Encavernment in Beckett, Musil and Kafka

Although this is an essay about literature and politics, rather than a poem, I submit it in response to Mara Eastern/Andy Townend’s Poetry Rehab Lockdown prompt. https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/872204662



The work of Samuel Beckett is pervaded by what some literary critics have called ‘encavernment’. His plays and prose present us with a cast (perhaps caste?) of largely anonymous characters, who are either confined to a highly restricted physical environment—speechless, disembodied, buried up to the neck, living in trashcans—or trapped in a cycle of pointlessly repeated minimalist behavior patterns—like the tramps/clowns in Waiting for Godot.

Beckett never considered himself an absurdist writer in the manner of Eugene Ionesco. He insisted that his work was realism, although it obviously broke sharply with the realism of the plays and novels of the previous century. There are no rhinoceroses on the loose in his work but plenty of elephants in the room.

Beckett’s work is realist on two levels. First, it does to some degree reflect a real, prevalent, and largely overlooked underbelly of society, in which quality of life is severely restricted and suffering and abuse so rife that they have become the norm. This world had rarely appeared in literature before, except in sentimentalized portrayals.

The depiction of the darker side of life is of course much more common today, but tends to be aestheticized in a manner quite contrary to that of Beckett’s stark mode. Beckett’s work still stands out in a world awash with artworks and popular culture that wallow in and relish a subculture of exclusion that few of their authors or curators have experienced directly. Beckett, by contrasts, presents a sharp—at times almost mathematically precise—pared down depiction of the social psychology of such exclusion.

For all the weirdness and unusual staging devices—or perhaps because of them—a play such as Endgame can be read as a fairly straightforward representation of the ‘workings’ of a dysfunctional family unit. In fact, it is precisely because it strips down the furnishings that a Beckett play can show this more clearly than Ibsen or Strindberg, for example. Reading Ibsen as working-class teenager in the 1970s, my own initial naïve reaction was to envy the bourgeois world the playwright aimed to disembowel. No-one could ever covet the situations in which Beckett’s characters are cast.

There is, however, another deeper level on which Beckett’s writings address issues fundamental to the modern and contemporary world. The deepest and most restrictive cavern of all is that of the Western individualistic Cartesian conscious self, tucked into a comfortable yet smothering environment hedged in by property, proper names, and possessive pronouns. “Stuff” as it is called euphemistically (or “shit” more dysphemistically) in the prevailing US-English-derived international argot.

We live in a world in which everything is self-enclosed and owned and yet, within this highly restricted environment of ‘my muesli, my I-phone, my TV shows, my yoga classes, my guns, my presidential candidate, my values and opinions, my pills’, we see ourselves illusorily as being more extensively than ever connected with a much wider human community.

There is a passage in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, the most private work of that eminently unlikeable yet prototypically postmodern soul, in which the author bemoans the contrast between his own expansive love of humanity and the fact that he himself is so universally despised.

This is normally put down by modern commentators to Rousseau’s own personal psychopathology (personalizing again), but it is in fact a reflection of a peculiarly contemporary and widespread malady of the human soul that has its roots in the turmoil of a revolutionary (and, lest we forget, extremely bloody) French republic, of which Jean-Jacques was the secular patron saint.

Recent terrorist attacks have inspired a flurry of Facebook users around the world to drape their avatars in the tricolor and declare Je suis Paris, a phrase which, taken literally, means nothing, and means next to nothing in practical moral terms. Critics of this evidently facile and shallow (albeit well-meaning) show of solidarity have noted its underlying selfishness. Sympathy is invariably restricted to well-to-do victims in developed countries with whom the virtual or actual international jet-set can easily self-identify. Hence Je suis…, giving an added frisson of universality by the show of superficial familiarity with French.

No-one bothers to acquaint themselves even slightly with the many languages and rich cultures of central Africa to express solidarity with the people of Mali or Chad. Many of these same people never speak to (let alone help) their neighbors, routinely turn a blind eye to everyday injustices in their own country, and are wary of wealth redistribution and refugees. And many of them, no doubt, like Rousseau, feel isolated and unloved and secretly bitter that their abstract love of humanity always goes unrequited, their encaverned sense of entitled amour-propre ‘liked’ occasionally, but ultimately unshared.

