- Samuel Beckett's How It Is: Philosophy in Translation by Anthony Cordingley
In 1958, Samuel Beckett wrote to his confidante Barbara Bray that in his "new moan" he was "trying to find the syntax of extreme weakness, penury perhaps I should say." To the writer Leslie Daiken he wrote that composition was "like trying to make a shape with dust & not much of it" (214). Out of that dust and stylistic indigence emerged Comment c'est, which he translated as How It Is. Its unpunctuated discrete paragraphs that report at second hand the purgatorial regimen of a train of beings—of Being, too—through ceaseless moistened dust, are monosyllabic, monadic, and monotonous, despite a lurid road tale of bespattered sadistic scapegraces and masochistic scapegoats slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Then trading places to slouch again.
Echoing the French atrocities committed during the current Algerian War, the novel's Sadism is universal and unrelieved by comedy or salacity, a mechanistic alternation of reflexive abuse and unprotesting submission. "E fango è il mondo," the Romantic poet Leopardi declared, and Beckett, who made the phrase from "A Se Stesso" the epigraph of his early study Proust, now sets an entire novel in a world of mud. A slithering mass perpetually touch, collide, prod, torture, and abandon each other in quest of reprieve. Soldiers, refugees, detainees, prisoners, pilgrims? Even the number is in question. There is either a muddy myriad or only one "sole elect"; there is either brief restitution or none, and the protagonist may be the narrator, or vice versa, or neither; "leave it vague leave it dark," goes an editorial aside. Beckett's "vaguening" technique and Heraclitian ontology of ineffable flux elides the specifics. The protagonist, as he told Hugh Kenner, is both narrator and narrated. The attempts of Pim, whose name collapses two orphaned questors, Kipling's Kim into the Pip of Great Expectations, to bypass the sludge by assembling a plausible hypothesis of cosmological relations adds only another layer of ooze, through which all characters, be they isolate or collective, worm their way. The single hygiene is a chill mathematical logic that the murkiness of situation confounds. The novel sets Charles Babbage's calculating engine in Charles Dickens's fens and fogs. [End Page 767]
Though he would go on to write some of his finest plays, poems, and stories, as well as teleplays, radio plays, and a film, Beckett never ventured another novel, and How It Is remains the least examined and understood of his major works. It has been read as a termination, denying all but the tormented mechanics of narrative self-reference; and viewed as a metafictional allegory of artistic creation, in which Pim is prodded by his novelistic alter ego to sing; a scenario repeated in a number of Beckett's works. Samuel Beckett's How It Is: Philosophy in Translation persuasively disputes such narrow interpretation; by illuminating the novel's philosophical sources, Anthony Cordingley identifies a coherent metaphysical theme. He parses what the novel calls "the ancient voice," the aggregate of the inherited culture, from Scripture and Hellenistic paideia to Enlightenment Bildung that beckons to Pim, or is imagined by him to beckon. The novel stands in ambivalent relation to precursors that can neither be escaped nor wholly denied. There are no possible beginnings (Comment c'est puns on commencer, "to begin"), only reiterations. The contested authority of this composite ancient voice may be estranged, misheard, misquoted, sometimes sabotaged, and finally ineffable, but it is also indomitable.
The composition of Comment c'est coincides with Beckett's rereading of the ancient voice of Dante; the first five letters of the title repeat those of the Commedia. The novel's elemental setting in a caked claustrophobic endless round; the allegorical meanings attaching to perseverance there; and a three-part structure all conjure up the Inferno and Purgatory, with Paradise a dim uncertain glimmer. Examining parallels to the Divine Comedy, Cordingley meticulously traces the novel's allusions to an elusive deliverance and to what...