CHAPTER THREE MISSING INFORMATION
Tenacious though some of its reserves may be, in other ways the memory can be a fragile and compromised faculty. It is threatened not only by disease and the natural depredations of wear and tear that we observe in Waiting for Godot, but also by ‘countless stress fractures’ (Pilling, 1976 b: 78): by trauma, repression and occasionally by missing information. This is particularly true of autobiographical memory, for if vital pieces of knowledge are absent, the self-narrative cannot cohere. Thus Clov, who suffers racking doubt as to his identity, reflects sadly in Endgame that his was always ‘the life to come’ (26, 898).1 He has never known whether Hamm is his biological father or not, and this, among other factors, has blighted his life. No valid sense of self has evolved from the obsessive rituals he has created to compensate for his ‘extinguished’ existence. Instead, hopelessly reified and emotionally deformed, he waits for it to be over. As the play opens, he tonelessly chants, ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished’ (3, 24-25).2
Like Watt, Clov ‘resists the simplified notion that a sum of memories (or stories) will add up to a history, a life’, for ‘memories are not historical but fictive: selected, reordered, reemphasized versions of past incidents’ (Kenner in Gontarski, ed., 1986: 9). The synthetic component of memory is vital to its functioning, for where details are unavailable, the imagination shores up the sense of self. In this chapter I shall investigate the function of memory as crucial to the evolvement of identity. Through the interaction of Hamm, Clov, Nell and Nagg it will appear that their reclamation of the past, however fragmentary, will ground their complex identities.
Beckett’s perceptions about autobiographical memory are remarkably at one with contemporary theory. By demonstrating that memory distorts the past as traces erode or are suppressed, Beckett dramatises the concept, particularly in Endgame, that ‘event memory is initially highly reproductive but becomes increasingly reconstructive with lengthening retention interval’ (Thompson et al., 1996: 204). This crucial belief that memory is partly reproduced and partly reconstructed not only features in Beckett’s writing, but is also central to the findings of memory theorists such as Baddeley, Schachter and Reviere (in Williams and Banyard, eds, 1999: 7).
In his monograph on Proust, Beckett pre-empts current attitudes towards autobiographical memory by stating that ‘the past must be continually renewed, the letter of safe-conduct brought up to date. The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day’ (P, 19). Beckett emphasises the role of the imagination in filling out memories that have faded or are too painful to be recalled in their entirety. ‘Reality’, he notes, ‘whether approached imaginatively or empirically, remains a surface, hermetic. Imagination, applied — a priori — to what is absent, is exercised in vacuo and cannot tolerate the limits of the real’ (P, 74). These creative ‘errors’, far from violating the meaning of what has been recalled, frequently enhance it, as ‘autobiographical memories may be accurate without being literal and may represent the personal meaning of an event at the expense of accuracy’ (Conway, 1990: 9). Insertions, therefore, are generally congruent with actual memories.
In his delineation of memory in Endgame, Beckett focuses insightfully on ‘the narrative structure of the self-system’ (Conway, 1990: 154), as Hamm, Clov, Nell and Nagg try to complete their life-reviews. Secluded in their refuge from some unspecified catastrophe, ‘in the bunker world of Endgame’ (Wheatley, 1994: 141), they are aware of imminent death.3 Enigmatically, ‘something is taking its course’ (9, 247). Not even the possibility of a Godot exists to bail them out. As they play out their ‘endgames’ in their skull-like shelter, whatever emerges from their autobiographical memories constitutes their final sense of self. On one level it is hardly surprising that it is Nell who utters the most memorable line in the play: ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness’ (11, 333).4 Emotionally, she can afford to. She is able to indulge in schadenfreude because she is equipped to elude current misery. Like Winnie in Happy Days, her attempt to heft squalour into amusement transforms her cynicism into mordant humour.5 It appears as if Nell’s memory possesses a fail-safe escape from present horror in evocations of ecstatic ‘yesterdays’ spent as a young woman on Lake Como. These memories have only to be invoked for Nell to be filled with such rapture that current circumstances dissolve. She forgets that she is freezing, confined to a dustbin filled with wet, chafing sea sand, and, that like Mahood in his jar, she has no ‘shanks’. Despite current discomfort, her sensual past enables her to cherish thoughts of intimacy with her husband.
