Volume One, No. 4 January 2003

j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842


Meaning and Melancholia in Beckett's Endgame

Sandra Raponi

University of Toronto



Although the concept of melancholia refers to a debilitating, pathological condition, it is also associated with artistic creativity and philosophical insight. There is a twofold relationship between melancholia and art: on the one hand, melancholia is a source of artistic creativity, and on the other hand, works of art may have a therapeutic function in overcoming melancholia, both for the artist and the observer. In Black Sun, Julia Kristeva examines the way in which artistic and literary creations are able to provide a sublimatory means of moving beyond melancholia.1 She argues that, in the twentieth century, there is a crisis of representation and signification. Faced with the monstrosity of this century's destructive forces, our symbolic means have become hollowed out and paralysed such that we are compelled to be silent (Black Sun 223). Kristeva asks whether it is possible for art to acknowledge the weight of contemporary suffering in a way that provides a sublimatory solution to our crises.

In her examination of the postwar literature of Marguerite Duras, Kristeva concludes that Duras' novels evoke an "impossible mourning" that infects their readers. She argues that Duras' writing lacks catharsis: there is no resolution, no promise of a beyond, no forgiveness, no redemption (Black Sun 228). Duras' novels exemplify the contemporary crisis of representation and signification because they are unable to address suffering except by silence, leading to a "blankness of meaning." By contrast, Kristeva points to the work of Samuel Beckett as an example of how art can address the contemporary crises in a way that curbs melancholia. She writes:

Duras does not orchestrate [the "nothing"] in the fashion of Mallarmé, who sought for the music in words, nor in the manner of Beckett who refines a syntax that marks time or moves ahead by fits and starts, warding off the narrative's flight forward. The reverberation among characters as well as the silence inscribed as such, the emphasis on the "nothing" to be spoken as ultimate expression of suffering, leads Duras to a blankness of meaning. Coupled with rhetorical awkwardness, they make up a world of unsettling, infectious ill-being (Black Sun 258). [Emphasis added]

While Kristeva does not discuss Beckett beyond this reference, I will consider whether Endgame—a play that embodies the postwar human dilemma—addresses the contemporary crises without leading to a "blankness of meaning" or "evoking an impossible mourning." Does Endgame provide a sublimatory solution? Or does it infect the audience with its despair? Is this something that we can determine through Kristeva's analysis? I argue that while Endgame can be interpreted as a play that stages melancholia and has a melancholic character, it can be distinguished from Kristeva’s analysis of the Duras’ melancholic art in a few important respects. Although these differences suggest that Endgame may provide a sublimatory solution, whether the play spreads or curbs melancholia, whether it evokes an "impossible mourning" or a "defeated depression," is not something that can be determined by an analysis of the play alone, since both possibilities are left open. This can only be determined by the experience of the reader or spectator.

Since the absence of meaning is fundamental to Kristeva's conception of melancholia, I will first consider the well-noted difficulty of deriving a stable interpretation of Endgame. By drawing upon Theodor W. Adorno's and Simon Critchley's writings on Beckett, I argue that despite the destabilization of meaning in Endgame, the play does not lead to a "blankness of meaning"; rather, the play questions and debates meaning. It is the indeterminacy of meaning in Endgame that leads to the impossibility of assessing whether or not the play evokes impossible mourning, based on the text alone.

After considering the staging of the melancholic condition in Endgame, I conclude that while the play suggests certain "counterdepressants" that may be used to overcome melancholia—such as storytelling and art —in the end, the characters do not seem to make any progress beyond their melancholic condition. At a thematic level, Endgame is similar to Duras' novels in that it provides no catharsis, no resolution, no promise of a beyond, no redemption. However, I argue that it is problematic to analyze the ability of Endgame to address the contemporary crisis in meaning based on its lack of catharsis and resolution since Beckett's works can be more aptly characterized as anti-cathartic and anti-redemptive. Despite the absence of resolution in Endgame, the play differs from Kristeva's analysis of Duras' novels because the play does not respond to suffering with silence. Even though the characters desire silence, they can't stop talking, and they can't stop telling stories.

Kristeva's analysis of sublimatory art in Black Sun is not limited to art that is cathartic in its thematic development. She also argues that literary works can overcome melancholia at a semiotic level, by means of melody, tone, rhythm, gesture, semantic polyvalency, and prosody. In Kristeva's brief reference to Beckett in the above passage, she suggests that his works are able to curb melancholia through the semiotic—through the narrative's broken and retarded movement. Such an analysis is more appropriate with respect to Beckett's work since for him, form is as important as content; or rather, "form is content and content is form."2 Unfortunately, the effect of the semiotic on the ability of the text to spread or curb melancholia is indeterminate, as will be discussed in the last section of this essay with respect to Beckett's use of pause and laughter.

Mourning and Melancholia in Psychoanalytic Theory
For Freud, mourning and melancholia are responses to the loss of a libidinal object. In mourning, the resentment and aggression against the lost object is projected onto other objects. In melancholia (a pathological state of "impossible mourning"), one turns these feelings against oneself, not being conscious of what one has lost.3 Freud identifies certain mental features which are common to both: profound painful dejection, loss of interest in the world, perception of the world as poor and empty, loss of the capacity to love any new object, and inhibition of activity.4 In the normal process of mourning, the ego, aware that the object no longer exists, gradually severs its attachment to the object in order to not share its fate.5 In melancholia, the libido withdraws into the ego, replacing an object-cathexis with an identification of the ego with the abandoned object; the ego wants to incorporate the object into itself.6 Hence, there is a "cleavage" or division in the ego whereby the aggression towards the lost object is directed against itself, resulting in the diminution in self-regard, self-reproaches, and an impoverishment of the ego. This conflict within the ego acts like a painful open "wound" and empties the ego until it is totally impoverished.7

