreated, Unformed, Unborn’. This search for our meaning, our purpose, our existence fits neatly with Beckett's own bold if quixotic quest. We must explore what we cannot explain, but what we're compelled to attain.

Works Cited:

Batchelor, Stephen. Buddhism without Beliefs. New York: Riverhead, 1997.
Beckett, Samuel. Murphy. 1938. New York: Grove, 1970.
Calder, John. The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett. Edison NJ: Riverrun and London: Calder, 2001.
Foster, Paul. Beckett and Zen. Boston and London: Wisdom Publications, 1989.
Howard, Ben. ‘A Fundamental Perplexity’. One Time, One Meeting. Blog. 18 Feb. 2010.
Seaver, Richard, ed. I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On: A Samuel Beckett Reader.  New York: Grove, 1976.
Portions of this essay appeared on my ‘Blogtrotter’,
A postscript: on, out of five pages of poetically apropos observations uploaded by various hands (Emily Dickinson's three poems shine terribly pure), Beckett is he who dies with the most quotes wins. None explicitly about dharma or Buddha, but all the more apposite.

P.S. This 3000-word essay had existed until March 2012 at Horizon Magazine, where it appeared 2010 in issue number 4. Edited by Mark A. Williams. As that site is defunct, I retrieved it via the Wayback Machine, embedding links to titles reviewed.  It's inspired by--but does not duplicate-- material from my earlier article on Beckett's purgatorial ideas in relation to medieval concepts, which was published as "Beckett's Purgatories" in Beckett, Joyce, and the Art of the Negative. ed. Colleen Jaurretche. (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005) 109-124. European Joyce Studies 16. My thinking evolves, and a related review article on Donald S. Lopez. Jr.'s The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life (Yale UP, 2012) has transformed via The Non-Buddhist, "The Buddha as counter-evolutionary."

Apropos, I append this link and in a future revision/ expansion of this, it will shift my essay, as Paul Foster apparently was unaware of this crucial conversation, or his 1989 book had already been in press when this account appeared: Lawrence Shainberg, "Exorcising Beckett." The Paris Review 104 (1987).  See also Shainberg's 1997 Ambivalent Zen memoir. Thanks to Glenn Wallis for excavating Shainberg's essay via Wallis' "Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall" at Speculative Non-Buddhism.

P.P.S. Image: Tate Gallery. "Nirvana" Augustus John. 1908. "In Buddhist theology Nirvana is the state of perfect beatitude. It is the state where all passions are dissolved, the extinction of individual existence and absorption into the Supreme Being."

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