More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville

By Alan Seltzer

More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville
(Thoughts After Reading Glenn Wallis’s Post “Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall”*)

[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.

47 responses to “More Walls: Contemplations of Samuel Beckett and Herman Melville”

  1. Patrick Avatar

    Hello Alan,

    Great post!

    Melville and Beckett ; dragging us to the edge of the ‘Descartian vortices’. I love that image of the transcendence obsessed youth plunging into the ocean. It strikes exactly that note of the indifference of nature perfectly caught by Bruegel in‘landscape with the fall of Icarus

    Swallowed up. Beckett’s word ‘finished’ implies exactly that, I think

    About as far from the Buddhist trope ‘liberated’ as you can get.

    When I read Glenn’s original post I was irritated by Shainberg’s determination to find Zen in Beckett’s work. His insistence is a perfect example of x-buddhisms fixated obsession; it cannot help but try to make the world its mirror and find confirmation for its own hold on truth by co-opting ‘high Art’.

    It’s not terribly difficult to find Zen in almost any great work of art.

    What stupid arrogance! Your quote from Foster is the perfect example of Buddhism’s ‘narcissistic estimation of itself as custodian of things as they are’

    The list you use to describe Beckett’s ‘practice’ ——no doctrines, no rituals, no beliefs, no prescribed methods, no anything. And certainly no hope, no expectations,——is exactly the sort of radical negation x-buddhism fattens on. It renders itself immune by absorbing fundamental dis-ease.

    In such company Beckett’s modesty about his hold on reality shines out.

    Your quotes from Melville makes me want to re-read Moby Dick after so many years. The strength of his insistence! He’s like a prophet of old. Which fits with something I am trying to think through . There’s a strain of thought that was present within the western tradition from the beginning, a corrective to the platonic current. Thought conceived as the transformation of existing conditions, as longing expressed in a distorted religious form. It’s all there in the bible —- prophetic denunciation of conditions, eschatological longing, millenarian hope, storytelling on a grand scale– ‘the soul of a soulless world’. What need was there to stray, to go looking for oriental exotica?

    Your Melville quotes bring all that home. At the moment my feeling is that I am sick to death of Buddhism. What a rich store there is within literature, and how much easier it is to excavate from within its material what Glenn calls ‘the mute world’

  2. sometimes Avatar

    I really enjoyed reading this Alan. I think that not only does Zen “either find something akin to liberation where there is none, or it judge Beckett as coming up short or even failing,” but it seems to me that Buddhism (and some Buddhists) do this exact thing to other meditators/Buddhists. As it invariably is in any other system. It seems that dogmatic judgment, oppression, and shaming end up occurring across all systems that have made that transition from anarchical new creation to entrenched hierarchical system. Even education and blogging fall into this trap. 😉 For me, meditation is an act of intimacy. Intimacy with my life…which by no means infers any sort of peace, stress relief, or escape. In fact quite the contrary. Intimacy can be messy, dark, vulnerable, exposing, agitating…but much like Beckett I think that this intimacy with the life around me is perhaps indeed the endgame, the only game. I would have it no other way. What looks like “suffering” is in fact intimacy with that wall, and that is just fine.

  3. sometimes Avatar

    I was just reminded of the poem I wrote inspired by Beckett, after seeing Endgame: Up Against a Wall. It was precisely about intimacy with that wall, or walls.

  4. Greg Avatar

    I really enjoyed Shainberg’s memoir of his Zen practice (Ambivalent Zen). It is one of the few such fundamentally honest memoirs on the subject of Buddhist pracitce I can remember reading, far more so than one usually encounters. It is a much later piece of writing than “Exorcising Beckett,” and to his credit he has by then seen through many of the earlier conceits about Buddhism that are apparent in his conversations with Beckett.

  5. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    #1: Patrick, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m also struck by Beckett’s modesty. I like the Icarus comparison and your characterization of Melville as an old-school prophet. I have also thought of him that way. I’ve read Moby-Dick several times, but not in the last ten years or so; I’m due for a re-read, too.

    #2 and #3: Sometimes, I love your concept of intimacy as applied to meditation; I don’t think I’ve heard it used that way before. I remember your poem and really liked it.

    #4: Interesting, Greg. I’ve read nothing by Shainberg other than his piece on Beckett. I’ll check out Ambivalent Zen. I think even in his Beckett piece there are some hints of doubt.

  6. Craig Avatar

    It seems to me that meditaion as being free of ideology is precisely what reinforces one’s ideology. In our case, consumerism. Sometime’s notion of intimacy assumes some sort of atman, does it not? Individual consumerist ideology. Of course, x-buddhists would deny this, but at least we’re talking about it. I guess that’s one of Glenn’s points, meditation can just perpetuate complacency.

    I’ve found that meditation has to be intentional in so as not to blindly perpetuate the status quo. For me, meditation is nothing more than relaxation response and strenghting attention in order to do immanent critique and decrease attachement to ‘my’ suicidal cynicism.

    Not sure if that makes sense. Alas, when we do become aware of the endgame, it can be a dark, dark place.

  7. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    Craig #6: Thought-provoking points, Craig. I don’t want to speak for Sometimes or respond to a point that may be addressed to her, but I’m not really sure how her notion of intimacy would assume some sort of atman. Could you say more about that?

    I’m trying to think about the idea of intentionality of meditation
    as applied to Beckett. Beckett did not “meditate” in any coventional sense, apparently, but I was trying to make the point that he did have what might reasonably be considered a “practice,” which included his writing. My point was to explore, through Beckett, non-conventional senses of meditation. From some of my readings of conversations and interviews with Beckett, it’s hard to imagine him thinking in terms of intention. (In some conventional sense, of course, he “intended” to write, but perhaps not in the way you mean it.) And he certainly did not perpetuate the status quo; his writing was and remains radical. He was not an overtly political person, but his actions were revealing, such as his work with prisoners in the San Quentin Drama Workshop.

    I’ll continue to think about your points. Thanks.

  8. sometimes Avatar

    Craig, my notion of intimacy absolutely does not infer an atman. Exactly the opposite. My meditation practice requires intimacy with life as it is happening around me and in me. That has nothing to do with atman. It has to do with body, mind, phenomena…definitely not soul. Not how I practice anyway. For me, the idea of atman (or soul) only serves as a distraction from my life as it occurs. E messiness, vulnerability, of intimacy with life is simply a reference to actual life…which is by no means clean, pretty, and peaceful. By intimacy, I simply mean that meditation is my effort (for the time I am on the cushion) to observe and confront that messiness, activity of life and of mind and of body. Then I get up and find that my relationship to my life is more enriched for it. No atman anyway in this particular practice. Just life. Two different things. But then again, I also do not by the dogma of “suffering,” and am not necessarily trying to eliminate that either. My goal…before i die to be able to say I really was IN this body fully, with ALL that came with it. I spent too many years detached…I am doing my best to not walk around detached from life. So far, so good. But an atman…not part of my practice.