Whereas Freud argues that melancholia arises from the dissolution of an object relation, Kristeva conceives of melancholia in terms of the inability to establish object relations.8 Melancholia still concerns a loss, but it is a loss more fundamental than the loss of an object. She traces melancholia back to the originary libidinal wound—the loss of the 'Thing": "the real that does not lend itself to signification, the centre of attraction and repulsion" (Black Sun 13). The "Thing" is a vague, indeterminate something, a light without representation— a black sun. While she largely agrees with the mental features or symptoms of melancholia identified by Freud—inhibition, decrease in psychomotor activity, slowing down of thinking, asymbolia, withdrawal to the point of inaction (pretending to be dead) or suicide (Black Sun 9-10)—she does not see these as rooted in a displaced aggression for an object onto one's own ego. Instead, she attributes the melancholic's sadness to "the most archaic expression of a non-symbolizable, unnameable narcissistic wound" (Black Sun 12). The melancholic only has the impression of having been deprived of an unnameable, unrepresentable good; she is unable to signify it. Kristeva describes melancholia as "an abyssal suffering that does not succeed in signifying itself and, having lost meaning, loses life" (Black Sun 189). For the melancholic, signs do not have the force of replacing the loss or of expressing the pain of the loss.

A way to curb melancholia is by naming suffering, elaborating it, dissecting it into its smallest components (Black Sun 97). This is the task of the psychoanalyst —to "elaborate" in the sense of helping the analysand become aware of the inter- and intrapsychic causes of his or her suffering (Black Sun 24). Kristeva argues that literary and artistic creations may provide a sublimatory solution. Artistic and literary creations provide a semiological representation of the subject's battle with symbolic collapse in a manner that is closer to catharsis than to elaboration (Black Sun 24). She identifies three artistic devices that allow the artist and spectator to secure a sublimatory hold over the lost Thing: (1) prosody, "the language beyond language that inserts into the sign the rhythm and alliteration of semiotic processes"; (2) the polyvalence of sign and symbol, "which unsettles naming and, by building up a plurality of connotations around the sign, affords the subject a chance to imagine the nonmeaning, or the true meaning, of the Thing"; and (3) the aesthetics of forgiveness, as found in her analysis of Dostoyevsky (Black Sun 97). She privileges poetic language, regarding it as a model of "conquered depression" (Black Sun 65). Through melody, rhythm, semantic polyvalency, and parody, the poetic form, in decomposing and recomposing signs, is able to secure an uncertain but adequate hold over the Thing (Black Sun 14). Based on her analysis of the artists examined in Black Sun, Kristeva indicates that a work of art is a defeated depression if it succeeds in putting death—the unrepresentable and unnameable—into signs, whereas a work of art is melancholic if it prevents the use of signs.

Meaning in Beckett
Beckett's writing resists and frustrates all attempts made to decipher its symbols or to provide a coherent, unified interpretation. In a letter to director Alan Schneider in 1957, Beckett wrote:

My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin. Hamm as stated, and Clov as stated, together stated nec tecum nec sine te [neither with you nor without you], in such a place, and in such a world, that's all I can manage, more than I could.9

This statement suggests that Beckett does not intend to signify or symbolize anything beyond what is stated; a cigar is just a cigar. In his early novel, Watt, he writes: "no symbols where none intended."10 And yet, it is difficult to take Beckett at his word here since his work is full of symbols and signifiers (character names, phrases, objects) that seem to be carefully crafted in such a way that they refer to certain philosophical texts, historical events, or other literary works in a cryptic manner. His statement also suggests that he, as a writer, is concerned with the form rather than the content, with the sound and the rhythm of words and phrases, rather than with communicating certain ideas or intending any specific interpretation. This approach seems to leave the meaning open. He states:

I take no sides. I am interested in the shape of ideas. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine: 'Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.' That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters.11

If Beckett's writings only provide "fundamental sounds" which "take no sides," then whether or not his works go beyond melancholia may depend more on the reader or spectator, than on the texts themselves.

Many, including Beckett, have commented on the particular difficulty of interpreting Endgame. Beckett described Endgame as "rather difficult, elliptic, mostly depending on the power of the text to claw, more inhuman than Godot."12 Despite this difficulty, many have tried to make sense of the play, resulting in a proliferation of diverse interpretations. One of the more common interpretations suggests that the play represents the last stage of a game of chess in which Hamm is the King, Clov is the knight, and Nagg and Nell are captured pawns. Who the enemy is, and whether the game ends in checkmate or stalemate, is unclear.13 Other interpretations include: a bifurcated Cartesian man where Hamm is the mind and Clov is the body; a writer's mind or study where Hamm is the writer, Clov is a character created by him, and Nagg and Nell are discarded characters thrown into the wastebasket; actors on stage playing several roles; a shelter during some end-of-the-world crisis; a placeless and timeless place, representing both a womb and a tomb.14 Since Hamm is the name of Noah's son, some have suggested that the shelter is Noah's Ark, sometime after the flood.15 The play has even been interpreted as a metaphor for the Freudian mind as presented in "The Ego and the Id."16

While each interpretation of Endgame is able to point to various aspects of the text for support, there is much else in the text which cannot be accounted for and which in fact undermines each particular interpretation.17 Critchley observes that Beckett's writings are particularly resistant to philosophical interpretation. He writes:

The texts continually seem to pull the rug from under the feet of the philosopher by showing themselves to be conscious of the possibility of such interpretations…or, better still, such interpretations seem to lag behind their object by saying too much: something essential to Beckett's language is lost by overshooting the text and ascending into the stratosphere of metalanguage.18

Since it seems both futile and contrary to Beckett's intentions to attempt a philosophically mediated interpretation of his work, should we avoid such an analysis of his work?19 Even if the task seems impossible, it does not mean that we should refrain from interpretation. As Theodor W. Adorno argues in his aesthetic theory, art needs philosophy to interpret it, to provide reflection—to say what art cannot say.20

