Jeri L. Kroll
Belacqua, paying pious suit to the hem of her
garment and gutting his raptures . . . at a safe
remove, represented precisely the ineffable
long-distance paramour . . .1
The bourgeois Protestant hero of Dream of fair to middling women and More pricks than kicks is almost immediately defined for the reader as student, artist and lover: a lover of Dante, a student of the bohemian pose, and a creator of his own beatific image of his beloved. Rambling from Ireland to the Continent and back again, however, Belacqua has difficulty in maintaining the identities which he has fabricated for himself. In each new abode, consequently, he takes the precaution of setting up sufficient defences against the macrocosm: ‘this to break not so much the flow of people and things to him as the ebb of him to people and things.’2 The intercourse which he allows between his consciousness and the external world, particularly in Dream, is designed to keep his artistic soul content and stocked with material, and his human relationships under control. This self-imposed psychic incarceration is pictured as withdrawal into the cup of his mind, from which he enjoys throwing out lines to the macrocosm. These ‘velleities of radiation’ (Dream, 38) hook onto sources of inspiration; ‘they would trickle back and replenish his rumination as marriage the earth and virginity paradise . . . he could release the boomerangs of his fantasy on all sides unanxiously, that one by one they would return with the trophy of an echo’ (Dream, 38).
Belacqua Shuah conceives of himself first as an artist, and then as a lover, but he has trouble conceiving of others as anything more than ‘other.’ They are individuals in the sense of being separate from Belacqua, but he prefers to relate to the human race in general, and to his lady friends in particular, as if they were projections of his own psyche; or, he does not even wish to worry about their mode of existence, and accepts them merely as ‘given.’ Unfortunately, Belacqua cannot maintain a consistent position, and his rambunctious body gets him involved in love affairs where his sweethearts eventually contradict his vision of reality; they refuse to act as if they issued from his imagination. Belacqua would like the lover in him to be disciplined by the artist. There is, therefore, a lack of total commitment on Belacqua’s part, either to his internal world or to the meditative life. It is the indecision that makes him declare, ‘Give me chastity’ . . . ‘and continence, only not yet’ (Dream, 166), which now demands our attention.
The image of Belacqua’s mind being fertilized or re-stocked by the external world, as marriage replenishes the earth and virginity paradise, suggests a central reason for his vacillation. Belacqua cannot deal with sexual experience because it reminds him that he is, in fact, a creature composed of two seemingly contradictory elements: mind and body. Further, this reluctance to confront the paradox or his fear of investigating it, lead him to project his own dissatisfactions onto women, in particular the diverse group of ladies with whom he becomes consistently and comically involved. An understanding of Belacqua’s perplexed psyche, evidenced by his bungled romantic encounters, is crucial in understanding the problems that Beckett as author has with Belacqua, and, as we shall see, what these artistic difficulties ultimately reveal about Beckett’s own conception of himself as a young artist.
An examination, therefore, of Belacqua, the first hero in the English prose, and his relationship with women, will elucidate the critical puzzles in what can be termed Beckett’s apprentice fiction, and will suggest why these difficulties do not appear in the mature French work. The questions which now occur, which must be answered, and which no-one seems to have asked before, are: why does Belacqua become involved in imbroglios with women; how and why are women treated in a significant way in the early work; what do women then represent for both Beckett and Belacqua; and what, if anything, do the conclusions which can be drawn about Beckett, Belacqua, and women tell us about the development of theme and structure in Beckett’s art as a whole? I would like to suggest that Belacqua is no longer useful to Beckett when Beckett himself has solved certain problems in defining the nature of his subject and, consequently, in refining his technique. In other words, when Beckett squarely faces what Belacqua avoids (the irrationality of human experience), women cease to function as symbols of the dilemma. The later characters are not particularly interested in or differentiated by their sex. There are jokes about the dangers of riding a bicycle, given Molloy’s anatomical peculiarities, of course; or about whether his true love was male or female, but generally sex is irrelevant in demonstrating Beckett’s cardinal themes. In the later novels and plays, men and women are treated in much the same manner.
The most effective way of approaching a topic of this magnitude is to undertake a textual analysis of one of the most perplexing and yet critical stories in More pricks than kicks, ‘What a misfortune,’ which concerns Belacqua’s ambiguous attitudes towards love, art, and society. The story graphically illustrates the enigma of Belacqua’s personality by being an enigma itself, which is appropriate for a hero who is obsessed with quodlibets and esoteric jargon (Belacqua is the type of person who sits in a bar doing the Times crossword puzzle in ink). But Beckett the creator technically practises what his creature Belacqua only plays with. ‘What a misfortune’ revolves around question and answer, innuendo and allusion, and ends with a conundrum. Before embarking upon an explication of this tale, however, we must clarify our initial questions about Belacqua in both novel and stories by making some observations about the relationship between Beckett’s treatment of women in the majority of his early fiction and the reasons for Belacqua's romantic miscarriages.
It seems that most of Beckett’s readers take for granted the humorous criticism or satire of his female characters. By refusing to examine this treatment, by accepting it as normal, even predictable, given a tradition that encompasses the history of Western literature, from Helen of Troy, to the Wyf of Bath, to Molly Bloom, they avoid confronting the issue of what Beckett is actually about in his portrayal of women. There is, of course, an obvious explanation based on Belacqua’s role as a traditional hero himself. Since he is still an immature and (occasionally) randy young man, attached in some degree to conventional society and its mores, he is conditioned at least to consider courtship and marriage. Even as a poet, he can consider women in a traditional way as catalysts for artistic inspiration—as Muses. But Beckett attempts, most critics agree, more in his apprentice work than simply a repetition of the Kunstlerroman. We have a fundamental paradox, then, involved in critical response to Beckett’s heroes and heroines that has never been quite defined: why would Beckett exploit a traditional portrayal of women, women as essentially physical beings or at least as inherently contradictory creatures (the Weib v. the Madonna), when he so distrusted conventional literary practice? True, much of what could be called traditional material is presented ironically, but this explanation does not encompass all the material. Beckett presents Belacqua, for example, clearly as both a serious and a satiric figure.
The answer seems to lie in Beckett’s difficulty in finding something to replace what he considered outmoded literary form. He had no difficulty in criticizing these forms (in fact he frequently does so with great verve) or the ‘clockwork cabbage’ figures and ‘chloroformed world’ of ‘Balzac, for example, and the divine Jane and many others’ (Dream, 106). Finding a technique to supercede that of the ‘greats’ and a main character who would be a successful illustration of this as yet hypothetical new technique, was another matter. Belacqua, therefore, serves a dual purpose—a character who embodies Beckett’s aesthetic views and a surrogate for the author who consciously analyzes these views (at least in the body of Dream). We see Belacqua in the novel on board a ship ruminating about writing, developing principles to govern the work that he intends to write. Beckett’s uncertainty at this stage in his career led him, however, to keep the products of Belacqua’s aesthetic theory out of the sight of the reader almost entirely. We have a rare example of Belacqua’s poetic genius in Dream in the ‘Sonnet to the Smeraldina’ (addressed to Belacqua’s Teutonic paramour), which we only hear about in More pricks than kicks, along with the poet’s ‘Hypothalamion.’ According to Lawrence Harvey in his comprehensive study of Beckett’s poetry,3 Beckett may have originally composed the Sonnet seriously, for he did actually have an attachment to a girl in Germany at about this time. Beckett, however, palms the sonnet off as Belacqua’s, perhaps an effective way of shielding the self-mocking writer who fears for ‘clumsy artistry’ (in a 1931 poem, ‘Casket of pralinen,’ which concerns the Smeraldina, too), which might not measure up to what he wants to say, or might say too much, thus making him vulnerable. In fact, in More pricks than kicks, Beckett goes so far as to palm off the novel Dream on Walter Draffin, the effeminate bureaucrat cum writer cum cicisbeo of ‘What a misfortune,’ and includes an ironic (and rather accurate) description of his macaronic early prose style. Belacqua is, consequently, both a serious and a satiric figure, which accounts for a situation where Beckett, perhaps half-consciously, intends to forestall criticism of both book and author. If Belacqua’s theories in Dream, though humorously presented, are found intriguing by the reader, then all is well. If they are not, the author’s defence is that Belacqua is obviously being ridiculed. Beckett clearly was not satisfied as far as the novel was concerned, whatever the ultimate reasons, for only the extracts ‘Text’ and ‘Sedendo et Quiesciendo’ were ever printed.
Beckett, then, did not wish to be trapped either by someone else’s perceptions of reality or by the hackneyed style used to express them. In these circumstances, a logical first step is to point out the flaws in previous literary and philosophical theories in order to develop fresh ones. On one level, both Dream and More pricks than kicks are meant to be parodies of conventional fiction and its hero (or ‘principal boy’ as Beckett jocularly calls his protagonist). On another level, though, these two works comprise Beckett’s portrait of the artist as a young bourgeois intellectual, while Beckett is still a young artist himself. Developing his own opinions about society, about the body and the spirit, and about humanity’s attempts to cope with its irrational environment, is inseparable for Beckett from discovering what kind of character will be an appropriate vehicle for expressing these views.
It is most evident from the confusion in Dream, and to a lesser extent in More pricks than kicks, that Beckett is not yet sure how much he really is Belacqua.4 This confusion is paralleled by Belacqua’s inability to decide how much he owes to the world at large, and how much he owes to himself (his little world). This inability or refusal to discriminate between various modes of reality (mind, body, external world) or the wish, if he does discriminate, to impose absolute value judgments upon each mode of being, is dramatically illustrated by Belacqua’s responses to women (as, perhaps, discrete minds and certainly different bodies in the macrocosm). If Belacqua cannot cope with women successfully, it may be because he (or Beckett) cannot adequately conceive of them. This bewildering state of affairs demands clarification, and two possibilities now suggest themselves. Is it only women as specific examples of contradictory human nature (the quandary of one body and mind relating to another) in which Beckett is interested, or is there something more about women in particular that complicates the issue?
In Beckett’s early fiction, women can sometimes pose the same questions as men about the paradoxical nature of human life, but they usually function more as a symbol of the predicament than anything else. ‘Assumption’ (transition, no.16-17, Spring-Summer, 1929), the story which opens Beckett’s exploration of mystical experience and the way in which women may function as catalytic agents in artistic inspiration or catharsis, details the enigmatic influence ‘the Woman’ has on the protagonist. She simultaneously affects his physical and mental being (the body weakens, the mind expands). This initial formulation of Beckett's conception of women as givers of life and, by implication, death, the thought that perhaps they can bridge the gap from womb to tomb, develops into Belacqua’s ideas about his ‘wombtomb’ in Dream, and his attempts at suicide with Ruby in More pricks than kicks (‘she should connive at his felo de se’ ).5 The pseudo-artist in ‘Assumption’ achieves an isolated apotheosis, as he is burst asunder by sound, his psyche scattered to the farthest reaches of the universe in a kind of pantheistic climax. Beckett's first rather shabby Beatrice surrogate is left alone caressing the dead hero and, one presumes, somewhat bewildered. In both novel and story Belacqua fantasizes about physical encounters (or observes other couple’s springtime frolics in the woods) in order to allow complete and unsullied spiritual intercourse with his beloved. Belacqua has a psychic orgasm that flows out to the far shores of his spirit, while the Smeraldina is left high and dry under a tree.
Sexual experience for Belacqua is not, therefore, simply avoided because it depletes his energy. It is symptomatic of the agonizing division that he feels is nevertheless a part of his nature. Physical activity and mental activity exist in a continuum and maintain a constant tension whereby one gains at the other’s expense. The effect that ‘the Woman’ has on the hero of ‘Assumption’ also has affinities with the effect that Celia will have on Murphy. After Murphy’s death, Celia explains with painful hindsight, that ‘I was a piece out of him that he could not go on without, no matter what I did. . . . I was the last exile.’6 Hoping for a birth into oblivion or nirvana, Beckett’s heroes are foiled and the forceps aren’t needed.7
Although Belacqua eventually gives up on literal death as a means of spiritual fulfilment, his conception of mystic experience remains tinged with the timelessness and obscurity of death. Trying to express his pre-wedding sentiments to his friend Hairy in ‘What a misfortune,’ Belacqua observes: ‘‘If what I love . . . were only in Australia.’ . . . ‘Whereas what I am on the lookout for’ . . . ‘is nowhere as far as I can see’” (146). The hero’s search for a nowhere in which to merge his ‘Ego maximus, little me’ (42) is too often disturbed by external circumstances requiring him to be somewhere. His love, alas, is not in Australia but waiting for her groom at St Tamar’s. Belacqua is brought back to reality from his momentary enlightenment about himself: ‘A cloud obscured the sun, the room grew dark, the light ebbed from the pier-glass and Belacqua, feeling his eyes moist, turned away from the blurred image of himself’ (146). But Beckett’s first hero does not distinctly see either the source of his own anguish or the fact that other isolate souls may feel the same way. This almost ontological confusion is demonstrated on a literal level in the comic tale of Belacqua’s second marriage, ‘What a misfortune.’
At this point, a brief discussion of the plot of Dream and More pricks than kicks is necessary, especially since the first work is not only unfinished, but unpublished. In addition, a good deal of the material in the novel is indispensable in elucidating many of the obscure passages in the short stories. It will then be easier to examine ‘What a misfortune’ in detail, so that we can see exactly how the story presents, in a highly complex form, the initial obstacles which Beckett had to overcome in developing his principal issues.
Ostensibly, Dream and More pricks than kicks involve a fledgling writer’s social, intellectual, and emotional escapades, and under the impression that we are about to plunge into another Kunstlerroman (albeit ironic), we begin to discover the hero’s interconnected preoccupations with the womb, death, nirvana, and art. These obsessions of Belacqua’s crystallize into Beckett's initial fictional treatment of the conflict between the physical and the spiritual, somehow miraculously coexisting in man. The primary chapters of Dream (‘Two’ and ‘Three’) explore this tension in their treatment of Belacqua’s two paramours, the Smeraldina-Rima (a buxom Teutonic Weib) and the Alba (a pale, aesthetic creature whose name enchants Belacqua before he has even met her). The Smeraldina-Rima in her frustration at her supposed lover’s negligence finally ‘rapes’ the hero in Dream; the Alba remains content with a platonic relationship, though there are innuendoes that she, too, becomes a bit irritated by Belacqua’s puerile behaviour.
In More pricks than kicks, the series of short stories which are partially based on Belacqua’s adventures in Dream, this theme of spiritual and physical conflict is mediated by an array of female characters, including the Smeraldina and the Alba. It becomes evident that Belacqua, as artist, wants to believe in the spirituality of women, and in a mystic communion that transcends death. These romantic clichés protect the anxious Belacqua from the world as it really is (whatever that may be; but Belacqua isn’t concerned). Disgusted with his effete peers in Dublin, he concludes that their affectation is partly the result of their money and education, so he rebels by adopting a bohemian pose as a way of differentiating himself—the lone-wolf intellectual sits in a lower-class pub immersed in an upper-class newspaper. Similarly, Belacqua does not want to indulge in romantic entanglements patterned after society's versions of the male-female relationshi Like the hero of Dream, he dislikes those whom he calls ‘stallions,’ men who have no difficulty in pursuing relationships with the opposite sex. They either do not perceive women as spiritual partners, or they do not feel that one type of communication necessarily precludes another.
Though Belacqua’s affairs, consequently, may be conducted with the superficial trappings of conventional romance (such as courtship and marriage), lurking behind this ‘normal’ version of things is his ‘ideal’ version. Part of the comedy of More pricks than kicks derives from the poet’s efforts first to conceal and then gradually to reveal his true nature to his paramours. It is Belacqua’s private vision of reality, then, that prevents active interchange with members of society at large, and with individuals on an intimate basis. His social alienation and his personal alienation are a result of his aesthetics—the artist remains isolated within society.
Two instances in the story ‘A wet night,’ which appears early in More pricks than kicks, admirably illustrate Belacqua the artist’s behaviour and will allow us to recognize similar responses when they occur on a more complex level later in ‘What a misfortune.’ First, in the opening of the tale, the hero displays his penchant for reading reality in terms of art as he wanders around Dublin, losing himself anonymously in Pearse Street’s ‘simple cantilena in his mind’ (54). In his consciousness, present, past, and the timeless realm of art interpenetrate to produce a kind of Proustian transfiguration, where mundane buildings in Dublin recall more impressive buildings in Florence. Belacqua tries to involve his new wife in this type of psychological metamorphosis in ‘What a misfortune.’ Second, and more significant in ‘A wet night,’ the artist in Belacqua agonizes over the fact that his platonic lover, the Alba, intends to go to a party in a dress that might be backless:
Not that he had any doubts as to the back thus bared
being a sight for sore eyes. The omoplates would be
well defined . . . In repose they would be the blades
of an anchor, the delicate furrow of the spine its stem. . .
