The challenge of atheist literature: Beckett, Pullman and McEwan

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Some works of literature today are written from a consciously atheistic point of view. What might a person of faith learn from them? What critique might faith offer?

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The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth


Samuel Beckett, Philip Pullman and Ian McEwan are three writers whom I much admire. Between them they also raise interesting issues in relation to the theme of 'Literature in a Time of Unbelief'.

Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy has been much enjoyed by both teenagers and adults. That kind of literature is not my natural genre. I have never been attracted by Tolkien for example, but I found his trilogy both a good read and illuminating, not least for its wonderful depiction of young adolescence. As is well known this trilogy expresses an uncompromising and polemical atheism. When I was in Oxford Philip Pullman and I did a study day together and when I asked him about his personal beliefs he was more nuanced. He said that whilst God, the God in whom Christians claim to believe, was outside his experience he acknowledged that there might be a reality outside his awareness: and this, strictly speaking, is a kind of agnosticism. But the Dark Materialstrilogy pursues a relentlessly antagonistic theme, particularly to organized religion, but also to the very basis of a religious view of life.

The first point to note about Pullman himself is that he is a strongly moral writer. In his 2002 lecture at the Edinburgh Festival he argued that fiction must carry what he called 'a moral punch' if it is not to become petty and worthless. And there is certainly a very strong moral line pursued in the trilogy and I will be exploring what this is.

The other point to note is that Pullman is deeply hostile to the writing of C.S. Lewis, which has been so influential for two generations and which is still a powerful force today. Pullman has said of Lewis

When he wrote the Narnia books he was expressing a vision of life that is ugly, mean, racist, misogynistic; a view that sees violence as the answer to most problems, and that glories in slaughter and bloodshed; a view that shrinks with timorous horror from the natural process of growing up and from a developing sexuality.[1]

Pullman is not alone in his criticism of Lewis, but that is a particularly fierce rejection. I am not here going to compare and contrast Pullman and Lewis, interesting thought it is to do that, but I will note here that the moral values affirmed in both writers have much in common. Both are concerned with a great struggle of good and evil. Both affirm the importance of courage. Lyra and Will the heroine and hero of Pullman's trilogy know that they have to be brave, and to risk injury and life itself whatever they may be feeling. To both writers loyalty is crucial. There is the loyalty of Lyra and Will to one another, the loyalty of Lyra to her old friend Roger in Oxford, the loyalty of Will to his sick mother and in and though these specific loyalties, loyalty to the good. Closely related to this is the importance of keeping promises. One of the reasons Lyra knows that she must go back to her old world is the promise she made to Roger in Oxford. When she is told 'While you are alive, your business is with life', she replies 'No Iorek - our business is to keep promises, no matter how difficult they are'[2]

In Rose Macaulay's novel The Towers of Trebizond, there is a wonderful, breathless passage on the struggle of good and evil down the ages.  When she gets to the Victorians, she writes 'The weaker they got on religion, the stronger they got on morals, which use to be the case rather more then than now'.[3]   In the light of this passage Pullman bucks the trend and  is a Victorian, in that his rejection of religion, far from leading to a down-playing of morality, leads to its strong affirmation.  The former nun, who lost her faith and who is now a scientist but still finds herself troubled by moral questions, Dr Mary Malone, says to Lyra:

Everything about this is embarrassing  . . . Do you know how embarrassing it is to mention good and evil in a scientific laboratory?  Have you any idea?  One of the reasons I became a scientist was not to have to think about that kind of thing.[4]

Although she has lost her faith and left her convent, she still has to struggle with issues of good and evil.

The spiritual vision that comes across most strongly in Pullman's trilogy is that this life matters. It is wondrous, precious and, despite everything, good.  When Will and Lyra lead the ghosts out of the abode of the dead Pullman writes:

The other ghosts followed him, and Will and Lyra fell exhausted on the dew-laden grass, every nerve in their bodies blessing the sweetness of the good soil, the night air, the stars.[5]

Physical life, sensual life, is good.  A corollary of this is that we should not try to escape into other worlds.  Will in the end has to shut up all the windows that enable him to move into those worlds and break the subtle knife which opens up those windows.  Most poignantly of all Will and Lyra, despite their love for one another, know they have to separate and return to their own worlds.