Whether or not the play's resistance to any stable, unified interpretation leads to an absence of meaning is relevant to Kristeva's conception of melancholic art. In her analysis of Duras, Kristeva argues that her writing evokes impossible mourning because its emphasis on silence and on the "nothing" to be spoken leads to an inhuman "blankness of meaning" (Black Sun 257-8). Does the instability of meaning in Endgame lead to a similar blankness of meaning? In "Trying to Understand Endgame," Adorno argues that "[u]nderstanding it [Endgame] can mean nothing other than understanding its incomprehensibility, or concretely reconstructing its meaning structure—that it has none"; "[n]ot meaning anything becomes the only meaning."21 Opposed to those you might argue that Endgame is simply meaningless, Adorno reads Endgame as a play that debates meaning, that addresses and reconstructs the historical negation of meaning. He interprets Endgame as a parody of philosophy, particularly Existentialist philosophy. He argues that Endgame destroys the Existentialist illusion of the free, unified, absolute subject that is able to create its own meaning when faced with metaphysical meaninglessness; instead, the play recognizes that with the historical disintegration of the subject's unity, there is no longer any closed structure of meaning.22 This interpretation of Adorno's statements is reinforced in his Aesthetic Theory where he writes:

"Beckett's oeuvre already presupposes this experience of the destruction of meaning as self-evident, yet also pushes it beyond meaning's abstract negation in that his plays force the traditional categories of art to undergo this experience, concretely suspend them, and extrapolate others out of the nothingness… Beckett's plays are absurd not because of the absence of meaning, for then they would be simply irrelevant, but because they put meaning on trial; they unfold its history. His work is ruled as much by an obsession with positive nothingness as by the obsession with a meaninglessness that has developed historically and is thus in a sense merited, though this meritedness in no way allows any positive meaning to be reclaimed.23

Critchley adds that Endgame establishes "the meaning of meaninglessness" by performing the refusal of meaning and tracing the history of the dissolution of meaning, without permitting either the restoration of meaning, or the irrelevant metaphysical comfort of meaninglessness.24.

A problematic aspect of Adorno's analysis of Endgame is that while he recognizes the difficulty of interpreting Endgame, in the end he seems to provide a determinate, unifying interpretation. He himself seems to have no difficulty uncovering "the" meaning of Endgame as he reads the play into his own account of contemporary society.25 What makes Endgame enigmatic is that it suggests a multiplicity of possible meanings, overall, and with respect to particular signifiers. While the possible interpretations are limited by the context of the play and Beckett's body of writing, Endgame resists being encapsulated by a definitive, unifying interpretation. As a result, although in the next section I examine the melancholic elements in Endgame and consider its ability to either curb or spread melancholia according to Kristeva's theory, I do not mean to suggest that Endgame is "about melancholia" in any definitive sense.

The play's openness and undecidability further distinguishes Endgame from the blankness of meaning that Kristeva observes in Duras' writing. Beckett's use of multiple signifiers, as well as his concern with the network of sounds and significances rather than with the communication of ideas, creates a polyvalence of sign and symbol. With respect to Nerval's prosodic polymorphism, Kristeva argues that creating an undecidable polyphony with symbols provides an antidote to depression (Black Sun 170). By unsettling the sign-referent relationship and by building a plurality of connotations around the sign, this artistic device allows the subject to imagine the meaning or nonmeaning of the Thing; it allows the subject to secure an uncertain but adequate hold over the Thing (Black Sun 170). Hence, Endgame's semantic polyvalency, may be a way to put the unrepresentable and the unnameable—death and suffering—into signs.

Melancholia in Endgame
Kristeva's description of melancholia as a "living death" provides a fitting description for Endgame. She describes the condition as:

…a devitalized existence that, although occasionally fired by the effort I make to prolong it, is ready at any moment for a plunge into death ... I live a living death, my flesh is wounded, bleeding, cadaverized, my rhythm slowed down or interrupted, time has been erased or bloated, absorbed into sorrow. (Black Sun 4)

In Endgame, there is a tension between a desire for the end, for silence and stillness, and a desire to prolong the end by talking—by repeating the same old jokes and stories, by repeating the same old questions and answers. As Hamm says at the beginning of the play, "it's time it ended and yet I hesitate to—(he yawns)—to end (Endgame 3)." The very structure of the play has a "devitalized existence." Pauses interrupt its rhythm throughout, there is little movement, and even then, it is slowed down and prolonged.

In Endgame, the outside world is perceived as dead and empty, a feature Freud attributes to both mourning and melancholia. Clov and Hamm describe the world outside the "refuge" as dead, another hell, nothing stirring, no sun, no light, no darkness—just gray. It is characterized by nothingness and timelessness—time is zero and everything is zero (Endgame 30-32). Some have interpreted this to signify that the play takes place after some end-of-the-world disaster. However, Hamm's description of the mad painter suggests that these negative perceptions of the outside world might be due to the projective identifications of a melancholic ego.26 Hamm states:

I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter—and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I'd take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness! (Pause.) He'd snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes. (Pause.) He alone had been spared. (Pause.) Forgotten. (Pause.) It appears the case is ... was not so ... so unusual. (Endgame 44)

The hesitant manner in which he indicates that this melancholic experience is not so unusual suggests that he and Clov may be suffering from the madman's psychosis. Similar to the madman's experience, when Clov looks out the window, he sees nothing: "all is corpsed" (Endgame 32). In this passage, Beckett also connects madness with artistic creativity. We are told twice that the madman was "a painter—and engraver," emphasizing the word "engraver" by putting a pause before it both times.

