Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: the Passion

Samuel Beckett and the mental belch

beckett 2My post on the Christian underpinning to Samuel Beckett’s 1938 poem “Ooftish” (three down or go here) was written in ignorance of a moment in his early novel Murphy, published the same year, that sheds a little sideways light on the poem.

“Ooftish” was prompted by Beckett’s recollection of a sermon on the problem of pain in which the preacher declared: “The crucifixion was only the beginning. You must contribute to the kitty.”

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

When Murphy’s confederation of “friends” catches up with his abandoned partner Celia, Beckett writes of her:

“Then she lay down on the bed, not with any theatrical intention, but in pure obedience to a sudden strong desire to do so. The likelihood of its appearing theatrical, or even positively affected, would not have deterred her, even if it had occurred to her. She stretched herself out at the ease of her body as naturally as though her solitude had been without spectators.

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’

But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it.”

But we have heard it, and are most likely none the wiser, even if we happen to have come across “Ooftish”. Murphy’s intellectual friends converse entirely in such coded obtusities, whose allusions baffle the reader while they give an airing to the tracery of his private thinking. (By the time of his next novel, Watt, such showy, arcane referencing has been relegated to an appendix, due to the author’s “fatigue and disgust” with it.) Celia, on the other hand, embodies unaffected physicality, natural simplicity. The hopelessly affected Miss Counihan (whose attentions Murphy has had the good sense to avoid) mistakes Celia’s movement for an affected swoon signifying despair or infirmity. Counihan’s sarcasm is lost on Celia, who does not hear her and would not pick up on the allusion if she did. In this she has the reader’s solidarity.

So what is the “mental belch” from which Murphy’s longing for silence has protected her? Any form of involuntary or unthinking “self-expression” perhaps, any species of automatism. But it’s tempting, in this context, to take the “mental belch” as poetry per se, maybe with “Ooftish” in mind. Murphy is, in some respects, a version of Beckett; it seems that here, if only for the moment, Beckett the author repudiates the sentiments of “Ooftish” by handing them over to a tiresome character, while Beckett-as-Murphy repudiates the very business of poetry.

The voice of “Ooftish” appears to be that of the preacher, his position on pain satirised by Beckett, but in Murphy the satiric sneer is Miss Counihan’s, herself satirised. So where does Beckett stand? It’s all a bit slippery. This dog has more than two heads.

calder

On a bit of a tangent, my post was made also in ignorance of the recent publication of John Calder’s The Theology of Samuel Beckett. Who better qualified than Calder, his friend and publisher? But the book is a disappointment.

Seemingly zhooshed up from a bunch of old lecture notes, it is slight, rambling and repetitious, despite the odd interesting insight along the way. Calder shows no familiarity with theologians, nor any real understanding of religious belief, which he largely equates with dogmatic fundamentalism, no other form apparently having been tenable since the Enlightenment, when Science put us all straight. He makes an under-informed appeal to Gnosticism and Manichaeism as more authentic, Beckettian forms of Christian thinking that were stamped out at the Council of Nicaea. This is tired stuff, and not far from the Gospel according to Dan Brown.

In passing, prayers are confused with credal statements, and the late Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption are alleged to be tenets of “general Christian belief”. Such mangling of significant detail undermines much of his credibility. He shows no more knowledge of Biblical texts than does the illiterate “average churchgoer” whom he is eager to dream up and damn in generality. Airy, sweeping assumptions are waved about on every page; Calder’s favourite adverbs are “probably,” “evidently” and “obviously”, each used to mask the precisely opposite circumstance.

The core of his analysis, if it has a core, is his “discovery” of Beckett’s “invention” of a new theology of “incredible audacity” and “of the same order” as Paradise Lost and Regained: “What Beckett has done is finish Genesis and also the New Testament”. This can be teased out from Beckett’s short 1981 text Ill Seen Ill Said, in which Calder identifies the voice of the narrator as that the Deity, reversing time to wipe out his corrupt Creation.

The textual clues to this are the phrase “full of grace,” applied to an old woman character “who we now know[sic] is the Virgin Mary,” and some reference from Milton that Calder omits to specify. As a clincher, the old woman visits a grave, “obviously[sic] that of Jesus.”

So why might Beckett have masked his true intention by tucking away so few and such tiny clues? And how did he feel about Calder’s uncovering of it?

“[The clue] is carefully planted, certain to be discovered one day, as it was by me, but only after knowing the whole text well for some years and from having organized many public readings. The Milton reference had to be seen sooner or later, but not too many academics interested in the great writers of the twentieth century ever go back to earlier classics …”

“When I spoke to him about it, having just discovered this one important part of the secret – the presence of the Virgin Mary – he was not pleased, pleading loss of memory, but he knew I was right.”

“ … the author was obviously[sic] reluctant for this masterpiece … to become too well understood … on the only occasion when I discussed Ill Seen Ill Said with the author, he was not pleased that I had discovered what I had. Perhaps one reason for his reticence was that he never wanted to face the attacks of organized religion and of the faithful generally.”

Or perhaps Beckett’s displeasure was of another order entirely?

But even if out of order with this particular mental belch, Calder is right to draw attention to the Judaeo-Christian narrative that, even in residue, survives at the heart of Beckett’s vision. Beckett protests at the condition of fallenness, refuses indifference. In this dialectic, the possibility of redemption remains firmly implicit, is the invisible mammoth in the room.

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.