Samuel Beckett’s prose piece The Capital of the Ruins was written in 1946 as a report from the French town of Saint-Lô for the Irish Radio Éireann, yet its broadcasting was rejected and the text was only published later in written form. Saint-Lô, which was under German occupation during WWII, was later bombarded by the Allies and turned into ruins, as archival material reveals. The title for the piece was inspired by a photo booklet that was circulating at the time, entitled ‘Saint-Lô, Capital des Ruines, 5 et 7 Juin, 1944’. An Irish Red Cross hospital was founded in the town.
The text posed major difficulties concerning its classification in terms of genre, and it took long until it was examined closer. This extremely brief text —running at less than two pages— seems to constitute a distinctly important turn in Beckett’s writing, as it bears, in an early form, elements on which both the Trilogy (Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnamable) and Waiting for Godot will be based, and which will keep coming back to both the Irishman’s prose and drama. If ruins keep returning in several ways within his work, their trace might possibly originate in Saint-Lô’s ruins, or else its exemplary ruins.
The syntactical structure of the text and the way information is conveyed reveal the inability to represent both what is happening in space as well as its placing within the wider historical grand scheme. The structure of consecutive independent clauses blending journalistic, prose and poetic speech creates fractures on temporal continuity and on the historical time. The metaphor of the poetic image together with allegory, albeit momentary, seem to be the only ones able to articulate a historical speech. For example, the attempt to describe some construction elements of the hospital is followed by the sentence: ‘The walls and ceiling of the operating theatre are sheeted in aluminium of aeronautic origin, a decorative and practical solution to an old problem and a pleasant variation on the sword and ploughshare metamorphosis.’ Let’s note here that the aluminium mentioned obviously originates from the American airplanes which had bombarded Saint-Lô in order to avoid the invasion of Nazi troops in Normandy. Beckett is rupturing here both the time of the text and the historical time. His metaphor immobilises us before the possible transfigurations spread out before us. At the same time, he is bringing us back to his descriptions: we notice that he is not describing what now lies on the surface of the ground, but rather transposes us on what is happening underneath it, too, eventually inviting us to an archaeology of the ground analogous to the one we will later find in Waiting for Godot.
Thus, the non-representable of the ruins, the invisible, is approached through its transfer on the level of speech and its transformation on the level of gaze. The ruined aspect of the real, which will reappear later on the Irishman’s dramatic work as stage absence, does not allow for the reconstruction or the existence of a grand unified narration, exactly because reconstruction — of Saint-Lô, in this case — is set both under a perspective gaze and a retrospective one. And, since the future and the present are blended, what happens is a paradoxical movement where the future resonates in the past, something attested in the text by a notable transfer between the tenses of the verbs, connecting and disconnecting facts and meanings.
The text is shifting the boundaries between a prose attached to an effort to describe and represent, and a poetic element which mirrors it. Within that framework, the future reconstruction of the town is reflected on a new distribution of parts between not merely its inhabitants but also between the French, who experienced the war, and the Irish, who didn’t take part in it. The point from which this redistribution begins is of course the end of the war, so we are simultaneously talking about a past and a present predicament. Wherever the representation of the historical grand scheme falters, space is given for a non-visible relationship to emerge, a new scripture of the gaze, where the boundaries between having and not having, giving and receiving, sickness and health, all subside under the importance of ‘the occasional glimpse obtained, by us in them and, who knows, by them in us’. Beckett adds to this acquisition the ‘smile’ which ‘derides’ the aforementioned dipoles, and which remains in the face of this human condition as an element of laughter helping people carry on regardless of the existential void and, perhaps, fostering the later Beckettian humour.
An element of particular note when it comes to Beckett’s immobility is that of the ‘temporary’ bore by the specific text. After he has described the temporary and sloppy way in which the hospital is constructed, as well as the ruinous condition which follows, and will follow until the reconstruction of the town, he reaches the final paragraph by suddenly formulating the following sentence: ‘“Provisional” is not the term it was, in this universe become provisional’. Thus, he opens up an ontological approach towards ruins arriving with the last sentence of the text:
‘[…] I may perhaps venture to mention another, more remote but perhaps of greater import in certain quarters, I mean the possibility that some of those who were in Saint-Lô will come home realising that they got at least as good as they gave, that they got indeed what they could hardly give, a vision and sense of a time-honoured conception of humanity in ruins, and perhaps even an inkling of the terms in which our condition is to be thought again. These will have been in France.’
Beckett invites us to the ruins in order to rethink our condition on an existential, political and cultural level. Temporal and spatial ruins, human ruins, ruins of speech and communication, ruins of memory, our own ruins. The writer seems to be telling us that a ruin is not a negative thing, and here we might recall J. Derrida:
‘I do not see ruin as a negative thing. First of all, it is clearly not a thing. And then I would love to write, maybe with or following Benjamin, maybe against Benjamin, a short treatise on love of ruins. What else is there to love, anyway. One cannot love a monument, a work of architecture, an institution as such except in an experience itself precarious in its fragility: it hasn’t always been there, it will not always be there, it is finite. And for this very reason I love it as mortal, through its birth and its death, through the ghost or the silhouette of its ruin, of my own— which it already is or already prefigures. How can we love except in this finitude? Where else would the right to love, indeed the love of right, come from?’
Beckett, Samuel, The Complete Short Prose 1929-1989, ed. Stanley E. Gontarski,: Grove Press, New York ,1995
Bénard, Julie, The Capital of the Ruins by Samuel Beckett: Re-construction as a ‘Re-distribution of the Sensible’, Études britanniques contemporaines. Revue de la Société dʼétudes anglaises contemporaines, 54, 2018
Derrida, Jacques, Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority”, pp 1-68 in: Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, eds. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, David Gray Carlson, Routledge, New York 1992