The characters in Endgame appear to have suffered a loss that renders their melancholic egos wounded, incomplete and empty. In his first speech, Clov says, "I can't be punished any more" (Endgame 1). In Hamm's first speech, he asks, "Can there be misery—(he yawns)—loftier than mine" (Endgame 2). Both characters are introduced as sufferers. The fact that the characters are wounded and incomplete is visually and externally represented by their physical disabilities. Hamm is blind and cannot walk. Clov can see and walk, but cannot sit. Nagg and Nell are legless, and have lost some of their hearing and sight. The features and abilities that one character lacks are reflected by the presence of that feature or ability in the other characters.27 Even the toy dog is incomplete: it lacks a leg and "its sex." While the characters have lost something they once had, the dog is unfinished —it lacks what it never had to begin with.

The characters appear on stage already wounded. The many references to the fact that they are "almost finished" or "at the end" indicates that the initial unnameable loss occurred long ago. As is the case with melancholia, there is no clear cause—it is an unconscious loss. The audience is presented with what seems to be the last stages of a deteriorating process. When Clov says that there is no more nature, Hamm proves that there is by pointing not to nature's growth, but to its decay: "We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!" (Endgame 11) The process is not named, but only pointed to as "this" or "this thing" or "something." For example:

HAMM: Have you had enough?
CLOV: Yes! (Pause) Of what?
HAMM: Of this ... this ... thing. (Endgame 5, 45)

When Hamm asks, "What's happening?" Clov responds, "Something is taking its course" (Endgame 13, 32). Whatever they are referring to, it is unnamed; and yet they seem to know what the other is referring to by "this thing" or "something." Perhaps they do not to need to name it, or perhaps they are incapable of naming it because it is something unnameable and unrepresentable.

The loss of meaning associated with melancholia is present in Endgame at various levels: whether their words have meaning, whether the characters perceive their lives as having meaning, and whether the characters mean something to each other. Just as readers, audience-members, critics and scholars may become frustrated in their attempts to make sense of the play and discover its meaning, the characters also are thwarted in their half-hearted attempts to make a "meaningful connection" with other characters, and even between their own thoughts.28 That the attempt is half-hearted is revealed in the following passage:

HAMM: We're not beginning to ... ... mean something?
CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!
HAMM: I wonder. (Pause.) Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn't he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough. (Voice of rational being.) Ah, good, now I see what it is, yes, now I understand what they're at! (Clov starts, drops the telescope and begins to scratch his belly with both hands. Normal voice.) And without going so far as that, we ourselves ... (with emotion) ... we ourselves ... at certain moments ... (Vehemently.) To think perhaps it won't all have been for nothing!
CLOV: (anguished, scratching himself): I have a flea. (Endgame 32-33)

While this passage indicates the desire for meaning, the possibility of meaning is immediately belittled by Clov. Hamm's response suggests that while at certain moments we all have a sense that our lives have meaning, that our lives are meaningful, this is something we want and need to believe, something we hope for—"to think perhaps it won't all have been for nothing." The passage also seems to tease the audience-members and readers who are trying to "understand what they're at." It seems to mock the theorist who thinks she is "rational" enough to make sense of the play.

Endgame illustrates the inadequacy and arbitrariness of words as it is experienced by the melancholic. Kristeva describes melancholic people as witnesses and accomplices of the signifier's flimsiness (Black Sun 20). The arbitrariness of words is made explicit by Clov's statement to Hamm: "I use the words you taught me. If they don't mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent" (Endgame 44). Towards the end of the play, when Clov contemplates leaving but fears that he is too old to form new habits, he says: "Then one day, suddenly, it ends, it changes, I don't understand, it dies, or it's me, I don't understand that either. I ask the words that remain—sleeping, waking, morning, evening. They have nothing to say" (Endgame 81). Throughout the play, Clov and Hamm repeat each other's words and phrases to fill space. These passages reveal that language has become an alien skin for them, foreign and detached from their drive base. They illustrate the "dead language" of a melancholic, as set out by Kristeva (Black Sun 53).

The characters' inability to form a meaningful connection with each other demonstrates another symptom of the melancholic condition. This inability is depicted visually by the fact that the characters do not touch each other. Nagg and Nell want to touch and kiss each other but they are physically prevented from doing so by their infirmities and their bins. Hamm and Clov are physically capable of touching each other, but when Hamm asks Clov to kiss him and hold his hand, Clov refuses. The only affectionate touch is given to the unfinished, three-legged, castrated toy dog. Hamm feels it and fondles it at first (Endgame 40), then he wants the dog to look up at him as if it were begging or imploring him for a bone (Endgame 41), and towards the end of the play, he throws the dog on the ground (Endgame 84).

The characters have an ambivalent love-hate relationship. While Clov and Hamm need each other, they are adversarial. Hamm seems to enjoy making Clov suffer. Clov usually obeys, but defiantly. The relationship between Hamm and his father is also ambivalent. To some degree they need each other. Nagg needs Hamm for nourishment and Hamm needs Nagg to listen to his stories. Hamm calls Nagg "accursed progenitor," "accursed fornicator" and "Scoundrel! Why did you engender me?" indicating a hatred of the father for having been born. This aggression and resentment is directed at the father, not the mother. Nagg curses that one day Hamm will be alone, frightened in the dark, and will call to Nagg as his only hope. The curse recalls the neglect Hamm experienced as a child. As Nagg recalls:

Whom did you call when you were a tiny boy, and were frightened, in the dark? Your mother? No. Me. We let you cry. Then we moved you out of earshot, so that we might sleep in peace ... you didn't really need to have me listen to you. (Pause) I hope the day will come when you'll really need to have me listen to you, and need to hear my voice, any voice." (Endgame 56)

Just as Hamm did not call out for his mother when he was a child, he does not interact with Nell in the play, nor does she interact with him. Nell seems to be his mother but this is only suggested through her relationship with Nagg. Nell is not named "mother" by Hamm. Hamm's only interaction with Nell is through Clov. He orders Clov to bottle Nagg and Nell, and screw down the lids (Endgame 24). Hamm entombs his parents while they are still alive.