This life matters, and within this life we have to take responsibility for our own decisions.  One of the most brilliant images in the book is the aletheometer, (from the Greek word for truth, alethe) the truth meter. It helps them to make right decisions on their quest.  But when the children reach early adolescence, Lyra finds to her dismay she can no longer use the aletheometer to help her find her way.  She now has to decide for herself.  She is told 'You read it by grace . . . and you can regain it by work'.  In answer to the question how long this will take, she is told a lifetime.

But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding.  Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you have gained it, it will never leave you.[6]

(One of the major debts which Pullman acknowledges is to an essay by Heinrich von Kleist, which he first read in a translation by Idris Parry in The Times Literary Supplement).[7]

This essay, entitled 'On the Marionette Theatre', describes how the writer saw sheer grace in puppets, greater grace than in dancing by humans.  It also describes how a bear, through sheer, graceful instinct could out fence a human.  It suggests, however, that when human beings as it were go round the full circle they can, through knowledge, acquire that full and perfect grace which they lack now.  We have, as it were, to find paradise by going through the experience of Genesis 3 again.  This is what Will and Lyra do, through their love for one another, and as a result, dust which had been streaming out of the universe now reverses its flow; golden, glorious dust, which is matter having become conscious of itself, this life, in itself, fully appreciated.

The other two major influences, apart from Kleist, which Pullman acknowledges are Milton's Paradise Lostand Blake.  The theme of rebellion against heaven is obviously fundamental to the trilogy and as in Blake is combined with a powerful affirmation of the joys of this life, a sense of infinity in a grain of sand.  In order for this world to be fully lived in and appreciated, in order that we have take responsibility for our own lives and destiny, all religious institutions and the Authority that lies behind them have to be defeated and banished for ever.  The destiny of Lyra is to be the agent through which this liberation from religion comes about.

It should not be concluded from this that the Pullman world is sentimental, far from it: when Will learns he has to separate from Lyra he asks an angel to help them.  He is told:

This is no comfort, but believe me, every single being who knows of your dilemma wishes things could be otherwise: but there are facts that even the most powerful have to submit to.  There is nothing I can do to help you change the way things are.[8]

There is much more in his rich and absorbing trilogy but I hope this brings out some basic themes, not least the strong emphasis on moral maturity and his view that in order to achieve this we need to get rid of authoritarian religion.  Here we have to face the fact that there is a fundamental difference in the way religious believers and Pullman understand the way things are.  For believers the most basic, crucial fact of all is the reality of God, the ground of our being and the goal of our longing.  A number of things follow from this, though they are not all incompatible with Pullman's world view. One of them is a different understanding of what moral maturity might be. But first, another issue.

I suggested in my first lecture that one of the ways literature is so important, including important to religion, is that it brings before us the complexity, ambiguity and mixed nature of human behaviour. It challenges any easy dividing up of the world into goodies and baddies. Good literature does this because it is able to enter into the feelings and viewpoints of a range of people, including those to whom we are instinctively hostile. The implication of this is that if in a work with a strong point of view some of the characters are cardboard cutouts, simply ciphers for a point of view, then this is a literary failure. I believe there is some clear literary failure in Pullman's trilogy. None of the characters on the side of religion are in the slightest bit attractive, with the possible exception of Mrs Coulter, Lyra's mother, who does have a mystery about her. But the church, described as the magisterium, is appalling, and it is of course no accident that the word magisterium is the word used by the Roman Catholic Church for its official and in fallible teaching office. Even more of a caricature is the idea of god depicted which corresponds to no believers idea of god.

