Beckett’s animals

 

Steven Connor

 

It is surprising to find a fictional landscape as recurrently bleak and inhospitable as that of Beckett’s so well-stocked with animals. His work contains references to horses, goats, pigs, hens, parrots, sheep, mules, dogs, apes, rabbits, slugs, worms and hedgehogs, as well as a lobster and a llama. It is customary to assume that Beckett uses these animals to press home his sense of disgust and contempt for the human and the rational;1 but a closer examination of his prose fiction reveals that animals are usually subjects of interest in their own right rather than merely providing a vocabulary of defamation.

 

There are, first of all, occasions when animals are used for the sake of a joke. One of the most brilliant of these is the parrot owned by Jackson in Malone dies, which can only master the first half of the motto Nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu.2 The animal is taken here as an embodiment of sense without understanding or will (and yet with the capacity for articulation). Though, in fact, the joke would work just as well if the parrot were able to remember all of the phrase it is doubly funny to have the bird remembering only the first and most inappropriate part, thereby affirming the absoluteness of the separation between body and mind. Parrots appear quite regularly in Beckett’s fiction, often serving to illustrate the position of the narrator as incurious amanuensis (‘I say it as I hear it,’ as the narrator in How it is insists). ‘A parrot, that’s what they’re up against, a parrot,’ declares the speaker in The unnamable. Elsewhere in the Trilogy, the joke is inverted, and the dictating oracle is seen as an uncomprehending parrot itself, ‘the paraclete, psittaceously named’ (Malone dies, 250). Because they share a language with human beings, in a sense, parrots are often presented anthropomorphically—as in the case of the constipated cockatoo in Mercier and Camier.3

 

But in most cases Beckett’s presentation of animal life, even though it often involves domesticated animals, or animals living close to man, is free of this kind of anthropomorphism. Far from being easily knowable, animals often provoke a sense of mystery and uncertainty. The narrator in From an abandoned work describes his vision of a white horse crossing his path a long way off.4 Though described in some detail more detail than the person leading it, who may be either a boy, or a small man or woman—it remains enigmatic; as with other itinerant animals in Beckett’s work, its destination is uncertain. And it leaves the impression of a fabulous or mythical creature: ‘I had never seen such a horse, though often heard of them, and never saw another’. (No’s knife, 141)

 

A similar encounter occurs in ‘The calmative’. There the narrator meets a young boy with a goat and tries to speak to them, only for them to move away mysteriously: ‘Soon they were no more than a single blur which if I hadn’t known I might have taken for a young centaur. I was nearly going to have the goat dung, then pick up a handful of the pellets so soon cold and hard, sniff and even taste them. . .’ (No’s knife, 32). The quality of feeling here, as elsewhere, approaches that of religious awe.

 

There are two similar apparitions in Molloy. Both narrators describe how they encounter a shepherd leading his flock and in each case wonder whether the sheep are bound for pasture or for the slaughterhouse (28-29, 158-60). The episode illustrates the differences and similarities between Moran and Molloy, Molloy passively imagining that the sheepdog may have taken him for a ram, waiting to be sacrificed, while Moran is more aggressive, and wonders whether the flock do not take him for the butcher come to select his victim. In both of the narratives, the presence of animals arouses a powerful sense of otherness, of a world lying beyond the reach of human language and intention. But if the episode is disturbing, then it is oddly calming too, for both men are able temporarily to suspend the fractious scepticism of their narratives and forget themselves in consoling reverie. Where Molloy’s speculation about the fate of the sheep takes him outside himself, however, Moran’s is typically self-pitying, for he concludes his report with a wistful vision of the shepherd arriving home, and the dog waiting outside ‘not knowing whether he may go in or whether he must stay out, all night’ (161). Moran has already told us how he longs to serve the shepherd faithfully in return for shelter, and is clearly identifying himself with the sheepdog and the lost sheep (which the shepherd does not notice). Whereas Moran’s lachrymose religiosity takes the animal world into symbolic custody, Molloy respects its otherness, its unapproachability. He records with equanimity his own descent into the condition of an animal, crawling, and eating grass, while Moran is fiercely defensive of his humanity and bullyingly aggressive towards the natural world:

