Art and the abyss

Issue: 173

John Molyneux

It may seem paradoxical, but it is the case that some of the most powerfully life-affirming and enriching art and literature is not work that appears to be “positive”, “optimistic”, “hopeful” and “encouraging”, or that shows how the world could be changed for the better. It is work that, at least on the surface, is miserable, apparently pessimistic, close to despair and peers into the abyss of human suffering and emptiness. Whether this was always so or is always so in different cultures is highly debateable, but it is so of the art of so-called Western society, the art of the capitalist epoch from the Renaissance onwards.

In terms of everyday usage and dictionary definitions the term “abyss” that I am deploying here refers to a deep chasm or pit, sometimes conceived as bottomless and often associated, in more religious times, with hell, as in “the bottom-most pits of hell”. Also relevant here is the notion of “gazing into the abyss”. Obviously my usage of abyss will be metaphorical. My concern is with works of art that gaze into the abyss or, perhaps better, “confront the abyss”, by which I mean they address the possibility that human life and the future of humanity is fundamentally dark, cruel and/or meaningless. The further elaboration of this is best achieved by means of examples, but I want to make three preliminary points.

The first is that there is, I think inherently, a judgement of quality involved. Confronting the abyss does not simply mean that a work is about or describes terrible events or great suffering, but rather that the artist looks the darkness full in the face emotionally or psychically and has the artistic ability to express this. This implies artistic ability of a high order.

The second is that there are external social and historical conditions that are likely to lead the artist into this territory. These might include great natural and social calamities that inflict immense suffering on huge numbers of people—plagues, wars, famines and so on. These run throughout history but significantly expanded and intensified in the 20th century with the First and Second World Wars, the Holocaust and the Stalinist gulag. Following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the awareness of the implications of climate change, we have reached the point where it is necessary to contemplate the possible self-annihilation of the human race. The experience of great defeat and disillusionment after a moment of great hope is also, as we shall see with my examples from the early modern period, conducive to the art of the abyss.

However, the focus of art in the bourgeois era on the individual personality, as seen particularly in the rise of the novel and portraiture, means that the artistic confrontation with the abyss is predominantly refracted through the consciousness of individuals and their inner experience—feelings of desolation, anguish and hopelessness. This, in turn, can arise both from contemplating the horrors of human cruelty (“The horror! The horror!” as Joseph Conrad puts it in Heart of Darkness), from personal misfortune and downfall or, in the most general terms, from our alienation from ourselves, our species being and nature, as a consequence of the alienation of our labour, which was so extraordinarily diagnosed by Karl Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts.1 To those inclined to relegate mental distress to a lower order of suffering than the physical, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins replied:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.2

The third is that the examples I shall explore are just that and no more. They are in no sense exhaustive—there is no implication intended that these are the only, or even the only “great” works, in this category. Nor are they supposed to be historically or culturally “representative”.3 They are simply works with which, partly for biographical reasons, I have had strong engagement and which I feel can be used to illustrate my arguments.

Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Rembrandt

I will begin with three of the greatest artists of the European early modern period, which was also the period of the birth of capitalist society: Michelangelo, William Shakespeare and Rembrandt. What unites them is that their art is testimony to the huge development of the human personality that accompanied what Friedrich Engels called “the greatest progressive revolution that mankind has so far experienced, a time that called for giants and produced giants—giants in power of thought, passion and character, in universality and learning”.4 However, each of them also had insight into the limitations of this historical progress and, especially Shakespeare and Rembrandt, into the dark side of capitalism.5

The vast The Last Judgement on the Altar Wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome is one of Michelangelo’s greatest paintings—I would say, in fact, the greatest.6 It is a work of extreme anguish. Only a quarter to a third of the fresco, the top-most and least visible part, shows those raised up by Christ to heaven, and no particular attempt is made to depict their eternal joy. Two-thirds of it focuses on the torments, mainly mental, of the damned. Marxist art historian Arnold Hauser wrote:

It is no longer a monument of beauty and perfection, of power and youth, that arises here, but a picture of bewilderment and despair, a cry for redemption from the chaos that suddenly threatens to swallow up the world of the Renaissance… The Last Judgement…is the first important artistic creation of the Renaissance that is no longer “beautiful” and refers back to those medieval works of art that were not yet beautiful but merely expressive.7

