Fintan O’Toole

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Beck­ett’s Po­lit­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion by Em­i­lie Morin

Beck­ett’s Po­lit­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion by Em­i­lie Morin.

Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press,

266 pp., $39.99

In April 1962, Sa­muel Beck­ett sent a clip­ping from the French press to his lover Bar­bara Bray: a re­port of the ar­rest in Paris of a mem­ber of the Or­gan­i­sa­tion ar­mée se­crète. The OAS was a far-right ter­ror gang whose mem­bers were drawn largely from within the French mil­i­tary. It had car­ried out bomb­ings, as­sas­si­na­tions, and bank rob­beries with the aim of over­throw­ing the govern­ment of Charles de Gaulle and stop­ping the con­ces­sion of in­de­pen­dence to Al­ge­ria. Among its tar­gets had been Beck­ett’s pub­lisher and friend Jérôme Lin­don, whose apart­ment and of­fice were both bombed by the OAS.

The press clip­ping de­tailed the cap­ture of an army lieu­tenant who would be charged with lead­ing an OAS at­tack on an arms de­pot out­side Paris and a raid on a bank in the city. His name was Lieu­tenant Daniel Godot. Send­ing it to Bray was a typ­i­cal ex­pres­sion of Beck­ett’s black hu­mor. But it also serves as a re­minder that his work is not an ex­ha­la­tion of time­less ex­is­ten­tial de­spair. It is, as Em­i­lie Morin’s ground­break­ing study, Beck­ett’s Po­lit­i­cal Imag­i­na­tion, shows, en­meshed in con­tem­po­rary politics.

That such a re­minder should be nec­es­sary is one of the more re­mark­able facts of twen­ti­eth-cen­tury cul­tural his­tory. Beck­ett, af­ter all, risked his life to work for the French Re­sis­tance, even though he was a cit­i­zen of a neu­tral coun­try, Ire­land. The as­ton­ish­ing works with which he rev­o­lu­tion­ized both the theater and the novel—Wait­ing for Godot and the tril­ogy of Mol­loy, Malone Dies, and The Un­nam­able— were writ­ten im­me­di­ately af­ter World War II and the Holo­caust. Vladimir’s ques­tion in Godot, “Where are all these corpses from?,” and its answer, “A char­nel-house! A char­nel-house!,” hang over much of his writ­ing. Tor­ture, en­slave­ment, hunger, dis­place­ment, in­car­cer­a­tion, and sub­jec­tion to ar­bi­trary power are the com­mon fates of Beck­ett’s char­ac­ters.

Yet there is a long tra­di­tion of see­ing him as not merely apo­lit­i­cal but an­tipo­lit­i­cal. In his in­tro­duc­tion to The Com­plete Short Prose, for ex­am­ple, the bril­liant Beck­ett scholar Stan Gon­tarski writes:

The fo­cus of in­jus­tice in Beck­ett is al­most never lo­cal, civil, or so­cial, but cos­mic, the in­jus­tice of hav­ing been born.

Deirdre Bair, in her pi­o­neer­ing 1978 bi­og­ra­phy of Beck­ett, called him “con­sis­tent in his apo­lit­i­cal be­hav­ior,” claimed that politics was “anath­ema” to him, and de­scribed him as hav­ing “walked away from any con­ver­sa­tion that veered into politics.” For the English left-wing play­wrights of the 1960s, he was a dis­en­gaged pes­simist with noth­ing to con­trib­ute to po­lit­i­cal dis­course ex­cept a dis­em­pow­er­ing de­spair. In France, Mau­rice Blan­chot’s early ad­vocacy of Beck­ett as (in Morin’s sum­mary) the cre­ator of “a nar­ra­tive voice di­vorced from rec­og­niz­able po­lit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal pa­ram­e­ters” es­tab­lished an en­dur­ing tem­plate. An­other of his great ad­vo­cates, Theodor Adorno, hap­pily con­ceded that “it would be... ridicu­lous to have him tes­tify as a key po­lit­i­cal wit­ness.”

