You are on page 1of 5


381 physicist asks that a philosophy not only fit the facts of his life, his science, but that it helps him to understand more clearly the nature of physical phenomena and serves him as a guide to action in the understanding and discovery of what is new. This article then must be followed by another which puts the various philosophies discussed here to this test and examines in greater detail their role within physics itself.

degree Bohm's philosophy are faced with very damaging criticism. But physicists have never been great admirers of purely philosophical argument, and rightly so for they have other criteria for the validity or usefulness of a particular outlook. Just as a socialist must ask which philosophy, bourgeois or Marxist, fits the facts of his life, fulfils what he asks of a philosophy and is of real, practical advantage to him, so a

Samuel Beckett and the Decline of Western Civilisation

John Lewis
An address delivered in the Conway Hall on July 5th, 1964

OME ten years ago there appeared a new and disturbing figure in the world of the theatre Samuel Beckett, an Irishman long domiciled in France, the author of Waiting for Godot. Today we know him by a whole series of equally perplexing plays and novels reflecting his own strange universe, permeated by mystery and bounded by darkness. Plays and novels designed to show how meaningless life is, that at the root of our being there is nothingness, that the certitudes and basic assumptions of the age have been swept away, have been tested and found wanting, discredited as childish illusions. As Camus has said: "In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. He is an irremediable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come." Cut off' from his religious and metaphysical roots, man is lost, and all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless. This is the blurred and angry vision, the picture of anguish and despair that is presented in the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett. Anguish and Despair What are we to think of Samuel Beckett's prophetic vision? What is our attitude to all this? Is it to be contemptuous derision? Are we to say that this is merely some eccentric avant garde nonsense ? We cannot ignore the extent of the intelligent response, the widespread feeling that this does reflect some-

thing many of us uneasily feel. It answers to something in the modern world. Samuel Beckett's rise to fame is the story of single-minded devotion to the severest of principles, an intense concentration on the one side of the life in Paris known to him, and the exercise of a unique talent for verbal play. Tall, slender and still youthful in his fifties, Beckett remains shy and unassuming, though his works are filled with anguish, torment and the deranged fantasies of human beings driven to the limits of suffering, as he continues his exploration of the human condition, his quest for the answer to such basic questions as "Who am I ? " "Do other people exist?" "Is fife a bad dream or still worse, reality?" "Is not death much better than life?" He writes more and more slowly and with greater difficulty than at any time of his great creative period. His last novel. How It Is, translated by himself from the French, appeared this year; and two of his plays. End Game and Play, are now being performed in London. He himself has produced both Play and Waiting for Godot in London. The force of his imagination, his mastery of language, his technical brilliance, his command of the mirthless laugh, all these are beyond dispute. But what a vision of the world! A torture chamber for incurables! And look at his face as we see it in the photograph that stares out of the programme of his current playsa face at once accusing and aghast, as of a man about to be struck by lightning. This is our modern prophet who cannot help seeing beyond the complacency of our affluent society to the engulfing grave and the encircling gloom.


382 Waiting for Godot Let us look at his four plays, Waiting for Godot, End Game, Happy Days and Play, and then glance briefly at his strange, enigmatic novels, especially the lastHow it is, portraying man in his extremity; a work whose word magic is an advance on anything he has previously written, terrifying in its wilful confusion of ideas and reality. Waiting for Godot is the story of two tramps who have come from nowhere in particular and have nowhere in particular to go. Their life is a state of fruitless expectation. They receive messages through a little boy that Godot is coming, but he never does come. They hope for his coming, but they fear him too. They seem to represent the state of tension and uncertainty of the modern mind. The other two characters in the play are the masterful and ridiculous Pozzo and his slave Lucky. Pozzo is the man of power and arrogance with no ideas, the worldly man in all his facile and shortsighted optimism and illusory feeling of power. Lucky is his intelligencethe spiritual side of man. But when they appear for the second time Pozzo has gone blind and his slave Lucky is dumb. In the first act Lucky guides Pozzo; in the second Pozzo drives Lucky on a journey without a goal. Pozzo depends on the man of thought for such moments of insight and knowledge of beauty and truth as occur in his life. But Lucky is a very bogus philosopherwhen he explains what he really has to teach us it is a half-baked pretence of knowledge, a naive belief in what he thinks is science, a muddled appeal to bogus authorities. The tramps stand for a hope that is utterly unreasonable and futile. Do they really expect Godot to come? They are too helpless and spineless to do anything but talk endlessly and in a meaningless way to keep up a semblance of hope. They end up with nothing more than a habit now, of waiting for what will never come. Avoiding thought, the realisation of their emptiness and futility by jokes and comedians' cross talk, pastimes to stop them from thinking. Almost a terrifying play. As Anouilh says of it, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes: it's awful." End Game In a bare room with two small windows, we find a blind old man, Hamm, paralysed, selfish and domineering, but burdened by a load of guilt, and his servant Clov who has to do everything for him and above all see for him, but is desperately anxious to escape. Against the wall stand two ashcans (dust-bins) in which live Hamm's legless old parents, grotesquely sentimental imbeciles. Outside


