CRITIQUE AND FORM: Adorno on "Godot" and "Endgame

"
Author(s): Chris Conti
Source: Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui, Vol. 14, After Beckett / D'après Beckett (2004),
pp. 277-292
Published by: Editions Rodopi B.V.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25781472 .
Accessed: 13/05/2013 17:46
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .
http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp
.
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.
.
Editions Rodopi B.V. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Samuel Beckett
Today / Aujourd'hui.
http://www.jstor.org
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
CRITIQUE
AND FORM:
Adorno
on
Godot and
Endgame
Chris Conti
The most common criticism
of
Beckett's theatre is its
supposed
obscu
rity. Early defenders of
Godot and
Endgame
were themselves criti
cised as
formalists for
their
inability
to
say
what these
plays
were
'about'
or
'meant'. Adorno's
theory of
the modernist artwork
ex
plained
the historical
development of
art's
opaque
content and Beck
ett's
own
reluctance to
explain
his
plays, solving
an
impasse
in Beck
ett criticism with his account
of
the
new
historical role
of
aesthetic
form
as
critique.
1. A
play
about
nothing
The unsolved
antagonisms
of
reality
return in artworks as
immanent
problems
of form.
This,
not the insertion of ob
jective
elements,
defines the relation of art to
society.
(Adorno, 1997, 6)
The scandal of
Waiting for
Godot,
as
everyone knows,
is that it is a
play
about
nothing.
Its clownish characters
seem in search of
a
plot
and the
plot
in search of an
ending.
Accounts of the
play usually begin
with a
precis,
as if the bare
particulars
of
plot
were all one could
cling
to with
any certainty.
The most famous remark about
Godot,
as a
play
"where
nothing happens
twice"
(Mercier, 144),
summarised the frus
tration of reviewers
attempting
to
grapple
with its absence of content.
Can
a
play
without content
(and plot,
character, action)
still be
a
play?
To take the
play seriously
seemed
a threat to
meaning
itself,
as if it
were an
assault
on the
very categories required
to make
sense of it.
Initial
receptions
of the
play
as
plotless
and chaotic were re
vised when its
rigorous
use of dramatic forms like
dialogue
was rec
ognised.
Still,
the
intentionality implied by
this use of form did not sit
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
well with the loss of
meaning implied by
the
play's
absence of
con
tent. No other
play
-
with the
possible exception
of its
successor,
Endgame
-
has been
so
puzzled
over as to what it means. Doubt con
cerning
the
play's
content
(or
lack of
it)
led
many
to believe the
play
a
hoax,
and like all
hoaxes,
the more one
searched for
a
meaningful
structure the
more one was taken in
by
the hoax:
"Waitingfor
Godot
is not a
real
carrot;
it is
a
patiently painted, painstakingly
formed
plas
tic
job
for the intellectual fruit bowl
[...] asking
for
a thousand read
ings [it]
has none of its
own to
give" (Kerr, 20).
But the devastated
landscape suggested by
Godofs
emptied
stage
reawakened traumatic wartime
memories,
and
many
audiences
felt
they
had
glimpsed
in the
play
the
catastrophic
outcome of western
civilisation.
Articulating
this relation to historical
reality proved
diffi
cult,
because while the
play
seemed to be about
occupied
France,
the
holocaust, postwar
devastation,
the
catastrophic
fate of
civilisation,
it
did not refer
directly
to
any
of these. The
growing
conviction in the
universal
importance
of the
play
resisted
articulation,
as if Godot had
divested itself of
any
connection to
history beyond testifying
to its
catastrophic
barbarism. But how could
a
play
drained of content relate
to the actual social dramas of the
day?
The absence of this direct rela
tion
encouraged
the idea of the
play
as an
allegory
of the lamentable
human
condition,
"a modern
morality play,
on
permanent
Christian
themes"
(Fraser, 84). Allegory
established Godot's
universality
but at
the risk of
imposing redemptive religious meanings.
So
as well
as a
play
about
nothing,
Godot became known
as a
play
about
anything
and
everything, meaning
whatever
you
wanted it to mean because its
symbols
were
pliable enough
to meet the needs of theoretical
or re
ligious
consolation.
Godot's sheer
variety
of
interpretations suddenly
seemed
suspi
cious. Indeed the
more
critics enthused about the
profundity
of the
play
the more
hollow it sounded.
