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Axiological Development of Beckett's Work: Chronological Concept



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6. Axiological Development of Beckett's Work: Chronological Concept


In this chapter, Beckett's work and its beginnings will be a subject of analysis with the focus on determination of values. The aim of the analysis is to appoint the crucial values and their changes, i. e. in chronological (diachronic) concept. The applied method will be hermeneutical analysis (i. e. interpretation) and thematically determined selection with the aim to appoint the features at axiological level and their dynamics (change, reduction, expansion, modification etc.). The development will be considered from Beckett's first major works till the beginning of his dramatical work. Subsequently, the focus will be made on his drama only.

Beckett's first work Dante ... Bruno. Vico ... Joyce is a critical essay which was published in 1929. By its nature it is a defence of Joyce's work. In Czech translation, the study was published in 1992 under the title of Joyce - Proust: Eseje, where also Beckett's essay on Macrel Proust form 1931 was added. At the beginning of the text already, Beckett points out at the danger of pidgeholding as well as the idea of differentiation of philosophical abstraction and empirical proof. A critical point is made towards "temporalizing that which is extratemporal." (Beckett 7). At this point, it is possible to notice that this approach is applied also in Beckett's plays - the spatial and temporal setting is torn out of context, flow of time is absent in favour of its more general, universal concept.

Another feature which could also have influence at Beckett's work is a critical look at the concept by Giambattista Vico: "His exposition of the ineluctable circular progression of Society was completely new, although the germ of it was contained in Giordano Bruno’s treatment of identified contraries." (Beckett 9). The expression "ineluctable circular progression" may bring us again to the idea of apocryphal being. Vico was strongly influenced by Descartes, yet he refused his idea that cognition is is the clear criterion of a truth. The truth, in Vico's concept, is what has been done by a human. He also pronounces the idea, that Descartes' rational idea may be significant, yet in complex reality and society it is intricately applicable.

Beckett, as strongly rational author, displays the clash of reason and absurdity, as well as the struggle to understand or overcome an absurdity with a use of reason. However, from the point of epistemology, the Beckett's approach within the Theatre of The Absurd is opposite to Vico's one, when Vico claims that in the human life and society, the main features are probability and circumstances - the truth is not what we know since it is obvious, but the truth is what we can do (verum et factum convertunur). It is possible to presume, that Beckett's plays operate with quite different approach - based on the fact, that the protagonists are unable of action and based on this, they realize what they can (or better they can't) do. There is also a kind of dynamics of human power for changes, for example in Act Whithout Words I, the protagonist finds his border between what he can do and the absurdity which he can not overcome by his active endeavour.

Another principle which had a high influence on Beckett's thinking is included within theses by Vico, who, due to Beckett, is said to share some points with Bruno:

There is not difference, says Bruno, between the smallest possible chord and the smallest possible arc, no difference between the infinite circle and the straight line. The maxima and minima of particular contraries are one and indifferent. Minimal heat equals minimal cold. Consequently transmutations are circular. The principle (minimum) of one contrary takes its movement from the principle (maximum) of another. Therefore not only do the minima coincide with the minima, the maxima with the maxima, but the minima with the maxima in the succession of transmutations. Maximal speed is a state of rest. The maximum of corruption and the minimum of generation are identical. (Beckett, Eseje 10)

It is possible to notice, that Beckett applies the same philosophy, e. g. within the utterance of Pozzo in Waiting for Godot: "He stopped crying. (To Estragon.) You have replaced him as it were. (Lyrically.) The teras of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. (He laughs.)" (Beckett 40). This approach would imply the idea of the maximum-minimum combination, which is superindividual (i. e. involves two people at least). The combination of two contrastive extremes (minimum-minimum and maximum-maximum) may imply the idea of certain individual ability or capacity suggesting the idea that human suffering for example can not be higher than human happiness, though they may be experienced subjectively, the objective limit of its amount remains constant. This approach is applied in Beckett's play Not I, where the female protagonist claims she does not feel she would be suffering fom punishment, yet she can not feel any pleasure either. An idea is thus suggested that combination of minimum and maximum must involve two people (as presented in Waiting for Godot above), while two minima are relevant for one person only (as presented in Not I, the inability to feel one extreme implies the idea of total apathy of an individual). This concept also brings the issue of mutual dependency of whole humankind. Moreover, emotions are significant value since they imply a positive value of humanity.

