Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Beckett and "the absurd"

A Piece of Monologue (a deleted blog) brings to my weary attention another one of The Guardian newspaper's effortlessly obtuse top ten literary lists. This time it's "top 10 absurd classics". Of course, it includes Waiting for Godot.

Beckett's remarks about this subject have been available in French for 26 years and in English translation for 15, yet still he is ignored. Charles Juliet's Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde was reissued five months ago by Dalkey Archive, so there should be no more excuses. Here is the specific passage, beginning with Juliet expressing his opinion:
Cautiously, I explain that I believe an artist's work is inconceivable without a strict ethical sense.
A long silence.
"What you say is true. But moral values are inaccessible. And they cannot be defined. In order to define them, you would have to pass judgement, which is impossible. That's why I could never agree with the notion of the theatre of the absurd. It involves a value judgment. You cannot even speak about truth. That's what's so distressful. Paradoxically, it is through form that the artist may find some kind of a way out. By giving form to formlesssness. It is only in that way, perhaps, that some underlying affirmation may be found.
This is what makes Beckett a far more complex artist than the label "absurdist" allows. Perhaps this why it remains despite the author's explicit statements and the evidence of the plays backing them up. He seeks an underlying affirmation – why else would he continue? – while all around him hacks and inattentive culture-vultures chatter about "the absurd"; a value judgement to speed their fiercely middlebrow lives beyond anything distressing like the inaccessible.


  1. No artist likes to be categorised and whether Beckett thought his works were absurdist is neither here nor there. There's a clear affiliation with Beckett and certain writers of the same era and cultural space that have been labelled 'absurdist'. Beckett himself was a huge admirer of Camus' L'Etranger, probably the novel most linked to the notion of the "absurd". (Camus, of course, also sought an underlying affirmation in the recognition of the absurdity of existence.)

  2. Ab surdus... from the speechless. Worth looking at etymology sometimes.

  3. An escape from wonder at the inexpressible by application of facile labels

  4. What's the etymology of "smart arse"?

  5. Precisely Jacob. Beckett would have known the etymology I'm sure, so why did *he* not agree with the label?

  6. Beckett seems to be referring to Martin Esslin's notion of the 'Theatre of the Absurd', rather than the absurd per se:

  7. Yes, I took that as read Rhys, but I think his comments apply to both as value statements.

  8. The fact that sordo and sourd mean deaf in Spanish and French respectively led me to Notre Dame University's Latin dictionary which defines surdus as... deaf ( )
    And since these words (surdus/sordo/sourd) also mean "muffled or "toneless" it's unsurprising to find that absurdus ( )
    means discordant or unmelodious and therefore also gained the meaning of foolish, which lead to our modern "absurd" (which again is the same as absurdo, absourde).
    And, Stephen, you will usually find that "smart arse" more often than not is etymologically akin to "mistaken pedant whom no one is brave enough to call up on his mistake".

    With that out of the way, what I understand from Beckett's words and his "passing judgment" is (a bit like a quantum-physics paradox) that once you go and define something as "absurd" you have just passed judgment upon it which precludes you from being able to analyse its content - you just labeled it "absurd", hence something that has no bearing on life as we know it to be. And since Beckett's work is, whatever else, always humane and empathetic (even if it pries those feeling out of the reader/audience rather than deliver them on a platter within the work), by calling it "absurd" you simply chuck out the ability to judge the piece on a human level. I can imagine a world without empathy (a setting for many a Trantino-style action film, for example), but it would just be an absurd world with no bearing on our world, and so one couldn't critique it from an artistic or human point.

  9. Brave?! Say what? This is ridiculous; believe it or not, I was *actually* going to add the caveat that mine wasn't the true etymology of the word, even though it's obviously not a million miles off! I just found it suggestive, and thought that it was interesting considering what Stephen had written about Beckett, and Beckett's own words in the Juliet conversation. (I never pushed the point that it was something to be seriously contended with.) The suggestion probably struck Beckett too, if only because it is so immediately visible, in the prefix at least. Anyway, I wasn't saying at all that anyone should have done their homework, or whatever, but only that it's generally interesting to look at the makeup of words, or at least to think about how they might be made up, as I'm sure all will agree.

    For instances, to explicate literally means to unfold, and to comprehend, to seize. This is beautiful. Think of Larkin's "sun-comprehending glass". Knowing the etymology there makes a difference, for me at least, because it suggests things. In context, it has what Eliot might call the Shakespearean combination of familiarity and remoteness. (see Macbeth, I vi 1-10, which Eliot quotes on a number of occasions.)

    And what if a different poet wrote something about "dawn's bright explication"? Looking at Latinate words like these, you realise just how much of the English lexicon is essentially metaphorical, or to use a more Latin term, figurative. And behind some words there are sometimes identifiable poetic identities. I think the idea of being "in-spired" by something is Homeric. (Some of the characters briefly discuss this in Plato's Symposium, I think.)

    Of course this can all get a bit monkish and obsessive, but my advice in the meantime would be to cool the absolute jets, Gadi. I feel like I'm living in a world without empathy here. (Beckett was very nearly born into such a world, by the way. In English, the word is only an early-twentieth-century coinage.)

    But you're not exactly wrong about the silly article itself Stephen. How could you be? It's not precisely high octane literary criticism, or even literary criticism at all by the looks of it, but my question is: would you be arsed?. Beckett's comment about value judgment is on the ball, but as to why the paper didn't listen, or take the trouble, well, there's not an awful lot to be said. Stop bothering to read the Guardian. It's no longer yours.

    I mean it no longer reflects the experiences of the good, attentive kind of reader. I don't think there's a way of swinging that one around.

    il faut cultiver notre jardin

  10. Anonymous8:20 am

    I am tempted to agree with Gralteso, that we should not waste our time on The Guardian especially concerning certain contributors' takes on literature. However, your post Steven, is a reason why it is worth being reminded of what is out there every now and then. I appreciate your reminders and jottings and thoughts on these things. I dislike the categorising and labelling of Beckett's work (and others), as if they have to be put in a special glass case at the side in order that we don't for a minute accept them as being within the 'real' or as texts that might be important for all to read. As I have said to you before, but still have not worked out how to get it into writing, I only understood the value and weight of Beckett's work after I had lived and travelled in a war and seen humans - and myself - at our worst and best. Beckett's work to me is so absolutely against 'the absurd' and so utterly critical for its sensitivity and attempts to find a way in to truth - even if always inevitably failing - that it seems to cheapen him to put him in a top 10 of anything. The idea of that list is flawed, let alone including Beckett's work in it. And how disappointing too, that if you are going to do that, you would include Waiting for Godot: the only text that perhaps every single Guardian reader has heard of. It is circular and disappointing and somehow absurd that I am now getting angered by it. Perhaps Gralteso, you are right after all!

  11. Worse still (and heading worstward) what about 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better', surely the most misread sequence in all of Beckett? He would have been horrified to see it appropriated as a catch-all stoic maxim (e.g. 'OK, you're destined to fail, but never mind, keep trying, keep failing in such a way that your failures come closer to success'). Beckett would have poured scorn on this sort of chocolate-box philosophy. The intended meaning is, directly and literally, 'fail more fully, more catastrophically. Absolutize your failure.' Not especially Guardian-friendly, is it?



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