Celtic Junction Arts Review

Epiphany! Carl Jung and The Irish Writer Samuel Beckett

Patrick O’Donnell and Mary McCormick

Authors’ Note: This is the third of a series of articles on Jung and the Irish Writer.  Earlier articles looked at James Joyce and A.E. Russell.

Carl Jung, 1910. Source: Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain (PD-US)

With his original and universal insights, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) was ahead of his time.  He reconciled science and myth as essential to a larger integration of the human psyche and its cultural artifacts. He influenced physics, religion, anthropology, ethnology, literature and the humanities.

Jung’s analytical psychology divided the human psyche into multiple components: Ego, Persona, Shadow, Animus or Anima, and the superordinate Self encompassing the other components.  For a summary of these concepts, see the first of this series of articles.

Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989) was the descendant of French Huguenots (“Becquet”) who moved to Ireland for economic and religious freedom.  He was born in Dublin to a family who had amassed a considerable business and real estate fortune by the mid-nineteenth century.  Born a thin, pale, sickly baby who cried constantly, Sam gave his family some concern during his first few weeks. This ominously foreshadowed his conviction that he had not been “properly born.”

In contrast to the multiple professional and personal encounters between Carl Jung and James Joyce, as outlined in the above article, the Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett had only one significant contact with Jung, which led to a shattering insight and Joycean epiphany for him.

This photo of school-age Beckett has been upscaled.

Hailed eventually by critics as one of the most important literary artists of the twentieth century, the intellectually precocious Beckett was morose, difficult, depressive, introverted, and emotionally remote as a young man until the core of his psychological malaise was illuminated and relieved, in part, through attending a lecture by Jung in 1935. The heart of his difficulty proved to be his relationship with his mother, May. The bleakly absurdist Beckettian worldview can be summed up by his maxim from the short story, “Worstward Ho”: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Endurance rather than nihilism is ultimately the message of his art. This endurance he first learned from his fraught relationship with his mother.

From the Anglo-Irish landed gentry in County Kildare, Beckett’s mother May considered herself a cut above her husband socially.  She was tall and thin, with the same pale blue eyes, white-gold hair, hawk-like nose and imperious bearing as her son.  Dressed in dark dresses or mannish suits, people who met her found her cold and severe.  She was an intensely moody woman with a wild sense of humor and mercurial swings of temperament. The family lived in an imposing three-story Tudor house with dark Victorian furnishings named Cooldrinagh in Foxrock, south Dublin, facing the Wicklow mountains, surrounded by acres of gardens and high brick walls. Her husband and sons lived in apprehension of May’s tension headaches, dark depressions and thundering rages.

Beckett's Childhood Home
Cooldrinagh, Samuel Beckett’s childhood home.

Beginning when Sam turned three years old, and continuing for the rest of May’s life, repeated battles of will occurred between them, as he pursued reckless daredevil stunts, or refused to bow politely to visiting dowagers, and in return received ferocious beatings from his mother. Sam’s businessman father was a jovial, hearty fellow who spent a lot of his free time taking long hikes or socializing at his gentleman’s clubs.

Eamon DeValera

Claiming always to be born on Good Friday, April 13, 1906, (despite the fact his birth certificate stated May 13) Beckett saw his life as a slow crucifixion. The primacy of his Anglo-Irish Protestant background was disrupted early as his father took him at the age of ten to the top of a hill to watch Dublin in flames from the nationalist Easter Rising in 1916. A Catholic middle class would continue to assume political ascendancy following the War of Independence, Partition, and the Civil War from 1919-1923, culminating in the election of de Valera to Taoiseach/Prime Minister in 1932.

Jack Butler Yeats
Jack Butler Yeats by Alice Boughton – Smithsonian Photography.

Beckett attended private prep schools and Trinity College, Dublin, where he excelled at athletics. In his twenties, he attached himself to surrogate father figures, including Jack B. Yeats, the artist and younger brother of the poet William Butler Yeats and James Joyce.

