I shall argue that the full impact of Beckett’s texts is appreciated only when their intertextual dimension receives the attention it deserves. Beckett’s allusions to literary classics serve not merely to enhance his writing but also to carry on the modernist project of a critical revision of Western literary tradition. From each of the classics he alludes to – especially from Dante, Milton and the Bible – he distills a distinctively Beckettian element, thus changing our reception of the classics and at the same time staking out the place of his own oeuvre in literary tradition. The judgment implied in Beckett’s use of the classics may at first sight seem nihilistic, the reduction of literature to a rubbish-heap of language. But I shall argue that the ultimate effect is to retrieve the vibrancy of the tradition by facing up to the broken, fragmented form in which it speaks to us now.
The intertextual practice of modernism
The term ‘intertextuality’ stems from the Tel Quel group of the late sixties. Launched by Julia Kristeva, it was taken up enthusiastically by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. They understood it not merely as the use of sources and allusions but as the idea that no text makes sense on its own, that every text is related to others of necessity, or more sweepingly, that every text is related to all others: ‘One text reads another... Each "text" is a machine with multiple reading heads for other texts’ (Derrida 1979: 107). Sported as a revolutionary slogan, ‘intertextuality’ undermined conventional ideas of the autonomous author, the self-contained text and the stability of meaning.
This revolutionary promise was only in part fulfilled. As developed in deconstruction, intertextuality has had a flattening effect, tending to put all texts on the same level. This thwarts the signifying power of individual texts and the reader’s capacity to respond to that power. I shall argue that some texts have more intertextual power than others. A text with few literary allusions, as most of Beckett’s are, may have more intertextual power than one with many. When such power is present the text itself acquires great density of import and in addition exerts a revisionist impact on the classics to which it alludes. It is distinguished from the average text by its capacity both to read the precursor texts more actively and to offer itself to richer intertextual readings.
In reaction to the Tel Quel thesis of generalized intertextuality, more conservative, literature-based critics such as Genette (1982) want to define intertextuality as just ‘the set of devices with which one text pointedly refers to another, its “pretext”. Only those references count as intertextual that are clearly intended by the author, distinctly marked in the text and recognized and realized by the reader’ (Pfister 1991: 210). On this definition, clearly some authors and some literary periods are more intertextual than others. The modernism of Joyce, Eliot and Pound is marked by a frenetic use of quotation, allusion and literary subtexts, often with myth-building ambitions. Beckett inherits this modernist intertextual sensitivity; indeed his early writings offer a rather uncontrolled display of erudite literary fireworks.
Postmodernism is another movement marked by self-conscious intertextual allusion, but rather than gravitate toward some mythic centre its use of intertextuality serves to dislodge and decentre all stable structures, master-narratives and logocentrisms. Some have classed later Joyce and later Beckett in the postmodernist camp, but I find in both a mythic conatus, a striving for definitive vision and a cult of form that remain characteristic of modernism. Such jargon has only limited value, of course. If I elect to approach Beckett as a modernist intertextualist, others may find it more revealing to approach him as a postmodernist one. The difference, perhaps, is more one of emphasis than of substance.
In Beckett’s later texts literary allusion is a discreet but pervasive practice. It could be argued that despite the limited range of his references as compared with the dense Joycean palimpsest, his use of allusion has a more concentrated critical effect, serving to defamiliarize and recontextualize, in a subversive way, the literary precursors he targets. He is thus a writer who marks and inflects the entire literary tradition, in accord with the vision that T.S. Eliot expounded in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: ‘The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them... Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past’ (Eliot 1966: 50).