One writer first encountered his work through the enthusiasm of his 12 year-old god-daughter.  This girl simply said 'Pullman's God is nothing like the God I worship'[9].  Pullman's God is not the creator of the universe but an early creature who seized control.  He is not immortal, but shrivels away to nothing in total impotence.  He is not the one whose heart and mind is known to us in Jesus, but more like Blake's Nobodaddy.  Such a God does of course have to be rejected.

(It is morally necessary to rebel against the kind of God Pullman purveys, as well as against the tyrannical institutions through which he controls his world.  Rejection of and rebellion against the kind of God that Pullman pictures is not only compatible with belief in the true God it is a moral necessity in order to arrive at true faith. Of course what Pullman writes about the magesterium or church authority present a challenge to the Church.  As Rowan Williams has written

If the Authority is not God, why has the historic Church so often behaved as if it did indeed exist to protect a mortal and finite God?  What would a church like look like that actually expressed the reality of a divine freedom enabling human freedom?[10]

But this, as Williams also says, raises a question for the non-believer as well 'of what exactly the God is in whom they don't believe'.)

But the fundamental and interesting challenge of Pullman's trilogy is that provided by his moral vision. His moral vision is that this life is good and beautiful and to be enjoyed. But the moral maturity which enables us to do this as human beings involves the decisive rejection of any religious authority; the making up of ones own mind without any divine guidance; the avoidance of any escapism into another world, and  standing on ones own two feet. It is a powerful, attractive vision of what it means to be a human being from an atheistic standpoint. I think it is powerfully conveyed in the book despite some of the literary shortcomings I have mentioned.

What I want to suggest that there is an alternative moral vision, and a different understanding of what is means to be a morally mature human being, from the standpoint of religious faith. From the standpoint of the Christian faith, as well of course as Judaism and Islam, life as created by God is fundamentally good and to be relished as such. But because God is a reality, the supreme reality, in the light of which everything else has to be seen, moral maturity does not consist of rejecting this, but acknowledging it. It means making up ones own mind, yes; standing on ones own two feet, yes. But doing this before God, and a Christian would add, with the help of the Holy Spirit who is not alien to our true self but who touches our spirits at the deepest point within us and enables us to be truly ourselves.

(Although there has been a Manichaen, anti-life strain that has entered Christianity from time to time, there are hosts of life affirming believers, including many who have produced great works of art. And although it is fundamental to faith that divine guidance and strength is offered, this has never been put forward as a substitute for human responsibility and effort

Pullman gives us a great story, one which does not pretend to be true, but which drives us back to the real world.  The moral nub of the story is tough, almost stoical.  He suggests that all human beings are ultimately alone.  Will does not allow the angel Balthamos, who has lost the love of his life, Baruch, to feel sorry for himself.  The children are told that gaining wisdom and passing it on is the key to life and

If you help everyone else in your worlds to do that, by helping them to learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works, by showing them how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep their minds open and free and curious - then they will renew enough to replace what is lost with one window.[11]

Pullman gives us  a great vision of life lived from a strongly moral, atheistic point of view. But for a believer, that moral vision which she or he shares, is set within the wider framework of a good God who has created us to develop in just that kind of way.

The next writer I wish to consider is Ian McEwan, perhaps the best contemporary English novelist. His latest two books are Chesil Beach and Saturday, both excellent. The first deals with the sexual experience, or lack of it, of a young couple in the 1950's. The second enters into a day in the life of a top London surgeon. Neither have an obviously religious or ideological theme to pursue. (So does that mean they are evidence against a point I maintained strongly in my first lecture that all literature has a point of view, at least in the sense that it is written on the basis of certain assumptions and presuppositions. Not quite. For the fact that each book deals with a feature of life without any reference to religion is itself significant. They assume a secular world, not in the sense that they appear to be hostile to religion, which they are not, but in the sense that a religious dimension is simply left out. We are so used to this that we take it for granted. But it would not, for example, have been taken for granted in Victorian times.)

