Thursday, 7 April 2016

A Report From Hell: Understanding Samuel Beckett's Agony

He comes close to mystics but doesn’t go all the way with them.
Beckett is considered by some as the greatest writer of the twentieth century. Those who know what the hell has been modernity and especially the twentieth century and have read or watched Beckett’s work will largely agree. His work is set in hell or purgatory because he sees  them everywhere. Do you know of any person who is really happy, at home, without revenge or malice or complaint and not speaking ill of someone? Do you know anyone who can confidently say his life has been live well or he has found meaning in it? Who isn’t a creature of habit? Who doesn’t wait aimlessly and distract himself by gossiping or playing absurd games or meaningless chatting on social networks? Who has found unalloyed love that heals all wounds? Beckett describes  man’s failure, especially modern man’s failure who has lost faith in God. Anyway do you know anyone who truly believes today? Belief in manifested by virtues of acceptance, detachment, patience etc. and we find them largely absent in us.
      How many people you can absolutely trust?  Who can say or about whom one can say that he knows himself, that he knows his Master, that he knows the other as God? If we find mostly disappointing answers to these questions, we can appreciate agony and pain of Beckett. Beckett also focuses on terminally ill – old, crippled, worthless people whom life teaches humility. (Eventually almost all of us become humble as we advance in age, experience and wisdom and see “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”). We will discuss his therapy of laughter and his statement “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” some other day and today we focus on his vacillation and self doubt and his struggle to be a mystic – I will not say his failure as a mystic. It is modern man’s failure that he portrays and we all know we struggle and keep limping in the great odyssey that life is and its meaning and glory largely escapes us doubting, timid creatures of habit and slaves of passion and ego.
      Beckett explicates Buddha’s Fire sermon in all his work. To quote from it:
  • Everything is burning. How is everything burning? The eye is burning. The ear is burning. The nose is burning. The tongue is burning. The body is burning. Thought is burning. The mental impressions, made by what the senses perceive, are burning. And the sensations produced by these mental impressions, whether they are pleasant or painful, are burning.”
He deconstructs all the idols modern man has constructed to escape despair and smuggle happiness outside God. He called himself an artist of failure. He has referred to himself in specifically Nietzschean and mystical terms as “non-knower” and “non-can-er.” His art, like much of twentieth century art, is a crude and quite inadequate approximation of traditional religious or mystical ideal. He remains tied to a nihilistic vision and that blocks his way to see further into the treasures that are bestowed to those who transcend their limited self. Beckett does the purification work quite excellently but ends in no land of bliss but a sort of neutrality that though freed from the worry that characterizes ego-centred man but has not that bliss of Brahman which exceeds all things that Beckett could imagine as giving us joy.
      The greatness of Beckettt’s thought from the Eastern perspective is that this vision of evil and destruction represents not so much the conclusion (Buddha has painted similar picture) of his argument, as its starting point. Beckett gives the evidence, and his people cry out against God (though Buddha and mystics would not do this) — yet ultimately they refuse to accept the evidence that they themselves have provided, and their indictment turns out to be an appeal to a different kind of God altogether, and with that, a different kind of death, a different kind of reality, a different kind of meaning.
      Beckett quite rightly, speaking from the traditional Eastern perspective, saw the limitations of traditional religious (theistic) thesis especially as understood  by popular theology (ulamai zahir) that posits God rather than the Godhead as the Ultimate Reality or First Principle. But he doesn’t take leave of religion to opt for materialism. He opts for certain appropriation (inadequate in many respects) of mysticism. All his people in a sense are mystics as Coe points out. They are all aware of a force at work within them and about them, a force which goads them onwards towards ends which they themselves would not have envisaged, yet which can neither be analyzed nor rationally explained, which completely eludes the net of words or the realm of the known or thought (discursive intellect). They all describe God negatively which is familiar to the East in the tradition of the negative divine as Stace phrases it in his Time and Eternity.  This is Sufi’s deconstructive way of fana (Beckett describes inevitability of encountering fana but baqa is generally missing in his worldview). Beckett’s (anti) heroes possess a strong feeling of being caught up in a pattern of salvation and damnation, of sin and redemption, of guilt and punishment, although their ignorance of or their not taking cognizance of eastern ideas of karma and fate makes all these things incomprehensible or irrational and thus unaccounted for and finally not of much use ultimately. It is not clear to them why God is blasting them as Celia complains or whether the punishment of life  is brought about as the necessary consequence of some sin committed previously (such as that of being born as Vladimir suggests) or whether the laws of cause and effect in this case may not work backwards. “All here is sin” says The Unnameable. “You don’t know why, you don’t know whose, you don’t know against whom, someone says to you…” Macmann also doesn’t know what his sin was although he felt full well living was not sufficient atonement for it or that this atonement was itself a sin, calling for more atonement, and so on. Beckett’s people all realize that they can never hope to “understand” God, His purpose, still less His lack of purpose (“God” says Malone, “does not seem to need reasons for what he does, and for omitting to do what he omits to do, to the same degree as his creatures, does he?” until they have understood something of themselves, as Coe notes). And this knowledge of the self ( What is God other than the deepest self of man) though absorbing most of their energies is indeed denied to them or given them only very fragmentarily as otherwise all these questions would have been “answered.”
      Beckett tries answers that popular preachers of exoteric or literalist or “scientific” religion give and finds them wanting. He comes close to mystics but doesn’t go all the way with them. He keeps doubting but occasionally seems to smells eternity or heaven though cautions us regarding dangers or delusions on the Way.
      Final words I give to Indian mystic Ram Tirtha (whom Iqbal readers know) that show the difference between liberated mystics and struggling heroes. Ram Thirtha declared that red rays of the sun were his muscles. When anything came across his eyes, he robed it in God and then saw that there was nothing else but God. He thus addresses winds: “Blow, O breezes, mingle O winds, with these words whose purpose is the same as yours./  O laughter! laugher!/    I inextinguishable joy and laughter.

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