A Feeble Apocalypse: Samuel Beckett and The Sense of an Ending
Richard Banks, April 2001
Part 1 — Kermode’s ‘feeble apocalypse’
Part 2 — Ending and Re-beginning: connecting the womb with the tomb inBreath
Part 3 — Waiting For Godot: The Great Cold
Part 4 — Endgame: The Great Flood
Part 5 — Lessness and the Endless ‘On’ (below)
5. Lessness, and the Endless ‘On’
“Figment dawn dispeller of figments and the other called dusk.”
In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode demands that authors begin to express in fiction that which had become manifest of life itself — the disconfirmation of apocalyptic paradigms, religious or otherwise. Since, in his words, “we no longer live in a world with an historical tick which will certainly be consummated by a definitive tock” (TSE, 64), we must accordingly dispense with so-called “concord-fictions” (TSE, 63) in which conventional linear narratives supply a satisfying beginning, middle and end.
The Sense of an Ending was, then, essentially a call for the development of a new style of fiction in which older ‘naïve apocalyptic’ fictions are replaced by representations of endlessness that are more realistic to the experience of life itself. Kermode singles out Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes as an indication of the way forward:
“And so we have a novel in which the reader will find none of the gratification to be had from sham temporality, sham causality, falsely certain description, clear story. The new novel ‘repeats itself, bisects itself, modifies itself, contradicts itself, without even accumulating enough bulk to constitute a past — and thus a “story,” in the traditional sense of the word.’ The reader is not offered easy satisfactions, but a challenge to creative co-operation.” (TSE, 19)
Of course, Robbe-Grillet was not the first writer ever to experiment in this fashion. Kermode’s description of the ‘new novel’ also fits Beckett’s Watt (1953) and Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable (1959) remarkably well. Kermode also fails to clarify that the style of fiction he advocates need not be confined to the realm of the novel: indeed, both Godot and Endgame are full of self-repetition, self-bisection and self-contradiction, and in both plays the author does not provide not enough detail to constitute a past. Yet, despite the glorious nonconformity of Beckett’s plays, they are still tied to theatrical conventions in which the rise and fall of a curtain will always indicate a beginning and end. Hence, since a play can only ever occupy a finite amount of an audience’s time, theatre cannot conceivably present infinity. But the same is true of a novel, of course. For a writer that wishes to convey the impossibility of ending, therefore, the practice of writing fiction is itself rather constrictive. “We cannot, of course, be denied an end;” Kermode admits, “it is one of the great charms of books that they have to end” (TSE, 23).
Although his characters will never come to an end, then, Beckett’s plays are obliged to. Realistically, the most a writer can do is imply infinite continuation, as Becket does, using the kind of techniques I have discussed above. Yet a play is essentially tied to finite, human concerns precisely because it must be acted and observed by people. In his later years, Beckett may perhaps have found the unavoidable corporeal context of theatre too restrictive. Indeed, after only three full-length dramas — Godot, Endgame and Happy Days (1961) — his dramatic output became increasingly brief.
Similarly, after his 1959 ‘trilogy’ Beckett ceased publishing novels and produced a flurry of shorter prose pieces that were not tied down to this world, but which often took place in a timeless void. Apocalyptic in tone and radically reductive in both form and content, 1970’s Lessness is particularly noteworthy here, not least for being distinctly reminiscent of Breath. Both are explicitly horizontal scenes of ruin, with only scattered debris. Just as Beckett insisted that Breath should feature “No verticals” (B, 371), Lessness is a landscape of “flatness endless” (L, 13) populated by a sole upright figure. In it, Beckett constructs (or, rather, deconstructs) another apocalyptic setting, describing the collapse of a last refuge, leaving its inhabitant without shelter. Just as the suffix ‘-lessness’ signifies the condition of being without something, the play is accordingly a prospect in which everything is “all gone from mind” (L, 13). For David Pattie, Lessness portrays “a body fallen over in the middle of infinite space,”while John Calder interprets the text as taking place after some Endgame-esque disaster, most probably nuclear, but possibly “a natural cataclysm, a massacre, a war.”
Whatever the event, the last human asylum is now only ruins: “True refuge long last issueless scattered down four walls over backwards” (L, 11). Arguably, this destruction might metaphorically represent the failure of apocalyptic paradigms to protect man against “the passing deluge” (L, 8) of endless time. Like fictions of the End, the refuge is perhaps a shelter that prevents its occupants from having to confront infinity; without it, they are exposed to a world without end: “earth sky as one all sides endlessness” (L, 9). Thus, in Lessness, the End is merely a “vanished dream” (L, 10). There remains nothing to do, it appears, except take up where Prometheus left off and “curse God again as in the blessed days face to the open sky” (L, 20); Beckett later returned to this striking image in Ill Seen Ill Said (1981), where an anonymous female figure in the wilderness “rails at the source of all life.”
