2017 Brennan Prize Winning Essay

Dante Wouldn't Put Up with this Krapp: Eyes & Embodiment in Krapp's Last Tape

 

Beatrice gazed upon me with her eyes Full of the sparks of love, and so divine,

That, overcome my power, I turned my back And almost lost myself with eyes downcast.

-Dante Alighieri,  The Divine Comedy


Beatrice, traditionally regarded as the physical embodiment of divine wisdom, serves as guide to the fictional Dante in The Divine Comedy. Dante struggles to pull his gaze away from Beatrice's eyes, an ocular fixation the 141 century character shares with the 20th century Krapp of Samuel Beckett's Krapp 'sLast Tape. Beckett's dramatic piece, set during "a late evening in the future", follows the ''wearish old man" Krapp's visit to a partially remembered  past through the  use of a tape recorder and the voice recordings of his 39-year-old self (Black et al. 1380). A substantial body of critical work has focused on the significance of two of the  memories recorded by the younger Krapp, referred  to as "Memorable  equinox" and "Farewell  to love" in the ledger Krapp keeps of his recordings (Black et al. 1381). "Memorable equinox" is an impassioned retelling of an enlightened moment Krapp once experienced which the recorded Krapp describes through dichotomous imagery such as his juxtaposition  of "storm and night"   with the "light of understanding" (Black et al. 1383). "Farewell to love" is Krapp's recollection    of a day spent reposing with a girl on a punt who possessed eyes so striking that the elder Krapp on stage exclaims upon hearing the memory: "The eyes she had!"(Black et al. 1383). In recent approaches to these scenes, critics have stressed the greater importance of "Memorable equinox" for its autobiographical significance over the borderline sentimentality present in "Farewell to love". However,  in overlooking the girl in the punt, critics also have overlooked  a proto post- modern Beckettian argument in Krapp 's Last Tape for the artistic value of returning to post­ secular notions of embodied relationality as opposed to the Cartesian subject/object duality characteristic of modernism . By this dual ity, I mean the vision of isolated selfhood that definitively separated the self from the other in modernist aesthetics as opposed to a post-modern understanding of selfuood as defined through relation to the other. My approach to Beckett's incorporation of Dante as a means of promoting relationality i n Krapp 's Last Tape will allow me to develop a post-modern reading of the text that presents Krapp's absol utist dualism as representative of the artistic stagnation resulting from fai lure to relate to the other.

I will first briefly examine the recent critical approaches to Krapp 'sLast  Tape to  identify both  the  useful  and  questionable  biographical  readings  of the play  present  in  various contemporary interpretations of the "Memorable equinox" and "Farewell to love"  scenes.  Oscar Wilde, an Irish dramatist pre-dating Beckett, once was quoted saying, "The more the public  is interested in the artist, the less it is interested in the art" (Black et al. 934). Wi lde's fear of auto­ biographical readings has been realized in multiple problematic  understandings  of Krapp's Last Tape in which the titular character  Krapp is understood  as an  avatar for Beckett.  Paul Lawley argues that Krapp 's Last  Tape is an autobiographical  narrative  telling of the artistic burden Beckett felt due to working in the long shadow of his predecessor and mentor, James Joyce.  Lawley reads Krapp's vision by the sea as an allusion to a reported revelation experienced by Samuel Beckett at the age of 39 that has been "relocate[ed]...toward a shorescape which can evoke Joycean associations" (385).  However, Lawley opines, Beckett's notion of an obligation to define himself contrary to Joyce emerges most evidently in the young Krapp's experience with the girl on the punt. Krapp's desire to enter i nto the eyes of the girl demonstrates that "Krapp's aspiration is i n the opposite direction [to Joyce], not upward and outward, but downward  and inward" (386). For Lawley, the girl in the punt becomes "depersonalized in [Beckett's] narrative, she becomes  her eyes" and, further, she is "an  ontological threshold ...[not]...perceived  as a human other" (386). Lawley's reading of Krapp as Beckett's avatar results in a foregrounding of Krapp as the sole active agent in the play. The secondary, and solely female, characters of the  play thus become objects to be acted upon rather than human beings to whom Krapp can relate, thereby creating an illusion of Krapp's inevitable isolation even prior to his "farewell to love".