  9. sometimes Avatar

    *buy the dogma of suffering

  10. sometimes Avatar

    Craig, Perhaps read some of my poetry, and tell me if you find an atman there. Then of course, we usually find what we want in poetry. My poetry does a better job than my prose I am afraid.

  11. Craig Avatar


    I’ve been hooked on this idea of subtle atman. So when I start talking about my meditation as intimacy with the body, as you allude to, I have to ask, ‘who’s getting intimate with what?’. Also, in this practice of intimacy I’m reifying intimacy while the world wallows in poverty.

    Not sure if that’s even clear to me. Beckett seems to be romanticizing the complacent capitalist much like meditation can romanticize intimacy.

    Sorry to be unclear.

  12. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    #11 Craig : “Beckett seems to be romanticizing the complacent capitalist…”

    I can perhaps vaguely infer what you might mean, but it’s a hard point to get a handle on. I really can’t see anything in Beckett that is romantic, complacent, or pro-capitalist. Do you mean his lack of overt political focus? Or what? I’ve never really thought about Beckett in these terms, but his characters often suffer in what, I think, might be construed as a capitalist context, for example in his novel Murphy. I would need to give this more thought.

  13. April Avatar


    Thanks for clarifying. However, I do not see it that way. Having lived much of my life detached from my body, after trauma, returning to an intimate state simply means reconnection, observation, allowing sensation without attaching dysfunctional thoughts/reactions to those sensations. Perhaps it is semantics…but the idea of a subtle atman seems like a tricky proposition. Also…I hesitate to suggest what another person’s practice is or isn’t. How can I know? All I can say is that in my practice, the one observing, interpreting, is mind. The one being observed is body and mind and external stimuli (interpreted by mind.) But that doesn’t make it less of an experience. That IS the experience. No need for an atman, even a subtle one. I can be perfectly aware that my mind is forming and interpreting experience without attaching some unchanging/perpetual self to it.

    I also do not think that 1) taking a small amount of time to reconnect to and observe my human form and 2) social action are mutually exclusive. That argument is meant to shame a practice. And quite honestly I won’t accept that. If it mutually exclusive for you, fine. Not for me. That’s like saying my practice of exercise, or sleep, or reading, or preparing food negates my ability to care about or attempt to change society. That would be ridiculous because we do not necessarily place value judgment on those functions, why do so with meditation?

    One reason I have not blogged much, only observed, is because it always seems to devolve into what is the “right” and “wrong” way of practicing, meditating, acting in the world. I don’t even buy into most Buddhist principles, so why argue about them. Also, how can we determine by our vocabulary precisely what each others meditation experience even is and does. Much gets lost simply in the creation of words that are meant to describe.

    Also, this practice serves my creativity. Which is rarely discussed on this blog, but Alan’s post opens up this discussion. My mind creates, connects ideas, expresses my practice in interesting ways. My practice helps me to observe this. Does that suggest an Atman? Being aware of brain function and personality does not necessarily carry atman with it. It is just part of bodily operation, conditioned by experience, no need for atman there either. For me anyway.

  14. Craig Avatar

    I think it has more to do with his assumption that nothing can be done. Life is a hopeless existential nightmare. This stance is so privileged and speaks only to a minority of unhappy people in the world wallowing in negative freedom. In other words, this stance is only possible in world where a few live off the exploitation of the majority. The most insidious part is that well educated folks who struggle daily to make ends meet fall into this delusion as well. So the system just gets recreated by the 1% and the 99%. The former in the guise of free market naturalism or pure evil and latter in the form of complacency.

  15. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    Craig #13: Beckett’s subject is existential truths about which nothing CAN be done (death, annihilation, no transcendent self, conditioned mind). To consider them nightmarish, I suppose, is ideological, but we all have ideologies (which has been a repeated theme on this blog). I think Beckett has a pretty good awareness of his ideologies. I don’t think Beckett means, nor do I think his writing indicates, that nothing can be done about socially constructed evils. I’ve read all of Beckett, and there’s nowhere to found a blissed out, joy besotted (unless in an ironic way, such as indicated by the title “Happy Days”) character to be found anywhere. In his life Beckett certainly didn’t think nothing could be done. He risked his life working for the French underground resistance during WWII and he was almost killed. He was an Irishman and could have easily avoided involvement. However you judge his actions, he certainly didn’t believe that nothing could be done.

    With all that said, Craig, I will tell you that ideologically, I am a “Beckettian” (among other things). I will try to stay as aware of my ideologies as I can.

  16. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    Craig #14 (and I also meant #14 in my previous comment, not #13): Your comment really did get me thinking (and I thank you for that). After posting my comment #15, I looked into some stuff I have on Beckett. There is a very interesting (and very long) essay by Marjorie Perloff called “‘In Love with Hiding’: Samuel Beckett’s War” In THE IOWA REVIEW, vol 35, no. 1, Spring 2005. It has a very different take on Beckett than the more common ones that might lead to your perspective in your comment #14. Here is a brief quote from Perloff: “But in the Paris of ’51 it was perhaps too painful to dredge up such s issues as primary language or national affiliation, and when, in the sixties, Marxism became dominant in France, Beckett’s work could be read, as it was by Adorno, as a brilliant expose [ex-po-zay, obviously] of the capitalist ethos of modern mechanized society.” Beckett did not spell this out directly. Perloff: “Beckett’s brilliant indirection, his ways of not-saying and yet saying [Perloff emphasizes “not-saying” and “saying”] that I have detailed here, became a model for subsequent writers.” So maybe it’s some of Beckett’s critics who don’t see his attention to specific historical circumstances and dwell only on the “universal,” and not Beckett himself, who might be guilty of the “can’t do anything about it” ideology. There’s a lot be said about this, and I’ve probably gone on too long already. Thanks again for the engagement in very useful dialogue.

  17. Craig Avatar

    Sometimes, Alan-

    Thanks sharing your experience. Please forgive my comments if they sounded shaming. I deal with much of that myself. I basically just used your initial comment as a to practice some non-buddhist critique. I’m very much caught in this quandary of whether meditation hampers or helps in my attempts at ideological awareness. This also informed my comments about Beckett. I love the dude and have found his work quite validating. However, lately I’ve been rethinking this stance. Maybe things can change if we could take anatman seriously and be clearer in our ideologies in the midst of buddhist practice. So, I’m just bouncing ideas around.

