Image of raised fists in the air

Beckett’s Permanent Revolution: A Closer Look at JML 46.3

By Cristinia Ionica, author of “‘For the Sake of Harmony’: Beckett’s Enactment of the Violence of Abstraction in The Lost Ones,” Journal of Modern Literature (JML) 46.3, available on Project MUSE, FREE for a limited time.

My first encounter with Beckett’s works was a performance of Waiting for Godot in Bucharest, Romania, in the decade after the 1989 revolution. Local theaters were avidly staging previously censored or banned plays, and my university friends and I wanted to see them all. After viewing Godot, I left the theatre in a state of shock and elation at what I perceived as the play’s evident and deeply satisfying jabs at the Ceausescu regime and the Securitate (communist Romania’s political police). Since I knew when the play had been written, I wondered if the translator (Surrealist writer Gellu Naum) or the director (Dominic Dembinski) had doctored the dialogue, but a quick look at an English version dispelled my suspicions.

The explanation I found, years later, for that haunting experience is not that Beckett’s texts are “universal” in some allegorical and totalizing sense but that they are diagrammatic (a concept borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari). That is, they create diagrams of the confinement, exploitation, and repression subroutines embedded into the functioning of socio-historical machines of various orientations, faithfully resonating with individual readers’ or spectators’ socio-historically contextualized and intimately experienced anguish and pain; they also forcibly foreground all the machinic “switches” that set repressive processes in motion, implicitly prompting their sabotage.

My view of Beckett is also deeply marked by my research into other experimental forms of writing and performance, from early-twentieth-century avant-garde texts, to more recent works by Kathy Acker or Suzan-Lori Parks and darkly humorous contemporary performances like the sketch comedy series Key and Peele or Natalie Wynn’s YouTube video essays. Still, it was that first encounter with Waiting for Godot in performance that started to generate “my” Beckett. Along the way, all the critical assessments in the world could not convince me that he embraced existentialism, that he wasn’t political, that his humor was tragic, that he valued pain as a means to transcendence, that he was a believer who struggled with his faith, and so on. I perceived Waiting for Godot, from the beginning, as an angry, anti-religious, anti-systemic, action-oriented, solidarity-building, and empowering text. Reading more of Beckett’s postwar plays and fiction has helped me develop that first impression into a critical argument.

Critchley describes Beckett’s humor as having an anti-depressant quality, and while I have strong reservations about his further claim that it is meant to redemptively reconcile us with the pain and finitude of existence, I agree that Beckett’s texts have major psychosomatic effects on readers and spectators. To be clear, in my view, Beckett’s texts do not reconcile us with either the pain of existence or of specific forms of personal/ historical trauma, and they decidedly reject acceptance or redemption. What they do instead is activate empowering forms of solidarity by using angry, action-oriented forms of laughter to trigger reassessments of all ossified cognitive frames that connect safety and happiness to sameness and obedience. Beckett’s radically progressive and prosocial angry laughter—of defiant solidarity with victims of oppression and injustice and full rejection of socio-historical justifications of oppression and pain—remains, in my reading, the dominant affect, even in many of Beckett’s darker later works.

It is from this perspective that my JML essay approaches Beckett’s The Lost Ones as an angry enactment and not a contained critical representation of socio-politically functional notions of “social cohesion” predicated on economic, racial, gender, and sexual considerations. In my view, the play foregrounds not just related attitudes and practices’ harmful nature but also their aggregate function, their interconnected machinic articulation, which allows them to wield crushing power yet also makes them vulnerable to generalized sabotage.

As my essay shows, the text’s long-winded explanations, conspicuously rich in self-satisfied, pedantic-to-malicious caveats, understatements, and repetitions, emanate unreliability, voyeurism, and cruelty in their falsely objective defense of practices evocative of real-life economic instrumentalizations of the human body, racially justified forms of mistreatment, and gender-based discrimination and violence. The Lost Ones provides, to conclude, not a meditative critique but an angry diagrammatic attack on the violence of abstraction. Given today’s increasing focus on intersectional approaches to social justice and increasing anti-corporate sentiment, such utterly corrosive Beckett texts are even more likely to trigger intense mobilizations of reader affect now than when they were originally written.

Works Cited

  • Critchley, Simon. On Humour. Routledge, 2002.
  • —. Very Little, Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature. Routledge, 2004.
  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. U of Minnesota P, 1983.
  • —. A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Cristina Ionica teaches English, theory, film, and communication courses at Fanshawe College and Western University (London, Ontario). Her book The Affects, Cognition, and Politics of Samuel Beckett’s Postwar Drama and Fiction: Revolutionary and Evolutionary Paradoxes appeared in the Palgrave series “Interpretations of Beckett in the Twenty-First Century.” She contributed research essays to the collection Modernism, Theory, and Responsible Reading: A Critical Conversation, edited by Stephen Ross, and to the journals English Studies in Canada, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Modern Language Studies, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Literature Interpretation Theory, and Horror Studies.

The Rise of the Human Rights photo courtesy of Adobe Stock Images.