On a su­per­fi­cial level Morin, in her richly il­lu­mi­nat­ing study, shows more com­pre­hen­sively than any­one else has the plain un­truth of the no­tion of a Beck­ett who walked away from any po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion. He was an avid reader of left-of-cen­ter news­pa­pers: Com­bat and Franc-Tireur in the 1940s, L’Hu­man­ité and Le Monde there­after, Libéra­tion in the 1980s. While he was de­scribed in The Ob­server in 1969 as a man who had only ever signed one pe­ti­tion—against the poor reg­u­la­tion of French slaugh­ter­houses—he ac­tu­ally signed dozens, from sup­port for the Scotts­boro boys (black teenagers falsely ac­cused of rap­ing white women in Al­abama) in 1931, when he was twenty-five, all the way to a de­nun­ci­a­tion of the Ira­nian fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, the year of his death. Al­though the only po­lit­i­cal party to which he do­nated di­rectly was the African Na­tional Congress—he adamantly re­fused to al­low his work to be per­formed be­fore seg­re­gated au­di­ences in South Africa—he en­dorsed a pub­lic ap­peal to vote for the So­cial­ist Party in the 1986 French par­lia­men­tary elec­tions and en­sured that his Pol­ish roy­al­ties were dis­trib­uted through the trade union Sol­i­dar­ity to the fam­i­lies of im­pris­oned dis­si­dents. He ded­i­cated his late play Catas­tro­phe to Vá­clav Havel, who was then in prison in Cze­choslo­vakia, and he do­nated valu­able manuscripts to Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and Ox­fam.

Beck­ett was al­ways po­lit­i­cally aware. In Dublin in the 1930s, he associated

(in spite of his im­pec­ca­bly Protes­tant and Union­ist fam­ily back­ground) with the mem­bers of the small left­ist fringe of Ir­ish re­pub­li­can­ism—Char­lie Gil­more, Peadar O’Don­nell, and Ernie O’Mal­ley. One of the more star­tling reve­la­tions from the splen­did Cam­bridge edi­tion of Beck­ett’s let­ters was his deeply se­ri­ous at­tempt to move to Moscow in 1936 to study cin­e­matog­ra­phy with Sergei Eisen­stein. He did suc­ceed in trav­el­ing to Hitler’s Ger­many, where he lived be­tween Septem­ber 1936 and April 1937, and his up-close study of Nazi pro­pa­ganda is a strong in­flu­ence on his later work. And of course, he chose to re­turn from the safety of Dublin to Nazi-oc­cu­pied Paris, where he be­came an im­por­tant mem­ber of the un­der­ground cell Glo­ria SMH. In 1977 Richard Stern asked Beck­ett whether he had ever been po­lit­i­cal. The re­ply—“No, but I joined the Re­sis­tance”—is one of his typ­i­cal self­cancel­ing sen­tences, in which the sec­ond part ut­terly negates the first. Be­yond these bio­graph­i­cal facts, though, Morin demon­strates how Beck­ett’s writ­ing was en­gaged from early on with ques­tions of colo­nial­ism, power, and race. She pays par­tic­u­larly acute at­ten­tion to his work in trans­lat­ing the French texts for Nancy Cu­nard’s land­mark 1934 an­thol­ogy Ne­gro, which brought to­gether writ­ings from Africa, Europe, and Amer­ica to cre­ate the sense of a global an­ti­im­pe­ri­al­ist and an­tiracist cur­rent con­nect­ing French and Bri­tish colonies to the Négri­tude move­ment in Paris and the Har­lem Re­nais­sance in New York. Beck­ett, in his con­tem­po­rary let­ters, tended to be de­fen­sive and dis­parag­ing about this work, sug­gest­ing that he was a mere job­bing hack, glad to re­ceive “a few quid any­how” from Cu­nard. But Morin shows con­clu­sively that he was in fact deeply en­gaged with it, even in­ter­ven­ing to em­pha­size in his trans­la­tions po­lit­i­cal points that are more ob­scure in the orig­i­nal texts. At the very least, the work gave Beck­ett a crash course in the lan­guages of racial op­pres­sion and re­sis­tance. It is no­table that the only poem of his to have a ded­i­ca­tion in the text is “From the Only Poet to a Shin­ing Whore. For Henry Crow­der to Sing.” Crow­der, a jazz mu­si­cian and Cu­nard’s lover, was African-Amer­i­can.