Uncertainty
about the
meaning
of
the
play gathered
around the absent character of
Godot,
as if the titular
character
might justify
the dearth of
stage
action and confer at least
symbolic unity
on the disorder of the
play.
Alain Robbe-Grillet chafed
at such
attempts
to
dignify
the
poverty
of Beckett's
tramps
and
blocked the
path
to such affirmative criticism
by asserting
the
play
was not 'about'
anything
at all. It was about
itself;
the
physical pres
ence of the
tramps
on
stage:
278
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
Explanations
flow in from all
quarters,
each more
pointless
than the last. Godot is God
[...]
Godot
[...]
is the
earthly
ideal of
a
better social order
[...]
Or else Godot is death
[...]
Godot is silence
[...]
Godot is the inaccessible self
[...]
But
these
suggestions
are
merely attempts
to limit the
damage,
and even the most ridiculous of them cannot efface in
any
one's mind the
reality
of the
play
itself,
that
part
of it which
is at once most
profound
and
quite superficial,
and of which
one can
only say:
Godot is the
person
two
tramps
are wait
ing
for at the side of the
road,
and who does not come.
(110)
This anti-criticism reduced the
play
to the barest of
plot descriptions
and
aped
Beckett's
own
refusal to
say
what the
play
meant or who
Godot
represented:
"Those who are
perplexed by
the
play's 'meaning'
may
draw at least some comfort from the author's
assurance that it
means what it
says,
neither more nor less"
(Fletcher, 68).
The sense of
the
play
was to be found
by feeling
it in a
performance,
not
by hunting
down
symbols
in the text: "So the
play
is not 'about': it is
itself;
it is a
play" (Kenner, 31).
If the
play
was devoid of
content,
it was because
the form
was the content. What this meant was
unclear,
because it
restated the
problem:
while
everyone agreed
there
was an excessive
use of form in the
play,
few
agreed
as to what this meant.
If
symbolic
criticism made too much of the
play
this anti
criticism made too
little,
confirming sceptics
in their view of the
play
as a
pretentious
hoax. But as Robbe-Grillet
suggests,
Godot seemed to
include the various
perspectives
of criticism and deflect each
as in
adequate
to it. That
an
artwork is not exhausted
by
its
interpretations
is
one of its
definitions,
but Godot offered shelter to
grand interpreta
tions
precisely
to scuttle
them, defeating
its
symbolic
accounts be
cause it
already
contained
a
critique
of the
symbol.
Theodor Adorno
understood this
negative
moment as essential to the modernist artwork
and its
new
critical function.
279
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
2.
Difficulty
and
disintegration
Artworks become
nexuses of
meaning,
even
against
their
will,
to the extent that
they negate meaning.
(Adorno,
1997,
154)
The
difficulty
of
understanding
Godot and
Endgame
is
integral
to
each of them and not the
perverse
invention of academics. The confu
sion
regarding
the content or
meaning
of these
plays goes
to the heart
of both of them: the loss of
meaning following
the destruction of ex
perience
in
modernity.
The divided
reception
of Godot as either
pro
foundly significant
or a
pretentious
hoax,
as too
meaningful
or not
meaningful enough, pointed
to the antinomies
or
paradoxes
borne
by
the modernist artwork.
The modernist artwork burdened aesthetic form with the task of
absorbing
the self-destructive
rationality,
or
'logic
of
disintegration',
which
was
unravelling
the social fabric of modern life. For
Adorno,
Beckett's
theatre,
particularly
Godot and
Endgame,
is
exemplary
in
this
regard.
His defence of the
pre-eminence
of Beckett's theatre
played
a
significant
role in its critical
reception
-
Lukacs had
argued
that Beckett's work was the
product
of
a
distorted
mind,
relevant
only
as a
symptom
of the distortions
produced by capitalism
-
and is tied to
an account of the
catastrophic
fate of civilisation after the war.
Lukacs
and Adorno
agreed
on a
diagnosis
of the disastrous social effects of
the
capitalist
economic
system
but arrived at
diametrically opposed
views as to the
consequences
for art and
critique.
Adorno's defence of
Beckett's theatre was a defence of artistic modernism and its critical
relation to social
reality.