Beckett is too quirky a figure to be enclosed in conceptions of an ideal order, but nonetheless his work takes on its full significance when seen as a reading of the texts it quotes, a reading that alters these texts. The classics retain their privileged status; not for him the postmodernist aesthetic which would replace Eliot’s ideal order with ‘a random medley of past and present, classic and pop, art and commerce, all of them reduced to the same status of disposable materials and surface stimuli’ (Pfister 1991: 219). In John Barth’s ‘literature of exhaustion’ the hollowed out styles and genres of Western literature are recycled in a ludic spirit, as toys, simulacra, distorting mirrors for those ‘lost in the funhouse’. Beckett’s sounding of the exhaustion of language is a graver matter. It will target a single classic and wear it down – drip, drip, drip – until it acquires the ruined, stony, elemental shape of a skull. Company, for instance, is a parody of Proust’s autobiographical fiction, with its triad of experiencing subject, remembering narrator and devising author. Beckett operates a deflation of Proust’s ideal and lays bare the underlying motivations of self-narration and its inbuilt aporias (see O’Leary 1991: 89-94). This is not purely destructive: it saves the truth of autobiographical fiction from Proustian mystification. The Lost Ones does something similar for Dante. These exercises could be placed in the tradition of ‘imitation of the ancients’, which is also exemplified in Henry James’s practice of rewriting and improving on the plots of celebrated novels and stories – slyly leaving it to readers with the detective flair of an Adeline Tintner to uncover the originals being ‘imitated’ (see O’Leary 1999-2001).
Striving toward the essence of literature
It might be objected that Beckett was not interested in offering new readings of Dante or Milton, and that it is the professional deformation of the literary critic that seeks a literary critical upshot in the work of creative writers as well. Beckett is not so ‘ferociously literary’ as James claimed to be; he may even have disliked literature and sought refuge from it in the ‘cleaner’ world of music or the plastic arts. James was a very prolific literary critic, and we can expect to find more literary critical implications in his texts, though he does not draw attention to his intertextual games (unlike Joyce and Eliot). However, the seeming casualness of Beckett’s literary allusions is deceptive; they are deployed in a very calculated way and invite close scrutiny. He is a writer for whom the nature of literature is at stake in what he writes, and who, like Mallarmé, is engaged in a vigilant battle to liberate literature into its essence.
As in Mallarmé, the chief target of Beckett’s critical intertextual allusions is his own earlier texts. Each Beckett text reads the preceding ones and is read by them. Consider the relationship between All That Fall (1956) and Happy Days (1961), both centred on a middle-aged female protagonist. The plight of Winnie in the latter play is more desperate than that of Maddy in the former. It is exhibited in a more abstract, purified symbolic scenario. Maddy’s movements were paced and patterned, and a thematic of ‘falling’ governed the entire play. But Winnie’s movements are reduced to the barest essentials, and further reduced in the second act. Further along the same trajectory lie the still more reduced presentations of trapped female protagonists in Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby and Ill Seen Ill Said. Further material for the study of intertextual relations within the oeuvre is provided by the revised versions or the variants for some of the plays and the shorter prose pieces and above all by the relationships between the French and English versions.
These intertextual relationships between earlier and later works could be seen as continuing on another plane the ‘intratextual’ relationships Beckett sets up between earlier and later parts of the same work – between the two acts of Waiting for Godot (1952), between Maddy Rooney’s journey to the station in All That Fall and her return, between the two acts of Happy Days and between the two halves of Play (1963), the second being a repetition of the first (the entire play is an intertextual revision of Sartre’s Huis-clos ). In each of these cases there is an effect of crushing repetition, with a shift toward a worsening of the situation depicted. Even the straightforward repetition in Play confirms the infernal entrapment of the characters. In many of the shorter prose texts, phrases are recycled in such a way that the text seems to feed on itself, and the protagonist is seen to be constructed of recurring linguistic habits. Joyce’s ‘Circe’, in which the preceding chapters of Ulysses are ransacked for linguistic syntagmas to be recycled, so that the entire fabric of the fictional Dublin is revealed retrospectively as a verbal artefact, provides a model for this practice (see O’Leary 2002).
The trajectory Beckett follows as he rewrites his own texts is one toward an extreme reduction of literature to a handful of charged and cryptic words that summon up an intense silence. In his quotations of the classics he suggests that the whole of Western literature is destined to follow the same trajectory. Like Mallarmé or Celan, he positions himself as the last writer, the one in whom the tradition undergoes its decisive crisis, or its entry into a posthumous mode of being. His minimalist forms pass judgment on more capacious predecessors, just as Mallarmé’s perfectly voided verses pass judgement on the verbosity of all previous French poetry including his own early verse. Intertextuality, so steered, summons literature to an encounter with the void, inviting it to look into a mirror which may suck it in like a black hole.