Enduring Lovean earlier novel has one character who is strongly religious. Hers is the enduring love. But I did not find it very satisfactory that she is put in a mental hospital at the end, as though that is the end of it. For she might have been mentally ill, and at the same time have truly grasped some element of the truth that others ignore.

The novel I want to deal with however is Atonement, a subtle, highly ambitious book, which is I think his best. The word atonement at once alerts us to something going on that relates to religion, for it is one of the most hallowed words of the Christian faith. The church talks about Christ's death on the cross as an atonement for the sin of humanity. Atonement is of course at-one-ment. He died to bring us to our senses; to reconcile us to ourselves and one another,  and  make us at one with God again.

Many will have read the book or seen the film or both but let me remind you of the outline of the plot if I may.

Briony Tallis, as a young girl in the 1930's, writes plays. When one of them is about to be performed by her family at the spacious family home, a rape occurs. For whatever reason Briony identifies the wrong person as the culprit-a promising young man called Robbie, the son of one of the family's staff, who has just come down from Cambridge where he obtained a scholarship. Robbie and Cecilia, Briony's sister, are in love.

Robbie is sent to jail for four years and then goes straight into the army. Caught up in the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 he is desperate to survive and get back in order to be reunited with Cecilia, who has promised to wait for him. Meanwhile both Briony and Cecilia have left their dysfunctional, conniving family and are working in St Thomas's hospital treating badly wounded soldiers. Briony, determined now to tell the truth of what happened those years before searches out Robbie and Cecilia, who are now reunited, and confesses the truth. But they do not forgive her.

Briony does in fact become a successful writer. Now in old age, and just before the full onset of an illness that will destroy her memory, she finally finishes the novel she has been working on, through a number of drafts since 1940. We discover that the final draft is the actual novel we have been reading up to that point-the story of what she did to search out Robbie and Cecilia and atone for the terrible wrong she had done them. But we also discover that both Robbie and Cecilia were in fact killed in 1940, Robbie in the retreat from Dunkirk, and Cecilia by a bomb in London. The novel we have been reading is an attempt to atone by giving them a happy ending. What really happened?  That is the reader's question, to which Briony's answer is that what will survive will be her story, her account, her literary creation, whether it is fact or fiction. This is her reflecting at the end of the book on the harsh, sad facts that have emerged and whether they should be included in her story.

What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?  I couldn't do it to them. I'm too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I face an incoming tide of forgetting, and then oblivion. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism

She goes on to say that when everyone is dead all that will exist will be her inventions and people won't care what really happened. The answer to what really happened is simple:

The lovers survive and flourish. As long as there is a single copy, a solitary typescript of my final drafter, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love.

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.[12]

That is a fascinating passage, very much reflecting what we might call a post-modernist agenda, that what we call truth is always an interpretation, a literary creation if you like, of a previous interpretation. You can go on peeling off the skins, but you can never come back to simple uninterpreted fact. So the interpreter of life, the literary creator, is king, or God if you like.

Now that view, which is not necessarily that of McEwan himself, but is the view of the authorial voice of that novel, the aging writer Briony is one that both scientists and theologian will in the end strongly disagree with. Of course there is truth in it, and no one will deny that element of truth. It is a truth which is particularly obvious in the case of the writing of history. But in real life, as Dr Johnson pointed out, we stub our foot against a stone which is actually there. Scientist put forward evidence that can be confirmed or refuted. And Christianity too, with all the qualifications, is in the end committed to the truth of certain factual assertions. That is why  theologians and scientists- including Richard Dawkins, for he too would say that religious faith is about what is the case, and it is the case that there is no God- would line up together against extreme forms of the view put forward by Briony. She says that when she is dead all that will be left will be her inventions. Not true, there is the world, and what happened or did not happen in it.

