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  • Beckett and Disgust:The Body as "Laughing Matter"
  • Linda Ben-Zvi (bio)

Writers speak a stench.1

Franz Kafka (Diary Entry)

The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don't want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, and ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him. He's not fucking me about, he's not leading me up any garden path, he's not slipping me a wink, he's not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he's not selling me anything I don't want to buy—he doesn't give a bollock whether I buy or not—he hasn't got his hand over his heart. Well, I'll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful.2

Harold Pinter

Written forty-five years ago to honor Beckett on his sixtieth birthday, Pinter's assessment—like that of a number of critics at the time and since, but with more idiosyncratic verve—points to Beckett's refusal to offer up any "goods" not based on the candid embrace of the specific, the material, which has been the central concern of recent studies of modernist writing. The "weasel under the cocktail cabinet" was Pinter's early image of his own creative terrain and cultural/consumerist position; to describe Beckett's he offers an even more disturbing and repellent image: the maggot under the stone. It is this oft-used sign of disgust and abjection, associated with physical decay [End Page 681] and putrefaction, that becomes, as Pinter argues, the very stuff with which Beckett creates "a body of beauty."

A master of double entendre, Pinter carefully chooses his words, conjoining Beckett's body of work and the physical body that resides at its center. He is not talking about a body of classical beauty, whose exterior perfection creates aesthetic pleasure by hiding any hint of its animal nature, but rather a fleshly body shown eating, excreting, copulating, decaying, declining, and dying: those physiological stations of the cross described in all their vivid specificity and materiality in Beckett's works. Nowhere is Beckett more the modernist writer of the quotidian than in his somatic descriptions. His people may be "falling to bits,"3 or "not half alive nor anything approaching it," as Maddy Rooney describes herself in All That Fall; just lips, tongue, and teeth "whole body like gone," at least not visible, as Mouth reveals in Not I.4 Or even dead, presumably, like the interned, hiccupping man in Play, yet still clinging to that tenacious trace of material existence.5 If there is a "truth" in Beckett's writing it is the truth of the body as Lucky intones in his frantic monologue in Waiting for Godot: that "in spite of the strides of physical culture the practice of sports," and "the labors of men," "for reasons unknown," "but time will tell," the human animal "wastes and pines," and "fades away," "but not so fast."6 A part remains—decrepit, decaying, disgusting; and it is this part that Beckett refuses to beautify, disguise, deny, or turn into metaphors or symbols that hide it or refine it out of existence. It is his refusal to do so that Pinter praises: the maggot under the stone bringing forth "a body of beauty." How Beckett turns disgust into a form of beauty, the material into "laughing matter," will be the focus of the following discussion.

The idea of using disgust and disgust-eliciting objects to create beauty seems to be a denial of the Kantian claims that: (1) "nothing is so much set against the beautiful as disgust;"7 (2) that disgust is "the one kind of ugliness which cannot be represented in accordance with nature without destroying all aesthetical satisfaction;"8 and (3) that disgust as a "dark" and "strong sensation" "so categorically indicates something 'real' that it strains the distinction between...


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