 

            Anyone else would have lain down in the snow, firmly resolved

            never to rise again. Not I. I used to think that men would never get

            the better of me. I still think I am cleverer than things. There are

            men and there are things, to hell with animals. And with God. When

            a thing resists me, even if it is for my own good, it does not resist

            me for long. (166)

 

But despite his dismissal of animals, Moran begins to sink to the condition of his quarry, Molloy, sinking to all fours, eating grass and roaring (165, 167).

 

Moran’s proprietorial conviction that he has the animal world subdued is reflected in his ownership of hens and bees. He derives great solace on his journey home from thinking about the complicated dance-patterns executed by the bees (though, as so often in Beckett, the very elegance and elaboration of his inventory of and theories concerning the dances of the bees involves a drift away from the literal reality of the object into a rhetorical closed field). That this occurs towards the end of his narrative, however, is indicated by Moran’s discarding of his dream of reducing the bees’ dance to order in favour of a vision of blissful self-surrender to its unintelligibility: ‘. . . for me, sitting near my sun-drenched hives, it would always be a noble thing to contemplate, too noble ever to be sullied by the cogitations of a man like me, exiled in his manhood. And I would never do my bees the wrong I had done my God, to whom I had been taught to ascribe my angers, fears, desires, and even my body’ (170). Despite Moran’s claim to renounce self-centred anthropomorphism, however, there is still something grandiose about this fantasy, a voluptuousness in the renunciation. But this is reduced to desolation when Moran returns home to find his bees dead from long neglect. His pride and self-satisfaction are answered devastatingly by the light, dry ball of dead bees: ‘It crumbled under my fingers. They had clustered together for a little warmth, to try and sleep. I took out a handful. It was too dark to see. I put it into my pocket. It weighed nothing, (176) What is so terrible about this is not the guilt which Moran feels, so much as the shrivelling into unaccusing objectivity of the dead bees. (The importance of the ball of bees as a talisman is indicated by the fact that it seems to survive among Malone’s possessions, though he no longer remembers what it is.5)

 

The end of Moran’s narrative shows him attempting to attain some of Molloy’s passivity, schooling himself to listen to the internal voice which he has begun to hear. This resolution seems to be connected in his mind with his effort to try to understand the language of his birds:

 

            My birds had not been killed. They were wild birds . . . I tried to

            understand their language better. Without having recourse to mine.

            They were the longest, loveliest days of all the year. I lived in the

            garden. I have spoken of a voice telling me things, I was getting to

            know it better now, to understand what it wanted. (176)

 

These birds are perhaps more serious versions of Jackson’s parrot. Moran seems to find in his garden some inkling of an Edenic, uncorrupted language, with nothing in it of will or self-consciousness. We can compare Moran’s listening to animals with Molloy, who listens to his interior voice as an animal: ‘I heard a murmur, something gone wrong with the silence, and I pricked up my ears, like an animal I imagine, which gives a start and pretends to be dead’. (88) Both endings in Molloy constitute a kind of self-abandonment; Moran is about to set off, Molloy leaves himself stranded in a ditch. A more radical self-abandonment is attempted in Malone dies, the abolition of self through absorption in the ‘play’ of storytelling. Again, animals play an important part in these stories and in that abandonment.

 

Malone sets himself the task of telling four stories, two about human beings, one about an animal (‘a bird probably’) and one about a thing (‘a stone probably’). Malone’s chain of being does not extend from the natural world up through the human to the angelic and divine orders, but rather places those elements in reverse order of priority. For Malone, the terminal, and most desirable condition is that of stone, while the basest and most repulsive condition is that of thinking humanity. Accordingly, Malone runs together the man and woman and proposes to get them out of the way first (182) and intends to end his life not with a preparation of his soul for entry into the afterlife, but with an inventory of his material possessions.

