Blesok no. 101-102, November-December, 2015
On Beckett’s Expression – Complexity and Minimalism
On Beckett’s Expression – Complexity and Minimalism
Translated from Macedonian by the author
But I don’t say anything, I don’t know anything, these voices are not mine, nor these thoughts, but the voices and thoughts of the devils who beset me.
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
It appears that this sentence, uttered by the narrator of the Beckett’s novel The Unnamable, pictures the author’s attitude towards his own works, the whole literature, and even towards the communication in general. Beckett deals with the language system and the presumption that as a complex system of signs, it cannot convey meaning. Throughout his plays, he presents reality the way he perceives it – as an endless string of signifiers, which in fact do not signify much. His works emphasize the irony of the fact that human existence involves speech, and in order to speak, one must adopt language – a system of words which do not have inherent meaning.
Any attempt to arrive to a clear and exact interpretation by establishing the identity of Godot by means of critical analysis, would be as naïve as an attempt to discover “the clear outlines hidden behind the chiaroscuro of a painting by Rembrandt by scraping away the paint”. When Alan Schneider, who was to direct the first American production of Waiting for Godot, asked Beckett who or what was meant by Godot, he received the answer “If I knew, I would have said so in the play”. His answer is a warning of essential importance to anyone who approaches Beckett’s plays with an intention to discover a key to their understanding, and to show their true and precise meaning. But nevertheless, considering the fact that his plays are written in such a peculiar and unusual way, it is natural to feel the need for explanation, the need to discover their hidden meaning and translate it into common language. The source of this fallacy can be found in the misconception that there must be a way of reducing these plays to the conventions of the “normal” theatre, and to plots that can be summarized. Such attempts, of course, cannot be successful: instead of linear development, Beckett’s plays represent the author’s intuition on the human condition through a rather polyphonic model; their audience is confronted with an organized structure of statements and images deeply entwined with each other and that must be perceived as a totality, like the different themes in a composition, which acquire meaning through simultaneous interaction.
However, the fact that we must approach Beckett’s plays very cautiously in order to avoid simplification of their meaning, does not imply that we should not expose them to close reading, isolate images and themes and try to discover their structural groundwork. The results of such examination should help us follow the intention of the author, and understand – if not the answers – at least the questions that he poses.
Beckett not only writes at the margins of language, but also the characters he creates are marginal, as well as the situations; and moreover – everything happens at the margins of space. In his works, nevertheless, the most prevailing elements are the absence and the emptiness. Godot – the incarnation of presence – never appears. Life becomes mere waiting, filled with meaningless dialogues for killing time, and routine, almost mechanical movements repeated again and again. Life passes without actually being lived. These are the elements where the subversion of the marginal can be felt: the marginal characters and situations become central, and the margin turns to center. It appears that this subversion reaches its full power through silence, which suppresses language, deforms it, and gains more meaning than words themselves.
Beckett’s plays can be seen as a search for reality behind reason. Although he devalues language as an instrument of communicating “the ultimate truth”, he certainly appears to be a great master of language as an artistic medium. Throughout his search for a better working material, he models the words into a powerful instrument for achieving his goal. On the stage, Beckett succeeds in giving language another dimension, so it becomes a counterpoint of the action, concrete, versatile, inexplicable and with direct effect on the audience. Beckett’s plays strive towards expressing the inability to find meaning in a world that is subject to incessant change, and his language questions the limits of language as means of communication and as an instrument of thought. Nevertheless, the mere fact that he uses the stage shows Beckett’s efforts to find a way of communication outside language.
Martin Esslin in his work The Theatre of the Absurd, sheds light upon the question of Beckett’s use of French in his writings. Esslin points out the fact that many authors had achieved success by their works written in language other than their mother tongue, but usually the circumstances were such that would force them to write in foreign language:
The necessities of exile, a desire to break the connection with their country of origin for political or ideological reasons; or the wish to reach a world audience, which might induce the citizen of a small language community, a Rumanian or a Dutchman, to write in French or English. But Beckett was certainly not an exile in that sense, and his mother tongue is accepted lingua franca of the twentieth century. He chose to write his masterpieces in French because he felt that he needed the discipline that the use of an acquired language would impose upon him. As he told a student writing a thesis on his work who asked him why he used French, ‘Parce qu’en franҫais c’est plus facile d’écrire sans style’.
Namely, as the mother tongue tempts the author to surrender himself to the virtuosity of style, the foreign language would force him to keep the ingenuity that otherwise might disappear among the stylistic embellishments. Therefore, the use of foreign language would maximize the clarity and economy of expression.
In that sense, it is evident that the main stylistic feature of Beckett’s language is the lack embellishments and of semantically empty words and phrases. The language is “impoverished” and reduced to the most “necessary” elements, in other words – reduced to minimum. Such a lexical choice is in accordance with Beckett’s striving towards achieving simplicity of language. The absence of any descriptive discourse in his works is also evident, and that, again, refers to the idea of writing without style. The intention of avoiding descriptions is emphasized in the following example:
VLADIMIR: How’s the carrot?
ESTRAGON: It’s a carrot.
Beckett uses short and grammatically simple sentences, and he usually sticks to few simple conjunctions. Elliptical constructions are used very often, so ellipsis becomes one of the main syntactic characteristics of Beckett’s plays. The most common function of ellipsis is representation of spontaneous and unprepared speech. At the same time, it polishes the common language and favors the tendency of redundancy minimization. However, the elliptical constructions can often produce ambivalent meaning. In that sense, instead of simplifying the language, this language characteristic renders Beckett’s expression more complex. The short, elliptical questions and similar answers, which at first appear to be simple and clear, create ambiguities and misunderstandings:
VLADIMIR: One out of four. Of the other three two don’t mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him.
ESTRAGON: What’s this all about? Abused who?
VLADIMIR: The Savior.
VLADIMIR: Because he wouldn’t save them.
ESTRAGON: From hell?
VLADIMIR: Imbecile! From death.
ESTRAGON: I thought you said hell.
The continuous repetition of the same words and lines, leaves an impression that the characters, even the actions, are trapped in a circle from which there is no way out. Situations are repeated as well, sometimes completely the same, while other times – somewhat different, but all the changes that happen, even becoming blind and deaf, even life and death – all the differences are represented as trivial and insignificant. Such repetition is part of the minimalism of expression, which alludes to emptiness and absence, but on the other hand, it may also indicate plethora of meaning. The minimalism brings to mind the reluctance and impossibility, but also the pointlessness in trying to find a way to be understood. Such minimalism of expression, finally, alludes to the silence as an idea of achieving perfect understanding, or silence as an image of the human reconciliation with the inability of being understood.
1. Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 3rd ed. London: Methuen, 2001. Print. P.45
2. ibid. 44
3. ibid. 37
4. Except for the clichés, which are used in function of showing the disintegration of language
5. Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber and Faber, 2006. Print. P 21
6. Ibid. 14-15