  18. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Alan, et al.:

    I can’t see any way in which Beckett’s writing “was and remains radical.” Unless what you mean by “radical” is something like “avant-garde”? And certainly, in the domain of Literature, the avant garde is always the most ideologically reactionary (Eliot, Pound, etc.). Bekett’s writing produces capitalist ideology, in that it helps maintain Literature as a social practice that produces well-functioning capitalist subjects. Avant-garde Literature, and art generally, usually functions to keep the more intelligent and affluent members of society properly interpellated, giving them the illusion that they are radical, or critical, or superior to the vulgar mass culture, without actually ever leading to any real political or economic action, or even analysis.

    Can you seriously suggest that Beckett is NOT functioning to naturalize capitalist alienation? The Nobel Prize award says something to the effect that he “elevates” the universal human “destitution”—what is this but code for “he naturalizes the alienated state of the modern capitalist subject”? Adorno may be right that we can learn a great deal about how alienation becomes a pleasurable state from Beckett, but he isn’t trying to demystify ideology, he is only producing it—it is Adorno who does the “radical” part.

    I’m not saying we can’t do anything with Beckett, and I’m not denying that I do like to read Beckett. But English teachers always like to convince themselves that everything they teach is somehow radical. When I was in grad school, we used to jokingly call this “adventures in subversion.” Every single work of canonical Literature is “radical” or “subversive” of the hegemonic discourse. Jane Austen doesn’t produce capitalist gender ideology, she “subtly subverts it”—so subtly, in fact, that she actually winds up producing it for two hundred years. But then, if every work of Literature ever written is working to radically subvert hegemony, how is this ideological hegemony being produced? Mass culture? No, it turns out that everything from reality tv to Super Bowl tailgate parties are also “subverting” the dominant ideology!! It’s all a lot of nonsense. We need to face up to the fact that the Literature (and all cultural objects) we like best, we like because they are producing ideology, and if they are socially approved (eg canonical) you can be sure they are producing capitalist ideology.

    We can certainly put them to other uses, reading them against the grain to expose their ideological function, to become more aware of the ideologies we might otherwise remain aware of. Whatever cultural works you like best probably work to reproduce your ideologies—and it isn’t always easy to know what ideology is really being produced. Does Beckett produce quietist capitalist ideology for the fashionably despairing intelligentsia? Of course he does, otherwise he wouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize; otherwise, his plays wouldn’t be performed in NY by celebrity actors for $160 a ticket. We can use his plays to produce radical knowledge of alienation and ideology, but to think his writing just IS radical is to remain deluded, to participate in producing reactionary ideology and calling it radicalism.

    You won’t see anybody publishing radical critiques of Beckett in academic journals, of course. The profession of teaching English Literature is the profession of interpellating the next generation into proper capitalist ideology. It is what Frederick Jameson calls “intrinsic criticism,” meant to intensify, but never interrogate, the ideology being produced in Literature. If anyone ever tried to write a real ideological critique of Beckett (or any other canonical work) it would have to be approved by the “anonymous readers” who are the ordained experts on the subject—and it would never get published. If anyone tried to teach their students, say, that Wuthering Heights functions to enable the transition from the gender ideologies of the ancien régime to more properly capitalist ideologies of family and gender, well, they would become unemployable in the academic world, most likely.

    Reading the “high-brow” Literature of the past few centuries does seem to function very much like meditation, most of the time. It reassures the reader/meditator that her sense of alienation and her belief that she is free of all ideologies is the ultimate fate of humanity’s elite.

    Remember that in Watt, Knott has the need “not to need, and, two, a witness to his not needing.” He forgets that being the object of an approving gaze is a powerful ideology, and the most oppressive one of all. Who is the “witness” to our self-punishing asceticism in the thought-free Zazen of Western Buddhism?

    And now I’ve gone on way too long. Sorry, but when it comes to the subject of Literature, I have decades of experience with deluding myself.

  19. April Avatar


    No apologies needed. Much like you I have used this conversation to explore, and write about, some ideas. The shaming I was referring to was not necessarily directed at you, but at Buddhism (and systems like it.) I don’t mind the grinding of gears to get my mind going. I don’t so much take offense, as try to get myself constructing an argument that is representative of my experience, and also gets me evaluating my way of thinking.


    I do think it is possible to wallow in, experience, write about the existential nightmare, and then make an effort to do something about it when and where we can. Which seems like what Beckett did. Hopelessness does not necessarily equal helplessness. I am pretty hopeless about what comes after all this, but I am not helpless in engaging the living of it while I am here. What was it that Beckett said, I cannot move forward, and yet still I must. (Or something to that end.)

    I am quite enjoying reading, and thinking about this thread. Thank you both.

  20. Craig Avatar

    Excellent point…if all this art and literature is so radical, why has nothing changed? Why is capitalism stronger than ever?

    The atrocities of capitalism are so pervasive and normalized that t think that anything or anyone that claims to be radical and does not explicitly critique capitalism is, by definition recreating and reifying capitalist ideology.

    That being said, it seems that buddhist practice can be deflated and used overtly and intentionally as way to ideological awareness.

    Of course, this is ideology and I may not be making any sense.

  21. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    Tom, I think I understand your analysis of Beckett, or at least some of it. And I will certainly try to think about it more. I do acknowledge that I am ideologically drawn to Beckett; I sometimes feel that I can relate to his characters in a personal way. I have learned a great deal from this blog about how ideology works, and I have tried to become more aware of my own. It is hard work. Reading your comment just now has actually stirred up anxiety in me. It is difficult to confront one’s own ideology and just to sort it all out.

    You seem to be saying that literature, almost by definition, is necessarily reactionary. Am I reading you right about that? Is there literature that can or does lead to political or economic action or analysis? If so, examples? You suggest that radical literature would have difficulty getting published, but the thinkers whom you have cited (Badiou, Zizek, Lacan, Freud, etc.)have all been widely published. Why not radical literary writers? Regarding the significance of the Nobel Prize for Literature, what would your take be on Sartre, who won the prize but rejected it. I do find your argument persuasive but it seems to me a bit reductionist, in the sense that, for me, there is more than that to Beckett. Why does writing about existential alienation necessarily have to equate to an ideology of political or capitalist complacency or, worse, collusion? I don’t ask that rhetorically. I’ve mostly read Beckett as an exploration of one aspect of the human condition. I’ve never viewed it as being antithetical to political thought or action. Just because we’re all headed for annihilation doesn’t mean we can’t try to work toward diminishing suffering now (whether Beckett is trying to make that point or not).

