Sunday, August 25, 2013

`The Sum Assess of the World's Woes'

Dr. Eoin O’Brien is a professor of molecular pharmacology at the Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research at University College Dublin. He is also author of The Beckett Country, a heavy volume easily mistaken for a coffee-table book, published in 1986 to celebrate Samuel Beckett’s eightieth birthday. O’Brien befriended Beckett in the nineteen-seventies and devoted a decade to documenting the distinctively Irish landscape present in much of Beckett’s work. With photos and text, O’Brien roots Beckett in a recognizable geography. “I explored the terrain of Beckett’s writing,” he says. For instance, in Chapter 2, “The Dublin Mountains,” O’Brien writes, “The skies over the Dublin mountains, vivid and majestic in their restlessness, often threatening, are characteristic of the Molloy country, and quotes a passage from Molloy: 

“Yes, the great cloud was raveling, discovering here and there a pale and dying sky, and the sun, already down, was manifest in the livid tongues of fire darting toward the zenith, falling and darting again, ever more pale and languid, and doomed no sooner lit to be extinguished. This phenomenon, if I remember rightly was characteristic of my region.” 

O’Brien’s book delicately recalibrated my reading of Beckett’s books. Landscapes that once seemed abstract, strictly artistic creations, took on a more vivid reality, which in turn complimented the reality of Beckett’s characters. The novels in particular, especially the great trilogy, as well as the middle-period short fiction, took on an almost documentary quality. The comic suffering of humanity seemed newly vindicated. O’Brien’s method is never reductive. He writes: 

“That Dublin is a powerful influence, the point of commencement, in fact, of much of Beckett’s writing, is I think quite evident, but that influence itself would be insufficient to explain the genius of Beckett’s talent. After all, many fine Irish writers have this common background but have failed to achieve in their writing this `something’ that elevates Beckett’s work to an unusual pinnacle in art.” 

Last year, O’Brien published The Weight of Compassion and Other Essays (The Lilliput Press, Dublin), a collection evenly divided between O’Brien’s twin interests, literature and medicine. In the title essay he states, in a passage that refutes the slanderous commonplace that Beckett is a fashionable nihilist: 

“There are many facets to Samuel Beckett's writing -- humor, despair, love, poignancy, suffering -- but for me there is one dominant characteristic -- compassion, compassion for the human condition of existence.” 

As evidence, O’Brien marshals the plangent fourth “Addenda” from Watt (a footnote in the novel warns: “The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.”): 

“who may tell the tale
of the old man?
weigh absence in a scale?
mete want with a span?
the sum assess
of the world's woes?
in words enclose?” 

Written in occupied France, where Beckett served in the Resistance, the fragment (like the novel, composed in English before his switch to French) is a pithy restatement of the themes that would occupy his postwar work. O’Brien uses the same fragment as his “Envoi” to The Beckett Country. In “The Weight of Compassion,” O’Brien says: 

“That Beckett should have postulated so demanding an avocatory vision was astounding; that he had the courage and discipline to fulfill it in every detail is testimony to the magnificence of his achievement.”

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