In my previous analysis of Michelangelo, I argued that what produced the profound change in mood from Michelangelo’s optimistic earlier work such as the David and The Creation of Adam was the turn taken by Italian and European history in the years between the painting of the ceiling (1508-12) and the altar wall (1535-41) of the Sistine Chapel.8 This turn included the restoration of the House of Medici and feudal rule in Florence, the general halting of the Renaissance, the defeat of the German Peasant War in 1625, and the beginning of the counter-reformation, which was at the same time a European wide counter-revolution. However, here I want to make the point that what Michelangelo paints in The Last Judgement is probably his darkest personal fear—being cast into eternal damnation for his various sins. Moreover, this would also have been the darkest fear of his society, of the whole age, believed literally and with an intensity that it is hard for us to grasp today. People often speak of “facing one’s fear”. In the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo did this on a daily basis over six years and on a truly epic scale.

Shakespeare was born in 1564, the year of Michelangelo’s death. It was a moment in history that led him to address the nature of power, a major theme running through his history plays, Roman plays and tragedies. In Macbeth and King Lear, two of his greatest works, by exploring different aspects of power, he confronts the abyss of utter desolation. Macbeth, urged on by Lady Macbeth, kills, kills and kills again in order to win and retain the throne. Normally, in both drama and film, criminals and villains are not represented as feeling guilt. It is the opposite in Macbeth. The protagonists’ guilt is the psychological centre of the play. These feelings are not really regret or moral remorse. Rather they seem largely visceral and subconscious and are expressed by Shakespeare through various dramatic metaphors. In the case of Lady Macbeth, who is initially less affected and “tougher minded” than her husband, this is seen in her obsession with the blood on her hands: “Out, out damned spot!” It is also seen in her sleepwalking, “madness” and probable suicide.9 With Macbeth it sets in immediately after his murder of Duncan:

One cried “God bless us!” and “Amen” the other;
As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands.
Listening their fear, I could not say “Amen”,
When they did say “God bless us!”

Consider it not so deeply.

But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”?
I had most need of blessing, and “Amen”
Stuck in my throat.

These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad.

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast—

What do you mean?

Still it cried “Sleep no more!” to all the house:
“Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.”

Who was it that thus cried? Why, worthy thane,
You do unbend your noble strength, to think
So brainsickly of things. Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand.
Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there: go carry them; and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood.

I’ll go no more:
I am afraid to think what I have done;
Look on’t again I dare not.10

However, as the play develops and Macbeth’s murders accumulate, his initial dismay hardens into a desperate nihilism:

For mine own good,
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.


I have supp’d full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me.11


I shall fight till from my bones my flesh be hack’d.12

Informed of the death of his wife, Macbeth pauses and then pronounces this devastating verdict on life:

She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

It is in the nature of Shakespeare’s art as a dramatist that he does not speak directly for himself, unlike Michelangelo and Rembrandt at certain points, but through his characters, who express a wide variety of different worldviews and outlooks (from Falstaff to Coriolanus). Nonetheless, the great poetic force he gives to Macbeth’s nihilism suggests at least a degree of personal and artistic empathy with this attitude.

In King Lear Shakespeare approaches the problem of confronting the abyss, of a descent to the depths, in a different way. If in Macbeth it is via the crimes of a man of ambition in search of power, in Lear it is through the folly of an aging king who wants to divest himself of the burdens and responsibilities of kingship and power but retain both the trappings and respect of this abandoned role. Skewered on this contradiction of his own making, which goes to the heart of his conception of himself and his standing in his family and the world, Lear is led, by stages, to face up to the fundamentals of the human condition stripped of all externals. Shakespeare presents this with the aid of two interacting dramatic metaphors—“madness” and the heath. Lear says:

O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!14

However, faced with betrayal by his daughters, “mad” he becomes, and heads for the heath accompanied only by his loyal fool, who simultaneously cares for him and chides him for his folly. The heath is a place of bleak wildness, beyond and outside normal society, and its wildness is compounded by a fierce storm that mirrors and intensifies Lear’s “madness”—the tempest in his mind. There Lear encounters Poor Tom, also “mad” or at least purporting to be so. Poor Tom parallels Lear; he is, in fact, the nobleman Edgar, who has been conspired against and brought down by his ambitious brother, Edmund. After fleeing to the heath, he has assumed the form of a disturbed and nearly naked creature:

Whiles I may ’scape,
I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast: my face I’ll grime with filth;
Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky.15

Lear responds to Poor Tom, whom he calls his “philosopher” and “Athenian” as an expression of what a man boils down to in the final analysis, and seeks to join him by tearing off his own clothes:

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou
owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep
no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on’s
are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself:
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare,
forked animal as thou art.16

Later Tom says:

[Aside] O gods! Who is’t can say:
“I am at the worst”?
I am worse than e’er I was.

