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Hunter Dukes's article, “Beckett's Vessels and the Animation of Containers,” from the Journal of Modern Literature’s newest issue, is now available on JSTOR & Project MUSE. Below, Hunter elaborates on the meaning and function of containers of all kinds across Beckett’s writing.
For several years I had been pondering Beckett’s vessels. Those ashcans in Endgame. The strange blurring of bodies and urns in Play. What about Malone’s broken smoking pipe? He fashions a hat for it, as if it had a head. Once I began to go through the trouble (and toil) of collecting pots, bins, cauldrons, and decanters, I realized that a project was forming. Passing notes had amassed into patterns, a phalanx of tropes and maneuvers. Beckett’s prose and plays are full of containers. But what do they mean? And how do they function?
A hint came during a visit to the University of Reading’s Samuel Beckett Collection. I had been chatting with an archivist, trying to describe — with the dregs of a half-formed critical vocabulary — what exactly I was seeking.
“Oh,” she said, “we have just the thing.”
I assumed this meant some textual passage, a manuscript or letter penned in Beckett’s polygraphic scrawl.
Ten minutes later, she returned with just the thing: a brandy bottle. It was empty and possessed a wonderful shape usually reserved for chemistry labs. Resembling something between Bénédictine and a chestnut flask, it had rounded octagonal sides, which tapered from a wide base to an elegant lip. The label read:
aged and bottled in FRANCE
MESSRS GODET FRÈRES
I had been waiting for the Godet frères. The bottle had been given to Beckett by Ruby Cohn, one his early critical champions. The author later passed it on — with a few drams remaining — to his biographer James Knowlson, who donated it to the archive (after sniftering its remains).
I was struck by the communication facilitated by the vessel: the way a container could become a material trace of drinks shared together or apart, a loving cup passed among friends. I was also surprised, when trying to describe the object in prose, how the bottle’s morphology shared the vocabulary of human anatomy. The insweep or heel gives way to the body, which narrows into the shoulder, extending up through the neck, to the throat and lip.
Taking the train back to Cambridge, I felt as if the world might be best seen as a series of nested containers. I remembered a haunting line from Proust, about whiskey bearing a grudge against its decanter, used to describe how the mortal individual comes to resent the relative immortality of her environmental sphere. I thought about Malone, straddled between his porridge bowl and chamber pot, an intermediary vessel in the flow of food to waste. Our bodies can leak. When moved, we brim with feeling.
Further, I realized that related metaphors of containment are common in describing both embodiment and language. Words can be full or empty. Beckett’s strange letter to Axel Kaun — which describes drilling holes in language to see if something seeps through — equates semantics and fluid mechanics, assuming that meaning (like liquid) will behave according to the second law of thermodynamics. Seeing the cognac bottle gave me a glimpse of what I had been wanting, as if I had rubbed a magic lamp.
In “Beckett’s Vessels and the Animation of Containers,” I argue that Beckett uses his vessels as conceptual melting pots thanks to which continuities between the human and nonhuman can be tested. I draw upon historical descriptions of “Billy in the Bowl,” an eighteenth-century amputee who pulled himself about in an iron cauldron. This figure appears alongside communicating vessels — connected containers that maintain equilibrium — in The Unnamable, where objects and humans share porous borders. I consider Beckett’s relationship with psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, whose theory of the “container-contained” resembles Beckett’s own speculations on how the self exceeds the body. I end with a reading of Murphy, a novel obsessed with the fantasy of complete containment, which recalls Thomas Browne’s seventeenth-century essay on urn burial. Discussing the choice of cremation, he argues that humans fear having their skulls exhumed after burial, fashioned into drinking cups by unsavory individuals.
This article opens onto a larger project, for which further work needs to be done. I have been asking my students to consider how poems can contain Grecian urns, as well as how we think about literature as a receptacle for experience, a jar in Tennessee. When the teaching ends, I find myself continuing to encapsulate. Is there something to be said about the nightingale’s song, phonetically rendered as jug jug, which has framed amorous scenes for centuries? Could it relate to the lovers’ contained embrace, what Heidegger described as the jug’s potential for holding? Perhaps not — but the thoughts continue to stew.
Hunter Dukes is a Junior Research Fellow at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge.
More from the Journal of Modern Literature 40.4
“Sound as a Bell”: Samuel Beckett's Musical Destruction of Aristotelian Tragic Drama
Beckett, Proust, and the Darkroom
Samuel Beckett's Murphy, Work, and Astrology
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Beckett's Vessels and the Animation of Containers
“‘Tis my muse will have it so”: Four Dimensions of Scatology in Molloy
Andrew G. Christensen
Ritual, Code, and Matheme in Samuel Beckett's Quad
A Theater of the Nerves: Samuel Beckett's Non-Representational Art
The Edinburgh Companion to Samuel Beckett and the Arts by S.E. Gontarski
Review by Amanda Dennis
Confinement and Limits of the Human: Reviews of Undoing Time and Think, Pig!
Undoing Time: The Life and Work of Samuel Beckett by Jennifer Birkett
Think, Pig! Beckett at the Limit of the Human by Jean-Michel Rabaté
Review by H.L. Michelle Chiang
THEATRE OF IDEAS
Acts of Revision: Bernard Shaw, Noël Coward, and “Born Bosses”
Forestalled Efforts: A Review of Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life
Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life by John S. Bak
Review by: Gina Masucci MacKenzie
The Reality of Vagueness
Modernist Fiction and Vagueness: Philosophy, Form, and Language by Megan Quigley
Review by: Luke Mueller