He saw it as a flower-de-luce, a spatulate leaf with seg-
ments angled back, like the wings of a butterfly sucking
a blossom, from their common hinge. Then fetching
from further afield, as an obelisk, a cross-potent, pain
and death, still death, a bird crucified on a wall. This
flesh and bones swathed in scarlet, this heart of washed
flesh draped in scarlet . . . (58-9)
As a catalyst for his fantasy, the Alba’s unbared back sends him off proliferating similes and metaphors; but to be confronted by her back in the flesh, no matter how enticing, would be to rob it of its mystery, and the infinite permutations, artistic and mystic, which it possesses in Belacqua’s imagination. Worse, it could flatly contradict him. Definite reality never measures up to his far-ranging dreams. Luckily for the hero, the maid can report: ‘ ‘It buttons ups behind, sir, with the help of God.’ . . . ‘Praise be to God’ said Belacqua ‘and his blissful Mother’’ (59). But Belacqua is not so lucky with later heroines, who obviously want the kind of physical relationship that the Alba deplores. Although adept at wriggling out of threatening situations, even Belacqua finds it hard to convince Thelma, his bride of a day, that they can be united as one in separate beds.
If Belacqua would like to appeal to women primarily as an artist, Beckett does do him the justice of showing the reader that he has encouragement. The narrator of More pricks than kicks makes it clear that the hero’s attractiveness to women as a lover is intimately connected to his preferred identity as artist—or at least to his pose as sensitive, ‘suffering’ man. In fact, his female admirers are beguiled by some ineffable quality that less sympathetic observers fail to notice, for the hero is pale, fat, limps, and frequently suffers from impetigo. The narrator pinpoints Belacqua’s special charm in ‘What a misfortune,’ by explaining her fiancé’s fascination for Thelma. Belacqua, apparently, has ‘soul.’
A poet is indeed a very nubile creature, dowered,
don’t you know, with the love of love, like La
Rochefoucauld's woman from her second passion on.
So nubile that women, God bless them, can't resist
them. Except of course those intended merely for
breeding and innocent of soul, who prefer, as less
likely to upset them, the more balanced and punctual
raptures of a chartered accountant or a publisher's
reader. Now Thelma, however much she left to be
desired, was not a brood-maiden (128).
This description of the poet is obviously ironic in Belacqua’s case, since he expresses his ‘love of love’ by a decidedly ‘keycold embrace’ (129). And though Thelma is no brood-maiden, she still desires after her wedding night not to be a maiden.
‘What a misfortune’ emphasizes Belacqua’s wish for spiritual communion and his concomitant instinct for self-preservation. On one level a satire of middle-class matrimony, the story as a whole is a neat exposition of Belacqua’s artistically determined auto-eroticism. More clearly than anywhere else in More pricks than kicks, Beckett reveals how Belacqua’s spirituality influences his sexuality, and why he finds his desires so difficult to fulfil.
Structurally, ‘What a misfortune’ is knit together by a series of sexual and spiritual motifs. First of all, we encounter the bride’s father, Otto Olaf bboggs, a man who has risen from the depths of his profession; he is in plumbing and toilet requisites.8 Otto Olaf’s interest in sex, dating from ‘his self-made sanitary phase’ (128), is so meagre that he more than welcomes his jejune wife’s affair with Walter Draffin, the effeminate bureaucrat, since it saves him considerable trouble. Belacqua would have envied this ideal arrangement. Otto Olaf allows his wife’s former cicisbeo (the affair having petered out) to consider their house and liquor supply as his own. Bridie bboggs seems to be such a nonentity and the adulterous liaison so low-key, that it is difficult to believe that Thelma ever resulted from such a union: ‘Bridie bboggs was nothing at all, neither as wife, as Otto Olaf had been careful to ascertain before he made her one, nor as mistress, which suited Walter’s taste for moderation in all things’ (131). Belacqua’s beloved, nevertheless, is the product of this vapid pair. Ironically, Thelma’s demise during her honeymoon suggests that she did not inherit her mother's passionless personality.
Beckett suggests just what kind of a mate the onanistic Belacqua has chosen by giving her an appropriate name. Thelma comes from the Greek for ‘nursling,’ but also means ‘air-maiden.’ The narrator has stated that she is decidedly ‘not a brood-maiden . . . while as for soul, sparkling or still, as preferred, it was her speciality’ (p128-9). Belacqua’s bride’s name also derives from the Greek Thalamos, a woman’s apartment or bridal chamber, in which the poet is afraid of being trapped. Directly before the ceremony, the groom has feelings of panic, expressed by images of incarceration: ‘Belacqua’s heart made a hopeless dash against the wall of its box, the church suddenly cruciform cage, the bulldogs of heaven holding the chancel . . . the transepts culs-de-sac. The organist darted into his loft like an assassin’ (148).
In addition to Thelma’s parents (all three who claim her allegiance), another incongruous couple serve as romantic foils. Hermione Nautzsche, ‘a powerfully built nymphomaniac panting in black and mauve between shipped crutches’ (148), and ‘Jimmy the Duck Skyrm, an aged cretin, outrageous in pepper and salt’ (148), find each other in a burst of senile passion in the pews of St Tamar’s. The female ‘moot struldbrug’s’ surname, Nautzsche, emphasizes her bizarre sexuality. ‘Nautch’ refers to ‘sensuous Indian dancers known as ‘nautch girls’’ (Harvey, 148). If the crippled Hermione cannot exactly entice her new lover,9 her presence nevertheless seems to have a profound effect, and Jimmy the Skyrm gnashes his teeth, touched beyond measure. At last she has found ‘her missing sexual hemisphere’ (148). This grotesque pair prefigures later ancient couples, particularly Moll and McMann, who find love when they can barely consummate it.
Belacqua, about to be married, is in much better physical shape than his aged relatives, but the reader begins to suspect that the bridegroom shuns what they would welcome. His attraction to Thelma, ‘a divine frenzy . . . none of your lewd passions’ (126), depends on her ‘promissory wad’ (127) and her speciality, soul. She was ‘so definitely not beautiful that once she was seen she was with difficulty forgotten, which is more than can be said for, say, the Venus Callipyge’ (127—Callipyge: having shapely buttocks). Belacqua’s best man, Hairy Capper Quin, understands his friend’s artistic and erotic peculiarities. Dressing for the wedding, the groom laments to Hairy: ‘It’s a small thing . . . separates lovers’ (146). Nothing so grandiose as mountains, or as pedestrian as city walls, it is sex that intrudes in the hero’s romantic liaisons. Though decidedly non-verbal, Capper Quin somehow manages to rise to the occasion of explaining his comrade’s attitudes to a friend named Sproule, and ‘dilated with splendid incoherence on the contradiction involved in the idea of a happy Belacqua and on the impertinence of desiring that he should derogate into such an anomaly. ‘ ‘Fornication’ he vociferated ‘before the Shekinah’’ (142).
In Dream, the hero had claimed that ‘the true Shekinah . . . is Woman’ (94); that is, a manifestation of God in the world, ‘a revelation of the holy in the midst of the profane,10 and this is probably how Belacqua would like to view Thelma. One interpretation definitely classifies Shekinah as a feminine principle, reflecting the divine masculine light as the moon reflects the sun. Beckett observes of his character’s religious expectations before the wedding: ‘Without going so far as to say that Belacqua felt God or Thelma the sum of the Apostolic series, still there was in some indeterminate way communicated to the solemnisation a kind or sort of mystical radiance that Joseph Smith would have found touching’ (149). The appeal to Joseph Smith’s hypothetical judgment underlines the equivocal nature of Belacqua’s attitude towards women. Supposedly experiencing a divine revelation during which he acquired the tablets of Mormon Law, Smith founded a religion originally maintaining certain practices, such as polygamy, which led critics to accuse him of lechery. As demonstrated in other stories, Belacqua is not free from concupiscent thoughts about the true Shekinah. His approach to women, however, is hopelessly confused by his attempts to achieve mystic fulfilment and his desire to perfect artistic expression.
Belacqua’s efforts to reach a timeless and volitionless realm through the earthly radiance of his beloved (with Lucy [light], the Alba [white, dawn], and then Thelma), is clarified by a more detailed consideration of Shekinah, which has various meanings in Biblical tradition. In ‘rabbinic literature . . .The Shekinah is God viewed in spatio-temporal terms as a presence, particularly in a this-worldly context: when He sanctifies a place, an object, an individual, or a whole people’ (Judaica, 1349-1350). An example of Shekinah in this sense is the burning bush. In Jewish thought, the Shekinah also signified the proximity of God to suffering humanity. Developing this concept and personalizing it, certain Jewish philosophers equated the Shekinah with ‘the glory of God, which served as an intermediary between God and man during the prophetic experience . . . and which sometimes takes on human form’ (Judaica, 1352). The dilemma, at least for Belacqua, seems to lie in his belief that women can serve not only as inspirations for art, but that they can somehow lead to a reunification of man with his essential nature or source (which may, unfortunately and ironically for someone like Belacqua, render art irrelevant). One goal of the religious experience, then, is to heal the breach between masculine and feminine principles and to reinstate unity.11 The Shekinah, thus, is ‘the first goal of the mystic who tries to achieve direct communion with divine powers’ (Judaica, 1354). Belacqua’s efforts to keep both himself and his paramours chaste probably stem from his wish to redeem both their fallen spirits and to release them from the tainted body into a nirvana-like peace.