That Beckett survived so well, literarily, the ordeal he imposed on himself, promises a future for literary creation. His work does not spell the final demise of literature, but rather sets the rich intertext of Western literature vibrating anew with the tensions and questions that his intervention has awakened in it. His texts seem at first to dissolve both the human identity of the creatures exhibited and the literary identity of the writer. But Beckett is working like a sculptor, whittling away in order to let a new form appear, a craggy and elemental identity born of despoliation. As a creator, he follows the Neoplatonic principle: ‘Subtraction is more divine than addition’
In postmodernist intertextuality ‘both author and reader become a mere chambre d’échos (Barthes), resounding with the resonances and noises of other texts’; ‘corresponding to the dissolving of subjects there is, at the same time, a dissolving of the text as a coherent and self-contained unit of meaning’ (Pfister 1991: 213). This is not what happens in Beckett. The figures he creates have a problematic identity, in their relation to the past, to their language and to the general purpose of their activities. Their minds are echo-chambers, but they retain a clear-cut profile just as the situation in which they find themselves, however bizarre, is meticulously defined. To be sure, the defining itself is shown up as an artful defence of a wilfully stabilized self-image against a threatening void. Such is the effect of Mr Rooney’s stilted narration in All That Fall, and, more elaborately, of the scrupulous narrator’s arrangements in Malone Dies and Company. Dissolving of self, mirrored in a linguistic dissolution, is overtaken by a new retrenchment, a new configuration of the perennial Beckett quandary. Beckett constructs extremely reduced forms of self-identity, almost subhuman or even sub-animal forms of existence as in The Unnameable and How It Is. Yet, as if to prove Dostoievski’s aphorism that ‘man is the animal who can get used to anything’, the effort of consciousness and speech – both of the protagonist and of the observing ‘deviser’ of the scenario (a figure who looms ever larger in Company) – continues through it all. Correspondingly the artist’s effort to create a coherent and self-contained literary form continues unabated, each failure of received form a success in gestating new possibilities of form.
Dante and Milton as Beckettian writers
As Beckett works over his own earlier texts to reduce them to their essential pith, he resculpts the classics along the same lines, choosing especially texts that present mythic representations of the human condition. Mythic narratives have great intertextual valency, and myths are best reread in the creation of new myths. Beckett has created a series of mythic situations that not only resonate with the deepest anxieties of his time, but revive old mythic scenarios in a new key. Thus Waiting for Godot revives even as it mocks them the old Christian myths turning on anxiety about salvation and damnation, drawing especially on the Gospel of Luke in its allusions to the thieves crucified with Jesus (Luke 23:13-15) and to the disciples’ recognition of the risen Christ at Emmaus in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:25-6). A chicken replaces bread in this communion; as Luigi Cerantola points out (in an unpublished essay), the chicken is a traditional iconographic motif in paintings of the Emmaus scene. The Easter chicken, an emblem of new life, is reduced to dead bones: ‘Pozzo eats his chicken voraciously, throwing away the bones after having sucked them’ (26); Vladimir and Estragon then beg for the bones (27-8). The myths are dead, and the Emmaus-inspired communion scene falls flat, like the many scenes of failed communion in Joyce’s Dubliners. Nonetheless, the dead words and images of the biblical story emit radiation, dogging Beckett’s creatures as troubling memories.
As Beckett shapes these new myths in which the distressful human situation is staged in strange and arresting postures, the author he most recalls is Dante. Some critics such as De Sanctis have seen Dante’s world as abstract and inhuman; some theologians such as Von Balthasar have worried about the lack of salvific significance in his vision of Hell. On both scores, Beckett could be seen as restoring human relevance to Dante by transferring Dante’s suffering shapes from beyond the grave to a kind of limbo before the grave, and from ultimate damnation to a twilight region which leaves open some faint glimmers of obscure hope. Like Giacometti, he fixes emaciated but eloquent shapes that capture the tension and drama of human existence against the background of a void (see Megged). He confers heroic dignity on his suffering figures. The entire series of sculptures form a macro-sculpture that constitutes a geography of the human condition comparable to that of the Inferno.
