Review: ‘Samuel Beckett and the pessimistic tradition’

by Steven J. Rosen (Rutgers UP, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1976. $12.50)


John Pilling


The ‘pessimistic tradition’ of Steven Rosen’s title turns out, as one might indeed have expected, to be about as atomized as it well could be, although his approach is mercifully a little less haphazard than Reinhard Kuhn’s misguided attempt to elicit a tradition of ennui in his recent study The demon of noontide (Princeton, 1976). If ‘tradition’ is taken to mean an apprehensible transmission of fact or doctrine, or an accepted method or custom of procedure, we must ultimately doubt whether the fact that pessimists, like the poor, are always with us is enough to justify such a term, since it is part of the stuff of pessimistic thinking—even when the pessimist in question has thoroughly assimilated the utterances of his predecessors and quoted them as ratifying authorities for his own feelings—to be irrepressibly, and to my mind irresistibly, fresh and vital, precisely because they write as if a complaint of such sincerity and magnitude has never been registered before.


‘Pessimistic’ here, predictably enough, turns out to mean Schopenhauer, which obviously has a lot to be said for it, even if Rosen does somewhat misrepresent the uniqueness of approaching Beckett through that magnificent writer. However the omission of any real consideration of Leopardi or Chamfort (of those writers Beckett is known to admire) or of more recondite thinkers like Chaadaev, Leontiev, Gobineau and Henry Adams (whom we may presume Beckett has not often read) makes a nonsense of the other half of Rosen’s title. This is a great pity because to have seen Rosen confronting a pessimist like de Sade and asking himself why Beckett should have been interested at one time in Les 120 jours de Sodom or the suave mari magno of Lucretius which Malone was so impressed by - especially at the point (quoted on page 42 of this book) where Schopenhauer is purloining it—would have been really instructive and laid the foundations for a truly informed account of Beckett’s pessimism. The lurking hero of Rosen’s book, as the epigraph announces, is Lichtenberg, and splendid writer he is, but greater familiarity with Lichtenberg’s ‘doctrine of scattered occasions’ and any cognizance at all of the sterner aphorisms of the inconsolable Chamfort would have improved Rosen’s argument out of all recognition.


Rosen’s approach is to take Boethius’s classic Consolation as a polar opposite to Beckett’s Complaint, which looks like clever tactics, but is really poor strategy. The reader is left, despite the incidental felicities of the exposition, with the unenviable task of setting Beckett up at the expense of Boethius (and several other great thinkers) or getting in behind Rosen’s argument in a manner than can only lead to its total collapse. Later on, when Rosen realizes (with the help of Pascal) that there is really no pessimistic tradition, and silently alters his subject to ‘the literature of solitary complaint’ (which is not at all the same thing), he shifts his ground and suddenly divides pessimists into two great groups, those who directly and strenuously combat optimism and those who do not (Hardy, for instance, is placed here, although no case is argued). Rosen is sensitive to Beckett’s preference for complaint over consolation, but to say that ‘complaint itself consoles his speakers’ is not enough. It may be true of the Provençal enuegs of early Beckett and could at a pinch be applied to a modern thinker like E.M. Cioran, but it is the job of parts of How it is, among any number of other self-reflexive lacerations that Beckett inflicts on himself, to show exactly how hollow mere complaint can be.


It is when one has called the bluff of his title and seen what Rosen is really trying to do that there is a lot to be learnt from this book. His discussion of Beckett’s Proust—to which the second half of the book is entirely given over—is indeed likely to prove of permanent value, despite moments of erratic and unfocussed exposition, when Rosen seems intent only on pursuing the burgeoning ramifications of something he could go on spinning out of himself ad infinitum. This section is for the Beckett expert rather than the Beckett novice, which is no bad thing these days, and is much the most carefully argued part of the book. It is very shrewd of Rosen to say of the Proust book, ‘Correlative with his philosophical rejection of the continuum, each of his critical judgments must be an all-or-nothing matter’ and shrewd, too, to point out how Beckett ignores Proust’s critiques of pessimism and turns Proust into an amoralist. ‘What Beckett always refused to see about involuntary memories,’ writes Rosen excellently, ‘was how these exceptional moments could effect a reconciliation to a painful norm and even cause that norm to be revaluated.’ ‘Problems and solutions,’ from which this comes, is the best single chapter in the book. Elsewhere Rosen writes a little too much like the prize postgraduate on his mettle, unable to leave well enough alone and uncertain as to how much incidental wisdom he should display. Whilst his analysis of the relationship between Proust, Schopenhauer and Beckett is extremely acute in its rehearsal of ideas, the writing is often arch and awkward.


It is a book which finally raises more questions than it answers. Does Beckett really speak ‘to that within us which finds absurdity beautiful and does not want to bear responsibility’? Is it Beckett’s pessimism (whatever that hypostatized abstraction may be induced to mean) which ‘leads him to require that art be difficult in order to be authentic’? (Rosen has obviously not watched Beckett at work in the theatre and indeed is not really interested in Beckett’s drama as a whole.) Is Happy days Beckett’s ‘bitterest’ work, and is his most ‘hostile’ writing always so unappealing? (Rosen’s critique of Sartre’s Nausea suggests that he is made of sterner stuff.) Is Krapp’s last tape really ‘Beckett’s most perfect work and the epitome of his art’? Can The unnamable, Play and How it is be meaningfully described as ‘eschatological’? Is ‘crude’ the right adjective to apply to Henry James’s The beast in the jungle? Is it, in fact, ‘the movement from pessimism to scepticism that most frequently characterizes Beckett’s mature writing’ or isn’t it rather a good deal less abstract a matter than this?


It seems to me that Rosen gets things right and wrong in about equal measure. He is right to say of Beckett’s scepticism that ‘there is no reason to regard it as the product of a particular situation’ and right to point out that Beckett’s attitude to ‘self-perception’ changes between Proust and Murphy; right also when he says that Beckett’s outcasts are more serene than the restless wanderers of Céline, and right to say of the Beckett of Murphy that he is ‘less of a sage than a wise guy.’ But he is wrong to say that Beckett ‘found Breton sufficiently interesting to translate’ when the Breton translations were part of Beckett’s ‘foutaise alimentaire’ and have not been reprinted; wrong also to say that ‘calmative’ is Beckett’s own term, since he must have known Baudelaire’s use of the word in his Consoling maxims upon love. It is misleading to say that the Surrealist origins of Beckett’s trilogy are ‘known,’ since they require extensive argument (and recourse to Sighle Kennedy) to be convincingly substantiated, if indeed this is possible to do.


Rosen’s conclusion, ‘Beckett’s writing is most humane, interesting and consistently entertaining when it is also most in touch with literary tradition,’ may cause some hearts to flutter when one reflects that Beckett’s interest has for so long been the quest for a self independent of literary invention. And yet it must be admitted that the claim merits serious consideration, not so much because Rosen has proved his contention (which would require another book-length study) as because so many Beckett critics obviously subscribe implicitly to this view, as their indexes so often disclose.