What Belacqua does not question (and what Beckett as narrator does not make explicit) is why he should turn towards women for the answer to spiritual malaise or metaphysical anguish in the first place. (it is worth emphasizing that Belacqua does not seek to lose himself in women to avoid facing the problem, but to solve it.) The difficulty lies in the inherently paradoxical nature of the quest—to reunite the infinite with the finite is only a more general way of seeking to understand or affirm contact between the mind and the body. Various philosophers have conceived of a human being (at least since Descartes) as a ‘thing which thinks,’ a spirit tied to an often recalcitrant physical being. As early as his 1929 story ‘Assumption,’ Beckett’s heroes have been grappling with a way to release their spirits from the quotidian world and from their unruly bodies in particular. One way Belacqua seeks release is by intense contemplation of a woman’s eyes, deep pools which open up into a bottomless reality. It is made clear, particularly in Dream, that this dark, amorphous reality suggests the womb. Agents of birth, possible agents of death (and, thus, release), women draw the expectant hero into the spirit's ‘wombtomb.’ The name of Belacqua’s second wife is Thelma bboggs, and the microcosm of the Irish solipsist in Dream12 had been described as ‘an unsurveyed marsh of sloth’ (Dream, 108). At least initially, Belacqua has hopes of establishing a mystico-religious rapport with Thelma’s own spiritual bog. Along these same lines, Beckett further suggests throughout More pricks than kicks the relationship between love, art, and death—‘I’Amour et la Mort n’est qu’une même chose.’ It is Ronsard, albeit a bit distorted, who closes the ironic story 'Love and Lethe.’ We can also recall in this connection the seventeenth-century pun on ‘die.’ Furthermore, sexual procreation and artistic creation can be similarly expressed. According to Freud, they may also maintain inverse relations; i.e. sublimation leads to creation.13
The questionable nature of Thelma’s and Belacqua’s relationship is further amplified by the name Beckett chooses for the place where the wedding occurs. They are to be married in a non-existent Dublin Church, St Tamar’s, ‘pointed almost to the point of indecency’(147). This phallic allusion which seems, at first glance, a feeble matrimonial joke, actually points to the femaleness and self-imposed impotence (or auto-eroticism) of the hero. (Harvey points out that Belacqua is called a ‘compound of ephebe and old woman’  in ‘Draff.’) There is no Saint Tamar in the Bible, but in Genesis there is a Tamar who is the daughter-in-law of Judah. Originally the Canaanite wife of his eldest son, Er, she is the same woman who married her brother-in-law, Onan, at Judah’s insistence. She represents the rejected woman since Onan scattered his seed on the ground, refusing to consummate their marriage (he was slain by God for this sin). The implications of the union of Tamar and Onan are further developed in the closing scene. The success of Belacqua’s honeymoon14 appears questionable, since the bridegroom’s veronica had ‘wormed its stem out of the slit, fallen to the ground and been trodden underfoot’ (160).
Belacqua’s fantasies and his fascination with myth and legend, some of which he wants to incorporated into his life, have been communicated to Thelma in a minimal way. She is being primed, as it were, before her marriage, for the fuller revelation of her husband’s temperament after her marriage. One of the first things that he has told her he wishes to do on their honeymoon in Connemara is to re-enact an historical event. His enthusiasm has infected his fiancée, who finds it difficult to keep her mind on the wedding preparations.
For Thelma’s thoughts, truant to the complicated
manoeuvres required of a snow-white bride, had
flown on the usual wings to Galway, Gate of Connaught
and dream of stone, and more precisely to the Church
of Saint Nicholas whither Belacqua projected, if it were
not closed when they arrived, to repair without delay
and kneel, with her on his right hand at last for a
pleasant change, and invoke, in pursuance of a vow of
long standing, the spirits of Crusoe and Columbus, who
had knelt there before him. Then no doubt, as they
returned by the harbour to integrate their room in the
Great Southern, she would see the sun sink in
the sea. How was it possible to give them her
attention with such a prospect opening up before
her? Oh well is thee, and happy shalt thou be (p135-6).
In point of fact, there is a Church of St Nicolas in Galway, and a Great Southern Hotel which, from the advertisements in contemporary travel books, looks as if it were once fashionable. St Nicolas (the same saint who was corrupted into Santa Claus) is the patron saint of sailors and captives, especially in the east, and of children in the west. Galway for some time had been the gateway to trade and travel to the west, and it is natural that a seaport town should erect a church in his honour. Most interesting is the fact that Columbus, according to a long-standing Galway tradition, supposedly knelt in the church before embarking in the Santa Maria on his voyage to discover a northwest passage to the Indies and the Orient.15 Columbus may have captured Belacqua’s imagination in his role as western explorer, who has undertaken a seemingly impossible task (i.e. to find a passage to the east by going west). Transposing the Italian’s literal voyage, Belacqua wishes to bless his metaphysical voyage towards nirvana (or the east) and spiritual fulfillment, or even death (the west). The literal and metaphorical connotations of west are specifically exploited at the end of the story, when the honeymoon couple journey westward, and reflect back on the meaning of Columbus’s paradoxical journey for the hero.
As for Crusoe, the protagonist must be referring to Defoe’s literary character, a rebel of sorts who refused the conventional life that his father had mapped out for him and chose to become a sailor in order to explore the world himself.16 Galway was often the jumping-off point for trips to the east, and Crusoe’s adventures were inspired by the account of an actual sailor, Alexander Selkirk. Crusoe’s voyage and consequent estrangement from society on an uninhabited island, where he was totally isolated until Friday appeared, made him completely dependent upon his own resources. Crusoe, typically handy and stoic in his British way, created his own one-man society on the island in order to survive physically; to survive psychologically he had to depend on the strength of his internal world. In both senses, Crusoe’s isle functioned as a self-contained, insular microcosm.
The motifs suggesting erotic eccentricity by mocking sexual relationships and pointing to impotence lead up to the strange closing scene, where Beckett parodies the happy couple disappearing west into the sunset. In an indirect manner, Belacqua’s plans for his marriage are revealed, but since they are habitually cast by the hero in the form of legend and riddle, the reader is forced to identify the allusions. What emerges is Belacqua’s vision of himself as priest or devotee before his spiritual partner, also priestess and participant in the mysteries that lead to mystical union, and his contrary fear that his Shekinah may turn into a destructive Circe.
Before the wedding, the protagonist, like acolyte or novice, had prepared himself by entering a period of ‘inertia, which proceeded partly . . . from the need for self-Purification’ (138). But once the retreat and the nuptials are over, Belacqua fears that the time has come to unravel his fantasies to Thelma. The memory of his late wife (‘Lucy was atra cura in the dicky the best part of the way down to Galway’ )17 reminds him that he may have certain problems with Thelma that were precluded by Lucy’s crippling accident. Oblivious to his predicament, Thelma ‘begins to insist that she was Mrs Shuah, making his little heart go pit-a-pat’ (160). Belacqua summons up his courage, nevertheless, assumes an expression which Thelma has never seen before, and begins the sounding-out process:
‘Do you ever hear tell of a babylan?’ he said.
Now Thelma was a brave girl.
‘A what did you say?’ she said.
Belacqua went to the trouble of spelling the strange
‘Never’ she said. ‘What is it? Something to eat?’
‘Oh’ he said ‘you're thinking of a baba.’
‘Well then’ she said (160).
Although Belacqua corrects Thelma, she is still waiting for him to spell out the answer, not just the word. Instead of resolving this stale-mate, the bridegroom retreats and begins to fantasize:
His eyes were parched, he closed them and saw, clearer
than ever before, the mule, up to its knees in mire,
and astride its back a beaver, flogging it with a
But she was not merely brave, she was discreet as well.
‘Your veronica’ she said ‘that I wanted so much, where
is it gone?’
He clapped his hand to the place. Alas! the tassel had
drooped, wormed its stem out of the slit, fallen to the
ground and been trodden underfoot.
‘Gone west’ he said.
They went further (160).