Dante emerges again and again in Beckett’s texts as in a palimpsest. But more remarkably, in reading Dante we sometimes see the face of Beckett emerge, so that the old text acquires an uncanny modernity. Let me quote a few lines from the Inferno that we can now read in a new key, as ‘Beckettian’:
nouvi tormenti e nouvi tormentati
mi veggio intorno, come ch’io mi muova,
e ch’io mi volga, e come ch’io mi guati.
Io sono al terzo cerchio della piova
eterna, maledetta, fredda e greve;
regola e qualità mai non l’è nova.
Grandine grossa, e acqua tinta, e neve
per l’aer tenebroso si riversa;
puta la terra che questo riceve. (VI 4-12).
(New torments I behold, and new tormented
Around me, whichsoever way I move,
And whichsoever way I turn, and gaze
In the third circle am I of the rain
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new.
Huge hail, and water sombre-hued, and snow
Athwart the tenebrous air pour down amain;
Noisome the earth is, that receiveth this. Trans. Longfellow)
Gravity, severity, sometimes laced with cruelty, sometimes with compassion – the tone of Dante resonates in a new way for the reader of Beckett. It takes a very strong literary personality thus to alter one’s reading of the great classics.
Dante’s visual and spatial imagination rather than his actual language is what prevails in Beckett’s scenarios. On the purely verbal level Milton sometimes acts as a stand-in for Dante, being the nearest equivalent to Dante in English, and providing a source of easily recognizable quotations in Beckett’s English texts. The sun beats down ever more fiercely on Winnie in Happy Days. In a show of unconquerable optimism she acclaims it at the opening of Act II (a horrific moment, which discovers Winnie now ‘embedded up to neck’ in the mound in which she was ‘embedded up to above her waist’ in Act I), directly quoting Milton: ‘Hail, holy light!’ (CDW 160).
Hail, holy Light, offspring of heaven first-born,
Or of the eternal co-eternal beam
May I express thee unblamed? since God is light... (Paradise Lost III 1-6)
Milton’s association of light and heaven is echoed in the opening words of Act I: ‘Another heavenly day’ (138). But Winnie soon mixes the light of heaven with the light of hell, as evoked in Book I of Milton’s poem:
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from these flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover scenes of woe... (I 61-9)
The passage is quoted in Company: ‘To darkness visible to close the eyes’ (24), as a signal of the hellish hopelessness of the protagonist’s plight. Winnie, as she polishes her spectacles, mutters: ‘holy light... bob up out of dark... blaze of hellish light’ (140), shifting from the celestial to the infernal light in a way that undercuts her professed optimism. Even the association of light with God lives on eerily in Winnie’s mind: ‘Hail, holy light... Someone is looking at me still... Caring for me still... That is what I find so wonderful... Eyes on my eyes... What is that unforgettable line?’ (160). Earlier she said: ‘Strange feeling... Strange feeling that someone is looking at me. I am clear, then dim, then gone, then dim again, then clear again, and so on, back and forth, in and out of someone’s eye’ (155). The torment of Beckett’s creatures involves the ghost of God as a pitiless eye that stares down on them in judgment. Or should we rather say that the divine presence lingers as an ambivalent possibility, vaguely threatening, yet perhaps promising, like the figure of Godot.
Another Miltonic echo occurs early in Act I: ‘What is that wonderful line?... oh fleeting joys – ... oh something lasting woe’ (141). She is thinking of the speech in which the fallen Adam reproaches his Maker, in terms that take on new colour when read in light of Beckett:
‘O fleeting joys
Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes,
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man...?
‘How gladly would I meet
Mortality my sentence, and be earth
... Yet one doubt
Pursues me still, lest all I cannot die…
...then in the grave,
Or in some other dismal place who knows
But I shall die a living death?’ (X 741-8; 773-88)
Beckett’s salvages these lines from relative obscurity and reveals in them an unsuspected dramatic and existential sinew when prised out of the obsolete context of biblical epic. We learn that a spare, modern Milton remains to be excavated from the baroque monument in which he entombed himself. Eliot and Joyce shone their flashlight into dusty classics with similar effect. But Beckett’s engagements with tradition are more selective, guided by a single, persistent question. He has forsworn the self-conscious literariness and the encyclopaedic scope of the modernist masters. Eliot and Joyce, too, were steeped in Dante and invoked Milton as a supplement, but there is a residual conventionality in their handling of these classics. Beckett approaches them not as summits of literary imagination but as authors who told it ‘how it is’ – crawling in the mire of hell or gnawing on the tedium of life. He comes closer to the quick of their imagination than the bookish Eliot and Joyce could.
