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Robert’s Class Summary: October 4, 2010

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Class began with a debate about the use of “good week” in place of “good afternoon” on Mondays. Professor Foss wondered if “good week” was more appropriate and we responded with an intricate web of greeting levels (good day, good week, good month, etc.) This debate fit nicely with Samuel Beckett’s sometimes absurd and existential play, Endgame. Class entered into small group and, later, large group discussions of Endgame and its use of disability. The primary focus of discussion was on the importance of disability in the play; we debated whether disability is a vital primary part of the play or whether the play’s absurdity and existentialism trump it. Like the outcome of our salutational debate, the answer is, quite simply, absurd.

Dr. Foss prefaced our small group discussions with a brief overview of Samuel Beckett, Endgame, and Ato Quayson’s critical analysis of the play. Beckett had several illnesses during his life and wrote Endgame shortly after his brother died of cancer. What impact, if any, does this have on his work? We can see in Endgame the issues of pain, suffering, and mortality and their existential repercussions. Are these issues and the general issue of disability central to the play? According to Dr. Foss, Quayson’s argument is that disability functions more as a metaphorical device in Endgame than a central literary focal point. The focus of our reading – or, perhaps, the reading of those outside of a disability studies mindset – is on Beckett’s themes of the indeterminacy of meaning and existentialism. Additionally, the absurdity and humor in the play overshadow our critical reading of disability.

With Quayson’s theory in mind, we broke off into small group discussions. Guided by Dr. Foss’s well crafted discussion questions, our group tackled Quayson’s assertion that “it is very rare that [Beckett’s] impaired characters are read as disabled, even though their disabilities are blatant and should be impossible to ignore” (28).  Considering that all four characters in the play are disabled or deformed in some way (and even the toy dog is deformed), it would seem that disability would be key to the play. Quayson, however, is right. Beckett overshadows the “blatant” disability by using it as a metaphor for isolation. The characters exist in an increasingly isolated world; Clov is limited to watching the world through a telescope, Hamm is limited to Clov’s visual reports and relies on him to move around the one room. Nell and Nagg are even more isolated; they live in their tiny sand-filled bins and cannot even reach one another. Our small group, however, found this isolation as a representation of deeper social isolation, perhaps post apocalyptic in nature. Reading the play, we can also see how Beckett’s existentialism obscures disability. Hamm and Clov, for example, debate the relative meaninglessness of “yesterday.”

CLOV: I oiled them yesterday.

HAMM: Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!

CLOV (violently): That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything anymore, teach me others. Or let me be silent.

Contrasting Beckett’s weighty ontology is his use of absurd situations and humor. Dr. Foss’s second question asked us to consider Quayson’s argument that “the comedic disposition of his disabled characters is used to deflect attention from the pain and anguish that are involved in carrying physical impairments” (35).  The characters Nagg and Nell are absurdly, albeit pitifully, humorous; they pop in and out of their bins like Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch and are more concerned with getting their sweet treats than their miserable existence in sandy bins. Several small group members stated that the absurdity of Nagg and Nell’s existence made them forget about Nagg and Nell’s disability. Absurd situations also detract from the reality of Hamm’s disability. Hamm and Clov gloss over Hamm’s use of a catheter, a rather painful medical device. Hamm nonchalantly says, “My anger subsides, I’d like to pee,” to which Clove responds, “I’ll go get the catheter.” Later, after extensive arguments, Clov asks “What about the pee?” Hamm responds, “I’m having it” and the two return to their former conversation. Here, the painfulness of catheterization is completely belittled; it’s used as a brief rest from the heavier existential plot.

This glossing over of the reality of pain and discomfort carried over into large group discussion. Dr. Foss highlighted Quayson’s suggestion that if Beckett put pain and discomfort in a central role, then they would short-circuit our response to the post modern, post apocalyptic, allegorical meanings in Endgame. Quayson also theorizes that Endgame’s aesthetic nervousness stems more from Beckett’s use of fragmented and disjointed conversations and an oscillation between positive and negative moments than from disability and/or pain and discomfort. Again, disability is put on the back burner.

We then discussed Quayson’s idea that Beckett’s representation of disability in the play creates doubt within us as readers as to whether the disability exists. Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell rarely directly comment on their disabilities. Therefore, readers might consciously or subconsciously question the validity or reality these disabilities. Hamm, for instance, frequently asks Clov for his pain pills. When Clov tells Hamm that there are no more, Hamm actually screams. We might read this a real pain; however, Hamm quickly quiets and does not mention his pain again. If it merits screaming, then why doesn’t he discuss if further?

Our next conversation centered around Quayson’s construction of disability as “inarticulable and enigmatic tragic insight” or as “hermeneutical impasse.” Quayson feminizes the first concept; in “Aesthetic Nervousness,” only female characters such as Cassandra and Io are discussed within this frame. Quayson qualifies this by saying that “female figures exemplify it best, not because they are women but because the dialectical coupling of tragic insight with loss of articulation seems to be a structural feature generated through the prism of gender as a opposed to the prisms of race and class” (48). In Endgame, then, the characters are feminized by this silencing tragic insight; though they struggle to hash out the meaning of their existence, there is no one else around to listen to them or understand them. The second concept, hermeneutical impasse, ties in with this. As Dr. Foss said, “It’s like Seinfeld. Nothing really happens.”

Moving on from Quayson’s jargon filled theory, Dr. Foss then asked us to consider Clov, Hamm, and their relationship. Clov is the feminized partner in this relationship. His mental disability is typically ascribed to women in literature; he constantly returns to his kitchen; he takes care of and feeds Hamm, Nagg, and Nell; and he feels trapped by Hamm’s demands despite a strong desire to leave. Even though Clov wants to leave, he cannot. Hamm, despite his disability, is masculinized because it is he who calls the shots, instructs Clov, and controls Nagg and Nell.

We also considered the disempowering implications of the play’s title. “Endgame,” in one sense implies limitation and finality. As Dr. Foss summarized it, Endgame refers to a “foreclosure of possibility.” We only see Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell existing in their one isolated room; not even Clov’s kitchen is real to us. There is little if any possibility for growth or expansion. Even though Clov considers leaving and searching for the human he sees wandering outside, we never really know if he escaped.

Disability, though central to Endgame’s characters and plot, functions only to drive Beckett’s literary devices. On its own, disability in this play offers little opportunity for an analysis of its reality. Instead, Beckett uses disability as a metaphor for isolation, an impetus for existential debate, and a device to increase aesthetic nervousness, humor, and absurdity.

Written by Robert

October 5th, 2010 at 9:51 pm