The complex of allusions and word-play in this passage create a comprehensive picture of Belacqua’s sexual preferences and fears. ‘Babylan,’ the test word for the bride, refers, according to Harvey, to ‘a pagan priest, priestess, or medium in the central and south Philippines’ (Harvey, 258). If this reading is correct, the word calls to mind exotic eastern ritual. In primitive communities where women function as shamans, they oversee birth, marriage, death and the laws of their society in general.18 These female shamans often found their vocation after a dream or vision, and after this summons were instructed by their predecessors in the kind of knowledge appropriate to their calling; healing and midwifery specifically were part of this knowledge. A related factor, which bears on Beckett's treatment of women (whether or not ‘babylan’ refers to priest or priestess) is primitive understanding of the reproductive process. Frequently, the relationship between sexual intercourse and birth was obscure or unfact, all the processes of the female reproductive system were the object of awe and taboo. Women could miraculously give life—so what about death? Thelma, as Shekinah or babylan, and Belacqua, as humble worshipper or interpreter of the mustery, are supposed to strive together for assumption, at least as far as Belacqua is concerned. Unfortunately, Thelma’s associations are not spiritual but physical. She thinks of a baba au rhum, which may play into her husband’s sexual fears of being devoured by female physicality. (In Dream, the voluptuous Smeraldina’s refrain when she doesn’t understand a word that Belacqua uses is: ‘ ‘What’s that?’ . . . ‘something to eat?’’ (85).
Given Belacqua’s sexual predicament, however, it seems that ‘babylan’ must refer to ‘Babilanisme (mot italien),’19 as Stendhal describes it in a letter to Prosper Mérimée concerning his novel Armance. Stendhal’s hero, Octave, suffers from a hidden physical disability that causes him to hold back from society, a society which he already sees as generally amoral and vicious. In a world of philistines, this disability inevitability complicates his relationships with women. Stendhal explains Octave's dilemma which, apparently, is not unique, or eunique, in Paris: ‘II y a beaucoup plus d’impuissants qu’on ne croit’ (Correspondence, 290). Though Belacqua is not really impotent, to all intents and purposes he wishes to behave as if he were in ‘What a misfortune.’20
Stendhal raises a point in his letter that reflects on Belacqua’s decision to marry Thelma in the first place. Stendhal feels that his readers might justly question why a ‘babilan’ would marry at all. In the case of Octave, his desire to marry is bound up with the sincere affection that he feels for Armance—wedlock would ensure that they could always be together, which has not always been possible in the course of the novel. Social decorum and problems with relatives have made it, finally, advisable that they formalize their relations. Octave then becomes her protector. Belacqua wants something similar with his paramours. He often suggests, however, what Stendhal specifically rejects for his hero—a cicisbeo (specifically in the case of his fiancée. Lucy in 'Walking out').
Stendhal then examines the problem of the babilan as deceiver and the babilan as cuckold. Significantly, he uses Jonathan Swift as an example of the babilan who keeps his secret: ‘Le Dean Swift ne voulait pas se marier pour ne pas faire l’aveu: il se maria, sollicité par sa maîtresse mais jamais ne la vit en tête-à-tête, pas plus après qu’avant’ (291).21 If Stendhal is correct, Stella obviously did not object to this arrangement, whereby she never saw Swift alone. In order to clarify his analogy, Stendhal goes on to analyze what might have occurred between his pair of lovers if he had not decided to have Octave kill himself in the novel. Octave’s marriage to Armance might have succeeded, he speculates, for four reasons. First, Armance is shy; second, she loves Octave; third, like most babilans, her husband is an adept at substitute methods of satisfaction; and fourth, the majority of women do not really understand what the physical side of marriage entails (at least according to Stendhal). With Belacqua’s wife, Thelma, however, the case appears to be different. The aura of confusion that surrounds the babilan’s dealings with women reflects on her bewilderment about Belacqua and on her vague anticipation for the honeymoon, when she and her husband will 'integrate' their room on the wedding night.
Finally, the problem of how the babilan deals with the object of his affections, either as beloved or as wife, explains why Belacqua uses this indirect question and answer method with Thelma. Stendhal himself first chose the name Olivier for his protagonist (after another impotent hero) in order to avoid a direct mention of this delicate subject. Polite, hypocritical society was not yet ready for the direct approach: ‘Mais cette vérité est du nombre de celles que la peinture par du noir et du blanc, la peinture par l’imagination du spectateur ne peut pas rendre. Que de choses vraies qui sortent des moyens de l’art! . . . Le genre noir sur du blanc, ne me permet pas de suivre la vérité’ (291). Belacqua, then, is like sensitive Octave: ‘songe-creux, homme d’esprit, élève . . .’ (292). This comparison, however, finally reinforces the indolent Belacqua’s character as poseur, since his impotence is self-imposed. A passage in Dream clarifies this distinction, since it at once specifically identifies Belacqua with and differentiates him from Octave.
Beckett is describing the hero’s relationship with the Syra-Cusa, a Parisian femme fatale whom Belacqua admires. Beckett reveals that she is ‘as impotently besotted on Belacqua babylan, fiasco incarnate, Limbese, as the moon on Endymion. When it was patent, and increasingly so, that he was more Octave of Malivert [Stendhal's village] than Valmont and more of a Limbo barnacle than either, mollecone . . . honing after the dark’ (Dream, 44). The Syra-Cusa’s futile passion imitates the moon’s hapless passion for the mortal Endymion. The narrator, however, goes on to qualify this comparison. Belacqua is, finally, more interested in immersion in his own consciousness, his Limbo (his identity as the Florentine Belacqua), where inactivity and impotence are specifically sought after as a release from the emotional tangles of the external world. The hero’s difficulties are, therefore, largely fabricated, and the fiascoes in which he becomes involved are due to his inability either to maintain his impotence or to achieve a mature sexuality.
Belacqua may still possess some of the characteristics of the hero of Dream but his efforts to carry out his ‘narcissistic manoeuvres’ to deceive his paramours do not work as effectively. In Dream, Beckett had also used ‘babylan’ to identify the bohemian poet as fake or fraud: ‘He found him naif and a dull vain dog and a patent babylan’ (80). Both these related identities (babylan as fraud and babylan as covert impotent) bode ill for Thelma’s happiness. The hero’s onanism and narcissism (the Limbese aspect of his personality) and the frustration of woman in the face of an unattainable love object (also see Stendhal on love) are responsible for this romantic miscarriage. The mention of Endymion and the moon in Dream as counterpoints for Belacqua and the Syra-Cusa amplifies this sense of mismatch, and underlines what Harvey has elsewhere, in a related context, called the theme of 'non-consummation.’
These allusions to a confused sexual identity lead into the bridegroom’s castration fantasy. He momentarily retreats from his new wife, to take breath, as it were, before possibly trying again to enlighten her about his desire to reify his dearest dreams. The ultimate failure of this project is implied because the apparently recurring castration fable appears to him ‘clearer than ever before’ (160). Belacqua recalls the tradition that beavers were sought for their testicles, which were useful in manufacturing perfume or medicine. In an attempt to avoid death, the beaver would bite or cut off its own testicles and give them to the hunters, who would then be satisfied and spare the animal’s life. According to T.H. White’s medieval Bestiary, ‘The creature is called a Beaver (Castor) because of the castration.22 The fact that the sword in Belacqua’s fantasy is wooden, a sword used for training and not for actual battle, indicates his cowardice, his ambiguous sexual inclinations, and perhaps even his masochism. Significantly, the protagonist envisages the beaver in his reverie astride a mule, stuck in the mire, and Thelma’s name is a play on bogs, so prevalent in the Irish countryside. Furthermore, the mule is a hybrid animal, sterile by nature. Belacqua is obviously afraid of being lost in the physical being of his new wife, instead of being lost in her spiritual being, ‘those windows onto better world’s that Lucy’s big black eyes had been’ (126).
Neither the beaver, nor Belacqua, are brave (unlike Thelma, as we learn shortly after). What appears from the outside as a momentary pause in the conversation, or even an impasse, is, in reality, Belacqua’s struggle to maintain control. But he panics within. The approach-avoidance reaction Belacqua has towards sex is illustrated by this frantic response to stubbornness. The tableau is a metaphor for his conflict. The mule stands knee-deep in mud, and Belacqua can’t get away, like someone trapped in a nightmare, terror-stricken, paralyzed, unable to flee. If he is caught, the wooden sword, which doesn’t seem to be doing much good as a goad for the animal, won’t go to waste.