As in the case of Dante and Milton, there is a fascinating two-way interaction between Beckett’s texts and those of Scripture. Beckett reads the Bible and the Bibles reads Beckett. Grim moments in the Psalms acquire extra bite in light of Beckett. ‘Some deadly thing has fastened on him; he will not rise again from where he lies’ (Ps. 41.8) could be a scenario of a late Beckett novella. Beckett has set his oeuvre under the sign of Golgotha, claiming to be born on Good Friday: ‘You first saw the light and cried at the close of the day when in darkness Christ at the ninth hour cried and died’ (Company, 77). In the Church’s management of biblical intertextuality, the scenes of suffering in Job and the Psalms connect smoothly with the sufferings of Christ, of which they are the ‘type’ within a scheme of typological correspondences: Christ’s passion is read in light of the Psalms in the Gospel accounts, and over centuries the Old Testament is correspondingly read in light of Christ. Beckett inscribes his texts in the margin of this tradition.
From a purely literary point of view, the Bible is a text of great intertextual potency. It is itself a library of texts, and within each of the biblical books there is a vibrant intertextual tension between different layers dating from different epochs or deriving from different sources. This internal intertextual ferment is more than matched by its relationships with other texts, due to its historical prominence, wide dissemination and varied reception, which enabled it to realize its full intertextual potential as few texts have been able to do. The process may have come close to a saturation point. Many authors shun biblical myths and biblical language because of an ‘anxiety of influence’ induced by the strong grip of the Bible on Western culture.
Maddy in All That Fall and Winnie in Happy Days share a Protestant piety, in which the text of Scripture (in the Authorized Version) looms large. Amid the fragments of other literary classics lodged in their minds, which are imperfectly recalled and whose meaning has become opaque or obsolete, the echoes of Scripture do not stand out as enjoying special authority or sacredness. The characters have a streak of irreverence, more pronounced in Maddy, and when they realize the biblical language has gone dead they are likely to reject it in mockery:
Mrs Rooney: ‘The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down’. [Silence. They join in wild laughter...] (CDW 198)
The ‘wild laughter’ anticipates a scene in Happy Days:
Willie: ‘Formication’. [Pause. She lays down spectacles, gazes before her. Finally.]
Winnie: [Murmur.] God. [Pause. Willie laughs quietly. After a moment she joins in. They laugh quietly together...] I suppose some people might think us a trifle irreverent, but I doubt it... How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones?... I think you would back me up there, Willie... Or were we perhaps diverted by two different things?... Oh well, what does it matter... so long as one... you know... what is that wonderful line... laughing wild... something something laughing wild amid severest woe. (150)
The line she recalls is from Thomas Gray:
And moody Madness laughing wild
Amid severest woe. (‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’)
The wild laughter of the Rooneys is not directed at the psalm verse itself, but as it is announced as the text of their vicar’s sermon. No doubt the vicar puts forward the text with the complacency of a Job’s comforter. Indeed in laughing at the text, the Rooneys could claim a precedent in the Bible itself, for the speeches of Job’s comforters are parodies of just such complacent piety. The book of Ecclesiastes is another text in which the Bible turns on itself with a grimness and mordant wit worthy of Beckett.
To venture for a moment onto a theological plane, I would note that when we go beyond the purely literary interplay between Beckett and Scripture to bring in the transcendent authority claimed for the Bible in the Christian community, intertextuality shifts into a new gear. The Bible, despite all the internal debates and wrangles enshrined in its pages, is heard in Church as a word that judges the world and that offers it salvation. Even at this level, it does so in dialogue with the culture it addresses, lending itself to imaginative rereadings in successive cultural contexts. The pluralism and internal contradictions of the Bible, though long denied, are part of the secret of its intertextual power. A religion without inconsistencies, inner conflicts and unanswered questions, would be a totalitarian ideology. Medieval Christianity could integrate the contradictions of the world, decking its cathedrals with gargoyles. Today’s pluralistic Christianity, which admits inner tensions and open questions, should be able to enter into a two-way dialogue with Beckett.
