Samuel Beckett: Between two parting dreams, knowing none

by dollydelightly

Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing would be better renamed Good for Nothing, if only for the sake of accuracy. Harsh, I know, but perhaps wholly necessary. The book is a peculiar and idiosyncratic one, whimsical, opaque, self-indulgent, confused and confusing yet on occasion exoteric but unassimilable. Originally written in French between 1947-52, it was later translated into English by Beckett himself.Thus one can’t help but wonder how much was lost in the process and how much of the abject “quarto” about the essence of being, perception and will, was meant to be as abstruse as it appears. There is little continuity or narrative structure, but in a most ambiguous way. One assumes that the “I” speaking throughout the 13 monologue pieces is the unnamed narrator’s subconscious but this is just an arbitrary guess, as too often the text falls victim to unwitting sabotage by way of structural and stylistic subversion.

The book opens with the narrator debating the point of existence while dwelling somewhere on a “hill, so wild, so wild.” “What possessed you to come?” he asks himself. This we learn is “unanswerable,” but it may have been due to“fate”. The thought continues as he begins to query time, saying: “How long have I been here, what a strange question, I’ve often wondered, And often I could answer, an hour, a month, a year, depending on what I meant by here, and me, and being, and where I never went looking for extravagant meanings there never much varies, only the there sometimes seems to vary.” This mode of quiet and circuitous flatulence continues for some pages and to a rather soporific degree as Beckett endeavours to reduce existential problems to their most rudimentary structures: the meaning of life; the role of perception; time; communication versus alienation and the interminable perplexities of the self. The prose is spares but saponaceous and orbicular, as it ebbs indiscriminately forward and backward only to retrogress to the point of origin again. For the narrator is neither here nor there and yet he tells us otherwise. “I’m there, I am here”  he says, and then somewhere else altogether, “between two parting dreams, knowing none”.

This sort of literature has the tendency to incite a certain urge to perforate the book’s cover with the sharp-end of a bradawl, not only because it is consummately exasperating but also because its writer is consummately more talented. And while I do realise that there is some vestige of merit in Beckett’s experimental indictment against language as a mode of expression, I still can’t excuse his monotonous eructations about being “here or elsewhere, fixed or mobile, without form or oblong like man,” or overlook his abuse of lexicon when he assert that “the subject dies before it comes to the verb,” because “nothing ever as much as began, nothing ever but nothing and never nothing ever but lifeless words”. Most of Texts for Nothing is spumous mullock only legible in spurts, which makes it somewhat difficult to follow Beckett’s intention or even attempt to decipher it. This is also largely due to the fact that the book flits from internal monologue to commentary on the external, from the narrator expounding about what constitutes living (“getting standing, staying standing, stirring about, holding out, getting to tomorrow”) to questions about the structure of civilisation (“all the peoples of the earth would not suffice, at the end of the billions you’d need a god, unwitnessed witness of witnesses, what a blessing it’s all down a drain”). It is also further muddled when Beckett sporadically asserts that in fact “nothing can be told,” and then proceeds to tell it. But the “it” remains indeterminable.

Somewhere mid-way through the book the obscurantist literary agitprop about the futility of language begins to grate. Not only that, the abstraction and anesthetised prose makes it an offering of laborious pelmanism. The only redeeming quality about Texts for Nothing is the occasional sound of Beckett’s voice manumitting itself from the confines of this postmodernist quagmire. Singular moments capture Beckett discoursing rhetorically, when he says, for example, “But I speak softer, every year a little softer. Perhaps. Slower too, every year a little slower.” Or when he notes plaintively that it’s a pity “hope is dead.” But these are few and far in between, or at least too few to justify the read. In fact, I would go so far as to say that even Beckett can’t justify it as at one point he says resignedly: “I’m the clerk, I’m the scribe, of what cause I know not.” During the middle period of his life when Texts for Nothing was written Beckett was struggling to maximise creativity due to, among other things, an increasing sense of self-censure and criticism, and a torturous desire to find an apt method of expression for his thought. He aimed to discover a form of art which would allow for reality of disorder, the “pettiness of heart and mind,” which in the end led him to lament the challenges of language.

Texts for Nothing pays homage to those challenges, emerging as a sort of preliminary attempt at deconstructed literature prompted by the “dread of coming to the last, of having said all, your all, before the end”. Today, it also reads like a literary posture built upon an outmoded postmodernist premise. Much like Beckett’s plays, Texts for Nothing is an experimental book, which does not comply with any given literary convention, dismantling generic pointers between fact and fiction, prose and poetry, dream and reality. But I fear it dismantles too much thereby turning language into an entity, a character, in itself which makes for an obtuse and wearisome piece of writing, devoid of irony and energy and the subtle nuances of effulgent and multiple resonances at the crux of much of Beckett’s earlier work. There is a point in Texts for Nothing, when the narrator says, “I shouldn’t have began,” repeating it throughout the book, and every time I came across it I couldn’t help but think: I definitely second that.