Privilege Nostalgia: Reading Beckett During Brexit

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I’M NO HISTORIAN of fashion but I noticed this fall, taking my clothes down from storage, that there was something distinctly 2015 about my winter wardrobe. Pants too tapered, wool washed in too-hot water. Like when you study the cross-section of a tree trunk and notice that in some years the rings are quite far apart, indicating significant growth, and in others it must have been so cold that there’s no space between them at all, I can look back at some coats and sweaters and think: Swiss salary. Or, on the dustier side: finishing my PhD. I thought about this while reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” in which Sherlock Holmes asks Watson what he can deduce about the owner of a bowler hat found in the street. When Watson can infer nothing from this “very seedy and disreputable hard felt hat,” Holmes builds a detailed portrait of the owner’s profession, socioeconomic and marital status that will help him identify the unknown suspect. “He was fairly well-to-do within the last three years,” the detective observes, “although he has now fallen upon evil days.” The bowler hat is good quality, lined with red silk, but it has the curled brims of a style distinctly identified with the past. “If this man could afford to buy so expensive a hat three years ago and has had no hat since,” Holmes says, “then he has assuredly gone down in the world.” The owner, whom we later discover is indeed down on his luck, still tries to comport himself with an air of respectability. Using black ink to cover the worn patches of felt on his hat, he carefully maintains the appearance of what we now call privilege.

This hat appears so often in Samuel Beckett’s fiction and drama that the tramp with the battered old bowler is one of the most instantly recognizable emblems of his work. In Beckett, perhaps more than in the work of any other postwar writer, we are made aware of the tremendous tragicomic potential of former wealth. When, in his novels from the 1950s, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, all recognizable markers of normal life, like place-names, food, or time, have been totally stripped away in a systematic process of dispossession, what survive are these hats, boots, umbrellas, bicycles, and sticks that his protagonists cling to for as long as they can. Similarly, in the environments in which his plays are set — like the desolate stage of Waiting for Godot, or the bare room in which Endgame takes place, barren in the wake of some historical catastrophe — these stranded objects are totems of a former life. Whereas Walter Benjamin saw 1930s art and architecture as emblematic of mankind “preparing to outlive culture, if need be,” Beckett’s characters, when we come upon them, already have outlived culture. His characters’ hats and sticks are the last things to go: they are used to keep up appearances under terrible circumstances, devices to maintain and negotiate a coherent sense of identity.

If the hats and canes make you think of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton or vaudeville and silent film, they’re supposed to. From Beckett’s first theatrical production in Dublin in 1931, Le Kid, a pun on the titles of Chaplin’s 1921 film The Kid and the 1636 Corneille drama Le Cid, to the bowler-swapping comedy of Waiting for Godot (“Must have been a very fine hat”), these were early and enduring sources of influence. Beckett was not alone in his nostalgia for the little tramp, as Chaplin’s character was called: these films were so popular in late Victorian Ireland that they were sometimes used as a defense in court cases. In Chaplin’s films, we see the outrageous consequences of refusing to be co-opted smoothly into the automation of industrial life: things act out, bodies, objects, and machines rebel against their proprietors, surprise their operators, deliver unexpected outcomes in routine tasks, and kick their owners in the seat of the pants. For the French surrealists, who devoted themselves to the production of spontaneous, unpredictable words and images that would resist the logic of the imperial war machine and the mechanization of modern life, he was king. “We are your servants,” they declared to him in “Hands Off Love,” a manifesto of support written during the actor’s highly publicized divorce case. When, in the late 1920s, Beckett translated large parts of the surrealist canon from French into English, the group’s preoccupation with the perceived loss of bodily and verbal autonomy in “modern times” resonated with the Irish writer, consonant as they were with a huge upheaval happening at home.

Beckett was fascinated by the ways in which the European avant-garde addressed the trauma of the Great War and the loss of the aristocratic order. In his own work, he returned often to surrealist methods and anachronistic objects in order to narrate a parallel decline: that of the Protestant, Anglo-Irish ruling class into which he was born and which had administered British rule in Ireland since the plantation of the country in the 16th century. By no means an aristocrat, Beckett was, however, born into a solid Protestant middle class with social if not literary aspirations. In 1916, when Beckett was 10 years old, Dublin was racked by a violent rebellion that, although crushed, set into motion the Irish War of Independence, fought during the years of World War I. Independence from Britain was won upon the official founding of the Irish Free State in 1922, with the Anglo-Irish Treaty dividing the country into two separate entities: the independent Free State, and Northern Ireland, which remains within the political jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. Following this partition, Beckett would cross a land border between British territory and the Free State on his travels to and from his boarding school in Northern Ireland. When he finished school and returned to Dublin to attend Trinity College, it was no longer the second city of the British Empire, but the capital of a new country with a new power structure, one with which Beckett had very little affiliation.

