“au contraire”

An interesting addition to the series of articles celebrating Samuel Beckett’s Centenary in the Guardian today. Terry Eagleton – or wikipedia page – argues that Beckett should be read with an eye on the historical context of his life and work, that is “not some timeless spirit but a southern Irish Protestant, part of a besieged minority of cultural aliens caught uneasily within a triumphalistic Catholic Free State.”

This year’s calendar to celebrate Beckett’s 100th anniversary is crammed with literary events celebrating the life of the modern age’s most lovable pessimist, most of them, one imagines, awash with talk of the timeless human condition portrayed in his work.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, Beckett treated such portentous interpretations of his work with typical Irish debunkery. “No symbol where none intended,” he once reminded the critics. For another, he was not some timeless spirit but a southern Irish Protestant, part of a besieged minority of cultural aliens caught uneasily within a triumphalistic Catholic Free State. As Anglo-Irish Big Houses were burnt by Republicans during the war of independence, many Protestants fled to the Home Counties. The paranoia, chronic insecurity and self-conscious marginality of Beckett’s work make a good deal more sense in this light. So does the stark, stripped quality of his writing, with its Protestant aversion to frippery and excess. If he abandoned Ireland soon enough for Paris, it was partly because one might as well be homeless abroad as at home. As with his friend James Joyce, another Irish literary nomad, internal exile turned quickly into literal emigration. The alienation of the Irish artist could be translated easily enough into European modernist angst.

Beckett was far from ashamed of being Irish. His famous riposte to a French journalist who innocently inquired whether he was English was “au contraire”. His black humour and satirical wit are cultural as well as personal traits. But he could find no foothold within an introverted Gaelic state, and the austere minimalism of his art is, among other things, a critique of bloated nationalist rhetoric. Yet there is also a distinctively Irish quality to Beckett’s deflation of the florid and high-flown, just as there is something recognisably Irish about those starved, stagnant landscapes where, like colonial victims, you do nothing but sit and wait for deliverance.

Eagleton ends with a reminder of the later historical context, and that “starry-eyed utopia” serves a different master than some would prefer us to believe –

Unusually among modernist artists, this supposed purveyor of nihilism was a militant of the left rather than the right. A champion of the ambiguous and indeterminate, his fragmentary, provisional art is supremely anti-totalitarian. It is also an art born in the shadow of Auschwitz, which keeps faith with silence and terror by paring its language, characters and narrative almost to vanishing point. It is the writing of a man who understood that sober, bleak-eyed realism serves the cause of human emancipation more faithfully than starry-eyed utopia.