- Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx: Tracing “a Literary Fantasia.” by David Tucker
One cannot speak any longer of being. One can only speak of what is in front of him . . . the mess.”—Beckett to Tom Driver, 1961
In one of his most memorable and often-quoted passages, Camus says, “If I were a tree among trees, a cat among cats, this terrible longing to understand would not obsess me. I should, like the others in the natural world, be unaware of my separation from everything else in the universe. I should not suffer over my most profound wish to understand the meaning of life and more specifically of my life” (The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien [New York: Vintage Press, 1961], 38). Camus associates his estrangement in the universe with his accursed reason, which torments him with the growing gap that exists between the need to comprehend the meaning of life and the failure of reason to access it. Most of Beckett’s characters demonstrate this—perhaps none more so than Lucky, a onetime poet and now a slave, who is simultaneously the modern-day philosopher king in Waiting for Godot.
In one of the theater’s most magnificent tours de force, Lucky utters a seven-hundred-word monologue (often at record speed) that conveys the combination of heroic survival and hopeless inertia, of action and paralysis, which Godot’s characters enact. The words “Let’s go” punctuate the play before the repetition of Beckett’s stage direction “They do not move.” Lucky begins his inquiry into the meaning of life with the commonplace assumption of a governing deity that, assuming he exists, remains mysterious and erratic, “who loves us dearly with some exception for reasons unknown” (Waiting for Godot [New York: Grove Press, 1954], 45–47). All the same, Lucky continues, the human creature asserts himself in every conceivable labor and sport, only to die before his time: “Man wastes and pines” in an “abode of stones . . . alas alas abandoned unfinished . . .” For both [End Page 187] Camus and Beckett, one’s only certainty lies in the meaning gained from concrete actions.
For most of Beckett’s readers, the mind–body division is frequently discussed in Cartesian language. But since Descartes, philosophers from Spinoza to Sartre have pursued their own philosophical journeys to respond to what Beckett calls “the mess,” which is, of course, their common experience. David Tucker takes his place in the conversation and concludes that the Belgian post-Cartesian Arnold Geulincx has had an essential and, to date, not widely known statement to make on this subject. Furthermore, Geulincx, Tucker maintains, was Beckett’s greatest influence. In what will probably stand as the most definitive exploration of the impact of this little-known seventeenth-century philosopher on arguably the most original novelist and most admired dramatist of the twentieth century, Tucker takes on the difficult task of demonstrating, by quotation and inference, Geulincx’s legacy in Beckett.
Tucker calls his own work a “literary fantasia,” a descriptive term he takes from Beckett, who proposed it as the title for a monograph he planned to write on Geulincx. Musically, a fantasia is a set of variations on a theme. Tucker, who examines Beckett’s work from his earliest fiction to the late La Fin (and discovers specific mention of “my Geulincx” in a 1967 letter to Sighle Kennedy), certainly provides ample evidence of such variations on Geulincx in Beckett, and even locates it in his fictional characters, including Murphy, in the novel of that name.
Tucker’s method is indeed musical, which makes it difficult to paraphrase, just as it is difficult to translate music compositions into words. One can, however, intuit his meanings, and his prose is also visual. In fact, one can read his complex commentary as if looking into a kaleidoscope. That is, early on he announces that he seeks to define the middle ground regarding Geulincx’s influence on Beckett by reviewing the polar extremes taken by his critics. That is, he will...