For her forgiveness is not possible, because there is nothing outside her mind, nothing that she does not create herself. Interestingly she puts God in the same category, there is no atonement for God. Here she seems to be suggesting that if there was a God he would be a kind of artist creating whatever story he chose. In fact, or course, according to the Christian faith, God is not just writing any story he chooses, for he has created a world with a life of its own, and the story, which is still being written is the result of a continuing interaction and relationship between what he would write and what, as it were, we allow to be written. Quite simply, there is a world outside our minds, other people, and for the believer, God. For those who believe this, atonement, the bringing about of at one-ness, between human beings, and between the human and the divine, remains on the agenda as a need and a possibility.

Samuel Beckett was and remains one of the iconic literary figures of the 20th century. The portraits of him, with his aquiline face, sharp swept back hair and penetrating but kindly eyes are some of the century's most distinctive photographs. Beckett was born and in Dublin in 1906 to middle class staunch Church of Ireland parents and educated there, including at Trinity College, for whom he played cricket against some English Counties. People like to point out that he is the only known Nobel prize winner who appears in Wisden, the cricketers bible. It is impossible to understand Beckett without appreciating that first of all that his language stands in the long tradition of distinguished Irish writing in English. Irish writers from Synge, whom Beckett much admired, through to the present generation of playwrights like Brian Friel use the English language to extraordinary, haunting effect, often poetic, painful and funny at the same time. He never completely lost his Dublin accent, and had much of the Dubliner's penchant for at once using and satirizing cliché.

After Trinity he lived in Paris for three years, where he got to know James Joyce well, and started writing. After a short period as an academic back in Dublin, which he satirized and  gave up because of what he thought of as its pedantry, he went back to live in Paris. During the war he served with the French resistance, winning awards for bravery, but which he dismissed in his characteristic way as 'boy scout stuff'. He continued to write, now mainly in French, which he did to throw off the seductive lushness of Irish English, particularly that of Joyce. His increasingly spare, minimalist style over the years reflected a profound distrust of language.  In the 1950's he suddenly found fame with his play Waiting for Godot, first performed in English in London in 1955. Well described by one critic at the time in the words, 'Beckett has achieved a theoretical impossibility-a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.' Although Beckett had been productive for the 30 years before with novels, poetry and criticism, his work sold in only tiny quantities. Now he was labelled as one of the foremost writers of what was then called 'The theatre of the absurd' and his following plays, such as Endgame,  Happy Days and Krapp's Last Tape kept him very much in public view. He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1969 and he kept on writing to his death in December 1989, in an increasingly minimalist style. Personally I feel very privileged to have had some of my greatest theatrical experiences watching Beckett, with Peggy Ashcroft, and Billie Whitelaw in central roles.

It is difficult to think of any writer who offers a bleaker view of human existence than Beckett.

In the small hours of a morning in 1961 Samuel Beckett was sitting over a drink in a Paris café with Harold Pinter. Pinter suggested that Beckett's work was an attempt to impose order and form on the wretched mess mankind had made of the world, but Beckett disagree. 'If you insist on finding form', he said' I'll describe it for you. I was in a hospital once. There was a man in another ward, dying of throat cancer. In the silence I could hear the screams continually. That's the only kind of form my work has.'[13]

The sound of human screaming is never far from the text of Beckett's writing. And one of the key features of his writing is the way he uses religious imagery to bring out the extent of this human anguish, which is mental and spiritual as much as  physical. As we have seen earlier, Pullman uses religious imagery in order to subvert the Christian faith and offer an alternative myth. McEwan uses a religious image in order to indicate its conceptual impossibility. Religious imagery in Beckett, which is very extensive indeed, is there in order to heighten the sense of why it is impossible to believe Christianity's central claim that there is a God of love.

 In Waiting for Godot one of the tramps, Vladimir, suddenly blurts out  'But you can't go barefoot' to which the other, Estragon replies 'Christ did'. 'Christ! What's Christ got to do with you? You're not going to compare yourself to Christ!' came the response. 'All my life I've compared myself to him', says Estragon, to which Vladimir protests, 'But where he lived it was warm, it was dry!' 'Yes, and they crucified quick' responds Estragon.[14] Life is a crucifixion, and the difference between our time on the cross and Christ's is that ours is long and slow. This image of Christ, not as a consolation but as a prototype of human suffering occurs at many points.[15]  The effect of this is to continually undermine and subvert any claim that there is a wise and loving power behind the universe.