    I have much to think about; certainly not all of it is comfortable for me. One other thing, just out of curiosity. You say that you do not deny liking to read Beckett. Why do you like to read him?


  22. Seth Segall Avatar

    But then Melville has poor Pip, saved from drowning: “Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic.” There’s mysticism in the old boy yet!

  23. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    Craig #20: “…anyone who claims to be radical and does not explicitly critique capitalism is, by definition recreating and reifying capitalist ideology.”

    I’m not sure if this is what you are alluding to, but just to clarify, I don’t think Beckett ever claimed to be radical. I was referring to Beckett as radical in literary, not political, terms, which probably didn’t fit my context very well.

  24. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    Seth #22: Yes, there’s some of that in Melville. I think he struggled with religious questions throughout his life, and even found some solace in buddhism, which he first encountered in his reading in the early 1870’s (long after Moby-Dick was published), but I don’t think he was ever able to finally become a “believer.” Earlier in the chapter from which you quote there’s this: “Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?” Existential alienation.

  25. Craig Avatar

    It doesn’t matter if Beckett was being intentionally radical or political. His privileged and romantic notion of existential angst can only come from a writer steeped in, unaware of and benefiting from capitalist ideology.

    In other words, if I’m wondering where my next meal is coming from while some multinational chops off the top of the mountain in my backyard, existential crisis does not exist.

    Everything you watch, listen to or read is just reifying this insidious, irrational economic system. If Buddhism was really serious about ending suffering, it would not be focused on anathema individual liberation (atman), but calling for revolution.

  26. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    Tom, Craig:

    This essay, which admittedly I’ve only so far skimmed, seems to take a different view of Beckett, not focusing on “universal existential angst” in his work (in fact, taking issue with that view) but on real historical circumstances. This is not the mainstream view of Beckett, obviously. The essay is a bit lengthy, so I don’t know if you would be inclined to take the time to read it, but I would be interested in your response to it if you do.

    Click to access beckett_war.pdf

  27. jonah Avatar

    Tom: IS there sucha thing as a radical literature or artistic practice, or are those categories merely myths which pacify or distract the dissaffected bougeoise?

  28. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    I don’t mean to suggest that Literature is “necessarily” anything. Literature is a socially constructed human activity, and is whatever we make of it. Certainly not all Literature is reactionary, but avant-garde Literature almost always is (I say “almost” because clearly I don’t know all avant-garde Literature, but I cannot think of any particular example that is NOT reactionary). Certainly there are radical thinkers outside the realm of Literature whose writings get published—but notice that there are no Americans on your list! Even outside of the realm of the Literary, being radical is much more difficult in the U.S., where those few long-established leftists would never consider making any effort to support the publication of works by the new, younger radicals, most of whom drop out of the academic world. Here in America, you can only publish a marxist work if you have the proper Ivy-League credential to reassure the publishers (and the readers) that you aren’t really all that radical.

    But to return to Literature, well, it is capitalist ideology because that is what the social practice of Literature was invented to DO, to produce capitalist ideology. Literature as we understand the concept/practice today is a recent invention, dating back at most to the late 18th century, but more clearly defined in the Romantic period. (This is not to say that nobody ever wrote a poem before then, but that they wrote them in different practices, which weren’t understood in the way we define Literature—Eagleton has written about this, but Peter Widdowson’s book “Literature” gives a very good, short account of how this category is a distinct from previous forms of “imaginative” writing.

    Can it be radical? Is it possible to use a capitalist ideological practice to produce radical ideology? Perhaps. Keep in mind that in it’s origins it was, in sense, “radical” ideology: Literature helped produce the ideology that made it possible to escape the persistent oppressive power of the ancien régime. And certainly there have been some writers who attempted to use Literature to produce radical ideology—Upton Sinclair and Frank Norris come immediately to mind. But they are universally considered to be “bad” writers, too “political” and not telling the timeless truths that are the domain of Literature.

    Writing about existential alienation just IS capitalist ideology—it isn’t a matter of what it “has to be”, but of how it actually functions. As you suggest, Alan, you view it as “just one aspect” that is separate from political thought, and that’s how it works—it convinces people that alienation is not a political matter, that is separate from capitalist social formations. It enables the intelligentsia to say, “fine, other people can talk about politics all they want, I’m not saying they shouldn’t, I just happen not to be interested in that—I’m interested in the deeper, more eternal, more important and ‘existential’ questions.”

    I read the essay you linked to. It is very interesting, but just another attempt to rescue Beckett, to convince us that he tells some eternal truth, rather than making an ideological point. She says that “To analyze how such a war could ever have occurred is not, in any case, the poet’s purpose. Just as in actual life Beckett went to work for the Resistance on ethical instinct rather than dogma, so in his fictions, he takes his responsibility to be that of showing rather than the making of ideological points”(25-6), but of course this gets it exactly backwards. To give the lived experience, to “show” it rather than explain it, is to stay in the realm of the ideological—and to reproduce that ideology in the reader. She may offer us more “context” for the work, but she is just trying to save the ideological effect, to suggest that any individual can have this experience, if they know enough of the context, and that, therefore, we are all, deep down, not socially constructed at all, but identical atomistic existential minds. The fact that everyone takes Beckett to be producing, out of his contingent particularity, universal truths of human experience and NOT an account of the ideological experience of WWII, that this makes him “great Literature,” is why he is producing capitalist ideology.

    Why do you think Sartre refused the Nobel Prize? Imagine the horror, for a devoted marxist, or realizing that his life’s work was functioning to produce capitalist ideology?

    All of us English teachers like to think that everything we teach is radical and subversive, because what if it turns out our life’s work is to produce capitalist ideology, to keep our students deluded and oppressed? I happen to be teaching “Bartleby” in a class I’m adjuncting this fall, so I’ve been brushing up on Melville criticism a bit, and found a typical example, a marxist reading of Bartleby that suggests that it “does not issue an explicit call for revolution or provide a blueprint for a new society. Rather, Melville wanted his audience …to understand…that the construction of a moral society required significant change in both the economic system and its legitimating ideology.” It would be so nice if this were true, but clearly nobody else has read the story this way, Melville was hardly a socialist, and even if he did intend this when writing this story, we would have to then admit it has been a dismal failure, since it is his most widely read and anthologized work and has yet to inspire any radical action at all.

    This is already far too long, and I still feel as if I have poorly answered the questions posed. But just one more point. On the matter of why I still enjoy reading Beckett, well, I think it is something like what Freud says about “The Uncanny” pleasure of reading E.T.A. Hoffman. Capitalist ideology is different from feudal ideology in that it requires endless change, constant transformation. As a result, it has an tendency to call up contradictions, gaps, lacks, aporia, etc. in its ideological material, and work to resolve them. In the process, there is the same pleasure we take in repeatedly “re-resolving” the Oedipal complex; or, we can take a perverse pleasure in refusing the resolution, and becoming aware of the ideology being produced.