 

Malone’s preference for the lower orders of creation is shown in the fact that his two characters (or two versions of the same character) have animal characteristics. Saposcat has Murphy’s gull’s eyes, but Malone takes trouble to distinguish Macmann from him by telling us that he ‘was by temperament more reptile than bird . . . And a good half of his existence must have been spent in a motionless akin to that of stone’ (244). It is as though the course of a single life is enough to demonstrate the entropic dwindling of life into inertness.

 

Though animals are possessed of a certain quantity of will and consciousness, this can be suppressed if the animals are victims of cruelty. Most of the animals which occur in Malone dies are victims in this way, and many of his descriptions concern themselves with dumb suffering, as an image for Schopenhauerean suspension of the will and a self-constitution in objectivity. And the unprotesting honesty of the pigs’ deaths at the hands of Big Lambert seems to give to Malone’s narrative a calm and objectivity which are painfully absent from his self-scrutiny (201). The same mood is apparent in Malone’s descriptions of dead animals. We are prohibited by the coolness of Beckett’s prose from seeing the dead mule which Lambert buries as anything other than the debris of mortality, in all its weight and awkwardness. The effect achieved is similar to that projected in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s essay ‘Nature, humanisme, tragédie,’ in which the necessity is urged for a style which will efface the falsifying tendency of language to humanise natural subjects.6 But where Robbe-Grillet suggests a cleansing and a neutralizing of metaphor to achieve objectivity, Beckett adopts a more conscious and vigilant strategy, that of ironic denial. Thus the absurdity of the fact that ‘the forelegs, pointing towards heaven, projected above the ground’ (where we might expect the more neutral ‘upwards’ or ‘toward the sky’) is emphasised by the blunt statement which immediately follows: ‘Big Lambert banged them down with his spade’ (212). A similar effect is achieved by the ironic conjuncture of the voices of anatomist and connoisseur in the description of the mule’s head: ‘The yawning jaws, the wreathed lips, the enormous teeth, the bulging eyes, composed a striking death’s-head’ (212).

 

In the same way, Molloy’s observation that the dog, Teddy, which he has run over is buried without a shroud, ‘like a Carthusian monk’ (36), serves actually to highlight the absurdity of the humanizing fallacy Teddy is one of a number of pets gushingly doted on by spinster ladies in Beckett’s fiction.

 

The death of the Lambert’s mule in Malone dies brings about a calm in the human beings involved in the burial too. Beckett’s prose simply and methodically renders the mechanical labour involved, and takes on an unreflective simplicity, with its connective syntax and sometimes rather childish diction: ‘And Big Lambert would soon be able to plough and harrow the place where it lay, with another mule, or an old horse, or an old ox, bought at the Knacker’s yard, knowing that the share would not turn up the putrid flesh or be blunted by the big bones’ (213). The simple actuality of the mule’s descent into matter is caught perfectly in those ‘big bones’. (Elsewhere Beckett shows a liking for the word little’ when describing or imagining animals.)

 

There is another mule in Malone dies, and one which illustrates even more suggestively the falsity of human attempts to appropriate the animal world. One of Malone’s most prized possessions is a photograph:

 

            It is not a photograph of me, but I am perhaps at hand. It is an ass,

            taken from in front and close up, at the edge of the ocean, it is not

            the ocean, but for me it is the ocean. They naturally tried to make it

            raise its head, so that its beautiful eyes might be impressed upon

            the celluloid, but it holds it lowered. You can tell by the ears that it is

            not pleased. They put a boater on its head. The thin hard parallel

            legs, the little hooves light and dainty on the sand. The outline is

            blurred, that’s the operator’s giggle shaking the camera. (252)

 