’Tis poor mad Tom.

[Aside] And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say “This is the worst”.17

Rescued, and waking from long sleep and finding himself reunited with Cordelia, the youngest of his three daughters, Lear says:

You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave.
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.18

Shakespeare’s words are so powerful that little commentary is required, but what the play lays out in its structure and its imagery is that through the experience of torment, “madness” and blindness, through descent to the lowest depths, kindness and clear sight becomes possible.

Rembrandt’s artistic career follows on almost directly from that of Shakespeare, but he inhabited a very different society: the post-revolutionary Dutch Republic, the world’s first fully-fledged bourgeois state. Compared to Italy under the Medicis and Borgias or England under Elizabeth I, it was liberal, progressive and had elements of democracy. However, precisely because it was more thoroughly capitalist, there was coldness in the bones of the society that Rembrandt sensed and reacted against. Rembrandt is the supreme self-portraitist in the history of art, and his 80 or so self-portraits constitute an autobiography in paint. In particular the self-portraits at the end of his life record his decline towards death. I have written of these before, and I will simply reproduce my argument here:

The final four self-portraits—the Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1665-9), which hangs in Kenwood House in north London, and the three from 1669 itself—are like a summing up of the artist’s life. The Kenwood portrait shows us the old artist battered by life’s woes but still standing firm and strong, monumental in his craft and his defiance. The next two, Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 in the National Gallery and Self-Portrait in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, show unmistakeable signs of decline—not decline in the artist’s powers but of something starting to fail inside the man. The process seems more advanced in the Uffizi portrait than in the National Gallery one. By the time we get to what is probably the very last of the series, the Self-Portrait in the Hague Mauritshuis, the man’s mainspring has gone. Nevertheless, the painting constitutes a kind of amazing paradox—someone this broken down by life ought not to have been able to paint this picture. We enter here the territory that the United States poet William Carlos Williams attempted to describe when he wrote, “Everyone in this life is defeated, but a man, if he be a man, is not defeated”.19

John Berger wrote of the Self-Portrait in the Uffizi:

In this painting he has turned the tradition of European oil painting against itself. He has wrested its language away from it. He is an old man. All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question. And the painter in him—who is both more and less than the old man—has found the means to express just that, using a medium which has been traditionally developed to exclude any such question.20

However, Rembrandt’s confrontation with the abyss is not confined to his late self-portraits. It is also at its most intense and unflinching in one of his most extraordinary works, Slaughtered Ox (1655). In technical terms this painting is a “still life”, but it is so far removed from the typical Dutch still life of the day, which was an established genre of 17th century Dutch art, or of any other day as to make assigning it to that category absurd. Strange as it may seem, I think it is closer to being a self-portrait. The artist’s deep sympathy with his subject, evident in both the overall structure and in every brush stroke—sympathy with a dead animal, a butchered carcass—is, to my knowledge, unparalleled in art. It speaks of a strong personal identification of the artist with the crucified carcass, and of the carcass with crucified humanity.21 No actual crucifixion painting approaches it in this regard except, perhaps, the one by Matthias Grünewald. It does, however, also evoke the martyred peasant partisan in Francisco Goya’s great Third of May 1808, and the subject matter reaches back to the very different prehistoric paintings on the walls of the Lascaux caves in southwestern France. It recalls Lear’s response to Poor Tom on the heath quoted above: “Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art.”

Aside from the three already considered, one of the greatest artists to deal with this darkness is Goya. He too seems to have transitioned from hope in human progress through the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to something like despair through a combination of personal misfortune (deafness and illness) and political disillusionment as a result of the occupation of Spain by the French army and the restoration of the reactionary Bourbon monarchy. In his Disasters of War etchings, he records with an unflinching gaze the cruelty—the rape, hanging, torture, garrotting, castration, dismemberment, impalement—of which human beings are capable. Moreover, he depicts it all with an eye that combines horror and humanity. The handwritten titles beneath the etchings speak volumes: “Why?”, “And it cannot be helped”, “Bury them and keep quiet”, “What good is a cup?”, “What more can be done?”, “This is worse”. Then there are his “Black Paintings” in which the focus shifts from physical to mental agony, to nightmare visions culminating in Saturn Devouring His Son—one of the most terrifying images in art history.