Not surprisingly, closely linked with this is the rejection by a number of suffering characters of the God of traditional Christian faith, but it is an angry rejection, as though he ought to exist and be doing something about it all. As Hamm puts it in Endgame 'The bastard! He doesn't exist'[16]

Together with all the anguish, there is a great deal of humour including the story told by Nagg in Endgame, about an Englishman in New York who orders a pair of trousers from the tailors, which he needs for the New Year festivities coming up. He returns after four days, and they are not ready. The tailor says that the seat has been very ticklish to make and the customer is very understanding. He returns after a week, and then ten days, and each time something has proved difficult and again the customer is very understanding about this. Eventually he can stand it no more and says:

'God damn you to hell, Sir, no, it's indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making me a pair of trousers in three months!' The tailor is scandalized 'But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look-(disdainful gesture, disgustedly) at the world-(Pause)-and look-(loving gesture, proudly)- at my TROUSERS'[17]

Some of this rejection of a loving God is very fierce indeed. In Beckett's novel Watt, Watt and the narrator are in the grounds of a lunatic asylum:

Seizing suddenly a plump young rat, resting in our bosom after its repast, we would feed it to its mother, or its father, or its brother, or its sister, or to some less fortunate relative.

It was on these occasions, we agree, after an exchange of views, that we can get nearest to God.[18]

Two other crucial features of all Beckett's characters need to be noted. First of all, they struggle on with life. They don't give up. Though suicide is always regarded as the obvious option, they refuse it. It is taken for granted that it would have been better not to have been born, but as we are here we have no option but to go on.

Secondly, the way they keep going is by talking, whether to other people, or in the novels especially, to oneself. Sometimes this talking takes the form of telling stories. And the attitude to talking betrays profound ambivalence. The characters know that if they stop talking inside their heads they will be dead, and that is much to be preferred, but there is a kind of compulsion to go on, as though the words have an independent life and are talking through them.

Unnamable, his novel first published in French in 1952 is more than 120 pages long and consists of a single paragraph of a mind questioning itself. The last few lines read

I don't know, perhaps it's a dream, all a dream, that would surprise me, I'll wake, in the silence, and never sleep again, it will be I, or dream, dream again dream of a silence, a dream silence, full of murmurs, I don't know, that's all words, never wake, all words, there's nothing else, you must go on, that's all I know, they're going to stop, I know that well, I can feel it, they're going to abandon me, it will be the silence, for a moment, a good few moments, or it will be mine, the lasting one, that didn't last, that still lasts, it will be I, you must go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my own story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.[19]

So, we human beings go on going on. Despite everything we do not opt out. Why?

There is of course no explicit answer in Beckett, but it is no accident that that central image of Waiting for Godot is just that-waiting-waiting for we know not what. Perhaps there is something to it after all, something we do not know and cannot grasp.

In Waiting for Godot Vladimir and Estragon have a debate about whether they are tied, what this might mean and to whom.

Vladimir: But to whom. By whom?

Estragon: To your man.

Vladimir: To Godot? What an idea! No question of it. (pause) For the moment.[20]

That theme- 'pas encore'-for the moment recurs. All is unknowable, ungraspable-for the moment.

In 1961 Beckett said to an interviewer 'I have no religious feeling. Once I had a religious emotion. It was at my first communion. No more.'[21] Yet he has been described to me by someone who knew him as 'A Christ haunted man' and 'A secular mystic'. Mary Bryden has written, in very measured words, that despite the explicit statements abandoning belief 'Yet, curiously, Beckett's work seems not so much to sabotage belief as to pulse faintly but distinctly towards it.' [22]