At the same time, as Andrew Renton has suggested, Lessness is itself “an unending, unendable text.” The narrative features a set of sentences that are repeated in subtly altering permutations. “It is in this climate,” Renton argues, “that Beckett succeeds in developing a system whereby there is a suggestion, and potential, for infinite regeneration of the text.” As such, it seems to answer almost exactly Kermode’s call for a new approach to fiction. In this brief and barren text, words and phrases regenerate themselves infinitely, like the recurring and interchangeable dialogues of Waiting For Godot and Endgame; in fact, Lessness’ beautiful final sentence — “Figment dawn dispeller of figments and the other called dusk” (L, 21) — hearkens back to Godot, and is almost derisive of the faith Vladimir and Estragon have in nightfall as temporary closure. Here, the end which dusk represents is only a figment, since it is forever dispelled by dawn; but dawn is itself another figment, since it is always dispelled by dusk (just as tock dispels tick). And so on, ad infinitum.
In his dialogues with Georges Duthuit, Beckett famously revealed the motivation behind his work as an artist — a paradoxical, inescapable necessity of expression:
“…there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”
This, then, is the endless ‘On’ that drove Beckett to write for nearly sixty years and which was always an unmistakable image in his work. He came closest to representing his plight in The Unnamable, perhaps; therein, the narrator exists only while he is speaking and is desperate to cease, yet feels obliged to “Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.” Accordingly, the novel’s ending is painful, confused and indefinite: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” As I have discussed, this inability to end is a motif that runs throughout the entirety of Beckett’s work: just as Beckett himself was trapped in an endless process of creation and recreation, so the Unnamable must continually speak and re-speak, Krapp must continually record and re-record himself, and Vladimir and Estragon must wait and re-wait again in the same spot.
In each of these texts, however, there is always the suggestion of gradual entropy. Fittingly, Beckett’s writing career might also be considered a process of exponential reduction, moving towards a radical minimalism that saw his language and imagery pared down to the bare essentials. The longer, fully developed early prose works tapered into short, largely unpunctuated narratives or monologues; likewise, plays became ‘dramaticules’, carefully outlined situations involving the simplest of actions. But Beckett could never stop writing. Even in the title of his final work, Stirrings Still (1986), one detects a wry recognition of his inexorable obligation to express. Nonetheless, Beckett’s final written words are fittingly ambivalent and inconclusive: Stirrings Still finishes “Oh all to end”, a phrase that seems, to David Pattie’s mind, “half invocation, half prayer.” Pattie continues:
As long as the artist perceives the world, he or she will try to give memorable expression to that perception, no matter how worn out and inadequate to the task are all the old tools of language and culture.
Although decisive and generalised statements regarding Beckett’s work and his intentions nearly always tend to over-simplify the matter in hand — in any case, the author always insisted that the keyword in his writing was ‘perhaps’ — I would at least argue that his preoccupation with representing (post)apocalyptic sensibilities reveals a Lyotardian “incredulity towards meta-narratives.” Clearly, Christianity is one such meta-narrative and Beckett’s atheistic distrust of theological versions of the End is unmistakable. Yet Beckett is still human and consequently he and his characters seem to express a desire for an alternative totalising paradigm that would provide an end to life that would concord with its beginning, as Kermode has discussed. Evidently, these desires will never be satisfied. As I have illustrated, secular and religious versions of the End are equally dubious.
The contradiction inherent in this condition readily translates into a negotiation between modern and postmodern discourses. As Peter Barry suggests, “when [Didi and Gogo] forget about Godot they are happy and inventive in their language games, revelling, we might say, in the openness and uncertainties of ‘the postmodernist condition.’ But repeatedly they come back to Godot, and the supposed restraints and imperatives he places upon them.” Barry’s answer, it appears, requires humanity to cease projecting into the future and looking for an ending. Whether this is possible is, of course, another matter. Humanity will simply go on as it always has, attempting to fathom the End and, in Beckett’s case, to represent it.
There is, it seems, no easy way to depict the End in fiction, since words themselves always already begin to create and re-create. In his later years, Beckett evidently attempted to combat this paradox by reducing his language to its absolute minimum whilst still fulfilling his obligation to express. One might argue, therefore, that for the artist concerned with representing the End, the only instrument appropriate to the task is nothingness itself. Beckett clearly understood this paradox; he knew, as Andrew Renton suggests, that “the definition of an ending will always fall just beyond the confines of a text…confirmation of that ending will only occur with the blank space after the final full stop, in a space beyond his jurisdiction.”