BeckettandDante - :Beckettand Danterevisited MichaelRobinson (Dante.Bruno.Vico.Joyce .Almostall

BeckettandDante - :Beckettand Danterevisited...

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Unformatted text preview: From purgatory to inferno: Beckett and Dante revisited Michael Robinson ‘The danger is in the neatness of identifications.’ (‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico. . Joyce’) The relationship between Beckett and Dante is a familiar aspect of Beckett studies. Almost all general surveys of Beckett’s work at least touch upon an affinity between the two writers that frequently gives way to intertextual dialogue. And yet the attempt to achieve an accurate notion of this relationship has often been curtailed or even still­born. For instance Colin Duckworth remarks, in his introduction to an edition of Waiting for Godot, that ‘it would be pointless to maintain that Beckett places his characters in Dante’s Purgatory. When I mentioned the possibility to Mr. Beckett, his comment was characteristic: ‘Quite alien to me, but you’re welcome.’1 Beckett’s enigmatic reply is consistent with the works he has produced. From More pricks than kicks to the texts published as Residua and beyond, the movement has been towards an ever more achieved autonomy that eventually precludes or undermines habitual critical strategies, including the cause and effect of ‘influence’ studies. On one level, the works themselves provide a critical commentary on their own existence as literary artefacts; on another, they self­consciously doubt their own validity, while at the same time seeking to withdraw themselves from the possibility of translation into any terms save those of their formal and linguistic entities. ‘His writing is not about something,’ as Beckett said of Joyce, ‘it is that something itself.’2 Thus questions about the purposeful inter­relationship of character and milieu with the social world, which could legitimately be asked of nineteenth­century fiction and drama, diminish in value as his work proceeds, and the attempt to define it against the context of previous books—as, for example, either infernal or purgatorial in Dantean terms—is also subverted by an integral consistency that pertains to Beckett’s oeuvre alone. Such questions Beckett renounced when he abandoned an academic career, and they recur only ironically in the novels and plays. Although his characters continue to inquire after certainties, and even tabulate the problems which disturb them, Beckett himself withholds approval from the repetitive investigations, as well as from those of his critics. As the narrator of Texts for nothing observes: ‘. . . I was, they say in Purgatory, in Hell too, admirable singulars, admirable assurance.’3 Nevertheless, Dante is not an ‘alien’ in Beckett’s work. In the Divina commedia, he created a paradigm against which Beckett repeatedly measures his personal view of life. This leads to an intermittent commentary on certain aspects of Dante’s poem and, more especially, to a reworking of the conclusions that Dante was prepared to draw or accept about both this and any other world. This is inevitable given the enormous interval between his medieval certainties, with their ethical, eschatological and cosmological superstructure, and the post­Cartesian ‘world collapsing endlessly’4 which Beckett writes of. Above all, however, Dante provides Beckett with landscapes and images which function as analogues of the often tenuous situations and experiences that he describes. The image of the Wrathful in the Marsh of the Styx, for example, whose sighs make the water bubble on the surface, or Cavalcanti entombed to his chin, appear to stand behind the geography of How it is and the mise en scène of Play respectively, while the figure of Belacqua indolently resting in the boulder’s shadow recurs as a motif in almost all the novels and plays. Since they are taken from both the Inferno and the Purgatorio, the multiplicity of references to the Divina commedia frequently provokes a desire to identify individual works with one realm or the other. And yet, if only because references to both realms may coexist in a single work, no direct and consistent parallel can be maintained without the type of confusion into which J.D. O’Hara stumbles when he asserts that ‘the trilogy is pervaded with the atmosphere of the Purgatory, with hellish guards and policemen.’5 Moreover, the passages Beckett quotes or echoes lose their specificity of meaning in the transfer from their original context and, when he refers to the Commedia, he does not intend the reference to substantiate a system of his own, which can be explained with the same rigour and clarity as Dante’s tripartite division, where each is in his appointed place. One torment Beckett’s characters have to suffer is precisely this ignorance of where they are and for how long they will remain there. Such uncertainties are unknown in the Commedia, where the souls of the dead have become their essential selves, beyond the contingency of life. As Auerbach