Drama, Criticism and Manifesto: Beckett's Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit

By Paul Stewart

This work is an adaptation of a paper presented at the "Beckett Against the Grain" conference in York in 1999

The Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit have a central place within the works of Samuel Beckett. Of all Beckett's non-creative writings, not even excepting "Dante...Bruno.Vico..Joyce" or Proust, the Three Dialogues... is the most eagerly searched for angles of entry into Beckett's oeuvre. More often than not, it is one sentence, found in the first dialogue concerning the artist Tal Coat, which is laid before the curious reader. Indeed, the sentence is eminently quotable:

The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
(Proust and the Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, 103)

If any single sentence might capture the Beckettian programme, one feels that this would be it. All the elements are there; nothing looms large, failure is present, the need to go on no less so, the impossibility of so doing: all enshrined by paradox and sparse enunciation.
But a paragraph ago it was claimed that the Three Dialogues... held a central place in the works of Samuel Beckett. Yet one might ask, quite legitimately, to what degree "work" and "Samuel Beckett" are applicable, or solely applicable, in this case. Let us take the notion of work. Of course the Three Dialogues... belongs to what has now been largely accepted to be Beckett's canon. Work, as in a literary or musical composition, would seem entirely appropriate. But work, as in a person's occupation or employment, or, indeed, work as labour, may not enjoy quite such accuracy. It comes down to the manner in which the Three Dialogues... was formed. Beckett's interlocutor, Duthuit, was, by all accounts, a friend of Beckett's and the man responsible for resurrecting the famous magazine transition -- the organ in which many of Beckett's translations into English of contemporary French literature first appeared -- after the Second World War. Of Beckett's three biographers, all stress the amicable relationship between the two: late night drinks, animated chess games, a "good deal of light-hearted badinage." The transition from light-hearted badinage to the text in transition, however, is more open to debate. Anthony Cronin straddles the fence expertly: "It was out of one of these [badinage-filled] discussions about painting that there grew the idea of Beckett's most famous and often quoted contribution to the magazine..." (Cronin, 395) Conversation is, again, key for James Knowlson in his account of the Three Dialogues..., indeed he writes that they "represent only part of a debate that went on between them in private..."(Knowlson, 371) Deirdre Bair tells how Beckett and Duthuit were engaged in a conversation about art which Duthuit urged his friend to commit to paper. (Bair, 416) The translation from conversation to textual dialogue (with the inevitable Socratic resonance) is difficult to chart exactly, but all the accounts of the development of the Three Dialogues... speak of a spoken debate in convivial company over a long period of time that, somehow, occasioned the textual performance to be found within the pages of transition '49. None of the accounts speaks of any labour, as such, on Beckett's behalf in bringing these dialogues to book. A work, then, owing to the work of the author springing from something close to play, to badinage and late-night wit, may be one way of viewing the Three Dialogues...
One may turn next to the second term within the phrase "work of Samuel Beckett." I do not mean to inquire into just who Beckett was, or what, exactly, an author is, or to the extent of authorial control over a text, or any such thing; but merely to ask a naïve question: how much of the "work" is down to Georges Duthuit? Surely, as conversations were the starting point and the finished text was dependent upon them to a greater or lesser degree, then the Three Dialogues... is a collaborative work entirely deserving the two signatures of Beckett and Duthuit which indeed accompanied its publication in transition? Beckett may have been left to put the words upon the page but it appears he did so at Duthuit's request and the text itself received Duthuit's final approval. No man wishes to seem a stooge to another man's brilliance, even in a Socratic-like dialogue, and Duthuit was himself a very gifted, practising art critic (i.e., it was his work) quite capable of matching Beckett in his flights of theoretical fancy; or quite capable of shooting them down.
These questions need not be answered definitively, but, if one is inclined to take the Three Dialogues... as the closest thing to a statement of Beckett's artistic credo, then they must at least be entertained.
Could the reader of the Three Dialogues... also be entertained, even as Beckett and Duthuit were in their conversations? Is there some residue of the late night badinage to be found and enjoyed within the Three Dialogues...? Of all Beckett's critical works -- a neutral term -- the Three Dialogues... stands out, not only for its apparent applicability to Beckett's own creative work, but also for the form in which it is written: the play-script. Beckett had just completed Waiting For Godot during an interlude between Malone Dies and The Unnamable when he became engaged in his conversations with Duthuit. Up to that date, Beckett had started three plays (Human Wishes, Eleuthéria, Waiting for Godot) and completed two (Human Wishes remained a fragment). The text of the Three Dialogues... is presented exactly as a script for actors, with the characters' lines indicated by "B." and "D.", and with simple stage directions at key moments, dictating physical or emotional action. This play-like nature of the text is often obscured by the practice of selective quotation which removes the indications of who is speaking, and by the more general desire to read the Three Dialogues... as a Beckettian manifesto. However, the Three Dialogues... is not a manifesto, but presented as what it purports to be; dialogues between B. and D. As such, dramatic interchange and even comedic interchange mark this art-criticism-cum-play.
Beckett's comic duos are well known, and we might include B. and D. in that company, for in their interactions they resemble the to-ing and fro-ing, the suggestion and riposte of the Beckett couple. D., in a manner similar to Clov in Endgame, consistently punctures B.'s more grandly rhetorical arguments. Indeed, D. is so expert in countering B. that he engineers that rarest of moments in Beckett, someone being lost for words:

B. -- [...] The only thing disturbed by the revolutionaries Matisse and Tal Coat is a certain order on the plane of the feasible.
D. -- What other plane can there be for the maker?
B. -- Logically none. Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.
D. -- And preferring what?
B. -- The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
D. -- But that is a violently extreme and personal point of view, of no help to us in the matter of Tal Coat.
B. --
D. -- Perhaps that is enough for to-day. (103)

We now see the "nothing to express" sentence in its slightly more fulsome context. D. gently encourages B. to the expression that there is nothing to express through his incisive questions; questions, moreover, which are bound to clash with B.'s argument as they are entirely dependent upon logic. Logic seems to win through as B. is reduced to a floundering silence. (How the Unnamable would have welcomed the efficacy of that simple dash into the whiteness of silence.) The charge of a "personal point of view" which undoes B., serves well those who wish to read the Three Dialogues... as Beckett's manifesto. One can forget Tal Coat and D., for B. is Beckett speaking supposedly about another but really about himself. However, keeping to the spirit of the play, we note that D. reacts to his own fellow actor's predicament and discreetly, perhaps even slightly patronisingly, brings the curtain down on the conversation with the hand on the shoulder that is "Perhaps that is enough for to-day."
This pattern of B. asserting and D. deflating is maintained throughout the text. The end of the discussion on Masson sees D. reducing B. not to silence but to frustrated tears, as we witness "B. -- (exit weeping)." By the van Velde section B. is on his guard ("Frenchman fire first") and D. is approaching a state of wearied exasperation. The Three Dialogues..., which opened as an amicable enough exchange of views on the concerns of contemporary artists, is souring over time. D. has had enough of his friend's illogical excesses and longeurs, and, for his part, B. has grown increasingly weary of the sound of his own voice:

B. -- How would it be if I first said what I am pleased to fancy he [van Velde] is, fancy he does, and then that it is more than likely that he is and does quite otherwise? Would not that be an excellent issue out of all our afflictions? He happy, you happy, I happy, all three bubbling over with happiness.
D. -- Do as you please. But get it over. (123)

By the end of the third scene, D. is no longer even sure whether "er -- thought" is precisely the word for what B. is engaged in, or believes himself to be engaged in.
The Three Dialogues... then consist of two characters who develop, and develop away from each other, over the course of the three discussions in which they engage in intellectual badinage and even comic stage business (the stage directions "(Exit weeping)" and "B. - (after a fortnight)"). A drama for two persons, in three acts.
To characterise the Three Dialogues... as a play text is to shift the focus away from the utterances of B. -- a danger if one takes B. to be an uncomplicated representation of Beckett -- and on to the interchange between B. and D. This entails re-imagining the Three Dialogues... as a series of dramatic arguments, with points of view clashing, disparate voices colliding, breaking and differing. Quite on what they differ and break is, perhaps, the key issue.
The painters Tal Coat, Masson, and Bram van Velde are the figures under discussion but the matter of the debate focuses largely on what B. sees as the failure of artists to fashion an entirely new art. With Tal Coat, B. identifies what he terms a "gain in nature." D. retorts that "that which this painter discovers, orders, transmits, is not in nature", but B. has a very specific use of the word in mind: "By nature I mean here, like the naïvest realist, a composite of perceiver and perceived, not a datum, an experience."(101) It is this "statement of compromise" which Tal Coat shares with all previous painters and to which B. consistently objects. When speaking of van Velde, B. sums up what he sees to be the essence of the history of artistic endeavour:

B. -- Among those whom we call great artists, I can think of none whose concern was not predominantly with his expressive possibilities, those of his vehicle, those of humanity. The assumption underlying all painting is that the domain of the maker is the domain of the feasible. The much to express, the little to express, the ability to express much, the ability to express little, merge in the common anxiety to express as much as possible, or as truly as possible, or as finely as possible, to the best of one's ability. (120)

It is to this point that B. returns again and again:

The history of painting, here we go again, is the history of its attempts to escape from [a] sense of failure, by means of more authentic, more ample, less exclusive relations between representer and representee... (125)

The relation between the artist and his subject, or occasion as B. and D. increasingly term it, is all pervasive in art up to, but not including, Bram van Velde. The case of Masson demonstrates how all-encompassing the statement of compromise is, as Masson, according to D., "suffers more keenly than any living painter from the need to come to rest, i.e. to establish the data of the problem to be solved, the Problem at last." (109) For B., this search has become Masson's occasion for art, and his malady is twofold: "wanting to know what to do and the malady of wanting to be able to do it." (110) Ultimately, Masson belongs alongside Leonardo DaVinci as both "breathe the same possessiveness" of the artist apprehending his occasion, even if that occasion is the search for the occasion, for the "Problem at last." The ability of art is thereby increased, its scope widened and a further gain in nature achieved.
In contrast, and tentatively, B. holds up van Velde, or B.'s version of van Velde. Rather than expanding art's repertoire of occasion, van Velde is "the first whose painting is bereft of occasion," and, moreover, van Velde does not suffer from the malady of wanting to be able to do: "...the first artist to admit that to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living. No, no, allow me to expire." (125) The juxtaposition of the "living" of art and craft and B.'s desire to expire subtly suggests that B. fancies himself accompanying van Velde in what B. fancies that painter is and does, regardless of that artist's possible complete innocence of the matter. Nevertheless, van Velde is the first to break free into the poverty of the non-relational. According to B., van Velde's work is not the compromise of the perceiver and the perceived, of the subject and the object. In van Velde's work, a breakdown between these oppositions has occurred.
The breakdown of relations between B. and D. occurs along this fault-line of the breakdown of relation, and it is here that the play of the argument comes into its own. What so distresses B. is D.'s desire to bridge the relational gaps which his friend across the table, B., wishes to exploit. With deliberate logic, D. tries to bring van Velde back into the relational fold: "D. - But might it not be suggested, even by one tolerant of this fantastic theory, that the occasion of his painting is his predicament, and that it is expressive of the impossibility to express?" (121) D. is joining the dots of B.'s "nothing to express" argument, and B. cannot help but recognise that D. makes sense and resist him precisely because he does make sense. "No more ingenious method could be devised for restoring [van Velde], safe and sound, to the bosom of Saint Luke," B. admits. Yet this image of re-integration, of continuity and relation is what B. is trying to discredit. His weapons are the illogical, the inconsistent and the disjunctive; anything other than the "connected statement" which D. begs of him.
What D. wants is the coherence of what he sees as Masson's project: "Without renouncing the objects, loathsome or delicious, that are our daily bread and wine and poison, he seeks to break through their partitions to that continuity of being which is absent from the ordinary experience of living" (111) B. would be much happier, if happier is the word, for the partitions to be expanded against continuity. Indeed, it is D.'s glorious vision of an art of continuity which drives B. to tears:

D. -- [...] But must we really deplore the painting that admits 'the things and creatures of spring, resplendent with desire and affirmation, ephemeral no doubt, but immortally reiterant', not in order to benefit by them, not in order to enjoy them, but in order that what is tolerable and radiant in the world may continue? Are we really to deplore the painting that is a rallying, among the things of time that pass and hurry us away, towards a time that endures and gives increase? (113)

At which point, overwhelmed, B. must leave. Can one be sure exactly what it is that draws tears from B.'s eyes, or even that they are marks of despair? Could they not be expressive of the beauty of D.'s vision of endurance? We think not. That which endures would be bad enough for B., but that which also increases would be unendurable for him. Rather than joining D. on this point of relation B., and the conversation, break down.
D. increasingly yearns for coherence and continuity -- in the conversation if in nothing else -- whilst B. works with or within disruptions and disjunction. In the final discussion, D. is growing tired of the hard going and pleads with B. for a little reasoned and reasonable argument:

D. [...] Come, come, my dear fellow, make some kind of connected statement and then go away.
B. -- Would it not be enough if I simply went away?
D. -- No. You have begun. Finish. Begin again and go on until you have finished. Then go away. (122)

B. balks at the thought of any connected thought, preferring to escape into incompletion, but D. will not allow so little. For him a concatenation of statements, each related to the next, must be formed into an argument with a beginning, a middle, and an end. D.'s urgings remind one of the situation of the figure in The Unnamable; unable to begin, beginning again, searching for an ending. Of course, B. cannot adhere to this logical programme. In D.'s terms, in fact, B. does not come to an end, and nor does their conversation. A scheme of proceeding is coaxed from B. in which he will describe what he believes van Velde is about, to then proceed to what it is "more than likely" van Velde is actually about, which B. freely admits might be very different from his own thoughts on the matter. Two related arguments, logically ordered, are proposed. Unfortunately, B. is not quite up to it, and D. pulls his friend up for his falling short:

D. -- Are you not forgetting something?
B. -- Surely that is enough?
D. -- I understood your number was to have two parts. The first was to consist in your saying what you - er - thought. This I am prepared to believe you have done. The second -
B. -- (Remembering, warmly) Yes, yes, I am mistaken, I am mistaken.

B. has begun again ("The history of painting, here we go again...") but has not gone on until he has finished. He has merely stopped. The text makes this abrupt disjunction, this decisive disruption, quite clear with the end of D.'s "The second --" hovering, unanswered but for the dash of elision. In fact, there is a doubling of disjunction here, by which a complaint about disjunction itself becomes disjunctive, incomplete and inconsistent with B.'s "I am mistaken." And of that final remark of B.'s; is he just angrily recognising his inability to go on until the end? Or, just possibly, is he admitting that his own argument has been mistaken all along? The comma between "remembering" and "warmly" in the stage direction hovers in the realm of fine ambiguity.
Now aware of B.'s arsenal of disjunction, one may look again at the moment when he was lost for words in the face of D.'s questions: "B. --" If one looks at this dash denoting silence could it not be read as a tactical withdrawal on B.'s part into disjunction? He is asked to defend his conception of an art with nothing to express yet with the obligation to express, yet his withdrawal into silence leaves that most quoted of sentences inviolate. Rather than weaving the "nothing to express" sentence into the fabric of a rational, relational argument the retreat into silence preserves the extreme and logically impossible dictum as to the art of a new order. Itself disjunctive through apparent paradox, the sentence is also hedged about by disjunction. It would seem that B., as he advocates for art, is "too proud," or too powerless, "for the farce of giving and receiving." (112)
The Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit is an erratic development of an idea of a non-relational art. The dialogue as a play allows for the concept of a gap within the relations of art to be embodied by the deterioration in the social and conversational relations between B. and D. A sea, a gap, opens up between them which is indicative of the art which B. imagines. Yet the art of the non-relational will always teeter upon the brink of relation, a new relation perhaps, but one so much like the old in the desire for capability. It may be for this reason that Beckett places that prophet of the new art, B., firmly between states, within the disjunction between the relational and the non-relational:

B: […] I know that all that is required now, in order to bring even this horrible matter to an acceptable conclusion, is to make of this submission, this admission, this fidelity to failure, a new occasion, a new term of relation [...] I know that my inability to do so places myself, and perhaps an innocent, in what I think is still called an unenviable situation, familiar to psychiatrists. For what is this coloured plane, that was not there before. I don't know what it is, having never seen anything like it before. It seems to have nothing to do with art, in any case, if my memories are correct. (Prepares to go.) (125-126)

B. is left, not searching for a difficulty like Masson, but in its clutch. He is left preparing to go, neither sitting nor standing, there or gone, but in an "unenviable situation" of being somewhere in between, in a realm to which he cannot relate, because he cannot compare it to any previous. Beckett, at the end of this play-criticism, has placed B. in the disjunctive gap of the neither/nor, of the is/is not.

Works Cited

Bair, Deirdre, Samuel Beckett: A Biography, (London: Vintage, 1990)

Beckett, Samuel, Proust and the Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, (London: Calder, 1965)

Cronin, Anthony, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, (London: Flamingo, 1997)

Knowlson, James, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, (London: Bloomsbury, 1996)

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