Jennifer M. Jeffries interprets Krapp's vision in the "Memorable equinox" scene similarly  to Lawley  in her argument that Krapp 'sLast  Tape is inclusive of "personal  details of  [Beckett's] Irish Protestant childhood and young adulthood" based upon a comparison of successive drafts    of the play (119). Jeffries'  reading  is contextual as well as autobiographical  in her identification of Krapp as an avatar for Beckett's identity as an Anglo-Irish Protestant  following the eclipse of  the Protestant Ireland of Beckett's youth in 1922. Jeffries reads the scene as indicative of the "mastery [Beckett] gains over the loss of the father and his displaced masculine identity", calling Beckett's embellishment of the scene telling of the "monumental" nature of the experience (134). However, the privileging of author as subject in Jeffries' reading causes her to neglect the true subject of the work, Krapp, who regards the artistic vision as anything but monumental. Just as   the voice of 39-year-old Krapp on the tape reaches the climactic moment of his vision, 69-year­  old  Krapp  "(...curses louder, switches off {the tape}, winds tapeforward, {and} switches on again)" having fast forwarded to the true past moment of consequence for Krapp: the girl on the punt (Black et al.  1383).

A common thread traceable between critics who have considered the various implications of the girl on the punt is an argument for the inevitability of Krapp's regretful repetitions of the scene. In yet another autobiographical  reading of the play, Lawley, as well as critic  Paul Kintzele, derive thei r understandi ng of the inescapabi lity of Krapp's "Farewell to love" primarily through a comment once uttered by Beckett in which Beckett indicated "the girl is incidental to  and not constitutive of [Krapp'sJ misery" (Kintzele 210). Using the authority of Beckett, Kintzele and Lawley are then able to dismiss the girl on the punt scene as secondary to alternate possi bilities for Krapp's despairing conditions in their respective arguments. However,  the absolute authority Lawley and Kintzele give to Beckett as author is problematic in that it  neglects the audience's perception of Krapp 'sLast Tape. By ascribing to Beckett the power to  give final, definitive interpretations of his works, Lawley and Kintzele effectively close the door on the ability for multiplex interpretations of the play to be generated through a collaborative process between the work and the audience experiencing it-a point to which I will return in my own reading of the play. Eric Levy points to a simi lar sense of permanence regarding the girl on the punt as support for his argument that "What never changes in Krapp's moving present is his burning need to achieve absence from it through immersion  in the imm utable past" (104). Levy is of the mind that Krapp is a regressive being, resisting the forward flow of time through anchoring himself to the past by means of the girl on the punt. Thus, Levy argues, the driving factor for Krapp to bid "Farewell to love" is an "unconscious wish not to go on in time -to precipitate, i n the present, a means by which, in the future, [Krapp] could remain attached to the past" (104).

Paul Kintzele's Freudian psychoanalysis of the character Krapp yields a less isolated character as subject by granting greater weight to the various relationshi ps between Krapp and the female figures in the play. However, the "Oedipal nexus of anxieties" Kintzele identifies through this analysis generates a different set of problematic readings (207). Kintzele rejects the notion commonly proposed  by critics that the scene with the girl on the punt is representative  of "a willing sacrifice at the altar of art" (208). For Kintzele, neither the artistic vision nor the girl  on the punt are the critical points in Krapp 'sLast Tape. They are merely "a pair of symptoms" for the greater misery-causing conflict present in the death of Krapp's mother; the punt scene is thus reimagined as a moment of infantile bliss with the "gent)[e], up and down, and from side to side" movement being reminiscent of amniotic existence (Black et al. 1383). Kintzele's reading results in an inhibited Krapp ''trapped inside of his mother" who lacks the agency to even exchange the girl on the punt for art (211). A challenge can be made to Kintzele's reading, however, by pointing to evidence within the play suggestive of Krapp's uninhibited moments of agency and access, particularly  in terms of his interactions with the girl on the punt:

I asked her to look at me and after a few moments-{ Pause. )-after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause. Low.) Let me in. (Black et al. 1383)

 

Though ambiguity exists at first regarding the tense and thus the meaning of the word "Let", the employment of a past participle and an infinitive in Beckett's French translation of the play, La derniere bande 1, makes clear that the girl's eyes allowed Krapp to enter. Krapp's unblocked entrance into the girl's self directly opposes the notion of an inhibited Krapp isolated from any world outside that of his mother. Furthermore, the scene the 69-year-old Krapp returns to over and over again through reels of tape is the girl on the punt, not the death of his mother. An exclusionary "blind went down" between Krapp and his mother at her death, therefore it is the girl on the punt who provides the opportunity for existence beyond the self (Black et al. 1382).