Again, this is the very reverse of sentimentality. The ass is forcibly drawn into the realm of the human, but manages at the same time to refuse the image inside which the human world would encase it. The details which Malone gives serve to emphasise not only the animal’s grace amid human loutishness but also to hint subtly at the conflict between the irreducible fact of natural existence and falsifying human intention. The human world wishes to ‘impress’ the image of the ass, but in the finished photograph, the mule stands, as it were, weightlessly, ‘light and dainty on the sand’; and the clumsy blurring of the photograph is resisted by the precision of the ‘thin hard parallel legs’. The animal succeeds in keeping the image dead and impersonal, its refusal to signify causing a reflection of human folly, ‘the operator’s giggle,’ back on to itself. It is perhaps the insistent objectivity of the ass which results in Malone’s fierce possessiveness towards the photograph—for he imagines holding it, together with his stone in the bed ‘so that they can’t get away’ (252). The photograph is analogous to the stone because it is an image of an animate creature taking on the innocence and passivity of matter.

 

Although the condition of animality is one which is best expressed and confirmed by suffering in Beckett’s work, his characters are rarely the instigators of that violation. Watt is perhaps the single exception to this—he and Sam together kill birds, (though they are friendly with rats).7 Similarly, examples of violent animals are extremely rare; the narrator of From an abandoned work describes how he is set upon by a family of stoats, and significantly contemplates giving himself up to them, like an animal: ‘I know I could never think, but if I could have and then had, I would just have lain down and let myself be destroyed, as the rabbit does, (No’s knife, 145-6)

 

Beckett’s curiosity and tenderness is not only aroused by the notion of the animal merging into the silence of matter, for sometimes the identification works the other way round. The narrator of From an abandoned work (who shares with Molloy a rather mythopoeic sensibility), has an animistic sense of the personal sufferings of the earth: ‘often now my murmur falters and dies and I weep for happiness as I go along and for love of this old earth that has carried me so long and whose uncomplainingness will soon be mine’ (No’s knife, 145). Momentarily the earth is transformed into a patient beast of burden—but by an animating vision which does not involve sentimental personification.

 

Progressively in his later works, Beckett explores the predicaments of characters whose sense of their physical selves has dissolved—so that, finally, the narrator in The unnamable is unable to conceive what his body may indeed be like. Strangely, this growing distance from the body allows an abatement of aestheticist contempt for it. Malone, for instance, describes being carried out of the room after his death. His body seems no longer to belong to him, and, as a result, his narration is exact, uncondescending and tenderly solicitous. In death the body is as blameless as an animal:

 

            And yet how often I have seen this old head swing out through the

            door, low, for my big old bones weigh heavy, and the door is low,

            lower and lower in my opinion. And each time it bangs against the

            jamb, my head does, for I am tall, and the landing is small, and the

            man carrying my feet cannot wait, before he starts down the stairs,

            for the whole of me to be out, on the landing I mean, but he has to

            start turning before that, so as not to bang into the wall, of the

            landing I mean. So my head bangs against the jamb, it’s inevitable.

            And it doesn’t matter to my head, in the state it is in, but the man

            carrying it says, Eh Bob easy!, out of respect perhaps, for he

            doesn’t know me, he didn’t know me, or for fear of hurting his

            fingers. (236)

 

The detachment, simplicity and scrupulousness of Beckett’s style here echoes the scene of the burial of Lambert’s mule, with the childishness of its diction and the simple sequentiality of its syntax, linked by associative ‘and’s and explanatory ‘for’s. This simplicity of style is often found in Beckett’s descriptions of objects and animals; it is as though the querulous, and sceptically self-conscious reason of his narrators is stilled and the language takes on some of the exteriority of its physical subject. But if the body is a kind of object in Beckett’s fiction, then it is often an animal, too. Malone himself sees his body as a faithful but useless old dog:

 

            I have demanded certain movements of my legs and even feet. I

            know them well and could feel the effort they made to obey. I have

            lived with them that little space of time, filled with drama, between

            the message received and the piteous response. To old dogs the

            hour comes when, whistled by their master setting forth with his

            stick at dawn, they cannot spring after him. Then they stay in their

            kennel, or in their basket, though they are not chained, and listen to

            the steps dying away. The man too is sad. But soon the pure air

            and the sun console him, he thinks no more about his old com-

            panion until evening. The lights in his house bid him welcome home

            and a feeble barking makes him say, It is time I had him destroyed.

