Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Dantean Echoes – The influence of Dante on Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney

“‘I recall one superb pun anyway: qui vive la pietà quando e ben morta’ She said nothing. ‘Is it not a great phrase?’ he gushed. She said nothing. ‘Now’ he said like a fool ‘I wonder how you could translate that?’ She still said nothing. Then: ‘do you think’ she murmured ‘it is absolutely necessary to translate it?'”

[p.xix Dante in English – Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds (ed.)]

For Samuel Beckett, it was. Taken from his first short story Dante and The Lobster, the painfully erudite protagonist struggles to understand Dante. His Neapolitan teacher in the story, Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi less than subtly suggests the irrelevance of this venture with regard to passing his exams. But Belaqua will not “concede himself conquered”. Neither, for that matter, will the writer himself, as Dante and the Commedia will prove an inexhaustible resource throughout his career. So why Dante of all mentors? First, Beckett in fact studied the great man at university in Trinity College Dublin. This would form enough lasting inspiration for any undergraduate. Belaqua, like most dantean novices is irresistibly drawn to the metaphysical and moral difficulties outlined by Dante. Second, and perhaps more complex is the profound influence on the young writer exerted by James Joyce. It was undoubtedly through his meeting this giant of Irish literature, that Dante remained in Beckett, even if Joyce did not. For Beckett, like so many authors after him would take what he needed from Joyce, (including Dante) and move out on his own.

This is also true of another Irish Nobel Laureate. Seamus Heaney too could not escape the gravitational force of Joyce in the canon, and to a perhaps more subtle extent, his appropriation of Dante. Heaney’s own dantean samplings are, like Beckett’s, coloured to some extent by Joyce and his ambivalent attitude to his native Ireland. It would take Heaney years to come to terms with his own cultural and political feelings and the Ulyssean paradigm in which Dante and the Commedia is used with at times bitter irony, will contribute much to Heaney’s poetic. This is most resonant in both Field Work, and in Station Island, two collections which excavate both national and religious mythologies while magnifying the poet’s own feelings of inadequacy. These collections use both Dante and Joyce implicitly and explicitly as literal tools in the effort.

What is the link, therefore that binds this complex triumvirate? It is perhaps more than simply a shared uneasiness with one’s native political and cultural point of reference. Beckett left Ireland in 1929 and came back but rarely. He found himself increasingly drawn to French as his language of expression. Heaney too left Ireland to take up teaching posts both in England and in the United States, but unlike Beckett continued to come home. Like Beckett, however, Heaney was in many ways uncomfortable with his roots and this is more often than not, the food for his poetic expression. The two writers have an inexorable bond with their patria, a bond which linked them both to Joyce, and ultimately , to Dante. It was in Dante that this national friction could be explored even if never fully resolved. This will be discussed in the following comparative reading which will single out two Irish writers, namely Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney as exponents of dantean influence. Joyce too will be included, albeit briefly, as the ostensibly unifying agent between them but will ultimately give way to both writers evolving beyond what he gave them as modern readers of Dante. It is my intention to prove that, while Joyce was instrumental in their intellectual formations, it is through their independent use of Dante that they graduate from students/apprentices to a point of intellectual and artistic independence.

According to Richard Ellmann, Dante was Joyce’s favourite author. For the student of Italian, ‘Italian Literature’ began ‘with Dante’ and finished ‘with Dante’. What Joyce appears to have admired most about the poet is intellectual completeness as an artist extraordinaire. In ‘Dante dwells the whole spirit of the renaissance’. He pervaded Joyce’s work, much as it stayed with Beckett in his own use of the poet. Joyce’s Dante is a signal to erudition, and marker of thoughtful craftsmanship. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , Joyce, like Beckett after him, uses Dante as a springboard for larger concerns:

“‘God and religion before everything!’ Dante cried. ‘God and religion before the world!'”

It is Christmas dinner, and the conversation turns toward Ireland and God. An argument has ensued between the men at the table and Stephen’s Aunt Dante over the death of King Parnell. Aunt Dante becomes naturally enraged with the charge levelled against the country as being a ‘priestridden Godforsaken race!’ The ironic setting , which is seen in their Christmas dinner with the ascetic Dante invoked through an aunt is palpable and typical of Joyce’s black humour .The ideally Christian scene is perverted into a form of mock nativity with the ambivalent Stephen at the centre. Aunt Dante is, of course reminiscent of Mother Ireland, and projects the author’s own uneasiness with the parochialism which he felt had saturated the country.

Similar tones of irony and satire can be traced in Beckett. Like Stephen Dedalus, Belaqua uses Beckett’s knowledge of the Commedia as the substance by which the satire is effected. In the case of Dante and The Lobster, it is the unlikely and deliberately odd pairing in the title which alerts us first. The most striking resemblance to Joyce, however, is the cutting passage at the beginning of the story where Belaqua, after being frustrated long enough with the ‘the first of the canti in the moon’, ‘raised it under his nose and there he slammed it shut’. The gravitas of Dante is deliberately destabilized. Dante is once again employed romantically as symbol to Beckett’s readers. Belaqua is a Renaissance man, master of intellect and a true European. The juxtaposition of the serious and the farcical, the sacred and profane are typical of Joyce. It is, however, more typical of Beckett that, beyond these relatively superficial stylistic similarities, lies a more profound exploration of Dante and the notions of crime and punishment. This is to say, that although Joyce is present, it is Dante who remains long after Beckett’s immediate mentor has left the building.

