By Doug Phillips
The well-wrought urns of writers both modernist and post- have long been marvels to behold. Joyce’s Ulysses for one; Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway for another. Moving to mid-century there is Nabokov of course, whose well-wrought urn Lolita would be plumbed by a young scholar—Leland de la Durantaye—for the moral art within. The result was Style as Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov (2007), de la Durantaye’s fine making of a first book. But what besides nothing is to be done about that modernist-post-modernist Beckett, whose literary urns are decidedly well-wrought—and, well, not? In fact, so strange an urn was Beckett’s wartime-written novel Watt that English authorities confiscated his manuscript, thinking it might be German code. In de la Durantaye’s latest study, Beckett’s Art of Mismaking, he takes as his subject the “mysterious, befuddling, and exasperating” nature of Beckett’s fiction and plays. The traditional “aim of art has been fine making,” writes de la Durantaye. “And then came along an Irishman named Samuel Beckett who ended the whole thing, closed the proceedings, put art to rest, at last, for it was very tired.”
If such a scenario is more fable than fact, as de la Durantaye cautions it may be, there’s still no denying the Event of Beckett’s bewildering work, from his first published story in which a man screams himself to death, to his teasingly-titled play Happy Days in which a woman winsomely loses ground in a mound of—mud, is it? Such bemuddlment is everywhere in Beckett, and maybe that’s how it is, but what, might we ask (along with Mrs. Shower or Cooker from Happy Days), is it all “meant to mean?” To borrow a quip from Duke Ellington, there’s no future to that question, not really, because all answers, explains de la Durantaye, “presuppose doing something which Beckett’s works make phenomenally difficult: relating work to world, meaning to making.” And yet de la Durantaye gives it a go all the same, stating from the outset that his book on Beckett “aspires to treat of the essential difficulty of his art.” If such ambition smacks of being another primer in Beckett studies, then perhaps that’s what it is, but only in the sense that Gide’s monograph on Dostoevsky, or Nabokov’s on Gogol, or Beckett’s own on Proust, might be called a primer. Like those works, Beckett’s Art of Mismaking is a slim volume of wide critical range, remarkable for both its insight and crystalline sentences.
For a scholarly study to cohere there typically must be a center of some kind, a bullseye toward which the chapters take aim and land their points. However, says de la Durantaye, there is “a stubborn problem in Beckett: How does one distinguish the central from the peripheral?” Even the intrepid Jacques Derrida, who met very few texts he didn’t put to the screws and deconstruct, avoided Beckett for this very reason. The slippages between center and periphery were, for Derrida, too much: they “make the limits of our language tremble,” he said. But if that was the case for D, then what hope is there for the rest of us? What hope have we of understanding Beckett in the wake of the philosophers, another of whom, Adorno, said of the play Endgame that the only understanding possible was that it could not be understood? When then a book like de la Durantaye’s comes along that helps us to make sense of Beckett’s world—but without belying that world’s essential senselessness—how grateful we must be.
For his part, de la Durantaye centers his study on a remark Beckett made in an early French essay about a painter-friend, the gist of which in translation is “willed creative mismaking.” Beckett would further elaborate this idea in a letter declaring his literary intentions, using the even less palatable term logoclasm to express what he called “ruptured writing.” Elsewhere he more enticingly describes his ideal mode of artistic creation as “word-storming in the name of beauty.” Whatever the designation, the aim of all this mismaking or logoclasm or word-storming would be to fashion something Beckett once attributed to a fictitious poet of his own making: “an art that is perfectly intelligible and perfectly inexplicable.” In other words, an art well-wrought and not. “Early and late,” de la Durantaye tells us, “Beckett said there was in his works no mystery, no difficulty, nothing esoteric, nothing to find because nothing hidden, nothing difficult but the despair depicted.” If ever there were cause for despair, however, this I think would be it: the suspension between knowing what’s there (the unhidden, the un-mysterious) and not having a clue as to what it all means.
Unchecked despair, thought Kierkegaard, is a sure recipe for sickness unto death. In Beckett’s world despair is everywhere, and sickness too, but never unto death; for death, like meaning, never arrives. Nothing ever concludes, no failure—even life’s—ever comes to an end. And no reason is ever given for things going kerflooey. In such a mismade world, objects spin loose from their subjects, and meaning loses touch with every intention. It’s pessimistic for sure, so much in fact, says de la Durantaye, that it’s “difficult to surpass in pessimism Beckett’s early work, except in his middle and late work.” Beckett, though, is not nearly as pessimistic as someone who attempts to dignify life’s horror by ascribing meaning to it. “What is truly horrifying for Beckett’s characters,” writes de la Durantaye, “is not that life is meaningless, but that it might be meaningful.”
In Noah Baumbach’s film Frances Ha (2012) the eponymous Frances says of her dance choreography: “I like things that look like mistakes.” Those who admire Beckett’s work, who can’t help but feel an irrepressible pull toward them, may feel precisely the same way. How else to explain the appeal of characters whose lives—whether catastrophic or grossly inconsequential—are best understood, if understood at all, as cosmic mistakes, if not cosmic jokes? Beckett himself knew well the feeling, especially after being stabbed in the chest by a Parisian pimp (named, improbably, Prudent). After recovering from his near-brush, Beckett asked his assailant—a stranger with whom he had absolutely no prior contact—why he had done such a thing. Prudent replied, “I don’t know why, sir. I’m sorry.” That a pronounced feature of Beckett’s art is one of disconnectedness should come then as no surprise. And with it, writes de la Durantaye, “goes all sense that man is the measure of anything but his own shifting, shambling, shivering self.”
By the time we get to his mature writing, “Beckett eliminated quite nearly everything that might orient us in the world of the work.” If there’s an arc then to Beckett’s oeuvre it’s one of subtraction, of sound leveling into silence, of footfalls fading to nowhere, of minds winding down in the dark. In this way his works recall the late paintings of Rothko whose planes of loud color would mute eventually into grey and black, this before he opened his wrists and called it quits. As for Beckett himself, he went on, having concluded at a young age that life wasn’t worth the trouble of leaving it. Rather than abandon the mess Beckett wished to accommodate it, but the old forms of finely made art no longer seemed adequate or even appropriate to the task—not in a world nearly given over to Nazis and nuclear annihilation. A half-century of horrors had in fact fissured the world, and, to the extent that art was even possible after Auschwitz, new forms were in order. In Beckett’s hands the art of fine making became one of mismaking, whereby subjects lose sight of their objects and the center—Godot, anyone?—dissipates into its periphery.
It was indeed Yeats who said of the center that it cannot hold. But it was the Irishman down the road, Beckett, who made of the observation his life’s work.
Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned his degrees at the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The University of Alabama is home of the Alpha of Alabama Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.