Giving Up and Going On: Probing the Alchemical Frequency of Beckett’s Comedies (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable)

“This cursed first person, it is really too red a herring.”

“Keep going, going no, call that going, call that on”

Dear reader: In your presence, I find a wider vantage point, not just this isolated center drowning in a soup of conflict and useless chatter, which is myself. If I’m only talking to myself I get lost in my Self. But with three of us, there is space enough for reflection.

Writing adjusts the frequency of attention. I don’t believe in myself too literally when I write. I probe rather than believe. The personal voice becomes a transparent drama. So I can see the Self with less vested interest, which means a little more honestly. There, (off the page) the chains of meaning are still too short to be declared a lively intelligence. I’m mostly stagnant immaturities, a primordial ooze. The brain is bubbling with small sentiences, the grim grammar of a force that can’t quite commit to living with a longer attention span.

But here there is space to make these broader linkages and begin crawling to solid ground.

The Frequency Needed

The potential to crawl ashore and explore the untrampled wilderness of the white page could be described as a higher frequency of attention. (Also, don’t expect me to unmix my metaphors when I’m describing a soup). On land (on any wide field), the tuner of the brain has to adjust to a wider world than the Self, which shrinks to a friendly shadow. At this frequency, all the short strands of thinking that make such a dissipated chaos of daily life – all these swirling “ameanno” acids of short-sighted certainty that define the Self – cease to hypnotize and hold in check the potential for a livelier intelligence.

Here the frequency of attention is no longer solely consumed by all the petty issues that are important to my vanity. Those short chains of attention only mimic life. They are more like viruses. And these viruses of vanity don’t stop at the shoreline. But what crawls ashore begins to metabolize these viruses, until they become aspects of a new life, just as mitochondria is a formerly independent organism that has found a place within the body.

The wider frequency can see through these chains, linking them, without dissolving back into the swirling dramas. It has a sense of humor about its ongoing farces, so it stays aloof from the chaos. When I’m fully absorbed by the dramas I can’t laugh (or sufficiently weep) at my predicament. My vanity is too important. But from this wider perch of the page, my vanity looks absurd. And yet, the dramas add something necessary for life to form, even here. Like mitochondria, the dramas can generate energy. They can reframe reality in provocative ways. See, this is a drama, but it’s a drama that is being probed, not merely believed. So I’m aloof at the same time, capable of reflective honesty.

And if I believe in my stories too literally, then the dramas burn up that honest energy in defense of itself. But from a wider (spacious) frequency, the dramas become fictional, metaphoric and prismatic probes (not beliefs), which generate interest and creative energy.

So these self-defensive dramas have the potential to be transformed into psychic mitochondria if a more probing frequency is found. They can’t be transcended and left behind so much as metabolized into a new potential. The potential is not an ideal, it doesn’t contain finished forms waiting to be unveiled (as the “Long-termists” assume). It’s an open-ended potential that requires the unprecedented sparks of creative insight, the immaterial lightning bolts that alchemically transmutate inanimate thought into a living (and dying) intelligence.

Let’s Call it Beckett’s Frequency

But it’s not really Beckett’s frequency. It’s the alchemical frequency of the shore, the transition zone. I call it Beckett’s frequency because that’s where I encountered it. But his books aren’t for everyone. Others find other ways to the same frequency. This one’s a hard nut to crack, but not because it’s intellectually rigorous. It’s hard because it exposes a level of behavior that is designed to remain hidden. So in some sense it feels like an indecent exposure. It doesn’t serve our vanity. So it’s not easily enjoyed.

Every great book is a hard nut in a different way, which opens only for the reader who happens to hit the thing at just the right moment in their life. I think what grows from Beckett’s nut (and he is one, a comedian at heart) is particularly relevant to our culture’s looming futility.

Or dropping the nut metaphor, it felt like he angled a mirror on a secret behavioral level, which drives the surface farce. It’s the frequency that isn’t entirely fooled by its own deceptions, all these dramas that star reincarnating versions of Me (a Director), with his endless machinations (always failing) for obtaining the farcical fictions of status, an obsession to fill a hollow in the gut, where love and energy are constantly being drained by self-disgust. It’s hell’s version of a balanced ecosystem, where Tantalus is forever clawing for a sumptuous meal that makes him puke.

This frequency isn’t blind, in other words, to the real motives hiding beneath the floorboards of oil-soaked boards of directors, and bored dictators, where the primordial ooze is particularly stagnant. The culture, of course, thinks real life happens above board, where it can leave an arch-logical record in the sediments of resumes and diplomas. But from Beckett’s frequency all the floor boards are gone right from the start, so it doesn’t involve the slow dismantling of the surface farce for a climaxing confrontation with a hidden reality, which is how almost all the other great novels have proceeded.