writes, ‘there is no uncertain future to give the souls consciousness of the dimension of time. Nothing happens to them any longer, or rather, what happens to them will keep on happening forever,’6 because they have become what they are. Even for those in Purgatory, who experience a condition of expectation, the future has been finally determined. Each has made the journey to salvation or damnation, ‘which is nothing else but the path towards the recovery of what [one] really is,’7 whereas Beckett’s characters are eternally prevented from discovering their true selves by their continuous immersion in time and language. Through his enormous presumption to know God’s judgement, Dante’s vision of the after life is concrete: purpose and meaning are manifest in every detail of the poem, as, for example, in the appropriate punishments of the damned or the measured ascent of those in Purgatory to the timeless perfection of Paradise. But in Beckett’s world, meaning is withheld and the characters can only speculate on infernal punishment or purgatorial progress. For Molloy ‘all roads were right,’8 since none leads to where he wants to be, and Clov is reduced to conjecture in order to discover a purpose in his gratuitous and inexplicable pain: ‘I say to myself—sometimes, Clov, you must learn to suffer better than that if you want them to weary of punishing you—one day.’9 Dante’s poem does not then serve to elucidate the epistemology of Godot or the trilogy. But his vision does provide a context of which Beckett is continually aware, and against which his various works may be reflected. The three parts of Dante’s system can be distinguished from one another in terms of the degree of light, space and time that is available in each of them. The Inferno, at least in theory, is totally dark. Its inhabitants are forever cut off from the light of God’s grace; they cannot pause for fear of punishment; and they are either crowded together and jostled by the other sinners, welded to a partner like Ulysses and Diomed, or confined in tomb, wood or ice. Purgatory, on the other hand, is more spacious: parts of the mountain are unpopulated, the light is naturalistic, and the notion of time more leisurely; while in Paradise, the purity of the light blinds Dante’s eyes, and he can barely grasp the idea of infinite time and space.10 There is thus a scale against which it would be possible to place Beckett’s heroes as they strive to attain a dimension of the self which is by definition spaceless and timeless. Since this latter state remains ‘the unthinkable end,’11 however, only Inferno and Purgatory apply, and the general impression is of a descent from the latter to the former, rather than—as in Dante—of progress upwards into the light to the stars. This is true both of Beckett’s oeuvre as a whole and of the movement within each of the two principle genres he has employed, the novel and drama. Waiting for Godot, the novels and stories in English, Molloy and Malone dies remain, in their combination of suffering and hope, closer to ‘this earth that is Purgatory.’12 In form and content they suggest an openness that contrasts with the confinement and constriction of the later works, where purgatorial expectation is often extinguished, and the Dantean imagery becomes correspondingly infernal. It is no longer possible to see ‘the serene face of the heavens’ (sereno aspetto/del mezzo puro) which shines over Purgatory.13 The moon which Molloy watches through a window is replaced by the sourceless, yellow omniscient light that illuminates the cramped cylinder in The lost ones, and the country road at evening, where Vladimir and Estragon meet Pozzo and Lucky, gives way to the ‘hellish half­light’ of Play.14 ‘Hell,’ as Beckett defined it, in the essay on Joyce, ‘is the static lifelessness of unrelieved viciousness,’15 and in the notes to Play he evokes a situation where this hopeless stasis may be depicted with a Dantesque rigour. The anonymous characters, M, W1 and W2, whose faces are aged beyond recognition, are held fast by the neck in separate urns. Linked in death, as in life, but unable to see or hear one another, ‘they face undeviatingly front throughout the play.’16 Beckett refers to them as victims, and describes their speech as ‘provoked’ by a spotlight, which he stipulates should be single ‘as best expressive of a unique inquisitor.’17 Condemned to forever live their past again, their faces continue impassive and their voices toneless, as they utter a sequence of lines which would, in the da capo structure of the text, be infinitely repeatable, but for the merciful intercession of the author who in this respect acts with a pity not shown by Dante’s God. Moreover, through the medium of Beckett’s allusions to Dante, it is possible to trace the progress of this darkening vision. Strictly speaking, indeed, none of his characters is in Purgatory itself. As many commentators have pointed out, Belacqua Shuah, the hero of More pricks than kicks, as well as of the unpublished first novel, Dream of fair to middling