Beckett’s (Irish) Bible?

Author: Seán Kennedy (Saint Mary’s University)

Samuel Beckett And The Bible

Iain Bailey. Samuel Beckett and the Bible. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, 208 pp.

Few were surprised when the Bible (in its various versions) turned out to be one of the most important texts in Samuel Beckett’s library at the time of his death, containing two different French translations, along with one in German, one in Italian, and two in English (121). As Iain Bailey points out in Samuel Beckett and the Bible, “familiarity is at the heart of the narrative Beckett scholarship tells about the Bible” (2). For Bailey, Beckett Studies has behaved, from the outset, as though the Bible were somehow obviously and inevitably ubiquitous in Beckett’s oeuvre. The problem, however, has been a recurring assumption that the Bible has “a relatively fixed, preset value, against which Beckett’s writing is then orientated” (6). Bailey, by contrast, sets out “to show how Beckett’s writing works to interrogate both the facility of recognition and the recognizability of the Bible” (4), as part of a broader concern to read the Bible as a—in some sense privileged—Beckettian intertext. In an early, somewhat agonized articulation of the books main claim, Bailey argues: “The Beckett oeuvre is one which presents uneasy forms of memory, materiality, language and history. Against this, I am saying, the Bible does not form part of a more settled set of circumstances, that casts Beckett’s writing in relief, or provides common ground for its deviations and distortions” (4).

Although it is stated in negative terms, Bailey’s subject is clear: “the Bible, as object or artefact: text, book or scripture” (5). Bailey is not interested, necessarily, in religious themes, or even specific Biblical allusions. Rather, he sees the Bible and Beckett’s work as a “pair of corpuses in the world” and seeks to “shed light on the interaction between” them (12). Bailey conceives of the Bible as process rather than product—the textual equivalent of a Heraclitean stream—and the process at stake is the myriad ways in which it is read and re-read, and hence made and re-made, by way of citation as well as recitation. Hence, there is no enduring object “the Bible” to be referred against Beckett’s oeuvre: “For all that the Bible can be regarded as the paradigmatic text of timeless, transcultural universalism, that impression of it is not itself timeless and universal, but has been produced historically among those merely ‘local’ concerns’” (6). Beckett, knowing this, and keenly discerning its implications for religious as well as secular epistemologies, approached the Bible with “a clear concern with its inconsistency and discontinuity under the aegis of a unity” (7). It is as “a process of canon formation and production of authority” (7) that the Bible mattered most to Beckett, or matters most to Bailey in his reading of Beckett.

Bailey’s observations about the cultural locatedness of the Bible, its status as a historical text, exist in tension with another of his early claims, i.e. “the Bible tends to slip the limits of particular texts and a linear chronology” (8). Here, the Bible recovers something of its status as ur-text, or elusive, enduring object. Bailey seeks to resolve this tension by situating the Bible in relation to the “dominant ideology” of the “Anglo-Irish institutions of education and family […] of Beckett’s childhood” (8). In this world, “a certain mythology of [the] King James Bible … lends it a preordained notional ubiquity” (11). Bailey wants to destabilize this monolith, referring his reader to various “histories of familiarity, common knowledge, education, nation and family in which Beckett and the Bible are both involved” (11). Completeness is not sought because completeness is not possible: “there are not a fixed, finite number of biblical presences in the Beckett oeuvre, waiting to be found” (11). Rather than allusion hunting, Bailey asks: “how far it is appropriate to understand the Irish context as fostering an orthodoxy against which Beckett’s responses to the Bible are measured” (8)? It is one of the main frustrations of this book that this extremely well-formulated (and important) question is never really answered, if only because the “Irish context” referred to is never properly evoked.

In Chapter 1, “Recognizing the Bible in Beckett,” Bailey is interested in the ways in which the Bible is “concretely recognized” in Beckett: “either named or implied as a source” (15). He traces the tropes of recognizability and unrecognizability, suggesting that what Beckett’s work, in this case Godot, refuses “is not so much the idea of a cultural object as the ease with which [it] can be described as ‘recognizable’” (16). The Bible, needless to say, is the privileged example in this case, and Bailey traces the presence of the Bible through both the English and the French versions of the play to demonstrate how Beckett calls the “easy ubiquity” of Biblical knowledge into question (17). Here, the interplay between Beckett and Bible as a “pair of corpuses” becomes apparent in a delicately-balanced close reading. If the presence of the Bible in Godot “becomes a small guarantee that there are limits to [the play’s] hermetism” (17), then Estragon’s failure to remember the good book provides equally salient intimations regarding the limits of its familiarity and, hence, authority. Understanding the cultural heft of the King James Bible, as political and religious fetish, Beckett is keen to strip away its claims to cultural ubiquity or theological infallibility. At least, this is the argument that Bailey might have made more forcefully had he been willing to flesh out the history of the Bible’s “preordained notional ubiquity” in the cultural project of imperialism in Ireland that he adverts to (as “the dominant ideology of the Anglo-Irish institutions of education”) but spends little or no time describing. Although Bailey stresses the Bible’s historicity, and argues quite forcefully that Beckett’s Bible must be situated against the history of Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland (8), little or nothing of that context is outlined here. This is a pity, as the argument is compelling on its own terms, and a text that chastens scholars with the historicity of the Bible might want to spend a little more time laying out its own historical contexts. This is because it is notoriously difficult to talk in fine detail of dominant ideologies, as Bailey’s clever use of Raymond Williams elsewhere in this book amply demonstrates: what, in the end, was the “dominant ideology of the Anglo-Irish institutions of education” that Beckett encountered? And to what extent was he dominated by it, in turn? These are questions that Bailey raises but, somewhat frustratingly, does not answer, even as he suggests that “there are compelling reasons to take into account both biographical narratives and the institutional context for the Bible in Beckett’s work” (37). Most of the textual evidence adduced to any of Bailey’s claims is primary (Beckett) or secondary (his critics), and whilst this evidence is skillfully deployed, it cannot clinch, on its own, the argument that the book wants to make. Overall, there is precious little historicizing in this recent title from Bloomsbury’s “Historicizing Modernism” series.

In Chapter 2, “Read to me as a Child: Memory, Voice and Religious Feeling,” Bailey focuses on the “ways in which ‘Samuel Beckett, Bible Reader’ has been variously imagined” (36). He also fleshes out the contention that Beckett’s use of the Bible is “aligned much more closely with memory and feeling than erudition” (36). Here again, “two key affiliations” are indicated: “a Protestant community” and “a family” (36). In this context, Bailey looks at the wonderfully evocative instance of a Bible, “published by Henry Frowde in London, printed at the University Press in Oxford and sold at the Association for Promoting Christian Knowledge, then based at 37 Dawson Street in Dublin” (39). It was presented to Samuel Beckett at the age of six for “Diligence and Attendance at Tallow Sunday School,” and is dated “13 December 1912” (38). This book is now housed at Pearse Street library in Dublin, and its annotations suggest that Beckett kept it with him at least until he was at Trinity (39). Here, Bailey’s text reveals something of its unachieved potential in that it brings us, as readers, into contact with a storied object that links Beckett to the milieux that Bailey wants us to imagine. But he focuses again on the annotations and their textual importance rather than explicating the ideological implications of these very “bibliographic details” and the “institutional context they partially document” (39). In other words, Bailey focuses on how Beckett reads his Tullow Bible rather than how we might read the fact that Beckett kept this edition with him during his time at Trinity College, Dublin—the dominant example of an educational institution promoting the dominant ideology that Bailey’s book is concerned with. The rest of the chapter moves to an analysis of the jumble of voices in The Trilogy, where “at every moment of disavowal,” Bailey claims, “one can reassign parts of the voice to some other owner” (47). Here again, the Bible’s supposed “historical ubiquity and foundational reputation” tend to give it “an impeccable claim on influence” (47). It is as if Bailey wants us to, at once, take a distance from claims as to the historical ubiquity of the King James Bible whilst finding further evidence to suggest that it might, in some sense, deserve its special status. This is another iteration of the unresolved question that haunts this book from the outset: is the Bible (to Beckett) just another book or not? To be fair, the many merits of the book lie chiefly in the many delicately-formulated readings of discrete passages of the Bible in Beckett by which Bailey approaches this question throughout.

Chapter 3 attempts to think through this central problem in terms of the Beckettian archive by way of another negative proposition: “that its value in relation to Beckett and the Bible is not understood in terms of demonstrability” (61). Here again, Bailey provides deft close readings of the Watt manuscripts in particular, in order to show howthe parallels between the shape of Beckett’s ‘double’ propositions and that of the Bible’s” can be read to think about intertextuality and style: the fact that Beckett’s text draws attention to the Bible as writing “but also as documentation (writing down)” (65). The Bible, here, is situated as part of a broader “critique of language and its relationship to perception, even tending towards a kind of radical nominalism” (69). By way of explication, Bailey offers insightful short readings of the manuscripts of Ill Seen Ill Said as well as an account of Beckettian intertextuality in a number of different texts. These short passages are forceful on their own terms, but there is a sense, for the rest of the book, in which a kind of episodic quality takes over, such that no through line of argument is sustained for any length of time. The more troubling issue, at least from my perspective, is the continuing failure to provide anything of the critique of Beckett’s Biblical exegesis in ideological context. This despite a reiteration at the end of the book that “the Bible must be understood as a text with a history, bound up with institutions and ideologies” (183). Instead, the rest of the book continues to offer insightful textual analysis of the Bible across the oeuvre, with considerable time spent on archival residua, such as “On le tortura bien.” It is not that these chapters are not satisfying in themselves. It is just that the book never quite seems to want to do what Bailey says we ought to do when confronted with Beckett’s continuing use of the Bible as intertext (a process which is documented with some verve throughout).

This problem shows again in a revealing slippage at the beginning of Chapter 4: “Bawd and Blasphemer from Paris: Nation and Irritation.” Bailey recalls Rudmose-Brown’s characterization of Beckett as a “grand enemy de l’imperialisme, du patriotism, de toutes les Eglises,” commenting that “the idea of [Beckett’s] enmity to patriotism and all the churches has remained an asset” to Beckett Studies (87). Here, the issue of imperialism is quietly dropped, and Bailey goes on to study the concept of blasphemy in the Sinclair trial. Yet the issue of imperialism, British imperialism particularly, as well as Beckett’s ontological complicity with imperialism by way of Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland (which his time in Trinity would surely have brought home to him on a daily basis) must surely be central to his assault on the authority of the King James Bible. This, indeed, is the point that Bailey makes in the book more than once, but it seems revealing (and troubling) that the phrase Protestant Ascendancy, for example, does not appear. And I think it fair to say that few, if any, of the “institutional or ideological” contexts in which the Bible might usefully be considered are explicated at any length, despite repeated claims of the usefulness of Beckett’s “Irish ‘political geography’ as an index to interpret Beckett’s uses of the Bible” (90). Instead, the rest of the book, in three further chapters, returns to the kind of textualist analysis of Beckett’s encounter with the Bible across a range of works. Chapter 5, “The Bible in a Bilingual Oeuvre,” usefully traces the status of the Bible in Beckett’s French texts, revealing how the English texts tend to be used as a benchmark against which Biblical echoes are discerned (often in their absence) in the French. Where the English text “start out in a state of plenitude,” Bailey suggests, the French text “can only hope to equal it, or fall short” (118). Comédie is the test case here, and Bailey explicates the Biblical resonances with his customary aplomb. Bailey is interested in the ways in which a notion of totalisation shadows conversations of Beckett’s fragmentary methodologies, citing “a common critical refrain: the oeuvre is one of residua that do not collect into a whole; yet, paradoxically, a poetics of residua characterizes the whole Beckettian project” (136). Here, Bailey offers an insightful reading of Beckett’s enduring interest in the Dives-Lazarus story to conclude: “Inconvenience is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of Beckett’s poetics, and his work is most certainly inconvenient if we want to posit it simply as anti-totalizing or anti-universalist” (143). The book concludes with a discussion of the concept of intertextuality and the Bible as intertext in a number of Beckett’s most important texts.

The merits of Bailey’s book are considerable, and they are nicely summarized by Dirk Van Hulle on the back cover: Bailey’s “brilliant book,” he says is “a sophisticated plea for an approach to intertextuality that does not limit itself to phrase-hunting […] but that consists of a subtle negotiation between texts and contexts, taking full account of ideological fluctuations and historical contingencies” (n.p.). The problem, though, is that the book does not itself detail anything of those fluctuations or contingencies such that the subtle negotiation required to realize the full potential of the argument here offered becomes difficult to sustain. And this is a pity, because Iain Bailey raises some interesting questions in this stimulating book.