We were laughing. I remember that. It was Mother’s Day, wedding day. The hotel room was suddenly full of people. We oldsters were waking up from our nap and the youngsters had descended on us, bearing greetings. The last to arrive was Leo, 17, my grandson. And we were laughing.
It had been a bad year really. Someone was very ill, awaiting surgery. Some, still getting hit hard by this recession. Someone was grieving the lost love of his life. Someone else, heartbroken. But here we were from both sides of the continent, together at last. We were laughing. Blackly!
And then I said to Leo, “Despair young and never look back.”
How could I? He was a fresh-faced seventeen year old. How could I lay Samuel Beckett’s bleak advice on him?
It’s hard to be fresh-faced and seventeen under the circumstances, but, more to the point, Leo shares that black sense of humour. He figured out as a much younger person what life can be and he, like the rest of us, in that room had decided to laugh.
I first came across Beckett’s advice in MIchael Ondatje’s The Cat’s Table, the story of a 10-year-old’s voyage from India to England on his own. He befriended two other children also on their own and ate with them at the lowest table, the one farthest from the captain’s table, the cat’s table.
I knew Samuel Beckett, having taught Waiting for Godot to puzzled teenagers for many years. (Why were the tramps waiting? Was Godot God? Why didn’t he come? etc.) It was impossible to say. Beckett had pared the language down to the point where the audience had to decide. But it was clear that, apparently abandoned and betrayed, they suffered in their waiting. Whether that suffering was comic or tragic was harder to say.
Beckett’s advice in response to a young fan’s letter was equally hard to decipher, but it came down to that: figure out early how bad life can be and accept it, then you’ll get along fine. Okay, I added that last bit, but Beckett must have agreed I figure: he kept on.
Why is it so comforting to find people who share this black sense of humour? Why does my sister find my post “Why I Will Never Sleep Again”, a useful indicator of whom she can relate to? (Those who think it’s funny – yes. Those who just look puzzled – not so much.)
Beckett’s advice will be interpreted as terribly bleak and totally inappropriate by some of us, and so absolutely true as to be mundane by others.
When I sit down to dinner, I enjoy the company of the second group. How comforting to know that they have been there too, that they know how absolutely awful life can be and they can find that funny. That doesn’t, by the way, necessarily mean that they are drunkards. Beckett was indeed Irish and they are famous for their black humour. They are also famous for drunkenness, although Beckett was not. It is possible to be drunk without alcohol. It is possible to be drunk on life, to rise up from whatever disaster is trying to put you down and laugh.
No, not in its face, not defiantly, cynically certainly, but not bitterly. “I see you for what you are, Life and I am not impressed.”
And so in that hotel room, on Mother’s Day, before the wedding, I added words from Beckett’s play, absurd in their resilience, in case Leo didn’t get it : “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
And there is barely a pause between the two thoughts.