Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Samuel Beckett and the Definite Article

Pursuit of the “lost” Joycean poet and composer Terence White Gervais (see post here and page here) leads me to his contributions to the final issue (27 of 1938) of transition, the international modernist review edited by Eugene Jolas. A few pages into this number, the reader is confronted by “Ooftish”, Samuel Beckett’s ferocious poetic rant on the problem of pain:

Ooftish

offer it up plank it down
Golgotha was only the potegg
cancer angina it is all one to us
cough up your T.B. don’t be stingy
no trifle is too trifling not even a thrombus
anything venereal is especially welcome
that old toga in the mothballs
don’t be sentimental you won’t be wanting it again
send it along we’ll put it in the pot with the rest
with your love requited and unrequited
the things taken too late the things taken too soon
the spirit aching bullock’s scrotum
you won’t cure it you – you won’t endure it
it is you it equals you any fool has to pity you
so parcel up the whole issue and send it along
the whole misery diagnosed undiagnosed misdiagnosed
get your friends to do the same we’ll make use of it
we’ll make sense of it we’ll put it in the pot with the rest
it all boils down to the blood of the lamb

“Ooftish” is Yiddish-derived slang for money, meaning “on the table”, in the sense of putting up a gambling stake – “show us your money”. Our pains, physical and psychological, are our stakes in the gamble of living. But the table is also a food table – “we’ll put it in the pot” – splitting the metaphor rather uneasily with that of a Passover meal.

According to Beckett, the poem had been prompted by his recollection of a sermon in which the preacher declared:

“What gets me down is pain. The only thing I can tell them is that the crucifixion was only the beginning. You must contribute to the kitty.”

beckettA crucifixion that was “only the beginning” must therefore be a potegg – a dummy that entices the hens to contribute. It is true enough, as Aquinas recognised, that evil is redemptive in the sense that it can produce good. Nor should the crucifixion necessarily be understood as an isolated moment in time, but perhaps more as an event in the dimension of eternity that runs throughout history, containing, in some mysterious sense, all suffering – even the agony of a snared rabbit. But “must contribute to the kitty” seems harshly reductive, and maybe some way short of this mystery.

Is Beckett angry that the Passion of the Christ may not have been all sufficient? Or does he assert that the sheer crushing reality of pain trumps any metaphysical solution? We’re not quite sure, and neither, it seems, is he. The direction of the weight of the last line is uncertain. Is it scornfully dismissive? Or does it acknowledge the centrality of the crucifixion event? If the latter, Beckett later retreated. For in the final version of “Ooftish” in the Collected Poems of 1977, two small changes have been made. Line 13 is altered from

you won’t cure it you – you won’t endure it

to

you won’t cure it you won’t endure it

ironing out an awkwardness and stripping the punctuation in line with the rest of the poem. But more significantly, the last line

it all boils down to the blood of the lamb

becomes

it all boils down to blood of lamb

The loss of the definite article – available in both Hebrew and Greek – is far more than a piece of tidying; the generalised “blood of lamb” takes the metaphor out of the Christian context (originally reinforced by the poem’s working title of “Whiting”) and firmly back to the Passover of the old covenant.

And yet there’s no denying the poem’s origins in a Christian consideration of the problem of pain. Nor, it seems to me, is there any denying the invisible presence of a closet Christianity in Beckett’s wider work, unlikely though this may sound. His world of absurdity, despair, suffering and separation is the world of fallenness. It may seem like all that’s on offer, but it is never acceptable, and never viewed indifferently. By definition, its recognition assumes that an alternative is at least conceivable, and that alternative, in Beckett’s vision, can hardly be the progressive reform of human nature under secular programmes of improvement.

It does indeed all boil down to the Blood of the Lamb. In such a dialectic, for Beckett as for any of us, the Christ event has to be the defining event and the Christ the Definite Article.

Follow-up post, “Samuel Beckett and the mental belch” – here.

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2 responses to “Samuel Beckett and the Definite Article

  1. Alan Munton July 29, 2013 at 11:12 pm

    Richard: You say of Beckett that there may be Christianity there, “unlikely as it may sound”. Oddly enough, about 30 minutes before receiving your post, I was reading (at the bus stop, as one does) a recent TLS in which John Calder’s The Theology of Samuel Beckett was reviewed. Apparently it’s more than interesting; but the reviewer remarks that “It is peculiarly claimed in the publisher’s accompanying letter to be the only book looking at Beckett and theology, as if wilfully unaware that this angle has all but been done to death over the last forty or fifty years”. There’s Gnosticism, too, and “the post-Cartesian philosopher Arnold Guelincx”. So this is not at all unlikely, it seems. But of course his greatest break for freedom from the pull of Ireland was to play cricket.

    • richardawarren July 30, 2013 at 1:11 pm

      Hi Alan. Well, I seem to have invented the wheel. Again! Though there is theology and there is theology. “Done to death”? Not sure. The Calder book (which I hadn’t spotted) is certainly puffed as breaking new ground. But so much has been written on Beckett (about as much as on Shakespeare, apparently) that it’s hard to know, especially with limited access to academic publications.

      Manichaeism? That implies a visible and balanced dualism, but one side of the equation seems pretty much invisible in Beckett, which is why I think it’s the elephant in the room. Gnosticism? Murphy’s flight from physical reality etc, maybe, though I can’t quite see Beckett as a gnostic in any meaningful sense. But I’ll have to read Calder and find out. �Again, seeing human life as just one long crucifixion (one of Calder’s takes on this, I read) is not quite the same as seeing the Crucifixion as some point or pivot of redemption. The definite article again.

      Also, I seem to have missed the curious fact that Beckett was born on a Good Friday. I didn’t know about the cricket either!

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