In­deed, Morin’s su­perbly re­searched book is so con­vinc­ing in its metic­u­lous re­cre­ation of Beck­ett’s po­lit­i­cal worlds that it raises an en­tirely new ques­tion: Why, given all of this im­mer­sion in op­pres­sion, pro­pa­ganda, to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, colo­nial­ism, and racism, is Beck­ett’s artis­tic work not more ex­plic­itly en­gaged? Why does some­one who knew so much and cared so deeply about his­tory and politics cre­ate a body of work in which they are ap­proached so obliquely? There are some ob­vi­ous an­swers—one bio­graph­i­cal, the other aes­thetic—but they are not en­tirely ad­e­quate.

The bio­graph­i­cal one is that Beck­ett was al­ways a dis­placed per­son. He was a Protes­tant in a self-con­sciously and at times ag­gres­sively Catholic Ir­ish state. Sub­se­quently he was an alien in France. He is so strongly associated with Paris that it is hard to re­mem­ber that he al­ways held and re­newed what he called his “green Eire pass­port,” and joined the other mi­grants and strangers in the lines at im­mi­gra­tion ser­vices to re­new his res­i­dency per­mits. As a ma­ture writer, Beck­ett never lived in the coun­try of his cit­i­zen­ship and was never a cit­i­zen of the coun­try he lived in. He did not feel en­ti­tled to crit­i­cize the gov­ern­ments of ei­ther Ire­land or France di­rectly. He also knew—es­pe­cially dur­ing the fraught years of the Al­ge­rian war when the French govern­ment was crack­ing down on dis­sent—that he could be de­ported at any time.

The aes­thetic rea­son is that Beck­ett was no good at writ­ing his­tory plays or po­lit­i­cal satires and had no in­ter­est in re­al­is­tic fic­tion. He did try: there are in­trigu­ing ves­tiges of an aban­doned satir­i­cal his­tory of Ire­land called True­born Jac­k­een, and he at­tempted, while in Nazi Ger­many, a his­tor­i­cal drama about Sa­muel John­son. But he had grown up as a writer di­rectly in the shadow of his friend and idol James Joyce, who had done pretty much ev­ery­thing that could be done with the novel of so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal om­ni­science. To es­cape Joyce’s mag­is­te­rial grandeur, Beck­ett had to find his own voice in ig­no­rance and in­ad­e­quacy— qual­i­ties that do not lend them­selves to po­lit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal state­ment. These are good rea­sons but they are not suf­fi­cient. Beck­ett could, af­ter all, have taken French cit­i­zen­ship: as a dec­o­rated war hero (awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Mé­daille de la Re­con­nais­sance Française) he would hardly have been re­fused. And writ­ers of far lesser tal­ent man­aged well enough to carry on in the ex­ist­ing forms of drama and fic­tion af­ter Joyce. To re­ally un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Beck­ett’s politics and his work we have to re­turn pre­cisely to the no­tion that Adorno de­scribed as “non­sen­si­cal” and “ridicu­lous”: the idea of Beck­ett as wit­ness. But we have to re­turn to it in a very par­tic­u­lar way, for Beck­ett is above all wit­ness to what he is not: not a Jew, not tor­tured, not de­ported to a con­cen­tra­tion camp. His work is ul­ti­mately de­fined by the things that nearly hap­pened to him but did not. He es­caped the worst but never got over it. Vladimir’s ques­tions—“Was I sleep­ing, while the oth­ers suf­fered? Am I sleep­ing now?”—haunted Beck­ett him­self.

To say that Beck­ett was not Jewish may be merely to state the ob­vi­ous, but this was not in fact ob­vi­ous at all. In 1937 W. B. Yeats wrote to his friend and muse Dorothy Welles­ley a let­ter that was point­edly not in­cluded in their later pub­lished cor­re­spon­dence. He told her of a li­bel trial about to open in Dublin, in which his friend Oliver St John Gog­a­rty was be­ing sued by Harry Sin­clair, whose re­cently de­ceased brother Wil­liam was mar­ried to Beck­ett’s aunt Cissie. Gog­a­rty was a vir­u­lent anti-Semite (a fact that has sig­nif­i­cant bear­ing on Joyce’s Ulysses, where he ap­pears as Buck Mul­li­gan). The Sin­clairs were Jewish. In his fic­tion­al­ized mem­oir, As I Was Go­ing Down Sackville Street, Gog­a­rty ap­plied to the Sin­clair broth­ers—whom he called, rather ob­scurely, “twin grand­chil­dren of the an­cient Chicken Butcher” with­out nam­ing them—the full range of anti-Semitic slurs, be­gin­ning with usury and ris­ing to pe­dophilia. Harry Sin­clair sued, and Beck­ett agreed to give ev­i­dence, cru­cial in a li­bel trial, that he rec­og­nized the Sin­clairs from Gog­a­rty’s dis­guised ref­er­ences. Yeats wrote to Welles­ley of Gog­a­rty that

