Slush Pile: A book, reviewed
by Samuel Beckett
translated from the French
by Samuel Beckett
Finally, in Samuel Beckett, we have our poet-laureate of climate change. For decades now, the melting of the ice caps has elicited hardly a word from our literary artists. But President Trump’s abandonment of the Paris Climate Accords appears to have been the final straw. A few months after the polluter-in-chief announced that he stands with the people of “Pittsburgh, not Paris,” comes the suitably titled Endgame, in which there is no Pittsburgh and no Paris, only a boat-like vessel bearing four figures across humanity’s watery grave—a condition where, as the character named Clov puts it at the beginning, everything is “finished, nearly finished.”
The play, by the Irish cartoonist Samuel Beckett, opens with two men—one blind and in a wheelchair, the other unable for some reason to sit down (perhaps he is too hot). Hamm and Clov, as they are called, appear to be sensible people. Undoubtedly, had they been able to vote they would have been With Her. Their dialogue offers a vivid reminder of the predicament faced by thoughtful citizens in Trump’s America. “This is not much fun,” says Hamm, before asking, “What’s happening?” “Something is taking its course,” Clov responds.
Something is, we in the audience perceive, taking its course: But what?
In this respect, there are certainly more subtle artists than Beckett. Then again, perhaps, in times as apocalyptic as these, subtlety is overrated. It would be bad enough if what was taking its course were merely the end of civil discourse, or the decline of America’s standing in the world. But it is worse than that: the swelling seas will bring about nothing less than the extinction of life as we know it. This process has only been accelerated by an administration that refuses to heed the warnings of leading scientists—or even those of successful CEOs, like Jeff Immelt and Lloyd Blankfein (both known to be longtime warriors for environmental justice).
If we are just beginning to see the first effects of this process, Beckett’s play offers us a sobering glimpse of what things will look like in the near future:
Hamm: And the horizon? Nothing on the horizon?
Clov: What in God’s name could there be on the horizon?
Hamm: The waves, how are the waves?
Clov: The waves? (He turns the telescope on the waves.) Lead.
Hamm: And the sun?
Clov (looking): Zero.
As far as Hamm and Clov can see, all is “gray”—ostensibly Beckett’s image for the “rolling death smog” that experts estimate will suffocate millions by 2090, if not sooner.
Endgame does not flinch from pointing out who is to blame for landing us in such a predicament. The other two characters in the play, a couple of ageing baby boomers named Nagg and Nell, actually live in garbage cans. When the lids are removed from the cans—which do not appear to have divisions for recycling, much less compost—and Nagg and Nell are allowed to talk, they reveal themselves to be easily confused, and prone to nostalgic flights of fancy. They are the ungrateful “white trash,” as Nancy Isenberg describes them in her revealing study, who rail against illusory threats while neglecting to acknowledge their own privilege. (How did they get in those garbage cans in the first place?)
As with so many of Trump’s supporters, Nagg and Nell are often fatalistic. Nagg, for instance, keeps complaining about problems with his teeth, no doubt the result of his lack of affordable dental insurance under Trumpcare. But, rather than a common-sense health care plan, Nell yearns for a vague and surely imaginary past:
Nagg: I’ve lost me tooth.
Nagg: I had it yesterday.
Nell (elegiac): Ah yesterday.
Nagg and Nell then turn “painfully toward each other,” according to the stage directions. But their pain cannot be as great as ours in the audience, when we recognize that we are now all in the same boat.
Is there a way to keep this boat from hitting the proverbial iceberg? The characters in the play ricochet between despair and optimism. “To hell with the universe,” says Hamm; then he demands of Clov, “Think of something. … An idea, have an idea.” But Clov is no Elon Musk—he seems able to do little more than complain about his physical ailments. “The pains in my legs!” he shouts. “It’s unbelievable! Soon I won’t be able to think any more.” Before long he may speak for us all.