            There’s a nice passage. (192)

 

Malone’s imagination is seized by the scene as he narrates it to himself, and this, we feel, is less because of its aptness as an allegory than because of the sudden appearance, albeit in fantasy, of an external scene upon which language may be focused. Again, the importance of the animal lies in its concreteness.

 

Indeed, there seems to be only one conspicuous example in the whole of Beckett’s fiction of the emblematic use of an animal. Malone devotes some time to his account of Sapo’s outlook on nature:

 

            Sapo loved nature, took an interest in animals and plants and

            willingly raised his eyes to the sky, day and night. But he did not

            know how to look at all these things, the looks he rained upon them

            taught him nothing about them. He confused the birds with one

            another, and the trees, and could not tell one crop from another

            crop. (191)

 

Sapo’s closeness to nature derives from the ignorance of the simpleton (or ‘natural’ child) rather than the knowledge of the classifying expert. The specification that he ‘rained’ looks upon nature is apt, of course, for it identifies him as a natural force, effective, but unknowing.8 The passage has a remarkable conclusion, however: ‘But he loved the flight of the hawk and could distinguish it from all others. He would stand rapt, gazing at the long pernings, the quivering poise, the wings lifted for the plummet drop, the wild reascent, fascinated by such extremes of need, of pride, of patience and solitude’ (191). Whereas Beckett usually concentrates soberly on the concrete and exterior features of animals, here there is quite explicit symbolism. In fact, in translating the novel into English, Beckett actually strove to highlight the unnatural and symbolic significance of the hawk9; in the French, Sapo merely stands ‘immobile’ at the sight of the hawk, rather than ‘rapt,’ the Yeatsian ‘pernings’ are just ‘vols planes’ and there are no ‘extremes of need, of pride, of patience and solitude,’ but only ‘tant de besoin, de fierté, de patience, de solitude.’10

 

Although Beckett, as a rule, treats animals with far more exactitude and understatement than the Yeats whom he evokes here, birds often stand in his work loosely for spiritual and artistic yearning. Mr Kelly, whose kite-flying provides a parody of Murphy’s search for the transcendence of non-being, is often described as bird-like. Indeed, the image serves a double purpose in this book as it does in Beckett’s work as a whole. Early on, the ruin of Mr Kelly’s faculties is expressed in the remark that in a little while ‘his brain-body ratio would have sunk to that of a small bird.’11 (Malone also compares himself to a bird as he lies in his bed.) But at the end of the book his yearning for self-effacement in the world of the unseen is evoked by a much less deprecatory bird-image—that of the eagle.

 

            Mr Kelly was enraptured. Now he could measure the distance from

            the unseen to the seen, now he was in a position to determine the

            point at which seen and unseen met . . . He fixed with his eagle

            eyes a point in the empty sky where he fancied the kite to swim into

            view, and wound carefully in. (190)

 

In a similar way, as we have seen, Beckett often represents his mysterious voice of inspiration as a bird: Moran sets himself to learn the language of his wild birds, while at the same time the emptiness of the voice is represented in the image of the parrot; so the image is an ambivalent one, which can be used both to exalt and to insult. And, indeed, Sapo’s symbolic appropriation of the natural world is replied to some pages later in Malone dies. No longer enraptured by the mysterious grandeur of the animal world, Sapo sits in the Lamberts’ kitchen unable to satisfy himself as to whether the grey hen which enters periodically is the only one on the farm: Beckett here dramatizes the helpless failure of correspondence between the human and the natural realms (203-204).

