The influence of the philosophy of Giambattista Vico on James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake is well documented. What is not generally recognised, however, is the influence of the same philosopher on the work of Joyce’s friend and contemporary, Samuel Beckett. That Beckett was familiar with Vico’s magnum opus the New Science is indubitable, for his very first published work, written at Joyce’s request, was an essay entitled “Dante…Bruno.Vico..Joyce” (the dots between the names signifies the difference in centuries between the different authors). In this essay Samuel Beckett goes to some lengths to summarise Vico’s New Science and to show this work was taken by Joyce as a structure for his Work in Progress. (see Beckett, Disjecta. Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. 1983, p. 19. John Calder Publications Ltd. London) However, one can go further than to say that Beckett’s interest in Vico was not simply to explain his influence on Joyce, and argue that in his own work it is also possible to see how Beckett borrowed from the Italian philosopher to present us with a vision of a postmodern and post-nuclear world – a world, that is, that bears a striking resemblance to Vico’s period of dissolution.
For Vico the history of humankind is not lineal: it is not a process in which each phase succeeds the other in as a gradual but ever improving process which culminates in the ideal, rather it is a cyclical process, a corso-ricorso, which inevitably dissolves in chaos before returning to its original, barbaric state. At which point the entire process begins anew. The beginning of the end, that is, the point or phase in history where regression begins – what might be called Vico’s “Endgame”, is during the age of men, which is also the age of reason. In this age, which begins with such faith in the power of reason to know and control not only the natural world but also the self, religion is gradually replaced by secularism and communal responsibility by egoism. During this period societies become fragmented and, in time, people develop a sense of isolation, alienation, apathy, and fear – Vico calls this state of human existence “rational barbarism” or “barbarism of reflection”.( Giambattista Vico, New Science. trans by David Marsh, 1999, para, 1106. Penguin Books. London ). In short, the age inevitably moves towards a state of chaos and dissolution. In his play Endgame Samuel Beckett, borrowing from Vico, presents us with such a concept of the state of the affairs of men. That is, he presents a scene in which the protagonists, Hamm, Clov, Nag and Nell, are not only isolated from the world, but also, for the most part, from each other. In other words, in their world they too have been reduced to exist in a state of fear and alienation – a state of chaos.
For Giambattista Vico mythical gods and heroes such as Jove, Hercules or Achilles were not simply literary devices “employed to impress in coded form the teachings of philosophers on such subjects as ethics, physics, or politics”, (Peter Burke, Vico, 1985, p. 45. Oxford University Press,. Oxford. New York. Toronto) nor were they once real men upon whom these myths were built. Rather, for Vico, these “poetic characters” were concrete manifestations of abstract ideas. (see ibid) That is, they were mythical characters or heroes, constructed by ancient poets which represented true “examples of a primitive, concrete, anthropomorphic modes of thought” (ibid): poetic embodiments of the values, customs and beliefs of primitive communities. In Beckett’s Endgame, we see that in the same way that Vico’s ancient poets used poetic characters to represent the customs, behaviour and beliefs of the people at a particular place and time in the ideal eternal history of humankind, so too do Beckett’s “poetic characters” represent the nature, customs, and behaviour of human beings in the post-atomic age.
By concentrating his gaze primarily on the interplay between Clov and Hamm, an interplay in which the protagonists represent two opposing kings during the ‘endgame’ in the game of chess, each countering the other’s moves, neither gaining sufficient advantage to make that final incisive move that would allow one to gain mastery over the other, Beckett draws attention to the sense of fear and anxiety that, for Vico, is an integral part of the human condition during this period of dissolution. The depth of feeling of anguish is reflected in Hamm’s fear that, ultimately, Clov may abandon him – an anguish which is compounded by the fact that Clov may find within himself the strength to make a life for himself in the outside world. For even in their present state, with Nell and Nag, there remains the, albeit dying, fragments of a community. For Clov the feelings of anxiety and loneliness manifest themselves in the gnawing fear that outside the room there is nothing but a void. Vico, describing people of this phase in the history of humankind, says of them:
… like beasts [they]… are accustomed to think of nothing but their personal advantage, and are prone to irritability, or rather pride, so that they are fitted with bestial rage and resentment at the least provocation. Although their bodies are densely crowded together, their intentions and desires are separated. Like wild beasts, no two or three of them agree, because each pursues his own pleasure or caprice.(Vico, op.cit)
In the play Endgame we see how Beckett, echoing Vico, presents us with such a scenario: a scenario of a world in which the aged and infirm (Nag and Nell) have become little more than living corpses whose continuing existence is both an irritation and an inconvenience to others. An age too when human beings succumb to a Hamm and Clov mentality and engage in petty, whimsical, and self-gratifying mind games in which each attempts to gain control over the other. An age in which the acts of violence and injustice perpetrated by “men of reason” surpasses even those of the giants of antiquity.
What to look for as the Vico connection in Endgame:
1. Notice how the play opens with Clov moving from window to window in a skull-like room in an attempt to see what is happening in the outside world. In this scene the room is the head or skull of a human being, the windows are the eyes and, Clov is the Cartesian essential self, the detached homunculus, peering through the windows of the body. The set represents Beckett’s critique of Cartesianism. As Keith Hopper explains:
[Beckett]… was notoriously sceptical about the claims of rationality as an all-governing discourse. He had himself after a careful study rejected the account of human existence given by the Western philosophical tradition, especially as it based itself on Descartes, who had asserted cogito, ergo sum: I think therefore I am”. (“Samuel Beckett, Working Through the Media” 1998, DCU. Dublin).
Like Vico, Beckett while initially attracted to Descartes, turned against the Cartesian concept of a reasoning homunculus that contemplates a priori “clear and distinct ideas” (Vico would say that it was a “conceit”).
2. Look for the dialectic that takes place between the two principal characters, Clov and Hamm. This dialectic represents Vico’s view that the age of reason, which in time descends into chaos, begins when plebeians come to believe that they are the equals of their masters.
3. Notice too the preoccupation of the characters with themselves. It is this egocentricity: this preoccupation of oneself at the expense of others, says Vico, that leads to the dissolution, disintegration, and fragmentation of society.
4. Look at the suggestion that the end, or “finish”, which Clov, towards the opening of the play (film), feels must be near, may not after all be imminent, but, as indicated by the figure of the “small boy”, the “potential procreator” whom Clov spies through the window, that a period of regeneration is about to begin.
5. Finally, notice how, by emphasising the tension between what Al Alvarez calls the “lost world of feeling” (Beckett. Second Edition. 1992, p. 99. Fontana Press. London) and the present world of dispassionate reason, Beckett exploits Vico’s view that the breakdown of the community arises from the failure of educators to develop, in the young, the feeling faculties of imagination and empathy before the development of faculty of reason. What might be said is that what is explicit in Vico is implicit in Beckett. That is, that paradoxically, right reason has as much to do with being able to feel, as it has to do with being able to think.
Fahey, Tony. “Giambattista Vico's 'Endgame'.” 8/26/12. <http://www.tonyfahey.com/2012/08/giambattista-vicos-endgame.html>.