Jadwiga Uchman presents a more promising argument for the differing, but  complementary roles of Krapp's artistic vision and the girl on the punt through a cognitive study of the 69-year old Krapp's muddled memory compared to the youthful 39-year-old Krapp speaking on the tape. Uchman identifies both vol untary and involuntary memory in the  play; voluntary memory indicates "the past as [Krapp] wanted to remember it and recorded on the tape" and involuntary memory denotes ''the past as he now recalls it" (I 3). She claims Krapp's reaction to the titles in his ledger that signify the contents of the tapes can be analyzed to emphasize a significant "discrepancy between what [Krapp] considered ...worth remem bering (voluntary memory) and what his involuntary memory actually registered" (Uchman 13). When reading the ledger entry "memorable equinox" given for his artistic vision, Krapp is befuddled, struggling to even recall the meaning of one of the words:

... Hm ... Memorable ... what? (He peers closer.) Equinox, memorable equinox. ( He raises his head, stares blanklyfront. Puzzled.)  Memorable  equinox?  ... (Black  et  al. 1381)

 

The artistic vision, supposed ly a defining moment for the 39-year-old Krapp, barely even registers with the elder Krapp, which "marks a split" between the two selves (Uchman 16).  Unlike the other forgotten entries in the ledger, upon reading the title keyed to the girl on the punt, "Farewell  to love", Krapp does not react with confusion as "he has preserved the event in  his mind thanks to the workings of involuntary memory" (Uchman 16). Uchman's points can be expanded upon by regarding Krapp's privileging of a memory meant to be dismissed, or bade "Farewell" to, as Beckett is calling into question the truth inherent in the signifiers "memorable" & "farewell". For Krapp, "memorable" signifies its antonym "forgettable" and the parting word "farewell" indicates repeated  re-greetings  of the "love" through memory.

 

The  influence  of Manichean ism  on Krapp 'sLast  Tape is regarded  by  most  critics as i ndisputable  given that  Beckett  himself  references  Mani, the Iranian  prophet  that founded Manicheanism, in the production notebooks Beckett kept for the play. Manicheanism, in brief, is an Eastern religion founded i n the 3n1 century that "consists of an elaborate cosmogonic myth which seeks to explain the dualism of body (evil) and spirit (divine), and the consequent impact on the ethics of its followers" ("Manicheanism"). Both Uchman and Lawley point to the prominent Manichean symbolism present in Krapp's artistic vision and the punt scene; Uchman attests that the Manichean opposition, which she defines as the 'juxtaposition of black and white colors", is prominent in both scenes (14), and Lawley recognizes only the "Manichean imagination" in 39-year-old Krapp's description of the vision (384). Jeffers argues that Krapp  seeks to embody the "masculine, colonial worldview" in which the "Western subject position (white; good; salvation; civilization; superiority; intelligence; self; subject)" takes precedence  over its binary opposite, ''the East 'object' position (black; evil; damnation; savagery; inferiority; emotion; other; object" (128). However, Krapp is also depicted as violating the Manichean rules  of conduct: Lawley references Beckett's production notes as evidence of Krapp's inability to  adhere to a strict binary because Krapp commits the punishable offense of '"mingling sense and spirit'" by giving a black ball to a white dog earlier in the play (quoted  in Lawley  382).

 

While the readings previous critics have developed based upon their identification of Manicheanism in Krapp 'sLast Tape are not particularly useful for my purposes, I do believe the identification itself is important. Rather than serving a biographical purpose as Jeffers suggests, Beckett's Manichean opposites function primarily  as rhetorical tools through which Beckett is   able to critique dominant modernist conventions. In Krapp 'sLast Tape, Beckett uses the rigid dualism governing Manichean thinking as a representation of the traditional dualism firmly established  in modernist aesthetics that sharply divided the self and the other. Beckett's disdain   for the dualism dictating the limits of modernist style is evident through his frequent mingling of binary opposites during the play, such as the dog and the ball. The collapse of the Manichean binaries present in Krapp 'sLast Tape develops into a Beckettian critique of the extreme dualities that underpin both Manicheanism, and modernism. By joining together antithetical   objects and expressions, Beckett deconstructs rigid bi naries by reconfiguring the hierarchies that privi lege one element of the binary over the other and works towards equality or inversion of these oppositions.