When she first appears in her lace cap at the rim of the dustbin, she asks Nagg incongruously:
‘What is it my pet? (Pause.) Time for love?’ (9, 259). This has obviously been a constant in their long relationship. When they cannot kiss, Nell makes a brief protest, though she is unwilling to bring her husband relief by scratching his back. Being very close to death, she is loath to be distracted from the rapturous sensation that the word ‘yesterday’ has induced in her. This time-zone bears no resemblance to what happened the day before, but has everything to do with remembered sensations of sexual ecstasy and aesthetic delight experienced one April afternoon in her youth. Nell’s memories of Lake Como are so immediate that they suggest the intensity of the ‘delicious conflagration’ of Proustian involuntary memory but, as they have obviously been rehearsed, they are not of the same order. The epiphanic sensation that would have accompanied true involuntary recall has long been engorged by habit. Nevertheless, her evocation is almost incantatory: ‘It was deep, deep. And you could see down to the bottom. So white. So clean’ (13, 380-81). She remains under the spell of her vivid memory while Nagg tells his ‘suit’ joke for the umpteenth time. In thrall as she is to her own recollection, she cannot oblige him with her laughter, but murmurs inappropriately: ‘You could see down to the bottom’ (13, 406). Her last words are, ‘So white’ (14, 414) and ‘Desert’ (14, 417) before she dies. In the final word she utters, Beckett characteristically imports a darker ambiguity to shadow the contrived comforts of her ecstatic nostalgia. The monotone which the playwright insisted on in his own productions of Endgame is deliberately enlivened by Nell’s elegiac rapture. Beckett notes in the Berlin Diary that ‘Coloration is only for their memories: i.e. Once! (line 11, 311) Ah yesterday! (line 12, 353), and Engaged!’ (line 12, 374) (in Gontarski, 1992: 53).
Nell’s autobiographical memory is typical in many ways as it approaches life’s end. She has no interest in the stories of others as, devoutly self-involved, she indulges in the transformative power of her own narrative. In doing so, she seems curiously unaware of Hamm, almost as though she has blocked him out, until she criticises Nagg for laughing at their son so derisively. It is perhaps a measure of her self-absorption that she is usually able to discount her offensive progeny so effectively. It was not Nell, after all, but Nagg whom a desperate Hamm called in the night when he was a small boy.
Revealing details notwithstanding, it has to some extent become critical practice to discredit the search for behavioural mimesis and psychological realism in Beckett’s plays. In their appraisal of ‘The Blue Angel Beckett on Film Project’, for instance, Everett Frost and Anna McMullan speak favourably of performers who ‘de-psychologize the performance’ (in Oppenheim, ed., 2003: 230). This has a particular reference to Endgame, which is arguably the most abstract of the whole oeuvre, ‘a dizzying game of blind man’s bluff’ (Flieger, 1991: 232). Beckett refers to it as the ‘favourite of my plays’ (in Gontarski, ed., 1992: xv), and to Alan Schneider in 1956 as ‘[r]ather difficult and elliptic, mostly depending on the power of the text to claw, more inhuman than Godot’ (in Harmon, ed., 1998: 11). Hesla, commenting on its ‘missing information’, states:
Endgame is a difficult text to understand because the author appears to have suppressed evidence which it is important to have. He has obfuscated the causal relationships which support the plot, and he has tucked into the interstices of its structure data which we should very much like to have in the open.