At the heart of Beckett's work are negative images-nothingness-what cannot be said-the unnamable-the dark-emptiness. To anyone at all familiar with the Christian tradition, this immediately suggests the possibility of a Via Negativa. There are two ways-complementary ways- in which language can be used to point to God. One is the Kataphatic, in Greek, Via Positiva in Latin, way in which words are used to suggest how God might be like or analogous to some aspect of human life. The other way, the Apophatic or Via Negative, conscious of the limitations of all human words in trying to indicate the mystery of God, suggests that all human metaphors to describe God break down and have to be denied. In the end we cannot go by the way of words at all by only by the way of love which has to pierce through a 'cloud of unknowing' to use the title of the famous 14th century mystical work that took this route. This may be a way of much pain and darkness and involve what the great 16th century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross called 'A dark night of the soul.' Now it has been argued, suggestively I think, that Beckett, who was familiar with major Christian writing can helpfully be understood at least in part in relation to that tradition.[23]

There is support for this view in what Beckett understood to be, and referred to in however oblique a way, a revelation. In Krapp's Last Tapein which the solitary character plays and replays a tape recording of his past years there are these words on the tape:

Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision at last. This I fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that...(hesitates)...for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely- (Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again) ...great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most-(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again)-unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire[24]

As so often in a Beckett text words are pared away so that they suggest rather than describe what it is he might have experienced. But James Knowlson who knew Beckett as well as anyone quotes Beckett's words to him while attempting to define his debt to James Joyce

I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, (being) in control of one's material. He was always adding to it 'I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding'.

Knowlson also reveals that the key missing phrase in the play is 'precious ally'. So what he is saying is that it is 'clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most-precious ally. So... Light was therefore rejected in favour of darkness. And this darkness can certainly be seen as extending to a whole zone of being that includes folly and failure, impotence and ignorance.'[25] As Beckett put it 'Molloy and the others came to me the day I became aware of my own folly. Only then did I begin to write the things I feel.'

All this is capable of a straightforward secular interpretation, but against a Christian background, it looks very like the way of self-abnegation, of ceasing to want to control, of letting go, of emptying out, of the awareness of ignorance and folly that allows truth to break through in its own terms. In short the waiting is darkness and ignorance that is part of the mystical way.

This of course is why Beckett is so interesting from a religious point of view and why his form of literary atheism is more profound that either of the other two writers that I have discussed. It is interesting that when Beckett was questioned in court as to whether he would describe himself as a Christian, a Jew or an Atheist, he rejected all three descriptions.[26]There is, to refer to the line in Les Murray's poem quoted in my first lecture, no final closure. So we have the paradox that few modern writers have brought home to us more sharply the pain and anguish of human existence; few have been so fierce in their rejection of the idea that there might be a loving God behind it; few have been so uncompromising in their assertion that we grope our way in darkness and ignorance. Yet, not quite all hope is lost. Above the gates of hell in Dante's Inferno are the words 'Abandon hope all who enter here.' Beckett refers to hell as 'The other hell'. This is the first one. But reading his work or seeing it performed on the stage in fact we do not lose hope. Somehow hope is kept alive, that there might be meaning and purpose to it all.[27] In a sentence I have just used I nearly said 'We grope our way in total darkness' but I did not use the word total, because as Beckett has said 'If there were only darkness, all would be clear. It is because there is not only darkness but also light that our situation becomes inexplicable.[28]

One indication of this is that in the final phase of Beckett's work, when he became even more minimalist, there are occasional glimmers of something more. In one of his plays, shown a few years ago on T.V. someone is playing the cello. That is all we see. But just before the end their face shows a brief seraphic smile. There are hints of something calm, of a cool refreshment, a night light which resists the onset of unrelieved blackness.

