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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The self obscure : the influence of Dante on Beckett Cavell, Anthony Richard


Beckett has continually alluded to Dante throughout his career. This thesis traces the extent of the influence of Dante on Beckett, and interprets Beckett in the light of that influence. Dante figures in Beckett’s two major critical works, "Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce" and Proust. In the essay on Joyce Beckett gives his own definitions of the three post-mortal states. In the essay on Proust, Beckett defines the artistic process as a descent toward the essence. The early fiction and poetry is distinct from the later works in that the allusions to Dante are more frequent and more obvious. The anti-hero of More Pricks than Kicks is Belacqua Shuah. Belacqua’s eponym appears in the Ante-purgatory (Purg. 4) where he is pictured reliving his life before ascending to the scourges of the Mountain. Belacqua's foetal state, called the "Belacqua bliss" in Murphy, is the state to which all of Beckett's characters aspire, from Shuah to the lone searcher in The Lost Ones. Beckett uses the Commedia as an ironic frame of reference in Watt, as he does in Three Novels: Molloy is infernal, Malone Dies purgatorial and The Unnamable paradisal. The Commedia is also used inversely, to indicate the regress into hell, for each of the four narratives in Three Novels represents the same story told at four different levels of abstraction. These levels correspond to the four allegorical levels on which Dante said his poem could be interpreted. In Beckett's work, however, there is no ultimate level of abstraction, and each word his narrators speak removes them further from the essential nothingness they wish to express. In the trilogy Beckett's major debt to Dante is to the third canto of the Inferno, especially that section which describes those in the Vestibule of hell. Dante shows these sinners as having never lived, and therefore without hope of death. Dante places them on the threshold of judgement, as are Beckett's characters, who all wait to be judged. The essence of damnation in Beckett's cosmos is that there is no damnation. Godot and Endgame are not overtly Dantesque. The allusions to Dante in the former suggest an ancient order which no longer obtains, yet which still governs the tramps' lives. How It Is is the most obviously Dantesque of Beckett's works, as the allusions to the mud of the third and fourth circles of Inferno indicate: life is hell. The Lost Ones is also obviously Dantesque. The rubber cylinder is a metaphor for the work of art, the only value of which is the possibility it holds of transcendence. Ironically, the lost ones cannot go beyond it. This thesis concludes that the allusions to Belacqua indicate a shift in attitude, from one which admitted hope to one of despair. In a world without the Logos, the allegorist (for such is the tradition in which Beckett writes) can achieve only confusion. His only hope is that by writing continually he can abstract his being to its essential nothingness. Because Beckett's art responds to the tradition epitomized by the Commedia, and because he has continually invoked Dante as his standard, the study of Beckett in terms of Dante provides the clearest view of his art.

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