Hamm does not consider a burial for Nell when she dies, despite Hamm's concern for proper burial elsewhere (he expresses disappointment at Clov for not giving Mother Pegg a burial, and he requests that Clov bury him). Hamm shows no signs of grief for Nell's death; he only acknowledges it by raising his toque. Instead, he makes light of Nagg's grief. When Nagg cries for a while and then sucks on a biscuit, Hamm comments that "the dead go fast" and that "life goes on" (Endgame 66-67). Hamm states:

Me to play. (He takes out his handkerchief, unfolds it, holds it spread out before him)
We're getting on. (Pause)
You weep, and weep, for nothing, so as not to laugh, and little by little...you begin to grieve. (Endgame 68)

Beckett associates mourning with playing and laughing.29 The relationship between tears and laughter is a theme found in Beckett's other works as well. For example, in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo states: "The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh." 30

The role of playing, acting and imaginary games in Endgame can be understood in terms of Freud's analysis of the "fort/da" game. In the "fort/da" game, the child enacts a distressing or overpowering experience in order to obtain mastery over it, to move from the passivity of the experience to the activity of the game.31 As Kristeva explains, the child deals with the loss experienced in being separated from the mother through the imagination and then through language (Black Sun 6). Towards the end of Endgame, Hamm states: "Then babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together in the dark" (Endgame 70). Hamm's game is more desperate and destructive than the "fort/da" game because it displays a reduplication of the self—a splitting of the self. While the "fort/da" game enacts the loss in order to overcome it, the reduplication game fills the space of the loss.32

Endgame does however present one activity that may be used to master or minimize the pain of loss and abandonment—storytelling. Simon Bennet remarks:

What is both most deeply yearned for and most deeply dreaded—love and tenderness—is represented in storytelling, but represented at a safe distance and overlaid with enough cynicism, indifference, and nastiness to be almost completely disguised.33

The central story in Endgame is so cynical that it is indeed difficult to find disguised within it anything that could be yearned for. Hamm's story is about a father who comes begging for food for his starving son. The narrator, who Hamm seems to identify with, does not feel pity or compassion for them, but rather enjoys seeing the father beg. Similarly, Hamm enjoys pretending that the toy dog is begging him for a bone. The story may be representing Hamm's need to be needed by others, as well as his fear of being abandoned when he is no longer needed. If we interpret this story in light of Hamm's neglect as a child, it may also reveal Hamm's yearning for a father who would beg for food to nourish his child.

The attempt to have mastery over one's loss through storytelling is also exemplified when Hamm imagines what the end would be like:

It will be the end and there I'll be, wondering what can have brought it on and wondering what can have ... (he hesitates) ... why it was so long coming. (Pause.) There I'll be, in the old shelter, alone against the silence and ... (he hesitates) ... the stillness. If I could hold my peace, and sit quiet, it will be all over with sound, and motion, all over and done with. (Endgame 69

Even when he imagines the end, it is not the end. He goes on thinking. The only way there will be silence and stillness is if he sits quietly. And yet, he does not imagine himself sitting quietly. Instead, he imagines himself calling out three times for his father and his son (Endgame 69). As Hamm states later on: "You cried for night; it falls: now cry in darkness" (Endgame 83). He can't sit quietly and he can't stop himself from crying out. He can't be silent.

Despite the desire for the end and for silence in Endgame, the previous passage suggests the impossibility of silence. The passage illustrates that we have to continue to talk and tell stories to people the emptiness of death, even though this is a deception—a necessary deception, according to Critchley.34 Contrary to commentators who argue that silence is the goal of Beckett's work, Adorno and Critchley rightly argue that for Beckett, writing is the necessary desecration of silence.35 When faced with the absence of meaning, the voice continues, and the stories continue. Critchley identifies this aspect of Beckett's work as a double bind between the inability to speak and the inability to be silent, between the impossibility of representing the unrepresentable—death—and the necessity of its representation and narration.36 Based on this reading of Beckett's work, Endgame seems to put death —the unrepresentable and the unnameable—into signs. Unlike Kristeva's interpretation of Duras, Endgame does not encounter suffering and death with silence. And yet, neither does it move beyond the encounter with some form of reconciliation or resolution.

Near the end of the play, Hamm says that the story has ended: "Moments for nothing, now as always, time was never, and time is over, reckoning closed and story ended" (Endgame 83). However, the story does not come to an end in our minds—the audience is left wondering what happened to the boy or his father. Several possible interpretations are suggested: Is the story made up, as Hamm suggests? If not, which character is Hamm? Was Clov the boy? Or was he the father? Was Hamm the boy? Or was he the father? Will Clov take Hamm's place as Hamm predicted and will the boy Clov saw outside take Clov's place? Since the latter possibility is kept open, combined with the fact that Clov is left standing motionless on stage (as predicted by Hamm), Endgame comes to an interminable end; its ending suggests a re-beginning. As Hamm states, "The end is in the beginning and yet you go on" (Endgame 69).