 

Beckett might have found his conviction of the basic unknowability of the natural and animal worlds confirmed in the work of Schopenhauer, his fondness for which has often been observed.12 Schopenhauer often uses animals to exemplify life stripped of conscious will:

 

Its consciousness is restricted to what is intuitively perceived and so

            to the present moment . . . only in reference to objects that already

            exist at this moment in intuitive perception, does the animal have an

            extremely short fear and hope . . . . The animal is the embodiment of

            the present.132

 

Schopenhauer argues that this contentment can never really be apprehended by the enquiring human will. Nature and the natural world exist as the result of imediate causes alone, such as the necessity to preserve and to propagate life, and cannot be made to surrender to the explication of the human will, which seeks to determine metaphysical ultimate causes. Nature does not possess the inwardness of conscious will, and is apprehensible solely in surfaces and externals:

 

            then should nature out of mere obstinacy remain eternally dumb to

            our question? . . . it is unfathomable because we look for grounds

            and consequents in a sphere to which this form is foreign; and so

            we follow the chain of grounds and consequents on an entirely

            wrong track.14

 

This same completeness in appearance, and absoluteness in superficial being is what fascinates Beckett’s narrators in animals, and accounts, too, for the ultimate unknowability of the animal world. Meetings between men and animals in Beckett’s work are always very disconcerting; often they exchange long unspeaking looks, which are eloquent with the absence of relationshiThus, the narrator of ‘The expelled’ is troubled by the fixed stare of a horse during the night he spends in a stable (No’s knife, p23-24), just as horses stare at the narrator of ‘The end’ (No’s knife, 47) and the mule which Lambert saves from slaughter returns his gaze in Malone dies (212). Mrs Rooney, too, in the play All that fall is distressed by the unwavering stare of a horse.15

 

Other animals, instead of returning the human stare, turn their heads away: the ass in Malone’s photograph tries to avoid the inquisitive eye of the camera and the sheep whom the gushing Miss Drew tries to feed with lettuce ‘turned their broody heads aside from the emetic’ (71). Perhaps the original of this empty look is that exchanged by Murphy and Mr Endon. This look is a complicated procedure; Murphy, staring at Mr Endon receives no recognition, but only sees the reflection of his own eyes in Mr Endon’s.

 

            the last at last seen of him

            himself unseen by him

            and of himself (171)

 

It is interesting to note that Beckett hoped to illustrate this scene on the cover of Murphy with a photograph of two chimpanzees at a chesstable. (The illustration is reproduced following 114 of Deirdre Bair’s biography.) Undoubtedly Beckett intended to express a large measure of satirical contempt for the arrogance of rational man in this image; but Murphy envies Mr Endon, and his faculty for unconditional exclusion of the outside world, and there is a similar admiration in Beckett’s work (at times amounting to awe) for the unquestioning placidity, impersonality and ‘otherness’ of the animal world.

 

Predominantly however, as we have seen, it is because they suffer that animals remain impersonal, will-less and objective in Beckett’s work. Indeed, it is perhaps to stand as examples of suffering which cannot be falsified by sentimental identification that Beckett uses animals most frequently. Although animals nearly always suffer in his work, we are austerely denied the indulgence of pity. A large part of Beckett’s attitude towards animals seems to derive from the views of Descartes, the philosophical mentor of his early years. Descartes’ opinion was that animals are mere automata, possessing neither feeling nor consciousness, and our assumptions about their sufferings mere anthropomorphic delusions.16

 

Descartes’ celebrated difficulty in reconciling body and soul means that not only is the way in which the soul exerts its will over the outside world of matter unclear (I am able to move my arm without possessing any knowledge of the physiological processes involved), but also that our knowledge of and judgements concerning the material world are always doubtful. Given the absolute unrelatedness of the soul, which is unextended in time and space, and the material world, which possesses extension, the only immediate and infallible knowledge which the soul can have is of itself, while its knowledge of the extended world—which includes animals, of course—is necessarily indirect and uncertain.

