Category Archives: Beckett

Something takes hold

Today it seems almost impossible to write. My words are traitorous: they turn on me and make me cringe. They become the words of others, of strange judges, using me even as I think I use them. Kafka’s final diary entry:

‘More and more fearful as I write. It is understandable. Every word, twisted in the hands of the spirits – this twist is their characteristic gesture – becomes a spear turned against the speaker. Most especially a remark like this. And so ad infinitum. The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no. And what you like is of infinitesimally little help. More than consolation is: you too have weapons.’

What weapons did he mean? In Beckett, too, words turn against the narrator:

‘How they must hate me! Ah a nice state they have me in – but still I’m not their creature (not quite, not yet). It’s a poor trick that consists in ramming a set of words down your gullet on the principle that you can’t bring them up without being branded as belonging to their breed. But I’ll fix their gibberish for them. I never understood a word of it in any case – not a word of the stories it spews, like gobbets in a vomit. My inability to absorb, my genius for forgetting, are more than they reckoned with. Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself in the end.’

What was Beckett’s weapon against the traitorous menace of words, what was his defence against unfreedom? Fail better. Not to succeed but to make your failure absolute. Is this really what I want? Haven’t I tried? Where did it lead?

Blanchot, like the early Beckett, saw writing as a giving in to an obscure, incessant murmur outside meaning, there being no alternative. The writer for him was ‘always astray’, always in errancy:

‘The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no centre, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self.’

The words pour through you in a ceaseless stream whether you like it or not, it’s true. So then try to find yourself in them, stem the flow for a moment, just as you’d try to find yourself in a crowd of people all going different ways and saying different things. Start like that.


Small acts of kindness that make the day real. ‘I love you’, says S. seriously as she chops vegetables. For a second I’m not sure who she means. T. brings us some of his best steaks. ‘We have to help each other out out here’, he says and walks back to the farm.

Early morning after a bad night’s sleep. A grey screen of condensation on the window. A few drops separate themselves out and leave clear wet lines as they drop. Outside the fog from the sea moves in over the fields, folding over itself. I sip my tea, empty-headed, until the fog thins into a wispy mist and evaporates into the day. S. comes out of the bedroom, stretches, yawns, smiles and touches my arm.


The faith involved even in typing a sentence, this sentence. Something takes hold whether you like it or not. Something happens in spite of everything, something you’re responsible for, hold on to that. Though you may never arrive you’re approaching and some truth may be given to you in your approach. Perhaps that’s the ‘weapon’ that’s given to you in writing, the hidden strength you need.

In the turning and returning of words the moment calls me into service to name it. Joy.

‘Have contemporary philosophers had any influence on your thought?’

‘I never read philosophers.’

‘Why not?’

‘I never understand anything they write.’

‘All the same, people have wondered if the existentialists’ problem of being may afford a key to your works.’

‘There’s no key or problem. I wouldn’t have had any reason to write my novels if I could have expressed their subject in philosophic terms.’

‘What was your reason then?’

‘I haven’t the slightest idea. I’m no intellectual. All I am is feeling. Molloy and the others came to me the day I became aware of my own folly. Only then did I begin to write the things I feel.’

— Beckett, 1961 interview

Simply the mess

What is more true than anything else? To swim is true, and to sink is true. One is not more true than the other. One cannot speak anymore of being, one must speak only of the mess. When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don’t know, but their language is too philosophical for me. I am not a philosopher. One can only speak of what is in front of him, and that now is simply the mess.

— Beckett, 1961 interview

The great tornadoes of intuition

We have waited a long time for an artist who is brave enough, is at ease enough with the great tornadoes of intuition, to grasp that the break with the outside world entails the break with the inside world, that there are no replacement relations for naive relations, that what are called outside and inside are one and the same.

— Beckett on Bram van Velde (via here)

A sin against speechlessness

Sam: ‘All writing is a sin against speechlessness. Trying to find a form for that silence. Only a few, Yeats, Goethe, those who lived a long time, could go on to do it, but they had recourse to known forms and fictions. So one finds oneself going back to vieilles compétences [know-how] – how to escape that. One can never get over the fact, never rid oneself of the old dream of giving a form to speechlessness.’

About his new work, he said [the problem is] ‘qui est qui. One would have to invent a new, a fourth person, then a fifth, a sixth – to talk about je, tu, il, never. Qui est qui. The logical thing to do would be to look out the window at the void. Mallarmé was near to it in the livre blanc. But one can’t get over one’s dream’. Avigdor said, ‘Because of energy.’ Sam: ‘And entropy. And between these two we know which one wins.’ Avigdor: ‘That’s being.’ I: ‘Being isn’t logical.’ Sam repeated: ‘A sin against speechlessness. When one tries to say it, one uses the old forms, one tells all kinds of stories.’

– Anne Atik, How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett

In spite of, or rather along with, those exchanges, quips, questions, there were also entire evenings when he didn’t say a word. At such times it was not easy to break the silence; it would have been worse than interrupting an avowal. There’d be a murmur, a shift in position, and someone’s voice slowly breaking the artefact that silence had become. Even though Sam’s was not an aggressive directed against anyone, but rather a sinking into his own private world with its demons, or so we imagined, those present suppressed their acute discomfort and feelings of ineptitude when it happened. His intimate friends learned how to cope with his struggle – A. by talking about a wine he had tasted, the theatre designer Jocelyn Herbert by bringing in a chessboard. I coped by bringing up Dr Johnson, and Con Leventhal. His old friend from Dublin, by retelling a bit of Trinity College gossip. They, or we, coped by doing any of the ordinary things friends do, the more ordinary the better, to bring to an end the fleeting and rather frightening chill.

— Anne Atik, How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett

Dear Seumas

I am very touched and flattered by your wishing to propose me for election to the Irish Academy of Letters.
To my deep regret I have to tell you that I could not accept membership.
I should be distressed if you were to think of me, because of this, as unfriendly or systematically aloof.
I could not belong and I could not be a credit to any academy.
It is not with a light heart that I forgo the honour, or the chance of the honour, of joining a company of writers presided by you.
Please give my very warm regards to Stella.
With best wishes
Your friend

Samuel Beckett