It’s hard to imagine today how comprehensive a change this was. Street names were renamed after Irish revolutionary heroes: Sackville Street, for example, became O’Connell Street. Great Britain Street became Parnell Street; in a highly petty move, however, the adjoining lane, Little Britain Street, remains the same to this day. Imperial red phone booths and post boxes were painted over in green: on the very old ones you can still see red underneath scratched green paint. Public sculptures, particularly the equestrian monuments representative of British rule in Ireland, had always been targets for violent attacks and were often blown up; these were systematically removed over the next 30 years and replaced, following the French example, with statues of notable thinkers and literary heroes. A huge effort went into the production of a national literature and the translation of foreign texts into Gaelic, the island’s indigenous language. The modern literary legacy of the country up to that point had been almost exclusively Anglo-Irish Protestant. Coming after Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke, Maria Edgeworth, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, J. M. Synge, George Bernard Shaw, Seán O’Casey, W. B. Yeats, and Elizabeth Bowen, Beckett was quite literally the last Irish Protestant writer; not only that, but he came in the wake of Ireland’s first great modern Catholic writer, James Joyce. As Molloy’s offhand “so much Gaelic to me” indicates, Beckett’s interest in contributing to the language and mythology deployed in the staging of a new national identity was minimal.

Within the energetic construction of a mythic and homogeneous nation-state, conservative religious and nationalist tendencies came to the fore, and the Catholic Church filled the power vacuum left in the wake of British rule for the next 80-odd years. An appropriately theocratic level of censorship on all writing published in the State after Independence was implemented with the 1929 Censorship Act: the rules had changed, and Beckett’s work, along with nearly all modern and avant-garde writing, was suppressed by the newly created Board of Censors. In response to the censorship of his earliest publications, he wrote an essay called “Censorship and the Saorstát (Free State),” seething with scorn for what he saw as an empowered peasantry that made crude distinctions between domestic morality and decadent art. He left Ireland for Paris to study as an exchange scholar at the École Normale Supérieure in the late 1920s, returning infrequently at first and then not at all.

In later work, Beckett returned again and again to the natural landscapes of his childhood, to the mountains, bogs, and quarries around south county Dublin, and the insular social world that his parents had inhabited and that stayed Victorian in his imagination. Written from memory in Paris, Beckett’s novels and plays preserved Protestant Dublin as it had been, but effectively it was gone. Protestants left Ireland by the thousands in the years after Independence, mostly to England. When Elizabeth Bowen, born shortly before Beckett in 1899, moved to London after Independence, she described herself as “the last of a race,” writing in a memoir of her ancestral home, “It has taken the decline of the Anglo-Irish to open up to them the poetry of regret; only the dispossessed know their land in the dark.” In Beckett’s characters, we see a snapshot of Ireland before Independence: frozen, yet subject to deterioration. Like the surrealists’ starkly anachronistic objets trouvés, his characters’ bowler hats appear in the work as emblems of a culture that came to an abrupt end. They index privilege, loss, and change, indicating a world that transformed during his lifetime and that continued to decline in his absence as he made his adult life in France.

This sense of literary disinheritance became Beckett’s subject matter. In the novels and plays, a whole empire’s worth of literature flashes up and appears only to disintegrate. In his trilogy of novels, he transplanted a typically Anglo-Irish form, the “Big House” novel, onto the French wartime countryside, describing in them the devolution of the ancestral country seat (the Big House that lends the genre its name) into another kind of big house: the mental institution or correctional facility. In the second of the three, Malone Dies, the narrator shows a notable concern with objects and their loss, particularly the loss of writing instruments: his eraser, pencil, and exercise-book. As these possessions go missing one by one, they are not replaced. Malone’s obsessive negative inventory, his continual stocktaking of his “little store,” reverses all the accrual made in a novel of capital accumulation like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In the last novel of the trilogy, The Unnameable, the narrative itself undergoes such a dramatic devolution from literary form that we are left with what Leo Bersani calls “a work of art cut off from all cultural inheritance,” written, as Michael Wood has noted, not in the first but in the “last” person. The trio of novels charts a reversal of fortune, undoing the plots that typically account for the action of the bildungsroman, or novel of education and progress. Each character has far less at the end than they do at the beginning; not only is there no accretion but they are unable to stop this relentless divestment from taking place.