If we set the Bible in dialogue with Beckett as a representative of the contemporary cultural context, allowing it to confront his texts as an agent of divine judgement and salvation, two dangers must be avoided: an authoritarian rejection of Beckett’s world, or worse, a condescending recuperation of his images into a pretty, edifying pattern. Suppose one of Beckett’s texts were used as a liturgical reading alongside a Gospel passage. The suffering figures Beckett invents could stand alongside the cripples and paralytics of the Gospels as expressing human need and desperation. But they cannot be forced into the posture of faith that the biblical sufferers adopt. The liturgy would have to let Beckett be Beckett just as the art of biblical narrative allows David to be David, a gripping literary character, and does not hasten to iron out all the moral kinks in his behaviour. The Gospel and the Beckett text could obliquely illuminate one another, but any salvific connections would have to be drawn in the imaginative contemplation of the assembly rather than intruded into Beckett’s text.
Nostalgia and entropy
A feature of Beckett’s literary allusions not often noticed is that they are steeped in romantic longing. Like Milton’s fallen Satan or banished Adam, Beckett’s characters are cut off from a past, which sometimes takes on the aura of a lost paradise – freedom seen from prison, health seen from hospital, youth seen from age. It is irrecoverable, even unimaginable, in their present restricted existence. Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’ is evoked in Company as emblematic of this exile. Winnie occasionally speaks in ‘the sweet old style’ (146) – but it is as ancient and irretrievable as il dolce stil nuovo that came before Dante and his baleful posthumous realms. She harks back to a past, but with a scarcely repressed sense of the futility of nostalgia: ‘My first ball! [Long pause] My second ball! [Long pause. Closes eyes.] My first kiss!... A Mr Johnson, or Johnston, or perhaps I should say Johnstone... Within a toolshed, though whose I cannot conceive. We had no toolshed and he most certainly had no toolshed’ (142-3). The past cannot be remembered properly; indeed it has become a flimsy fiction; and if one broods on it too long it turns to ashes, to nightmare: ‘Suddenly a mouse ran up her little thigh and Mildred, dropping Dolly in her fright, began to scream [Winnie gives a sudden piercing scream] – and screamed and screamed...’ (165).
Beckett’s characters are fascinated and absorbed by a haunting past – witness the flashbacks in Company, the atmosphere of Footfalls, or the ‘down memory lane’ character of the radio play All That Fall. The latter is a parody of a radio programme evoking the sounds of an old-fashioned rural Ireland and parading a series of eccentric Irish ‘characters’, as if designed to charm American audiences who regret that Vladimir and Estragon were not named Paddy and Sean. Its quaintness is increased by its dependence on now outdated broadcasting conventions. Beyond its mimicry of rural speech, it reveals that the entire heritage of language has become something problematic. Maddy Rooney feels she is speaking a dead language. Various linguistic items are exhibited as odd conventions: ‘So hinnies whinny. Well, it is not surprising’ (173). She asks, ‘Do you find anything... bizarre about my way of speaking?... I do not mean the voice... No, I mean the words... I use none but the simplest words, I hope, and yet I sometimes find my way of speaking very... bizarre’ (173). Words like ‘hinnie’ and ‘whinny’ come in quotation marks; they are texts for intertextual treatment, for parody.
Like Winnie, Maddy has not forgotten her classics: ‘So long ago.... No! No!... “Sigh out a something something tale of things. Done long ago and ill done”’ (174). But the grandiose world of classical literature crumbles into a set of relics of the once normal but now defunct past life that is only dimly remembered. These fragments of dead language and dead religion become almost meaningless refrains in the characters’ minds. Even their present language is already afflicted with obsolescence, threatening to die away into a broken babble or final silence. Like Flaubert, Beckett shows up the emptiness of conventional speech in a mocking style – the laboured banalities that punctuate All That Fall show a world where language has broken down into something like a clown’s routine. Breakdown, entropy holds sway in Beckett’s universe – exemplified in the way the toothpaste and lipstick is running out in Happy Days or the pain killer runs out in Endgame. It holds sway over language especially, as it winds down to a final void, not in a simple collapse but in a phased diminution.