In his book he has called a cer­tain man a “chicken butcher,” mean­ing that he makes love to the im­ma­ture. The in­for­mant, the man who swears that he recog­nised the vic­tim[,] is a “rack­e­teer” of a Dublin poet or imata­tive [sic] poet of the new school. He hates us all . . . . He & the “Chicken Butcher” are Jews.

This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the young Beck­ett as a Jew and a “rack­e­teer” who “hates us all” had con­se­quences. Yeats had con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence with the only news­pa­per that printed Beck­ett’s work, The Ir­ish Times. It pulled Beck­ett’s re­view of Yeats’s Ox­ford Book of Mod­ern Verse. It pub­lished in­stead a piece by Yeats’s close ally the poet F.R. Hig­gins, in which, with­out be­ing named, Beck­ett was associated with an­other typ­i­cal anti-Semitic slur, that of root­less cos­mopoli­tanism— “our lit­er­ary birds of pas­sage—the cos­mopoli­tans—of no racial abode, of no back­ground.” Hig­gins also echoed Yeats’s de­scrip­tion of Beck­ett as a rack­e­teer, com­plain­ing of the “in­se­cure slick­ness, so neg­a­tive and, [sic] un­manly . . . pro­moted by those cul­tural rack­e­teers.” Added to the trauma of the li­bel trial, in which he was la­beled by Gog­a­rty’s bar­ris­ter a “bawd and blas­phe­mer from Paris,” these at­tacks con­vinced Beck­ett that he had no fu­ture in Ire­land. He was not a Jew but he was Jew-ish, close not only to the Jewish cir­cles around Joyce, to the Sin­clairs, and to the Dublin Jewish in­tel­lec­tual Con Leven­thal, but to the in­tol­er­a­ble con­di­tion of lack­ing a “racial abode.”

Just as Beck­ett came close to be­ing Jewish, he also came close to the con­cen­tra­tion camps. When the Glo­ria SMH cell was be­trayed to the Nazis in Au­gust 1942, he and his part­ner, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumes­nil, es­caped only be­cause they were able to flee be­fore the Gestapo came for them. Twelve mem­bers of Glo­ria SMH were shot, and a fur­ther ninety were de­ported to Ravens­brück, Mau­thausen, or Buchen­wald, of­ten af­ter tor­ture in France. One of them, Beck­ett’s close friend Al­fred Péron, with whom he played ten­nis and worked on trans­lat­ing his novel Mur­phy into French, sur­vived Mau­thausen only to die of ex­haus­tion and mal­nu­tri­tion on his way back to France from the camp.

These near misses placed Beck­ett in a strange po­si­tion—he was too close to the hor­rors not to write about them but too dis­tant to write of them with per­sonal au­thor­ity. He had sur­vived to tell a tale, but it could not be the tale of a sur­vivor. The great achieve­ment of Morin’s book is to plunge Beck­ett’s works back into the im­me­di­ate lit­er­ary set­ting in which they ap­peared, which was Lin­don’s list at Édi­tions de Mi­nuit. A large part of Lin­don’s mis­sion was to doc­u­ment atroc­ity, to make avail­able ac­counts of the Vichy regime, the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion, the de­por­ta­tions, and the camps, and later of the use of tor­ture by the French in Al­ge­ria. Dur­ing the lat­ter con­flict, be­tween 1958 and 1962, nine books pub­lished by Édi­tions de Mi­nuit were seized by the French au­thor­i­ties, who were de­ter­mined to sup­press the truths they were telling. It was Beck­ett who lent Lin­don the money

to keep the im­print go­ing in the face of this on­slaught. Lin­don, more­over, ex­plic­itly linked his part­ner­ship with Beck­ett to his work in doc­u­ment­ing atroc­i­ties:

I am Sa­muel Beck­ett’s pub­lisher: to have this chance and this hon­our is to ben­e­fit from an ex­tra­or­di­nary free­dom in a free coun­try, and the least that can be done is to de­fend the con­di­tions of this free­dom when they are un­der threat.