Bacon and Beckett

From the 20th century, that “age of extremes” as Eric Hobsbawm called it, there is, unsurprisingly, no shortage of art that has sought to enter this territory: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Franz Kafka’s work, especially In the Penal Colony, Otto Dix’s paintings from the First World War, perhaps T S Eliot’s poems “The Waste Land” and “The Hollow Men”, some of Marx Ernst’s paintings, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, and so on.22 However, the artists I particularly want to discuss in this context are Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon.

Let me begin with what they have in common. They were both born in Dublin at the start of the 20th century—Beckett in 1906 and Bacon in 1909. They were, in other words, almost exact contemporaries and lived parallel lives—Beckett died, aged 83, in 1989; Bacon, aged 82, in 1992. They both lived and worked almost entirely outside Ireland (Beckett in Paris, Bacon in London) as both their lifestyles and the nature of their work compelled them to do. Neither would have been tolerated in the church-dominated conservative Ireland of President Eamon De Valera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. Both were major figures in their respective art forms: in my opinion they are among the pre-eminent artists, not just nationally but globally, in the second half of the 20th century. Most importantly for the concerns of this article, they both came of age artistically in the world of Hitler and Stalin, the Second World War, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the start of the Cold War.

This last point needs further explanation. Discussion about the relationship between work A and event or events B often takes the following form. It is claimed that A is “about” B; then the claim is denied, sometimes by the artist themselves, and instead it is asserted that the work is a “timeless” reflection on the human condition. However, this is to misunderstand and mechanically oversimplify the relationship between society, politics and art. Certainly some works are “about” or responses to specific events, and unmistakably so. This is the case, for instance, with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mask of Anarchy” (a response to the Peterloo Massacre), William Butler Yeats’s “Easter, 1916” (a response to the Easter Rising in Ireland) and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (painted in response to the bombing of the eponymous Basque town during the Spanish civil war). Frequently, though, the relationship is far more indirect and mediated than that. Jacques-Louis David painted The Death of Marat, but much of the literature and art of the time, and for long after, was influenced more generally by the cultural atmosphere created by the French Revolution, including the work of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, Ludwig van Beethoven and many others. The same could be said of the First World War; yes, there were poems and paintings of the war—Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Paul Nash, Otto Dix, Christopher Nevinson and so on—but there were also artists deeply influenced by it, such as the Dadaists (including Marcel Duchamp), Kazimir Malevich and so on.

The point is that the human condition is not fixed or unchanging, even if there are important continuities in it—such as birth, copulation and death—and nor are artists’ views of what the human condition might be; the latter are strongly shaped by the historical conditions of the time. In this context one would have to be extraordinarily unaware and insensitive not to be affected by the horrors of Nazism, Stalinism, war and the possibility of nuclear annihilation, charges that certainly do not apply to Bacon and Beckett.

I will start with Bacon and his 1944 painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which immediately established him as a major artist when it first exhibited in 1945. Much writing on Bacon starts with and focuses on his biography and “outrageous” lifestyle and persona. My concern is rather with the work itself and what is going on in it, with what we actually see more than with an explanation of how and why Bacon came to paint it. In Three Studies, which is a triptych, we are at once confronted with three grotesque figures, each on a separate panel and set against a flat burnt orange background. The flat, almost blank backgrounds thrust these figures at us and emphasise their horrific character.

Each of these creatures is somewhere between human and animal. The hunched figure on the left resembles, simultaneously, an old man, a vulture and a boy. The figure in the centre stands on a perch and is both birdlike (maybe a plucked ostrich) and grossly phallic; however, there is also an open human mouth, about to bite, cry or scream, on the head of the phallus/bird, and the eyes are wrapped in a cloth as though covered with a blindfold. The figure on the right is dog-like—a wild, emaciated dog—but also has a trace of the human in its upturned gaping jaws and the ear on the side of the, again, eyeless head.