the room is a dead, destroyed world. And their own store of food is giving out. At the end Clov, who every now and then peers out of the windows, sees a stranger. Is it a child ? A potential procreator? Someone to start a new life? "Go and exterminate him," cries Hamm. Then "No, don't. We've come to the end." Useless to ask what its meaning is. It is meant to have no meaning, to have the same absence of meaning as life itself with its sense of deadness, leaden heaviness and hopelessness. It confronts us with a concrete projection of our own deepest fears and anxieties. Does it help by liberating the subconscious content of the mind ?

Happy Days
In Happy Days the scene contracts to still smaller dimensions and there are only two characters, one of whom only appears for a moment. We see in these plays a gradual discarding of everything that makes a play, plot, character, incident, action. Instead we get symbolic figures and long monologues. And as for actionnothing is left but habit; dialogue dries up because of the utter absence of communication. Beckett as always is obsessed with the inability of men to communicate with each other on any level other than the mindless chattering of apes. In Happy Days Winnie needs the illusion that she is talking to her husband, but whether he is there or not doesn't matter. Winnie is a middle-aged woman buried up to her waist in a mound of sun-baked earth. Death has half claimed her, she is being sucked under by "the old extinguisher" inch by inch. By the second act she is buried up to her neck. We hear an occasional sneeze or cough or a few gruff words from a husband out of sight beyond the heap. He appears for a moment trying to crawl up the mound at the very end. And is she in despair at her situation? Far from it, she is a babbling optimist, blind to her own incurable dilemma. She exhibits man's pernicious and stupid optimism, but her happiness is nothing more than an unstable veil of self-deception. The terrible truth about man is not that he is happy when fighting against tremendous odds, against an irresistible destiny, but that he remains obstinately and stupidly cheerful because he is being buried alive. When we look at her and say what does it mean ? She turns to us and looks straight at us from her mound of earth. "And you," she says, "what is the idea of you? What are you meant to mean?" And only those who are sure of the answer can scoff at Happy Days. We are only meant to know that mankind is helplessly locked and barred in the earth and sinking down in the great extinguisher, babbling foolishly to keep from recognising the human condition.



383 and objective, body and mind, thought and brainstorm. And all meaningful succession of events is totally lost. In what is regarded by the critics as the best of these writings, the new novel How it is, even the sentence breaks down and with it the extraordinary rhythms and cadences of the earlier books. Beckett would appear to end his sequence of novels helpless before the contents of his own mind. If at the beginning he really set out looking for something, the laborious search has ended in final bafflement. In How it is only one consciousness exists. Everybody else appears to be part of an endless dream or nightmare. This is the ultimate reality. We are wallowing in a vast expanse of warm, primeval mud. Here an old man flounders face down with a sackful of tins round his neck. He crawls along with painful slowness. Into this mud he murmurs or hears a voice which could be his own or just a disembodied voice. In front of him crawls another old man whom the first one jabs with a tin-opener. But incidents do not matter, nor whether the second man is not really the first, or whether anything is happening at all and it is all the psychopathic delusions of a desperate man, perhaps the author. Breathless, gasping meditations pour out, unpunctuated, on "the natural order more or less my life last state last version what remains bits escape". If this seems too fantastic to be an account of any novel one can actually hear on a record a long extract brilliantly recited by Patrick Magee which has a most horrible fascination. In fact it works like an incantation on many people. They respond in every nerve cell of the brain and senses, from physical to metaphysical. They seem to experience a great release of psychological tension. Personal Misfortune not Philosophy Certainly Samuel Beckett succeeds in every play and every book he writes in creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and irreducible confusion; of communicating one thing, quite indisputably, the author's sense of bewilderment and anxiety when confronted with the human condition and his despair at being unable to find a meaning in existence. So what? Why should this be true because it is clever ? Why should we sayPoor lost, unhappy humanity ? Why not: Poor Mr. Beckett? The despair in which he traffics is a personal misfortune, not a philosophy. The madness may be not in the universe but in himself. We do most certainly get a gripping sense of what one sort of psychotic's existence must undoubtedly be like. The sort of person who like the poet Emily Dickinson can say