In the plays, too, the Elizabethan drama of colonial exploration has finally ground to a halt. Both Waiting for Godot and Endgame demonstrate that those who used to be in possession of the literary means of production are now in an unstoppable process of dereliction. Two master and slave pairings — Pozzo and Lucky, Clov and Hamm — are set at linguistic odds. Pozzo’s antiquarian “lyrical speech” is contrasted with Lucky’s wild, possessed monologue that bursts out of nowhere; Hamm’s shopworn amateur theatrics demonstrate a problematic hereditary chain from Oedipus to Hamlet to himself, rewriting each of these plays, always getting the words slightly wrong. In another Shakespearean reference, to The Tempest this time, Clov offers a more compliant and resigned version of the statement central to postcolonial readings of the play: “I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything anymore, teach me new ones. Or let me be silent,” a rewriting of Caliban’s monstrous pedagogical assessment: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t, Is that I know how to curse.” Beckett’s impoverished characters are stuck on stage, although their moment in the spotlight has come and gone; the set has been dismantled and the theater is empty: “I don’t seem to be able … long hesitation … to depart.”

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In the past few years, I have come to associate Beckett’s characters, and the specific type of nostalgia that they experience, with the logic of the vote for Brexit. His cast of atavistic revenants points to an atavistic politics: the politics of those who have lately fallen from historical positions of comparative wealth and status. Like unemployed salarymen who continue to leave the house in the morning with suit and briefcase, by refusing to participate in sweeping change, his characters demonstrate a homesickness for the past — for status that has been undercut and erased by the passing of time and the transfer of power to another group, in a form of historical arrested development. This is one of the popular dynamics at work in the vote for Brexit by a baby boomer demographic, as well as by the so-called “white working class,” who feel that they have not sufficiently benefited from the freedom of movement, legislation regarding workers’ rights and equality, funding, or trade that the European Union has provided.

In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Freedland notes the peculiar styles of the politicians most heavily engaged in negotiating Brexit. “[I]t’s unsurprising,” he writes, “that three of the loudest advocates for Brexit are self-consciously retro figures.” He explains:

Boris Johnson always styled himself as a character from the pages of P. G. Wodehouse […] with the dusty vocabulary of the English boarding school and country house: “cripes,” “jeepers,” and so on. His only rival in this game is Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory member of Parliament who is less a politician than a shtick, a man who has worn double-breasted Edwardian suits since he was a student and who, we recently learned, instructs his staff to address men in written correspondence with the archaic appendage of “Esq.” […] Farage too is as much a meme as a man, rarely photographed without a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other, often in pinstripes or country tweeds. Like the others, he harks back to an earlier England, before, as he would see it, political correctness ruined it all.


But Freedland forgets in this analysis the most strikingly Hallowe’enish of these political shades: the Ulster Unionists. The Unionists of Northern Ireland are a group defined by their loyalty to the British throne and insistence on full membership in the United Kingdom. As their demographic majority slips, the visual and staged culture of Unionism has become increasingly important to its proponents. Every year, the Orange Order, their fraternal society, get out their drums and bowler hats to march through “mixed” communities in Northern Ireland, celebrating a battle fought in 1690 that definitively established the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland with the defeat of the Catholic King James by the Protestant William of Orange. Like Beckett’s characters, the conservative Unionist Protestants of Northern Ireland are clinging tightly to their bowler hats, insisting on the continuity of the Victorian era of colonialist expansion, when the British Empire was at its peak. This group, desperately resisting the inexorable pull toward the Republic of Ireland’s hyper-neoliberal nation-state, is represented by the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, an anti-civil rights, anti-marriage equality, anti-reproductive rights, anti-Anglo-Irish Agreement, anti-power-sharing, and anti-European Union party whose political slogan is “Ulster Says No.”

The historically anti-Catholic Conservative, or Tory, Party, under whose government the referendum to leave the EU was carried, did not have a parliamentary majority in the run-up to the initial deadline of March 29, 2019, nor does it have one (at time of writing) in advance of the new October 31 deadline. The only party who would go into coalition with the Tories was the DUP, thus allowing them the majority in Westminster they needed to stay in government. By going into coalition with the Conservative Party, the DUP allowed them to remain in power, thereby allowing Brexit negotiations to proceed under then Prime Minister Theresa May and her fractious Tory government. This gave the DUP an unprecedented degree of influence in Westminster, since May, and subsequently Boris Johnson, have — until this week — needed them to approve any withdrawal agreement put in front of them, in particular any aspects of the deal that pertain to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This border has been demilitarized since the Irish peace process of ’90s, and the terrorist violence that plagued the border counties for decades has since come to an end. Many people now cross it multiple times a day for work; often your cellphone provider updates are the only indication that you’re traveling between two distinct territories. Free trade between North and South, particularly of cattle and dairy products, is crucial to the economy of the region. If the United Kingdom leaves the single market of the European Union, however, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will also separate an EU and non-EU country, meaning that it will necessarily have to be a “hard” border with customs checkpoints along it again. As has been pointed out in many Irish but few British analyses of the situation, these checkpoints would provide an area undergoing increasing economic hardship and political instability with highly visible targets, ones which would soon demand militarized protection. Its reinstatement is, in other words, an incredibly bad idea.