Together they form a pack of ravening beasts, each held within the frame but baying for our blood. What makes them so horrific, in my view, is precisely their transgressive semi-human, semi-inhuman character. However, the sheer visual terror of these images is reinforced by the title of the work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which generates a number of further images and associations. First, it tells us that, somewhere above or behind the painting, a man (maybe Christ, maybe not—it is “a” not “the” crucifixion) is being put to an agonising death. Second, any notion of figures “at the base” of a crucifixion carries with it the association of, or implied reference to, the biblical soldiers at the foot of the cross, who we are told in the Gospels mocked Jesus, nailed him to the cross, pierced his side with a spear and cast lots for his robe. In other words they are deeply complicit in the barbaric cruelty. Third, for anyone steeped in the European art tradition, as Bacon was, a crucifixion triptych could not fail to evoke Grünewald’s great Isenheim Triptych, which, of all the innumerable works on this subject, most emphasises its extreme cruelty and suffering.

What this adds up to is that Bacon’s Three Studies expresses, confronts and confronts us with, in the most vivid form, the barbaric inhumanity of which human beings were capable and which at that time was being demonstrated on a daily basis. Whether this capacity for barbarity is simply part of human nature, as Bacon probably believed, or results from the alienation of and from human nature produced by class society, as Marxists believe, it remains a fact that it exists and Bacon looks it in the face in this work and in many others.

Bacon produced a series of paintings on the crucifixion theme, including Painting (1946), which features a large “crucified” carcass in a clear reference to Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox; Fragment of a Crucifixion (1950); Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962); and Crucifixion (1965). Virtually all Bacon’s crucifixion paintings, except his earliest before the Second World War, feature beaten up, mangled or butchered flesh. In this context it is significant that he said in conversation with art critic David Sylvester that painting a crucifixion was “almost nearer to a self-portrait”.23 In literal visual terms I think this applies most clearly to the 1965 study, but really it is not the appearance but the identification, resonant of both Grünewald and Rembrandt and the ox, that matters. Also it is a relation that goes beyond the personal. Marx says in his Theses on Feuerbach that “the earthly family is discovered to be the secret to the holy family”.24 Similarly, the material root of the crucifixion of Christ is the ongoing crucifixion of human beings. Bacon’s work expresses this with unparalleled power.

Then there is his “Pope” series. Bacon painted at least 15 paintings on this theme, mostly in two surges, the first around 1953 and the second around 1962. All of them are dark and disturbing; most reference Diego Velázquez’s great portrait of Pope Innocent X, and some reference Pope Pius XII. Bacon was an avowed atheist, but that aside, it seems to me that these are works that could only have been produced in a secular age, in a time when, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “God is dead”, when fear of damnation has been replaced by fear of nothingness and recoil from sin has given way to recoil from barbarity. Many of the paintings show the Pope framed in a glass case, in an eerie anticipation of the glass booth that later encased the Nazi Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem, and many, though not all, show him screaming.25 Most memorable and most iconic of this series is his 1953 Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, often known as “The Screaming Pope”. Here the Pope is seated behind a semi-transparent curtain or screen of dirty yellow streaks, while bright yellow horizontal bars emanating from or surrounding his throne are suggestive of an electric chair. Most of all, this image raises the question, “Why is the Pope screaming?” The possible answers are that he is screaming at what he feels internally (such as guilt, loss of faith and so on) or at what he sees externally (the state of the world, war, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the loss of power of his church and religion) or most likely a combination of the two. However we judge this, what makes the painting so powerful is that the Pope is screaming—Popes don’t scream—at an unnamed horror we sense but cannot see.

Lastly, I want to say something about the large number of portraits Bacon produced, mostly of his friends, such as Lucian Freud and Isabel Rawthorne, and frequently of his lover, George Dyer. Many of them are triptychs with echoes of the crucifixion triptychs. Rather than analysing any one of these in particular, I just want to note some of their common characteristics. First, the figures are almost invariably placed against a more or less blank, monochromatic background, sometimes light, sometimes dark, but usually including some kind of framing device—the outline of a glass cage, a large door or something similar. Second, the figures are distorted and often mangled in some ambiguous way or depicted as if they had been seriously beaten up, but again ambiguously; it is suggested by the distortion without being naturalistically represented. Third, the figures are most often placed on some kind of chair, table, bed, plinth or pedestal.26 The combined effect of these devices is to present his subjects as a mixture of prisoners or creatures on display and slabs of meat on a platter. This, at least in his art, is how Bacon seems to have seen people.