This is most apparent in the juxtaposition of the newly bought ‘lepping’ fresh lobster and the contemporaneous case of Ellis the Hangman and McCabe the prisoner. Beckett skilfully relates the fate of the hapless lobster to that of McCabe’s own punishment. The reaction of Belaqua to his mother boiling the ‘beast’ alive is a direct echo of Dante the pilgrim utterly unable to understand fully Divine justice. Just as the pilgrim could not comprehend the spots on the moon, Belaqua cannot see why the lobster must be boiled alive. Why is McCabe to be hanged? Guilt and accountability in the particulars aside, it is the autonomy of higher justice together with the notion of ‘pity’ which is called into question. The answer is the same for him as it was for the pilgrim ‘lobsters are always boiled alive’. Sinners are alwa
ys punished according to the set programme of Divine justice.

Belaqua veres away from Stephen in his own existential worryings. ‘Why not piety and pity both, even down below?’ he asks. What is crucial is that Beckett keeps asking. This is evident more and more as he writes his fictions, and most especially in his plays.

‘I was, I was, they say in Purgatory, in Hell too, admirable singulars, admirable assurance, Plunged in ice up to the nostrils, the eyelids caked in frozen tears, to fight all your battles over again, what tranquillity, and know there are no more emotions in store, no, I can’t have heard that aright.’
[p.143 Beckett,Texts for Nothing, Dante’s Modern Afterlife: Reception and Response from Blake to HeaneyNick Havely (ed.). Macmillan]

Beckett strongly identifies with Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio. Perhaps it would be better said that in relation to the Commedia, he identifies himself under the total absence of the Paradiso. For Beckett’s characters in the plays discussed, there is no light save for that of the inquisitor. They are in an environment which is stripped of all hope and characterised by circularity. It is the nature of sin and punishment that is most explored in Beckett’s characters, how they are relentlessly punished for their human condition, and how death is neither quick, nor necessarily the end. What is Purgatory if not an expiation of the self on the way to Paradise? What if there is no Paradise? What if Purgatory is just an extension of Hell, and Hell another extension of life? This is reflected in Beckett’s language and in the physical environment in which he places his characters. We can take, for example, Play, which presents three people, or more appropriately shades who are encased in urns with only their heads and necks showing. They are dishevelled and decayed almost beyond recognition, and are placed in a landscape remarkably reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. We are put in mind of the lost shades in the wood of the suicides, who, having lost their bodies are now doomed to exist (for want of a better word) as dead trees. There is a single, bright light which shines on each of them individually, and which triggers them to speak. Like the trees who bleed on the pilgrim breaking their branches, causing them pain and ultimately to speak, the light physically draws out the narrative. The light is a sinister one and performs as a harsh inquisitor which seems almost to force them into speaking. The speech itself, for each and every character is circular. The same story which tells of a domestic love triangle between man, wife and mistress is told, bouncing from one narrator to the next and over again. The same words are often used suggesting a bond between them. This bond, is however, negated by the utter mutual alienation illustrated by them facing us and not each other. Furthermore, the characters are without identification save for that of M, W1 and W2 which adds to the heartless monotony of the action. They are just as dehumanised as those tortured trees in the wood of the suicides. It is the same story told by three shadows, with no purpose but to respond to the light. It is, as Beckett suggested once in an essay on Joyce, an endless cycle of ‘unrelieved viciousness’:

“Yes, strange, darkness best, and the darker the worse, till all dark, then all well, for the time, but it will come, the time will come, the thing is here, you’ll see it, get off me keep off me, all dark, all still, all over, wiped out”
[Pg 145 Play, Collected Shorter Plays by Samuel Bekett. Faber & Faber]

The play ends with the single most awful ending , with the word ‘Repeat’. This not only adds to the circularity but it also worsens with the prescribed stage directions. The tempo, for instance, is to be ‘rapid throughout’, the transfer of light is to be immediate and not gradual from one face to the next, and the characters themselves, along with their words are to remain impassive. The effect, therefore, results in an intensely banal illustration of unending torment. These characters are doomed to retell the same pointless narrative, aware only of the need to tell it to an audience (in this case the light) as with the damned souls of the Inferno ‘Are you listening to me? Is anyone listening to me? Is anyone looking at me?’ while the spotlight, much like the pilgrim in the commedia, is free to roam and question as it pleases. This banality constitutes another divergence from Joyce, in that whereas that writer was famed for using his characters speech as idiosyncratic and particular to them, Beckett renders his own characters schematically, almost as symbols. These people are not people. They are the closest thing to Dante’s most wretched shades, like those in Limbo ‘who lived a life but lived it with no blame and with no praise’ and what is more, ‘these wretches have no hope of truly dying’. Death, for Beckett’s characters is not inevitable in the typically understood sense. It is not quick and it is never assured as an end.

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