Monday, December 20, 2010

Reflections on Adorno on Beckett

One of the benefits of moving to Dublin from Portsmouth, where I lived and worked for nearly forty years, is the accessibility of top class theatre. Since my arrival in August I have seen productions of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (at the Abbey), Miller’s Death of a Salesman (at The Gate), Euripides’ Medea (at The Samuel Beckett), Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (at Bewley’s), Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkmann ( at The Abbey) and two Samuel Beckett’s, Endgame (at The Gate) and Happy Days (at The Project Arts Centre). Seeing the Becketts led me, on the recommendation of a friend, to read T.W. Adorno’s essay ‘Trying to Understand Endgame’ New German Critique, No. 26, Critical Theory and Modernity (Spring - Summer,1982), pp. 119-150.

Adorno’s merit in my eyes is that he defended Beckett (and Joyce and modernism) against Lukacs’ fundamentally conservative condemnation. Nevertheless I found myself in serious disagreement with his interpretation of, and response to, Endgame.

Adorno was plunged into deep melancholy despair by what Victor Serge called the ‘midnight in the century’ i.e. the twin triumphs of Hitler and Stalin, combined, in Adorno’s case, with his view of the twentieth century culture industry as a system of totalitarian control and domination which more or less excluded the possibility of significant resistance. It is tempting to describe Adorno’s attitude as an extreme pessimism, but its main characteristic is not so much gloominess about the future prospects of humanity as a determined negativity about the present, a refusal to countenance the existence of positive developments either in the present system or in rebellion against it. In 1947 he wrote:

'In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.'
Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso ed. London 1979 p.3.

Adorno focused much of his miserabilism on the holocaust; witness his famous declaration that ‘there can be no lyric poetry after Auschwitz’. This particular claim has of course been refuted in practice many times over but I also think his general gloom was, though understandable, unjustified, not because the most terrible disasters had not occurred or because the most terrible crimes had not been committed (Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Russian Front, Hiroshima and Nagasaki etc. etc,) but because the situation was still contradictory. The Nazis had been defeated; there had been the resistance movements in Italy, France, Greece, the Balkans, and elsewhere in Europe; India was gaining its independence; China was on the road to revolution, and so on.

In my opinion the roots of Adorno’s negativism lay not so much in the horrors of the holocaust as in his isolated elitism which cut him off, and made him unable to see or respond to any positive developments or initiatives, cultural or political, coming up from below. Adorno was a ‘Marxist’ of sorts, but at no point in his life did he have any engagement with the workers’ movement, or flesh and blood workers in struggle [unlike Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci, etc]. When he encountered revolting students in his Institute in the sixties he called the police. On the cultural front his elitist tunnel vision was epitomised by his notorious denunciation of jazz. In Adorno’s defence it is sometimes claimed that he was using ‘jazz’ as a general term for what today would be called ‘pop music’ but what is to be said of someone who pronounces general anathemas on contemporary music as though Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bessie Smith, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk etc did not exist. He claimed that

...culture now impresses the same stamp on everything. Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part. Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system.

But were Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly really the same as Al Jolson,Stepin Fetchit and Fred Astaire?

In any event, Adorno evidently believed that in Samuel Beckett he had found a kindred spirit. And here is the root of my disagreement. This was not at all my concrete response to the two productions I have just seen, which I found positively inspiring and in a strange but real way uplifting1. Nor is it my considered reading of Beckett as a whole. Beckett is not about surrendering to pessimism and negativity but looking into the abyss and defying it. In this respect Beckett stands in the tradition of the Shakespeare of King Lear, of Rembrandt’s last self portraits and Goya’s Black paintings. Consider three of Beckett’s endings. The Unnamable ends as follows

Perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.

Waiting for Godot ends:

ESTRAGON: Well? Shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Pull on your trousers
VLADIMIR: Pull on your trousers
ESTRAGON: You want me to pull off my trousers?
VLADIMIR: Pull ON your trousers
ESTRAGON: (realising his trousers are down). True
He pulls up his trousers
VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.

And then the behaviour of Clov at the end of Endgame which has to be described rather than quoted. After their long tense (and oppressive) relationship Hamm tells Clov he doesn’t need him any more and Clov replies ‘I’ll leave you’. Clov exits and returns ‘Enter Clov, dressed for the road. Panama hat, tweed coat, raincoat over his arm, umbrella, bag. He halts by the door and stands there, impassive and motionless, his eyes fixed on Hamm, till the end.’ Will Clov leave or remain? It is left an open question.

Three endings, three Beckettian variations on Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be?’ question. One ultimately affirmative answer ‘I’ll go on’, and two where the question is batted to the audience to answer for itself. This is challenging, but it is not despair or nihilism.

