Samuel Beckett and VRP (Viscerally Resonant Parataxis) :oR: Sometimes Crucified Thieves are Just Crucified Thieves

When talking about viscerally resonant parataxis (the irrational juxtaposition of images that creates a gut level response) it’s good to look at its masters like Kafka and Beckett. The problem is that there’s so much criticism written about them, and the whole ethos of criticism is to take mystery and apply meaning to it. Great VRP functions precisely through mystery, not meaning. VRP is always struggling against metaphorizing — that’s part of what gives it power: it inspires a need to find meaning, but what is most effective is the visceral need, not the cerebral endpoint. The best of the best can create VRP that withstands metaphorizing.

Waiting for Godot, for example, is powerful no matter how much of its mystery critics seek to kill. They can’t force it to be a cerebral, rhetorical exercise when the imagery is just too powerful. However, it makes it harder for me to say, “Look at how excellently and perfectly meaningless this masterpiece is” when there are whole bookshelves full of mysterykillers seeking to prove otherwise. Beckett is a great one to look at in a discussion of VRP and other types of irrational imagery, however, because that is how he talks about his own work. When asked if Godot was God, he said Godot was Godot. He was approaching the text — as I think artists should approach the text unless they want to rip the soul right out of it — aesthetically, not rhetorical. Godot’s absence is something beautiful and is not required to mean anything. Likewise, when asked the meaning of Didi and Gogo’s discussion of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus, Beckett just said he liked the shape of it. For him, the two thieves were aesthetically pleasing, especially in the way they related to Didi and Gogo, and that’s what gave them value in the story.

This is why I gravitate more to Beckett’s lesser known plays about which less is written. In particular, “Rough for Theatre II” has become my favorite: it succeeds where “Catastrophe” fails, in my opinion. At the core is a story that can seem allegorical or as psychological drama. For me, dismissing unusual elements as psychological, the “it’s all in his head” excuse, grates on my nerves, but it’s a step better than metaphorizing, the “it’s only a metaphor for” excuse, because at least it serves the end of characterization, but the less of any kind of dismissing the better. Essentially, what happens in “Rough for Theatre II” is that a man stands on a ledge and two men who appear to be bureaucratic functionaries discuss whether or not he should jump. Sure, the two men can be the embodiment of different sides of the suicidal man debating with himself, and that’s how it’s usually written about. That makes the whole thing a bit dull for my taste, and that may be why it isn’t considered one of Beckett’s great works.

However, what makes it excellent to me are the odd bits that just don’t seem to fit. The two functionaries discuss whether a particular star is Jupiter, and one says it can’t be because it twinkles. It’s a lovely moment that does not require explanation based on psychological embodiments, etc. My favorite part is when one of the functionaries — the one who appears at first to be pragmatic and dismisses Jupiter as only twinkling — desires “animal warmth” from the other because he seems to be frightened by the lamp’s tendency to shut off on its own. Then the play ends with the discovery of a cage with two finches, one dead and the other alive, and the Jupiter-loving functionary laments that they are only organic waste. You can grasp for metaphors — and I love that they’re not so easy with this one — but based on how Beckett feels about the image of the two crucified thieves in Godot, we can assume that Beckett simply chose the image for its beauty.

Far from the superficiality this sort of image-focused writing is accused of, “Rough for Theatre II,” like the best of Beckett, with its mysterious and irrational focus shifts, bypasses the cerebral and hits you right in the core. This shows that VRP is a technique that, when mastered, can take a text to amazing places.

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