Beckett’s Dying Words 
by Christopher Ricks.
Oxford, 218 pp., £17.50, July 1993, 0 19 812358 2
Show More
Show More

Near to death in Malone Dies, Malone says: ‘I wonder what my last words will be, written, the others do not endure, but vanish, into thin air.’ Beckett’s Dying Words is not a study of Beckett’s dying words if he said any, or of Malone’s. It is about words spoken or written in the vicinity of death, responsive to a conviction of their own death – a death which does not abort the possibility of a little further life before the body is coffined. It is a study of the death-in-life-and-life-in-death of language. Many of the words are quoted from Beckett’s fiction, but in several passages Ricks nearly forgets Beckett, and fixes his attention on Philip Larkin, Hardy, Swift, Coleridge, Sydney Smith, Christina Rossetti or another. I can’t believe that he chose to deliver these Clarendon Lectures as a hodge-podge. It is more probable that he observed the impressionism that Beckett ascribed to Proust: ‘By his impressionism I mean his non-logical statement of phenomena in the order and exactitude of their perception, before they have been distorted into intelligibility in order to be forced into a chain of cause and effect.’ Ricks’s book is not enchained to cause and effect or to any other discursive process: he says things as he thinks of them and makes flourishes in the air, whirling daisy-chains of perception.

The first chapter is the one in which the florist says what his business is and attends to it:

Most people most of the time want to live for ever. This truth is acknowledged in literature, including Beckett’s. But like many a truth, it is a half-truth, not half-true but half of the truth, as is the truth of a proverb. For, after all, most people some of the time, and some people most of the time, do not want to live forever.

  This counter-truth – that, on occasion and more than moodily, we want oblivion, extinction, irreversible loss of consciousness – is insufficiently, or is mostly prophylactically, rendered by literature.

The first sentence is wrong, but it could be made right by deleting ‘for ever’. As for ‘more than moodily’: I doubt Ricks’s general notion here and wonder how it survived his transcription of Samuel Johnson’s reply to Miss Seward: ‘The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful. It is in the apprehension of it that the horror of annihilation consists.’ Or Swift’s ‘Thoughts on Various Subjects’: ‘Every Man desires to live long; but no Man would be old’. ‘Long’: not ‘forever’.

In this first chapter Ricks takes as his motto the assertion of the chorus in Oedipus at Colonus: ‘It is better to be dead than alive, best of all never to have been born.’ Better and best, compared with what good? Ricks puts beside this passage a line from Larkin’s ‘Wants’: ‘Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.’ Death as desired ease is worded by quotations from Dante Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, Swift, Hardy, Housman and Edward Thomas. But none of the quotations is evidence that their authors maintained a conviction in favour of oblivion; above it all, no such desire runs. The passages Ricks quotes are imaginings, voicings of a mood, not the last will and testament of any of these writers. If Hardy, Edward Thomas, Beckett, and Larkin wanted to cease upon the midnight with no pain, it is strange that they let so many midnights pass without reaching for that surcease. They were in one sense happy men who had the power to die, a power they did not exercise.

More convincing than Ricks’s quotations is this passage from Kenneth Burke’s Towards a Better Life: ‘But whereas, through fear of death one may desire to die, and may find all his interests converging upon this single purpose, such notions are loath to permeate the tissues, and the wish never to have been born is unknown to our organs and our senses.’ Presumably the wish never to have been born is known, at least moodily, to our minds, or some of them, and these may rehearse the wish to the point of making it habitual; then, the temptation to suicide is felt. Up to that point, the wish is entertained as a delight of the mind, morbid if indulged beyond the range of the mood.

Then there is Freud’s theory of the death impulse. Ricks aptly quotes this passage from Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

What we are left with is the fact that the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion. Thus these guardians of life, too, were originally the myrmidons of death. Hence arises the paradoxical situation that the living organism struggles most energetically against events (dangers, in fact) which might help it to attain its life’s goal rapidly – by a kind of short-circuit.

What ‘its own fashion’ would be in a particular organism, of course I can’t say. Presumably my not committing suicide means that my organism hasn’t yet found the fashion in which it wishes to die, and meanwhile won’t be caught dead with artificial substitutes.

But to come to Beckett and the other writers whom Ricks quotes on the running desire of oblivion, I think writers gravitate to the motifs that suit their styles. They don’t first catch the motifs and then devise a style for them. Facit indignatio versus; a writer intuits that a particular emotion will set his style eloquently astir, so he imagines feeling that emotion, or conjures a character to utter it for him. Many acidic emotions in literature issue less from a writer’s bile than from his fondness for short sentences. A fondness for long, intricate sentences would suggest that a different network of emotions is needed. Unless we insist on identifying Molloy, Watt, Mercier, Camier, Hamm, Clov and the rest with the historical and psychological Samuel Beckett, longtime resident of Paris, we should assume that Beckett imagined the emotions housed under those names rather than that he shared them in his own person.