The last of his plays is just called Play. Here we are faced with three identical jars from each of which protrudes a head. A light picks them out one by one bringing them to fitful, gabbling life. They tell the story of a commonplace adultery-wifehusband - mistress. Each gabbles the story from one point of view too fast to hear, and when they have finished, they start all over again. You see, communication is not really through the meaning of words and sentences but below the level of consciousness, by the impression made by phrases and sounds. Only the jars are definitenot the people, not the facts, not even the words. And of course all this is laughable, ridiculous, perhaps a stupid joke and of course nobody is taken innobody goes to those idiotic capers. On the contrary everybody goes. The whole thing has a horrible fascination. It is much too true to life when you take the lid offwhen you stop pretending. No plays on the London stage have had a more unexpected and exciting success in recent years than Samuel Beckett's. If it is nonsense; then certainly his nonsense suits our nonsense. It strikes a chord anyhow that makes something in our condition, vibrate tremulously in unison. What is it? Beckett's Novels Beckett's novels will not demand quite the attention of his plays if only because they are still more indescribablebut they are far from unimportant. A strange sequence of characters appears in these novels: MoUoy, Malone, Watt, Murphy, Pim, Bern and the Unnameable. They are novels of selfexploration, in which these figures appear to be telling their story, then to be inventing a story, and then to be themselves figures in an invented story. Each self comes more and more to resemble the object of the search. MoUoy looking for his mother thinks he is his mother, Mr. Moran looking for Molloy becomes Molloy. Malone dying, may be another phase of Molloy or perhaps of Molloy and Moran together; or were they both fictions made up by Malone? They are all of them locked up with their fictions and can't get out to discover any reality at all. And this, Beckett implies is his conditionand ours. Gradually the narrative rambles on, expressing an entirely jumbled and inconsequential succession of muddled memories, confused and pointless aims, hallucinations, dreams, or perhaps sensations, drifting across the screen of the mind in the closed and darkened room that is ourselves. Yet Beckett exercises a strange power of language in this vivid and evocative chaos of words. The novels have the effect of dissolving all the old distinctions between space and time, observer and observed, object and environment, subjective


384 I like a look of agony Because I know it's true. But once again, is it the truth about life? True, of course, as revealing the psychotic's troubled mind, but not, for that reason, true as a picture of the human situation. Break-up of an Age This is, in fact, the vision of the kind of man who sees the modem world from a peculiar angle; and it appeals to those who are afflicted with the same distorted vision. But are they not identifying their own subjective vision with reality itself? And what is that vision ? Living in a world in process of radical change, to use Julian Huxley's phrase"living in a revolution" they try to see the world in terms of the concepts and principles and values and ideas of the age that is breaking up. The result is that they see mere confusion. When one age is dying and a new one is coming into being, this manifests itself in the disintegration of the once fixed order of the present world, but also in the beginnings of a new and better order, which those wedded to the old cannot see, or if they see it, hate. When fundamental change arrives for some heaven dawns, for others hell yawns open and the mind passes into hysteria. What is wanted is a new philosophy and a new perspective. Nineteenth-century rationalism, nineteenth-century optimism, the moral codes of the Victorian, the Edwardian and the Georgian, all these concepts and principles are falling to pieces under the onslaught of modern philosophy and modern science. But as Shaw used to say: "If your old religion broke down yesterday, spend today in getting a new and better one for tomorrow." We are learning new things every daybut that always feels at first as if we had lost something. If one could see not only what is decaying, outworn, but what is coming into being, if one could see not only the pattern of an individualist society in decline but the perspective of a co-operative commonwealth coming into being, things would look very different. The pessimists see only death and decay because their vision is limited by their own assumptions and prejudices. The dilemma is not that of man, it is their own. What they call the permanent predicament of man in relation to his universe, is the present predicament of man in relation to his present social pattern which is obsolete. Refuse to face the necessity for discarding it and man's condition does seem depressing. There are two ways of looking at the world's evils. If one simply contemplates them, and asks for