(Hesla, 1971: 150)
Dealing as it does with memory, performance, and the construct of the largely fictive self through the elusive medium of language, the play makes it difficult to estimate where ‘truth’ ends and ‘fantasy’ begins.6 Theodor Adorno maintains that this is because ‘the interpretive word . . . cannot recuperate Beckett, while his dramaturgy — precisely by virtue of its limitation to exploded facticity — twitches beyond it, pointing toward interpretation in its essence as riddle’ (in Bloom, ed., 1988: 12). For all its enigma, what is assured is the one behavioural impulse which reliably induces negative emotional patterning in the responses of the three generations present on stage. A deliberate denial of the needs of others still operates as a constant factor in all four of the characters’ practice. ‘Beckett,’ observes Bell, ‘documents the relentless persistence with which patterns of abuse are repeated across successive generations’ (Bell, 1992: 72). We have observed it in Nell, but perhaps its most unexpected example is associated with Nagg’s craving for Turkish delight. Unlike his wife, who usually ignores her son, Nagg remains intensely aware of Hamm. As a father, he is querulously demanding and confrontational, his relationship with his child deplorable. After expressing a yearning for the delicacy, a desire that Hamm cannot satisfy, Nagg is obscurely reminded of other yearnings, and gloats over his son vindictively: ‘Whom did you call when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark? Your mother? No. Me. We let you cry. Then we moved you out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace’ (29, 1012-14). This no doubt contributes to Hamm’s judgment of his father as ‘accursed progenitor’ (7, 156), ‘accursed fornicator’ (7, 172) and ‘scoundrel’ (26, 903). Nagg certainly does not attempt to conceal his dislike of his progeny. When Hamm asks ‘Why did you engender me? (26, 903) Nagg replies that ‘I didn’t know . . . That it would be you’ (6, 904). Little wonder that the spurned child within Hamm wistfully recalls: ‘I was never there . . . . Absent, always. It all happened without me. I don’t know what’s happened’ (38, 1327-28). His intense childhood loneliness and consequent need for company is captured in the poignant image of the ‘solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together in the dark’ (36, 1255-57).8 Gaye Bell, writing on The World of Childhood Terror and Loss in the Plays of Samuel Beckett, observes that:
childhood is more often than not a terrifying and painful stage of life, characterized by profound experience of sadness, loss, betrayal, rage, impotence, loneliness, and isolation [. . . .] Beckett’s plays expose instances of parental tyranny and brutality and give expression to the pain and anguish children suffer at the hands of those on whom they are dependent.
(Bell, 1992: 7)
The resentment that Nagg feels towards his son has been a constant factor in his life. It inhabits the present, where he has had to listen to Hamm’s fable yet again:
NAGG: I was asleep, as happy as a king, and you woke me up to have me listen to you. It wasn’t indispensable. You didn’t really need to have me listen to you. Besides, I didn’t listen to you. (Pause.)
I hope the day will come when you’ll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice, any voice. (Pause.)
Yes, I hope I’ll live till then, to hear you calling me like when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened in the dark, and I was your only hope.
The inference is that he would ignore Hamm yet again. He simply would not listen. Significantly, these words of repudiation are the last he speaks before silence and possibly death overtake him.
Before that, though, Nagg unsuccessfully attempts to silence the litany of loss that constitutes his self-narrative by repeating a joke he has been telling for a lifetime. Even though his audience is unwilling to listen, he launches into his story of foiled expectations with histrionic flourishes reminiscent of his son’s. Despite his attempted theatricality, his failing performative powers depress him as they are unable to compensate for a present in which he is hungry, uncomfortable and plaintive. Because the autobiographical memory is mood-congruent, his negative state throws up negative memories, especially those of the accident in which he lost his legs. Nor is his misery relieved by his gabbling stab at the Lord’s Prayer. Together with his son he believes that ‘the bastard doesn’t exist’ (29, 1002). Despite their supplications, the ultimate Father responds to neither of them.
Nagg and Nell’s few memories converge in images of shared sensuality and disaster, but within these memories there is considerable divergence of focus. ‘One of their fondest memories’, says Cavell, ‘seems to be the time their tandem bicycle crashed and they lost their legs’. He adds that ‘their past, their pain, has become their entertainment, their pastime’ (Cavell in Bloom, ed., 1988: 61). But where Nell dwells on individual reflections of place and personal sensation, Nagg’s recollection serves to coerce Nell into his script. He insists that she endorse his solipsistic recall of how she reacted to his verbal gambits.
In their son, Hamm, we see both thrusts in operation. He revels in sensual recollection while contriving to stage-manage responses to order. His will is persistently coercive. Nor does his disbelief in God impact in any way on his intense ‘will to live’, his ‘reluctance to die, this long and desperate and daily resistance before the perpetual exfoliation of personality’ (P, 25). Almost more than any other character in Beckett’s plays, Hamm reflects Schopenhauer’s views, especially in his will to live and his horror at new life coming into the world. Though his circumstances are dire, his life-force is tenacious. Intellectually he acknowledges that ‘it’s time it ended, in the refuge too’ (4, 47-48), but emotionally he clings to life, saying: ‘And yet I hesitate, I hesitate . . . to end. Yes, there it is, it’s time it ended and yet I hesitate to — end’ (4, 47-48). Indulgent though he may be towards his own continued existence, he denies other life-forms the right to live. The abuse that he suffered as a child is imprinted in his abusive psyche. Fleas, crablice and even small boys are wished a speedy extermination in case they perpetuate life, while his parents, whom he curses for having engendered him, are vengefully willed to die. His sentiments not only have the weight of Schopenhauer’s philosophical thrust behind them,7 but the acrid resentment of the wilfully disregarded child. Rosen, writing on the pessimistic tradition, maintains that ‘Beckett’s art is nothing if not a repository of unconventional attitudes: infantile, narcissistic, nonproductive, spiteful, futile, dangerous unhappiness’ (Rosen, 1976: 7). Intimidating though he may be, Hamm is a victim of callous neglect.
