More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville
Posted by Glenn Wallis on July 23, 2013
[Unmoderated comments are permitted on this post.]
by Alan Seltzer
[Beckett] has just spent three weeks in his country house. He took walks, played the piano often, read a little. He has been reading Heine’s last poems, and he tells me that they are like lamentations. But he prefers doing nothing. Spending hours looking out the window. He is particularly fond of the silence. He also describes the sound of cartloads of beetroots as they pass his house. (Juliet 37)
Samuel Beckett was a practitioner of meditation, but he would not have labeled himself as such. He valued stillness and he valued silence, though they could at times be unbearable for him. My thought is that Beckett, in his work, might provide some useful insights into ways of thinking about meditation. How or whether he viewed silence and contemplation in relation to his art, I don’t know. There are references in interviews and conversations about his engagement with silence. The above passage is from Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde by Charles Juliet. It references a conversation with Beckett on November 11, 1977, when Beckett was 71 years old. In the passage Glenn quotes in his post on Beckett (May 18, 2013) from Lawrence Shainberg’s “Exorcising Beckett,” Beckett states that he has been staring at walls “for fifty years.” But he observes about wall staring, when told of Shainberg’s Zen practice, “you don’t have to know anything about Zen to do that.” And that is the point. Beckett’s “practice” needs no doctrines, no rituals, no beliefs, no prescribed methods, no anything. And certainly no hope, no expectations, no goals. And, of course, he would not even consider his silent sitting a practice at all. When Shainberg describes his own Zen practice, Beckett responds with perplexity: “Why, he asked, did people do it? Were they seeking tranquility? Solutions?” Beckett did not, could not, seek either. As Shainberg says, Beckett was curious about Buddhism, and there were aspects of mysticism he liked (Juliet 39), but he could never accept any system or doctrine. And perhaps the main reason was that he saw no hope or solutions for the human condition. He asserts this repeatedly in his work and elsewhere. He tells Juliet, for instance, in their conversation of October 24, 1968, that he has not read Eastern philosophers: ” ‘They suggest a way out, whereas I felt there was none. One solution–death.’” (Juliet 16)
So why did Beckett spend so much time in silence and stillness? I’m not sure he could fully answer that question. But his experience and his creative work may be useful in thinking about meditation in some fresh and unencumbered ways. Glenn asks in his Beckett post, “Does the practice, in fact, produce new knowledge, about, say, subjective experience or the intransitive world, or does it merely reinforce the views provided by doctrine?” Beckett’s life and work, which, in some sense, are his practice, suggest the former.
Regarding Beckett’s work, then, there has been much written about its connectedness with Buddhism, especially Zen. Shainberg states, “I remained convinced that the concerns of his work were identical with those of Zen.” But he is uncomfortable with the issue, reluctant to discuss it with Beckett. He goes on to say, “This in itself is no great revelation. It’s not terribly difficult to find Zen in almost any great work of art.” Not difficult, that is, if it’s Zen you’re looking for. But I understand his point. Open up Beckett anywhere. Here, for instance, is the opening passage of “Texts for Nothing,” #9:
If I said, There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, the rest would come. What am I waiting for then, to say it? To believe it? And what does that mean, the rest? Shall I answer, try to answer, or go on as though I had asked nothing? I don’t know, I can’t know beforehand, nor after, nor during, the future will tell, some future instant, soon, or late, I won’t hear, I won’t understand, all dies so fast, no sooner born. And the yeses and noes mean nothing in this mouth, no more than sighs it sighs in its toil, or answers to a question not understood, a question unspoken, in the eyes of a mute, an idiot, who doesn’t understand, never understood, who stares at himself in a glass, stares before him in the desert, sighing yes, sighing no, on and off. (Beckett 136)
Well, that might make one think in Zen terms, but Beckett will have none of it. He rejects overlays of Zen or anything else. As Shainberg recalls, “As Beckett once put it in responding to one of the endless interpretations his work has inspired, ‘My work is a matter of fundamental sounds…That’s all I can manage, more than I could. If people get headaches among the overtones, they’ll have to furnish their own aspirin.’ ” Or, as Beckett responds to the Buddhist who has just seen his play Endgame and asks, “When all is said and done, isn’t this man, having given up hope, finally liberated?,” “Oh, no…He’s finished.” (Shainberg) And that’s the problem with bringing a Buddhist perspective to Beckett: it sees what it wants to see; it doesn’t see Beckett. It makes one of two mistakes. It either finds something akin to liberation where there is none, or it judges Beckett as coming up short or even failing. An example of the latter can be seen in the closing passage of Paul Foster’s Beckett and Zen:
In truth, there is only one desire and that is the desire to know. However, the desire to know always leads Beckett into an impasse. He is, therefore able to say only that this is ‘how it is,’ a trackless, hopeless dead-end. The nearer he comes to his goal, the self, the louder the ‘voice on all sides’ becomes until, like the Odyssean sailors, he can hear nothing but its insidious tones. Finally, his questing skiff breaks up on the rocks of disillusion.