Samuel Beckett ca1920

Beckett proved to be a brilliant student winning a Foundation Scholarship at Trinity College Dublin in 1926 and receiving a first in his class in modern languages and a gold medal and a prize of 50 pounds. He attempted to teach French in a forbidding school in Belfast, Campbell College. When assured by the complacent headmaster that he should feel lucky to be teaching the cream of Ulster, he replied with grim wit: “Yes. Rich and thick.” Instead in 1928, he began a two-year appointment at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris where he met the Kerry man, Thomas McGreevy, the previous awardee, who – voluble, gregarious, and overflowing with energy – brought the thin introverted Beckett to meet James Joyce within his first month.

(L-R) James Joyce, son Giorgio, daughter Lucia, and wife Nora Barnacle in Paris, 1924

This meeting began to shift his commitment from a respectable academic track in Trinity College Dublin towards the hard and uncertain road of a writerly artistic vocation. He was introduced to Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, who became steadily infatuated with him. Beckett didn’t reciprocate. Joyce, after publishing his astonishing novel, Ulysses in 1922, was at the peak of his fame and powers, and Beckett, now a brilliant Dublin university scholar of modern languages, easily slotted into the admiring circle surrounding the polyglot Catholic modernist novelist.

In 1929, he wrote an essay for a collection of critical responses examining Joyce’s Work in Progress (eventually published as the novel, Finnegans Wake in 1939), Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, which was a prodigious achievement for a twenty-three-year old graduate student. In the same year, he also published the short story, “Assumption” in transition, the most prestigious literary journal in Paris. In June 1929, he earned Joyce’s brief disapproval by getting drunk with McGreevy at a gathering in the Hotel Leopold to celebrate the French translation of Ulysses. In December, 1929, Joyce had forgiven him sufficiently to invite him to translate the segment Anna Livia Plurabelle from Work in Progress.

Berenice Abbott, Portrait of Lucia Joyce, 1927–28, printed 1982, gelatin silver print. Clark Art Institute, gift of A&M Penn Photography Foundation by Arthur Stephen Penn and Paul Katz, 2007.2.187

In May, 1930, a disastrous restaurant date with Lucia, who was increasingly disintegrating into states of schizophrenic disassociation and irrationality combined with obsessive infatuation distressed Beckett deeply. It precipitated a devastating break with Joyce and his family. In late summer,1930 his poem, Whoroscope was published by Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press. This was his first significant literary milestone and was even grudgingly admired by Joyce.

Retreating to Dublin, in September 1930, he moved into rooms at Trinity as a lecturer in Modern Languages. In December 1930, McGreevy arranged via a letter from Paris for an invitation to Jack. B. Yeats’s Thursday evening “at homes” or cultural salon. In March 1931, Beckett’s study of Proust was published. As 1931 unfolded, however, he increasingly hated teaching and after his Master’s degree was awarded, he resigned from Trinity. After quitting this first teaching job at Trinity College, Beckett refused to go into business or the professions.  He told his parents he wished to become a writer.  May subjected him to intense pressure to conform to the dictates of his social class, but partly influenced by the example of the bohemian and rebellious Joyce and the artistic integrity of Dublin-based Jack B. Yeats, he refused.

From 1930-1935, Beckett experimented with surrealistic methods in his poetry. In May,1932 he began a novel which he failed to publish, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women. But by December, 1932, miserably back in Dublin with no job and facing his mother’s anger, he published the story, “Dante and the Lobster.” Oscillating between Paris and Dublin, and trying to emerge from the enormous shadow of Joyce’s literary presence, he was allowed to use the attic of his father’s business in Clare Street to work on short story collection, More Pricks than Kicks. His cousin, Peggy Sinclair, died in Germany in May, 1933, causing a deep emotional crisis as he felt stuck in Dublin. His distress deepened when his father suffered a heart attack in the summer, and then shockingly died in June, 1933. His emotional state sunk further as his mother controlled his income by September,1933.

When his writing career did not materialize quickly, May railed against her wastrel son and kept him on a tight monetary leash, although his father when alive had sent him small sums surreptitiously.  As the years passed, he spent time in Germany, London, France and Italy, but returned to Cooldrinagh for long periods, when he ran out of money and had no other option.  Over time, he developed cysts and boils, then colds and flues that kept him bedridden at home.  The symptoms escalated to nightmares and panic attacks.  In January 1934, May reluctantly gave Sam enough money for a six-month stay in London, provided that he got himself into psychoanalysis. Further outraging his mother, the collection More Pricks than Kicks was published in May,1934, and was immediately banned in Ireland.