 

A solution to this epistemological problem is found in the work of the Occasionalists, who succeeded Descartes, and in that in particular of Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715). Objects in the outside world do not exist in themselves, he claims, but rather as the stimuli or ‘occasions’ which remind the soul of the eternal ideas of those objects. Thus, when we see an object which appears to be green, the greenness does not inhere in that object, but rather provides an opportunity for the mind to remember the idea of greenness resident in the eternal mind of the Creator. Thus, the failure of relation between the extended and the unextended becomes the proof of the completeness of the divine guarantee of our senses, and the evidence of the material world returns upon itself to become ‘vision in God.’

 

An allusion to Malebranche in How it is indicates Beckett’s familiarity with his work, and its special relevance to the problem of animal life. A longish section of Part One is given over to a sudden involuntary reminiscence seemingly from the youth of the narrator of a springtime walk over a racecourse with a young girl and a dog. The boy and the girl walk up and down mechanically, the dog following them. But, as with many of Beckett’s animals, the dog is detached and a little unwilling:

 

            suddenly yip left right off we go chins up arms swinging the dog

            follows head sunk tail on balls no reference to us it had the same

            notion at the same instant Malebranche less the rosy hue the

            humanities I had if it stops to piss it will piss without stopping . . .17

 

The animal, as part of the world of extension, is fundamentally unknowable, and therefore uncommandable, so has ‘no connection’ with its masters -though the conclusion to which Beckett forces himself, that the dog’s intentions just happened miraculously to coincide with those of his masters, is wonderfully absurd. Though the general relevance of the Occasionalist Malebranche to this viewpoint is plain, it is not immediately clear what the ‘rosy hue’ is that Beckett is repudiating in his work. One answer might be that he is casting aside the general notion of ‘vision in God,’ and if this is so then Beckett is positing a world of which our knowledge is necessarily faulty and accidental without the authenticating presence of an eternal God.

 

I think it is more likely, however, given the context, that Beckett knows Malebranche well enough to be referring to what he had to say explicitly about animals. Inheriting the Cartesian notion that animals are just machines, with neither intelligence nor feeling, Malebranche seeks to refute what he sees as the theologically dangerous view that animals suffer. Given a just God, he claims, no animal can suffer, for, unlike man, it has committed no sin, and undeserved suffering is inconceivable in a universe governed by a just God.18 It is perhaps this serene assumption of a just God that constitutes the ‘rosy hue’ which Beckett discards, though, of course, it is impossible to subtract this principle from Malebranche’s argument. Without the ‘rosy hue’ the prospect is opened up of a purposeless and universal suffering.

 

But, for all its universality, suffering is also private and incommunicable. The only escape from suffering is Schopenhauerean suspension of the will which involves a distancing of the self as much from the (unknowable) sufferings of others as from the knowable sufferings of the self. So Beckett follows Descartes in presenting the dog as an automaton. The French version of this passage states that ‘s’il pisse il pissera sans s’arrêter,’19 emphasizing the will’s subservience to the functions of the body, while the English version in its attempt to match the suggestive sibilance of the original ends up as a more complicated joke, ‘if it stops to piss it will piss without stopping’; the phrase ‘without stopping’ conflates ‘without drawing to a halt’ with ‘ceaselessly,’ thus reinforcing the dog’s will-less incontinence. Mechanism is not something that is confined to animals in Beckett’s work, of course. Indeed, the human beings who accompany the dog on this occasion are, if anything, even more lifeless than it:

           

            we let go our hands and turn about ‘I dextrogyre she sinistro she

            transfers the leash to her left hand and I the same instant to my

right the object now a little pale grey brick the empty hands mingle

            the arms swing the dog has not moved . . . (How it is, 32)

 

The reduction of human beings to geometry in this way is no doubt intended partly as an attempt to forestall the ‘foul feeling of pity’. The most concentrated treatment of the idea of pity, and one which involves an animal is the early story ‘Dante and the lobster’. Here Beckett takes as his text the Dantean pun Qui vive la pietà quando è ben morta—there can only be piety where pity is dead. Candidates for Belacqua Shuah’s pity in this story include not only Dante’s damned, but also McCabe, a murderer sentenced to execution and, of course, the lobster itself. And though Belacqua resists Dante’s dictum right through the story, the hard lesson of the final scene is that there can be no ‘little mercy to rejoice against judgement,’ either for the lobster, or for humanity: ‘Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath’.20 The allusion to ‘Ode to a nightingale,’ a poem in which an animal which is ‘not born for death’ summons an answering longing for the eternal peace which follows mortality—‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die/To cease upon the midnight with no pain’—is a savagely ironic one. What is more, the story refuses the facile consolation of pity, Belacqua’s comfortable fiction that ‘it’s a quick death, God help us all’ being answered by the terrible rejoinder ‘It is not’.