The aforementioned concept contributes to the idea of mechanical, predetermined system of society and human existence. In Dante ... Bruno. Vico ... Joyce. Beckett also refers himself to Vico's idea that "Individuality is the concretion of universality, and every individual action is at the same time superindividual." (Beckett, Eseje 11). The term superindividual may be defined as 'anthropologically generally valid'. Beckett's study also reveals Beckett's approach to religion: "Humanity is its work in itself. God acts on her, but by means of her. Humanity is divine, but no man is divine. This social and historical classification is clearly adapted by Mr. Joyce as a structural convenience - or inconvenience." (Beckett, Eseje 12). Suggesting a reference to Joyce and being under his influence, Beckett's concept of religion is being formed. With a reference to Vico, Beckett operates with the idea of life phases, i. e. Birth, Maturity, Corruption and Generation with a remark that birth is not certain, especially with the "consciousness that there is a great deal of the unborn infant in the lifeless octogenarian, and a great deal of both in the man at the apogee of his life's curve." (Beckett, Eseje 13). At level of language, in his essay, Beckett calls Joyce "biologist in words" (Beckett, Eseje 27), i. e. in the sense of Joyce's struggle to bring withering English back to the sources. Yet in later period, quite opposite approach (i. e. minimalistic one) is valid for Beckett's literary creation.

In another essay within the work Beckett: Eseje, Beckett is dealing with Marcel Proust and his work, which reveals a lot about approach Beckett uses in his later works. "Proust's characters are victims of this all-controlling condition and circumstance - Time; they are victims similarly like lower organisms which know two dimension ony: they are victims and prisoners. There is no escape from hour and days. Neither from tomorrow, nor from yesterday. There is no escape from yesterday, since yesterday has already affected us or it was affected by us." (Beckett, Eseje 36). In accordance to the system of mechanical existence suggested above, it is claimed that "Yesterday is not a milestone indicating miles which we already have behind us, but it is a milestone of days at the beaten track of years." (Beckett, Eseje 36). It is possible to argue whether this repetitiveness is individual (i. e. it suggests individual spins in a circle) or superindividual (i. e. the existence of each individual takes place after the existence of another one). However, both the concepts related to the motive of a beaten track are used in Beckett's plays.

In Beckett's essay on Proust, a significant idea is pronounced, i. e. "What does it mean to "achieve the goal"? It means, when subject identifies himself with the object of his passion. Yet the subject himself dies on his journey - perhaps many times." (Beckett, Eseje 37). Proust agrees with Joyce at the point of the idea of mechanical system of society and human existence, as expressed by Beckett: "An individual is a place of continuous spillover: from the vessel containing the fluid of future, which is inert, dull and monochromatic it flows into the vessel containing fluid of the past, revived and brightly colored by phenomena of the past hours." (Beckett, Eseje 38). The validity of this approach is in Beckett's case conditioned by the presence (or retention) of memories, i. e. the topic closely related to individual experience. In Waiting for Godot, this approach is not valid, due to lack of memories of the characters. As Beckett claims in relation to Proust's work, "The Memory and Habit are attributes of the cancer of Time. [...] Laws of memory are subjects to more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise [...] the life is a sequence of habits since an individual is the sequence of individuals." (Beckett, Eseje 41). Moreover, Beckett claims that "Habit is a great deadener." which may be understood in terms of viewing it as a feature limiting perception, cognition and emotions.

The testimony stated above is another proof that features of Prosut's work could serve as inspiration for Beckett's plays, especially with a contribute to the display of memory and habit, which are in Beckett's work closely related and have significant importance in contribution to his crucial 'philosophy' overlapping with the issue of values and cognition: "pernicious devotion to habit thus paralyses attention" (Beckett, Eseje 42) Beckett also creates the idea of contract binding the man with his habit, which is, due to Proust, our second nature. Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, in which this loss of memories and resulting habit and repetitiveness were displayed, could sereve as a typical example of application of this procedure. Proust's approach coindices with Beckett's one when it is claimed: "We are alone. We can not recognize or be recognized." (Beckett, Eseje 77), which is the idea suggesting certain agnosticism, yet the issue of human cognition varies in Beckett's plays, often in dependence on memory, gain of detachment or refusal to be part of habit and absurdity.

The influence of Proust at Beckett is reflected in his work much later than his critical study Dante ... Bruno. Vico ... Joyce. was written. Beckett's own style (or anti-style) is much more reflected in his late works, from the beginning of 50s, i. e. Molloy, Malone dies and Unnamable which do not share the decorated metaphorical language, numerous similes, attributes which were used for the creation of his essays on Proust and Joyce.