 

In the hopes of inhabiting the role of an audience member collaboratively making meaning with Beckett through their viewing of Krapp 'sLast Tape, l now will approach the often dism issed and objectified girl on the punt with no artifacts of authorial intent by which meaning can be dictated. By doing so, I will in part demonstrate the many meanings of the text made available through considering the audience/reader's  active relationship with the work as it is  being read or performed rather than allowing the meaning stated by the author to serve as a single objective truth. As an audience member, I wi ll connect my own outside knowledge of The Divine Comedy with Krapp 's Last Tape to develop one such relational meaning. The Dantean fascination with  eyes  expressed  by  Krapp throughout  the play  climaxes  in the twice played recording  of "Farewell to  love" when  the  39-year-old  Krapp  describes the  girl  allowing  him  to look at her  eyes:  "I  bent  over to get them  in the  shadow  and they  opened.  (Pause. Low.)  Let me in.  (Pause). We drifted  in  among  the flags  and  stuck" (Black  et  al.  1383). If "Let  me  in" is read as a verbal  phrase,  this moment  is a breaking  down  of the  absolutist  dualism  supported  by Krapp's  Manichean  leanings  and  an  instance  of the  "other"  (the girl)  being  perceived  as part  of the self. Krapp's only two uses of the pronou n "We" in the play  occur  directly  after  Krapp gains access to the girl's eyes, signifying a pl urality of the self made possi ble through their bodily relationship. Another  layer  of this  scene can  be discovered  through  reading  the  scene with  regard to Dante's relationship with  the  eyes  of  Beatrice  that  "o'er  the  mountai n  [of  Purgatory] ...lifted [him]" (I 15). By following the eyes of Beatrice, Dante escapes  purgatory  and  is eventually  led  to his  divine revelation  i n  Paradise;  Krapp,  however,  eventually  rejects the girl's eyes and  the relationality he achieves with her, choosing instead to follow "the dark he has always struggled    to keep under" in the form of his singularly pursued magnum opus. The dualistic absolutism by which Krapp abides causes him to reject all relationality as antonymous to the modernist concept of self as artist unaffected  by the other. Beckett retroactively  critiques Krapp's choice through  the product of that choice, the 69-year-old Krapp who is "drowned in dreams and burning to be gone" (Black et al. 1384). Beckett's emphasis on the girl on the punt, who allows Krapp to   achieve existence beyond himself rather than Krapp's solitary artistic vision that begets only misery,  is a commentary on the lack of creative virility in modernism's  dualistic approach  that seeks only to separate ''the grains from the husks", as Krapp would put it (Black et al. 1381). Innovating through a dramatic work that utilizes iterations of Dantean themes, Beckett leaves the audience/reader  of Krapp 'sLast  Tape with a final replay  of the punt  scene: "We lay there  without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side" (Black et al. 1384). Using language evocative of the punt scene, Dante attempts to describe his vision of God in Canto XXXIII of Paradiso:

 

Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:

But now was turning my desire and will, Even as a wheel that equally is moved,

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars, (Alighieri   603)

 

The true artistic vision experienced by Krapp is a relational and embodied comm union of selves that occurs with the girl on the punt as they are rocked by "The Love which moves". Krapp cyclically returns to the moment in memory, caught up in the wheel of the tape that "runson in silence" at the play's conclusion as the audience  is left to consider the imaginative  ramifications of modernism 's limiting constraints on the  self.

 

' In la derniere bande, "Let me in" is translated to "M'ont Iaisse entrer" (Beckett, la derniere bande 25).

 

Works Cited

 

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Bradbury, Agnew & Co. 1895.

Beckett, Samuel. Krapp 'sLast Tape. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, edited by Joseph L. Black et al. Broadview Press, 2007, pp.  1380-1384.

Beckett, Samuel. La derniere bande. Les Editions de Minuit,  1959.

Jeffries, Jennifer M. "Rewinding Krapp 's Last Tape: The Return of Anglo-Irish Masculi nity".

Beckett's Masculinity. Palgrave Macmillian, 2009, pp.   119-134.

Kintzele, Paul. "Sacrifice, Inhibition, and Oedipal Fantasy in Krapp 'sLast Tape". Modern Drama, vol. 52, no. 2, 2009, pp. 207-219.

Lawley, Paul. "Krapp at the Hawk's Well: Beckett, Yeats, and Joyce". Modern Drama, vol. 58, no. 3, 2015, pp. 370-390.

Levy, Eric. "The Beckettian Mimesis of Time". University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 1, 2011, pp. 89-107.

"Manicheanism" . The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity.200 I .

Uchman, Jadwiga. "Sameness and Change of Human Identity: A Study of Samuel Beckett's  Krapp 's Last Tape". Ex-changes: Comparative Studies in British and American Cultures, edited by Katarzyna Wiyckowska and Edyta Lorek-Jezinska, Cambridge Scholars, 2012, pp. 8-20.

"Wilde and 'The Public"'. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, edited by Joseph L. Black et al. Broadview Press, 2007, pp. 934-945.