Tuesday, 21 April 2009

April 13: Godot on the holodeck

Caspar David Friedrich, Man and Woman Observing the Moon (1824)

Samuel Beckett, my favourite writer, claimed that his birthday was Good Friday April 13, a date he shares with Jacques Lacan, my second favourite psychoanalyst. Good Friday is of course the date upon which those of us in Christendom celebrate the torture and execution of Our Lord, the ‘most sublime of all symbols’ according to Georges Bataille. More significantly for me even than this, Good Friday 13 April is also the birthday of my ‘trouble and strife’, lovely wife, life-partner etc. ‘Extraordinary how mathematics [or in this case simple numbers] help you to know yourself’, as Molloy says after farting three hundred and fifteen times in nineteen hours, a figure that sounds excessive until he realises that on average it is only four farts every fifteen minutes, which is itself as little as one fart every four minutes. ‘Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it’ (Molloy).

Given that En attendant Godot was premiered in Paris on the day (though certainly not the year) of my birth, it was imperative that we travelled to Edinburgh to watch Waiting for Godot on 13 April, and stay at the Whisky Society and drink thirteen different types of malt while reciting favourite lines from the play such as ‘I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for us to part’, ‘you wouldn’t go far’, etc. and speculating upon which one of us is to be damned or saved. The production of course stars Jean-Luc Picard as Vladimir and Gandalf as Estragon along with Simon Callow (Pozzo) and Ronald Pickup (Lucky). It was difficult not to imagine that I was watching an episode of Star Trek: The New Generation in which Picard whiles away the long hours in deep space on the Enterprise’s holodeck indulging himself, as he occasionally does, acting out literary classics with simulations of his favourite late twentieth century actors. Or wondering what other sixty-something celebrities might suit the parts. Jagger and Richard, no doubt, could play Didi and Gogo respectively, while Paul McCartney has the pomposity for Pozzo and Michael Jackson could make a good fist of Lucky’s dance the ‘hard stool’ even if thinking might be beyond him (and I imagine you’d have to keep him away from the boy, we don’t want any sleepovers).

The Star Trek Godot is a rather jolly version, Stewart and McKellen playing up the music hall, if not the musical aspects of the play. Of course the play has the repetitive structure of the round or roundelay that begins the second act: ‘A dog came in the kitchen / And stole a crust of bread / Then cook up with the ladle / And beat him till he was dead’ / Then all the dogs came running / And dug the dog a tomb / And wrote upon the tombstone / For the eyes of dogs to come / A dog came in the kitchen ...etc’. The bread of life is a theft, an occasion simply for punishment and death, repeated endlessly, round and around; language only ever signifying death and the death to come. This ‘old jingle’ is repeated in The Unnameable as a form of Adeste Fideles, a messianic herald and warning to the teeming multitude of dogs and bitches to come that ‘our hell will be a heaven to them’. Beckett’s messiah is a dog’s promise of the hell-to-come, a muckheap and charnel house even worse than the present.

Beckett’s dogs, one of the first from the essay on Proust: ‘habit is the ballast that ties the dog to his own vomit’. Habits cement words together so that, with their burden of ‘calculations and signification’, they form an impenetrable surface that ‘imprisons and suffocates us’ (Deleuze). But the structure of the round is not that of language; it is music, song. Commenting on the importance of musical structure, Martin Esslin wrote that ‘Beckett is concerned with probing down to a depth in which individuality and definite events no longer appear, and only basic patterns emerge’. Patterns made by meaningless asignifying systems (music, maths, various combinatorial series) structure Beckett’s work throughout. Music, for example, that according to Deleuze, brings about the ‘extreme determination of the indefinite like a pure intensity that pierces the surface’ (‘The Exhausted’), effects that ‘punctuation of dehiscence’ that vomits up from the depths of silence Beckett’s art in which his ascetics are tied to circuits different to the habits of everyday life. This art condemns the signifier to silence and is machinic in Félix Guattari’s sense, ‘music is the machinic art form par excellence ... the collective assemblage of music machines holds any anxieties of finitude at arm’s length. Inasmuch as you can say of language that it doubles all things related to death, you can think of music condemning death itself to death. But it’s true, too, that the whole history of musicianship and musical technique is that of a mad resistance to machinism, a desperate hanging onto rules, forms, a pathetic reterritorialization trying in vain to limit the ravages of mathematism and randomness’ (‘Journal’).

The ‘Star Trek’ production of Godot was framed by a little ambient musique concrete, a faint industrial drone, creaking wooden eaves, dripping water. In row W of the Stalls, however, on 13 April, the play was accompanied throughout by machinic music of a different kind: the prosthetic, rhythmic wheezing of some kind of iron lung to which a poor old soul was tied and kept alive. For much of the performance it seemed louder than the dialogue, incongruously funny in an entirely appropriate way, tragicomically as they say, condemning death to death: a very Beckettean figure for the future of humanity, wheezing through space, the final frontier, long after the death of the sun, and indeed the moon.