To set the border of individual thinking of these writers, Beckett had a great respect for Dante and Descartes, yet he did not share Joyce's passion for Vico, although he agrees with him that the body is said to be "not simultaneous with the spirit" (Beckett 100), which is one of the most crucial points for understanding Beckett's plays. This may lead us to the idea of separate existence of body and spirit and thus the issue of reincarnation. In early stage of Beckett's work, he reads works by Arthur Schopenhauer, Arnold Geulincx (his work Ethics) and Immanuel Kant. Kant and Schopenhauer agree on the conception of the world as a notion or idea (primarily Suggested by Kant): all things are given to us as phenomena. Schopenhauer questions the idea that the source of metaphysic (a philosophical discipline dealing with being, existence and the highest monad - God, as mentioned by Beckett in essay Dante ... Bruno. Vico ... Joyce) can not be based on empirical approach, and suggests that the cognition may be based also on own or mediated experience. In Beckett's plays the role of experience varies, depending on presence and absence of the memory and stereotype which disable application of experience. Shopenhauer suggests the individuality of human cognition in his work Welt als Wille und Vorstellung I. The presence of axiological features is noticeable in philosophy of Henri Begrson, anti-rationalist, opposing tradition and Enlightment, who emphasizes the importance of spirituality and points out at the life principle of love. Geulincx, about whom Beckett gave several lectures, has influenced Proust or Joyce already and he is directly quoted in Beckett's work Molloy (1950): "Where you are worth nothing, there you should not want nothing". Bergson suggests the concept of causality of happening in the world, in which the events may be segmented into causes and consequences. In Beckett's plays of Absurd, this concept is completely denied and causality of the plot is replaced by motive of an absurd coincidence with existential nature. On the other hand, in Endgame there is quite different approach to be noticed, i. e. in accordance to Begrson:

"Hamm: I'll give you nothing more to eat.


Clov: Then we'll die.
Hamm: I'll give you just enough to keep you from dying. You'll be hungry all the time.
Clov: Then we won't die." (Beckett 21)

Not only almost apathical pragmatism, by which the causality is approached, may be noticed, but also the mutual dependence of both characters is suggested, based on the use of pronoun we in the result.


In Beckett's play Whoroscope from 1930, which was awarded by a small literary prize, the frequent use of alliteration is apparent. By this work, which was written within one night only, Beckett enters poetry. It is possible to notice Beckett's struggle for language, i. e. being still under Joyce's influence. Yet at the level of themes, his existential foundation is already being formed: "How rich she smells, this abortion of a fledgling"5 In a form of a monologue, the protagonist, René Descartes, deals with the existential issues, theology and time-flow while waiting for omelette of rotten eggs. Based on the quotation above, it is apparent that Beckett uses certain motive in extremely existential context (at this work, moreover, in the combination with pleasant sensory perception) which may be noticed also in his Act Without Words II, as developed further. In the field of epistemology, there is a significant quote in Whoroscope, i. e. "Fallor, ergo sum!" (Beckett, Whoroscope) i. e. "I am wrong, therefore I am", possibly suggesting the idea that a human being is in its essence fallible and imperfect - another crucial idea in Beckett's plays and significant one especially in the field of epistemology.

In 1932 Beckett finishes his work More Pricks Than Kicks dealing with routine and religious disputes in Ireland. In 1933 his father died and Beckett lives in in Italy and Germany. In Dublin Magazine from in 1934, Beckett's poem was published:

"Spend the years of learning squandering
Courage for the years of wandering
Through a world politely turning
From the loutishness of learning" (Beckett, Collected Poems 1930 - 1978)

The title of the poem, Gnome, comes from Ancient Greek, meaning knowledge. In the poem, Beckett apparently highlights the importance of learning and values the curiosity and individual experience. He also works with a contrast 'politely' and 'loutishness'.

Since 1935, Beckett suffered from severe moral, mental and financial crisis, as well as psychosomatic illnesses. In order to let of steam, Beckett starts writing prose Murphy, displaying young intellectual, who is trying to get rid of commitments (similarly to Eleutheria, in which the protagonist Henri Krapp is trying to achieve independence). The protagonist eventually manages so, but only through a suicide.

In 1944, Beckett is returning from Rousillone where he was hiding with Suzanne from Nazi persecution. This is the hard time in Beckett's life. He returnes to his empty flat, questiones the values of literary creation and he doubths his own abilities. Again, he is resorting to alcohol. Yet in 1946, there is a significant turning point in the field of his literar creation: "One stormy night, when he was wandering along Ireland, a mystical experience of revelation and enlightment met him, in relation to inner assurance, that the source of his creative energy is in the field of freed sentiment, not in the field of intellect. He started to write in first person, i. e. in French" (Vrba, Šťastné dny 7). Up to this moment, Beckett was often displaying young intellectuals trying to achieve independence. This may be considered autobiographical feature, since Beckett was struggling for his own individual specific style as well. They plays, starting with Waiting for Godot, are proofs of his success.

