Beckett said Samuel Johnson was always with him; yet reading the trilogy, Molloy etc, one feels also (Kenner remarked on it in his 1968 study) that Wordsworth was often with him too. Parts of it seem to have come from an experiment: what if Wordsworth’s solitaries, the leech-gatherer above all, attempted to write their own Recherche du Temps Perdu? How Johnson in this?
An answer might turn on Johnson’s presence in Wordsworth, not as the critical style maligned by Coleridge, but as a voice rebuking the vanities by which all, the poet included, are tempted: in Johnson, the voice provides the cross-theme of the essays and dominant notes of the poems; in Wordsworth, it is found in the encounters with the solitaries, whose voices are barely heard and register most often as failures to reveal themselves. They defy the poet’s faith in sympathy, in human identity, and in the imagination’s capacity to apprehend the world; Wordsworth meets their bare human existence and claims to be strengthened by it, but that strength is coincident with a reappraisal of what it means to be strong. It is less Johnson than the intellectual possibility exemplified by Johnson that Wordsworth accommodates in the poetry when he encounters the solitary.
The solitaries, in Beckett’s interpretation of them (if we entertain the possibility that he is interpreting them), serve as Johnsonian agents to burn away the solipsistic excesses of the Romantic pursuit of lost time; such an agent of doubt and cautious pessimism is integral to Romantic art. Beckett’s trilogy isolates it and bends it back upon itself: the skeptical, corrosive agent itself is asked to pursue its own lost time, to know its own perduring being and to account for it. They are a standing challenge even to their own standing challenge, and yet they are tranquil, their self-consciousness becoming itself and coming to rest in that passive restlessness, that idle search; that too, a fulfillment of the promise of Romanticism, from Wordsworth to Proust, its notion of virtue poised on the edge of active and passive, attention and reverie, assertion and receptivity.
Where Wordsworth is most present, Beckett is most vagrant, and the vagrancy of the Wordsworthian solitaries becomes the solitude of Beckett’s tramps. Johnson’s haunting isolation, communicated from the center of London in urbane fashion, is encountered in both as geographical alienation. In the one, the geographical estrangement from the social order contains tragic, in the other comedic potential; in either case, something thought to be essential is revealed to be dispensable.
From the perspective of Wordsworth, the solitaries are a perpetual shock because they are not tragic figures; they point to and deny a tragic fate for humankind. Beckett’s figures, on the other hand, are accompanied by shocks of laughter; they point towards a comedic vision of humankind but cannot fulfill that potential. For both Beckett and Wordsworth, the shocks are ultimately bodily: disfigurement, excrement, the body that escapes control and that unintentionally crosses social thresholds. In Wordsworth and Beckett alike, the body is at once monitory and promissory, and in both facets, it fends off the temptations to claim at once too much and too little of life; in both authors, corporality is itself Johnsonian. Johnson’s wariness, wary towards even itself, becomes bodily weariness in Wordsworth and Beckett; torpor is a rebuke and solace.
But that is only aspect of the narration in the trilogy; there is, sometimes set against it (the second half of Molloy), and sometimes containing it (Malone Dies), a voice of distressed and perplexed urbanity, a comical effort at the civilizing process which would hold back and catch out the voice of the solitary that is its double. Here too, I suspect Johnson’s presence could be detectable, in the self-regulation of a politeness that guards against and enables instincts too deep to name, and in the cold contempt felt for the hypocrisy that would presume to name them other than what they are.