    How do we produce radical ideology? I think we’ve yet to figure that out, but I would suggest that Brecht had a good idea. How often do we see epic theater today? It’s impossible to mass market, and doesn’t attract much of an audience, even when it is revised to cut out all the unfortunate politics. The last time I saw a Brecht play produced, there were no fewer than three essays in program asserting that Brecht is ultimately not a marxist, but conveying the timeless human experience. And, of course, the play was not performed in Brechtian fashion, and so wound up sounding like a bunch of banal bourgeois platitudes.

  29. Craig Avatar

    I’m not sure how reading more Beckett will change the conversation. I’d be curious to see how you would interpret this essay using some of Tom’s points.

    I want to add that not only is reality according Beckett only available to the privileged, it also reifies the notion that nothing can change. I used to think this way and have found that such a mindset insidiously affirms the suffering I deplore.

    Seeing all art as a perpetuation of ideology had been difficult for me. I’m still working on it so I appreciate this post and the subsequent discussion.

  30. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    Tom #28: I appreciate your thoughtful and interesting comments. Yeah, I know about the whole English teacher thing (though on a high school level). I have had different kinds of doubts and anxieties during my long career. I thought of Sinclair and Norris, too; I have never taught either. Some of the standard high school curriculum stuff that I have taught to seniors, though, seems to me useful in ideological regards. Examples include The Grapes of Wrath, Death of a Salesman, Heart of Darkness, etc. We’ve had some pretty lively class discussions and debates about capitalism, oppression, and imperialism in regard to those works. Students were often surprisingly open-minded. The point about Bartleby being a failure if Melville did have any intent to generate action is interesting. I’m wondering if that says more about the story or more about American society. As you say, radical ideas have a harder time here than in Europe.

    Your point about the meaning and history of the term “Literature” is also interesting. I’d like to read Widdowson’s book.

    Regarding your comments on Perloff’s article, they certainly make sense and I will continue to think about them. Still, I’m not sure I see that either Perloff or Beckett are saying that we are “identical atomistic existential minds,” though I’ll keep thinking and looking. She says repeatedly that Beckett is not about universal existential ideas, e.g. “The universalism of such readings with their emphasis on the absurdity of the human condition doesn’t get us very far.” Perloff’s thesis is that Beckett’s work in the years following WWII are about his historically/socially constructed experience. She also seems to be saying that Adorno (whom I have not read myself), does view Beckett in more radical terms: “Rather, Adorno posits, Endgame enacts the consequences of its more specific economic condition– the ruthless capitalism of the twentieth century.” Well, as I said, I’ll keep thinking. I like Beckett. I don’t want him be a capitalist dupe, after all (I’d use the smiley face icon here if I didn’t hate it).

    Finally, regarding your reason for liking to read Beckett. As long-time analysand in Freudian analysis, I hear you!

    Craig #29: Regarding my response to the Perloff article vis-a-vis Tom’s points, I tried to address that in my above comments to Tom, without out going on too long.

    I am glad that you have found the post and ensuing discussion valuable, Craig. I have also; there are many things I’m still working on, too.

    Thanks to both of you.

    Thanks, Tom.

  31. Craig Avatar


    Yeah, this has been great. What I think makes this work so difficult is that art and literature do not come out and say what ideology they are recreating. Beckett never comes out and says he’s assuming ‘atomistic minds’. However, it is implied. Seeing these implications is the hard part. I’m still trying to come up with some sort of method for teasing out ideologies implied in literature and art. As Tom mentions above, paying attention to what is implied as natural human experience and not explained is a good place too look. It speaks directly to you say you have difficulty seeing in Beckett in your last comment.

    Am I on the right track here? Is it useful to look at what is implied or unsaid, but ’emoted’ rather than explained to find ideology? In movies, art, literature. I’m thinking of moments in movies when nothing is said, but ‘natural, ultimate, shared human experience’ is implied and thus assumes existential atomistic souls.

  32. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper


    In my experience, it is possible to generate some interesting ideas with books like The Grapes of Wrath. I credit that book with my interest in Marxism—well, that and working construction 50-60 hours a week during summer breaks from the time I was 13. The two combined made me question whether there was something that could be done to change the system, instead of just survive it. I’m curious about the class discussions you mentioned—what was the economic class of the kids you were teaching? In my experience, the higher up the economic ladder, the more willing they are to be critical of capitalism. I’ve taught at different colleges, throughout the economic strata, and the poorest kids at the worst 4-year state schools are the most violently attached to capitalism and refuse to consider any criticism of it. Where my wife teaches, the kids are solidly middle class, driving BMWs, summer houses on the cape, etc, but all paid for with enormous debt, their parents generally lower-level professionals—and they are relatively indifferent to critique, or thought in any form—they don’t get upset by it, but, as one of my wife’s students once said to her, he can see that capitalism is unfair, but he “prefers not to think about it.” (And not, he’d never even heard of Bartleby); these kids just want job training, to make money like their parents.

    When I think of the stuff popular in the school curriculum, like Heart of Darkness or The Grapes of Wrath, I try to keep in mind what Jameson, in The Political Unconscious, calls “strategies of containment.” Works like these always raise a contradiction, even produce the contradiction, but always in order to re-contain it, and produce a new capitalist ideology for the new phase of capitalism. Think of the tedious “symbolic” passage about turtle crossing the highway in Grapes of Wrath, or the ending, which shifts from radical politics to the universal human acts of maternal kindness. And keep in mind that critique is often essential to the necessary endless transformation of capitalist social formations, which requires endless transformations of capitalist ideology. Chiapello and Boltanski give a solid example of the critique of capitalism producing the “New Spirit of Capitalism” in the book of that name. The difficulty is in trying to exhaustively analyze the ideology of a work like Heart of Darkness—not stop at its own critique, but critique its ideology, examine what it assumes to be universal or beyond question and consideration, as Craig suggests.

    Of course, as I’m always saying, we need ideology, we want our art to produce ideology, but we can know what ideology we are producing, and explore whether it requires any delusions, falsehoods, or oppression of others. As Jameson puts it in The Political Unconscious, “only new and original forms of collective social life can overcome the isolation and monadic autonomy of the older bourgeois subjects in such a way that individual consciousness can be lived—and not merely theorized—as an ‘effect of structure’(Lacan).” I read this book almost thirty years ago, and just came across this passage again the other day, underlined and bookmarked in my old copy—clearly, this has shaped how I think of the goal of Marxism ever since.