Dr. Wilfred Bion

He began two years of therapy with Dr. Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic, the bastion of the British psychoanalytic movement.  It was an era when artists and writers were strongly influenced by Freud and Jung.  Beckett had read Jung’s essay on “Psychology and Poetry” in the journal transition in 1930.  Only this link to the world of writing, and testimonials from literary friends, explains why Beckett, the severe introvert obsessed with privacy and control, agreed to analysis.

Yet several of his early works were finally published, and he had begun work on the characters for his novel Murphy, when, in October, 1935, Dr. Bion proposed that they meet for dinner several nights later, and then go to the Tavistock Clinic to hear a lecture by Carl Jung.

He wrote to his friend Thomas McGreevy the next day that Jung seemed to him to be a kind of “super A.E.”  Beckett had been unsuccessful in trying to get some of his poems published by A.E.’s weekly journal, The Irish Statesman.  A.E. had passed away in Bournemouth earlier that year, in July 1935.  (See the second article in this series.)

Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, London, birthplace in 1920 of the Tavistock Clinic CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Carl Jung was then sixty years old.  He gave five lectures in the Tavistock series, from September 5 to October 4, 1935.  Beckett attended the third lecture.  It had a powerful effect on his life.

Jung spoke of association tests and their use in the analysis of dreams.  Unity of consciousness was an illusion; for example, a psychological complex forms a little personality, having a certain will power, a sort of ego.  In schizophrenics, complexes emancipate themselves from conscious control to such an extent that they become visible and audible.  Jung believed that the personal unconscious consisted of an unknown number of complexes, and explained that a poet had the capacity to dramatize and personify his mental contents through his characters.

Beckett thought the creative process was more than inspiration; it was like a seizure of his conscious faculties by an autonomous force welling up from deep inside.  Jung’s similar concept of the unconscious was corroborating, but also frightening.  Thoughts of this lecture in the future would lead to Beckett’s frequent writer’s blocks.

By Unbekannt – This image is from the collection of the ETH-Bibliothek and has been published on Wikimedia Commons as part of a cooperation with Wikimedia CH. Corrections and additional information are welcome., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94177705

But the most important insight – a real Joycean epiphany – for Beckett occurred when Jung made a casual comment in response to a question during the discussion following his lecture.  Answering a question about the dreams of children, Jung mentioned a ten-year-old girl who had been brought to him with astonishing myth-saturated dreams. Jung wasn’t able to inform the girl’s father, Deirdre Bair, Beckett’s American biographer observed “what the dreams signified, because he sensed they contained an uncanny premonition of her early death.”  She died a year later.  “She had never been born entirely,” Jung concluded.

Beckett was thunderstruck.  It was the statement he needed to hear.  He could cite detailed examples of his own womb fixation.  All his behavior, from the inclination to stay in bed to his deep-seated need to pay frequent visits to his mother, was related to an improper birth.  His relationship with May was not so unusual in Ireland, where his brother Frank lived at home until he married at thirty, and men tended to make sweethearts of their mothers, common behavior among middle-aged Catholic bachelors, but not among members of the Anglo-Irish upper middle class.

Beckett finally had an explanation for his fraught relationship with his mother.  He had not been entirely born.  He had told friends he had prenatal memories and remembered his birth as painful.  It was only logical that the flawed process had resulted in the incomplete and improper development of his personality.  This explanation satisfied him and gave him enormous comfort.  He could justifiably end his analysis when the year ended.

It is believed that the cover art can or could be obtained from Routledge., Fair use, Link

Beckett was intrigued by Jung’s concept of the independent personality of the creative impulse, and he now allowed his own creative impulses to more fully emerge.  Oblivious to external circumstances or other people’s opinions, he continued to write.

Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil

In 1937, Beckett decided to leave Ireland for good and settled permanently in France, writing in French and English for the rest of his life. In 1938, after forty-two publishers’ rejections, Routledge brought out his darkly comic novel, Murphy. Already in a relationship with the French woman, Suzanne for almost a year beforehand, he was almost fatally stabbed by a pimp, Prudent, for no apparent reason. Suzanne visited him in hospital and would become his companion – and wife after 1961- until the end of his life in 1989.

