Charlatan Beckett

The biographer Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett’s first official biographer, has passed away, the Times reports: ‘His first words to her, she wrote in “Parisian Lives,” were, “So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am.”’

Beckett may have hoped so. He certainly gave her that start, for he just gave away two key insights to his work. The etymology of charlatan includes “to prattle,” and “I talk nonsense.” And Charlie Chaplin’s work was fully enjoyed by Beckett. Chaplin was popular in France, and was colloquially called “Charlot.” Many (if not all) of Beckett’s characters seem inspired by the clown, the tramp, the outsider, the vaudevillian villain, whose humor reveals deep suffering truths of the human condition. We could die laughing.

“You might say I had a happy childhood,” Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett begins. But the 1978 Times review frowns on the biographer’s focus on what appeared to be Beckett’s lifelong condition of anhedonia. For Bair, Beckett seemed the kind of person who had fun once, but didn’t enjoy it. Of course, Beckett himself fueled this kind of confusion, what he called tragicomedy.

What Goodness Knows: Ed Simon’s “Furnace of this World; or, 36 Observations About Goodness”

When Mark Twain’s Huck decides to help Jim, an illegal immigrant of his time, a runaway slave, Huck believes he’ll go to hell for his goodness. Huck knows that by helping Jim escape he’ll be breaking the law. He’ll bring the wrath of local public opinion so forcefully down upon his head, this time it’ll probably fall off. He feels good, though, having sat down and thought it out and making his decision to help Jim with deliberation and good reason. Huck does not argue that he should not go to hell for helping Jim.

Central to Ed Simon’s 100 page immersion in goodness is a discussion of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. It’s a little forced, but the idea is that without the betrayal, Jesus can’t save the world. One would think the Grand Master of Plots would come up with a work-around if Judas doesn’t cooperate, but we get the idea. Out of this betrayal, for which Judas knows he’ll go to hell, where his 30 pieces of silver won’t buy him much of anything, comes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. So why has Judas, over time, been treated as such a heel?

For Simon, goodness is no easy matter. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” you knew you were not going to a party. Is goodness even possible for an embodied, fallen soul? Where along the spectrum from doing good to doing nothing to breaking bad does empathy require altruistic behavior? In other words, what good is it if you don’t have some skin in the game? Simon clarifies the question in his introduction:

“Looming over my concerns is clearly the current political climate in both Europe and the United States, particularly the increasing economic disparity, the emboldening of extremism and zealotry, and especially the casual cruelty. The desire to reflect on what goodness might mean and how to be an embodied individual implicated in systems of oppression who nonetheless wishes to stand against those systems is hopefully underscored through the entire book” (8).

from Intro. to “Furnace of This World; Or, 36 Observations About Goodness,” by Ed Simon, Zero Books, 2019.

Why does it sometimes seem easier to follow evil than good? Easier to describe and to write. Good comedy is much harder to write, and more rare, than good tragedy. And why does comedy so often rely on someone else’s pain? Any discussion of good and evil falls quickly into the Western dichotomy zone, where so much bad would not have befallen you had you simply been more good. It’s not as easy as choosing right over wrong when any choice implicates others and sets forth what might quickly become a random course of events over which you just as quickly lose control. You make a good shot, but unfortunately you end up sinking the 8 ball and give away the match. Simon is aware of that, and handles it carefully:

“I neither know what is right or wrong, nor how to prove which one a given action is, but I do know fear, anxiety, pain, relief, peace, love, and the visceral, physical, psychological experience of those states, and that must be the basis for any ethic of goodness to our fellow humans” (14).

Goodness begins, for Simon, with compassion. But can the good one does redeem one who does not? Is there a quorum of good necessary to save those not in attendance? Why does the Black Christ keep getting whitewashed over? Simon does not go it alone in navigating his theme. What good would a totalitarian good be? What does it mean to sin for good? As Dylan sang, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” A little kindness for those who fail might be a good place to begin a path toward goodness.

While his Judas discussion might seem a bit forced, so too do some of Simon’s examples of evil seem extreme. They are the tabloid stories that have gone historically viral. But they are carefully placed to support the claim that evil is not a mistake. Depravity does not necessarily follow from deprivation, contrary to social studies myth:

“My Daddy beats my Mommy
My Mommy clobbers me
My Grandpa is a Commie
My Grandma pushes tea
My sister wears a mustache
My brother wears a dress
Goodness Gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

from “Gee, Officer Krupke,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story,” 1957.

In fact, goodness might come from poverty, the road of excess not leading to Blake’s “palace of wisdom,” but to a white house of exploitation and gluttony, avarice and vainglory. The swamp might be a necessary mess.

“I apologize for the macabre nature of my observations,” Simon begins observation XXIV, “but any discussion of good implies a consideration of evil” (60). Apology accepted as we read on, for by the end of his observations, I was gobsmacked by this book. It is perfectly paced and accessible to the common reader. It’s full of researched materials from antiquity to modern times, but it’s scholarly without being pedantic or smugly academic. It does not pander to a peer group. Yet it could be used as a guide toward further reading, study, caring. It contains both the sacred and the profane. It does not preach nor profess nor confess nor hide.

Is happiness necessary to goodness? Studies over the last two decades have shown Americans are not a happy bunch. Could it be that’s because we are not sufficiently good to be really happy? Simon anticipates rebuttal. Each observation carries forward naturally and thematically. He’s not without contradictions. We learn of Margery Kempe and her autobiography. We meet, if we’ve not already, the poet Jack Gilbert. Kempe says, “Wheresoever God is, heaven is; and God is in your soul, and many an angel is round about your soul to guard it both night and day” (80). But if God is in your soul, why does it need protecting, protection from what? Protection from the world He created for you? Is that how religion came to be such a protection racket? Meanwhile, we’ve Jack Gilbert telling us “we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants” (78). Then why didn’t God make life more enjoyable, the cynic responds. But Simon stops the merry-go-round: “We laugh and enjoy and smile not in spite of the suffering implicit in all life, we laugh and enjoy and smile because of that suffering. We laugh and enjoy and smile not because we are inhuman, we laugh and enjoy and smile because we are human” (78).

Simon’s human examples of goodness are not so tabloid as his examples of evil. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Flannery O’Connor, from Augustine through Judas to Margaret Edson’s W;t, to Kempe and Nietzsche and on to Fr Mychal, 911’s “Victim 0001,” whose last act of love signalled that God does not hate us, we learn, if nothing else, why we are given goodness.

Simon has written a good book. We learn about the things that make poetry: kindness, fellowship, pencils. “Such is the kernel of resistance, the ethic of kindness and delight, to ‘accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world,'” Simon says, the “ruthless furnace” bit coming from Jack Gilbert (79). Simon’s last observation, number XXXVI, is a brilliant, modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, a way to think about goodness.

Learning to Deconstruct Finally

Derrida seems satisfied if not happy with his contradictions, with having learned finally to live with them unencumbered by any implicit criticism. His primary concern in his last days appears to have been what comes after the final act of writing. After all, “there are, to be sure, many very good readers (a few dozen in the world perhaps, people who are also writer-thinkers, poets)” (34). Were he a blogger, would Derrida be thus assured of 36 followers? Jesus had only 12, but even they were not always reliable.

Can a writer ever finally trust any reader? Part of the problem seems to be that readers do have an unconditional freedom to read from their own particular singularity, always peculiar. It’s all they can do, as general readers, apart from the 36 carefully selected followers, who must leave their families behind. It’s not that whatever you say will automatically be misunderstood, but that conditions of freedom vary among individuals. But Derrida says at the same time, “You don’t just go and do anything with language; it preexists us and it survives us” (36). For Derrida, deconstruction was a form of “self-critique” (45). Before “learning to live finally,” one must deconstruct oneself.