Exhausted by work, in 1947 Beckett starts to write the play Eleutheria, displaying the rebellion of a young man against the pressure of society. The work is not finished. In Apil 1947 Murphy was puglished and Beckett started writing Molloy (finished in 1948), in which he presented his crucial theme - a human at the end of his strenght, who is slowly succumbing to death. In the same year, Beckett, at the end of poverty, hard-working and left without friends, starts writing Malone dies. Falling into depression, he finds a way of 'therapy' and he starst writing Waiting for Godot.
"I devoted myself to writing plays to get out of severe depression, into which I was drawn by writing novels. My life was very severe, almost horrifying. I presumed that theatre could help me to distract my attention from that burden. (Vrba, Šťastné dny 35)

In 1950, Beckett writes his Stories and text for nothing in which three characters are refused by society and they are trying to fit somewhere else. In first story of this work, The Expelled, Beckett's idea related to problem of being born is present. In 1953 Beckett's Innominable is published and in 1954 he is writing his Endgame, finished in 1956. The same year he publishes his first one-act radio play All That Fall, for BBC. "In the last week of Augusst 1956 he wrote to Barney Rosset that he was 'in a whirl of depression at the moment' and a week later that he was 'still deep in drain' […] he cancelled all his appointments in Paris for a week simply because he felt wholly incapable of facing people. Instead, satisfied at having created so much vitality and wit out of the pain and the silence, he completed the script of All that Falls and sent it on to the BBC." (Knowlson 430, 431). In relation to this, it is said that "Beckett's heroes do not die at war, do not murder an do not kill others, but slowly, gradually, long - perhaps too long, they are decaying, declining, getting older and dying. (Vrba, Šťastné dny 54). In the play All That Falls, a character of girl who suffers from incureable disease. The doctor actually does not see nothing extraordinary about her, apart from the fact she is dying. Thus the death may be considered as something purely natural, not dramatic.

Still in 1956, Beckett finishes his works Act Without Words I and Act Without Words II. In 1958, Krapp's Last Tape with numerous autobiographical features is published. Beckett's second radio play with five characters, Embers (1959) is a confrontation and overlapping of reality and hallucination. The protagonist Henri, an old man, facing disillusionment from his life, is suffering from mental illness. He leads monologues and has hallucinations in which he is talking with his immediate family - father, wife Ada, who are dead or with daughter Adina. His father is deep in the land of death and can not respond to him. At this point, an autobiographical note is apparent: Beckett at first loses his father. Eventually, Henri's only partner for talk is the sea, which is hated by Henri, since it is the reason of his father's and wife's death, yet he is still attracted by it. For this play, Beckett was awarded a prestige radio prize.

In late 50s, Beckett writes his play Rough for Theatre I. displaying two male characters, both physically disabled and Rough for Theatre II indicating the significant motive of Beckett's work of being a subject to higher power i. e. at the level of axiology, being manipulated or lack of freedom. After this play, Beckett starts writing play Happy Days (1960). Another radio play, Words and Music from 1962, suggests Becett's concept of reason and emotions. The words are said to contain intellectual essence of human perception and action. Their centre is in head - the function of words is to create dry definitions and work with them. Music, on the other hand, represents the emotional essence of human interior life or spontaneity. The character Croak has both the essences, which are still fighting each other. When words are hopeless, the music helps.

The Play from 1963 followed, operating with the theme of an affair. In 1965 Beckett publishes his play for three female protagonists Come and Go (Va et Vient, 1966). Eh Joe is Beckett's TV play for a man and female voice, completed in May 1965. In 1969 his minimalistic approach escalates in twenty-five seconds long play Breath. In 1972, it was a premiere of Beckett's play Not I. Between 1974 and in 1975, Beckett is writing his one-act play That Time. The same year he wrote Footfalls and play Ghost Trio (for man protagonist and female voice). His play from 1976 … but the cloud … for a man and his voice from record. In 1977 he finishes one-act play Rockababy for female protagonist and her voice. One-act play Ohio Impromptu (1981) follows, arranged for two men. Beckett's play Catastrophe, first performed in 1982, is dedicated to Václav Havel. His last play What Where from 1983 is a dramatical tableau for men characters and voices.


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