‘A God-Haunted Man’ by Dr Anthony Barron

Beckett’s sustained engagement with Christianity prompts many intricate questions. His tendency to eschew metaphysical dogma by means of ironic distancing and irreverent quips might suggest that Christianity signified little more to him than a conceptual system that fails to accord due attention to the traumata that suffuse our quotidian experiences, yet a closer analysis reveals Beckett’s consummate appropriation of Christian narratives in his depiction of the abounding miseries of being. Beckett’s oeuvre coheres with Kierkegaard’s contention that a proper consideration of the implications of Christian faith amounts to a “crucifixion of the understanding.”[1] Some of the most poignant passages of Beckett’s writings portray fretful attempts by tormented characters to impose a theodical framework upon their woeful lives.

In this sense, Beckett’s fascination with Christianity can be considered in relation to its alluring attempts to contextualise the plaintive aspects of human experience. It was a “mythology with which [he was] perfectly familiar”[2] from early childhood, yet given its pervasive presence in his work, it is clear that he was particularly intrigued by those elements of Christianity which purportedly confront the baneful enigmas of human anguish. James Knowlson documents Beckett’s attendance at a sermon within which a minister, voicing his unease at the egregiously prevalent spectacle of human distress, proclaimed to the congregation that “the crucifixion was only the beginning. You must contribute to the kitty.”[3]Knowlson proceeds to describe Beckett’s horror at such a callous reduction of earthly suffering to an insipid doctrinal formula:

How, Beckett argued with himself, could one possibly justify pain and death as making a ‘contribution’ to anything? ‘The kitty’ was simply a senseless accumulation of pain. How then could pain and suffering have any moral value? And how cynical it seemed to him to regard such suffering as preparing one for an afterlife that would be all the better for the suffering that preceded it.[4]

Beckett’s meticulously nuanced engagement with Christianity was enriched by the penetrating lucidity with which he evaluated it upon its own terms. The pitiful determination of Beckett’s characters to comprehend their wretchedness is movingly dramatised in Not I (1973), where Mouth suspects that “she was being punished . . . for some sin or other . . . or for the lot . . . or no particular reason . . . for its own sake.”[5] In this sense, she tries, by means of futile cerebration, to render her execrable situation meaningful.

Mary Bryden states: “For someone to be deemed ‘loving’ and ‘merciful’, they must not just assume these qualities on occasion; they must incarnate them. This is the crucial test which the God-candidate fails within the Beckettian scenario.”[6] Bryden’s assertion is, as Watt might put it, anthropomorphically insolent, but it also fails to acknowledge the essentially contested concepts of love and mercy as understood from a Calvinist perspective. According to Calvin, “when we suffer but the one half, yea or the tenth part of which [Job] endured: shall we be excused if we murmur? Nay rather, have we not cause to thank God for regarding our infirmity when he punishes us but according to that which he sees us able to endure?”[7] Such statements may not appease those who can only believe in a God Who is subservient to human criteria of justice and merit, yet even if God’s role in Beckett’s art is seen to be that of an inscrutable tyrant, His ontological status remains unaffected.

Within Christendom, the eminence of theologians such as Calvin, who contend that suffering is itself a token of God’s clemency, has baffled many commentators. In his discussion of Calvinism, J. M. Roberts claims that “it is not easy to understand the success of this gloomy creed.”[8] The austerity of Calvin’s thought does not diminish its value as a forthright exploration of the dolorous nature of our lives. Given that hope is precariously linked to election, which is itself reserved for a minority of God’s creatures, whose lives are beset by the disquieting indeterminacy of their predestined fate, Calvin’s reputation as a purveyor of desolation seems eminently warranted. Wittgenstein observed nothing hopeful about Calvin’s magisterial exposition of the doctrine of predestination when he referred to it as “less a theory than a sigh, or a cry.”[9] While there is no evidence to suggest that Beckett was directly influenced by Calvin’s voluminous writings, thematic congruities between Beckett’s art and Calvin’s theology abound. According to Anthony Cronin, Beckett’s interest in the need for expiation, of course, relates to Beckett’s feeling that mere being was in itself an offence . . . No doubt his Low Church Irish Protestantism, so near to Calvinism, had something to do with this too. If you were not among the elect, being was an offence.[10]

Calvin insists that we must be gracious in our acceptance of the righteous chastisements to which God subjects us – even if we might foolishly deny our culpability for them – as it is “inconceivable by the human mind, that [God exercises] benevolence towards men whom he could not but hate.”[11] In Happy Days (1962) Winnie can dismiss her most grievous state through gratitude for the “many mercies” (CDW, 140) that are afforded her, unlike Mouth, whose chilling laugh at her early indoctrination into the ways of a “merciful” (CDW, 377) God bespeaks the harrowing reality of her existence.