The burden of this defence
lay
in
establishing
the
greater
social
relevance of the formal concerns of Beckett's
theatre,
which
appeared
to
many
a retreat from the
social,
over the more
obviously
social
theatre of Brecht or Sartre. Adorno
puts
Lukacs in reverse: the social
realist
portrait
of reconciliation was
the
forgery;
the modernist
portrait
of alienation closer to the real state of affairs. The conditions for the
realism Lukacs demanded
-
a more stable
reality susceptible
to con
ventional forms and
categories
-
no
longer
held. In this
sense,
the
modernists had in fact inherited the mantle of
realism,
for it was not
Kafka,
for
example,
that distorted what
reality
had
become;
reality
had
become
Kafkaesque. Blaming
the nihilism of the twentieth
century
on
280
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
Kafka's and Beckett's unheroic narratives was bad faith. The crisis of
subjectivity
was an
objective
situation;
the
categories conferring
spe
cious order on social
development
the real
solipsism.
The
logic
of
disintegration
thus describes the
objective
condi
tions of
modernity
and how
they
affect
subjective
life. The
authority
of narrative recollection to order human
experience
into
integral
uni
ties and
meaningful
wholes has been undermined
by
the success of
science
as a
cognitive paradigm
and the success of
capital
as an
socio
economic one. This
undermining
of the structure of
experience
has
profound consequences
for
critique
and aesthetic form. "The
explo
sion of
metaphysical meaning" (1992, 242),
as Adorno refers to Max
Weber's disenchantment
thesis,
renders the older aesthetic
unity
which relied on it unavailable. To
persist
with conventional forms that
implied
the coherence of
subjective
life meant artistic
ignorance (ex
istentialist
theatre), complicity
in barbarism
(culture industry)
or both
(socialist realism).
The
integral unity
that once characterised art
per
sisted now as a
forgery. Only
a
discordant aesthetic
unity
was
equal
to
the extremities of the
age:
"Beckett's
plays
are absurd not because of
the absence of
any
meaning,
for then
they
would
simply
be
irrelevant,
but because
they put meaning
on
trial; they
unfold its
history" (1997,
153).
This
history
was the central concern of Adorno's aesthetic the
ory and,
if we are to believe
Adorno,
of Beckett's theatre. The diffi
culty
of
understanding
Godot and
Endgame,
Adorno
contends,
finds a
counterpart
in the
difficulty
of
understanding
the
irrationality
of con
temporary society.
The
temptation
to
dispel
the darkness of either
play
with the
clarity
of
meaning
must therefore be resisted
(1997, 27).
Once
again,
the onus is reversed: criticism must measure
up
to the
plays,
not the
plays
to
criticism;
it is not the
plays
that must
yield
in
telligibility
in
conceptual
terms,
but
conceptual
terms that must
yield
before the
irrationality
of
contemporary
life.
Reconstructing
this un
intelligibility brings
the
plays'
content into view: the
critique
of the
instrumentalisation of modern life.
The
difficulty facing
an artist who
accepted
that the
logic
of
disintegration
did not
stop
at the door of the arts was to
incorporate
the
fragmentation
of
meaning
in forms that enacted the
integral unity
of
meaning.
It was not
enough
to write
a
play
about
absurdity (like
Sartre's Huis
Clos),
as if art could take the measure of social rationali
sation
simply by making
it a
topic. Treating absurdity
as a theme
or
making
it
a
category imparted
to it a
coherency
it did not
possess,
281
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
thereby escaping
the
very
experience
it
purported
to treat. The mean
ing
lost from social life is in this
way
won back in
art,
reducing
art to
consolation. The
integral unity
of the
pre-modernist
artwork articu
lated
meanings positively
and
implied
the
unity
of the social. The
modernist
artwork,
alternatively,
no
longer represents
the
unity
of the
social because the social no
longer
constituted
a
unity (1992, 244).
As the
experience
of the
disintegration
of
experience
evaded di
rect
presentation,
it had to find
expression
at the level of
form,
in the
logic
of the material itself and not
simply
in the content. A new aes
thetic
unity
would bear the wounds inflicted
by
the historical crisis of
subjectivity, gathering
up
critique
into the details of form
by giving
expression
to the
powerlessness
of the
subject.
