Thursday, October 27, 2011

`Spare His Dust'

With a birthday gift-card from friends I’ve ordered The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941-1956 . Until it arrives I’ll content myself with excerpts published online, including this passage quoted by Michael Dirda in his Washington Post review:

“Fifteen or twenty years of silence and solitude . . . I feel this evening that that would suit me, and suit me the least badly possible. I have bought a wheelbarrow, my first wheelbarrow! It goes very well, with its one wheel. I keep an eye on the love-life of the Colorado beetle and work against it, successfully but humanely, that is to say by throwing the parents into my neighbor’s garden and burning the eggs. If only someone had done that for me!”

Dirda quips: “That last sentence is characteristic of the gloomy Beckett we all love.”

Beckett is never “gloomy.” Mordant, yes. Grimly funny, blackly Irish, but never gloomy, a state that implies Eeyore-like lugubriousness. With Flaubert and Joyce, Hugh Kenner numbers Beckett among his “stoic comedians.” In gloominess I hear a strain of self-pity Beckett habitually mocks. He writes in Molloy:

“And as to making up my mind which quarter of the heavens was the least gloomy, it was no easy matter. For at first sight the heavens seemed uniformly gloomy. But by taking a little pains, I obtained a result, that is to say I came to a decision, in this matter.”

The almost scientific quest for gloominess cannot be gloomy. It is absurd and ridiculous; and thus, funny in a Swiftian vein. Consider Beckett’s self-mocking pleasure in his wheel barrow, an appropriate emblem of his art -- “It goes very well, with its one wheel” -- and his war with the Colorado potato beetle. Who knew Beckett’s interest in entomology extended beyond Kafka? His “humane” extermination of the beautiful and rapacious insect is a set-up for a self-deprecating punch line: “If only someone had done that for me!” From gardening woes to wooing oblivion in twenty-five words or less.

Andrei Alyokhin is an associate professor of applied entomology at the University of Maine who devotes a website to the Colorado potato beetle (a natural progression: Ireland, potatoes, Maine). Alyokhin shares Beckett’s delight in a life grounded in death:

“Humans, with our supposedly superior intelligence, have been trying to defeat this small and rather dumb animal for over 150 years. The weapons ranged from deadly chemicals to plagues of disease and parasites, and from flame throwers to genetically engineered chimeras. Yet, our ten-striped nemesis still represents a major threat to solanaceous crops. So, I salute you, Leptinotarsa decemlineata, for keeping me gainfully employed for the years to come.”

Farmers, biologists, the Irish and a few poets share a matter-of-fact amusement at the facts of life and death. None is sentimental or gloomy. In Beckett’s Dying Words (1993), Christopher Ricks quotes the reply by Beckett’s great favorite, Samuel Johnson, to Anna Seward, as reported by Boswell:

“The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful. It is in the apprehension of it that the horror of annihilation consists.”

In 1796, twelve years after Johnson’s death, Seward published “Epitaph on Samuel Johnson” in the General Evening Post:

“The groans of Learning, tell that JOHNSON dies—
Adieu, great Critic of Colossal size;
Grateful, ye Virtues, round his tomb attend,
And deeply mourn your energetic friend.

“Avaunt, ye Vices, he was foe to you,
Yet one the subtlest of your tribe he knew—
He knew — but, ENVY, to his fame be just,
And though you stain'd his spirit, spare his dust.”

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