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If you haven’t read them before, these are the closing lines in Beckett’s Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable). In my 20’s, I read a great deal of Beckett. I can’t tell you why, except that I thought in some way it would be good for me. It was dark, slow going, at times impenetrable, and occasionally I would fall asleep right on the page, the way I did in my seat during a staging of Krapp’s Last Tape. But still, I went on, just as Beckett said, even when I had no idea what for.
Maybe that’s why these words stuck with me, all these years later. After the horrifying events in Newtown on Friday, how could anyone go on? How could one proceed with the planned and unplanned jollity of the holiday? How could one go to work as if everything were normal? How can one write about food – with all its shades of conviviality and shared cheer? How can one go about the business of ascribing meaning and joy to the little things in life, when the big things are so suddenly shorn of both?
At some level, we know it is our job to go on: to go on making meaning, to go on giving and sharing, to go on living life. “It’s what those children would have wanted,” people say, and I can see a hazy, blurred-by-tears truth in that. But it doesn’t change the devastating fact, the high hurdle of grief we face right now. It doesn’t change that feeling of purposelessness that leaches the color out of every act we undertake, and reduces its normally positive value to something like zero.
Yet in a grey moment like this one, I find Beckett’s words strangely, deeply comforting, even hopeful. Let’s suppose life is meaningless, says Beckett. Let’s suppose that even so, we carry on. Let’s go farther: let’s suppose that nothing is asked of us other than that we carry on. There’s no requirement to be cheerful, or resolute, or optimistic, or inspiring – simply that we go on going on.
It’s not even necessary to question why we should keep on going on.
But if we do question why, I think there is an answer in that same flat grey space we inhabit in our grief. I think that having accepted the fact that “there is nothing left here,” it follows that there is always the possibility “someday, something might be here.” And, if we accept that possibility, we cannot help but concede that, given time, it’s not even in dispute. Someday, something will be here.
What is that something? Well, we all know what it is. It’s what makes the children rush to our bedroom on a weekend morning. It’s what makes my husband come home every afternoon. It’s what makes me cook the food and write the stories. It’s the same thing that, in the end, is the reason for everything, the missing meaning that fills every vacuum. It’s both the cause and the effect, the beginning and the ending, which means it can never be gone for long. Folks, it’s love.
Smarter minds than mine have described Beckett and his work as deeply hopeful, despite the apparent bleakness of his words. I don’t know that what I received from Beckett is what he intended, or what his adherents perceive. I do know that I felt the same when I read Obama’s Newtown speech, its Scriptural references hitting home in places I didn’t know I had places. I myself may be an atheist, yet I hope that sense of comfort amid despair is what the faithful feel when they gather in places of worship across New England, the country, and the world.
We can’t go on, and yet we will.