The materials com
bined to
produce
the eviscerated
reality
of Godot and
Endgame
there
fore carried
an
implicit critique.
Becket's method was able to admit
a
negativity
of
meaning
into the details of
form,
implicating
the means
of
presentation
in the
negativity
it
sought
to
express,
and in the
proc
ess
revealed the
shortcomings
of the existentialism with which it is
still often confused. Conventional dramatic
categories
are not
rejected
in this
process, they
are
subjected
to the
experience
of
disintegration.
The result is not chaos of
form,
but the search for
a new
unity capable
of
bearing
this
antinomy.
A
disrupted unity, bearing
the wounds of the
destruction of
experience,
defined
a
task
demanding
the same
rigour
that defined the
integral unity
of traditional artworks. For
Adorno,
the
crisis of
subjectivity
was not a situation art could
avoid;
it had rather
to bear
it,
and would be
judged
on
its
ability
to do
so.
In Beckett's
plainer
terms,
the task was "to find a form that ac
commodates the mess"
(Driver, 23).
The
mess,
however,
encompassed
art as
well,
recoiling
on the forms that
sought
to
present
it. Beckett
understood the artist's
implication
in this
task,
this time in more
para
doxical terms that Adorno would have
recognised,
when 'B.' in
"Three
Dialogues" speaks
of "the
expression
that there is
nothing
to
express,
nothing
with which to
express,
nothing
from which to ex
press,
no
power
to
express,
no
desire to
express,
together
with the
obligation
to
express" (17).
The
goal
of
a new
aesthetic
unity implied
immersion in the
material,
for
only
here could the
expression
of the
subject deprived
of
expression
occur. Adorno and Beckett reinsert the
question
of commitment into the immanent dialectic of form.
Critique
in Go dot and
Endgame proceeds
via determinate
negation
of
meaning
-
testing
traditional
categories against contemporary experience
-
not
282
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
its abstract
negation.
In this
process,
old and
forgotten
forms
emerge
as new
possibilities.
Music-hall
gags
and
panto, stichomythia,
the
Greek
messenger
and medieval
angel,
the
Japanese
Noh
play
make
up
the materials of this new
unity, just
as
the conversational
games
and
rituals of the
tramps,
which seemed so
strange
to Godot's first audi
ences,
are some
of its fruits. This formal
experimentation
is the
means
by
which both
plays put 'meaning
on
trial',
and is the reason
why
Adorno saw in them the
retrospective
vision of the
catastrophe
of
history
that Walter
Benjamin
saw in Klee's
Angelus
Novus.
3.
Damaged
life
Even the
jokes
of those who have been
damaged
are
dam
aged.
(Adorno,
1992, 257)
Simon
Critchley (157)
criticises Adorno's lack of humour
as the chief
failing
of his 1961
essay
on
Endgame.
Adorno's treatment of Beck
ett's
humour, however,
is consistent with his entire
approach:
he
re
fuses to turn humour into exit from Beckett's
negativity. Critchley
mutes the
play's critique
when he restores
agency
to the characters
that
joke
about
having
lost it. The
jokes
in both
plays, invariably
con
cerning
the absence or destruction of
meaning,
are
ultimately
on us:
One daren't
laugh
anymore.
Dreadful
privation.
This is
really becoming insignificant.
Not
enough.
We
always
find
something,
eh
Didi,
to
give
us the
impres
sion
we
exist?
Yes
yes,
we're
magicians.
(1956,
11,68, 69)
When was that?
Oh
way back, way back,
when
you
weren't in the land of the
living.
283
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
God be with the
days!
Do
you
believe in the life to come?
Mine
was
always
that.
What? Neither
gone
nor dead?
In
spirit only.
Which?
Both.
(1958,
33,35,
45)
In Minima Moralia:
Reflections from Damaged Life,
Adorno's
own
black
jokes
carry
the same
sting, just
as the subtitle
glosses
both
plays.
The destruction
or
"withering"
of
experience
refers to:
the vacuum between men and their
fate,
in which their real
fate lies. It is as if the
reified,
hardened
plaster
cast of events
takes the
place
of events themselves. Men are reduced to
walk-on
parts
in a monster
documentary
film which has no
spectators,
since the least of them has his bit to do
on screen.