In contrasting Beckett’s attitude and stance to Adorno’s (and to others who attribute nihilism to him) it is worth noting that during the war Beckett joined the French Resistance and did important and dangerous work as a courier and translator until his unit was betrayed to the Gestapo by a double agent, whereupon he and his partner had to flee (on foot, hiding in barns etc) to a village in unoccupied France where he continued to aid the Maquis in the mountains. For this he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance by the French Government. He thus engaged in more important, more serious and certainly more dangerous practical anti-fascist work than Adorno or the rest of the Frankfurt School put together.

Adorno’s projection of his own attitude onto Beckett results in a number of evidently false claims and misreading. For example he writes:

The condition presented in the play [Endgame] is nothing other than that in which "there's no more nature." Indistinguishable is the phase of completed reification of the world, which leaves no remainder of what was not made by humans; it is permanent catastrophe, along with a catastrophic event caused by humans themselves, in which nature has been extinguished and nothing grows any longer.

This sounds impressive - ‘completed reification of the world’ – but the moment it is actually thought about is clearly an exaggeration to the point of being definitely untrue. A world in which there is no remainder of what was not made by humans, in which there is no more nature, is manifestly impossible, and impossible to present in a play. Even if there were the most destructive imaginable nuclear war (and it is possible to think of Endgame as being set in such a world, with Hamm and Clov as the last survivors), the one thing that would not be abolished is ‘nature’, just as the one thing climate change does NOT threaten is the survival of the planet. Having written these lines I then realised that in the play Hamm calls it an exaggeration too.

HAMM: Nature has forgotten us
CLOV: There's no more nature
HAMM: No more nature! You exaggerate.
CLOV: in the vicinity
HAMM: But we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!
CLOV: Then she hasn't forgotten us
HAMM: But you say there is none
CLOV : (sadly) No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as we.

Adorno says:

Hope creeps out of a world in which it is no more conserved than pap and pralines, and back where it came from, back into death. From it, the play derives its only consolation, a stoic one:

CLOV: There are so many terrible things now.
HAMM: No, no, there are not so many now.

But think for a moment about the state of the world when Endgame was written (it was first performed 3 April 1957): the statements by both Clov and Hamm were quite literally true. On the one hand there were ‘so many terrible things’ – the possibility of nuclear war, starvation in the Third World , the crushing in blood of the Hungarian Revolution, Suez, the war in Algeria and so on. On the other hand ‘there were not so many now’ compared to the recent past – the Second World War was over, the Nazis had been defeated, France was no longer occupied, the standard of living of working class people in Europe was rising etc. Why does Clov and Hamm’s realistic assessment of the situation signify hope creeping out of the world and back into death?

Particularly striking is the difficulty Adorno gets into over humour. Beckett is funny, very funny. Adorno who is never funny, appears not to approve of humour. He writes:

Humour itself has become foolish, ridiculous - who could still laugh at basic comic texts like Don Quixote or Gargantua - and Beckett carries out the verdict on humour. The jokes of the damaged people are themselves damaged. They no longer reach anybody


Psychoanalysis explains clownish humour as a regression back to a primordial ontogenetic level, and Beckett's regressive play descends to that level. But the laughter it inspires ought to suffocate the laughter. That is what happened to humour, after it became - as an aesthetic medium - obsolete, repulsive, devoid of any canon of what can be laughed at; without any place for reconciliation, where one could laugh; without anything between heaven and earth harmless enough to be laughed at.

Again one has to say this simply isn’t true. Humour has not become aesthetically obsolete and repulsive. I don’t know about Gargantua but it is clearly possible to laugh at/with Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Joyce, Chaplin, Keating, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Bill Hicks and The Producers, to offer a fairly random list. And things don’t have to be harmless to be laughed as most of those examples from the Fool in Lear down to Mel Brooks demonstrate. And the laughter inspired by Beckett doesn’t suffocate the laughter.

When, at the start of Happy Days, Winnie waking, buried up to her waste in a pit of sand, proclaims ‘Another heavenly day!’ it is wonderfully funny. It is obviously ironically funny because she is half buried in sand, but, at the same time, it is happily funny because there are still ‘heavenly days’ (with bright sunshine, blue skies etc) and this may well be going to be one. This capacity to write lines that are true in two opposite senses simultaneously, is as Stephen Spender has observed2, a key feature of Beckett’s art, and to grasp only the negative, bitter side and never the affirmative side, which is what Adorno does, is to misread him.

When Hamm at the start of Endgame asks ‘Can there be misery - loftier than mine?’ it is very funny. He could be parodying Adorno, who specialised in lofty misery. And, after all, what about the trousers?
Adorno is also wide of the mark when he attributes ‘meaninglessness’ and ‘incomprehensibility’ to Endgame.
The interpretation of Endgame therefore cannot chase the chimera of expressing its meaning with the help of philosophical mediation. Understanding it can mean nothing other than understanding its incomprehensibility, or concretely reconstructing its meaning structure - that it has none.
Adorno claims textual support:
Not meaning anything becomes the only meaning. The mortal fear of the
dramatic figures, if not of the parodied drama itself, is the distortedly comical fear that they could mean something or other:

HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something?
CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!

