"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

25 Feb 2012

A Philosophy of Tramping—Beckett's Tramps

I want to continue the theme of tramps that I introduced in my last post by discussing the ultimate vagabonds; the characters of Samuel Beckett's fictions, stripped of any identity or relationship, leaves the writer free to explore what it is just to exist in the world. More than any other modern writer, Beckett captured the ascetic and abject side of the true Diogenean Cynic. Beckett’s heroes (or anti-heroes) are the dispossessed, banished to the absolute margins of society, sometimes contriving elaborate techniques for begging but more often abandoning any responsibility for their own survival whatsoever, obsessed only with their bodily functions. By placing themselves at the very threshold of death (one even encounters monologues from the already dead) Beckett’s characters affirm life as only the true cynic can. Unlike Robinson Crusoe (of which there are some odd parallels) where Defoe’s hero attempts to create civilisation from the wilderness of his desert island; Beckett’s unnamed creature in his novella The End, seeks less than the minimum necessary to sustain life. Several passages are included below from this one novella to demonstrate Beckett’s empathy for the itinerant cynic. In the opening scene of The End, our hero is ejected from an institution where he has been incarcerated for many years and left to fend for himself with no more than the clothes he stands up in and a small amount of money for food and lodgings. Seeking no more than a place to lie down, perhaps to die quietly and peacefully on his own, he is denied even this luxury. After handing over most of his money to a woman he believes to be the owner of a rat infested basement, he is then ejected by the real owner:

He said he needed the room immediately for his pig . . . I asked if he couldn’t let me have another place, any old corner where I could lie down long enough to recover from the shock and decide what to do . . . I could live here with the pig, I said, I could look after him. . . . A bus took me to the country. I sat down in a field in the sun. . . . The night was cold. I wandered round the fields. At last I found a heap of dung. 

Just as the Cynics sought inspiration from the lives of animals, Beckett’s character has to give up his abode to a pig only to find warmth and shelter in a dung heap. He is then further shunned by society for his unpleasant appearance and odour:

One day I met a man I had known in former times. He lived in a cave by the sea . . . I reminded him that I wasn’t in the habit of staying more than two or three minutes with anyone and that the sea did not agree with me. He seemed deeply grieved to hear it. So you won’t come, he said. But to my amazement I got up on the ass and off I went . . . little boys jeered and threw stones, but their aim was poor, for they only hit me once on the hat. A policeman stopped us and accused us of disturbing the peace. My friend replied that we were as nature had made us, the boys too were as nature had made them. 

In this account we find shades of the Cynic Crate’s view that even Diogenes’ barrel was a luxury. We are then presented with the stoical manner in which the insults of others are endured and dismissed by the Cynic’s philosophical response that man made laws are at odds with the natural laws of human nature.

What he called his cabin in the mountains was a sort of wooden shed. The door had been removed . . . The glass had disappeared from the window. The roof had fallen in at several places . . . The vilest acts had been committed on the ground and against the walls. The floor was strewn with excrements, both human and animal, with condoms and vomit. In a cow pad a heart had been traced, pierced by an arrow. . . . Nevertheless it was a roof over my head. I rested on a bed of ferns, gathered at great labour with my own hands. One day I couldn’t get up. The cow saved me . . . She dragged me across the floor, stopping from time to time only to kick me. I did not know our cows could be so inhuman. . . . she dragged me across the threshold and out into the giant streaming ferns, where I was forced to let go. 

The absurdity of life is a hallmark of Beckett’s writing, but if Diogenes and Nietzsche mix humour with ridicule and sarcasm, Beckett’s work is always presented with a gentle humility and resignation to the bitterness of life. Having already been dispossessed by a pig, our hero is almost thankful for the cow’s intervention in removing him from his hovel.

I unbuttoned my trousers discretely to scratch myself. I scratched myself in an upward direction, with four nails. I pulled on the hairs to get relief. It passed the time, time flew when I scratched myself. Real scratching is superior to masturbation, in my opinion. One can masturbate up to the age of seventy, and even beyond . . . I itched all over, on the privates, in the bush up to the navel, under the arms, in the arse, and then patches of eczema and psoriasis that I could get raging merely by thinking of them. It was in the arse I had the most pleasure . . . Often at the end of the day I discovered the legs of my trousers all wet. That must have been the dogs. I personally pissed very little. 

With little else to give meaning to life, the functions and obsessions of the body now become the sole preoccupation of our heroe’s attention. The pleasure of scratching is acknowledged at the bottom of this post in an anecdote concerning the Cynic Crates by Marcel Schwob.

I found a boat, upside down. I righted it, chocked it up with stones and pieces of wood, took out the thwarts and made my bed inside. The rats had difficulty in getting at me, because of the bulge in the hull . . . I made a kind of lid with stray boards . . . it completely covered the boat . . . I pushed it a little towards the stern, climbed into the boat by the bow, crawled to the stern, raised my feet and pushed the lid back towards the bow till it covered me completely.

The various dwelling places of Beckett’s character had been secured from necessity rather than deliberate choice as in the case of Diogenes’ barrel. He is oblivious to the rest of the world but neither does he ask or expect anything from it. He survives the absurdity of his situation by being totally at one with no more than his own existence and immediate surroundings.

There were times when I wanted to push away the lid and get out of the boat and couldn’t, I was so indolent and weak, so content deep down where I was. . . . So I waited till the desire to shit, even piss, lent me wings. . . . Arched and rigid I edged down my trousers and turned a little on by side, just enough to free the hole. To contrive a little kingdom, in the midst of the universal muck, then shit on it, ah that was me all over. The excrements were me too, I know, I know, but all the same.

Beckett succeeds in transcending completely what it is to be human. He has crossed that border that separates the living ‘I’ from the waste of our own mortality. Diogenes likewise, in his indifference to the waste of his own body, marks himself out from the pretensions of human beings’ sham sophistication. He lays bare his own mortality, and in so doing becomes the living embodiment of the mortality and madness of people in general. He reinforces his own position on the margins of society, a society which in turn rejects his Cynic lifestyle as base and inhuman in order to reinforce its own higher level of functioning. When Diogenes pisses, farts, defecates and masturbates in public, he is doing no more than ridiculing the artificial conventions of society around him. 

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk gets straight to the point of this whole issue regarding the Cynics’ relationship with human waste:

As children of an anal culture, we all have a more or less disturbed relation to our own shit . . . The relationship that is drummed into people with regard to their own excretions provides the model for their behaviour with all sorts of refuse in their lives . . . Diogenes is the only Western philosopher who we know consciously and publicly performed his animal business . . . Those who do not want to admit that they produce refuse . . . risk suffocating one day in their own shit. 

Crates of Thebes

And so the last word on this scatological digression goes to the writer Marcel Schwob from his fictional account of the Cynic Crates:

He lived stark naked among the sweepings, and he collected crusts of bread, rotten olives and fish bones to fill his wallet . . . an unknown skin-disease covered him with swellings. He scratched himself with nails he never trimmed and remarked that from this he drew a double profit, since he wore them down and at the same time experienced relief.  


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