Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Who pisses in Beckett?

A reliable pleasure at this time of the year is the publication, in the  London Review of Books, of Alan Bennett's diaryIn the entry for 15th February 2015 he writes:

Another topic concerning me at the moment is Beckett’s sanitisation of old age about which, knowing so little of Beckett, I may be hopelessly wrong. But Beckett’s old age is dry, musty, desiccated. Do Beckett’s characters even smell their fingers? Who pisses?

Who's pisses? In Beckett? Everyone, and all the time. There's Vladimir in Waiting for Godot for a start. 

VLADIMIR: One is not master of one's moods. All day I've felt in great form. (Pause.) I didn't get up in the night, not once!

ESTRAGON: (sadly). You see, you piss better when I'm not there.

Bennett (to my surprise) claims to know little of Beckett's work, so here are some examples from an oeuvre admirably awash with piss and shit, actual and metaphorical.

Item: Nagg and Nell, Hamm's parents in Endgame, live in separate dustbins. Part Henry and Minnie Crun, part Struldbrug, they are the barely-living incarnation of the gifts reserved for age (in Eliot's deathless line) - toothless, almost blind, deaf and afflicted with memory. Hygiene arrangements are basic:

NAGG: Has he changed your sawdust?
NELL: It isn't sawdust. (Pause. Warily.) Can you not be a little accurate, Nagg?
NAGG: Your sand then. It's not important.
NELL: It is important.

Item:  In the novel Watt Lady McCann recalls "the old story of her girlhood days, the old story of the two medical students and tyhr gentleman walking before them, with stiff and open stride. Excuse me sir, said one of the students, raising his cap, when they draw abreast, my friend here says it is piles, and I say it is merely the clap.We have all three then been deceived, replied the gentleman, for I though it was wind myself." This gag, I dimly recall, was re-worked by Talbot Rothwell in one of the lamentable Carry On films (in which Peter Butterworth delivers the punchline, such as it is).

Item: In Molloy (the first volume in the great trilogy continued and concluded by Malone Dies and The Unnameable) the eponymous Molloy is bedridden in his mother's former room where (he says) "I piss and shit in her pot. I have taken her place." The novel is characterised by a coprophiliac exuberance - Molloy recalls his own birth as 'first taste of the shit'.

Item: The narrator of The Unnameable  sits in his own excrement in a jar opposite a Paris cafe, "not knowing how to move, either locally in relation to myself, nor bodily, in relation to the rest of the shit."

You get my drift. Beckett would certainly have known and presumably relished those words attributed to St Augustine of Hippo: Inter faeces et urinam mascitur ("Between shit and piss are we born"). Beckett is the most compulsively scatological and excremental of modernists and Bennett's view of Beckett's  treatment of old age as 'dry, musty,  desiccated' is a very odd judgement. If only. Beckett's characters conscientiously and eloquently fail to thrive in a world of mud, shit, vomit and sexual fluids, of disjecta. The world, and life in it, is described variously in Watt as "excrement", "a turd" and "a cat's flux" while the eponymous Krapp in Krapp's Last Tape sees the world as "a muck ball". 

Where would we be without him?

All quotations © The Estate of Samuel Beckett / Faber and Faber Ltd.

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