Beck­ett’s work thus ap­pears as part of a larger ex­er­cise of wit­ness. Yet what, af­ter all, had he wit­nessed? Noth­ing that greatly mat­tered when placed be­side, for ex­am­ple, the ex­pe­ri­ences of one of his clos­est friends in post­war Paris, the painter Avig­dor Arikha, whose first draw­ings were of beat­ings, corpses, and gravedig­gers’ tools in the Jewish ghetto and la­bor camp Mogilev-Podolsk. Fa­mously, in his di­a­logues with Ge­orges Duthuit, pub­lished in 1949, Beck­ett spoke of the need for a new kind of art char­ac­ter­ized by

the ex­pres­sion that there is noth­ing to ex­press, noth­ing with which to ex­press, noth­ing from which to ex­press, no power to ex­press, no de­sire to ex­press, to­gether with the obli­ga­tion to ex­press.

We might, how­ever, re­for­mu­late this with re­gard to the ques­tion of wit­ness. Beck­ett was not a Jew. He had merely had a tiny taste of the poi­son of an­tiSemitism. Beck­ett had not di­rectly ex­pe­ri­enced tor­ture at the hands of the Gestapo or de­por­ta­tion to a con­cen­tra­tion camp. He had merely ex­pe­ri­enced these things in­di­rectly, through the fates of his friends and through ba­sic hu­man com­pas­sion. He was left there­fore with a para­dox: the need to ex­press what he had not ex­pe­ri­enced, to be a wit­ness to what he had not seen. His art would come from hav­ing no power to wit­ness, no de­sire to wit­ness, no au­thor­ity as a wit­ness— to­gether with the ab­so­lute obli­ga­tion to wit­ness.

If the lit­er­a­ture of wit­ness is driven by the need to say what has been seen, Beck­ett’s eth­i­cal re­sponse to his par­tic­u­lar dilemma is (to adapt one of his late ti­tles) to ill say what he has ill seen. He can­not write about any­thing—he told Duthuit that he was “no longer ca­pa­ble of writ­ing about.” He must pro­vide in­stead a pho­to­graphic neg­a­tive in which ev­ery­thing is re­versed. Where tes­ti­mony recre­ates what hap­pened, Beck­ett can in­stead only try to cre­ate in words some cor­rel­a­tive to the thing it­self, the strip­ping away of hu­man­ity, the ut­ter pow­er­less­ness, the con­fu­sion, the obliv­ion, the ar­bi­trari­ness, the al­most com­plete loss of the known world. To the ba­sic de­mands of doc­u­men­ta­tion—who? what? where?—Beck­ett pro­vides only the un­name­able per­son, the un­known pur­pose, the land­scape of nowhere. Wit­ness is au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, but for his char­ac­ters the bio­graph­i­cal jour­ney from birth to death can­not func­tion: “Birth,” as A Piece of Mono­logue has it, “was the death of him.” He can­not even of­fer the con­so­la­tion that at least what has hap­pened is be­ing prop­erly re­mem­bered be­cause he has no au­thor­ity to re­mem­ber. When Vladimir tries to re­call even the be­gin­ning of the even­ing, Es­tragon in­ter­jects: “I’m not a his­to­rian.” In the face of the ur­gent need to rec­ol­lect the dead and how they died, Beck­ett writes, in the im­me­di­ate post­war story “The Ex­pelled”:

Me­mories are killing. So you must not think of cer­tain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the dan­ger of find­ing them, in your mind, lit­tle by lit­tle. That is to say, you must think of them for a while, a good while, ev­ery day sev­eral times a day, un­til they sink for­ever in the mud. That’s an or­der.

Lit­er­a­ture gives shape to ex­pe­ri­ence, but Beck­ett un­der­stands that, seen from the abyss, there is no shape to his­tory. The pow­ers that be are feral, their au­thor­ity ter­ri­fy­ing in its ar­bi­trari­ness. In Godot, there is a name­less, un­seen “they” who might be po­lice­men or mili­tia or vig­i­lantes on the look­out for va­grants ex­actly like Es­tragon and Vladimir. Be­tween the two acts of the play, in that blank dra­matic space whose very empti­ness res­onates with Beck­ett’s aes­thetic, Es­tragon has been at­tacked by a gang of ten men and Vladimir’s ques­tion­ing of him takes us into the psy­chol­ogy of those who are sub­ject to ar­bi­trary power, their des­per­ate hope that there is some for­mula of be­hav­ior that will de­flect its cruel caprice:

Es­tragon: I wasn’t do­ing any­thing.