Nietzsche, echoing the views of Archbishop Laud and many less esteemed Christians, refers to Calvin as a “persecutor of God.”[12] He accuses the reformer of an inordinate preoccupation with Paul’s teachings about the autocratic stringency of God’s rule. Nietzsche’s concern for God’s reputation might seem somewhat uncharacteristic, but his questioning of Calvin points to central issues within Beckett Studies. Those who adopt an approving position about the virtues of a meek and mild messiah, Who alleviates the plight of the oppressed, find stories such as the Genesis flood narrative and the destruction of the cities of the plain to be tastefully dispensable, because the massacres involved fail to approximate to human conceptions of fairness. In this sense, the attributes of God must be commensurable with anthropocentric estimations of merit. Critics who approach Beckett from this perspective can refer to the manifold cases of human anguish in his writings and show that they render the consolatory tenets of Christianity absurd. However, the suffering of humanity in no way invalidates Christian doctrine as understood from a Calvinist perspective. While some intriguing parallels exist between Beckett’s works and the apophatic traditions of Christianity, the figure of God, as conceived within Calvinism, has an all too salient presence within the more tenebrous regions of the Beckettian universe.

Beckett’s art evinces its tragi-comic splendour in its persistent employment of theological contexts. When, in All That Fall(1957), the Rooneys unite in “wild laughter” (CDW, 198) in their musings upon the inspiriting words “‘The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down'” (CDW, 198), they prefigure Mouth’s tortured reflections upon the risibly asinine concept of a beneficent God in Not I. Yet, elsewhere in Beckett’s work, we are apt to discern a sententious discrepancy between the dreadful states that his characters endure and the possibility of divine intervention. In Come and Go (1967), the recurring theme of God’s capacity to assuage the cryptic ailments of Vi, Ru and Flo, is revealed in their doleful supplications: “God grant not . . . God forbid . . . Please God not” (CDW, 354-5). Such pleas seem grievously vain, yet they exemplify Beckett’s disconsolate vision of the ineluctable ubiquity of affliction.

In Calvin’s theology our propensity to inveigh against the righteous punishments to which God subjects us is symptomatic of our blasphemous ingratitude. For Dante, to question God’s motives is simply futile: “Where will and power are one”[13] we must submit to the inscrutable predilections of divine justice. Beckett’s employment of Christianity remains eerily faithful to those readings which emphasise the congenital wretchedness of human existence. In Mercier and Camier (1974) we note a clear alignment between God’s despotic rule and the tribulations of Mercier:

This was the moment chosen by the rain, acting on behalf of the universal malignity, to come down in buckets . . . lifting to the sky his convulsed and streaming face, he said, As for thee, fuck thee . . . Is it our little omniomni you are trying to abuse? said Camier. You should know better. It’s he on the contrary fucks thee. Omniomni, the all-unfuckable.[14]

Later, in the same novel, God’s malevolent influence is seen to have prevailed over such rebellious creatures: “What have we done to God? he [Mercier] said. Denied him, said Camier. Don’t tell me he is all that rancorous, said Mercier.”[15]Beckett’s works reveal the labyrinthine complexity of his theological standpoint, wherein the sufferings endured by his literary personages oppose simplistic reverence for God’s omniscience, while being knowingly victimised by it. Their experience of pain serves to imbue their reflections with a multitude of unanswerable questions, thereby exacerbating their misery. As Malone reminds us, “God does not seem to need reasons for doing what he does, and for omitting to do what he omits to do, to the same degree as his creatures, does he?”[16] God’s immunity to such necessities taunts creatures whose desolate lives inspire insatiable yearnings for unequivocal comprehension.