Mr Rooney’s self-conscious narration of his train journey, complete with literary references to Dante and Fontane, conveys the sense that he is screening from others and from his own awareness the truth about what happened on the train (his connection with the death of the child). His artificial speech falters due to Maddy’s inattention, and her attempt to encourage him to resume compounds the sense of linguistic alienation:
Mr Rooney: You have ceased to care. I speak – and you listen to the wind.
Mrs Rooney: No, no, I am agog, tell me all, then we shall press on and never pause, never pause, till we come safe to haven.
Mr Rooney: Never pause … safe to haven … Do you know, Maddy, sometimes one would think you were struggling with a dead language.
Mrs Rooney: Yes indeed, Dan, I know full well what you mean, I often have that feeling, it is unspeakably excruciating.
Mr Rooney: I confess I have it sometimes myself, when I happen to overhear what I am saying.
Mrs Rooney: Well, you know it will be dead in time, just like our own poor dear Gaelic, there is that to be said. (194)
We are moving to a point at which everything the characters say can be heard as quotation. They are sinking in linguistic habit, and uneasily sense that they are living on the capital of a dead past, which cannot sustain them in the reality of their present anxiety. As in Derrida, intertextuality ladders into generalized ‘citationality’. The web of language becomes a prison from which there is no escape.
But over against language, Beckett places music. The counterpoint between words and music could be seen as another kind of intertextuality. The first cultural artefact encountered in All That Fall, after the opening animal imitations, is Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ on a gramophone record played by one whom Maddy, in the play’s opening words, evokes as: ‘Poor woman. All alone in that ruinous old house’. Then, ‘Music dies. Mrs Rooney murmurs melody. Her murmur dies’ (172). Toward the end of the play the music is heard again; Mr Rooney identifies it and weeps. Mr Rooney’s groan, shortly afterward, when the boy talks of the ‘little child’ that ‘fell out of the carriage’ (199) can be interpreted as a confession of guilt and tied in with the grief the music occasions. The wordless music has the power to pierce the defences of his verbal performance. Amid all the dead, false sounds of the play this music, which invites to death, is the one true, living sound. It is the wordless music of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ string quartet, but recalls the original song. in which death assures the maiden: ‘I am a friend, and come not to punish’. This music pervades the entire play, placed towards the beginning and end to from an inclusio, standing out from the surrounding noises as a grave utterance of high culture, and setting up a four-beat rhythm that is continued in the rhythm of the characters’ movements. Its theme of death snatching away young life is echoed in Maddy’s grief at the loss of ‘Minnie! Little Minnie!’ (174) and in the death of the child who fell from the train (see Grant). Its promise of peace in death hangs over the play as a possible consolation: to ‘fall’ is no longer a regrettable fate; entropy and nostalgia join hands.
Beckett’s fondness for Schubert in later years may suggest a soft centre to his pessimism. John Montague was somewhat displeased to hear Beckett laud Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as ‘beautiful’, perhaps suspecting him of sentimentalism. If Beckett felt he had never been properly born, and longed for death all his life, he may have looked with affection and envy on these romantic artists whose wish for death was swiftly granted. To hear Keats’s lines with Beckett’s ears injects new sternness into Keats and reveals a lyric element in Beckett:
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme.
To take into the air my quiet breath...
The poem is among Winnie’s ‘classics’; she alludes to ‘beechen green’ and even her refrain ‘no pain’ could be an allusion to the line, ‘To cease upon the midnight with no pain’.
The languages of the past are dying or dead, yet Beckett’s writing acclimatizes itself to their ‘dying fall’, accentuates and continues it. Is he merely indulging the charms of failure, and ceding to the lures of a suicidal defeatism? Or does something live in these embers?
The radioactive half-life of tradition
At the mid-point of All That Fall we hear a second piece of music, Newman’s hymn ‘Lead Kindly Light’:
[Miss Fitt hums her hymn. After a moment Mrs Rooney joins in with the words.] … the encircling gloo-oom … [Miss Fitt stops humming.] … tum tum me on. [Forte.] The night is dark and I am far from ho-ome, tum tum –
Miss Fitt: [Hysterically.] Stop it, Mrs Rooney, stop it, or I’ll drop you!