The absence of a clear resolution and the indication that the process will begin again and go on and on, has lead scholars and critics to conclude that the play lacks catharsis. Hersh Zeifman describes the play as an endless cycle of torture that ensnares the audience and creates an unbearable tension.37 Scholars often compare the circular torture of Endgame against Beckett's later plays, where there is a sense of resolution, even if the meaning of the resolution is still left open and ambiguous by Beckett.38 Phil Baker argues that Krapp's Last Tape and Rockaby move from melancholia to mourning, unlike the interminable. Endgame39 While there is an attempt made to name suffering in Endgame, to put death—the unnameable and the unrepresentable—into signs, there is much in the play that evokes an impossible mourning. While the use of storytelling may be regarded as an attempt to identify and master one's loss, it does not seem to succeed in Endgame. The things that might provide a means for Hamm or Clov to overcome their melancholia are left unfinished. For example, Hamm's story remains unfinished. Nell and Mother Pegg, the maternal figures, are not buried. Even the therapeutic effect of art is suggested and then rejected. Towards the end of the play, immediately after Clov tells Hamm that there are no more painkillers, Clov takes down the picture hanging on the wall (thereby suggesting a link between the picture and painkillers), places it on the floor facing the wall, and hangs in its place the alarm clock to signify that he has left (Endgame 71-72). Art does not seem to be able to provide a cure.

Sublimation without Catharsis
Although Endgame is non-cathartic at a thematic level, can it be distinguished from Kristeva's conclusions regarding the absence of catharsis in Duras' writing? With respect to Duras, Kristeva states that when literature that confines itself to baring melancholia lacks catharsis and resolution, "it encounters, recognizes, but also spreads the pain that summons it" (Black Sun 229). Many commentators describe Endgame in similar terms, as a play that infects the audience with its despair without providing a release for the tension and anguish that it creates because it lacks a resolution.40 This interpretation, while most likely true of many people's experience of the play, is problematic with respect to Beckett's work since he rejects and parodies traditional dramatic forms, such as the role of catharsis in classical tragedy. In response to the commentators who complain about the tension created by a lack of resolution, one could argue that the problem lies with their expectations regarding dramatic form—an expectation that Beckett directly challenges.

Even more problematic is Kristeva's concern that Duras' novels lack redemption, forgiveness, the promise of a beyond, or any kind of improvement (Black Sun 228). Despite the different interpretations provided for Endgame, all readers would agree that Endgame clearly lacks these features as well. However, there may be good reasons for challenging the religious demand or hope for redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation especially with respect to the monstrosity of the destructive forces and suffering of the twentieth century. Against all the narratives of redemption that weigh down on us, Critchley seems to admire Beckett for providing "an approach to meaninglessness as an achievement of the ordinary without the rose-tinted glasses of redemption, an acknowledgement of the finiteness of the finite and the limitedness of the human condition."41 According to Adorno, Endgame attacks the traditional ideal of reconciliation by equating the repose of reconciliation with that of nothingness. He states, "[h]ope creeps out of a world in which it is no more conserved than pap and pralines, and back where it came from, back into death."42 In support of this, Adorno refers to Clov's statement that he loves order: "[a] world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the last dust (Endgame 57)." The only "beyond" recognized in Endgame is the end—death.

Despite Kristeva's concern with catharsis, she also indicates that a work that encounters suffering and death can curb melancholia through semiotic processes and artistic devices. Her analysis can be used to distinguish Beckett's Endgame from her treatment of Duras' work in two respects. First, Kristeva suggests that Beckett's syntax, by marking time and moving ahead by breaks and starts, is able to hold back or restrain the narrative from spreading the pain (Black Sun 258). The narrative in Endgame does move forward by fits and starts. "Pause" is the most frequently used word in the text. Perhaps the pause allows the audience or reader to step back, or it breaks the momentum by which the feeling of despair is spread. Stories and dialogue are constantly interrupted, losing their original momentum.

However, the interruptions at times may increase the despair and tension experienced by the audience. For example, during the crucial moment when Hamm considers whether they are beginning to mean something, the thought is interrupted when Clov realizes there is a flea in his pants. The pauses may also create a devitalized mood. Bennet Simon, who is of the view that the frustration, impotence, and thwarted yearnings of the characters are replicated in the audience like a virus, attributes the transmission of the virus to the use of the pause. He states:

These pauses do not mark 'pregnant silences'; rather, they are a means of cutting short or interrupting the full development of a feeling. The frequent pauses are also of a piece with the thematic content—the break in continuity of generations. The pauses concretize the fatigue of the characters but also convey the vague hope that there will be a continuation.43

Given these different possibilities, the effect of the pause is indeterminate. Leslie Hill indicates that this is a general problem with the role of the semiotic in Kristeva's analysis of literature. Hill argues that since the semiotic has no semantic function of its own, its impact on the meaning of a text is essentially indeterminate: it can only be used to supplement what is already apparent at the thematic level.44

The second artistic device that can prevent the transmission of the play's despair is comedy or humour. Kristeva refers to the novellas of Clarice Lispector as an example of writing that reveals suffering and death without Dostoyevsky's aesthetics of forgiveness. She states that the humour used throughout the novellas acquires purifying value and shields the reader from the crisis (Black Sun 229). Kristeva also refers to the postmodern movement towards comedy in her conclusion: "The desire for comedy shows up today to conceal—without for that matter being unaware of it—the concern for such a truth without tragedy, melancholia without purgatory" (Black Sun 259).

As with Waiting for Godot, Beckett uses comedy, laughter and slap-stick humour in Endgame. Does his use of laughter prevent the audience from being dragged into Endgame's despair? At times, Beckett's humour is foolish, ridiculous and absurd; at other times it is dark— very dark. Nagg's joke about the tailor is quite funny and displays Beckett's crude sense of humour ("a neat seat can be very ticklish…a snug crotch is always a teaser…a smart fly is a stiff proposition…"), but in the end, it makes us laugh at the sad state of the world (Endgame 22). Throughout the play, suffering itself is laughed at or treated as a game or a joke. Nell says, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I'll grant you that…Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world" (Endgame 18). Nagg and Nell laugh at having lost their legs in an accident (Endgame 16). Hamm finds pleasure in the story of the father who came begging for food for his starving boy and he considers the story to be comical (Endgame 52-3, 60). As discussed above, grieving itself is associated with laughter (Endgame 68).