Vladimir: Then why did they beat you?

Es­tragon: I don’t know.

Vladimir: Ah no, Gogo, the truth is there are things es­cape you that don’t es­cape me . . . . Es­tragon: I tell you I wasn’t do­ing any­thing.

Vladimir: Per­haps you weren’t. But it’s the way of do­ing it that counts, the way of do­ing it, if you want to go on liv­ing.

The land­scape through which Mol­loy moves is haunted by name­less man­hunters, track­ing down those “wor­thy of ex­ter­mi­na­tion.” Mol­loy mat­ter-of­factly ad­vises us:

Morn­ing is the time to hide. They wake up, hale and hearty, their tongues hang­ing out for or­der, beauty and jus­tice, bay­ing for their due. Yes, from eight or nine till noon is the dan­ger­ous time. But to­wards noon things quiet down, the most im­pla­ca­ble are sated, they go home, it might have been bet­ter but they’ve done a good job, there have been a few sur­vivors but they’ll give no more trou­ble, each man counts his rats. It may be­gin again in the early af­ter­noon, af­ter the ban­quet, the cel­e­bra­tions, the con­grat­u­la­tions, the ora­tions, but it’s noth­ing com­pared to the morn­ing, mere fun .... Day is the time for lynch­ing, for sleep is sa­cred, and es­pe­cially in the morn­ing, be­tween break­fast and lunch.

The use of “lynch­ing” here re­minds us of Beck­ett’s im­mer­sion in the re­al­i­ties of racial op­pres­sion in the US go­ing back to the early 1930s. It also points to the po­tency of his neg­a­tive method of bear­ing wit­ness. Mol­loy is not be­ing beaten or tor­tured or mur­dered. He is hid­ing, evad­ing—and the pas­sage is all the more ter­ri­ble for that. It evokes ev­ery­thing by de­scrib­ing al­most noth­ing.

The gen­eral im­per­a­tive of the im­me­di­ate post-Holo­caust years was fac­tual pre­ci­sion about what took place, and Beck­ett can be seen in this light as cul­pa­bly eva­sive. But pre­cisely be­cause it re­lates to nowhere in par­tic­u­lar, this pas­sage can re­late to any­where, to pogroms and lynch­ings, to Babi Yar or Rwanda or Bos­nia or Al­abama, or Rakhine State, to Jews or Tutsi or Mus­lims or Ro­hingyas. Equally, the strange ar­chi­tec­ture of con­fine­ment in an ap­par­ently ob­scure work like The Lost Ones (“One body per square me­tre . . . or two hun­dred bod­ies in all round num­bers . . . . The gloom and press make recog­ni­tion dif­fi­cult”) may re­call the lit­er­a­ture of the con­cen­tra­tion camps, but it could be any gu­lag or slave ship. And the tor­ture cham­ber in the late play What Where, with its re­peated in­junc­tion “Give him the works,” may be in­spired by the French in Al­ge­ria, but it ex­ists all over the world.

This is the most po­lit­i­cal thing about Beck­ett: be­cause there is no fixed time or space, there are no com­fort­ing bound­aries, no his­tor­i­cal mo­ments into which we can pack away all the trou­ble and then move on. The en­tirely un­der­stand­able im­pulse af­ter great hor­ror is to think that at least it is over. It can be doc­u­mented be­cause it is fin­ished. The lit­er­a­ture of wit­ness is an at­tempt to fix the im­me­di­ate past, but in Beck­ett the hor­ror is not past. In Beck­ett there is only one tense, the present. There is only the voice speak­ing end­lessly in the dark­ness, speak­ing to us now. The dead can­not be re­mem­bered be­cause they are not even dead. They ex­ist, as the open­ing line of The Lost Ones has it, in an “abode where lost bod­ies roam each search­ing for its lost one.” Much as we like to think oth­er­wise, politics is al­ways such an abode.

Sa­muel Beck­ett

‘Sa­muel Beck­ett, les lunettes sur le front,’ 1967; draw­ing by Avig­dor Arikha

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