The Weight of Compassion and other essays, by Eoin O’Brien, Lilliput Press, 262 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1843513889
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.
Eoin O’Brien’s lifelong commitment to Irish letters and to Irish cultural life more generally is demonstrated by the range of other essays republished here. Beckett’s friend and contemporary AJ (Con) Leventhal is honoured with two essays first published in the 1980s, one of which – “From the Waters of Zion to Liffeyside” (1981) ‑ reflects on the Jewish experience of Irish society, from the days of Leopold Bloom to the 1980s. As O’Brien’s careful account of the lives of Dublin’s Jews shows, the contribution of this small community to Dublin’s professional and cultural life has been immense, not least in the worlds of letters and medicine.
Like Beckett himself, O’Brien has an eye for neglected talent and an ear for the dissenting voice and so he champions some lesser known artistic figures, like the English-born artist Nevill Johnson and the Czech-born neurologist, writer and translator Dr Petr Skrbanek. Alongside O’Brien’s recollections of departed friends are some portraits of the illustrious dead, including two eminent Russian doctors – Anton Chekhov, whose gifts as a dramatist have tended to overshadow his well-documented commitment to his medical vocation ‑ and Nicolai Koroktoff, who invented the auscultatory method of blood pressure measurement, which has since become a standard medical procedure. As O’Brien shows, both these men, whatever their literary or scientific achievements, never lost sight of the central ethic of their vocation, namely, to cure their patients and to alleviate suffering.
Of course, as O’Brien recognises, compassion alone cannot cure patients and, from the perspective of the historian of medicine, his essay on “The Dublin School” (1983) of medicine in nineteenth century Ireland is a high point in this volume. The nineteenth century marks a period of transition in Ireland from eighteenth century quackery ‑ where bleedings, blisterings and brutality were the mainstay of medical practice ‑ towards something both scientifically reputable and humane. Three Irish doctors – Robert Graves, Dominic Corrigan and William Stokes – were to establish reputations as original clinicians in the unlikely surroundings of Victorian Dublin and they have left their mark on medicine by way of distinct clinical concepts: Graves’ disease, Cheyne-Stokes respirations and Corrigan’s disease. What emerges, aside from the individual brilliance of these clinicians, is a fascinating social vignette of the evolution of Irish medicine from around 1710, when Dr Richard Steevens died (Dr Steevens’ Hospital, opened in 1733, was one of his legacies), to 1880, which was marked by the death of Corrigan. This period witnessed the evolution, not just of new clinical practices and concepts, but also the gradual development of a medical infrastructure in Dublin, some of which survives to this day, in the form of familiar institutions like St Patrick’s Hospital, famously founded by Dean Swift. For readers with an eye for social detail and with an interest in Dublin’s medical institutions, this is rewarding reading. And for those whose interests are more narrowly literary, O’Brien provides a brilliant vignette of Oscar Wilde’s father, the ophthalmologist William Wilde, a major figure in Dublin’s medical world, who received a knighthood in 1864, but whose reputation was subsequently blighted by allegations of impropriety towards a female patient and who died a disappointed man in 1876.
Eoin O’Brien’s essay collection, splendidly produced by Lilliput and ably introduced by poet Gerald Dawe, is testimony to a life of clinical commitment tempered by clinical reflection. Remarkably for a senior medical consultant, O’Brien has made a crucial intervention in Beckett scholarship, and several contributions to literary studies more generally; but he has also been active as a medical editor, campaigner and commentator, as the second half of the book, headed “The Corruption of Privilege”, testifies to. It is unusual, in this era of specialisation, to encounter a genuinely cross-disciplinary talent and O’Brien’s career, as doctor and cultural critic, demonstrates how the sciences and the humanities need to be infomed by each other. Penicillin dispensed without sympathy, he forcibly insists, is almost as bad as sympathy dispensed without penicillin; compassion should take the shape of an informed ethical principle leading to organised action, such as the Irish Red Cross medical relief effort at Saint-Lô. As Beckett’s reflections in “The Capital of Ruins” imply, it is the recognition of an equality of need and of human vulnerability which crashes through the artificial boundaries of “among other things, the having and not having, the giving and the taking, sickness and health”. O’Brien’s book affirms Beckett’s intuition that it is “the occasional glimpse” of mutual recognition “by us in them and . . . by them in us of that smile at the human condition” – in all its absurdity, banality and grandeur – which makes it worthwhile to ‘go on’, even amidst the worst devastation.
Benjamin Keatinge is Head of English at the South East European University, Tetovo, Macedonia where he teaches English literature. He holds a doctorate on Samuel Beckett from Trinity College Dublin and he has published articles on Beckett in the Irish University Review, the Journal of Modern Literature and in edited essay collections. He has published (as co-editor) a volume of critical essays on poet Brian Coffey titled Other Edens: The Life and Work of Brian Coffey (Irish Academic Press, 2010). He has also contributed essays on poets Richard Murphy, Pearse Hutchinson and Harry Clifton to edited volumes as well as regular reviews to Poetry Ireland Review, the Irish University Review, the European English Messenger and The Beckett Circle. He currently lives in Skopje, Macedonia.