Although Harvey notes the beaver myth, the nature of the mule, and Thelma as bog in his discussion of Belacqua, he fails to mention a passage in Dream which clarifies the beaver allusion and which strengthens the identification of babylan as impotent rather than solely as priest or priestess. Sick in bed in Paris, the hero is debating how to respond to the irate telegram of the Smeraldina’s mother, ordering him to be up and away to his beloved in Vienna. Belacqua already has strong inclinations to drop the affair and this menacing note reinforces his wish to escape: ‘But the moment passed . . . and he opened wide the lids of the mind and let in the glare. The beaver bites his off, he said, I know, that he may live. That was a very persuasive chapter of Natural History. But he lost no time in reminding himself that, far from being a beaver or the least likely to sympathize with its aspirations, he was no less a person than the lover of the Belacqua Jesus and a very inward man’ (56). So the hero gives in, despite hepatic colic, and takes himself off to the panting Smeraldina in Vienna.
Belacqua’s anxiety about castration in ‘What a misfortune’ is amplified directly after the beaver reverie. The narrator ironically says that Thelma is not only brave but discreet. In an effort possibly to placate her husband, who closes his eyes and withdraws, and to distract attention from the fact that she is ignorant about babylans, she changes the subject, or so she thinks. Earlier, Thelma had requested his veronica as a wedding memento. As in the case of babylan, veronica suggests both physical and spiritual realms, referring to both the slender flower and the handkerchief impressed with Christ's features. Thelma wants his veronica terribly, and it is his sexual inviolability (in order to ensure his spiritual inviolability) that Belacqua is determined to preserve. His energetic response (‘he clapped his hand to the place. Alas!’) displays his concern. Gone limp, it has vanished. Sombre omens for the hero.
The title, ‘What a misfortune,’ completes this portrait of sexual fear and confusion. Significantly, Beckett had previously used the Italian version of this title on an undergraduate satire about contraceptives, ‘Che sciagura,’ which appeared in T.C.D.: a college miscellany (14 November 1929). The expression originates in Voltaire’s Candide. In chapters eleven and twelve (chapters ordinarily excluded from anthologized versions of the novel to protect the impressionable), the Old Woman, once the proud and beautiful daughter of a Pope, busily details the miseries of her life to the hero and Cunégonde. She had been kidnapped by pirates and raped; then she had witnessed a massacre in Morocco where her mother along with thousands of others had been cut to pieces. Covered with blood herself she had stumbled into a faint by a stream, and recovered only to hear a voice saying in her native tongue: ‘O che sciagura d’essere senza c[oglioni]!’23—Oh what a misfortune to be without b . . . .!—on which note chapter eleven concludes. It is revealed in chapter twelve that the handsome Italian is one of the castrati, and he reiterates his regret in the same terms when faced with this beautiful, but for him impenetrable, creature. Beckett implies in his satire, ‘Che sciagura,’ that for those unfortunate Irishmen with large families, who were denied contraceptive information because of Irish provincialism, the young Italian’s plight in Candide might not be such a misfortune (cf. Swift’s ‘A modest proposal’). Belacqua, however, would prefer to remain physically intact in order to indulge his onanism when the mood takes him; those moods get him into some ridiculous scrapes in More pricks than kicks (i.e. his peeping-tom expedition in ‘Walking out’).
Beckett intimates, therefore, that the newly-weds’ relationship will be a great misfortune for both of them. Later in ‘Draff,’ the narrator informs us that ‘Thelma née bboggs perished of sunset and honeymoon that time in Connemara’ (189). Before her wedding, she had fantasized on the strength of her lover’s portrayal of their trip, when they would pray together in church and then ‘integrate’ their bridal chamber. The implication is that Belacqua’s erotic aberrations have had something to do with Thelma’s death, sunset and honeymoon not usually being fatal. The light sinking in the west, the unorthodox poet may have explained how he wanted to die ‘a rapturous strange death’ (‘Sonnet to the Smeraldina’)24 with his beloved. Perhaps he suggested a cicisbeo to the innocent bride, as he had before marriage to Lucy in ‘Walking out,’ fearing embarrassment or emasculation. Already, an attempt at mystical communion via death had literally misfired and turned into a physical communion with Ruby in ‘Love and Lethe,’ though Belacqua fought his impulses until Scotch and Ruby’s knickers got the better of him. There have in fact been several abortive affairs25 in More pricks than kicks before the poet marries Thelma, a healthy, solvent woman. ‘What a misfortune,’ thus, portrays the comic start of an obviously (and swiftly) doomed relationship. The social fiasco of the wedding prefigures the emotional and physical fiasco to come.
The order of the stories in More pricks than kicks, finally, reinforces our impression not only of Belacqua’s sexual inadequacy, but of a much more crucial kind of inadequacy, which allows us to see why Beckett ultimately rejects his hero. The second, more general weakness, Belacqua’s failure of integrity, relates inversely to his sexuality—in other words, the less equivocal Belacqua feels about women, the better he functions socially and sexually, the worse he behaves, as far as the narrator is concerned: ‘I gave him up in the end because he was not serious’ (41). But since the two weaknesses are intimately connected, let us first dispense with the more particular problem of the hero’s sexuality.
After ‘What a misfortune,’ the reader is immediately plunged into ‘The Smeraldina’s billet-doux.’ Juxtaposed as it is with that tale of abortive marriage, ‘The billet-doux,’ which details the rampant physicality of its supposed writer (soon to be Belacqua’s third wife), is consummately ironic. Her dreams about her lover, so much more intense than Thelma’s, are at once hilarious and ominous. Yet the Belacqua of More pricks than kicks, unlike the hero of Dream, finds by the end of the collection that he can apparently cope with her energy—for he marries her. Although we never find out whether their union is a disaster, the Smeraldina has triumphed in a way. She survives, not only the honeymoon, but the hero. Yet passion and impatience, even if they are ‘quasi-Gorgonesque’ (190), cannot sufficiently account for Belacqua’s capitulation.26
One explanation of the poet’s behaviour lies in Beckett’s final evaluation of him in the last two stories. In ‘Yellow’ and ‘Draff,’ we see that the first hero is not strong enough to help the young ‘Mr Beckett’ as author untangle the grounds of his art. Belacqua’s inchoate personality, ultimately, did not allow a scrupulous analysis of the complex themes that already concerned his creator. When we encounter Belacqua alive for the last time in ‘Yellow,’ he is fretting over how his relatives will receive the news of his cowardice if he breaks down in tears before the operation, and over how he can impress the attractive or otherwise intimidating nurses who have become guardians of his body. The ‘misfortune’ now, is not an inconclusive judgment about wholehearted dedication to mind or body; the misfortune now, more for Beckett the creator than for Belacqua the creature, is that his Dublin rambler has allowed the world to infiltrate and sully his consciousness. Belacqua gives in to what Beckett specifically rejects in a 1936 satire about censorship in the world of the philistines: ‘the common sense mean.’27 His progressive socialization in the stories, which leads him to flirt, to court, and finally to marry—which leads him, in other words, to ‘relish the world’ (39)—inevitably means a betrayal of integrity. Belacqua is fraternizing with the enemy, his body as well as women. If this loss of purpose and potency is the effect of living in society on the man, the effect on the artist is even more paramount for Beckett. Conventional beliefs should never influence the writer's direction. 'This is getting dangerously close to the opinion . . . that for the artist as for the restaurateur, the customer is always right’ (‘Censorship in the Saorstat,’ 2). Perhaps Belacqua’s adventures in Dream and More pricks than kicks provided a test case for Beckett. A character fails either because his creator fails unwittingly in his portrayal, or because his creator consciously wills that failure in order to test specific hypotheses. Beckett makes his hero behave according to a domino theory of integrity. Once Belacqua gives in to one primary convention (marriage, not once but three times), he seems to be on the way to giving in to them all. But before he can, Beckett spares himself and the reader by eliminating his hero precipitately on the operating table.
In his apprentice work, then, Beckett moves towards the creation of a character who can accept responsibility, even though Beckett, as a young writer, does not know exactly what kind of responsibility he wants his character to accept. The initial situations facing his protagonists embrace the problem of options—what options are available to human beings in general and to artists in particular; how can we function effectively given the spiritual and emotional poverty of contemporary culture. Mind and body, man and woman, society and the individual all seem at odds, struggling to achieve some sort of harmony. All of Beckett’s apprentice work, therefore, is a search. He seeks to plot the dimensions of his subject—humanity’s fragmentation—and to discover his own unique mode of expression.28
Beckett’s problems with his first character, Belacqua, have to do, consequently, with his attempt to define for himself what being a writer is—why one writes, what one should write about, and what one can hope to achieve. Beckett singled out courage and tenacity (among other affinities) to emulate in those thinkers that he admired—courage to experiment with language, tenacity to persevere despite ridicule and criticism. But Beckett lacked the requisite faith in art (Joyce and Proust), and faith in God (Dante and Descartes). This lack is one reason why his first artist-hero feels torn constantly between allegiance to the macrocosm, which offers human, if not divine, love, and the microcosm, which promises self-love and peace. In either realm, as it turns out, the individual as artist, or merely as sensitive being, is threatened. He finds sources of inspiration in the external world (particularly woman as aesthetic object and woman as Muse), but he also finds himself distracted by obstacles that hinder artistic production (woman as physical object and woman as Circe). In the internal world, of course, the consciousness is free of physical vexations. And yet even in this retreat, the hero is not completely at ease. Once in the lowest depths (for example, Belacqua’s ‘wombtomb,’ Murphy's third zone, Molloy’s ‘ruins’), the artist’s will may be engulfed by the volitionless pull of a primeval flux, which makes no distinction between thoughts and images, and where composition and decomposition occur simultaneously. This tension between microcosm and macrocosm becomes more pronounced and complex as Beckett develops. The personae are threatened by their ‘vice-existers’ (their creations, masculine as well as feminine) and by their relentless hypothetical imperatives in a more terrifying way than they were ever threatened by the world outside (women included). The stakes of the game now are elemental—the persona is fighting for his voice; in other words, for his very existence.