The border, however, also crucially protects Ulster Unionists from being absorbed into the Catholic-majority nation-state that is the Republic of Ireland, which would come, they fear, at the expense of their identity. So despite the fact that the majority of citizens in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, current Brexit negotiations have to this point been held to ransom by what is essentially a party of historical reenactors dressed up as pre-Partition, pre-Independence Ireland. Theirs is a politics of refusal: their slogan, “Ulster says No,” a once-local, provincial Loyalist phrase, has, by extension, become a slogan for a entire political demographic across the United Kingdom. Grist against dissolution into the neoliberal morass of a technocratic EU, the vote for Brexit was a vote motivated by a reluctance to acknowledge change and a melancholic attachment to the victorious past, one that represents a heightened nostalgia for the days of Empire and colonial expansion. It is a vote for a politics of recursion, retrogression, and return.

To prevent a hard border, the Republic of Ireland and the EU are jointly insisting on a “backstop,” or a guarantee that if the United Kingdom has not figured out a better arrangement with the EU within two years of leaving, Northern Ireland and the UK would remain in a customs union with the EU until they have. Given the political currency of the word back, or again in its American iteration, as Freedland notes — Take Back Control, Make America Great Again, as well as in every single song by Ed Sheeran, Adele, Lana del Rey, et cetera, in the suffocating cloud of white nostalgia in contemporary culture — it is surprising that something called a backstop should be so unpopular. The backstop, however, fails to court the same bittersweet appeal, since not only is it based in the future, but it threatens to impede the fantasy of a return to a piratical no-deal English state of anarchy, robbing gold on the high seas and salting it away in the Caribbean. The relentless assault of nostalgia on our senses in the political and cultural arena means that British voters have had to choose between the romantic small-island socialism espoused by Jeremy Corbyn, when he actually speaks; the DUP; the World War II theme park of the Brexit Party; or the punitive Victorian austerity program of the Tories. Stuck somewhere between 1690 and 1968, shadows of earlier regimes and empires drift across the surface of the Brexit negotiations. Unprecedented deregulation disguises itself in an array of costumes from its colonial past, hiding in plain sight.

But this points to a broader problem with nostalgia: its seductive powers are strongest when the present is, and future is expected to be, shit. Missing from much of the analysis of Brexit is an assessment of the impact of austerity — inflicted by the Tory party on Britain’s schools, national health service, transport and welfare systems in the 10 years since the recession — on the vote to leave. The programmatic impoverishment of the country’s postwar system of wealth distribution has had an indescribable effect on British society: vastly increased poverty, lowered life expectancy, and barely existent social mobility through education or opportunity all conspire in the deliberate cultivation of an underclass who will work when the immigrants are barred from entry. In Northern Ireland, poor loyalists who previously, by virtue of religion, would have had a reasonable expectation of employment as well as the satisfaction of being a rung higher on the social ladder at least than their Catholic counterparts, no longer have this guarantee. In the parts of the United Kingdom where people are paid in packets of crisps, it seems almost too easy to elicit anti-EU sentiment through a toxic combination of cultural posh-washing and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Literary forms, political forms. At times, Beckett’s narration of the loss of sovereignty, status, and control, and his understanding of collapsing structures of power, seem too ambivalent for our moment. In enormous poverty, his characters devote some attention to negotiating their change in fortune. They don’t want to kick a slave but will, eventually, if a chicken bone is involved. While we are not forced to feel sorry for these bowler-wearing deplorables, Beckett’s condemnation of them is far from complete: he recognizes himself to be thoroughly implicated in their lot. But out of his own literary disinheritance, Beckett developed a whole poetics of decline, a minimalism not without its optimistic and productive qualities.

We have few other such comprehensive models of the art of the deposed. Out of the breakdown in the language of authority and the architecture it lends to a text, out of the novels and plays of progress that could once be written but can no longer, out of this disjecta membra a new kind of writing emerges. But it takes so long. In Beckett, the less people have in terms of material wealth, the more insistent they are on the freedom of speech and the endurance of their voice. They don’t want to be forgotten about: they want to be seen, they want to be heard. “Something is taking its course.” Something is taking so fucking long to leave the stage.

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Eva Kenny is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. In 2018 she completed her PhD in Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

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Banner image: "USC OrangeLodge1970" by Desmoh is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.