The Weight of Compassion and other essays, by Eoin O’Brien
Admirers of Samuel Beckett will instantly recognise the iconic photo on the cover of Eoin O’Brien’s collection of essays, published by Lilliput Press, which includes four distinctive essays on the Nobel-prize winner from Foxrock. The photo was the fruit of O’Brien’s collaboration with photographer David Davidson for their 1986 volume The Beckett Country (Black Cat Press in association with Faber and Faber) and it features father and son walking on a snowy road-to-nowhere in the Dublin mountains, somewhere near Glencree, a possible “ideal setting for Godot”, as O’Brien suggests. The strength of O’Brien’s monumental presentation and exposition of “the Beckett country” back in 1986 was how the photos by Davidson (allied with some archival materials) were situated very precisely by him in relation to Beckett’s oeuvre so that the book clearly demonstrated how topographical image and textual evocation were aligned. For example, in respect of the photo of man and boy near Glencree, the precise passage from Worstward Ho is cited beneath the image and the connection is unmistakable:
Hand in hand with equal plod they go. In the free hands ‑ no. Free empty hands. Backs turned both bowed with equal plod they go. The child hand raised to reach the holding hand. Hold the old holding hand. Hold and be held. Plod on and never recede. Slowly with never a pause plod on and never recede. Backs turned. Both bowed. Joined by held joining hands. Plod on as one. One shade. Another shade.
O’Brien’s painstaking work in situating Beckett’s writing in relation to some quite precise Irish landscapes can be said to have alerted Beckett scholars, not only to Beckett’s Irishness, but also to certain obsessive features in what Seán Kennedy has termed Beckett’s “topographical imagination”. In case there was any doubt that “the Molloy country”, through which Molloy and Jacques Moran stumble in Beckett’s breakthrough postwar novel Molloy (1951), is situated within a fifteen-mile radius of Foxrock village, O’Brien’s The Beckett Country obliges us with plenty of proofs in both word and image for the entire Beckett oeuvre. Indeed, apart from the Irishness of Beckett’s “topographical imagination”, The Beckett Country also serves to affirm an observation made by John Banville that Beckett “is nothing if not an old-fashioned landscape writer” in the mode of Thomas Hardy, an observation which Beckett scholars would do well to follow up on.
In The Weight of Compassion, O’Brien has republished four essays on Beckett, two of which are closely linked with O’Brien’s Beckett country project: “The Beckett Country” (1986) and “Zone of Stones” (1996). The other two essays – “The Weight of Compassion” (1990) and “Humanity in Ruins” (1990) – dwell on the dilemma of suffering and its alleviation in the context of O’Brien’s own vocation as a medical doctor (he is a renowned cardiologist) and also Beckett’s brief period in 1945-46 working as a storekeeper and interpreter for the Irish Hospital at Saint-Lô, Normandy. The two themes, therefore, of this opening section are Beckett’s Irishness and Beckett’s compassion. One might hazard a suggestion that these themes, as adumbrated by O’Brien, tend to pull against one another with the universality of suffering and the specificities of Beckett’s Irishness producing a very Beckettian irresolute resolution on the part of O’Brien. Even as he claims that Waiting for Godot is “a timeless play” that “will adapt to the theatre of the future”, while also being “placeless” and symptomatic of “a world condition”, he also applauds the specificities of a “Dublin lilt” in Irish productions of Godot and Endgame, something necessarily local. Beckett may well be universal and parochial, but a more nuanced reading of the cultural complexities of Beckett’s Irishness has emerged in the years since 1986 ‑ from scholars like Seán Kennedy, Emilie Morin and Sinéad Mooney ‑ so that O’Brien’s ruminations cannot help but appear somewhat dated in the context of contemporary Beckett scholarship.
Beckett’s much celebrated compassion and sympathy for the downtrodden is addressed by O’Brien in the context of his medical vocation which, as he acknowledges, tends to take a dispassionate and unsentimental approach to human affliction to the detriment of a much-needed empathy and sympathy for the patient. O’Brien attributes his confreres’ lack of compassion to their long years of medical training which “initially blunt and finally pervert the purity of vocation and sensibility of youth”. Beckett also takes a sceptical and, at times, sardonic approach to medical science as a palliative for human ailments. In Murphy (1938), he humorously counterpoints the “psychiatric” attitude of the doctors with the “psychotic” attitude of the patients, whose endurance of a “pitiless therapeutic bombadrment” confers on them the status of martyrs to madness within the walls of his fictional Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. However, notwithstanding Beckett’s admiration for the “absolute impassiveness of the higher schizoids”, it is well known that he based his observations on the access given to him by his Irish medical friend Dr Geoffrey Thompson to the wards of the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital near London. Beckett counted other medical friends among his acquaintance, including one of the loves of his life, Ethna McCarthy, who qualified as a paediatrician in later years.