The crucial difference in the later work, then, is the honesty and integrity with which the human condition is faced; though sometimes, paradoxically, Beckett allows honesty to yield to what will help a character to survive, to endure. Emotion can be a double-edged sword. In Happy days, for example, Winnie keeps up a brave front by talking enthusiastically, as the sands slowly climb higher and higher and the sun beats down. Willie, for his part, hides silently, no more effective than she. Yet his presence comforts her. Game-playing in the mature work alternates with acerbic flashes of truth. Relationships between the sexes take their place along with other games people play to avoid recognizing their insuperable isolation. And yet those relationships hover about like religious and cultural ghosts—divine love, human love, once they were supposed to mean something. Nagg and Nell can still remember Lake Como; Krapp, despite his cynical groans, cannot forget that tape recorded in his thirty-ninth year, that incident on the lake with his lover. Women, thus, when they do appear as central characters in Beckett’s later novels and plays, are no more ridiculous or noble than men. The more traditional portrayal of female character, patronizing or satiric, has generalled been exorcized along with Beckett’s reliance on traditional form and style.29 The voice in the dark, or the lone figure on the stage, is sometimes a man and sometimes a woman; and sometimes it is difficult to tell—the anguish is all that counts.
In the apprentice fiction, then, Beckett does not make the women who try to seduce Belacqua (or whom he tries to seduce) the real culprits. They are often deceived systematically by the poet’s arcane methods of lovemaking and are no more ludicrous than he. Beckett’s treatment of women soon after in his first complete novel, Murphy, is particularly instructive. He takes Belacqua’s reluctance about sex and transforms it in Murphy’s character. The second hero’s paramour, Celia, is certainly a victim of the physical world as much as her lover, and she in fact becomes his spiritual heir. If Murphy had not died, she might have been able to explore with him their perplexing common humanity. She has always known about the comfort of the bed; she learns about the comfort of the rocking-chair. She could then, perhaps, have offered the hero ‘music music music’ with Celia, the golden-haired Irish prostitute; and ‘music music music’ with Celia, the namesake of St Cecilia.30 She begins to question her identity as Mr Willoughby Kelly her name: ‘S’il y a’ (Murphy, 115).
But although Belacqua fails with women as Murphy does not fail, his initial reactions to failure set the pattern for his successor’s reactions. We can see this connection in the outcome of Belacqua’s amorous schemes in ‘Love and Lethe’ and ‘What a misfortune,’ which epitomize the outcome of all of his artistic-erotic plans. His ‘temporarily sane’ (102) attempts to fulfil both his mystic and artistic nature by integrating himself with the true Shekinah of his choice (except in the case of the cripple Lucy) lead to fiasco, frustration, or flight. His behaviour early in More pricks than kicks in ‘Fingal,’ in particular, before he learns to relish the world, points to a solution favoured by his successors. Belacqua disappears from his current girl-friend Winnie in a ‘square bawnless tower’(30)31 for isolated self-communion, for ‘sursum corda’ according to his God. He prays that he were back in the caul. When all else fails, immersion in the cogito provides some measure of compensation; in other words, when all else fails, the Beckett hero longs for madness.
Belacqua’s attitudes towards sex, then, which clarify his desire to return to the womb and his budding solipsism, lead into Beckett’s initial exploration of insanity, too. But Belacqua is left on the threshold of madness, as he is left on the threshold of everything else. He only occasionally visits Portrane Lunatic Asylum; he only briefly finds ‘l’amour and la mort’ in the ling with Ruby; he only fleetingly enjoys sunset and honeymoon in Connemara. Belacqua’s comic exit from the macrocosm makes way for Murphy, who confronts similar problems, but who decides by the end of the novel to avoid Belacqua’s misfortunes with his body by turning to a realm where the physical is no longer relevant: the microcosm.
Beckett’s development, therefore, of all the characters from Belacqua to the Unnamable, testifies to his continuing search for a way to cope with human dichotomies, treading a fine line between sanity and insanity. But although the dilemma of relation is a capital issue in the fiction certainly, it is superseded by the dilemma of perception—what to perceive, how to perceive, and how to evaluate what one perceives. This dilemma, confronted by the consciousness, focusses on modes of being. Beckett moves in Dream and More pricks than kicks, then, from an uncertain perception of himself as creator and a confused evaluation of his character, to a position where the confusion becomes the subject, style becomes the expression of the bewildered mind’s activity, and final judgments become not only unnecessary, but impossible. The search for the self is synonymous with the creation of a literary work. And since this drama takes place primarily in the microcosm (though the voice may have a body floundering around somewhere up in the light), the voice is neuter for all intents and purposes. In the French fiction, Beckett’s personae do not usually face Watt’s perceptual difficulty when he sees a figure coming down the road:
But to decide whether it was that of a man, or that
of a woman, or that of a priest, or that of a nun, was
more than Watt could do, strain as he might his eyes.32
1 Samuel Beckett, More pricks than kicks, London, Calder and Boyars, 1966, 94. All quotations will hereafter be cited in the text according to page number only.
2 Samuel Beckett, Dream of fair to middling women, ca. 1932. Unpublished work. Composed primarily during 1932 in Paris, the novel contains two long chapters, prefaced by a terse introduction, divided by a transitional passage, and followed by an epilogue. Beckett labels his five divisions ‘One,’ ‘Two,’ ‘Und,’ ‘Three,’ ‘And.’ All quotations hereafter cited in the text by Dream and page number.
3 Lawrence E. Harvey, Samuel Beckett: poet and critic, Princeton, Princeton UP, 1970. Harvey meticulously studies all of Beckett’s poetry (French as well as English). Quotations hereafter cited in the text by Harvey and page number.
4 See my dissertation, Fair to middling heroes: a study of Samuel Beckett’s early fiction (Columbia, 1974), for a complete discussion of how More pricks than kicks is clearly a stylistic and structural advance over the draft novel Dream. It is worth noting here that there are several parallels that can be drawn between Beckett’s early work and Joyce’s Stephen Hero and Portrait of the Artist. Beckett often consciously parodies Joyce and enough critics have mentioned the conclusion of ‘A wet night,’ where rain is general all over Ireland. There are other even more noteworthy echoes, however, which underline the single most important factor dividing Dream and More pricks than kicks, the distance that the narrator maintains between himself and the hero. Beckett’s development, in a sense is an effort to exorcize the Belacqua in him, to exorcise the artist who is too much in love with words.
5 Belacqua’s mystical transfiguration with Ruby in ‘Love and Lethe’ is balked and he winds up ‘Blaking’ her. Even the Belacqua of Dream bandied suicide about with the Alba, but their conversation never even neared the planning stage.
6 Samuel Beckett, Murphy, New York, Grove Press, 1957, 234. Hereafter quotations will be cited in the text according to title and page number.
7 ‘Astride of a grave and a difficult birth,’ Waiting for Godot, New York, Grove Press, 1954, 58. There is an elaborate series of images concerning Belacqua’s ‘prothanic’ nature running through Dream and More pricks than kicks. This theme of arrested development, which connects the womb, birth, and death, appears in the mature work, too.
8 Beckett obviously intends a pun on bog as British slang for toilet—originally ‘Bog-house. dial. and vulg. 1705. A privy’ (OED).
9 There is also a ‘dauntless nautch girl’ in the poem ‘Sanies I’ (from Echo’s bones and other precipitates) who frustrates the persona. Beckett describes the Alba in almost the same terms in ‘A wet night,’ where she demonstrates that her forte is inspiring passion, not in fulfilling it.
10 Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 14, Jerusalem, Keter Publishing House Ltd., Macmillan, 1971, 1330; cited as Judaica in the text. Information about ‘Shekinah’ is drawn from this source and from The interpreter’s dictionary of the Bible: an illustrated encyclopedia, New York, Abingdon Press, 1962.