He began to compose his poetry directly in French in 1938 and becoming concerned about his mother’s health after she accidentally burned her hands, he began to spend one month a year in Ireland to watch over her until her death. His friends noticed a new maturity in him as the permanent base in Paris had released him from entrapment and frustration in Dublin and he had found a new creative confidence. He brought James Joyce back a flat pebble from Dublin’s Liffey river to have lines from Finnegans Wake engraved on it for Joyce’s February 2 birthday in 1939 when the book, after a gestation period of seventeen years, would finally be published.

As 1939 unfolded, a visually impaired Joyce relied more on Beckett. On one occasion as the storm clouds of war were looming, Joyce sang and played loudly on the piano to protest the coming war: “What is the use of this war?” It would certainly distract from Finnegans Wake. As the Nazis engulfed France, Joyce and Nora fled to neutral Switzerland. Beckett abandoned his apolitical neutrality as his Jewish friends were imprisoned by the Nazis.

Roussillon, France

By October, 1940, Beckett had become a member of the French Resistance. Suzanne and he were almost caught by the Gestapo and both departed Paris. They made their way to a small mountain village in southern France called Roussillon where they remained in hiding for the next two and a half years. It is certain that the war matured his style, but he spoke about it very little. From 1942-1944, he wrote the novel Watt during these long years of boredom. His plain style in its ordinariness allowed him to separate from the influence of Joyce. In 1945, he worked as a storekeeper for the Irish Red Cross at St. Lô. He had to kill rats with poison which he laconically termed his last act of war.

When he returned to Ireland, it had been over five years since he had seen his mother, who now had Parkinson’s disease.

Back in France from 1945-1949, he experienced the surge of creativity which he named the “Siege in the Room.” This was the period when he wrote his great trilogy of novels and the landmark masterpiece, Waiting for Godot.

Molloy - book cover

 In March 1945, when walking in the rain on Dun Laoghaire pier [or in his mother’s house, according to his English biographer, James Knowlson] he decided that the darkness and depression he had struggled under and against was the key to his art. The first-person narrator speaks from this point on in his fiction. From July 1946, he wrote his novel Mercier et Camier entirely first in French. Next from September 1947 to January 1948, he wrote the novel Molloy. This was the first successful rendering of his own experience into fiction.

From October 1948 to January 1949, he wrote Waiting for Godot “to get away from the awful prose” and as a “distraction” and while autobiographical “it somehow transcends his life and becomes the most separate entity of all his writings,” as his first major biographer, Deirdre Bair asserted. He was, Bair contends, “the first postwar playwright to write dialogue in everyday ordinary spoken French.” His dialogue offered a “vitality astonishingly new to the French stage.” From 1949-1950, he wrote the concluding novel in the trilogy, The Unnameable.

In the summer of 1950, he met Roger Blin, the theatrical director, for the first time. He would launch Beckett’s international fame with his productions from his tiny Left Bank Théȃtre de Babylone.

Roger Blin. Waiting for Godot. (1953). Theatre de Babylone, Paris. This production was performed on a cramped stage intended to make the audience uncomfortable. Photo by Boris Lipnitzki.

In August, 1950 after an exhausting vigil by her bedside, his mother died in Dublin while he was taking respite in a walk beside the Grand Canal. He bitterly commented: “I am what her savage loving made me.” In 1951, his novels Molloy and Malone Dies are getting ready for publication. International fame dawns with Roger Blin’s production of Waiting for Godot in Paris in January,1953. Slowly after an initial phase of bewilderment and resistance, the play featuring two philosophical wits, Vladimir and Estragon, doggedly waiting and “passing the time,” is hailed as an enigmatic cornerstone communicating humanity’s predicament in the twentieth century. Praised for having “transformed the destitution of man into his exaltation,” Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969.


1. Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978).

2. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, (New York: Grove Press, 1952 (French translation); 1953 (English translation).

3. Stephen Watt, Beckett and Contemporary Irish Writing, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). 

4. Lois Gordon, The World of Samuel Beckett 1906-1946 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996). 

5. Eoin O’Brien, The Beckett Country (Dublin: The Black Cat Press, 1986).
6. James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).