BEDDOES AND BLACK HUMOUR
The great unacknowledged British forerunner of this system of personal exposure and 1ived satire is Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1798-1851). We are inclined to forget that this expatriate former Romantic died in an inauspicious age for humour (that of Queen Victoria), as absurdly as he had lived. Beddoes is too easily dismissed as a mere Gothic imitator by those who have not bothered to study his work: he died twenty years or so before Lautréamont, and half a century before Jarry - who are taken by the Surrealists to be prophetic exponents of that black humour which has become, in a more limited, diluted form the 'sick' humour of today [i.e.1962]. Beddoes, whom Pound calls "prince of morticians", was self-critical, diffident, practical and independent. Doctor and Radical, he did not believe in poetic missions, nor did he ascribe bardic attributes to the poet. He sees, like most of the Romantics, the poet's function as that of the outsider, the solitary, and his own eccentricity bears this out. In a verse letter he admits that his writing may not be to everyone's taste:
"I will do
Unsociably my part and still be true
To my own soul",
But although his work is fragmentary, it is by no means the work of a casual dilettante or a failed Shelley born after his time. Beddoes sardonically disclaimed all motives for writing except vanity: in this, and in his sense of the dramatic (compare the importance of timing in Beckett or the ‘acts' or self-dramatising monologues of the new comedians) and with his declaration that "a bold trampling fellow" was needed to revivify the drama, he is highly contemporary. An expert technician, Beddoes lacked only the staying power to produce a great tragedy - and what he did leave indicates that his tragedy itself might have been something quite original and new.
The 'philosophy' of Beddoes' work is simply that "Death is the one condition of our life", and since "Belief in death is the fell superstition. /That hath appalled mankind and chained it down", he will explore every aspect of death in an effort to break or complete the vicious circle. Beddoes' concern with corruption and his agonised death-wish make Poe seem tame, almost escapist. The frantic writhings of a soul unwilling to accept the certainties it has already admitted are bitter and salutary.
The black humour everywhere in his work accentuates and thus transcends human futility: grim laughter expresses his contempt for the stacked odds, the loaded dice. Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days remarks after a faintly indelicate pun: "How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones?" - which considering her predicament of being buried alive up to the chest and that she is actually fairly happy in that situation - satirises not only human absurdity itself but also the fact that we will adapt ourselves to very nearly anything. The desperate anger of Hamm's "The bastard! He doesn't exist!" in Endgame is now a weaker acceptance, which reduces both the idea of God's power and the will of man to rise up and defy Him. Beddoes despairs, yet he is always more ferocious: 'putting up with life' or the consolations of romantic love are not for him - they are crumbling and he gives them the final blast.
Floribel believes Hesperus to have hurt his hand. "Let me have the hand" she says "and I will treat it like another heart." Hesperus, who is hiding a dagger, replies "Here 'tis then," and stabs her, adding "Shall I thrust deeper yet?" - which is or should be, the satirist's eternal question; a rhetorical question whose answer the satirist, if at all sharp and sincere, already knows ... Lenora later suggests to the condemned Hesperus that they sit on her husband's and daughter's grave for “some frolic merriment", and gives Hesperus some flowers to smell on the way to his execution. Hesperus remarks of their scent: “It falls upon my soul like an unearthly sense", and Lenora explains:
"And so it should,
For it is Death thou'st quaffed:
I steeped the plants in a magician's potion,
More deadly than the scum of Pluto's pool."
In the significantly titled Death's Jest Book, Amala's bridal song taunts the dying Athulf and he jests even on his own folly: "A thousandfold fool, dying ridiculously." Beddoes' black humour is more than a defiance of convention or mere perversity. It is a liberating influence, a means of transcending or at least neutralising horror by absurdity. If we ourselves are ridiculous, so is death, and all our conjectures, terrors and pretensions cannot alter that. In spite of its limitations, Beddoes' work rises above Gothic conceits and Romantic fripperies: His life and his work are inseparable in the end. He lived out his obsessions and consummated his death-wish.
The blackest joke was his transcendence both of his medical knowledge and experience of decay and of his contempt for his own body (which he mutilated at least twice in his life) by his final act of poisoning himself. Not content with the absurd gesture of suicide, he sardonically bequeathed champagne so that his death might be toasted, together with a stomach-pump for his doctor.
Athulf: "Aye: a philosophic deed."
Humour in action, lived humour, is often dangerous, because it is aggressive; in many ways it is easier to direct the aggression at society than do as Beddoes did and turn the force of one's dissatisfaction upon oneself. A Dali may live his absurdity, but there is no inherent danger in the pose: he has become accepted-as-an-eccentric – an ironic paradox. Before that most uncerebral of poets, Guillaume Apollinaire was trepanned in the First WorId War, he worked in L'Enfer at the Bibliothèque Nationale, writing, for a bet, two hilarious erotic novels.
Lived ironies thus seem the most educative ones: Breton, for all his manifestoes, found himself in the end a leader without a movement! And so did Sartre. Precarious living seems the attendant peril of surrealism. Black humour and all efforts to make people reconsider, melt their rigidified views and reverse the clichés of literature and behaviour. Verbal humour, as in Zazie dans le Métro, is not sufficient for it leads unintentionally to sterile Marienbads; while stylistic humour based on authorial hauteur – as in Nabokov's world, where people become lepidoptera – is clever, entertaining, but ultimately empty. By contrast, innate humour, which springs from a real involvement with humanity, such as we find in Murphy or The Ginger Man, appears to be the prerogative of Irish expatriates. Contemporary British humour appears meagre or cosy by comparison, for like so much else in England it tends to be safe and comfortable.
[The above fragment of a chapter from The Shrinking Island, was a section of a non-fiction book written in 1962 for Gollancz but never subsequently published. See also my piece on Henry Miller.
Author’s Note, 2021]