This is a piece by Samuel Beckett from 1946, after the war. During the war he’d done some work for the French Resistance with all the risk that entailed. He stayed in occupied France with his girlfriend for the duration. It was after the war that Beckett’s writing changed. He began writing in French, that’s one thing, it’s significant and cannot be overlooked. But in the main the big change was thematic. He developed the art of negation. Where his mentor Joyce made knowledge the raison d’être of his work, Beckett undertook the opposite. His characters would be confused, lost, ignorant, but not willfully so. They saw their lot and were resigned to it. Others were around but they couldn’t know them, nor did they know themselves. If they hadn’t tongues and breath they would not speak. They would function as designed, as we say in the software industry.
Joyce died during the war, Beckett didn’t hear about it til after. Probably he felt in some measure free, now that Joyce had taken his shadow with him. It was one of dozens of millions that would never be cast again. The ideals of humanity were a failure, they were tainted and would not recover their sheen. Beckett saw this. Life under war had been his. But seeing the decline of his mother in 1945, this 12 years after his father died, brought an epiphany. He saw how to do a career’s worth of work, what would become the art of negation.
Over the years he’d produced a good bit but much of the time he’d been blocked, the sea inside him held back by man-made walls. After the epiphany his Holland dike was rumble. His great trilogy of novels were underway, and Waiting for Godot would soon follow. In this time he also penned a series of stories, monologues really, that would be collected under the title Stories and Texts for Nothing.
One of these is The Expelled. It’s brilliant, and I’ve typed its start below. It’s a fine example of Beckett’s technique. He begins with something common, a little mental game we’ve all played, counting our steps as we walk. But the narrator finds in this an existential paralysis, for where do you start the count and where does it end, and is each thing counted equally, stairs, sidewalk, the lot? What starts mindless quickly devolves. Then Beckett presents a turn. This counting bit was nothing, really. The narrator was using it as a distraction. There is something on his mind. Something has happened, we’re not told when, or what. It was big and the narrator doesn’t want to think about it.
But there’s a problem. By consciously not thinking about it, it automatically comes to mind. We can’t have a thought of a thing telling us not to have that particular thought. We can’t get away from it that way. We must be aware of what it is we don’t want to be aware of. We’re stuck on a loop.
There’s a solution, if we negate the problem. Instead of trying to block it out, let it in. And once in, dwell on it. That makes it commonplace. It’s no longer so big. It’s like the tree we see outside work every day, or the yield sign on the highway ramp, or our own car. It’s there so much we hardly notice it.
And the last sentence is a kick to the side of the head we don’t see coming, and it comes in the form of a cartoon banana peel. Wonderful.
“There were not many steps. I had counted them a thousand times, both going up and coming down, but the figure has gone from my mind. I have never known whether you should say one with your foot on the sidewalk, two with the following foot on the first step, and so on, or whether the sidewalk shouldn’t count. At the top of the steps I fell foul of the same dilemma. In the other direction, I mean from top to bottom, it was the same, the word is not too strong. I did not know where to begin nor where to end, that’s the truth of the matter. I arrived therefore at three totally different figures, without ever knowing which of them was right. And when I say that the figure has gone from my mind, I mean that none of the three figures is with me any more, in my mind. It is true that if I were to find, in my mind, where it is certainly to be found, one of these figures, I would find it and it alone, without being able to deduce from it the other two. And even were I to recover two, I would not know the third. No, I would have to find all three, in my mind, in order to know all three. Memories are killing. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little. That is to say, you must think of them a good while, every day several times a day, until they sink forever in the mud. That’s an order.”
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