It is a dark vision, very dark indeed, and I can think of no other artist who is so unrelievedly dark throughout all their work. Goya matches Bacon for darkness in The Disasters of War and the Black Paintings, but he is also the painter of the The Clothed Maja, The Nude Majas and the Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel. Of course, Bacon’s relentless focus on the twisted and tortured condition of humanity can be seen as grounds to reject or criticise his work as one-sided, if not morbid or even decadent. However, I would argue that, in the sphere of art, someone who does not see 70 or 80 percent of the spectrum of human experience can, nonetheless, be a major figure if they have exceptional insight into the remainder.27 Such an artist is Bacon.

Turning to Samuel Beckett after Bacon is something of a relief because of his wonderful sense of humour. Nevertheless, Beckett remains very bleak. The bleakness operates at many levels. In the first place Beckett is a minimalist. His work runs parallel to the likes of Malevich (Black Square on White, White Square on White), Piet Mondrian, Carl Andre (Equivalent VIII) and John Cage, attempting to make art with less and less, and this becomes truer as he gets older. The settings and play sets are extremely meagre. A country road with (one) tree (Waiting for Godot); a condemned apartment (Murphy); a bare room in a house (Endgame); Krapp’s den with one small table (Krapp’s Last Tape); a shingle beach (Embers); a derelict street corner (Rough for Theatre I); a sand hill (Happy Days); and so on. Moreover, the characters match the locations. If in Shakespeare the people who wrestle with the difficulties and dilemmas of life are royalty or aristocrats, and in Henrik Ibsen’s plays are upper middle class, in Becket they are generally outcasts—not proletarians but vagabonds, beggars and servants. At most, they are down at heel lower middle-class people (Winnie in Happy Days, and maybe Krapp). The comical Pozzo and blind Hamm are the nearest we get to figures of power in Beckett. Similarly, his characters are either alone (Krapp, Not I) or, more often, nearly alone (Hamm and Clov, Winnie and Willie, Vladimir and Estragon). In Beckettian terms Waiting for Godot is a mass production with five parts, and The Boy appears only at the end and says little.

His characters, such as they are, are always struggling to connect with one another and failing. In two key scenes this is depicted physically. In Endgame, Nagg and Nell live in two dustbins. Nagg knocks on the lid of Nell’s bin:

What is it, my pet? (Pause) Time for love?

Were you asleep?

Oh no!

Kiss me

We can’t.


Their heads strain towards each other, fail to meet, fall apart again.

Why this farce, day after day?

Towards the end of Happy Days, Willie starts crawling up the mound of sand towards Winnie. She becomes excited:

Oh I say, this
is terrific! (He halts, clinging to mound with
one hand, reaching up with the other.
) Come
on, dear, put a bit of jizz into it, I’ll cheer you
on. (Pause.) Is it me you’re after, Willie…
or is it something else? (Pause.) Do you want
to touch my face…again? (Pause.) Is it a kiss
you’re after, Willie…or is it something else?

However, Willie doesn’t make it: “He slithers back to foot of mound and lies with face to ground.”

In Endgame the setting is suggestive of an empty world, entirely depopulated, with Hamm and Clov alone, apart from Nagg and Nell in their bins. When Clov climbs a ladder and looks out of the window with his glass, there is only water to be seen on one side and nothing at all except bare land on the other. Theodor Adorno claims, “The condition presented in the play is nothing other than that in which ‘there’s no more nature’”.28 This is clearly an exaggeration to the point of being definitely untrue, and Hamm himself states this:

Nature has forgotten us

There’s no more nature

No more nature! You exaggerate.

However, the question remains as to how the world has become this empty. Beckett, of course, fails to supply an explicit answer, but, if we bear in mind that Endgame was written in 1956 and 1957, the thought cannot fail to arise in our minds that the play is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war. From Jackson Pollock to Bertrand Russell and Bob Dylan, the possibility of nuclear holocaust inevitably haunted the collective consciousness of those years.29

The setting of Happy Days, with Winnie buried up to her waist in sand, is truly horrific, if one allows oneself to think about it. Winnie’s opening declaration—“Another heavenly day”—is in such flagrant contradiction to this appalling situation that it is simultaneously very funny and reinforces the horror (such contradictions are of the essence of Beckett’s genius). For me, the scene is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s series of slaves trapped in rock.30 Yet, it is actually worse, because Michelangelo’s slaves are in the process of emerging from the rock, striving to be free, whereas Winnie sinks, in the second act, further into the rock, up to her neck. If the Michelangelo can be read as a metaphor for human history and the current state of the struggle for human emancipation, the scene in Happy Days suggests the game is almost up as, of course, it may be.