(1978, 55)
When
reality
becomes unreal
or
"incommensurable with
experience",
art is forced to
conspire
with
critique
in an
attack
on art itself
(1997,
30).
Adorno saw a
critical method in the conventional failure of Beck
ett's
drama,
especially
in the
inability
of his characters to move
the
plot.
If the fate of Beckett's characters cannot be
mapped
out in ad
vance
according
to
psychology,
as in
naturalism,
this is because the
subject
has been
stripped
of its
interiority
and is
powerless
to alter its
fate. The
depiction
of this mutilated
subject
was
art's loudest
protest
against
it,
a
criterion for a new
naturalism
yet
to be outmoded
by
cur
rent
developments
in
global capitalism.
There is no
false consciousness in
this,
for the characters
are as
aware of their condition
as
they
are
baffled
by
efforts to alter it. The
constant
play-acting
and
theatricality
in both
plays
is not
just
theatri
cal,
in other
words,
but
symptomatic
of the crisis in
subjectivity.
With
every joke
we are
reminded of the characters'
struggle
to
cope
with a
suspended
fate. "It is as if the two
tramps
were on
stage
without
a
part
284
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
to
play",
said Robbe-Grillet
(113).
Like the mime Act without Words
that followed the first London
production
of
Endgame,
the
tramps
are
trapped
in a
hellish
repetition.
As well
as
the source of
comedy
and
the reinvention of old
forms, then,
the
word-play
and rituals
represent
attempts
to
cope
with the
'withering
of
experience'.
Even the
play's
darker remarks are framed as
conversational diversions. Pozzo's
pero
ration,
"That's how it is on this bitch of
an
earth",
is delivered with an
eye
on his audience: "How did
you
find me? Good? Fair?
Middling?"
(38). Lucky's fragmented speech,
also delivered
as an
entertainment
for the other
players,
is the
play's
celebrated instance of the
withering
of
experience.
Though trapped
in a
present
cut off from the
past
and
future,
the
tramps constantly
take their
bearings, arguing
over whether or not
they
are in the same
spot
as the
day
before,
whether the tree has
grown
a leaf or
two,
whether
Estragon
remembers
anything
of the
day
before.
Pozzo and
Lucky provide
a new set of
diversions,
and later on
(in
their
absence)
the
subject
of
a
game (72-73).
The
prospect
of suicide
or
parting
from each other also become
games.
Indeed
anything
can
and does becomes the
subject
of
a
game,
because the
withering
of
experience encompasses everything.
The
games
are
designed
to
pass
the
time,
and
perhaps
an entire
life,
but threaten to fail when needed
most:
VLADIMIR:
(in anguish) Say anything
at all!
ESTRAGON: What do we do now?
VLADIMIR: Wait for Godot.
ESTRAGON: Ah!
Silence.
VLADIMIR: This is awful!
ESTRAGON:
Sing something.
VLADIMIR: No no!
(He reflects.)
We could start all over
again perhaps.
ESTRAGON: That should be
easy.
VLADIMIR: It's the start that's difficult.
ESTRAGON: You can start from
anything.
VLADIMIR:
Yes,
but
you
have to decide.
ESTRAGON: True.
Silence.
VLADIMIR:
Help
me!
285
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
ESTRAGON: I'm
trying.
Silence.
(63-64)
The effort to divert themselves is
palpable,
as is the
absurdity
of the
predicament
that defeats their efforts to do
so,
but a new
word-game
suggests
itself: "That's the
idea,
let's contradict each
other";
and
"that's the
idea,
let's ask each other
questions".
As another
pointless
silence
gapes,
a
game
of
hat-swapping
ensues. When that
game
ex
hausts
itself,
Vladimir asks "will
you
not
play?"
to which
Estragon
retorts
"play
at what?"
(72).
This is both
entertaining
and
unsettling,
as if it can
only
end in
senility.
We never
forget
for
long
the
pathetic
motivation for these
games:
to
play
at
living,
to
pretend meaningful
life is still
possible.
The
play's
concentration on the
present
moment is so
telescoped
as to
defeat
symbolism,
for
symbols place
"a current
perception
in the con
text of collected
experience" (Winer, 76), conferring
a
coherence on
events the
tramps struggle
to achieve with their ritualised banter. That
loss of
memory
is
an
index of decline in the
play
is clearer in the 'se
nile dialectic' of Pozzo and
Lucky (Adorno 1997, 250).
