Loss of Faith But Not Loss of Interest in God: ‘The Theology of Samuel Beckett’

[10 April 2014]

By John L. Murphy

Above: Publicity photo of Samuel Beckett. Photographer unknown.

As Beckett’s British publisher, John Calder has much in common with his friend: a despair at human folly, disgust at mankinds stupidity, and dismay at the God who won’t go away despite our diligent efforts to flee or fight Him. Expanding his argument from The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett (2001), Calder refuses to reduce Beckett to an existentialist paragon, but for Calder, Beckett comes close: he’s 99 percent of the way there.

The difference lies in “perhaps”; that qualifier allows Beckett’s persistent dismissal of the divine to keep its slight saving grace. For, Calder insists, one’s loss of faith need not produce a loss of interest in God. Beckett shows us this obsession by his quest.

Pursuing this theme throughout Beckett’s life and works, this short study relies on familiarity with many decades of his oeuvre. Often, Calder skims over the texts themselves, assuming we can recall the actual scenes and quotes as well as he does. While aimed at those already engrossed in Beckett, and convinced that his and his subject’s cold eye cast on his fellow humans and their purported Creator will be shared by the audience, Calder for all his fulminations against American triumphalism, religious fundamentalism, and capitalist (or socialist) indifference to environmentalism, remains an accessible, if acerbic, guide to the highlights of Beckett’s later work. Calder shifts his previous book’s scope forward to Beckett’s post-1960 period.

Analogous to Beethoven’s career, Beckett, in Calder’s model, shakes free of a dominant predecessor. He leaves behind imitation, fear, and anguish, to enter a spiritual stage that elevates the secular genius and liberates one’s self. As so for Beethoven, so for Joyce: the two B’s had to outlive their mentors and forebears long enough to hear their own voices, and let them sing in works that still daunt today’s audiences. Calder places both talents within a stoic, defiant stance against conformity and creators.

He begins by balancing Beckett in a dualistic stance, between “a nostalgic belief and the rejection of belief”. After his marginalized early poetry and fiction, his harrowing period working for the French Resistance, and his fame after the prose trilogy, Waiting for Godot, and Endgame, Beckett drew the attention of academics whom Calder figures had exhausted the texts of Joyce. Leaving behind death and afterlife as explored in his works “in terms of childhood devotions”, Beckett “invented his own afterlife in imagination”. What this “agno-atheist” conjures up, for Calder, reveals Beckett’s characteristic concerns revealed or evaded by ambiguity, defiance, resignation, hope, austerity, and pessimism.

While Calder seeks to explicate how Beckett channels his later concerns into his novella Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) and his prose piece Worstward Ho (1983), the depths of these ambiguous works, despite Calder’s elucidation, remain occluded. He does not dredge these up out of their murky substrates to scrape off all their muck, but they dazzle him. The first has God destroy His creation all over again. The second plumbs evolution into dim eternity. Calder regards these overlooked texts with awe, chastising professors for ignoring them. One delves into creation’s elimination, as God reverses His deeds; the other suggests Gnostic malevolence. The long shadow of censorious Irish reaction to “dark” visions, Calder reasons, shrouded even Beckett’s later texts within themselves, as their creator refused full revelation.

Beckett, in Calder’s view, retreats as did God from Genesis. Beckett’s humor recedes, too, making these later, astringent writings less popular among academics. While from my own published research into the purgatorial and into the Buddhist traditions drawn upon by Beckett (enriched by the publication of his correspondence the past few years, which Calder draws upon now and then), the amount of direct gleanings seems slim, this I agree that Beckett clouded in suggestion many of his references. Reminding me of Shakespeare, ambiguity permeates Beckett’s works, which evade facile explication.

Calder in turn nods to not only the usual influences such as Dante’s settings and Schopenhauer’s indifferent but world-generating will here, but in passing (much less than the publisher’s blurb lets on) to Milton and to Darwin. More research needs to be done to tease out these connections. Calder assumes nearly no scholars have applied religious contexts to Beckett, but again from my experience, this appears easily refutable from a fair scan of the voluminous concentration given over to the study of Beckett, who seems now to rival his predecessor Joyce in this regard.

However, Calder convinces us that Beckett applies Schopenhauer’s ideal of a purposeless, amoral will unconsciously forcing all towards its emergence. Uncredited here, Thomas Hardy’s musings of a similar generation of the universe by a dumb vegetable come to my mind. In terms of a non-theistic conception of how this slow, grumbling universe may rumble forth without a Creator, while Calder repeats his 2001 assertion that Murphy (1938) shows many Buddhist themes at work, he does not support this with any sustained examples from that novel. Beckett’s recently published letters fail for me to provide any direct backup for this period as revealing specific Buddhist contexts for that novel.

Rather, his nod to Schopenhauer appears a likelier inspiration, for through that German philosopher in the early 19th century, a prototype of quasi-Buddhist concepts filtered into Europe, if in advance of scholarship that placed Buddhism more firmly in its proper setting. All the same, speaking of origins, as Calder reminds us, Beckett’s pre-1950 fiction had not shaken off the impacts of his bourgeois Irish Protestant upbringing. His reluctance to do this had to wait until after his mother’s death. Calder pulls out the ghostly presences she and others left in Beckett’s mid-century writings. Alluding to his own conversations with Beckett, Calder implies this maturity was long delayed.

That freedom came late. Even in Beckett’s long life, there was not much time for this to bear fruit. Calder harps upon the exigencies of any human’s short span, and he laments the increasing fragmentation of knowledge in an Internet era enabling easier plagiarism, and less originality. His constant theme, one Calder emphasizes Beckett embodies, is the “enclosing of the enquiring mind in a small space”. The loss of faith may be accepted logically, but not emotionally. In reticence, Beckett countered this lack with generosity and kindness in personal and often anonymous actions. Calder laments his friend’s capitulation to coma and slow decline before his 1989 death, but he ends this thoughtful monograph affirming Beckett’s affinity with Beethoven, aspiring toward a secular heaven.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/180576-the-theology-of-samuel-beckett-by-john-calder/