In Marx’s great diagnosis of the human condition under capitalism, his theory of alienation, he argues that capitalism is based on the alienated labour of working people. The alienation of labour is so significant because it is through labour that the human race created itself and continues to create itself. As a result of the alienation of labour, people come to be dominated by the products of their own work, which form a hostile world standing over and against them. They also become estranged from themselves, their own essential human nature (as creative makers), from other people (because labour is social labour and mediates the relationship between people), and from nature (because labour is the mediation between humans and nature). Beckett’s work is a study in and of alienation. The threat of nuclear war, hinted at in Endgame, was (and is) an extreme manifestation of alienation, of the human race being threatened with annihilation by the products of its own hands and brains—as is climate change. Alienated labour damages us physically and spiritually, reduces us as human beings, as Vladimir and Estragon, Hamm and Clov, Nagg and Nell, Winnie and Willie are damaged and reduced. Alienation distorts all human relations including the most intimate; it separates us from our fellows and sets us against each other. The relationships presented between Hamm and Clov, and Nagg and Nell, between Pozzo and Lucky, Winnie and Willie are clinical dissections of such alienated relations.

Above all, the recurring theme in Beckett is confrontation with the possibility that life is meaningless and absurd, and that the situation may be hopeless. At the start of Waiting for Godot, Estragon, trying unsuccessfully to take off his boot, says, “Nothing to be done”, and Vladimir replies, “I’m beginning to come round to that opinion.” In Endgame, Hamm says, “We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?” and Clove responds, “Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that’s a good one!” Yet, this ongoing dialectical dance with despair, conducted by Beckett with such extraordinary agility, does not mean that he actually steps off the edge of the cliff into resignation and passive acceptance; he does not.31 In fact Beckett responds to this possibility in two ways. Godot ends:

Well? Shall we go?

Yes, let’s go

They do not move.

At the close of Endgame, Hamm tells Clov he does not need him anymore, and Clov replies, “I’ll leave you.” Clov exits and returns: “Enter Clov, dressed for the road. Panama hat, tweed coat, raincoat over his arm, umbrella, bag. He halts by the door and stands there, impassive and motionless, his eyes fixed on Hamm till the end.”

In both these endings Beckett, in a kind of Brechtian move, puts the question—to be or not to be, to move or not move—to the audience for us to decide for ourselves. However, elsewhere Beckett makes his own ultimate position clear. The Unnamable concludes:

Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

In this context it is worth noting that in his own life, Beckett, face to face with barbarism in the form of the Nazi occupation of France, opted for real resistance.

By way of conclusion

In concluding this article I want to make two observations. The first is that I knew from before I started writing this article which artists I would cite as exemplars of my case—Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Goya, Bacon and Beckett—but what I only came to see in the process of writing was the extent of the overlapping and cross-referencing between them. The parallel between Michelangelo’s slaves and Happy Days; the way Poor Tom on the heath says “And worse I may be yet: the worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’” is echoed in Goya’s “This is worse”; the referencing of Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox and Grünewald’s Crucifixion by Francis Bacon; the blindness of Gloucester in King Lear and Hamm in Endgame; the recurring concern with death in all these works; and so on. This seems to me of significance. It indicates that the themes and motifs I have discussed have been central to the human condition, for all its changes, over centuries. Because of this continuity, Leon Trotsky was right when he claimed that Shakespeare would remain “alive” as art when Marx’s Capital had been consigned to the archives.32

The second is that the examples I have explored confirm the argument at the beginning that work that peers into the abyss is among the most powerfully affirming. Courage takes many forms—physical, moral, political and others—and they are by no means consistently distributed. Someone can easily be physically brave and politically cowardly. There is also what can be called artistic courage and the courage to look reality in the face, including its darkest, most nightmarish aspects. To engage imaginatively with them with the sustained intensity necessary to render them into major art is itself a form of resistance that is profoundly life enhancing.

John Molyneux is the editor of Irish Marxist Review and author of a number of books including Marxism and the Party (Pluto, 1978), Lenin for Today (Bookmarks, 2017) and The Dialectics of Art (Haymarket, 2020).