While the ridiculous and absurd kind of humour used by Beckett may provide comic detachment from the suffering presented in the play, when laughter is applied to such grave matters as the meaninglessness of life and human suffering, it may appear cruel and cynical, thereby increasing one's feeling of despair. On the other hand, cynicism may be a way to resist despair, to maintain a distance from what would otherwise lead to depression. A second problem with the role of laughter in Endgame is that the characters seem tired of laughing at each other's jokes. Their jokes often fall flat and the joker is the only one laughing. All jokes lose their power to produce laughter over time, due to repetition. As Nell says, "And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more" (Endgame 18). As with the use of pause, Beckett's humour affects the meaning of the play for his readers and spectators in contrary ways. For example, while Adorno argues that Beckett's humour exhausts itself, Critchley argues that the laughter we find in Beckett is an acknowledgement of finitude and a site of resistance.45

Rather than providing positive meaning, redemption, or reconciliation, Beckett's Endgame seems at one level to depict a longing for renunciation and silence. Some find it to be theatrically frustrating because, unlike traditional drama, it has no resolution. The characters are trapped in a tortured existence and do not have the desire or will to change it— they just go on and on, playing out their games, without real discourse, and without the ability to feel anything or form connections with others. There is no catharsis in Endgame. Throughout the play, Hamm and Clov make statements that indicate that they long for the end, and that they think it is time to end. And yet, they hesitate. They go on, never making it off the stage. At the end of the play, Clov seems ready to leave but he remains frozen, standing motionless near the door as he was at the beginning of the play. Their final words to each other seem staged —another game. The ending suggests that it will begin again, that it will go on and on; "[t]he end is in the beginning and yet you go on" (Endgame 69). There is much in Endgame that seems to depict and evoke "impossible mourning."

And yet, unlike Kristeva's analysis of the melancholic literature of Duras, Endgame does not lead to a blankness of meaning; rather, it claws at meaning. While the characters seem to desire silence and stillness, they continue to go on, they continue with their stories, they continue to talk, even though their talk is nonsense. They do not encounter the unnameable and the unrepresentable—suffering and death—with silence. They laugh at it, they play with it, they try to imagine it, and they continue to cry out in the darkness. Although Beckett's use of language, rhythm, symbols and gestures differentiates Endgame from Kristeva's bleak depiction of the melancholic literature of Duras, whether or not these artistic devices are able to prevent the melancholia from spreading to the reader or spectator is not something that can be determined by an analysis of text or the staging of the play. In the end, this is a question that can only be answered based on the experience of the reader or spectator.



1. Julia Kristeva examines four artists: Hans Holbein, Gérard de Nerval, Dostoyevsky, and Marguerite Duras. Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) All references to Kristeva's text will be indicated in the text by "Black Sun." [return to text]

2. Beckett makes this statement in his analysis of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. The passage continues: "You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read—or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something, it is that something itself." "Dante...Bruno...Vico...Joyce," (1929) in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder Publishers Ltd., 1983), p. 27. [return to text]

3. Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia"(1917) in Penguin Freud Library Volume 11 (London: Penguin Books, 1991). [return to text]

4. Ibid., p. 252. [return to text]

5. Ibid., p. 265. [return to text]

6. Ibid., p. 258. [return to text]

7. Ibid., p. 262 and p. 267. [return to text]

8. Freud altered his theory of the process of introjection that occurs in melancholia in his subsequent writings. In "The Ego and the Id," Freud argues that the introjection of the object inside the ego that occurs in melancholia is an essential contribution towards the constitution of the ego's character. Instead of viewing identification as occurring as a consequence of an object-cathexis, he states that immediate identification with the parents precedes object relations. Penguin Freud Library Volume 11 (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 368-370. [return to text]

9. Dierdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: 1980), p. 39. [return to text]

10. Samuel Beckett, Watt (London: 1976), p. 255. [return to text]

11. Alan Schneider, "Working with Beckett" in Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman (eds.) Samuel Beckett: the Critical Heritage (Boston: Routledge, 1979), pp. 173-88 at p. 173. [return to text]

12. Village Voice (March 19, 1958), pp. 8-15. Dian Sherzer writes: "Endgame is indeed a text which has the power to claw: the text claws through its message of man's predicament in the world, it claws through the characters' sinister game, it claws at language and through language by its constant unsettling and unnerving disruptions." "Beckett's Endgame, or What Talk Can Do" Modern Drama 22 (1979) 291-303 at p. 301. [return to text]

13. A particularly interesting interpretation is that Beckett pits his four characters against the darkened faces of the audience. "The ... game's purpose is to frustrate our attempts to interpret Endgame definitively; checkmate occurs when we recognize that the play is deliberately designed to resist even the most ingenious of explications." James Acheson, "Chess with the Audience: Samuel Beckett's Endgame" in Patrick A. McCarthy (ed.) Critical Essays on Samuel Beckett (Boston: G.K.Hall & Co., 1986), p. 181. [return to text]

14. David H. Hesla provides a summary of these interpretations. The Shape of Chaos: An Interpretation of the Art of Samuel Beckett (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), pp. 151-156. [return to text]

15. For example: Stanley Cavell, "Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett's Endgame," Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) [return to text]

16. The ego, the part of the mind that orders our thoughts, is represented by Clov. The id, the part that blindly strives to satisfy its desires, is identified with Hamm. Nagg and Nell are identified with the super-ego because it is a constituent of the mind that arises out of the male child's Oedipus phase. Acheson, pp. 184-6. [return to text]

17. Ann McMillan argues that Beckett's theatre "mounts a continual assault upon the structure of representation which implicitly uphold the ontological or juridical authority of the logocentric order, using strategies of fragmentation and repetition, replacing the stable sign-referent relationship with a multiplication of signifiers... The plays work against the assumption of any definitive position of authority from which to determine truth, meaning or knowledge, for either characters or audience." Theatre On Trial: Samuel Beckett's Later Drama (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 92. [return to text]