In the second chapter, Ricks is still minding his business, analysing mortal words and phrases. As in The Force of Poetry, he is tender to clichés, the dying generations of a language. ‘Clichés are a way in which we all keep body and soul together.’ He finds Beckett sharing his tenderness for clichés in this flourish of literary criticism from Dream of Fair to Middling Women:

‘Black diamond of pessimism.’ Belacqua thought that was a nice example, in the domain of words, of the little sparkle hid in ashes, the precious margaret and hid from many, and the thing that the conversationalist, with his contempt of the tag and ready-made, can’t give you, because the lift to the high spot is precisely from the tag and the ready-made. The same with the stylist. You couldn’t experience a margarita in d’Annunzio because he denies you the pebbles and flints that reveal it. The uniform, horizontal writing, flowing without accidence, of the man with a style, never gives you the margarita ... The blown roses of a phrase shall catapult the reader into the tulips of the phrase that follows.

In Ricks’s book the lift to the high spot is achieved by precise attention to the tag and the ready-made of language. Or the apparently dead phrase that stays supine till a reader’s imagination summons it to arise. The effects Ricks most admires are by a writer who starts with a cliché and directs upon it an imagination all the better for being a bit weird. The Lazarus effect is likely to be produced only from audacities of the bizarre, the sublime and the abysmal.

A memorable example comes from Mercier and Camier, where the private investigator claims to be ‘Soul of Discretion’. Ricks says:

The insinuating power of Beckett’s unofficial English is often a matter of the decorous meeting the freakish. Discretion is a natural location for these studied coincidings. In the French, the cliché can be left for dead, flatly horizontal: ‘Je suis la discrétion même. Un tombeau’. But when this is resurrected as English, it becomes Irish, at once extravagant and proverbial: ‘I’m discretion itself. The wild horse’s despair.’

I suppose it is common knowledge that this gets its point from the claim that wild horses couldn’t drag a secret out of me. Another example is from More Pricks than Kicks, where Belacqua is waiting for his operation: ‘But he will make up for it later on, there is a good time coming for him later on, when the doctors have given him a new lease of apathy.’ Around this Ricks twirls further daisy-chains of allusion. His head is rammed with quotations, and they must out:

The good time coming is the best of times, it is the worst of times. The new lease (Belacqua dies under the knife) has all too short a date, but it brings him the supreme apathy: death. Yet ‘a new lease of apathy’ is a turn which gives to the cliché ‘a new lease of life’ a new lease of – well, not exactly life.

Clichés, the language of obituaries, archaisms, moribunds, and Beckett’s use of languages both dead and living: these matters keep Ricks close to detail, where his critical fair and flare are brightest. ‘When Beckett invokes a dead language,’ he says, ‘this is often to catch a compacting of its having lived on with its speaking of dying.’ As in More Pricks than Kicks:

‘What ails you?’ asked Winnie.

He had allowed himself to get run down, but he scoffed at the idea of a sequitur from his body to his mind.

Ricks on this:

The reader’s mind has no difficulty in taking the meaning of the word ‘sequitur’ there, but the word proves an apt obstacle to any smooth following, whether in the mind or from body to mind. For ‘sequitur’ remains obstinately a word from elsewhere, from a dead language, altogether the odd man out in the sentence in which it occurs. Added to which, the positive ‘sequitur’ is even less at home in English than is the negative ‘non-sequitur’. Non-sequiturs, though not ten a penny, do turn up in intellectual circles; sequiturs, seldom. With the help of ‘the idea of a sequitur’, the scoff vindicates itself.

So, too, Beckett’s dealings with other Latin tags: Quantum mutatus ab illo in Murphy, Exeo in the poem ‘Enueg I’, pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt in Watt and defunctus in Proust.

Ricks includes Irish among Beckett’s dead languages, but this is a mistake. To those who speak it, in Dublin, Donegal, Galway, Kerry and elsewhere. Irish is as alive as English or French. Beckett didn’t know Irish, and therefore assumed it wasn’t worth knowing, so all he could do was insert the word ‘Irish’ or ‘Gaelic’ where commonly disclaiming speakers say, ‘It’s all Greek to me.’ In All That Fall Mrs Rooney says of her idiolect: ‘Well, you know, it will be dead in time, just like our own poor dear Gaelic, there is that to be said,’ At the end of the 19th century the revival of Irish was mainly in the hands of Irish Protestant scholars. There is nothing odd in Maddy Rooney’s vague Protestant affection for a language she doesn’t know a word of. Beckett doesn’t give her any Irish words, so there is no comparison with his use of Latin tags.