In parts of the Christian New Testament, Jesus/Yeshua/Isa is reported as saying “Love thy neighbor” ….. He does not say “Love everyone,”—an impossible task. Nor does He say “Love thyself and thy immediate family.” We are, rather, enjoined to love the people with whom we cross paths in our everyday lives, whoever they may be. Rousseau evidently failed to do this in his private life and all too many of us are still all too keen to follow his example.

One of the more amusing and insightful of the many subplots in Robert Musil’s satirical epic novel of prewar Vienna The Man without Qualities concerns a sex-murderer called Moosbrugger. The characters in the novel whom we would now describe as bleeding-heart liberals are obsessed with reaching out to this ‘monster’ in his prison cell and engage in endless erudite debates as to the true nature of his soul and go through various bureaucratic hoops in an attempt to arrange a meeting with him. These very same characters dabble faddishly in anti-Semitism—a dangerous but fashionable trend at the time—and see no conflict between their liberal humanitarian values and their concern about the ‘Jewish problem’. (Take note Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher.)

When they finally meet Moosbrugger, after a long comic anticlimactic build-up, the murderer is gruff and unremarkable. Evil, as Hannah Arendt argued, turns out to be banal. Nor is there any glimmer of shared humanity buried in it. One is reminded of Lord Longford’s relationship with Myra Hindley.

What Musil is telling us, of course—and it is still very, very relevant today—is that, while we are bound up in the seemingly so important projects of our own restricted social set and our even more restricted selves, we fail to reach out to those with whom we truly share our lives (fantasizing about hanging out with serial killers, while fearful of the nice Jewish or Muslim family living next door) and we thus fail to see the bigger historical picture, which, in the case of Musil’s characters, is the impending global war.

Another work from roughly the same historical period and geographical region that deals with similar themes is Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I have always read this classic mini-novel as a satire on the bourgeois family and the rational self and found it extraordinarily funny. Through his transformation into a giant insect, Gregor Samsa is made aware, like Beckett’s characters, of the unbearable confinement of his Cartesian self, while the members of his cramped stuffy nuclear family (designated by the writer in abstract generic terms, ‘the father, ‘the mother’, ‘the sister’) fuss protectively around him, as though something mildly embarrassing but not that much out of the ordinary had occurred, as if he had ‘gone Goth’ or come out as gay. The result is as touching as it is absurd.

What all these three authors—Beckett, Musil, Kafka—share is a technique of somehow locking their characters into themselves or down into the narrow confines of a familiar world that is at once comforting and uncomfortable. Beckett does this by literally restricting their movement and ability to exercise free will; Kafka through a sort of grim surrealism; Musil through the ongoing irony that the characters are living on the edge of an historical cataclysm of which they, but not the author or his readers, are blithely unaware. The effect, in all three cases, is to throw into sharper relief the way in which the modern and contemporary enclosure of the self and the untruths it drapes itself in order to perpetuate this, is, in the final analysis, psychologically unbearable, morally ambiguous, and unsustainable in social or environmental terms.

Two Beckett plays, in particular, Eh Joe and Not I, distill this insight almost to its absolute minimum. These pieces, which are—mercifully—as brief as they are intense, both present a monologue delivered by a disembodied female voice, although the point of view is that of a silent male actor who hears her talking in his head. The monologues, so far as we are able to pick out a narrative from the monotonous yet somehow strangely mellifluous stream of disconnected phrases, tell stories of suicide, spousal neglect and the loss of a child.

It is interesting that both of these plays are almost unbearable to watch and rarely staged. It is easier, it would seem for audiences to sit through hours of fraught melodrama or revenge tragedy, box-sets-ful of mafia violence and medieval torture, streaming media coverage of terrorist atrocities—all of which are extremely exotic and rare in real life—than to listen, for just five minutes, to a lone female actor calmly recounting everyday pain as if it were inside their own heads.

Until we learn to do this, I fear that we will all continue to be encaverned, locked into ourselves, locked down in an apparently comforting but ultimately discomfiting illusory world, and violence will prevail.


Poetry Rehab–Changes–Expo 1893

I submit this new poem in response to this week’s Poetry Rehab Changes prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/864794694 , on the grounds that it refers to one of the most symbolic and pompously celebrated global events in the transition to the modern electrical energy-dependent world. It also forms a companion piece to Expo 51, which I submitted earlier this year https://oudeis2005.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/poetry-rehab-exposition/ , and may also reflect some underlying thoughts regarding the upcoming Paris Climate Change Conference now overshadowed by terrorist attacks.