When asked
where
they
are
going,
Pozzo
replies simply
"On". The
trope
of 'on
wardness' recurs
throughout
the
play (and
Beckett's later
prose)
in a
consistent
parody
of Victorian notions of material and moral
progress
(see Abbot, 32-42).
We are left to
guess
what
happened
to Pozzo and
Lucky
between Acts I and
II,
though
the
'progress'
of the
story
is
measured
by
their
deterioration,
in
Lucky's
muteness and Pozzo's
blindness and
memory
loss. Whether
a
day
or more has
passed
is ir
relevant to
Pozzo,
who reacts
angrily
to Vladimir's efforts to mark the
passage
of time: "It's abominable! When! When! One
day,
is that not
good enough
for
you?" (89).
Similar
exchanges
in
Endgame
likewise
suggest
the
disintegration
of
subjective experience
into 'one damn
thing
after
another,'
or
into moments that do not add
up
to a
life,
just
as
grains
of millet do not make
a
heap
-
the
paradox
referred to in the
play: "Yesterday!
What does that mean?
Yesterday!"
"That means
that
bloody
awful
day, long ago,
before this
bloody
awful
day" (32).
Hamm's
chronicle,
though
we
may
wonder who will ever set
eyes
on
it, represents
another failed
attempt
to uncover
narrative
meaning
in
recollection.
286
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
It is not
just
the
jokes
and one-liners that
testify
to
damaged
life;
joke-telling
itself becomes another
coping technique, though
hardly
a
successful one:
ESTRAGON: You know the
story
of the
Englishman
in the
brothel?
VLADIMIR: Yes.
ESTRAGON: Tell it to me.
VLADIMIR: Ah
stop
it!
ESTRAGON: An
Englishman having
drunk a
little
more
than usual
goes
to a
brothel. The bawd asks him if he wants
a fair
one,
a
dark
one,
or a
red-haired one. Go on.
VLADIMIR: STOP IT!
(16)
Jokes and
joke-telling
in
Endgame,
like the rest of the
dialogue,
inten
sify
Godot's sense
of
being
rehearsed to kill the time.
Nagg complains
at one
point,
"I tell this
story
worse and worse"
(21),
as if the effort
disclosed
only
his
senility.
The ostensible failure of these efforts to
confer narrative coherence is the successful
implication
of
critique
in
the constituents of dramatic form. Few would
deny, however,
that in
Godot a
certain
dignity,
even
heroism,
attaches to this failure. The
possibility
of such Stoic heroism accounts for the affirmative
readings
of the
play
and the
greater popularity
of Godot over
Endgame,
for in
Endgame
Beckett circumvents the
possibility
of heroism
entirely.
4. The
memory
of wholeness
An
unprotesting depiction
of
ubiquitous regression
is
a
pro
test
against
a state of the world that so
accommodates the
law of
regression
that it no
longer
has
anything
to hold
up
against
it
(Adorno,
1992,
248).
In the effort to harness the
play's negativity
to the
purposes
of social
critique,
Adorno risked
reducing Endgame
to "forlorn
particulars
that
mock the
conceptual" (1992, 252),
as
Robbe-Grillet had reduced Go
dot
(and theatre)
to
physical
presence.
The direction of this effort ex
plains
his
suggestion
that
Nagg
and Nell's trashcans are
"emblems of
287
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
the culture built after Auschwitz"
(1992, 267).
The
peculiar
concrete
ness of Beckett's
objects
-
armchair,
gaff, stepladder, bloody
hand
kerchief
-
possess something
of the disenchanted character of modern
life
generally
that calls for
conceptual
articulation,
even as it evades it.
The task
facing
criticism is to
explore
this tension between disen
chanted
particulars
and the
concept
without
releasing
it
altogether.
This means
resisting
the
temptation
to construct a
philosophy
of the
remainder out of Beckett's remains
-
a
reduction Adorno risks when
he reads
Endgame
as
the deconstruction of the
subject1
-
for the more
difficult task of
articulating
Beckett's method in connection with the
eviscerated
reality
of
postwar life,
which unfolds with the
logic
of
catastrophe.