One of Ricks’s most illuminating chapters takes up Freud’s essay, ‘The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words’: words that look two or more ways, such words as quite, certain, still, over, inexistent – ‘I am not dead to inexistence’ in How It Is – and last in Malone Dies. Preoccupation with that last, by the way, seems to have tipped Ricks into a misquotation, last instead of least in this from Malone Dies: ‘Yes, that’s what I like about me, at least one of the things.’ Ricks quotes the French accurately, enfin une des choses que j’ aime: the fin may have darkened his counsel and made him see ‘last’ one more time. But his commentary makes a fine, not fine-drawn, distinction between Beckett’s English and his French on these ultimate or penultimate occasions. ‘As often in Beckett,’ he says, ‘his original French reads like a highly talented translation of a work of genius, and not as the thing itself. The English language is more inclined to share its cravings with Beckett.’ From Malone Dies: ‘After all it is not important not to finish, there are worse things than velleities. But is that the point? Quite likely. All I ask is that the last of mine, as long as it lasts, should have living for its theme, that is all, I know what I mean.’ On this, Ricks comments: ‘Where the English makes “the last of mine” and “as long as it lasts” cleave together as disconcertingly one, dismayingly declining to assure us of any final relief and release, the original French cleaves the constituents apart: Je veux seulement que ma dernière parle jusqu’ au bout de vivre.’

In the last chapter Ricks takes a long look at the Irish bull, and honourable issue with the OED’s complacent assumption that a bull is ‘an expression containing a manifest contradiction in terms or involving a ludicrous inconsistency unperceived by the speaker’. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Ricks quotes Sir John Mahaffy’s answer, when asked to distinguish the Irish bull from similar freaks of language: ‘The Irish bull is always pregnant.’ More often than the OED appreciates, the Irish bull knows he’s pregnant and is offering his audience an occasion to divine his fruitful state.

Ricks’s chapter is decent to the Irish and respectful of their bulls. It is a very good essay, with pointed quotations from Gay, Johnson, Byron, Coleridge, and the Edgeworths’ Essay on Irish Bulls, but it might have been written to any purpose. Beckett’s Irish bulls are worth adverting to, I suppose, but they don’t exemplify Ricks’s theme. There is nothing especially mortal or mortuary about them. One of the best known, if not the best, is in Endgame, Hamm’s ‘The bastard! He doesn’t exist!’ Another one, from Murphy, is Ticklepenny’s ‘Do not come down the ladder, they have taken it away.’ But some of the bulls Ricks leads forth from Beckett don’t deserve the name, though for other reasons they earn the rosette he awards them. As in Murphy: ‘He closed his eyes and fell back. It was not his habit to make out cases for himself. An atheist chipping the deity was not more senseless than Murphy defending his courses of inaction, as he did not require to be told.’

‘Courses of inaction’ is wonderful, but since it’s not something Murphy said, it’s not an Irish bull. I think it belongs to narrative irony. Whether this is so or not, Ricks’s comment is lively: ‘Rounding aggressively on a putative censurer, this is a new lease of lifelessness.’

Ricks not only thinks Beckett a great writer; he is prepared to say when he became one: when he ‘ceased so single-mindedly to use the word death as pejorative – and life as meliorative’. Beckett ‘needed to incarnate a different relation of life to death within his very language’. Ricks’s criterion is wit, as Eliot describes it in his essay on Marvell. Ricks says:

Whether Beckett’s French is as apt an instrument as his English, or rather his Irish English, and whether this would be because of something about Beckett or about French: these are less important than our enjoying his bilingual myriad-mindedness as evincing a true wit, wit as T.S. Eliot understood it: ‘It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.’

Ricks quotes Eliot again to help him say what the relation of literature to other values is, such that in calling Beckett a great writer he is making a particular claim, not a vague gesture of eulogy. In the first volume of the Criterion Eliot wrote: ‘It is the function of a literary review to maintain the autonomy and disinterestedness of literature, and at the same time to exhibit the relations of literature – not to “life”, as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life.’ To these true sentences, Ricks adds his own: ‘Among the components of life is death. Together with language, and the relations of language both to life and to death. Words might then be valued, not as a hermetic system, something contrasted to life or to reality, but in their relations to all that is not words.’

