Failing better: The afterlife of Samuel Beckett’s best-known phrases

Waiting for Godot; I’ll go on; Fail better: these are the endlessly adaptable words of a sage

Samuel Beckett being at a rehearsal of Waiting for Godot in Paris, 1961. Photograph: Roger Viollet via Getty

Samuel Beckett being at a rehearsal of Waiting for Godot in Paris, 1961. Photograph: Roger Viollet via Getty

 

“Waiting for Godot.” “I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” For a writer often seen as difficult and dismal, the hold that certain expressions by Samuel Beckett exercises on the public consciousness is extraordinary. The third of those cited above, the current market leader, was used twice on the same sports page of The Irish Times recently, both times in reference to Waterford hurling (though Mayo football might be more appropriate).

It comes early on in a brief work, published late in Beckett’s career (1983), called Worstward Ho. This text attempts with incredible concentration to move from bad to worse to an impossible worst. The title, a play on Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!, indicates the general direction.

The work evokes a number of scenes or images: an old woman in a black coat, seen from behind; an old man and a small child, initially walking hand in hand, later apart yet still walking in parallel; and the head of a man, initially with eyes open, then closed, who seems to be creating all this.

The whole effort of the text is to “worsen” these images, to make them less concrete, more of a blur. The “narrator”, for want of a better term, attempts unsuccessfully to rearrange them in such a way that their effect is perhaps less keenly felt.

The phrase “better worse” recurs – one might “worsen” them better by having them a certain way, more minimal, rather than another. The images or scenes, we are told in a memorable image, “ooze” from “some soft of mind” and the hope is that this “soft of mind” will eventually dry up, like the rest, and stop “oozing” such disturbing figments.

The attempt fails; in fact the images gain in power as the work goes on, culminating in the sudden comparison of the old woman’s stooped posture to the way “some old gravestones stoop. In that old graveyard. Names gone and when to when. Stoop mute over the graves of none.”

So the “failing better” is not a failure to create something, to achieve something, but rather a failure to de-create something, to undo something that stubbornly refuses to be undone. This is what “worsen” means in this context: to do better is to do worse, to reduce the elements to their minimal possible iteration, short of the unreachable “worst”, which is also the unreachable “best” – by now the two terms are thoroughly intermeshed. Their meanings are identical (“better worse”), in a way that goes far beyond Wildean or Nietzschean reversals.

Of course, this “intent of undoing”, as it has been called (though “intent” is not the right word), in Beckett’s work is not what people generally mean when they cite “Fail again. Fail better.” But that does not matter: Beckett has no more control over what becomes of his text after it is published than anyone else, and its expansion into a wider category, and adoption for wider uses, such as, say, the fate of Waterford hurling, does testify to the adaptability of all great literature to many different contexts and occasions.

Pointless expectation

“Waiting for Godot” is by now a byword for any kind of hopeless waiting. It is remarkable how quickly the phrase caught on after the play’s first performance in 1953 (1955 in English) to epitomise pointless expectation. Even in the Ireland of the 1950s, thanks to the enterprise of the Pike Theatre, use of the phrase almost instantly became standard.

But there is a more intimate connection between that decade and the play than the mere happenstance of “Godot’s” appearance during it. The 1950s were a decade in which essentially nothing happened, though the threat of something catastrophic was constantly impending. The world was caught in the frozen stasis of the aptly named cold war, in which it was wrongly believed that a perfect balance of terror existed between the two superpowers that, if disturbed, could bring the world to an end at any time. In such a situation the world awaited a “Godot” who might arrive and resolve this apparently insoluble dilemma. In the 1950s, as Hugh Kenner said, we waited for Godot.

A German production of Waiting for Godot in 1975. Photograph: Heuer/Ullstein Bild via Getty
A German production of Waiting for Godot in 1975. Photograph: Heuer/Ullstein Bild via Getty

That particular context by no means exhausts the phrase’s or the work’s implications, nor is it at all likely that it was in Beckett’s mind when he wrote it. But sometimes a work or a catchphrase can sum up a zeitgeist and that is what “Waiting for Godot” inadvertently did. (As we know, Beckett never wanted all the fame and attention that followed it.) “Waiting for Godot”, both the phrase and the play, retain a universal and probably timeless validity.

“I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” can also be seen, in one of its dimensions, as a product of its time. That time is just after the second World War, in the depths of an exhausted, uprooted Europe. The phrase forms the last words of the “novel” The Unnamable. This work is, in its own way, just as reductive as Worstward Ho: it is a relentless hunting down of personality, character, identity, narrative and narrator, both on the literary and on the “existential” levels, until perhaps some irreducible core is reached, a core that can perhaps best be summed up in the notion of sheer persistence, as the last lines superbly convey.

Drive to persist

The relevance of this to the condition of so many people in the Europe of the time hardly needs emphasising. But again the theme transcends any singular occasion, widening out from the irreducible core to take in all endurance, all survival, whatever the immediate occasion for it.

The Unnamable bears witness to the drive to persist, to “go on”, irrespective of whatever human vestiges the drive is clothed in at any particular time. For a writer constantly associated with gloom and despair, the last “I’ll go on” has to be seen, I think, as one of the most positive affirmations anywhere in literature.

So the popularity of these Beckett expressions (and there are others) is evidence of an underlying counter-movement in his work that goes against the famous pessimism, not in the direction of rays of hope but rather in terms of a certain style. The epigrammatic, cryptic phrases are deeply memorable and plant themselves in the mind in a way that turns them into a resource, not a cause of depression.

Even the bleakest of them, “Waiting for Godot”, has a certain humour intrinsic to it, which makes it apt for all kinds of occasions and pretexts. All in all, the oracular quality of these lines, their sheer wisdom, makes of Beckett, much against his will, no doubt, something of a sage.*

*It would be possible to extend this argument to include the other two major 20th-century Irish writers. One could very roughly say that Yeats, in his oracular mode (he has others), is the prophet of violent apocalypse. James Joyce is the prophet of the eternal return. Beckett, of course, is the anti-prophet of endurance.

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