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Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Tramp Meets the Marxist

Portrait of Samuel Beckett 
Samuel Beckett had a bleak and nihilistic view of the world. In his novels and short stories, he describes the absurdity of human existence. But his accounts of the absurd are masterful and you end up empathizing with his dumb, decrepit, and decaying characters.

Recently I reread a few of Beckett’s short stories, among them was The End, the story of an old, unnamed tramp who is thrown out of a public institution. The tramp has a little bit of capacity to survive but he cannot stop the decay and slowly drifts towards death. Here’s an excerpt in which Beckett is describing the tramp’s encounter with a Marxist:
For some time I had thought I heard an unwonted sound. I did not investigate the cause. For I said to myself, It's going to stop. But as it did not stop I had no choice but to find out the cause, and so be rid of it. Its cause was a man perched on the roof of a car, haranguing the passersby, of whom many stopped, the better to see and hear. That at least was the way I looked at it. He was bellowing so loud that snatches of his oration reached my ears: injustice… union… brothers… Marx… capital… bread… love… right to live. It was all Greek to me. The car was drawn up against the curb, just in front of me, and I saw the orator, from behind. All of a sudden he turned around towards me, as to a specimen. Look at this down and out, he vociferated, this leftover. If he doesn't go down on four paws, it's for fear of being impounded. Old, lousy, rotten, in the garbage heap. And there are a thousand like him, worse than him, ten thousand, twenty thousand. A voice. Thirty thousand. In your plutocratic Sodom, resumed the orator, every day of your life you pass them by, and when you have won at the races you fling them a farthing. Do you ever think? The voice, No. No, indeed, resumed the orator, you find that normal, the way of the world. A penny, tuppence. The voice. Thruppence. It never enters your head, resumed the orator, that your charity is a crime, that you are subscribing to enslavement, stultification and organized murder. Take a good look at this living corpse. You may tell me it's his own fault. The voice, After you. Then he bent down towards me and flung me a phrase I did not understand. I had perfected my board. It now consisted of two boards hinged together, which enabled me, when my work was done, to fold it and carry it under my arm. So I took off the rag, as I always did when my work was done, pocketed the few coins remaining on the board, untied the board, folded it and put it under my arm. Do you hear me, you crucified bastard! the orator cried. Then I went away, although it was still light. 
There is no political motivation in Beckett’s writing. He was too much of a pessimist to have faith in any political ideology, and he was too much of a nihilist and solipsist to think of humanity in terms of society and culture. He was revolted by the human condition, but he is not preaching revolt in his stories.

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