It was some time in my early 20s that I listened, with fitful attention on a Sunday afternoon, to a literary arts documentary maybe about Joyce, maybe about Dublin, but certainly with a fragment, read by a fine British actor, of Samuel Beckett’s prose works. Keep going, going on – I remember in a lilting slow Irish voice that seemed to linger on all the irony of each and every word – call that going, call that on.
It has stayed with me all of these years, as a watchword of a kind of ironic literary mindfulness. But the work from which it was detached thirty or more years ago, back when you could still occasionally watch quality literary arts documentaries on television, has long eluded me. Until this morning, with the ubiquitous solutions of google – that anti-mystery machine – I established that these phrases came from the opening sentence of The Unnameable, which has long sat on my shelves unread, forgotten, an isolated fictional narrator lost to time and culture.
“Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I , say I. Unbelieving. Questions.hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on. Call that going, call that on.
Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable
As I read on this morning, I wondered why this great drama of the compulsion to speak, or worstward ho, to write, had not captured my attention before. In all the fragments, in all the destitution of these times, still there is this compulsion to speak, to write, to leave the words we share in our breath, and cast them to the winds that will destroy us. Is this not the same dilemma I have wrestled with. Nothing to say except the weak and fading Malones of my imagination – skeletons only, caricatures, ghosts in some uncontrolled machine – still I must say something.
“At the same time I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never.”
Beckett, The Unnameable
It is surely a cruel joke that Beckett, that stylist of epic failure, that artist of impoverishment, Kafka’s hunger artist put on stage in fizzles and events of no, should have become the source of motivational images on the internet. His Fail better lines, on this page inscribed on an ascending stair, have even found their way into speeches by sportsmen, spurring on their Olympic striving.
And who can dispute the value of that? If I can drift my life towards the spirit I heard that long forgotten Sunday afternoon, in the steady renaming of each of our failures as going and as on, why cannot others take his words and accent better, not fail. We writers after all do not control our words, don not control how we are forgotten and ignored.
Failure and futility have their sorrows, but also their comforts. They are after all the great defiance of the rulers of the world, all those who believe in systems, in logical prose, in the rationality of our errant minds.
The thing to avoid, I don’t know why, is the spirit of system.
Beckett, The Unnameable