    On the Perloff essay, while I would recommend it to anyone planning to see Endgame or Waiting for Godot, because it really does add a new dimension to watching the play, she still is not willing to accept Adorno’s reading of the play, and tries to rescue it from critique and restore its ideological effect. Right after the passage you quote, she says:

    “Adorno’s reading of the Beckett text as symptomatic of a doomed capitalist culture—a culture inevitably culminating in Auschwitz and the atomic bomb, reduces that text to a level of abstraction similar to that found in the readings of Mayoux or Bentley. The Beckett character as victim of capitalist commodification: it is an image too universal to be useful.”

    While she rejects the “universalizing” of the more typical readings, she places Adorno’s reading in the same category, suggesting that even using the play to theorize the alienation of capitalist commodification is “too universal”—an absurd statement, surely, unless one takes capitalism and the commodity form to be natural and universal. But her goal is to keep the play in the register of concrete, lived, “felt” experience, to enable it to interpellate the reader, to avoid the ideological critique Adorno wants to do with the play (which he wrongly attributes to the play itself—clealry it is Adorno’s reading practice, and not Beckett’s play, that provides the ideological critique.) The result is that we are left to assume the existence of an essential subject who is exactly NOT “a historical category” but who can experience what Beckett experienced in his historical situation by reading his fiction or watching his play. The focus on the “concrete” and avoidance of any kind of “abstraction” requires the assumption of one absolute abstraction that is unchanging and can experience all “concrete” content from any period of history—this is the same ideological mystification at work in the cult of mindfulness, which wants to deny the historical/social production of our experiences (sensory, emotional, phenomenological), and so requires the production of the illusion of an atman that is not conditioned.

    After all, who could possibly experience the play the way Perloff suggests we should without all the additional historical information she provides? The play doesn’t “give” us this felt sense, without the work of this particular kind of criticism—which works, exactly like the lessons and classes in mindfulness, to produce the subject that takes itself to be purely objective and unconstructed.

    This is getting a bit abstract and perhaps unclear, in my failed attempt to be brief, but I’m getting ready to leave for England for a couple of weeks and I’ll have limited internet access, so I wanted to respond quickly.

    This kind of discussion, the (sometimes painful) deconstruction of the works of art we are most strongly attached to, seems to me enormously beneficial. In the book Glenn and Matthias and I wrote, I suggest that this would be a more useful form of “meditation” for our culture, instead of the obsession with trying to “authentically” replicate the practices of other cultures—their ideology was produced in different practices, so they used the practices best suited to distantiate it. Those same practices mostly serve to reify our own ideological illusions today, when our ideology is mostly produced in aesthetic objects.

    On a final note, for any who might hope to become English teachers, for any current grad students in English, you are best steering clear of these comments. Your job it “intrinsic criticism,” intensifying the ideological effect of Literature. If you refuse to stop at the work’s own critique, if you refuse to remain blind to its “strategies of containment,” you will become unemployable—not to mention finding it impossible to publish in the current reactionary “post-theory” academic climate.

    Sorry for yet another ridiculously long comment–obviously this post is very thought provoking, and great fun, for me at least.

  33. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer


    Though my head is spinning a bit, I also want to respond quickly. Some of these ideas are new to me, and as I’ve said, I need to and plan to give them more thought. I am very much looking forward to the arrival of you, Glenn, and Matthias’s book. There are also many books and writers you have mentioned in past posts and comments that I want to get to now that I have more time (I just retired from teaching last month). Badiou, Heidegger, Eagleton, Marx, Nagarjuna and others are all on my bookshelf now. I don’t have a background in philosophy, so, as you can imagine, much of that stuff is hard going. By the way, I’m enjoying your recent post on Shin Buddhism; I am part way through that.

    Your hunch about my students is right. I taught in a fairly affluent public school district with mostly students who come from a background similar to that you describe of your wife’s students. I think perhaps the liveliest discussions were about Death of a Salesman. Debates about whether Willy and his sons were responsible for their own misery or whether it resulted from social and economic conditions, etc.

    Regarding Perloff, I’ll keep thinking; probably worth checking out Adorno, too. Well, at least you would recommend the article!

    I certainly also have found the discussion here thoughtful and valuable. The issue that I find particularly interesting and valuable is the idea of a work’s own critique vs. a critique of its ideology. Somehow I sense that it might clarify some issues about literary theory that have always been a bit difficult for me to grasp. I have an old copy of Eagleton’s Literary Theory, dusty and unread, that might be a good read. Well, regarding fun, yeah, I’ve had some, but you are certainly right that deconstructing long-loved and valued pieces can be quite painful. But I do see it as beneficial. Enjoy England.

  34. […] post is a response to  Alan Seltzer’s post’ ‘More Walls: Contemplations of Samual Beckett and Herman Melvilie’ on SNB and the comment tread that followed. It started as a  comment but never got posted because […]

  35. Craig Avatar

    The breakdown of which class is more willing to critique capitalism is fascinating. Is it that the affluent kids can critique from a place of comfort and rebellion? And the lower class kids absolutely must hold on to the American Dream as a coping mechanism?

  36. fionnchu Avatar

    I wrote (for fittingly a now defunct journal) on Beckett and Buddhism or his lack of such with a critique of Paul Foster’s diss. published on Beckett + Zen, a few years ago. I also reviewed Shainberg’s “Ambivalent Zen” six weeks ago (inspired to finally do so after Glenn Wallis’ entry, thanks for that indirect goad). Shainberg’s disconnect with his society rankled me: his privilege was almost never questioned, except once. He gets on a bus to go off to a retreat with fellow Manhattanites from the creative classes, able to take off of work, and he nods in passing to the disparity between his cohort and the rest of the drones. Able to contemplate his navel for decades, in and out of therapy, martial arts, and painful or pleasurable postures physical and psychological, he had so much leisure to do so much, or so little. Perhaps Bernie Glassman shook him up, perhaps he did not really. How aware he was of this remains occluded, to me.

    Following comments after Alan Seltzer’s essay has been intriguing. My hesitant assertion on Beckett’s lack of Buddhism appears confirmed by Shainberg, despite John Calder’s claim in his recommended book “The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett” that “Murphy” was B’s “most Buddhist” creation. Maybe by lack of explicit mention? “Maybes” tempt one into Beckett, and this ambivalence and ambiguity can excite some of us and weary others–such as most students and the common reader. The class distinctions of who “gets” or consumes Beckett, as with the avant-garde then or hipster commodities now, plays off the academic canon produced and then perpetuated by the Grove Presses and Barney Rossets who are their proclaimers.