 

So, although animals often provide Beckett’s narratives with moments of almost elegaic calm, the refusal to indulge in direct self-pity or in the deflected self-pity with which human beings habitually view the world results, curiously, in a release of feeling for a world which is completely ‘other’ and mysterious and apprehended as such. It is such a rush of feeling which is testified to by the exclamation by the narrator of ‘The calmative’ at the thought of the goat that he meets (or imagines meeting), ‘Poor dear dumb beasts, how you will have helped me’. (No’s knife, 32)

 

This exercise is a kind of negative capability, and requires not only withdrawal from the self, but also from the human species as a whole. Perhaps it is for this reason that animals seem so often to supercede or displace human beings in Beckett’s work. As the image of the walk on the racecourse fades away from the narrator in How it is, it is not the human beings who are last to vanish, but the figures of animals:

 

            some animals still the sheep like granite outcrops a horse I hadn’t

            seen standing motionless back bent head sunk animals know (34).

 

The episode retaining its ambiguity to the end, the animal world is presented both as unthinking matter (‘granite outcrops’) and in the human attitude of desolation, so that the image seems to be related unconsciously to the recurrent one of Belacqua slumped against his rock. What is achieved though, as so often with animals in Beckett’s work, is a purification allowing the access of a limited but authentic apprehension of a world outside the boundaries of individual subjectivity; in this case the terrible and consoling intuition that ‘animals know.’



Notes

1 This is the view, for instance, of Philip H. Solomon in his article Samuel Beckett’s Molloy: a dog’s life,’ French review, 41, 1967, 84-91.

2 Molloy. Malone dies. The Unnamable. London, Calder and Boyars, 1959, 208. All references are to this edition and are incorporated hereafter into the text.

3 London, Calder and Boyars, 1974, 27.

4 No’s knife. collected shorter prose 1945-1966. London, Calder and Boyars, 1967, 140-141.

5 ‘Item a little packet, soft, and light as a feather, tied up in newspaper, all my own, Perhaps it is a lack of rupees. Or a lock of hair.’ Malone dies, 197.

6 ‘Nature, humanisme, tragédie,’ La nouvelle nouvelle revue francaise, 12, October, 1958, 580-605.

7 Watt London, Calder and Boyars, 1963, 153.

8 Proust London, Calder and Boyars, 1968, 82-83.

9 Not in the French version of the book, where the verb ‘prodiguer’ is used, Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1951, 29.

10 Ibid., 30.

11 Murphy London, Calder and Boyars, 1963, 12.

12 See, for instance, Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett. a biography. London, Jonathan Cape, 1978, 79 and James Acheson, ‘Beckett, Proust and Schopenhauer,’ Contemporary literature, 19, 1978, 165-79.

13 Parerga and paralipomena, short philosophical essays, trans. E.F.J. Payne. 2 Vols. Oxford, O.U.P., 1974, Vol. 2, 296.

14 Ibid., Vol. 2, 94.

15 All that fall London, Faber and Faber, 1957, 9.

16 Philosophical works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross Cambridge, C.U.P., 1967, Vol. 1, 116.

17 How it is London, John Calder, 1964, 33.

18 Nicholas Malebranche, The search after truth, trans. T.M. Lennon and P.J. Olscamp, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1980, Bk. IV, ch. 12, 323-325.

19 Comment c’est Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1961, 37.

20 More pricks than kicks London, Calder and Boyars, 1970, 21.