Though hard to credit, his ‘accursed progenitors’ (156) are better equipped to escape their distressing circumstances than their afflicted son.9 Blind, paralysed and in physical pain, Hamm reaches the end of his days by congratulating himself that there can be no misery greater than his, even though it is abundantly clear to the audience that Clov is the most miserable member of the quartet. He is not even accorded autonomous status in a symbiotic relationship in which ‘Clov is sight and motion to Hamm while Hamm is home and sustenance to Clov’ (Dukes, 1999: 14). At best Clov is a factotum, at worst an extension of Hamm’s colonising ego. But Hamm, like the protagonist of Eh Joe, has memories of aesthetic delight which he is able to access in dreams and reveries. He has not always been blind for, like his mother, he has inspiring visions of water: he remembers the ocean with its gulls, waves and currents. He can still visualise the herring fleet which the madman painter-engraver (if he existed) could not see. He longs to escape his deadly stasis on a raft (19, 628) that would transport him to an anywhere away from the refuge, acknowledging at the same time that even though their shelter is ‘hell’, away from it lies ‘the other hell’ (15, 466). With visions of ‘light, of sun and forests and of green hills’ (21, 708-09) he longs for images of beauty to distract him. Accustomed to being in control, he even tries to design his dreams, ‘If I could sleep I might make love. I’d go into the woods. My eyes would see . . . The sky, the earth. I’d run, run, they wouldn’t catch me. (Pause.) Nature.’ (22, 323-25). In the strange connection between erotic activity ‘in the woods’ and running away to avoid being caught, Hamm recalls the seductive pleasures of his lovemaking, whatever form it has taken.
Hamm’s reminiscences have a highly imaginative overlay, not unexpected in a blind man. His memories of the green hills are embellished by ecstatic visions of Flora, Pomona and Ceres (21, 709). In similar vein, memories of losing his sight and motion that have no factual, medical underpinning thrust their way through the tropes that shape his own personal mythology of alienation and meaninglessness. Characteristically, he projects his infinite sense of loss on to his scapegoat, Clov, whose sight and motion he resents. Hamm prophesies:
HAMM: One day you’ll be blind, like me. You’ll be sitting there, a speck in the void, in the dark, for ever, like me . . . . Infinite emptiness will be all round you, all the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn’t fill it, and there you’ll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe. (Pause.) Yes, one day you’ll know what it is.
This is no factually based memory of deprivation, but a polished, self-dramatising recital of loss. Hamm, a devout solipsist, has honed his life-narrative to a tale of rhythmic threnody which chimes with his opening lament. He is consciously rhetorical as he enacts his suffering. As victim, he might feature as a minuscule speck or piece of grit, but his setting is grandiose — ‘the void’, ‘infinite emptiness’ and ‘the steppe’. Nor is he able to leave it at that, but, Nagg-like, must visit his suffering on his ‘son’. In doing so, Beckett brilliantly demonstrates how the autobiographical memory is neither inert nor rigid but accommodates itself imaginatively to both past and present.
When Hamm removes his fascinated focus from himself, apart from the ‘creatures’, ‘paupers’ and ‘brats’ who comprise his world, there are a few people whom he individually identifies in remembrance, the ‘madman’, the ‘old doctor’ and ‘Mother Pegg’. His recollection of the madman is particularly interesting, as it is summoned by Clov’s unrelenting nihilism in typifying ‘yesterday’ as ‘that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day’ (24, 803). Clov blames Hamm entirely for his attitude. Stung into response, Hamm counters Clov’s attack with his story of the madman, probably a bespoke fantasy pressed into service. In any event, Hamm is uncharacteristically evasive, so that one might suspect that the story had been assembled for the occasion. Once again, we encounter ‘missing information’. He says:
HAMM: I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter — and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I’d take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that
rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness! (Pause.) He’d snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes. (Pause. )
Forgotten. (Pause.) It appears the case is . . . was not so . . . so unusual.