While Beckett’s characters crave for epistemic solace, Calvin discourages us from probing the numinous mysteries of God’s volitional tendencies. The apparent arbitrariness of God’s will is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the concept of divine election. According to Calvin,

Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. No restraints can hold it back from wandering in forbidden bypaths and thrusting upward to the heights. If allowed, it will leave no secret to God that it will not search out and unravel.[17]

Beckett’s characters are frequently impelled to query the basis of their afflictions. In ‘Texts for Nothing 8’ the narrator asks: “whom can I have offended so grievously, to be punished in this inexplicable way, all is inexplicable, space and time, false and inexplicable, suffering and tears, and even the old convulsive cry.”[18] While Calvin dissuades us from prying into the unfathomable underpinnings of God’s discriminatory motives, he exhorts us to take refuge in the message of Christ’s redeeming work, whereas the Christological elements in Beckett’s art merely accentuate his depictions of misery. Malone describes the woeful appearance of Moll as follows:

The thin yellow arms contorted by some kind of bone deformation, the lips so broad and thick that they seemed to devour half the face, were at first sight her most revolting features. She wore by way of ear-rings two long ivory crucifixes which swayed wildly at the least movement of her head.[19]

By placing Beckett in an oppositional dialogue with Christianity, critics tend to ignore the polysemic implications of concepts such as love and mercy which are foundational elements of that religion. Winnie can extol the “Holy light” (CDW, 160) which will radiate with infernal intensity in Happy Days, just as Mouth can solemnly declare “God is love” (CDW, 381), thereby entertaining a tenuous hope that she is simply being “purged” (CDW, 381). It is tempting to simply point out the incongruities that subsist between the anguish of such characters and their risible beliefs in a purportedly benevolent power that presides over their wretchedness, but the principles of logic which would lead to such inferences are themselves a dubious source of comfort in Beckett’s art. In his interview with Tom Driver, Beckett admitted that his plays pertain to similar facets of experience as religion, as both “deal with distress.”[20] Critics such as Birgitta Johansson underscore the consolatory elements of Christ’s role in Beckett’s work where “Christ’s sufferings remind us of our own predicaments, but they also comfort.”[21] The textual evidence for such a statement is minimal. While Christ’s ordeals are alluded to throughout Beckett’s writings, the stricken denizens of his literary worlds are impervious to the systematic succour that Christological themes ordinarily afford. Nevertheless, Christ, as a victim of unspeakable miseries is, in a Beckettian sense, a supreme yet perturbing archetype of humanity.

In Calvinist parlance it would be wrong to classify Beckett’s characters as being a motley assortment of reprobates. Misprisions of Calvin’s thought engender the assumption that the elect are destined to flourish in this world. A closer reading of Calvin’s work reveals that the lives of the chosen ones are fraught with struggle: “Whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life.”[22]Beckett’s insistence upon contextualising the troublesome lives of his characters within orthodox terms of Christian discourse epitomises a disjunction between the consoling, depersonalised clichés of religion and the disturbingly immanent problems of being. Beckett endeavoured to find a form which can accommodate the “mess” of human existence. He acknowledged that the “mess” must be observed, but it cannot be understood – “It is not a mess you can make sense of.”[23] His authorial procedures exemplify this insight in their steadfast defiance of exegetical closure.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Volume I, tr. Howard and Edna V. Hong (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 564.

[2] Quoted in Colin Duckworth, Angels of Darkness (London: Allen and Unwin, 1972), p. 18.

[3] Quoted in James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 67.

[4] Ibid., pp. 67-8.

[5] Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p. 377. Hereafter cited parenthetically as (CDW) with internal references to page numbers.

[6] Mary Bryden, Samuel Beckett and the Idea of God (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1998), p. 127.

[7] John Calvin, Sermons on Job, tr. Arthur Golding (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), p. 38.

[8] J. M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad, The History of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 581.

[9] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, tr. Peter Winch (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), pp. 34-5.

[10] Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996), p. 376.

[11] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Volume II, tr. William Pringle (Michigan: Baker Books, 2005), p. 186.

[12] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow in Walter Kaufmann (ed.), The Portable Nietzsche, tr. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Viking Press, 1959), p. 68.

[13] Henry Francis Cary (tr.), The Vision of Dante or Hell, Purgatory and Paradise (London: Oxford University Press, 1910), p. 10.

[14] Samuel Beckett, Mercier and Camier (London: Calder Publications, 1974), p. 26.

[15] Ibid. p. 75

[16] Samuel Beckett, Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (London Calder Publications, 1959), p. 246.

[17] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume II, tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 922.

[18] Samuel Beckett, ‘Texts for Nothing 8’ in S. E. Gontarski (ed.), Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, (New York: Grove Press, 1997), p. 133.

[19] Beckett, Trilogy, p. 258.

[20] Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman (eds.), Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1979), p. 221.

[21] Birgitta Johansson, ‘Beckett and the Apophatic in Selected Shorter Texts’ in Samuel Beckett Today / Samuel Beckett Aujourdhui, 9 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), p. 63.

[22] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume I, tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 792.

[23] Graver and Federman (eds.), Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, pp. 218-9.

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