women (written in 1932), takes his Christian name and much besides from the fourth canto of the Purgatorio. The original Belacqua, it bears repeating, was in real life a lute maker of Florence whom Dante had known as notorious for his indolence and apathy. In the poem, he is placed on the second terrace of Ante­Purgatory, the dwelling of the late repentant who only just escaped damnation. Because they delayed their reconcilation with God until the last moment, they are obliged to wait at the foot of the mountain through a time as long as their lives on earth, enduring the indolence in which they used to indulge, before making the ascent that will prepare them for Paradise. Dante’s portrait, which humorously reveals how little this punishment disturbs Belacqua, contains much that Beckett was to use in his later work. The persistent sloth of the figure sitting with his head on his knees out of sight of the heavens that reveal the passing of time; his surly humour; the contrast between mental agility and physical lassitude; the need to live one’s life over again; and the impossibility of moving from where one is until certain preconditions have been fulfilled, are all motifs that recur in the novels and plays, and their presence denotes at first an essentially purgatorial context. To the early heroes, who all seek what Belacqua appears to have found, ‘a limbo purged of desire,’18 this existence in Ante­Purgatory represents an ideal. His namesake in More pricks than kicks is by nature ‘sinfully ignorant, bogged in indolence, asking nothing better than to stay put,’ and if he cannot lie in the shadow of a rock, he finds an acceptable substitute in a ‘lowly public’19 where he is not known. He dreams, too, of a life in a lunatic asylum where he believes peace and mental freedom are to be found, for he shares with his successors in Beckett’s fiction an urge to shut himself off from the importunities of the world and of his body and to retire into the calm of his mind, so eliminating as far as possible the dualism that torments his Cartesian thinking. Malone who, dying, goes over his life yet again in fragmentary emulation of Dante’s Belacqua, even speaks of the asylum where he ends his days as ‘a little paradise’20 which possesses the same invariable breeze and improbable river as the Earthly Paradise of the Purgatorio. Meanwhile Murphy, whose experiences at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat belie Belacqua’s expectations, spends his life in the anticipation of Ante­Purgatory. The wellknown description of his mind as ‘a large hollow sphere hermetically closed to the universe without,’ into which Murphy retreats from the random bustle of the world about him in order to attain the freedom of the self, is the scene for what he calls his Belacqua fantasy. Murphy wants to be ‘a mote in the dark of absolute freedom,’ and by strapping himself into a ‘rocking chair of undressed teak, guaranteed not to crack, warp, shrink, corrode, or creak in the night,’ he sets himself into rhythmical motion by which he seeks ‘to come alive in his mind.’ Like his predecessor in Purgatory, Murphy sits out of the sun, ‘as though he were free,’ and the satisfaction achieved in this trancelike abandonment to the chair’s motion is so great that he believes the ephemeral pleasure attained in his chair (which is, after all, a pleasure at which he has to work) will at the moment of death be transformed into the total freedom of the self which, outside of time, will be able to relive the past undisturbed. In his expectation of Ante­Purgatory, Murphy imagines himself in the embryonal repose of Dante’s Belacqua, sheltering in the lea of a rock and . . . looking down at dawn across the reeds to the trembling of the austral sea and the sun obliquing to the north as it rose, immune from expiation till he should have dreamed it through again, with the down­ right dreaming of an infant, from the spermarium to the crematorium. He thought so highly of this post­mortem situation, its advantages were present in such detail to his mind, that he actually hoped he might live to be old. Then he would have a long time lying there, watching the dayspring run through the zodiac, before the toil up hill to Paradise. The gradient was outrageous, one in less than one. God grant no godly chandler would shorten his time with a good prayer.21 The passage is resonant with the thought and imagery of Dante’s poem. The reeds and the austral sea are those which surround the foot of Mount Purgatory and Beckett bases Murphy’s fantasy on Dante’s original inference that Belacqua is happy to rest where he is. The way up is steep and to a man who has already passed one lifetime in indolence, the delay is no discomfort. Murphy’s allusion to the ‘outrageous’ gradient recalls Belacqua’s surly humour and his jibe at Dante, ‘che se valente’ (IV: 114), while his remark on the godly chandler refers to the theology of the Purgatorio. The moment of ascent could be brought forward by the prayer ‘che surga su di cuor che in grazia viva’ (IV: 134—Sinclair’s