The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
April 13, 2006

The Beckett Centenary: Why Peter Mullen can't join the adulation

Posted by Peter Mullen

Today is the centenary of Samuel Beckett's birth on 13th April 1906. The centenary is being marked by events around the world extolling Beckett's brilliance as a playwright. Peter Mullen - Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange - explains why he can't join the adulation.

The adulation for Samuel Beckett on his centenary is misplaced. I feel I should turn up at one of the countless revivals of his plays and declaim the Service of Exorcism from the Rituale Romanum – for Beckett has been one of the most malign influences on the life and culture of the last hundred years.

Let me admit straight away that Beckett writes like a dream, but the equation of beauty and truth does not always work: Satan is always at his most seductive when he puts on a pretty face. Beckett can be witty, but his wit is the deranged humour of irony tipped over into what is merely snide. He uses his wit to do dirt on humanity. I think this is why intellectuals idolise him so – because so many of them too are fashionable nihilists whose greatest compliment to human life is that it is pointless.

Here, from Malone Dies, is some typical Beckett snide:

If I had the use of my body, I would throw it out of the window.
It is funny but only at the level of disrespect and tastelessness that pissing in an open grave is funny. It is humour in the service of Nothing, and contempt for the human condition. Beckett does not say he would throw himself out of the window, for characteristically, there is no self only it.

Is the much-vaunted humour really all that sharp? Only if you are creased at the sight of Billie Whitelaw mouthing platitudes and non sequiturs while up to her neck in sand. Or if you find hilarious four silent actors moving over and over again from the circumference to the centre of a circle. Or if you're impressionable enough to giggle at an Irishman playing pocket ludo with sixteen sucking stones. He's telling us life is meaningless again. It's all he ever tells us. And nihilism does not become true by repetition, only tedious.

Beckett's long literary career and his posthumous acclaim is as the apostle of meaninglessness and fashionable despair. He wrote nothing but discouragement and the intellectuals gleefully cheered every line – but they were only cheering their own vacuity. You might describe his whole oeuvre as Angst-chic.

His most famous advertisement for nothingness, his play Waiting for Godot, was produced near the time of Simone Weil's spiritual masterpiece Waiting For God. One detects a deliberate sneer. Godot is applauded as an imaginative acceptance of the human condition as meaningless. In it Beckett jibes that Christ was lucky:

Where he was it was warm and dry and they crucified quick.
Lies. The Gospels tell us Christ hung on the Cross for at least three hours, but what are the Gospels to a bigoted ideological nihilist?

Beckett chuckles:

Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.
The man is a sadist. He spuriously invents his meaningless universe and then casts himself as hero for daring to live in it:
I can't go on. I'll go on.
It's not courage, only self-indulgence.

Beckett bemoans the writer's predicament:

The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no desire to express…
It's all baloney. Beckett himself never stops expressing. And he adds,
With the obligation to express.
But in a meaningless world, Sam, who or what obliges us?

The Beckett groupies, and others like Sartre, Derrida, Foucault and Lacan, simply assume the gospel of meaninglessness, whereas many competent modern philosophers argue coherently for the innate reasonableness of the universe and for the persuasiveness of an Anthropic Principle which makes it almost impossible that the world as it is known to us should be an accident.

But there is more to this matter than speculative metaphysics. In Beckett's sordid vision, metaphysics is not the only dead end. Where there is no meaning, there can be no morality. In a nihilistic universe, it is not only the purposes of God and his angels that are meaningless: so also would be our promises, our social contracts, our declarations of loyalty and love.

All worthless. But of course we do love, we do make and even keep promises sometimes; and by these actions we demonstrate that Beckett's world is not merely intellectually incredible, it is ethically perverse as well. And, of course, if the universe is really as meaningless as Beckett says it is, then the claim that Beckett's writing can be described as "true" or even "competent" is merely self-refuting nonsense.

On second thoughts, Samuel Beckett does not write like a dream. He writes like a nightmare.

Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Samuel beckette is idolized not because he writes as a a "sadist" or as a person who views no meaning in life rather he is applauded for presenting the human life as it is, bleak and despair. He views mankind in its purest form, in its animal state without the disillusion of society,ego,vanity and pride.He "dares" to write what others like to keep silent, human life as it is without purpose and meaning.
As for living in a fictional buble protecting you from reality. rock on!

Posted by: 1234567 at January 20, 2009 11:33 AM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement