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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Estragon's Trousers

Thursday, December 08, 2011

I was delighted by a small detail in Tim Parks' review of the second volume of Samuel Beckett's letters. Famously (and as this current crop of letters confirm), Beckett refused to participate in the afterlife of his works: he would not attend award ceremonies, he deflected interviews. Beckett thought of his works as "excretions," not creations, something given out from deep within the writer and then, having once been passed out into the world, becoming untouchable. Unselfconsciously fulfilling the myth of the ascetic writer, Beckett was concerned purely with his art, not with the dirtier self-representation of the artist. This rejection, or abjection, of responsibility for a work extended to his plays. According to the letters, Beckett used to send his partner, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, to check up on the standard of performances.

And in a letter to Roger Brin, the first director of Waiting for Godot, Beckett enquired about a detail which had clearly concerned him such that he had asked Suzanne specifically about it:
There is one thing that bothers me: Estragon’s trousers. Naturally I asked Suzanne if they fall down properly. She tells me that he holds on to them halfway down. This he must not do – it’s utterly inappropriate.
Beckett does go on to add that one reason why it is inappropriate is that Estragon would hardly be worrying about his trousers at the moment when he is preparing to hang himself. This comment belies the perception that his works are utterly unrealistic, or unstructured. Whilst their symbolism and referentiality might be ambiguous to the point of absurd, the works do possess their own internal coherence and logic. But, like Godot itself, as soon as we have one explanation another opens. Beckett continues:

I have lots of other reasons for wanting this business not to be underplayed, but I’ll spare you them. But please … let the trousers fall right down, round the ankles. It must seem silly to you, but to me it’s vital.
Why that "lots of other reasons"? How many reasons can one possibly find for having a character's trousers fall all the way down, as opposed to half way? What is the "proper" way for trousers to fall down? Isn't the mere fact of them falling at least some of the way down sufficient to convey embarrassment and farce?

Yet comical as it is, the letter points sharply towards the demands that Beckett makes of us. It is precisely because Beckett asks us to search for "reasons" in a work from which rationality seems absent that they are so long-lived. Why do the tramps attach so much significance to the potential arrival of Godot who might, or might not, translate as the God whose existence the audience might speculate on? Does it matter that in a play in which, as Vivien Mercer famously alleged, "nothing happens, twice," the tree of the first act is bare whilst the tree of the second has leaves? The anecdote from Beckett above reminds that although there may be some reasons, some of them even necessary ones (the realism of a suicide allowing his trousers to fall) none are ultimately sufficient to contain the play's meaning.

Which feeds neatly into Beckett's wonderful response to a journalist who had written asking for elucidation about the play. Beckett was not, of course, going to provide an answer about this particular excretion (here diminished as a mere "show"); the author gives everything to his work, and nothing more, certainly not cheap reasons:
As for wanting to find in all this a wider and loftier meaning to take away after the show, along with the programme and the choc-ice, I am unable to see the point of it. But it must be possible.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:03 pm

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