Godot
proved
Beckett's method
adequate
to the destruction of
experience,
the
ne
plus
ultra of which is the
inescapable prospect
of
nuclear annihilation. Reference to
contemporary reality
is once
again
withheld,
giving
the
play
the
appearance
of "an
allegory
whose inten
tion has fizzled out"
(1992, 269). Endgame
is no more
'about' nuclear
Armageddon
than Godot is 'about'
occupied
France. A drama about
nuclear
catastrophe
would
only
reveal the
inadequacy
of its constitu
ents,
"solely
because its
plot
would
comfortingly falsify
the historical
horror of
anonymity by displacing
it onto human characters and ac
tions"
(1992, 245).
The bomb is never
referred to
-
this would render
it more
amenable to the
concept
and to
understanding
itself
-
but the
nihilism of technical reason
represented by
the bomb suffuses the
linguistic
and
dramaturgical
infrastructure of the
play.
The absurd
dialogue
and rehearsed
patter,
for
example,
is
a re
sponse
to a
collapsed
world and not in itself absurd. Vladimir's
cajol
ery,
"Come
on,
Gogo,
return the
ball,
can't
you,
once in a
way?" (12),
becomes Hamm's shrill
command,
"Keep going,
can't
you,
keep
go
ing!" (40).
The word
games
this time
possess
a
logic
that cannot be
mistaken for stoic endurance:
HAMM:
Open
the window.
CLOV: What for?
HAMM: I want to hear the sea.
CLOV: You wouldn't hear it.
HAMM: Even if
you
opened
the window?
CLOV: No.
HAMM: Then it's not
worthwhile
opening
it?
288
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
CLOV: No.
HAMM:
[Violently.]
Then
open
it!
(43)
This inverted
logic seeps
into the
object-world
of the
play:
HAMM: The
alarm,
is it
working?
CLOV:
Why
wouldn't it be
working?
HAMM: Because it's worked too much.
CLOV: But it's
hardly
worked at all!
HAMM:
[Angrily.]
Then because it's worked too little!
(34)
What does the reason for
anything
matter at this
stage?
The idea that
this form of life could "mean
something" provokes
Clov's
strangled
laughter;
a "rational
being" returning
to earth
might
make sense of
this
mockery (27), though
not
enough
to
enjoy
"a
good guffaw" (41).
While
everything
has to be
explained
to the creatures
(32),
no
expla
nation could
possibly
suffice
(47).
This
logic
is turned
against
life
itself,
as if Hamm and Clov
were
the last men and
given
the task of
overseeing
the extinction of
the
species.
Both take an ironic
pleasure executing
this
duty:
HAMM: A flea! Are there still fleas?
CLOV: On me there's
one.
[Scratching.]
Unless it's
a
crablouse.
HAMM:
[Very perturbed]
But
humanity might
start
from there
again!
Catch
him,
for the love of
God!
(27)
Not even the kitchen rat can
escape (37).
Clov
powders
his
groin
with
insecticide aimed at the
flea,
though
the earth went sterile
long
before
he did. The
play's
drive to
sterility,
or ironic
solidarity
with the tech
nical
reason that culminates in lead waves
(25)
and
stinking corpses
289
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
(33), justifies
Hamm's denial of
help
to the interlocutor of his chroni
cle,
who wants food for his son
("as
if the sex
mattered"):
HAMM:
[...]
Bread? But I have
no bread
[...]
Then
per
haps
a little corn?
[Pause.
Normal
tone.]
That
should do it.
[Narrative tone.] Corn, yes
I have
corn
[...]
But use
your
head. I
give you
some
corn
[...]
and
you
bring
it back to
your
child
and
you
make him
-
if he's still alive
-
a nice
pot
of
porridge [...]
full of nourishment. Good.
The colours come back to his cheeks
-
perhaps.
And then?
[Pause.]
I lost
patience. [Violently.]
Use
your head,
can't
you,
use
your head,
you're
on
earth,
there's
no cure for that!
(36-37)
The last sentence
might
be the refrain of the
play.
When Clov
spies
a
boy through
the window he
prepares
to exterminate him as he had the
flea:
CLOV: I'll
go
and see. I'll take the
gaff.
HAMM: No!
[CLOV halts.]
CLOV: No? A
potential procreator?
HAMM: If he exists he'll die there
or
he'll come here.
And if he doesn't...
[Pause.]
CLOV: You don't believe me? You think I'm invent
ing? (49-50)
The
boy,
like the
flea,
the
rat,
and Hamm's
interlocutor, may
be in
vented for the
purpose
of
distraction,
especially
when Hamm's
appar
ent direction of the action is considered: "It's the end
Clov,
we've
come to the end"
(50).
The
interruptions
and rehearsed narrative tone
of Hamm's
story suggest
not its
unreality, however,
but the narrative
scenery
required
to relate the moral vacuum at the centre of it. In Go
dot this could still be done in the
slapstick
antics of Vladimir and Es
tragon's long-winded responses
to Pozzo's cries for
help,
but End
game's theatricality
is
a
darker reminder of the
fafade required
to
290
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
conceal the broken social bond. Hamm and Clov live
on,
or
play
out
their
lives,
with no wish for
self-preservation
but
only
to ensure the
end is not
miscarried,
lest the
agony
start all over
again.
That a
design,
any
design,
may
be at work in this is a
hope
that can
only
be whis
pered: "Something
is
taking
its course"
(17, 26).
The
missing
ends in
Endgame
are moral as well as
narrative,
for
characters in search of an
ending
find their
counterpart
in lives with
out ethical and
meaningful
ends. Just
as
the bomb exceeds all con
ceivable
ends,
so Beckett's endlessness is our own.
Note
1. Adorno
sought
confirmation from Beckett in
person
over whether
'Hamlet',
and thus the dramatic
subject
as
such,
is
deliberately
echoed in
'Hamm';
Beckett
rejected
the idea
(see Knowlson, 428).
Adorno dedicated his
Endgame
essay
and his
magnum opus
Aes
thetic
Theory
to Beckett.
Works Cited
Abbott,
H.
Porter,
Beckett
Writing
Beckett: The Author in the
Autograph
(Ithaca
and London: Cornell
UP, 1996).
Adorno,
Theodor
W.,
Aesthetic
Theory,
trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor
(Min
neapolis:
U of Minnesota
P, 1997).
-, Minima Moralia:
Reflections from Damaged Life,
trans. J.F.N.
Jephcott
(London:
Verso,
1978).
-,
"Trying
to Understand
Endgame",
Notes
on
Literature,
vol.
2,
trans.
Shierry
Weber Nicholsen
(New
York: Columbia
UP, 1992),
241
275.
Beckett, Samuel,
Endgame (London:
Faber and
Faber, 1956).
-,
Waiting for
Godot
(London:
Faber and
Faber, 1958).
-,
and
Georges
Duthuit,
"Three
Dialogues",
in Samuel Beckett: A Collection
of CriticalEssays,
ed. Martin Esslin
(New Jersey:
Prentice
Hall,
1965),
16-22.
Critchley,
Simon, Very
Little... Almost
Nothing:
Death,
Philosophy
and
Literature
(London
and New York:
Routledge, 1997).
Driver,
Tom
F.,
"Beckett
by
the
Madeleine",
Columbia
University
Forum 4.3
(1961),
23.
291
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
Fletcher, John,
and John
Spurling,
Beckett: A
Study of
His
Plays (New
York:
Hill and
Wang, 1972).
Fraser, G.S.,
The Times
Literary Supplement (10
Feb.
1956),
84.
Kenner,
Hugh,
A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett
(London:
Thames and
Hudson, 1973).
Kerr, Walter,
in Eric
Bentley,
New
Republic (14 May 1956),
20-21.
Knowlson, James,
Damned to Fame: The
Life of
Samuel Beckett
(New
York:
Simon
&Schuster,
1996).
Mercier, Vivian,
"The Mathematical
Limit",
The Nation 188
(14
Feb.
1959),
144-45.
Robbe-Grillet, Alain,
"Samuel
Beckett,
or 'Presence' in the
Theatre",
in
Martin
Esslin,
108-116.
Winer, Robert,
"The Whole
Story",
in The World
of
Samuel
Beckett,
ed.
Joseph
J. Smith
(Baltimore
and London: Johns
Hopkins
UP,
1991),
73-85.
292
This content downloaded from 131.179.45.172 on Mon, 13 May 2013 17:46:55 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful