The Complete Short Prose of Samuel Beckett

Writing a review of The Complete Short Prose of Samuel Beckett is a puzzle. Reviews should describe and evaluate what the author was attempting … and accomplished. They also should note aesthetic resonances, if any, with the works of other writers. Along the way they should suggest to the review reader whether he or she might be interested in reading the work in question.

With Beckett’s short stories, that’s not easy. Here are the first sentences of the first five pieces in this volume:

“He could have shouted and could not.”
“Down you get now and step around.”
“Come come and cull me bonny bony doublebed cony swiftly my springal and my thin Kerry twingle-twangler comfort my days of roses and beauty week of redness with mad shame to my lips of shame to my shameful . . .” (Well, this piece, entitled “Text” goes on this way to the end.)
“Surgeon Bor operated with the utmost success on a boy called Bray who had been brought to him suffering from tubercular glands in the neck, since when the boy showed an unfathomable tendency to sink, and did in fact begin to sink.”
“I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father, in time.”

There is music and mystery in these sentences that never leads to anything except more of the same, usually an account in the apparent first person of a life that is a kind of Irish bonsai, tiny and twisted and heading in contradictory directions

Becket was trying to write as minimally as he could, counting on the lilting humor and oddness of oppressed perception to encompass what is like to live as if one had never been born, or had never awakened, or was determined to articulate the subconscious stuttering and muttering everyone probably experiences in the course of a life that has an outside and an inside at the same time . . . and this is the inside.

If you know his play, Waiting for Godot, these comments probably make more sense to you than if you don’t. Beckett’s subject was the incompleteness of identity. His subject was the lack of a body, a name, a whereabouts, a direction, and any means of surviving except through gnarled being.

Samuel Beckett was a writer from the first. He came to Paris and became a kind of assistant to James Joyce, high praise in itself. He did not write as obscurely as Joyce in Finnegans Wake or as assiduously as in Ulysses or as conventionally as in Dubliners. Rather, he perfected this middle ground. He reminds one of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Franz Kafka, but in the end, he was and remains inimitably himself, satisfied with word upon word, kicked out of the world, longing for a view, buried sometimes, aloft sometimes, wondering where he’d left his coat.

On balance I’d speculate that very few readers would take these tales to heart because they’re not tales, they’re monologues from the unknown.

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The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman

The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman is 570 page book that examines the respective influences of Plato and Aristotle on western civilization. It is a tour de force. Herman has mastered everything from the pre-Socratics through St. Augustine to Descartes to the French Revolution to Hegel, Marx, Hayek, and Popper.

At bottom this is an argument that ideas matter, that they endure, that they affect human, political and economic outcomes. It is persuasive intellectual history and traces my own preoccupations since I was thirteen and began to study Latin, ancient history, and eventually Greek, reading Plato and Aristotle in the original.

The fundamental difference between Aristotle and Plato can be stated in less than 570 pages and less than 570 words. Plato conceived the highest order of reality to be the limits of our rational imagination. He posited propositions and then attempted to prove them. He used the deductive method of reasoning as his primary means of suggesting that things that can be perfectly thought can be perfectly realized. Aristotle took a simpler, inductive approach. He looked at what existed and accepted it as reality; then he compared and categorized and analyzed. He did not presuppose things. He saw freedom in diversity and he saw truth there, too.

Herman examines their cyclical rises and falls in western history. He explains Plato’s decisive effect on Christianity. He explains Aristotle’s ascendency in the Middle Ages. He finds Plato in the French and Russian Revolutions and other mass phenomena that have tended toward totalitarianism. Think of Hitler, think of Mussolini, think of anyone who would seek to make the individual fit the system. By contrast, think of Aristotle when you think of major historical actors and moments where the system is forced to adjust to the individual. One extended portion of Herman’s book focuses on the checks and balances James Madison built into the U.S. Constitution, those checks and balances being designed to thwart and excessive concentration of power and rule of the few over the many.

At the end of the book, Herman plays his personal hand too forcefully, it seems to me. He praises Ayn Rand, whom I take for narrow-minded and unoriginal (and verbose), and he tends to pretend that there is something called “the free market” and that it is information (not interest) driven.

So Herman is what we in the U.S. call a conservative, but in fairness, he’s a good kind of conservative, one who believes that there is room for the dreams of Plato in the human soul and one who clearly believes that preserving our understanding of ourselves is of vital importance.

The erudition in this book will shock some readers, but it is clearly written, well-paced, and if it has an intellectual flaw, it’s too short. Nonetheless, if you don’t know much about Abelard or Rousseau or Socrates, here’s a chance to meet them. This is no screed. It’s not a lecture in the form of a study. It’s fair-minded and compelling, and it hangs together.

We can take Plato and Aristotle as metaphors for two human intellectual capacities: the ability to imagine and deduce what it would take to fulfill our dreams and the ability to see one thing and examine its relationship to another. Or we can consider them and their followers, as Herman does, in their historical contexts, and that’s a rich road to travel.

For more of my reviews, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle). My novels–The Man Clothed in Linen and The Way Home–also are available on Kindle. Some of the seventy short stories and novellas I’ve published can be found with a simple Google search.

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The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus

I mentioned in a recent review of a book about Nero and Seneca (Dying Every Day by James Romm) that I was concurrently reading The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus. I have now finished Tacitus’s masterwork and want to reflect on two aspects of it: the challenges of writing history in ancient times and the brutal severity of Tacitus’s judgments on the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero.
Tacitus’s Annals, like the four gospels of the New Testament, were composed decades after the fact. We don’t know his source material, though there is a tightness and consistency in what he writes that persuades us he somehow was very close, intellectually, to the period he described. What a fantastically difficult feat! I can tell personal stories from thirty or forty years ago with reasonable (I think) accuracy but chiefly because I was present. I also heard family stories from my parents going back a hundred years ago that I’ve been known to repeat, but in such cases, I can only say that’s what I was told, not necessarily what actually happened. If I were pressed to recount events and speeches that were not personal- or family-based but involved some governor of Pennsylvania in 1964 or the mayor of Philadelphia at the time, my stories would be thin, mere anecdotes at best. Of course I could research an incident, read the newspapers of the day and perhaps relevant reports and memoirs, and even view videotape. And that’s how I would go about writing non-personal history
Tacitus certainly had some written documentation to draw on—he must have—but nothing like what presently exists. So I deduce that he dwelled in an oral culture that sustained facts and stories more thoroughly than ours does. In other words, educated men and women must have carried forward every bit and piece of imperial history, passing it along through the generations, getting some things right and some things wrong. Tacitus’s Annals contain hundreds of names, vignettes, and statements of lineage. They are replete with detail. The great events of the early imperial period that he recounts read, in some sense, like a digest compressed from a more encyclopedic narrative. But there was, to our knowledge, no such encyclopedic narrative. More likely there were long nights of verbal exchange, reflection and correction and numerous sketchy lists of who begat whom—as in the Bible. That Tacitus was able to sift through this relatively thin source material and write a text as rich and dense as he did strikes me as a testament to his moral imagination and determination. It’s a certain kind of genius at work.
This brings me to my second point. The Tiberius, Claudius and Nero we encounter in the Annals of Tacitus were hideous individuals (and this isn’t to mention the brief focus on Caligula). It’s striking that Tacitus had the conviction and sense of intellectual independence necessary to be so open and critical of post-Augustus imperial Rome. Things written and said today about national and international leaders are often condemnatory but no more so than what Tacitus wrote about Roman emperors who were killers, megalomaniacs, matricides, fratricides and uxoricides (wife murderers). The vice of Rome’s early emperors clearly was sustained by two things: 1) a cowardly and cowed senate and 2) an ever-obedient Praetorian guard. Domitian, under whose reign Tacitus himself no doubt cowered, was bad, too. But Tacitus did not dare criticize him, so he resorted to criticizing his predecessors as a way of raising important questions about how decadent Rome became when it made the transition from republic to, essentially, dictatorship. The impact of Tacitus’s work on his contemporary audience must have been profound. He delineated depravity in the mirror of the past so that it could be better seen through the windows of the present. As an historian, he could not retroactively impose justice on imperial miscreants, but he could, and did, sully them forever with accounts of what they’d done and why they’d done it. This had to make his contemporaries pause to consider their own rulers and make them do so within the concise, utterly clear moral terms Tacitus used to dramatize and evaluate his subjects from the past. In short, Tacitus is very difficult to translate, but he’s wonderful to read. His kind of tough-mindedness remains an important lesson to us today.

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Dying Every Day–Seneca at the Court of Nero–James Romm

Dying Every Day (a wonderful title) by James Romm is a compact, well-researched and well-written study of the Emperor Nero and his relationship to the philosopher Seneca, who served as Nero’s tutor and counselor. The book focuses more on Nero than on Seneca for various reasons, chief among them that more is known about Nero, despite the fact that Seneca wrote a half million words of literary philosophy that reflected his personal Stoic values.

The crises of this history, then, move from Nero’s accession to his decision to kill his step-brother, his mother, and others in the Julio-Claudian clan who might try to take his throne from him. Nero’s use of his throne is better termed an abuse of his throne. He was 17 when he assumed power and 32 when he lost it–to a suicide that was as complicated and botched as the suicide he pressed upon Seneca a few years earlier.

The issue Romm emphasizes with respect to Seneca is whether he was a hypocritical wealth-and- power-seeker or a virtuous man caught in the toils of power, forced to try to ameliorate Nero’s excesses by virtue of his ever-waning influence over him.

The facts are that Seneca produced a great deal of lucid, compelling Stoic writing while amassing fabulous wealth and enormous influence, not something the normal Stoic would aspire to. This has always been the criticism of Seneca, even in his day. Knowing what was said of him and that Nero mistrusted and resented him, Seneca offered Nero all his riches if he could be permitted to leave his court and end his days in solitary peace. Nero declined the offer.

Ultimately Nero associated Seneca with a conspiracy against him, however, and commanded that Seneca do away with himself. As in so many other instances, Seneca’s role in the conspiracy (Piso’s Conspiracy) is not quite clear. He was a cautious, wary, experienced man who may have wanted to stay clear of taking Nero on or who may have conceived of himself as the ultimate beneficiary of the conspiracy . . . thereby becoming the next Roman princeps, or emperor.

Romm relies heavily on the Annals of Tacitus, which I’m reading concurrently in English fifty years after I translated Tacitus from the Latin. Going straight to Tacitus is in some ways more engaging than reading his work filtered through (but amplified by) Romm.

Those who are fascinated with Rome and its emperors will find this a worthwhile book. It doesn’t have the panache of its title from front to back, but it does put us in touch with the barbarism of one of the world’s first great “civilizations.”

The question the classics often pose to us is how we compare with ancient manners and morals. This is particularly true in the case of Stoicism, which is an ascetic, self-denying philosophy that requires an individual to live modestly but nobly at the same time. Seneca’s gift was phrasing the moral dimensions of Stoicism in tight, epigrammatic style. What he points to constantly are issues of self-restraint, detachment, and what might be called integrity, or honor. Coupling this kind of philosopher with Nero generated conflicts. Nero was a vapid Narcissist who didn’t hesitate to poison, torture, or simply intimidate someone into committing suicide. As he grew older (I won’t say matured) he found Seneca’s presence less useful and more irritating. Seneca understood the dynamic. He had outlived his usefulness to the emperor, worn out his welcome.

Having been party to some of Nero’s excesses, one might have expected some kind of remorse on Seneca’s part, some expression of guilt. But he wouldn’t do it, and perhaps he couldn’t, for if he did, Nero would have seen him dead sooner rather than later. This leads me to a basic question: who among recent and historical figures has really confronted his mistakes and taken himself to task for them? Robert McNamara comes to mind; he ended his life unable to find justification for the policies he advocated in Vietnam. But there aren’t many other rulers, or advisors or philosophers who have summed things up negatively. Today George Bush, Dick Cheney and others maintain that their interrogation policies didn’t include torture. Nixon didn’t repudiate Vietnam as McNamara did. A few of Nixon’s Watergate henchmen accepted their punishment without crying foul, but not many. I don’t know whether Neville Chamberlain ever publicly addressed his misjudgment of Hitler (this would be worth looking into). It’s not an easy thing to do–say you were wrong–but it’s not an easy thing to rule and always be right or philosophize and always be right. From Socrates we receive the word “apology,” as in “Socrates’s Apology.” In fact, this just means “explanation” or “personal account of the facts.” And in fact, Socrates’s apologized by going on the offensive. But at least he set a standard for not expecting much of men who judge other men. He went to his trial expecting to be condemned, perhaps even wanting to be condemned, and he wasn’t disappointed.

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Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is subtitled, Medicine and What Matters in the End. It is a book that is scientific, humanistic, and philosophical. The subject is how to deal with death. As a surgeon, Gawande brings a special perspective to bear on this topic because, as he illustrates, we in the U.S (and the West in general) have pathologized death. This is to say that we treat death as a medical issue, something we can treat and put off and perhaps even defeat.

Gawande argues that there is more to death than thwarting it, postponing it, or ignoring it by warehousing it in nursing homes where the corridors are lined with aged, infirm men and women in their wheelchairs.

He offers many compelling case studies that illustrate ways to provide better end-of-life care than simply trying the next exotic medical technique or pharmaceutical. He describes nursing homes that are more like homes than hospitals. He examines the statistical facts about hospice programs that often prolong and improve life better than desperate measures.

None of us likes to talk about death or imagine our demise or put our affairs and relations in order, and the worst time to do any of this is after receiving a grim diagnosis of cancer, heart failure, or some other fatal malady. Gawande can’t overcome this, but he does show ways in which end-of-life conversations can take place that focus on the priorities and quality of a given life as opposed to the protocols and pretensions of advanced medicine.

This isn’t a book that damns medicine. Medicine is a wonderful thing that offers cures in so many ways that it couldn’t be called into question except in this particular case: when death is almost certain, regardless of medical measures, how should the doctor, patient, and family proceed?

Gawande advances the argument, compiled by many experienced practitioners he has studied, that the most important thing to do when dealing with a dying person is to ask questions and listen, not push answers and talk. He notes that when we ship our mortally ill to hospitals, we sometimes rescue them, but in many, many cases we divorce them from the very stuff of their lives, meaning their familiar surroundings, their loved ones, their little pleasures, and their memories.

This is truly a profound book that reflects wisely on an issue the United States (and the West in general) has not come to terms with, although promising initiatives have been taken all over the country. When there is no reasonable expectation of survival, isn’t it best to focus not on the length of time remaining but rather on the quality of time at hand?

For those of us who have dealt with parents or loved ones who have died, this book speaks to a great deal of anguish. One of the maddening things about dying when you are old is that often you die of many things at once. This sometimes is called systemic collapse. That means that the bowels stop functioning and the blood stops flowing and the nerves stop working and the lungs stop pumping air, and everything becomes jumbled–what do you deal with first, second, third? When do you recognize that palliative care, which is care focused on minimizing suffering, is better than curative care?

Toward the end of the book, Gawande emphasizes the need for every individual to come to terms with the end of his/her life’s narrative, to find an ending appropriate to his/her values and responsibilities and aspirations. Medical schools too often fail when it comes to the meaning of existence; experienced doctors don’t know how to confront the dying on the dying’s terms, not on the terms established by their training. In this book, Gawande offers a different approach, one he has observed acutely and experienced just as acutely in losing his father. Again, ask, don’t tell; listen, don’t talk; try to find a way to do for the patient what the patient really wants in his/her final experience of life. A side benefit to this approach is that six months after someone passes away, the survivor’s are less likely to feel guilty and depressed because they know they forced senseless medical treatment on a loved one that made things worse, not better, in the final days of life.

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Conspirata by Robert Harris

In Conspirata Robert Harris has again written a novel of classical Rome that is rich with characters, atmosphere, historical detail, and plot. The book focuses on Cicero’s attempts to preserve the authority of the Roman Senate, and the Republic, against Caesar’s dictatorial machinations that flexibly reached both certain patrician quarters and vast tracts of the disenfranchised (but traditionally protected) popular classes, or plebes.

The major figures here are Cicero, Pompey the Great, Crassus, Cicero’s secretary Tiro, his wife Terentia, Cataline (here called Catalina), and many others, including the amoral Clodius and his sister Clodia.

Cicero is an unlikely hero in many ways, astute and yet shaky politically, not a soldier in a martial culture, and given to anxiety and unattractive dealmaking. But this makes him all the more interesting. He detects Cataline’s plot to storm and dismantle Rome and thwarts it, but this goes too much to his head, so he isn’t quick or flexible enough to outwit the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, and by the end of this book, he is heading into exile (though history tells us he came back, perhaps as influential as ever.)

The novel is fast-paced and well-informed without being too technical and overly detailed. Harris does an excellent job in fleshing out characters like Crassus, Cato (the very younger), Caesar, and a raft of miscreants and plotters.

My passage through translating Cicero’s great speeches from Latin into English fifty years ago did seem to me more vivid than what I encounter here, but I’m not sure there’s much a modern author can do about this. A single Ciceronian sentence can go on for ten or fifteen lines of text. That doesn’t make for good novelizing. But at the same time, Cicero would pack so much into his long sentences that finding an end to them brought a fantastic sense of relief and understanding. He possessed a rhetorical mind equal to any. Think of Churchill because Churchill thought of Cicero; think of many another great Western orator, because they, too, thought of Cicero.

One aspect of life in Cicero’s Rome that comes through Conspirata with disturbing clarity is how dangerous and fickle it was. Cicero defended governance by the upper class, not a popular stance today, but one can see how tense and ready to burst Rome was as its wealth and decadence grew. Pompey the Great brought fantastic riches to an empire that still thought of itself as a kind of city. Caesar capitalized on the instability this wealth engendered. Then he was killed. Finally, Augustus established order, but the beloved Roman Republic was dead.

One of Cicero’s greatest legacies was bringing Greek philosophy into the Latin language and amplifying Latin to accommodate it. He was, as Harris portrays him, a thoughtful man of public affairs. Today we can look around and find few public leaders with a broad intellectual horizon. Though he does not flaunt it, Obama has such an horizon. Churchill had it and so did Woodrow Wilson. Sometimes this is a weakness, perhaps more often than not, but it’s a fascinating characteristic and introduces a kind of melancholy into learned leadership. Such figures know the outer limits of what philosophers can dream, and they know the limits of what politicians can accomplish. All too often the ultimate agent of change is war, and no one who is widely read can be an enthusiast of violence rather than reason. (

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Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips

Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips is an exceptionally interesting biography about a man whom I had put aside some time ago, having read most of his work and discussed him sufficiently to think I was done with him. Phillips, a psychoanalyst and writer/editor, takes a uniquely thoughtful approach to Freud, however. He recognizes that Freud himself had little time for biography in the sense that biography is something we all choose about ourselves. We have many biographies and decide which one works best, discarding irrelevant material and highlighting what we take to be the essential. This gives us the birth of today’s trope “the narrative,” as in Obama’s narrative and Oprah’s narrative and so forth.
As a practitioner and man of letters, Phillips homes in on Freud’s rich contradictions. Yes, sexuality plays a determinative role in Freudian thought, but beyond that we enter a world of representations, diversions, symptoms, jokes and dreams, all of us struggling with two fundamental things: need and desire. In a sense this is the human evolution of Darwinian evolution, the way we humans do it. Freud struggled early in his career to be part of what we now call “hard science,” the process of discovering universal facts that can be reconfirmed through subsequent experimentation. He became a doctor for this reason, but late in his life, he wryly commented that he hadn’t much use for his medical degree and hadn’t been much of a doctor.
The problem with Freud (and Jung and many others) is that he saw relatively few patients, each of whom was incomparable, so he had no way of testing his findings except through observation. And then he stopped trying to test findings because his observations proved sufficient for the enveloping theories he constructed.
Phillips deals with this issue head-on. We’re a hundred years into true brain science, but the matter of a human body is easier to confirm than interpret, and here is where Freud excelled, using language (“the talking cure”) to probe what language conceals . . . or letting the patient achieve that end.
Phillips writes subtly. Sometimes he is so subtle and precise that the book is slow going, but always interesting. He spends time on “the dog that didn’t bark.” Freud wrote little about his wife, for example. That’s a dog that didn’t bark. Or his six children, six puppies who didn’t bark. But he was a man so focused on his work that he not only paid them as little attention as possible but also played no role in the intellectual/artistic world of Vienna, sticking to his patients and his writing.
For me one of the key sentences in the book is Freud’s view that we don’t live so much in culture as culture lives in us—and therefore each of us has problems fitting culture’s demands within our needs and desires. Culture is a generality. We are specific. Our lives, shorn of overarching religious interpretation in a secular world, therefore require multiple forms of narrative construction, sometimes contradictory, and our narratives inevitably change somewhat as we move through the life cycle. The fact that our awareness is greater than our immediate consciousness is obvious to us; we pick up more than we know. Thank Freud for that. When we joke, we are attempting to make unacceptable views acceptable. Thank Freud for that. When we dream, we are redescribing the previous day’s events and also demonstrating, though our fantastic imagery and bizarre stories, tremendous artistic powers, hard to understand and harder to access and employ when we are awake. Thank Freud for that.
Phillips follows Freud through his most productive psychoanalytic phase up to age fifty. After that Freud began applying his interpretations to broader life matters—“Civilization and Its Discontents,” for example. Phillips makes the canny point, however, that if Freud had died at fifty, he’d still be a foundational thinker. And he was—a thinker, a philosopher, a mind in search of meaning more than facts.
If you’re still interested in Freud, this is a good book to read. If you’re not still interested in Freud, it’s also a good book to read. I’d like to know Adam Phillips. The quotes he places at the head of his chapters, for example, demonstrate exceptional breadth of knowledge and wide reading. They alone would merit a few hours discussion.

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