My emphasis so far has been on the very bleak view of life in Beckett. There is no denying it is there. But first of all it should be pointed out that Beckett himself was very different in his personal life. He was sociable with friends, a great drinker and hugely generous to people in need especially fellow writers or their widows.[29] Those who saw him travel on a plane said that the flicked through the literary pages of the papers and absorbed himself in the sport. He was once brought to acknowledge that there might be a good side to life, on a fine day watching cricket at Lords.  He was also a person of steely integrity, unpretentious and totally without self-promotion. He resisted all publicity and refused even to go in person to collect the Nobel prize. Secondly, if you look closely at the plays, at the marginal, suffering characters trapped in a life that they cannot either change or leave, there is both pity and compassion. Thirdly, the way the plays have been performed so far is not the only way. There is great humour in them even when done in the Anglo-Saxon style, but apparently in French they have been done, especially Happy Days, with great laughter and jollity. Fourthly, the effect of both the plays, the novels and the shorter writings, despite all the gloom and darkness is extraordinarily riveting and exhilarating. This is the paradox of all great art that deals with the sadness and tragedy of life, but it is particularly marked in the case of Beckett.

So we have three very different forms of atheism, all worth considering from a theological perspective. The one that many Christians will feel closest to is that of Beckett, first of all because he identifies the major stumbling block to religious faith-the intensity and extent of human anguish; and Secondly, although he pictures the case against the possibility of a God of love with unprecedented feeling and fierceness, the fact that the has chosen the way of going on going on in the darkness of unknowing, of ignorance, of failure does not finally close the door. All can do in both art and life as he put it is 'Fail again. Fail better.'



©The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Gresham College, 4 December 2008



[1] A talk at St Andrew's Church, Linton Road, Oxford

[2]Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, Scholastic Press, 2001, p.161

[3] Macaulay Rose, The Tower of Trebizond, Collins, 1956, p 161

[4] The Subtle Knife, Scholastic Press, 2001, p100

[5]The Amber Spyglass, p382

[6]The Amber Spyglass, p520

[7]Heinrich von Kleist,  'On the Marionette Theatre' translated with a commentary, by Idris Parry, Times Literary Supplement, October 20 1978

[8]The Amber Spyglass, p519

[9]  Mark Greene, 'Pullman's Purpose' in The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

[10]Rowan Williams in The Guardian, 10 March 2004, G2 p11

[11]The Amber Spyglass, p520

[12]Ian McEwan, Atonement, Vintage, 2002, p. 371

[13]Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Cape, 1978, p.528. See also James Knowlson, Damned to Fame,Bloomsbury, 1996, p.67

[14]Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, Faber, 1965, p.52

[15]For an exploration of the image of Christ crucified in Beckett's works, see Mary Bryden, 'Beckett's Gogotha: The Enduring Doodle' and Hersh Zeifman, 'religious imagery in the Play of Samuel Beckett'. He writes that it is not just the explicitly religious imagery that works in this way but what is implicit in the text that gives his work 'its extraordinary religious density'.

[16]Samuel Beckett, Endgame, Faber, 1964, p.38

[17]ibid, p.21/2

[18]Samuel Beckett, Watt, John Calder,1976, p.153

[19]Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable, Picador, 1980, p.381/2

[20]Waiting for Godot, p. 21

[21]T. Driver, Interview with Beckett in L.Graver and R.Federman,Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, p.220

[22]Mary Bryden, 'A place where none: Beckett and the divine shadow'


[24]Krapp's Last Tape, p. 15/16

[25]James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, Bloomsbury, 1996,p.352

[26]Damned to Fame, p.279

[27]See  Richard Harries, ''Astride of a grave' -Samuel Beckett and Christian Hope' in Richard Harries, Questioning Belief, SPCK 1995, P.47

[28]Driver, p.220

[29]There are many interesting parallels with Dr Johnson, about whom Beckett started but did not finish a play. Both suffered from severe depression. Both were haunted by religion. Both hated pretension and cant.  Both were hugely sociable with people they trusted. Johnson, though a believer, was as fierce as Beckett in rejecting facile solutions to the problem of suffering.

This event was on Thu, 04 Dec 2008

Lord Harries

The Rt Revd Lord Harries

Professor of Divinity

Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries was the Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006. He was previously the Dean of King's College London, where he is now a Fellow and an Honorary Professor of Theology.

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