In his idea of “The University Without Condition,” Derrida wants “absolute claim to an unconditional freedom to think, speak, and critique” (48). The presumption is there are conditions set by “political or religious power” (48). Kant’s solution that scholars be free to say whatever they want as long as they keep it in the University was not enough for Derrida. But the philosopher who leaves the University becomes an outsider, a blogger, as opposed to a scholar. Not that it matters, because

“…you do not know to whom you are speaking, you invent and create silhouettes, but in the end it no longer belongs to you. Spoken or written, all these gestures leave us and begin to act independently of us.” (32)

Jesus spoke to a general audience, asked for similar unconditional freedom wherever he happened to be located, but he was ready to give to political power what belongs to political power, while Christianity too often has turned into a University that, like the University of Kant’s that Derrida points out, is only free on its own grounds.

Any notion of finally can only be fantasy; life goes on with and without us. What happens finally is the words stop coming, we stop thinking with words, and must figure out some other way to deconstruct.

Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview [with Jacques Derrida]. Melville House, 2007. 95 pages, including a 27 page selected bibliography of works by Derrida published in English.

An Economy of One’s Own

In the first chapter of Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau distills life to economic necessities, rhetorically presenting four, “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel,” that “few, if any” men or women, further qualified, “in this climate,” for it gets cold in Concord, “ever attempt to do without” (10). Thoreau’s values, quickly made clear and rid of all impurities, are concentrated in two ideas: simplicity and wisdom. The two taken together make for deliberate living, rather than random, fateful, casual acceptance of one’s time, place, situation, predicament. They are necessities, too, because only through simplicity and wisdom will we find we are able to “entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success” (10).

He’s a mile from any neighbor, not including the mostly Irish railroad workers who live in shanties about. He addresses his argument to his “townsmen,” but he’s particularly interested in “poor students,” for whom he has an obvious and heartfelt affinity. His neighbors, though, apparently wonder what he’s up to, and why, and how he’s making do; such is his rhetorical situation, though the contemporary reader may get the feeling, now and then, that if Thoreau were talking today, he might have an obnoxious, self-promoting Facebook page, full of photos of his living alone near the pond, or a blog, perhaps here, at WordPress. We are not so enamored by Thoreau that we wish to nominate him for sainthood, nor would he accept the nomination, anyway, but to at least one thing he appears to be true, and that is to himself, no small achievement, impossible, in fact, Thoreau might argue, if we have gone beyond food to a gluttony of junk yet are still hungry, raised so high our roofbeams we cannot hope to touch our own ceiling, filled our closets with clothes we don’t even remember we own yet proclaim we’ve nothing to wear, and indentured ourselves to our fuel of choice and its profitable engine, the automobile. But while these things are simple tests Thoreau gives us, the critical questions are these: “Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” (8).

Why should we read Thoreau today? Consider that his miracle might be found in his book, that we are able to look through his eyes at his world. And, so? Well, what does he see? “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing [sic], it is very likely to be my good behavior.” He is, in a way, like Twain’s Huck, who doesn’t want to go to the good place, for the situation there is problematic for one who doesn’t buy into the values he was born into. Yet Thoreau insists “we may safely trust a good deal more than we do” (9), but first he sententiously strips away the outer bark of our dressed for success self, the source, incidentally, of many of our anxieties: “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do…determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it…denying the possibility of change” (9). Yet we should be cautious of approaching Walden as some sort of self-help book, any kind of New Age panacea, “for the improvements of ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence” (10). We can’t develop our way out of our existential condition; we may begin by devaluing what has been built up around us a fortress of assumptions. Yet we still might find some ideas in Walden to help “solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically” (13).

But Walden is not for everyone, as Thoreau himself tells us, “but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them” (14). But Thoreau’s argument is not at all limited to the poor: “I have also in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters” (14). When Thoreau talks of independence, or of self-dependence, he does not mean becoming financially independent, the term used to describe a modern value unattainable for most and unusable for the 1%, for when Thoreau speaks of independence, he means being independent from the trappings of wealth as well as independent of the notion that to live fully requires a surplus of necessaries. He means finding an economy, a life, of one’s own.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Related: The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in The Land of Plenty