Christopher Ricks’s Beckett’s Dying Words

There is enormous expressive force in Christopher Ricks’s Beckett’s Dying Words; Ricks shares what Beckett fulfils for him. With a no-doubt decrepit OED by his side he analyses Beckett’s word choice. Ricks’s book traverses the space where a critical work itself becomes a classic.

The following passage begins a section in which Ricks aims a critical lance at sloppy Beckett scholarship:

One currently tempting lie is that there is no such thing as the real. Beckett takes care to resist this temptation too, this easing of the mind and of life.

Here are four moments in Beckett’s fiction when something horribly real is set before us, and when it would seem to me a perverse derogation from the art to insist that words, of fascinatingly used of course, are all there is. These moments speak of the body’s failing, as well as of the brain’s failing to get its instructions heeded by the body. Delays. Thwartings. Chalk.

And how in her faint comings and goings she suddenly stops dead. And how hard set to rise up from her knees.

A man would wonder where his kingdom ended, his eye strive to penetrate the gloom, and crave for a stick, an arm, fingers to grasp and then release, at the right moment, a stone, stones, or for the power to utter a cry and wait, counting the seconds, for it to come back to him, and suffer, certainly, at having neither voice nor other missile, nor limbs submissive to him, bending and unbending at the word of command, and perhaps even regret being a man, under such conditions, that is to say a head abandoned to its ancient solitary resources.

The man has not yet come home. Home. I have demanded certain movements of my legs and even feet. I know them well and could feel the effort they made to obey. I have lived with them that little space of time, filled with drama, between the message received and the piteous response.

She sits on erect and rigid in the deepening gloom. Such helplessness to move she cannot help.

In all of these, supremely in the last, it is not simply the ‘syntax of weakness’ but the incarnation of the human reality of it all, of piteously bodily weakness, and of the strength to contemplate it, and realize it, which is so moving.

Many recent critics of Beckett will have none of this. They make nothing of his art.

There is enough secondary Beckett literature to fill Lake Matano, a fate deserved by most of those books. Beckett’s Dying Words is one of the exceptions.

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