His stint as a storekeeper and interpreter at the Irish Hospital in Saint-Lô pitched him into the company of doctors and nurses, most of whom had trained in Irish universities or university hospitals. He may have found an objective correlative in the Capital of Ruins (as the bombed-out provincial town of Saint-Lô was called) for his inner sense of human crisis and suffering in the wake of World War Two. Certainly, the short prose piece in which he describes his experiences at the Irish Hospital ‑ titled “The Capital of Ruins” and republished here with O’Brien’s essay on “Humanity in Ruins” – is a moving meditation on the value, and limitations, of the therapeutic relationship as established by the Irish medical team and their French patients, which serves as a wider reckoning of self with others, haves against have-nots, the powerful alongside the powerless. O’Brien’s contextualisation and commentary on Beckett’s experiences and thoughts stemming from Saint-Lô is of considerable interest and value for the Beckett scholar, as well as for the general reader. The full story of the Irish Hospital at Saint-Lô has been recounted by Phyllis Gaffney (whose father, Dr Jim Gaffney, was a leading member of the Irish medical contingent there) in her book Healing Amid the Ruins: The Irish Hospital at Saint-Lô (A & A Farmer, 1999) and it is indeed a remarkable chapter in Irish medical history and in the contribution of Irish medical personnel to overseas disaster zones.
In 1935, Diego Rivera masterfully created ‘The Flower Carrier’ (known in its original language as ‘Cargador de Flores’). Like many of Rivera’s paintings, ‘The Flower Carrier’ imparts simplicity, yet exudes much symbolism and meaning. The vibrant colors are rubbed into the masonite, a most common method for painting on hard surfaces.
The colourful painting displays a peasant man in white clothing with a yellow sombrero, struggling on all fours with a dramatically oversized basket of flowers that is strapped to his back with a yellow sling. A woman, most likely the peasant’s wife, stands behind him trying to help with the support of the basket as he attempts to rise to his feet. While the flowers in the basket are strikingly beautiful to the viewer, the man does not see their beauty, but only their value as he carries them to the market for sale or exchange. The geometric shapes offer bold and intense contrasts, with each figure, item, and foliage illustrated to reflect individualism. …
Anne Brontë started writing her first novel some time between 1840 and 1845 while she was working as a governess for the Robinson family, at Thorp Green near York. I imagine she must have made her excuses in the evenings, and escaped the drawing room, where she had to do the boring bits of her pupils’ sewing, and often felt awkward and humiliated – excluded from the conversation because she was not considered a lady, yet not allowed to sit with the servants either, because governesses had to be something of a lady, or how could they teach their pupils to be ladies?
Anne must have stolen away to her room and pulled out her small, portable writing desk. Leaning on the desk’s writing slope (which was decadently lined in pink velvet), Anne could go on with her novel. She had to write in secret because she was skewering her haughty employers and her peremptory pupils on the page. Although her job was difficult and thankless, she had realised that it was providing her with excellent material…
In 1911, a Boston publisher called Gorham Press brought out a small scarlet-bound book with gilt-edged pages. The title was written in gold lettering on the cover: “The Henry James Year Book.” Inside were quotations from James’s novels, stories, and essays, one for every day of the year, “selected and arranged” by Evelyn Garnaut Smalley. Smalley had arranged for the work’s publication, too: Gorham was a vanity press avant la lettre. She was a family friend of James’s, as well as a devotee of his work. Her father, a prominent American journalist living in London, had introduced the newly expatriated James to English society some four decades earlier, when Smalley was a child.
The “Year Book” was not a commercial success, and though two other presses have reissued the work since—one, in England, in 1912, and another, in Pennsylvania, in 1970—it has largely escaped the notice of even the most enthusiastic James readers and scholars. (It isn’t, for instance, mentioned in Leon Edel’s five-v…