Here the drama lies in the activities of a brain (not a mind, not yet) exposed to its own hitherto hidden machinations, the writhing motives of an exposed worm on the shore, still unable to crawl like a decent tetrapod, but growing a mind even as we read, which realizes its predicament with an astonishing precocity (for a worm), reflected in the delicate, bawdy, precise, brutal, heart-pounding prose, and in the alchemical power of the insights.

Cliff Notes for those Allergic to Hard Nuts of this Sort

I hesitate to provide quotes from the book, because the reader must be broken by the text in order to feel the life-restoring laughter, and why this laughter heralds an alchemical merger of opposites. In particular the opposites of “going on” and “giving up.” You have to be forced to give up in order to go on.

So be prepared: The book leaps into the abyss between the thinker and the thought: “I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not me.”

In that abyss of uncertainty the Self is trying to reify itself, make the fiction seem real, the deception honest, which can’t succeed any more than Tantalus can enjoy a good meal. So the Self remains one tantalizing step removed from reality: “I could employ fifty wretches for this sinister operation and still be short of the fifty-first, to close the circuit, that I know, without knowing what it means.”

These sentences hit me like rake handle/head collisions. I knew what he meant. It didn’t take a genius to see this. It only took writhing in the abyss to make sense of it. What I was reading was happening in my own primordial depths. He was revealing my own sleight of hand. It was like warm sunlight illuminating the depths of hell. All the monsters saw how ridiculous they were and started laughing with relief and empathy. Something livelier than me (something Unnamable) crawled out of the ooze of the book capable of going on.

Giving Up is a Way of Going On

I can’t intentionally rediscover this frequency. But while restlessly scanning my usual stations to kill the time (that is, to kill life), I’ll sometimes hear the static from a close approach. It’s a kind of screeching signal of futility and groundlessness, and usually I recoil (find another station). Rarely do I “keep going” past that point, where the static begins to form a wider resolution. I don’t know what makes any of us “go on.” Because what comes clear in this new frequency is a slapstick error at the heart of human misery. And frankly, I’d prefer to have my miseries sympathetically confirmed, and not revealed as farces. That’s because I have no intention of letting my dramas dissolve. The dissolution of my problems is not gratifying to the Ego. It would rather sink back into that oozing pool of self-pity than experience the cold splash of an honest moment.

So I’m not standing here like a fully formed land creature, urging others to follow these drifting prints. All I’m doing is momentarily raising myself a little (by virtue of writing) in order to look around at the mess. I’m being momentarily honest about my dishonesty. All that does is momentarily make me an honest mess. But that’s something! Maybe it’s just a curious eyeball of that unnamable something, but this eyeball is not selfish. It’s whatever remains by default after realizing that the “I” is a red herring, too over-dramatic to be taken seriously.

The relentless reader (of this, of themselves, of Beckett) realizes there is no point in being patriotic to any of these passing identities, no matter how much work went into the resume. Here our interest in self-promotion gives way to a collapse of pretense.

Giving up is a way of going on. It means allowing ourselves to witness our own stupidity without trying to improve. The intention to change is too premature. It stinks of escapism. We’ve only started to look at our underlying dishonesty. So it’s not a positive piece of information to store in memory, but a negative piece of information that tells us what we still don’t see.

Besides, the potential for mere sanity shouldn’t be confused with becoming better angels. It’s closer to falling from the high horse into a common mud.

I’m pretty sure my better angels want nothing more to do with me anyways. Beckett didn’t call on those red herrings either. He didn’t allow the reader to nail the floorboards of the book shut at the end with some fatuous meaning. There was no red herring of an author standing outside the book with a rational plan. All that pretentious bullshit was consumed in the alchemical fire. The turmoil and futility of his being found a frequency to metabolize the hidden pain and confusion. And he more or less ruined the surface farce for good, because now my ongoing self-deceptions are too obvious. But that stirs something to life faster than all our best laid improvements, which are only more red herrings.

Deceivers don’t need to “be developed”, they need to be honest. Any species caught in its own vicious circles doesn’t need to be “empowered” with new efficiencies and technologies. All that’s going to do is drive us more efficiently and powerfully in circles.

Despair comes from prematurely turning away from this futility and busying ourselves with surface adjustments to the underlying chaos.

The comedy here isn’t ridicule and cynicism, it’s love. My battlements melted momentarily under the relentless force of Beckett “going on”, and I laughed myself into a defeated compassion for my own stupidity, and for the stupidity of our whole human history. On this frequency, utter defeat is the victory, and laughter becomes the resolution of sorrow, not its denial. The opposites merge.

[I talk about Beckett from a little different angle about halfway through What Is Real?}

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