18. Simon Critchley, Very Little…Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 141. [return to text]

19. Ibid., p.142 and p.145 (with respect to Derrida's reluctance to write on Beckett). [return to text]

20. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Athlone Press Ltd., 1997) at p.341; discussed by Critchley at p. 150. [return to text]

21. Theodor W. Adorno, "Trying to Understand Endgame," New German Critique, 25 (1982), pp. 119-150 at p. 137 and 120 [return to text]

22. Ibid., pp. 126-9. [return to text]

23. Aesthetic Theory, p. 153 [emphasis added]; discussed by Critchley, p. 151. [return to text]

24. Critchley, pp. 151-2. [return to text]

25. Ibid., at p.157. As Critchley, states on p. 160, Adorno's piece on Endgame ultimately tells us more about Adorno's preoccupations than those of Beckett's text. Perhaps this is inevitable. [return to text]

26. Andrew Brink, "Samuel Beckett's Endgame and the Schizoid Ego" in Lance St. John Butler (ed.) Critical Thought Series (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1993), p. 268. [return to text]

27. Judith A. Roof, "A Blink in the Mirror: From Oedipus to Narcissus and Back in the Drama of Samuel Beckett" in Katherine H. Burkman (ed.) Myth and Ritual in the Plays of Samuel Beckett (New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1987), p. 151. [return to text]

28. Bennett Simon, Tragic Drama and the Family: Psychoanalytic Studies From Aeschylus to Beckett (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 214. [return to text]

29. Susan Letzler Cole, The Absent One: Mourning Ritual, Tragedy, and the Performance of Ambivalence (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985), p. 143. [return to text]

30. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), p. 32 [return to text]

31. Freud states that the game is related to the child's cultural achievement in allowing his mother to go away without protesting. He compensated himself by staging the disappearance and return of the objects within his reach. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" in Penguin Freud Library Volume 11 (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 283-286. [return to text]

32. Andrew Brink states that "[p]lay is what the child does to create a healthy inner world based on its attachment experience at the breast; when that goes wrong the child plays other more desperate games of phantasy..." Brink, p. 265. [return to text]

33. Simon, p. 223. [return to text]

34. Critchley, p. 165. [return to text]

35. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p.134; Critchley, p.165. [return to text]

36. Critchley, p. 154 and 161. [return to text]

37. Hersh Zeifman states: "Nobody in Beckett's early drama is permitted to make a genuine exit. At the end, Clov is dressed for the road, but he remains trapped on stage, 'impassive and motionless'. Where is there to go, except back to the beginning? ... The circularity of Beckett's theatre, the repeated denial of closure, creates in effect a trap from which there is no escape: as there is no end to the play, so there is no end to the play of human suffering. ... The impossibility of a climax in Beckett's drama, in any sense of the word, ultimately becomes as frustrating theatrically ... For endless repetition invariably creates an unbearable tension in the audience—a tension that, lacking closure, can never find release." "The Syntax of Closure: Beckett's Late Drama" in Lois Oppenheim and Marius Buning (eds.) Beckett On and On... (London: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1996), pp. 256-57. [return to text]

38. Zeifman notes that at least Rockaby has an ending—a resolution rarely encountered in Beckett's theatre. Zeifman, p. 241 and p. 250. While there is a clearer sense of progression and resolution in Rockaby, it is not a redemptive or consoling resolution, particularly since the hypnotic, soothing rhythm is violently disrupted by the last passage, when character states: "rock her off / stop her eyes / fuck life / rock her off / rock her off". Samuel Beckett, "Rockaby" in Collected Shorter Plays (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1984) at p. 280. [return to text]

39. With respect to Krapp's Last Tape, Phil Baker argues: "The play ends with a tragic celebration of real loss... Krapp shared the same notebook as Endgame, but in Krapp the dustbins have been emptied by the end of the work." He interprets Rockaby as a belated death rite: "Rockaby spells her dying out as if to witness it again, or to confirm that she really is dead, translating her death into the Symbolic." Beckett and the Mythology of Psychoanalysis (New York, MacMillan Press Ltd., 1998), pp. 152-153. [return to text]

40. See Zeifman above, fn. 40, and Bennet Simon below, fn. 44. [return to text]

41. Critchley, p. 179. Martha Nussbaum also views Beckett's work as trying to cure us of the religious desire for redemption: "We can be redeemed only by ending the demand for redemption, by ceasing to use the concepts of redemption." "Narrative Emotions: Beckett's Genealogy of Love" in Love's Knowledge (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.305. [return to text]

42. Adorno, "Endgame" p.150. [return to text]

43. Simon, pp. 228-29. [return to text]

44. With respect to Kristeva's Revolution in Poetic Language [trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984)], Hill argues that Kristeva privileges the symbolic interpretation in her reading of Mallarmé's poems because the effect of the semiotic on the meaning is indeterminate. Hill argues that, since Kristeva defines the semiotic as being prior or transversal to meaning, the only role left for the semiotic to fill in her reading of the poems is to replicate and supplement what is already apparent at the thematic level: "the semiotic has no semantic function of its own, and its articulation can at best be surmised or described. Its impact on the meaning of the poem as such becomes essentially indeterminate…" Leslie Hill, "Julia Kristeva: Theorizing the Avant-Garde?" in John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin (eds.) Abjection, Melancholia and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva (London: Routledge, 1990), 148-9. While Hill's comments concern Kristeva's Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva primarily provides a thematic interpretation in Black Sun as well. Where she does discuss the semiotic, it largely confirms and extends the thematic meaning of the text. [return to text]

45. See Critchley, pp. 157-160. [return to text]