    I’d aver, given my own blue-collar upbringing and my long-time stint at a college teaching gig, that there exist more and more institutions such as my own, and fewer where “solidly middle class” (whatever that means for Americans today; in my surroundings, it’s not BMWs; I live on the other coast far from any Cape) kids can “afford” an English major at all. They (and their indebted parents) opt for business, computers, or “justice administration.” Daily, neither theory nor its discontents have much of a chance to hold forth among we who teach–untenured even if full-time, and often “contingent”– as remedial courses and the needs of career training for vets, working-class or poor students, displaced or downsized folks, and immigrants demand that my colleagues and I provide practical preparation in eight-week “hybrid” courses modeled top-down for the “needs” of the technocracy, civil service, and business. Radical stances may appeal for a few, but those students by choice do not enroll at my institution. Nearly all are on financial aid. Many on GI Bills (a VA hospital is nearby) so many with war wounds, hidden or not. I enter this dimension to show how conditions in universities are not as uniform as some assume who may extrapolate, from tenured perches among the elite, to the undergrad majority.

    My attempts to teach “Bartleby” were met with a mixture of bemusement and befuddlement, although pairing Melville’s challenging prose (no liberal arts majors at my place of employment) with the low-budget, odd movie adaptation made about a decade ago helped ease the clash of millennial sensibilities with mid-19th c. Wall Street. When I tried to draw parallels to Occupy, or street protests, or the corporate life that my downscale and downsized students prepare for, the attempts to make connections were heard politely, that’s that. By the way, they and I found “Death of a Salesman” dated, but students liked “Glengarry Glen Ross” much, much more. (One told me that the scene with Alec Baldwin berating the salesmen was shown in his management course. Not as a cautionary tale or an unethical situation, but as a role model.)

    My links to (post-)Buddhism, Beckett, Melville may be tenuous here, but sometimes I introduce (if without labels) ideas that challenge the status quo or the aspirations of my students. I get the same defense Tom Pepper notices, that those most eager to defend capitalism seek to embrace it from the lower ranks. The dogged self-reliance of many hardened by tougher times and higher debt makes this less an aesthetic pose of living like Murphy in a garret with a crap gig than an admission of “real life.” Yes, I’ve smuggled in Marx, too, to firm resistance against such demystification by my charges. In class discussion, Occupy was met with disdain and nearly nobody I’ve encountered sympathized with it. Apropos, I recommend this article “Young and Isolated” on twenty-somethings’ weariness with social promises amidst economic stratification and McJobs and massive debt. Does meditation or stress reduction have any impact on this environment, when so many come in, fortified by junk food and energy drinks, to try to listen to my presentation on Shakespeare or study skills after working all day? It seems far away from the promises peddled by those we know to the upper strata of management.

    I came home last night from teaching to learn that in a class of twenty (six vets at least), nobody could define the derivation of “democracy.” I wonder what my “public Ivy” grad school profs would make of that, besides another pontification. Perloff taught the best and brightest; Zizek’s tenured without students: could either of those professors make any sense to my student body, if they stopped by? Would they bother? The gap between my education and my origins, in my life as I try to teach, makes me wonder. I widened that gap in my earlier life by choice. The job market relegated me to bridge the gap between my students and whatever land or class they seek to leave for the middle class, and for the BMWs. How Beckett and his ilk, who I have long pondered, fit in, I continue to contemplate. Meanwhile, I have not only “Moby Dick” stored up for a fourth reading, but a first for “Redburn” and I mean after all to get to “The Confidence Man” soon. Back to grading, as where I teach, it’s year-round, speaking of efficiency. Bartleby understands. Murphy may have too. But neither sage lets me in on much.

  37. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    Fionnchu #36: I really appreciate your perspective, in terms of both your own background and your experience in the classroom. It helps me realize how narrow my own has often been. And yet with all of that, you still find value in engagement with Melville and Beckett and their “ilk” (still pondering and still contemplating). I do to, but right now, I’m not sure what that engagement will be looking like. Thanks.

  38. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer


    I intended this as a response to your last comment on your critical analysis of literature post on “The Nonbuddhist” blog, but I was having some kind of technical trouble and couldn’t write it there. I simply wanted to say that your own experience with literature, the pain and other experiences, resonates very much with me. I really like your “middle way” approach; that does provide some comfort (whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know), and I don’t know why I would expect any other kind of engagement than one that is constantly changing. I’ve given considerable thought to your post and comments; again, they have been very useful to me and have provided perspectives based on your background that I have not had.

  39. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper


    If your student’s can’t afford a liberal arts major, they are NOT middle class–at least, not in the way I meant it. I mean those who are really, economically, middle-class. Of course, in America, everyone thinks they are “middle class.” Many of my students come from an economic strata in which they have never had a computer or internet access in their homes, in which they have never lived in a home that their family “owned,” because they could never get a mortgage, and in which the children are expected to begin working in middle school to buy their own clothes and sometimes food. Most of my students work full time to pay their tution, and althought they all have smartphones they rarely have reliable cars or computers. Still, they all consider themselves “middle class.” That’s not what I meant by “solidly middle class.” Even on the west coast, there are middle-class people, and their summer homes may be in Colorado or on some beach, they may prefer Mercedes to BMW, but they do NOT go to schools like the one you teach at (or the one I teach at).

    Still, if you are teaching Melville, clealry that is not understood to be “job training,” and yours is not a technical skills classs. Instead of lamenting their disinterest, and making snide comments about their lack of ability, take their lack of interest as an opportunity. You sound exactly like you imagine those “ivy league” professors would–patronizing and condescendiing. Actually, I know a few tenured Ivy-League faculty members, and none of them would be so naive as to assume their students represent the majority. They know full well they are teaching the privileged elite. Maybe it would help if you would try to become as conscious of class as they are. For instance, it is clearly not the case that you (or I) moved out of our class background solely “by choice.” Or, even, primarily by choice. There were social and economic forces at work that pushed my out of my class background, which are not available to working class kids today. Education is more expensive, has become increasingly job-training even at the college level, and the economy is worse for most of us.

    I hope to get the indifferent response to “Bartelbey” you describe. That means that it is failing to interpellate them into its ideology, and they will more easily be able to discuss the ideology it produces. No doubt they prefer “Glengarry” to Mellville, for the same reason it is shown in their business classes: it works to produce and reinforce their late-capitalist postmodern ideology!