1 Marx, 1959.

2 Hopkins, 1967.

3 Any attempt at a representative survey of works in this field, let alone a comprehensive study, would clearly require at least a long book.

4 Engels, 1962, p63.

5 I have written elsewhere of the link between these three titanic figures—see Molyneux, 2016.

6 Some of his sculptures, however, are even more powerful.

7 Hauser, 1999, p105.

8 Molyneux, 2010.

9 In my discussion of Macbeth and King Lear, I have used terms such as “mad” and “madness”. These reflect Shakespeare’s own usage in the passages cited, which are shaped by attitudes to mental health prevalent in his lifetime. Nonetheless, Shakespeare’s portrayal of a number of characters, such as Ophelia, Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, shows exceptional insight into mental distress.

10 Macbeth, act 2, scene 2

11 Macbeth, act 3, scene 4; Macbeth, act 5, scene 5.

12 Macbeth, act 5, scene 3.

13 Macbeth, act 5, scene 5 (my emphasis).

14 King Lear, act 2, scene 5.

15 King Lear, act 2, scene 3.

16 King Lear, act 3, scene 4.

17 King Lear, act 4, scene 1.

18 King Lear, act 4, scene 7.

19 Molyneux, 2020, pp110-111.

20 Berger, 1972, p112.

21 Critic Hélène Cixous has written: “Why do we adore The Slaughtered Ox? Because without our knowing it or wanting it, it is our anonymous humanity… We are this creature, which even turned upside down and decapitated and hung beneath the earth—when it is seen with those eyes that don’t reject the below, that don’t prefer the above—maintains its majesty. Behold the portrait of our mortality. The being hung (by its shins), turned upside down, twice decapitated. What we become under the axe and the slicer. There is a butcher shop on our life’s path. As children we would pass trembling before the butcher’s window. Later on, we want to forget death. We cut the dead one up into pieces and we call it meat.”—Cixous, 2005, pp12-14.

22 The fact that Conrad located Heart of Darkness in the Congo under Belgian occupation is appropriate in that this was the site of one of the most brutal episodes in the great brutality of colonialism. However, it also had deeply racist connotations, as did Conrad’s whole vision of Africa. Dealing with this intensely powerful and contradictory work requires a whole separate analysis and is not possible here. As for Eliot, there is, in my view, an ironic detachment in his poetry—“That’s the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper”—that separates his work from art that fully confronts the abyss. Interestingly, though, “The Hollow Men”, begins by referencing Heart of Darkness.

23 Sylvester, 1993, p46.

24 Marx, 1969.

25 These screaming mouths, a recurring trope in Bacon, were influenced by the screaming mother in Nicolas Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents and the image of the shot, screaming nurse in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, as well as possibly by the screaming horse in Guernica.

26 In one case, Three Figures in a Room (1964), the figure in the left-hand panel, probably George Dyer, is depicted sitting on the toilet.

27 Another example of this, in a completely different way, is Mondrian. Indeed the only artists who get anywhere close to 100 per cent of the spectrum that I can think of are Rembrandt and Shakespeare.

28 Adorno, 1982.

29 See my analysis of Pollock and Lavender Mist—Molyneux, 2020, pp181-185. Dylan’s “Talking World War III Blues” and “It’s a Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall” express his concerns about nuclear war.

30 See Molyneux, 2020, pp93-94.

31 Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing compares a dialogue between “two persons diagnosed as schizophrenic” to “a man doing a handstand on a bicycle on a tightrope 100 feet up”—Laing, 1967, p85. Beckett is like that.

32 Trotsky, 1974.


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Berger, John, 1972, Ways of Seeing (Penguin).

Cixous, Hélène, 2005 [1993], “Bathsheba or the Interior Bible”, in Stigmata: Escaping Texts (Routledge).

Engels, Friederich, 1962 [1883], “Introduction to Dialectics of Nature”, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works, volume 2 (Progress Publishers).

Hauser, Arnold, 1999, The Social History of Art, volume 2 (Routledge).

Hopkins, Gerard Manley, 1967, “No Worst, There is None. Pitched Past Pitch of Grief”, in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics).

Laing, Ronald David, 1967, The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise (Penguin).

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Molyneux, John, 2016, “Shakespeare: 400 Years On”, Irish Marxist Review, volume 5, number 15,

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