Capable of exhilarated aesthetic response himself, Hamm is repulsed by the deadly reductiveness of Clov’s ‘bloody awful’ days. He retaliates by supplying a parable that has a nervy, provisional quality to its dashes and commas, but which allows Clov to select his own application. Although the Van Gogh-like madman of the story encounters Hamm’s customary coercive discourse, the attempt to ‘fix’ the story on Clov is strangely tentative. Hamm is hesitant in suggesting ‘the case is . . . was not so . . . so unusual’. Bearing in mind that with all its doubts and dislocations, his ‘present self inhabited that memory’ (Byatt, 2002: 94), Hamm cannot be sure if the story really applies to Clov, for if it does Hamm will have to interrogate the fundamentals of his present circumstances. Can he trust Clov? What if vital information is missing? In his blind immobility Hamm relies on Clov’s perceptions to construct reality for him. And if Clov, like the engraver, has misconstrued everything through nihilism, what then?
Given his uncertainty, Hamm is faced with three possibilities. So is the audience. The first is that Clov’s memory is accurate, that things are exactly as he reports them in a post-holocaust world in which ‘something is taking its course’. This is perhaps the least disturbing option, and the one to which Hamm has become accustomed. The second is that Clov has been so ‘extinguished’ that, like the real or fabricated madman, he is capable of perceiving only an ‘extinguished’ world. His memory and perceptions have been so poisoned by their reservoirs of joyless days that he is unable to register anything but negative, doom-ridden images of decay and dissolution. This worries Hamm sufficiently to initiate some circumspect probing. He reacts to his lack of knowledge by applying his memory of the madman to the riddle of divergent perception, to the gospel-according-to-Clov. If Hamm’s hunch is true, then Clov’s apocalyptic vision would stem from the same source as the madman’s — the pessimistic selectiveness of the delusional mind.
The third option is even more problematic. Although Hamm skirts it from time to time, he never fully articulates it. Clov is fond of saying, rather portentously, that ‘something is taking its course’. The possibility exists that it is he who is ‘taking his course’. As the ‘king’s’ last opponent in Endgame’s chess tournament, Clov, as ‘knight’, is bound by the rules of the game to block his opponent’s conquest. The servant, therefore, might be engaged in an elaborate series of ‘moves’ to resist the master’s hegemony once and for all.10 Since Hamm has only Clov’s word for it that they are living in what Robinson describes as ‘the lingering dissolution of a world at zero’ (Robinson, 1969: 242), Clov has him at his mercy. He takes this opportunity to report on phenomena that he has not observed at all. Because he systematically deceives Hamm over small details, he could quite possibly, out of revenge and desperation, have conceived of a totalising strategy to trounce the embattled ‘king’. The vision he projects accords with his own negative mind-set sufficiently to avoid outright suspicion on Hamm’s part, though Clov feels constrained to say at one stage: ‘You don’t believe me? You think I’m inventing?’ (40, 1409). Hamm does not reply. If the world were other than his servant reported and Clov finally laid claim to freedom by leaving, he would have defeated Hamm in an elaborately devised strategy. This does not happen, however, as the final tableau of Clov framed against the doorway burdened by his stalled ‘life to come’ suggests stalemate rather than checkmate. When Beckett directed his own production in Berlin in 1967 he explained to the actor Ernst Schröder that Hamm is a king in this chess game lost from the start. From the start he knows he is making loud senseless moves. That he will make no progress at all with the gaff. Now at last he makes a few senseless moves as only a bad player would. A good one would have given up long ago. He is only trying to delay the inevitable end. Each of his gestures is one of the last useless moves which put off the end. He’s a bad player.
(in Cohn, 1973: 152)
CHAPTER ONE: DIMINISHING RETURNS
CHAPTER TWO: BEHOLD MY WORKS
CHAPTER THREE: MISSING INFORMATION
CHAPTER FOUR: SEPARATE DYNAMISMS
CHAPTER FIVE: REVOLVING IT ALL
CHAPTER SIX: MEMORY AS REMEDY, STIMULANT AND SEDATIVE
WORKS BY SAMUEL BECKETT INCLUDING A LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS AND BECKETT EDITIONS
OTHER WORKS CITED
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