    I hear all the time that we don’t have time (or students don’t have the ability) to do all that Ivey-League theory stuff. But if you have time to teach them Melville (or Conrad or Beckett or Shakespeare) you have time to teach them critical theory. The real reason usually is that English professores want to interpellate them into bourgeois ideology, and not teach them how to be critical of ideology. Anyone who can read Conrad can read Zizek or Althusser. Of course, many of my colleagues can’t read either, so they are really just covering their incompetence by claiming it is their students who can’t understand theory. If you understand it, you can teach it to anyone who can read at a college (or even high-school) level–if you can’t understand it, you shouldn’t be teaching at a college level at all.

  40. fionnchu Avatar

    Alan (#37), Tom (#39), and Craig (#36) et al. Thanks for your remarks. A few more on teaching.

    I’ve watched my own courses in the humanities become less and less enriched by my input and design and more directed for efficiency; the “hybrid” onsite/online modality now in place alters considerably what I can cover as curriculum material is installed beforehand. So, I have less room for improvisation and spontaneity as texts are fixed and assignments are embedded than I reckon Alan or Tom does. Pushing back against any “incompetence,” I must cover a lot of coursework mandated as well as to find online and in class some time for the inspirational and the analytical moments that I must keep us all teaching– or as SNB affords, learning together. Apropos of our medium, I am monitored by it. This Panopticon model may not be (yet) common in other colleges.

    Financial aid gets hacked, so the work-study and Pell Grants that enabled my college stretch much less for my sons’ education. I note as an aside that my sons and I both qualified for such aid. Defining “middle class” is elusive. I teach for 18 years now where I confront the cost of war and our system where a GI Bill remains the most reliably dispensed form of ready college funds, and the class ramifications of this sit in front of me daily. I’ve taught amputees, those with plates in their skulls or backs, and those altered inside in ways I cannot see as readily. Most of my students are less evidently altered, but many grew up with unstable families and McJobs at best or worse. They don’t want to confront any “blank walls” anymore. That I try to show them these may challenge expectations by some teachers that students any more than most audiences (SNB aside) may wish to look at such states without fleeing them. How do you disenchant “bourgeoisie ideology” when as Craig reiterates, the students Tom and I teach are those desperate for $$$?

    “Taking their lack of interest as an opportunity” is a well-chosen phrase from Tom. I’d reply that it defines how I must use teaching moments such as defining “democracy” when nobody has a notion of its derivation. I did not turn away from that moment and I did not treat it snidely. I took it on, but that void hovered. If I in #36 express my frustration in my students’ weakening abilities to develop logical nuance or personal critiques, when so many of them have been schooled to bubble in Scantrons, I am being frank. From my situation, I’ll ask what my students would: how does theory as well as literary or philosophical or political readings assigned or advocated alleviate the crisis in the classrooms (and among capitalists and non/x-buddhists), as an antidote?

    To take up Tom’s helpful advice (I’ve published a review of Zizek’s The Year of Dreaming Dangerously(2012) in my own efforts to “understand” more about him after my own participation in Occupy locally), what from Zizek proves best for such students to reveal our rumpled Slovenian sage at his most accessible? What works in a gen-ed classroom of working class students or urban immigrants (often ESL), where “interpellated” has never been heard? How might what Alan and others discuss above about literature and its ability to expose translate into Glenn’s “unflinching” scrutiny to ignite class discussion, in both senses of the term?

  41. Jeffrey Shampnois Avatar
    Jeffrey Shampnois

    This was a very good essay. The problem is, when reading Molloy, and especially The Unnameable, the mind confronts its own ceaseless wriggling so clearly that there’s no escape, no goal, no hope. And without hope and goal the mind simply stopped resisting itself, stopped wriggling. (There was no point, nothing to be gained). That’s why I felt at home in myself, I accepted my own perpetual stupidity like never before – which was in effect an absence of my self, an absence of that perpetual resistance which is the wriggling mind he described so relentlessly.

    I’m sorry that Beckett himself couldn’t enjoy the fruits of his own labors. But I think that’s how it works. I don’t think we always perceive the entirety of what we create, because creation is not really a product of the conscious will. It sneaks up on us. We don’t really know where it’s going. So later (instantaneously later perhaps) we stand facing our “own” creations as strangers. He WAS dis-illusioned in the best sense. He wrote without the delusion that we can come to any cerebral conclusion as to what it “means.” The reader, unlike the writer, had the luxury to dissolve in laughter. What more meaning could there be? How could we put a brand name like “Zen” on that? It’s absurd. It’s static, it’s meaningless.

  42. Jeffrey Shampnois Avatar
    Jeffrey Shampnois

    By the way, my apologies! I should have read your instructions about how to comment first. I’m sorry.

  43. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    No problem. Alan, the author of the essay, should be responding to your comment shortly. Thanks.

  44. Alan Seltzer Avatar
    Alan Seltzer

    Re: #41. Hi, Jeff, thanks for your comment. Great response to Beckett! For me, too, Beckett is, among other things, a means of thinking about my mind and how it works. That’s one reason I have come to associate him with my own sitting practice. I am drawn to Beckett for very personal, as well as aesthetic, reasons. His work really resonates with me in several ways. I have been giving thought lately to the idea of reading as contemplative and creative practice, and I think your comment connects with that. Right now I’m in a course Glann is teaching call “Contemplation and Creativity,” and the last three-hour class was devoted entirely to Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing.” People’s responses, in one way or another, were all very personal, ranging from bread-baking to poetry to automatic writing.

    I think Beckett would agree with your ideas about creativity. He refused to give any interpretations of his work, and even denied being capable of doing so. I understand your point about his being dis-illusioned in “the best sense.” In my essay, I was suggesting that he never had any illusions to begin with, at least none that I could see.

  45. Brendan McCormack Avatar

    Good piece. It might be worth considering that Beckett, in the same way a Koan works, sought to break language and that ‘Waiting for Godot’ could be seen as language waiting for meaning which will never come as it is incapable of representing anything real, and definitely nothing from the sensory perceptions that are real or reliable or provable. In a sense, nothing you say means anything as it is just a desire of the mind to mean something. If meditation is anything it is the path of failure for the mind.

  46. Alan Seltzer Avatar

    Hi, Brendan. Thanks for the comment. Though I am reluctant to give a specific interpretation to “Waiting for Godot,” your point about the relationship between language and meaning in Beckett is persuasive. The analogy you draw between Beckett’s use of language and koans is, I think, valid. Perhaps the greatest paradox in Beckett is his use of language to decimate language, which entails stripping it of meaning in ways you suggest. He had a lot to say about language but always refused to discuss meaning.

  47. wtpepper Avatar

    Just reread this interesting discussion from several years ago—it is, I think, what inspired me to write the essay on “Bartleby” I just posted at Imaginary Relations:

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