Sunday, November 6, 2016

Samuel Beckett's Faith as Reflected in Belacqua

Every once in a while, I like to share essays from my academic side here.  Here's a short academic response essay I recently did with regards to Samuel Beckett.

4.  Belaqua is described as “a dirty lowdown Low Church Protestant high-brow”, and is clearly alienated from the society around him. Beckett himself was born into an Anglo-Irish Protestant family; do you think Belaqua’s alienation is specific to the Irish context, or is Beckett making a larger point about human alienation beyond a specific culture?

     I should preface this with a confession that reading Samuel Beckett did not come naturally for me.  More Pricks than Kicks posed a daunting challenge at times, but one thing it reminded me about was the life of C.S. Lewis, who was raised in Belfast.  I recalled Joseph Pearce's remarkable book entitled C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church.  While my Pearce collection, along with most of my Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, remains to be unpacked in the garage after a recent move, I did find what I feel is an illuminating interview response about Lewis' Irish upbringing from Pearce.
One of Lewis's closest friends, the great Catholic writer, J. R. R. Tolkien, believed that Lewis failed to become a Catholic because of the deep-rooted and ingrained prejudices that he inherited as a Belfast Protestant. As the Troubles in Northern Ireland have shown, Belfast is one of the most sectarian cities in the world. It would indeed be a rare occurrence for someone raised in such an anti-Catholic culture to overcome the prejudices of his upbringing and there is no doubt that Lewis's discomfort with the position of the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition and his unease with the institution of the papacy are typical of the prejudices held by Ulster Protestants. On the other hand, as my book seeks to demonstrate, Lewis seemed to be moving ever closer to Catholicism as he grew in his faith. It is this tension between Lewis's ingrained opposition to Catholicism and his rational attraction to Catholic doctrine which makes the study of Lewis's relationship with the Church so fascinating.  (Pearce, Web)
I suggest that Lewis' own troubled feelings from being a young Protestant in Belfast can shed further light on the Samuel Beckett's ambivalence and alienation with regards to Protestantism in Ireland--and religion in general.  The shared faith experiences of Beckett and Lewis are interesting as both turned away from organized religion for a period.  While, of course, C.S. Lewis returned to the faith with a passion, the alienation experienced by Beckett permeates his work.  
     Religion seems to occupy the mind of Belacqua Shuah primarily when he is alone, however.  In the presence of others, his mind seems less drawn to reflect on the eternal.  In the opening of "Walking Out," there is a short, but telling observation from the character.  "It was one of those Spring evenings when it is a matter of some difficulty to keep God out of one's meditations."  This implies not only an indifference to God, but an active opposition to the presence of the eternal.  When Belacqua is in public settings, however, he seems less prone to this kind of introspection.  In this way, then, we could aruge that noise and bustle is perhaps partially pursued as a means to drown out the other, more troubling thoughts.  
     The introspection appears to also catch Belacqua in his nature escape at the opening of "Fingal."  "He began to feel a very sad animal indeed."  When he wistfully refers to a distant sight as "magic land," Winnie corrects him reproachfully; his meandering mind gets him into trouble.  Again at the conclusion of "Walking Out," he seems caught off guard by the silence and stillness of the forest as he waits in vain for Lucy.  (I still don't understand his battle with the "Tanzherr.")  Silence leads to an increase of noise in the mind, one again can argue.  When shadows of the eternal nature of things begin to invade his thoughts, he seems to seek out ways to escape.
     I think it's also helpful here to point out that the protagonist of these tales by Beckett, shares a name with a character from Dante's Divine Comedy.  (Bold added to excerpt below.)
I came to him he hardly raised his head,   Saying: "Hast thou seen clearly how the sun   O'er thy left shoulder drives his chariot?" His sluggish attitude and his curt words   A little unto laughter moved my lips;   Then I began: "Belacqua, I grieve not For thee henceforth; but tell me, wherefore seated   In this place art thou? Waitest thou an escort?   Or has thy usual habit seized upon thee?" And he: "O brother, what's the use of climbing?   Since to my torment would not let me go   The Angel of God, who sitteth at the gate. First heaven must needs so long revolve me round   Outside thereof, as in my life it did,   Since the good sighs I to the end postponed, Unless, e'er that, some prayer may bring me aid   Which rises from a heart that lives in grace;   What profit others that in heaven are heard not?"  (Dante, Divine Comedy)
     So, is Belacqua perhaps a sort of secular pilgrim?  Instead of searching for the spiritual, I suggest he's doing his best to avoid any hint of the supernatural in his pursuit of secular knowledge and experience.  In this determination to avoid the spiritual dimension of Irish life, he is further alienating himself from his countrymen (not to mention God).  This paints a picture, then, of someone who is timidly committing to the secular, turning his back on all associations with faith, yet unable to avoid the occasional backslide back to reflections upon the nature of faith and reality.  He is in a self-imposed exile.

Beckett, Samuel. More Pricks than Kicks. New York: Grove, 1972. Print.
Dante Alighieri (2011-03-24). Divine Comedy, Longfellow's Translation, Purgatory (p. 21). Kindle Edition.
Pearce, Joseph. "C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church - CNA Columns: Guest Columnist." Catholic News Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.

1 comment:

  1. I watched many of Beckett's plays filmed onto DVD, during a research phase into the Talmudic-atheistic roots of Freudian Psychoanalysis and of the Choleric / Narcissistic Personality Disorder type, as so well presented in 'Waiting for Godot'. I'm well aware of the Ulster Ascendancy, their anti-Catholic stance, in which Beckett and Lewis were raised.

    The filmmakers on the DVD were all enthusiastic of Beckett, but why? His plays, though genuinely comical and truthful at times, are mostly a torture to watch. So what made him so popular as to win a Nobel? Was it just a mere club of subversives like at the Academy Awards, of self-congratulants? Was it part of the post-modernism push from Adorno in the 30's, to finance anything subversive to Church? Are his plays really so deep and insightful as to deserve the rotund accolades which he was showered with? Or would you say his popularity was instead manufactured, financed and promoted by Frankfurter School hidden forces?