But again Adorno is misreading. There is no ‘mortal’ fear here, nor is it ‘distortedly comical’. It’s a joke and the joke is funny for the same reason ‘Another heavenly day!’ is funny: it contains the possibility of opposite meanings, resigned irony (not fear) and positive affirmation or the glimmer of hope of positive affirmation.

The meaning of meaninglessness is a philosophical conundrum and the notion of the interpretation of the meaning of any work art, especially a great one, is highly problematic. I will not explore either question here except to say that any ‘interpretation’, however accurate, is almost certain to be ‘less’ than the art work itself i.e. to express only some of the work’s ‘meaning’ , which really is the work as a whole, and to express it less well (less precisely, less powerfully etc.) Nevertheless I want to say that Endgame, and this goes for Beckett as a whole, is neither incomprehensible nor meaningless. On the contrary it is not difficult to follow, the language is simple and packed with meaning, or rather multiple meanings, and as for the play as a whole some, not all, of its meaning can be grasped and expressed fairly straightforwardly.

Endgame (and Beckett’s work as a whole) is a study in and of alienation. The most profound diagnosis of alienation was made by Marx 166 years ago in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Marx’s analysis, expressed as briefly as possible, was that capitalism was based on the alienated labour of working people. The alienation of labour was so significant because it is through labour that the human race created itself and continues to create itself. As a result of the alienation of labour people come to be dominated by the products of their own work which form a hostile world standing over and against them. They also become estranged from themselves, their own essential human nature (as creative makers), from other people (because labour is social labour and mediates the relationship between people), and from nature (because labour is the mediation between human’s and nature.)

Endgame is an exploration of the human condition in this alien world. I do not mean by this that Beckett had read or was influenced by Marx (I don’t know if he was or not) but he experienced alienation and its effects – we all do. The threat of nuclear war, which haunted the imagination of both the general public and many artists in this period, was (and is) an extreme manifestation of alienation, of the human race being threatened with annihilation by the products of its own hands and brains. Endgame at least alludes to such a catastrophe, at least hints that it may have happened: the empty corpsed world seen through the telescope, the seeds that will never sprout.

Alienated labour cripples us physically and spiritually, reduces us as human beings, as Hamm and Clov, Nagg and Nell are crippled and reduced. Alienation distorts all human relations including the most intimate; it separates us from our fellows and sets us against each other. The relationships presented in Endgame between Hamm and Clov, as master and servant, and Nagg and Nell, are clinical dissections of alienated relations. Think of Nell and Nagg in their bins trying to kiss each other but unable to reach.

But plumbing the depths of alienation and laying them bare, as Beckett does and Marx did, does not at all signify surrender or hopelessness. Indeed presenting them to the world in a work of art is in a sense already an act of resistance. And it matters that buried within Endgame are two tragic love stories. When Nell first emerges from her bin her first words to Nagg are ‘What is it, my pet? (Pause) Time for love?’ and a subterranean elegiac note of memory of their past love, in the Ardennes, at Lake Como, permeates their exchanges. Early in the play there is this dialogue between Hamm and Clov:

HAMM:... Why do you stay with me?
CLOV: Why do you keep me?
HAMM: There's no one else
CLOV: There's nowhere else
HAMM: You're leaving me all the same
CLOV: I'm trying
HAMM: You don't love me
HAMM: You loved me once
CLOV: Once!
HAMM: I've made you suffer too much?
CLOV: It's not that?
HAMM (shocked) I haven't made you suffer too much?
CLOV: Yes!
HAMM (relieved) Ah you gave me a fright! (Pause.Coldly) Forgive me. (Pause. Louder.) I said,
Forgive me.

Then at the end, when Clov is on the point of leaving, Hamm asks him to say something before he goes, ‘ A few words ... from your heart’ and, amazingly, Clov responds:

They said to me, That's love, yes, yes, not a doubt ...

It is because I believe that this affirmation of resistance (‘I’ll go on’) and affirmation of humanity, in spite of everything, is as much integral to Beckett as all the well justified bleakness, that I disagree so strongly with Adorno.

1'After seeing Happy Days I watched the audience leaving the auditorium and was struck by how many were smiling.
2‘Samuel Beckett's theme is the very Irish one in this century: the identity of opposites [my emphasis –JM], a theme with which Yeats made so much play in his idea of the "Antinomes," and which is implicit in Joyce, where the subjective view of the world merges into its opposites, the objective and universal.’ Stephen Spender, ‘Lifelong Suffocation’, New York Times , 1958,
Spender calls this an Irish theme but of course ‘the identity of opposites’ is a key idea in the Hegelian, and Marxist, dialectic, discussed, incidentally, by Lenin who preferred the term ‘unity of opposites’.

John Molyneux
10 December 2010