Mrs Rooney: Wasn’t it that they sung on the Lusitania? Or Rock of Ages? Most touching it must have been. Or was it the Titanic? (182-4)
When Maddy takes up Miss Fitt’s hymn she intrudes on the private cocoon of the pious lady and translates the fantasy of a wraithlike progress through ‘encircling gloom’ into the less glamourous spectacle of a fat woman toiling up steps. Miss Fitt reacts with rage to this expropriation of her inner life. Miss Fitt (= misfit) is an anorexic creature, another of whom it could be said: ‘The trouble with her was she had never really been born!’ (196). Her stilted, old-fashioned speech betokens a disconnection from the living world:
Ask Mother, if you do not believe me. Hetty, she says, when I start eating my doily instead of the thin bread and butter, Hetty, how can you be so distray? [Sighs.] I suppose the truth is I am not there, Mrs Rooney, just not really there at all. I see, hear, smell, and so on, I go through the usual motions, but my heart is not in it, Mrs Rooney, my heart is in none of it. Left to myself, with no one to check me, I would soon be flown … home.
In this exchange, the language of religion, which pretends to the stability of the Rock of Ages, serves only as a ‘touching’ diversion on a sinking ship. Religion, too, has become anaemic, anorexic: Miss Fitt offers her arm to Maddy with the words, ‘Well, I suppose it is the Protestant thing to do’. The classics are cherished voices of the past, linked with images of childhood and lost parents, and tempting one to cling to them with a longing that would become escapist and narcissistic. Beckett lures us into that romantic attitude again and again only to dislodge us from it by reminders that the past is dead, and that the present has its own reality that cannot fit into past paradigms. As for the future, the effort to descry its possibilities is unrewarding: ‘hope deferred maketh the something sick’ (CDW 12; cf. Proverbs 13:12). Whereas Miss Fitt could be seen as one who succumbs entirely to nostalgic entropy, sinking into autism, Maddy, like Winnie, represents the protest of life against this relinquishment. With the protagonist of The Unnameable, she could say: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’.
Despite the decay of language, which represents an universal entropy, something lives on, something we can apprehend only if we accept the decay. ‘Christy’s "Nice day for the races" is repeated by Tommy at the station (172). Mr Tyler greets Mrs Rooney with “Divine day for the meeting”, and repeats himself at the station with “Lovely day for the fixture” (174, 184). Yet these expressions are also infiltrations into another level of expression; the deeper melody which is concerned with the pain of existence’ (Grant). Schubert’s music is the purest expression of that pain, but language, too, both in its classical and everyday forms, acquires a new taut vibrancy, an intense pathos, when we recognize its mortality. Like the dust left by an atomic explosion it throbs with radioactive half-life.
The unconvincing artificiality of the Rooneys’ formal speech and the depredation wrought on the classics by defective memory work in the entropic direction that is seen at a more advanced stage in Lucky’s tirade in Waiting for Godot (42-3). Yet, as in Finnegans Wake, the fall of language generates new language, in a rhythm of resurrection. Lucky’s speech is a marvelous piece of Surrealist écriture automatique. At each stage in the failure and exhaustion of language, a new form of saying emerges. Language may want to die into silence, but it is condemned to live on, creating new and wondrous forms which one could call nocturnal, or posthumous.
In conclusion, then, Beckettian intertextuality is both ravage and salvage. He replays cracked records of the past on a gramophone that is breaking down. At first he seems to be mocking these hallowed sources by this clownish, clumsy presentation. But then we begin to realize that in this broken-down form the voices of tradition are beginning to make a new music. Beckett’s texts thus act as judiciously aimed pebbles cast into the great lake of mythic and literary memory. Each sudden splash in the dark sends great circles of association rippling forth, and thus links the poverty of a denuded present to a rich heritage of collective memory, shaking it rudely so that it begins to speak anew.
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Pfister, Manfred (1991). ‘How Postmodern is Intertextuality?’ In: Heinrich Plett, ed. Intertextuality (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1991), 207-24.Joseph S. O'Leary