Relatively obscure or deliberately obscured and conflated name references in this poem, torn willy-nilly from both erudite history and popular culture, are designed to stump older and younger readers alike. Both groups nowadays can easily Google them and I like to think that this is a way of bringing them together and forcing them to reflect on the reasons for my juxtaposing such seemingly disparate characters, even though I am not quite sure why I have done so myself.

I am intrigued and inspired by the role of supposed erudition in a world in which all superficial knowledge is but a click away and yet ignorance and philistinism are upheld as a socially useful norm. It is a situation at once very similar to and yet very different from that of the world of the Hellenistic Greek and Latin poets who influence much of my work. This was also the intellectual climate that engendered the first inklings of the Christian faith and which, in some murky parallel, is inspiring a revival of various faiths today, often in their ugliest forms.

I have a very clear idea of the kind of divergent and clashing rhythm patterns I am aiming at in this poem and the way I would like to thread repeated phonemes—especially a sort of choking sequence of /k/ and /g/ sounds—through the piece, as a substitute for rhyme. I would, as always, welcome any feedback as to how well I have managed to achieve this effect.


Expo 1893


Columbo was a shabby cheeky cad,

shacked up with a Canary princess,

till Bea chucked him out

with a sprig of sugar flower

and egged him on his way,

shoved off, like Theseus and Aeneas,

to found a New World.


The lights light up & everyone claps.

AC beats DC.

A confetti of intellectual property lawsuits ensues.

Twenty-seven million folks check

cheerfully in to friendly local hotels.

An effigy of Benjamin Franklin is put up

like a lightning rod. Saw grinds on bone

in the dungeons of a dingy guest-house.

And, as the grand finale,

the town Mayor is mown down.


Dr. Holmes figures logically that his pathology

will affect only 0.001% of the visiting population:

far less a toll

than that of tuberculosis, childbirth, syphilis,

or accidents in the building trade.

A death-rate akin to that of electricity.

The odd shock of a new technology.

An acceptable, statistically insignificant drop

of poison in the frenzied ocean of enthusiasm

and suffering of the birth-pangs of the modern world,

in the name of Nietzsche, research, science, freedom and de Sade.

All that razzmatazz.

Sherlock was stumped.


The obelisk fizzes with energy

and transmits its power around the world.

Paris, London, New York, Cairo.

Slums, palaces, Chinatowns, Bohemia.

As if Dr. Dee and his army of occult angels

were still at the controls.

Pharaohs stir and toss and orgasm

in their formaldehyde graves.

Dr. Holmes hooks a buzz-saw up

to the new electricity grid

to hack off living limbs.

An incandescent bulb swings from the ceiling

like a flower,

casting color and shadow

over severed bones.


Folk go home to their farms

on carts and trains—

the dead are always the fewest among us—

to gabble excitedly about their experience

like migrating geese.


We like Ike and David Icke in equal measure,

Eric Cartman and Eric Blair,

Suleyman, Sid Vicious, Che Guevara and El Cid.


In fourteen hundred and ninety two

Columbus sailed the ocean blue

& Spain was cleared of Muslims and Jews.

Sugar seed, small-pox, slavery,

genocide & intolerance

wash up in the galleons’ wake of spume and scum,

Aphrodite-like, on Caribbean shores.


The shadow of a bony-fingered hand

hovers over the apocalypse switch.

Mocking Noah’s single dove.


Poetry Rehab–Missing–Throwing the Postman out of the Pram

This longish poem is still very much work in progress. I am still far from happy with the way I have managed the rhythm and the development of ideas. It is an attempt to create the fusion of personal, political and spiritual concerns that I am still groping towards as a poet and a person. I submit it here in response to Andy Townend’s Poetry Rehab Missing prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/858627284 as it seems to cover various senses of this word. Any constructive criticism is, as always, most welcome.