Beckett’s greatness as an author lies in his attempt to explore the mind, an expanse that is practically uncharted. We can be certain that few have journeyed so far without the lode of a religious tradition of some kind. Beckett, with commendable courage, ingenuity, and perseverance as well as independence of mind has come almost, from the Buddhist’s point of view, within sight of land. (emphasis added) (Foster 257)
But I would not assume that Beckett has a desire to know. I would deny that he has a goal. I would deny that he is disillusioned (Of what illusion is he “dissed”?). And as for his “almost” coming “within sight of land” and his “skiff break[ing] up,” here’s a quote from Beckett’s novel Molloy (the epigraph of Alex Ross’s Listen to This):
I follow with my eyes the proud and futile wake. Which, as it bears me from no fatherland away, bears me onward to no shipwreck.
Beckett’s Clov in Endgame, when asked by Hamm whether he sees naked bodies on the wall he looks at, replies, “I see my light dying.” That’s it.
Herman Melville also suggests a vision of the human condition void of any possibility of salvation or liberation. Melville also uses the image of wall (and whale)-staring. Most characters in Melville, like most of us, refuse to look at the unforgiving starkness of our circumstances, but one who does, like Melville himself, is Bartleby, and though he pays a terrible price for his vision, he may have something to offer us that less courageous characters in his story do not. Bartleby is the title character in Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.” He gains employment as a scrivener in a 19th century law office on Wall Street and subsequently refuses to do any work assigned him, simply repeating the phrase, “I would prefer not to.” His employer does not know what to make of Bartleby; he is perplexed. One thing that he does notice is that Bartleby frequently stares out of his window “upon the dead brick wall.”
Merton Sealts, Jr., in his essay “Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby’ ” in Beyond the Classroom: Essays on American Authors, comments on Melville’s walls and whales and the characters who stare at them. Here is an excerpt:
Let’s begin with this passage in “Bartleby” [the narrator is Bartleby's employer, a lawyer]:
I now recalled … that for long periods [Bartleby] would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall. … And more than all, I remembered … an austere reserve about him, which had positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities, when…behind his screen he must be standing in one of those dead-wall reveries of his.
This comment takes on far more meaning if one reads it with reference to a series of related passages in Moby-Dick, all having to do in some way with the white whale..:
“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks…If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.” [(emphasis Sealts) --Captain Ahab]
you must now have perceived that the front of the Sperm Whale’s head is a dead, blind wall,” [(emphasis Sealts) -- Ishmael, crew member and narrator]
“The dead, blind wall butts all inquiring heads at last.” [(emphasis Sealts) -- Captain Ahab]
Bartleby, like Ahab, has somehow met his White Whale; what remains to him within the story proper is simply that “dead, blind wall” that he confronts “in one of those dead-wall reveries of his.” [Bartleby's employer], on the other hand, is … outside Bartleby’s range of experience … , though ironically he is as much a prisoner of the encapsulating walls in this “story of Wall Street” as is Bartleby himself. (emphasis added) (Sealts 28-30)
In his dead-wall reveries, what Bartleby experiences, according to Sealts, is “cosmic loneliness,” or as his employer, the lawyer, observes, “he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe.” And, yes, in the end Bartleby dies, refusing to eat when he is finally imprisoned after refusing to leave the law office. But he did, with courage, refuse not to look at his wall. As Glenn would say, he did not flinch. But the lawyer who refuses to see, who lives a life of confusion, doubt, and fear is, as Sealts observes, “as much a prisoner of the encapsulating walls … as is Bartleby himself.”
So why pay attention to all this in Beckett and Melville? Because their unflinching practice attempts to confront lived experience as it is. And though their visions may be dark, it is worth noting that their work is filled with humanity, compassion, and outrageous humor.
Finally, a passage from “The Mast-Head,” Chapter 35 of Moby-Dick. It concerns the duty of whaling ship crew members to stand at the top of the mast looking out for whales. But it is a warning against the pursuit of the transcendent, maybe something, for this blog, applicable to x-buddhism:
Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I — being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, — how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships’ standing orders, “Keep your weather eye open and sing out every time.”
And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship with the Phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head.
Beware of such an one, I say: your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. Childe Harold not unfrequently perches himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in moody phrase ejaculates:–
“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!
Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain.”
Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient “interest” in the voyage; half-hinting that they are so hopelessly lost to all honorable ambition, as that in their secret souls they would rather not see whales than otherwise. But all in vain; those young Platonists have a notion that their vision is imperfect; they are short-sighted; what use, then, to strain the visual nerve? They have left their opera-glasses at home.
“Why, thou monkey,” said a harpooneer to one of these lads, “we’ve been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are as scarce as hen’s teeth whenever thou art up there.” Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it…
There is no life in thee now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch, slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists! (Melville 171-173)
Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Short Prose 1929-1989. New York: Grove Press, 1995.
Foster, Paul. Beckett and Zen. London: Wisdom Publications, 1989.
Juliet, Charles. Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde. trans. Tracy Cooke, et. al. Champaign, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
Melville, Herman. The Piazza Tales and other Prose Pieces 1839-1860. Evanston: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 1987.
Sealts, Merton M., Jr. Beyond the Classroom: Essays on American Authors. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
Shainberg, Lawrence. “Exorcising Beckett.” The Paris Review, no. 104, fall 1987.
Wallis, Glenn. “Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall.” Speculative Non-Buddhism, May 18, 2013.
* Link: “Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall“
The Author: Alan Seltzer holds a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and taught high school English for twenty-five years. He has been practicing meditation for the last five years.