The italic emphasis is wrung from Ricks by his indignation. He is appalled to find that Beckett – ‘how unforgettable his apprehension of suffering though not only of that’ – is supposed to underwrite the assumption that there is nothing but words; that language is a hermetic system; that there is no difference between the real and the imaginary; that the referential claims of language are a sham. Ricks quotes Frederik N. Smith:

The language of Beckett’s minimalist fiction can, by definition, cut away everything but language. And once language is accepted as relying not on external ‘reality’ for its significance but is understood rather as the source of its own meaning, the more poetic, more conventional use of it lends at least a linguistic significance to what is said.

On these ignorant and trivial sentences, Ricks comments:

It is wisely unfathomable what it could be to find language ‘the source of its own meaning’, but it can be understood all too clearly that the easy invoking of ‘at least a linguistic significance’ is merely the usual gesture, Meanwhile, reality – which is haled in as just another of those shams – is given the usual treatment, the infected hygiene, iatrogenic, of inverted commas: external ‘reality’.

And he ends the chapter with Beckett’s pained tribute to ‘the impregnable without’, and this heartbreaking passage from III Seen III Said:

Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then. If only all could be pure figment. Neither be nor been nor by any shift to be. Gently gently. On. Careful.

Or as the poorer French has it: ‘Si tout pouvait n’être qu’ombre. Ni être ni avoir été ni pouvoir être. Du calme. La suite. Attention.’ ‘Poorer’ because it lacks the second ‘gently’ and the recognition, in ‘by any shift’, of the forces in a life which shift themselves in their desire to be. Imagination, as Bachelard said, strives to have a future.

Ricks blames Deconstruction for the weightless and trivialising reading of Beckett he finds in Smith and many other critics, but Deconstruction is practice more than theory, it is a way of doing certain things with words. Mostly what it does is not weightless or trivial, it is an arduous exercise in rather old-fashioned scepticism. The adepts of Deconstruction in highest standing with the profession – Derrida, de Man, Hillis Miller – bring in gloomy reports on their reading, and the gloom is self-perpetuating, I agree, but I can’t see that a close reading of their books would find evidence of the glib levitation that Smith represents.

There is, too, an ideological question. Critics who attack Eliot, Joyce, Yeats and Pound for the alleged pretentiousness with which they took on the burdens of history and cultural renewal – Leo Bersani’s The Culture of Redemption is an example of this attack – profess to find the masterpieces of Modernism rotten with humanism. Bersani’s essay on Ulysses is a case much in point: he denounces Joyce for maintaining ‘a conservative ideology of the self’ – all those characters we are meant to know and care about, Leopold Bloom, Molly, Stephen, Gertie MacDowell. Joyce being a badly lost cause, Bersani resorts to Beckett as true Post-Modern writer. He claims that Beckett shows the self not cohered among its attributes but dissociated, dismembered. I don’t find Bersani’s argument at all persuasive, but I think Ricks should have addressed it; having done so much, he might have done more. It is easy to deride Smith’s second-generation casuistries, but the real ground of the debate is political, not ontological or linguistic.

Librarians may find Rick’s book hard to catalogue. The Library of Congress has evidently decided to house it under 1. Beckett, Samuel, 1906-1989 – Criticism and interpretation and 2. Death in literature. That’s not bad, but the book is not as concentratedly about these topics as Ricks’s previous books were about Milton, Keats, Tennyson and Eliot. It might nearly as well be called Death’s Jest Book, in recognition of Ricks’s addiction to mortuary puns. He hasn’t dealt with Beckett’s works comprehensively or stuck to any of them long enough to perform the offices of criticism. Instead, he has picked details from here and there and worked them hard. Samples are enough, he appears to say. His method, as in The Force of Poetry, is the foray, his tone essayistic, wilful. Where another critic, reading a sentence, might pay most attention to its nouns and verbs, Ricks looks long at the conjunctions and prepositions, the bits of language that change slowly but quickly cause changes and inflections throughout.

Ricks’s masters in these transactions are Johnson and Empson. In method, his books are a series of footnotes, dashingly elaborated, to Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, but Ricks doesn’t go in for the personal and historical resonances to be heard in Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral, The Structure of Complex Words, and Milton’s God. He is not a theorist, being on record insistent that if we had decent principles we could honourably let theories alone. He thinks to establish sufficient truth not by appeal to ontology or epistemology but on the beseeching ground of a distinction between telling the truth and telling lies. In recent years and presumably on Johnson’s authority he has been expressing, perhaps too readily, adjurations and admonitions. He has got into the way of calling upon morality in anticipation of the need of it. So I think this book, apparently on Beckett, should have a further Library of Congress designation, viz: 3. Ricks, Christopher – Autobiography, Values, Prejudices, Principles.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences