“Stoic Nihilism & The Beauty of Oblivion” (Rainer J. Hanshe)

hyperion

HYPERION, Volume III, issue 1, February 2008

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A meditation on Beckett’s Happy Days

I have little talent for happiness.
—Samuel Beckett

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.
—Emily Dickinson

. . . weak characters that have no power over themselves . . . hate the constraint of style. They feel that if this bitter and evil constraint were imposed upon them they would be demeaned: they become slaves as soon as they serve; they hate to serve.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

Remember too on every occasion which leads one to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.
—Marcus Aurelius

From the extremity of his own limit, Cioran said that more than one of Beckett’s pages seemed to him like “a sort of monologue after the end of some cosmic epoch.” What they generate he elaborated is the “sensation of entering into a posthumous universe, some geography dreamed by a demon released from everything, even his own malediction.” Happy Days could be described precisely in this manner, and Cioran may have had it in mind, but whatever survives after that end apparently continues ad infinitum. World without end, Winnie announces after her opening prayer. World without end. In the midst of the loss of all sense of irony, Cioran’s vision of Beckett is the necessary antibiotic for curing those who suffer from the plague that is Winnie’s happiness, a plague that is now at rule and that has infected New York. ‘Tis one thing if Winnie be as blind to her predicament as she is ignorant of what she quotes, ‘tis another if the sight of those observing her be occluded. What to say of who directs and who incarnates her? Have they all ‘seen enough’ not to be inconvenienced by their blindness? Or have they grown so inured to nihilism and demoniacal topography that they find ‘wonderful’ even an infernal event? Or is there a refusal to countenance the event altogether?

Whether Beckett was released from malediction as a writer is arguable, and while some of the long standing interpretations of his writing are certainly ossified clichés, the abyss is there. The nihilism is incontrovertible. The dark, as Winnie the unconscious ventriloquist echoes, is eternal. For Jesus Christ sake Amen. There is no end to the black night, even in the perpetually blinding and hellish light of Happy Days. As comic as he sometimes makes the abyss, it still like the bell for Winnie gouges. Aristophanes is comic, too, but his plays sting. Whilst Beckett’s characters may provoke laughter, and whilst his plays may be humorous, the laughter let us not forget resounds in a posthumous universe where acquiring hope is as difficult as cultivating fruit from its obdurate terrain. Winnie may be optimistic, but optimism in and of itself is not positive; neither is it unequivocally admirable. “Was Epicurus” not “an optimist,” Nietzsche asked, “precisely because he was afflicted?” Even Socrates was chided for his optimism—it is unworthy of a philosopher Nietzsche thought because it is naïve. In the world of Happy Days, little to nothing grows and aside from Winnie and Willie a lone emmet is the only visible form of life, but it is ready to birth a host of other emmets that will crawl over and possibly within Winnie’s skin. That is scant cause for optimism.

Formication aside, the following decade it appears will be the decade of cheery, light-hearted, and, to our misfortune, palatable Beckett. The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Happy Days, as directed by Deborah Warner and performed by Fiona Shaw, ushers in this regrettable vogue. What happened to the trouble with being born?

Warner’s and Shaw’s original intention was to stage a version of Waiting for Godot with women playing Didi and Gogo. After supposedly receiving a life sentence of exile from the Beckett Estate for their abuse of Footfalls, Warner and Shaw wanted to return not only with their impudence intact, but with even more irreverence. When still alive, Beckett consistently opposed attempts to stage Godot with women. To Estelle Parsons’ and Shelley Winters’ request, Beckett’s answer was resolute: “definitely NO.” Recently, the castle that is Beckett received a defeat. A new dawn it seems has broken in Italy, a precedent set, perhaps, for the world. With the Pontadera Theatre’s victory over the Beckett Estate, which issued a cease and desist to the theater because their performance of Godot featured women in the central roles, Warner and Shaw perhaps thought victory would be quick to come. After the Ponatadera’s triumph, one of few victories against the Beckett Estate, the theatre company’s lawyer, Maurizio Fritelli, spoke of the decision as a victory for civil liberties. “The sentence,” he said, “is valuable” for it “reiterates that men and women have equal rights.” Linda Ben-Zvi argued in Women in Beckett that “to ignore the roles of women, or of men, is to fall prey to an acceptance of the very stereotypes and limits the work reveal.” Is there not a gross confusion of categories here? Fritelli’s statement is simply baffling, for the matter has nothing to do with equal rights. If a man wanted to play Winnie or the unnamed woman and voice of Rockaby, Beckett surely would have refused, as is easily attestable his estate now would. Ben-Zvi is also royally perplexed. In refusing to permit the alteration of the gender of his characters, there is no approval of stereotypes and no acquiescence to limits. There can be no stereotypes in Beckett’s plays for they do not even contain types. In his universe, types have been obliterated. What remains is something else entirely, something like a Giacometti sculpture. There is nothing more honed. What perchance is left is the wheat of humanity. Nothing more. It is a condensation of being.

If there are limits in Beckett’s plays they are not limits in the ordinary sense; as Cioran realized, Beckett “reached the limit,” that is, he reached an extreme threshold. He begins there in fact, “at the impossible, at the exceptional, at the impasse.” It is “limit-situation as point of departure, the end as advent!” It is this Cioran explained “which accounts for the feeling that that world of his, though always tottering on the verge of death, may continue indefinitely, whereas ours will soon disappear.” Cioran’s use of the word advent is not arbitrary; Beckett’s work is a movement towards a different kind of consciousness altogether. It is the arrival of something unprecedented. Death’s dreadful advent is the mark of man, and Beckett chronicles that event poetically… [PDF]