Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Buried Alive

It turns out that Nagg and Nell, the elderly couple buried up to their necks in ash cans in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, were not inventions at all. As it happens, they are alive (barely) and unwell in Chicago, as the Times recently reported in its National Briefing section (“Couple Found Buried in Debris at Home,” NYT, 5/25/10). However surreal-sounding, the pair’s condition does not seem all that improbable if you’ve ever known people who’ve occupied the same residence for many years and suffer from the inability to throw things away. The DSM, the famed diagnostic manual of the psychiatric profession, provides terms that describe all types of abnormalities. For instance, people who can’t write suffer from dysgraphia; for people who can’t identify objects, it’s agnosia; and for those who can’t enjoy themselves, the diagnosis is anhedonia, etc. Although there is no rubric in the psychiatric manuals under which the inability to jettison junk seems to fall, the case of the South Side couple mired in “piles of food waste and trash” may throw some light on the genesis of Beckett’s imaginative concept. Like Godot, Endgame (Fin de partie in the original French) has been the subject of much interpretation by scholars—beginning, of course, with the chess reference of the title. But few scholars have underlined the realistic roots of the play, roots that situate this work closer to the naturalism of writers like Zola than the absurdist, existential comedies of the dramatists with whom Beckett is often associated. The recent discovery of these true-fiction Beckettian characters illustrates that Endgame is best understood as a jeremiad about what happens when elderly couples fail to throw things away.

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