Review: ‘Samuel Beckett’s real silence’ by Helene L. Baldwin. University Park, Pennsylvania State

University Press, 1981, 171 pp.


Kristin Morrison



Does Beckett intend his work to be a series of parables about the mystic quest, a modern exploration of the via negativa, or does his work merely allow one versed in Christian tradition and mystic literature to perceive such similarities? Hélène Baldwin seems to argue for deliberateness on Beckett’s part, almost, in fact, suggesting that he is a closet mystic, writing of spiritual experience which he chooses, ironically, to disguise. Yet her evidence comes entirely from literature. I, for one, am not persuaded that inferences about an author’s personal experience or belief or even literary intention can safely be made from close reading of his text.


An assertion such as this one epitomizes the problem: ‘The kyrie is a cry of greeting, of affirmation, and Beckett may have thought that through his use of it in the play he was making his hints of divinity crystal clear’ (p. 121). ‘Evidence’ thus becomes subservient to thesis, rather than thesis growing out of evidence: it is assumed that Beckett intends to ‘hint’ divinity, so that any slight religious reference becomes a confirmation of that assumption, the slightness being discounted as mistaken strategy on the author’s part (or, in other sections of the book, taken as confir­mation of yet another assumption, ‘Beckett’s typically misleading manner’, p. 116). There are enough problematic statements such as these to put off many readers; and that is a pity, because at the centre of the book lies an observation worth considering: and that is the fact that Beckett’s work allows someone steeped in mystical literature to find, legitimately to find, many points of similarity which necessarily colour perception of the text itself.


The sticking point for many readers of Baldwin’s study will be the word ‘mystical’. To salvage the reality of what she is talking about, I suggest comparison with the passage from Proust describing Marcel’s ecstatic experience of the three trees near Hudimesnil, his profound happiness, his sense of being bodily transported, his sense of something both concealed and yet revealed, culminating in a pleasure which makes all else seem of little importance, leading him to an insight which affects his whole being: ‘that in attaching myself to the reality of that pleasure alone could I at length begin to lead a true life’ (Kilmartin translation, vol. I, p. 771). This passage describes in similar detail and language experiences which Baldwin has cited from various mystics along with parallel elements in Beckett’s own work. But what Proust presents is the aesthetic equivalent of mystic experience. That there is such a phenomenon - ardent quest for the ineffable with occasional ecstatic moments of apparent contact­seems incontrovertible from the record of human experience. What is problematic is the label: are all such experiences ‘mystic’ (i.e., religious and involving contact with the divine)? And is it fair to call a passage ‘mystical’ just because it suggests profound yearnings and ecstatic communion? I think not. Proust is writing about something he conceives to be aesthetic which he presents in aesthetic terms. To argue that his writing is religious simply begs the question. And the same is true for Beckett. Parallels with mystical writers do not necessarily make his work mystical or religious.


There is, however, this important difference between Proust’s work and Beckett’s. A la recherche du temps perdu is full of allusions, metaphors, imagery related to medicine, botany, optics, music, and visual arts -rarely, very rarely, are there any religious, theological, or Biblical refer­ences. But in Beckett’s work the latter abound (and have, of course, been noted and discussed to some extent by virtually all his critics). What is useful in Baldwin’s book is that she isolates and highlights those elements which are similar to the elements in mystical literature. The similarity is real; her conclusion, problematic.


At times the proposed argument is bracketed by tentative language: ‘I would hazard the guess that the progressive stripping-down of the self which takes place in so many of Beckett’s works is not just a search for self, but in fact the "negative way" of mysticism . . .’ (p. 6). Yet assertions are often unqualified: ‘For Beckett, there is one story and one story only that is worth telling, and that is the story of quest, of man in search of the ground of his being’ (p. 8). Qualified or not, the assertions go too far: ‘quest’, yes, but’ground of his being’ is too gratuitously resonant of Tillich et al. Evidence and its interpretation is also subject to overstatement: ‘The name Dan, being from the Old Testament, signifies Judaism, whereas Molloy’s mother’s name, Mag or Magdalen, is related to Christianity. Molloy, therefore, is the child of Judaism and Christianity’ (p. 32). (Therefore?) The occasional ‘perhaps’ does not sufficiently miti­gate overstatement: ‘[Molloy] hears the "howl resolving all" . . . perhaps a reference to the groan of the whole earth at the crucifixion . . .’ (p. 35). For the most part, the discussion hinges on an assumption illustrated by the following representative example: ‘Another striking phrase [in Molloy] is

"the things that are left", which in the context of death and farewell reminds us of the "last things" in the rites of the church’ (pp. 28f). I am not so sure that it does remind us.


Most problematic of all, however, are the passages which speculate about Beckett the man:


A trivial point which perhaps confirms Fletcher’s (and my own) conviction that Youdi represents God occurs in question thirteen: ‘Was Youdi’s business address still 8, Acacia Square?’ . . . According to George Ferguson’s Signs and symbols in Christian art, the acacia is a symbol of immortality and ‘eight’ is the number of the Resurrection. If the explication seems absurd, it cannot be helped: Beckett probably laughed when he wrote it. Writing religious allegory does not, it seems, deprive one of a sense of humor (pp. 53-54).


At the very centre of this line of reasoning lies the presumption that Beckett’s irony involves ‘a joke on the secular twentieth century as well as on official Christianity [as distinct from mystical Christianity], and the supposition that ‘that whole other world of grace - the garden of Eden, the City of God, the upper room, the empty tomb - is skillfully evoked by Beckett for those who are aware of it, by its seeming negations’ (p. 153). That is, of course, always possible; but there is no hard evidence in this book to establish Beckett as a gnostic writer, in ‘contact with Absolute or Unconditioned Being’ (p. 16), coding his description of that experience for the rare few who share his awareness.


The quality of Beckett’s tone is supposed to clinch Baldwin’s contention that his ‘irony serves as a kind of concealment, but to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it points in the direction of the divine milieu’ (p. 154). Savage and destructive irony, she points out, is reserved for those passages concerned with body functions. A gentler tone, contrasting the ‘solipsist world of the protagonists with a "norm" which is underground or hidden’, and a lyrical tone celebrating ‘moments of beauty and union’ are associated with those passages in which the religious and mystical elements appear (p. 155). Thus, she concludes, these latter elements are not the object of scorn which many critics take them to be, but rather are the subject of yearning toward which Beckett’s presumed mysticism tends. This part of Baldwin’s discussion is the briefest, made up for the most part only of passages illustrating the three tones without the necessary explication to support her argument. She seems to assume that the examples will speak for themselves.


The chief value of this book lies in the assemblage of parallels and similarities between Beckett’s work and the vast body of mystical literature.


On the basis of that material, Beckett’s works can indeed to some extent be viewed as ‘analogues of the negative way of mysticism in modern times’ (pp. 158f) -analogues, yes, because some similarities really are there (along with similarities to many other literary and philosophical traditions). But to assert that ‘the tales will frequently reveal much the teller would never admit in public’ (p. 160) goes in its personal implications beyond any evidence the book supplies.