Throwing the Postman out of the Pram

The squeaky plastic toy postman

was part of a series of shampoo bottles

—policeman, hard-hatted construction-worker,

fire-fighter, farmer, nurse—

a whole trade union movement

of workers dirtied by politics and labor

and cleansed by a daily baptism of bubble-bath;

and dirty for having been in and out

of your baby mouth so often,

and in and out of your high-walled pram

into the dirt and back, little sister,

until lost.



the loss of that little postman,

somewhere outside of the pram,

squashed, on the narrow sidewalk

between the blackened car-park walls

and the trucks thundering

along the once sleepy high street

through the center of town,

somewhere between the shiny-windowed family planning clinic

and the bakery chimney black with sugary soot

and the scent of gingerbread men,

lost forever under the wheels of a juggernaut,

upset me far more than you

with your giggling fort-da games.


The little postman was thrown unceremoniously

under the bus, as workmen drilled the road

noisily under red&white striped tents

between cups of tea. And probably laughed.

Mother didn’t even notice he had gone,

still less you, little sister, with your new-born smile.

Only I noticed that the postman

was missing and no longer among us

no longer lined up alongside the other smiling guilded icons

rimming the bath.

The only smile lacking mine.

The engineer was not weeping,

nor the policeman seeking him out,

nor the nurse tending his wounds.

“I’m alright, Jack,” they each seemed to grin back

from their own squeezy soapy toy world.

No solace there.

The dirty bathwater gurgled down into the plughole

as always and all was lost. The postman gone.


Later, policemen will take sticks to the backs of miners

and printers. Squeeze the life out of picketing dockers;

bludgeon firemen and factory workers. Throw them all

out of the high-walled pram of the nanny state.

Truncheons their toys.

The rich and privileged and their henchmen

behaving like little kids, treating other people’s lives

like unwanted toys. To be thrown out

of the pram; unwrapped under the Christmas tree

and tossed out with the trash on Boxing Day.


The message the stern-faced postman brought was never his own:

letters from half-forgotten family members popped

through the post box among bills. The flurry of cards

and packages at the end of the year justified the postman’s Christmas box.

Even carefully packed clotted cream.


Once a year—double overtime—we would trudge—

duffel-coated little Santa’s helpers—

down to the railway station to load bags

full of gifts and festive greetings onto waiting trains.

And the ASLEF driver would step off the plate

to warm his feet on a two-bar fire and rant Utopian dreams,

riding his metal sleigh sullenly through icy dark of night,

a Santa clad in Lenin red

cheering us with his tales.


We wait now for the postman thrown out of the pram to be found—

the redeeming Übermensch,

Homoousia knitted back together

by kind ladies who go to church—

and hang fairy lights in trees

to welcome his return.

Tinker, tailor, soldier and sailor

have lost touch with the candlestick-maker

who is out of work these days. Unions come

and go. Places taken by accountants,

upstart slum landlords, slick-talking lobbyists,

lawyers, ad-men, bankers, TV anchors.

But none of these become icons filled with foaming bubble-bath

squirted out with the cheerful squeak

of a station master ordering off a train

in a mist of sooty steam and a flapping of flags;

or of a factory chimney tooting time

for workers to knock off and get back home

on bikes

to polish billiard cues for the night ahead,

or of milkmen whistling

on whirring floats

as they do their rounds.

Poetry Rehab — Father

This poem, originally written in 2004, as part of a short series about natural disasters, is submitted here in response to this week’s poetry rehab prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/851909184




Hymn to Neptune


The sea sucks at the edges of the earth

& we at it with our fish-hooks and nets.


Mother Nature responds better,

if you treat Her like a lady.

Even so, you still can’t be sure

She won’t throw

one of Her turns or moods

or a cup around from time to time.

Likewise Father Sea.


You can never quite tell when the Old Man

is going to whip his belt off,

(when He’s had a skin full)

&, (for no damned good reason)

treat you to the hiding of a lifetime.

Most of the time, He’s harmless, though.

Snoring & wheezing through his grizzled

waves of beard. His bad, tar-choked chest

going up and down

like a baby’s, flaked out on the sofa-bed.

Bored on the dole

or knackered by a hard day working for the Council.

That cough.


Sometimes He brings home battered fish for supper

on Friday nights,

oozing its grease through sheets

of last week’s Sun.

Diesel oil on His clothes.

&, generally, all goes well,

if you treat Him

to bottles of lite ale & with kid gloves.


Give or take the odd night or two

When He’s off his head.

Something to do with Mum.

Recife, 26 December 2004