literal translation gives ‘which rises from a heart that lives in grace’); ironically neither Murphy nor, Beckett implies, Belacqua, wish their idle lifetime’s dreaming to be curtailed, even by so well­intentioned a prayer. In his later novels Beckett frequently returns to the image of Belacqua. Molloy opens with the hero resting beneath a rock, under which ‘I crouched like Belacqua, or Sordello, I forget,’22 and the ‘knee and elbow position’23 or state of embryonal repose adopted by his heroes is suggested by Belacqua’s posture in Ante­Purgatory. It approximates to an image of the unborn foetus and attracts almost all the heroes in moments of exceptional suffering or at the height of their longing for nothingness, by its suggestion of security and peace. (Peggy Guggenheim has recorded that Beckett himself ‘retained a terrible memory of life in his mother’s womb.’24) Of the other heroes Watt is so overcome by weariness that he ‘settled himself at the edge of the path, with his hat pushed back and his bags beside him, and his knees drawn up, and his arms on his knees, and his head on his arms’; the narrator of The expelled, after being thrown down a flight of steps, ‘rested my elbow on the sidewalk, funny the things you remember, settled my ear in the cup of my hand and began to reflect on my situation, notwithstanding its familiarity’; and in The unnamable Worm is described as literally in embryo, enclosed in a womb so that ‘it would be to sign his lifewarrant to stir from where he is.’25 For to be in the womb is, of all the postures Beckett’s protagonists experience, the nearest terrestrial analogy to the timeless and spaceless ideal of being a speck in the void. Molloy remembers it as ‘the only endurable, just endurable, period of my enormous history,’26 and Belacqua Shuah declares his longing ‘to be back in the caul, on my back, in the dark forever.’27 For birth projects them back into time, where ‘we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!’28 The hero is expelled from the womb, ‘through the hole in her arse if my memory is correct, first taste of the shit,’29 and so commits ‘the original and eternal sin . . . the sin of having been born.’30 Birth is the first integer in a series of cause and effect whose end recedes as the hero moves towards it, and in the works of Beckett’s middle period, the trilogy and Waiting for Godot, the vision of Purgatory darkens. Molloy already speaks of hellish hope and Malone and the Unnamable employ a variety of expedients to account for their worsening situation. The Unnamable evolves an eschatology of guilt, suffering and penance that recalls the theology of the Commedia, in an endeavour to provide his otherwise gratuitous pain with an illusion of meaning. ‘I’m not suffering enough yet, it’s not yet my turn, not suffering enough to be able to stir,’ he murmurs, and goes on to project a whole hierarchy of tormentors whose demands he must fulfil in order to escape from where he is: Yes, I have a pensum to discharge, before I can be free, free to dribble, free to speak no more, and I’ve forgotten what it is. There at last is a fair picture of my situation. I was given a pensum at birth perhaps, as a punishment for having been born perhaps, or for no particular reason, because they dislike me, and I’ve forgotten what it is. But was I ever told?31 Of Dante’s penitents Bergin has written: ‘their condition of expectation and happy instability brings them very close to the world they have left behind: Purgatory is nearer to earth and its persistently hopeful mortality than either of the other realms, where the answers are in and the final assignments have been made.’32 This view accords with Beckett’s first notion of earth as Purgatory, but his characters come increasingly to find themselves, like the Unnamable, in apparently eternal abodes, and subject to the changelessness that is a feature of Hell. In Dante’s Purgatorio eventual ascent, the toil up hill, was certain for even the most indolent of its inhabitants, but in Beckett there is no certitude, only the confusion and doubt of a limbo with no known end and no discernable path. And while no final assignments may have been made, uncertainty perpetuated becomes itself infernal. His characters progress to the edge of timelessness, where they are left waiting for ‘the moments . . . to mount up to a life,’33 and puzzling over the contradiction of an existence that is over and yet continuing: ‘My life, now I speak of it as something over, now as a joke which still goes on, and it is neither, for at the same time it is over and it goes on, and is there any tense for that?’34 Once again Belacqua provides the image, but in Beckett this stasis is unrevoked: grace remains mute, the tremor of release never occurs, and the liberating angel, like Godot, does not arrive: Vladimir : Well? Shall we go? Estragon : Yes, let’s go They do not move CURTAIN35 Between the acts, it is true, the tree beneath which they wait has come into leaf, in a pitiful...
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