an explanation, or asks oneself whether on balance there is not more unhappiness and misery in the world than happiness, then one will begin to talk about the human condition, and a fallen world, and man's hopeless predicament and may well come to the conclusion that this is the best of all possible worlds and everything in it is a necessary evil. This will almost inevitably be so if one gravitates to the world of disillusioned, cynical, defeated people like Burroughs of the Naked Lunch, Albee of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Henry Miller and his Tropic of Capricorn, and fifty other inhabitants of our contemporary Purgatorio or Inferno whichever we choose to call it. There are people who have not the slightest intention of grappling with these evils, because the evils spring from the very exaggerated individualism with which they themselves are imbued. To grapple with the world's evil would instantly demand a repudiation of this intense preoccupation with themselves, this morbid introversion, this colossal egoism. They would rather be ruined than changed. The end is in Beckett's hell. The New Within the Old But do the men and women who are organising and co-operating to change the world feel like this? However great the evils, when one begins to fight them, when one is prepared to pay the cost in abandoning privilege and irresponsibility and egoistic self-centredness, exclusive concern with one's own inner life, when one comes out of one's loneliness to help in the remaking of the world, then the whole picture changes. Philosophers have hitherto only tried to explain and justify the present state of the world, or to reconcile men to it. The real task is to change it. There is no problem of evil. There are only problems and evils. And when tackled on the level of intelligent investigation and resolute endeavour the problems will not prove insoluble, nor the evils ineradicable. If the existing system is believed to be the final and unalterable nature of things, then all the evidences of maladjustment reflect the human condition as the pessimist views it. The reply to the prophets of gloom is: You would rather be ruined than changed. You would rather die in your dread Than climb the cross of the moment And let your illusions die. But see the new perspective, recognise the new forces, the outlines of a new society, the new men, the new philosophy, and we see not Beckett's nightmare but the dawn of a new age.



Discussion Contributions on

Art and Superstructure

Stephen Sedley
full interplay between the total social context and the individual's uniqueness within that context. Why then does Catherine Boswell draw her line (MARXISM TODAY, September 1964) carries us well away from Ernst Fischer's Necessity of Art at the category of "artist" when what she says is and Peter Pink's comments on it, but it raises some equally true of pretty well everybody? The obvious major issues which ought to be settled and which reason would be that an artist, unlike the others, goes a stage further and communicates what he do ultimately hark back to Fischer's book. Catherine Boswell's argument about artistic per- perceives to whoever is looking or listening. Even ception does not need to be refuted in detail, because this, I think, is a doubtful distinction. A worker on it is not really an argument at all. I want to mention a picket line or a rent demonstrator who punches it only because it seems to rely on assumptions a copper is doing in essence the same thing carrying his own vision of things into some kind of which no Marxist can afford to nurse. She jumps on Peter Pink when he asks: "Is it more concrete and more generalised (more symtrue that one who can express himself artistically bolic, if you like) action; and he does the same thing is necessarily more perceptive than one who cannot on a higher level when he goes on to engage in trade express himself artistically?" and she comments union or communist organisation. Likewise both a painter and a house-painter can "Surely it cannot be good Marxism to deny that a person who spends a large part of his life studying, respond in reactionary ways to the problem of how working and fighting as a creative artist, art teacher to generalise their own accumulated experiences. or critic will achieve greater awareness and sen- There is not a lot of difference in principle between sitivity in this field than 'the rest of us'." The italics a painter who thinks he can solve the problems are mine, and the three italicised words dislocate that stand between him and his work by ripping the whole argument; Catherine Boswell is no doubt holes in the canvas and a house-painter who thinks right, but Peter Pink's contention that there are he can solve the problems that stand between him other equally important fields of perception remains and his work by excluding immigrant labour. Both are plumping for false solutions that only aggravate untouched. the problems. This argument could well be carried into much Artists and Communication greater detail. It applies fully of course to the But when later on in her piece Catherine Boswell categories of people whom Catherine Boswell purrepeats her pseudo-argument ("nobody but the ports to distinguish from artists when it comes to artist can illuminate the world and inspire us in the "illuminating the world around us"namely phy'very special way' characteristic of art"), more sicists, psychologists, political thinkers and fighters dangerous assumptions begin to show through the etc. We know (e.g. from Koestler's recent book cracks. What she says is true enough, but it would The Act of Creation and the discussion that prebe just as true to say nobody but the painter can ceded and has followed it) that remarkable simiilluminate the world in his special wayor the im- larities do exist between these apparently unpressionist in hisor Cezanne in his. In other connected fields of creative thought. Hegelian words both logical ends of this argument simply Zeitgeist theorists can map out all sorts of parallels, stress (what Marx also stressed) the diversity and for example, between physics and music as historical the universality of people's creative potential. processes, and Marxist theory once again has to Every individual, "artist" or not, has his own grasp this important but inverted account of things unique perception of life, though of course each and set it the right way up. Caudwell gives us a facet or group of facets of it will be held in common number of valuable starting points for this long and with any number of other people. It is especially tricky business. Fischer gives us none. (It may be important that a Marxist should understand the unfair to castigate him for this, because The Neces-

ATHERINE BOSWELL'S contribution to the discussion on art and superstructure