11 Plato’s parable in the Symposium comes to mind here. Man, who originally comprised both male and female, divided. Love strives to heal that original breach, to reunite man as a ‘double being.’
12 Belacqua’s tripartite mind as a whole (and his third being in particular), as it is described in Dream, is a parody of a traditional characterization of God. Jorge Luis Borges in an essay entitled ‘Pascal’s sphere, from Other inquisitions, traces the history of this formula which describes the Divine Principle as a perfectly proportioned infinitude whose ‘centre’ is ‘everywhere and periphery nowhere, an unsurveyed marsh of sloth’ (Dream, 107-8). Belacqua, we discover, is father, son, and holy ghost all wrapped up in one indolent form.
13 It can be argued that later Beckett characters, while they do not have women as actual paramours or even muses, find surrogates which suggest this contradictory relationship between male and female. In Molloy, the woman Lousse is identified with wisdom (Sophie Lousse). The only thing she asks of the derelict is that she be allowed to contemplate his body from time to time. Molloy feels that he is being drugged by her (she ‘mollifies’ Molloy) with something that ironically recalls the protective herb Hermes gave to Odysseus to combat Circe’s charms. On the other hand, Malone, the creator of Sapo and Macmann, scribbles their adventures with a little green Venus pencil, his instrument of creation.
14 In ‘Sedendo et quiesciendo,’ transition, no. 21, March 1932, Belacqua’s addiction to peeping Tomism is referred to as ‘livid rapture of the Zurbarán Saint-Onan . . . Rapturous strange death!’ (65). Zurbarán is a seventeenth-century Spanish baroque artist, who is particularly noted for his portrayal of the mystic, saint, or monk in contemplation. Belacqua’s surname, Shuah, is also connected with his identity as Onan, since the name can refer to the wife of Judah (father of Onan).
15 Fodor’s Ireland: 1971, ed. Eugene Fodor, Robert C. Fisher, New York, David McKay Co. Inc, explains the legend under the rubric ‘Columbus and the College’:’.’ . . the Collegiate Church of St Nicholas of Myra, dated back to 1320 . . . In this church, Christopher Columbus is reputed to have prayed before sailing for the west in the Santa Maria. Earlier (1477), Columbus sailed for some time in one of the Portuguese vessels engaged in the “Atlantic Corridor trade”. . . he certainly called at Galway . . . One of the Galway navigators, Rice de Culvey, was among the crew of Columbus’s ship on his 1492 voyage of exploration’ (405).
16 Beckett also mentions Crusoe in ‘Yellow.’ The hero labouring to bring his mind under control (in order to be more comfortable before the operation) listens to an asthmatic choking above his hospital room. After his coughing fit passes, the asthmatic will, Belacqua thinks, be able to doze off: ‘Meanwhile he coughed, as Crusoe laboured to bring his gear ashore, the snugger to be’ (173).
17 The ‘dark care’ (of Horace) which accompanies Belacqua is the spirit of Lucy, his dead wife.
18 Frank Charles Laubach, The people of the Philippines, New York, George H. Doran Co, 1925, and James A Le Roy, Philippine life in town and country, New York and London, G. Putnam’s Sons, 1905. ‘Babailanes (primitive soothsayers)’ or ‘Mabaleean’ are tribal mediums or shamans.
19 Stendhal (Henri Beyle), Oeuvres complètes: correspondence, tome second, XXIV, Paris: chez Pierre Larrive, 1954, 290. I am indebted to Professor Michael Wood for calling this use of babilan and Stendhal’s letter to my attention.
20 The castration fantasy that follows also supports the fact that Belacqua is not physically impotent. In Dream he is raped by the Smeraldina and frequents the red-light district. In More pricks than kicks he makes love to Ruby, and it is hard to believe that he did not give in to the Smeraldina’s ardour. Finally, in ‘Echo’s bones,’ an unpublished short story which is a sequel to More pricks than kicks, Beckett plays a final joke on the dead Belacqua by not only making him a father posthumously, but by first involving him in a posthumous conception.
21 Beckett has specifically exploited the parallel between his hero and Swift earlier in ‘Fingal,’ where he links the themes of sex, art, and madness. Belacqua’s present affair with Winnie is played out against the back-drop of a mysterious romantic triangle in the past (Swift, Stella, Vanessa), which elucidates his sexual maladjustment.
22 T.H. White, The Bestiary: a book of beasts, trans., ed., T.H. White, from a twelfth-century Latin Bestiary, New York, G. Putnam’s Sons, 1960, 29. The moral lesson drawn from the beaver’s fate tells the good man how to approach God. ‘Hence every man who inclines toward the commandment of God and who wants to live chastely, must cutt off from himself all vices, all motions of lewdness, and must cast them from him in the Devil’s face’ (29).
23 Voltaire, Romans et contes, ed. René Pomeau, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1966, 201.
24 Belacqua’s true consummation will be possible, the poem reveals, only if he is ‘ . . . consumed and fused in the white heat/Of her sad finite essence’ (11. 5-6). This conflagration will then lead to a phoenix-like rebirth: ‘Conjoined in One and in the Infinite’ (1.14).
25 Belacqua has become embroiled with the racy, pretty Winnie (later reported as ‘dead to decorum’ among Belacqua’s departed sweethearts); with the little Alba, ‘not woman of flesh’(58); with the formerly ‘appetizing’ spinster Ruby; and with the pert, athletic (and suddenly crippled) Lucy. Thelma then appears on the scene.
26 It is worth emphasizing that the order of Belacqua’s two primary liaisons in Dream is reversed in More pricks than kicks. His platonic passion for the Alba occurs relatively soon in the stories and is superceded by other precarious amours (Alba Perdue appears once more, but only as a bridesmaid at Belacqua’s wedding to Thelma). Finally, however, Belacqua winds up with the Smeraldina. The narrator excuses the hero by indicating that she ‘was the only sail in sight’ (189), all the other ladies having died or disappeared. The poet still, though, ‘look[s] forward to meeting the girls, Lucy especially, hallowed and transfigured beyond the veil’ (195). One wonders how these fantasies about the after-life sustain Belacqua joined in wedlock to the Smeraldina, who wrote to him earlier: ‘Oh! Bel . . . I want your body your soft white body Nagel-nackt! My body needs you so terrible, my hands and lips and breasts and everything els on me’(163).
27 Samuel Beckett, ‘Censorship in the Saorstat,’ ca.1936. Unpublished work, 7 pp, 2.
28 If Beckett suggests directions rather than solutions in his apprentice fiction, he does nevertheless offer the artist a method of a kind that will keep artistic experimentation from being too haphazard. (Whether this method works is another question.) Like Descartes, Beckett develops a positive way to act that begins with negation. He tells the reader in Dream what Kind of novel he cannot, in good conscience, write, given his perceptions about human nature and his opinions about what art should be. So, like the traditionalists who define an uncircumscribable God by saying what he is not, Beckett focusses on what kind of novel he will not write, in order to point to what he is trying to do (perhaps even before he is mature enough as a writer to do it).
29 I am not suggesting that we never see women presented or satirized in a familiar way in the later work. Beckett makes use of stereotypes of both male and female behaviour. The suffering for the sexes, however, is more nearly equal. In the case of love in particular, Molloy provides instructive examples. Love may have been offered to Molloy by Edith or Ruth; perhaps his paramour was even a man. He would have gladly accepted a goat, to know what true love was. As far as physical threat goes, emotion can be dangerous from any quarter. Lousse threatens Molloy, but so does the old charcoal-burner in the forest, whom Molloy brutally rejects.
30 Beckett uses music in More pricks than kicks to refer alternately to spiritual and to sexual experience to stress Belacqua’s inconsistency. Celia’s subsequent relationship with Murphy clarifies Beckett’s intention. Murphy comes home looking forward to ‘nocturne, aubade, etc.’ with Celia as lover. Beckett puns on her name in more than one way, but as a surrogate St Cecilia her role in creating musical harmony also refers to the harmony of sexual experience. Murphy does not want to work, but ‘Celia said that if he did not find work at once she would have to go back to hers. Murphy knew what that meant. No more music. This phrase is chosen with care, lest the filthy censors should lack an occasion to commit their filthy synecdoche’ (76).
31 This tower perhaps recalls Joyce’s omphalos-shaped Martello tower at Sandy-mont in Ulysses. Stephen associates the sea with his dead mother whlie he is living in the tower, and suffers from his attempts to reconcile his guilt with her memory in his imagination.
32 Samuel Beckett, Watt, London, John Calder, Jupiter Books, 1963, 224.