Samuel Beckett , ‘The Capital of the Ruins’

[Source: Written for broadcast on Radio Eireann, but rejected; printed as “Saint-Lô” in The Irish Times (24 June 1946); rep. as “The Capital of the Ruins”, in Eoin O’Brien, The Beckett Country (Dublin 1986) [cp.337]; rep. in Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-1945, ed. Gerald Dawe (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 2008), as Postscript (pp.394-97).

Note: The name of the piece was influenced by a pamphlet entitled Saint-Lô, Capital des Ruines, 5 et 7 Juin, 1944. See Darren Gribben, ‘Beckett’s Other Revelation: “The Capital of the Ruins”’, in Irish University Review, 38, 2 (Autumn-Winter 2008), pp.263-73 [available at JSTOR - online].

On what a year ago was a grass slope, lying in the angle that the Vire and Bayern, roads make as they unite at the entrance of the town, opposite what remains of the second most important stud-farm in France, a general hospital now stands. It is the Hospital of the Irish Red Cross in Saint-Lô, or, as the Laudiniens themselves say, the Irish Hospital. The buildings consist of some prefabricated wooden huts. They are superior, generally speaking, to those so scantily available for the wealthier, the better-connected, the astuter or the more fragrantly deserving of the bombed-out. Their finish, as well without as within, is the best that their priority can command. They are lined with glass-wool and panelled in isorel, a strange substance of which there are only very limited supplies available. There is real glass in the windows. The consequent atmosphere is that of brightness and airiness so comforting to sick people, and to weary staffs. The floors, there where the exigencies of hygiene are greatest, are covered with linoleum. There was not enough linoleum left in France to do more than this. 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. A system of covered ways connects the kitchen with refectories and wards. The supply of electric current, for purposes both of heat and of power, leaves nothing to be desired, though painstakingly anonymous attempts were made, in this country, as recently I think as last winter, to prove the contrary. The hospital is centrally heated throughout, by means of coke. The medical, scientific, nursing and secretarial staffs are Irish, the instruments and furniture (including of course beds and bedding), the drugs and food, are supplied by the Society. I think I am right in saying that the number of in-patients (mixed) is in the neighbourhood of ninety. As for the others, it is a regular thing, according to recent reports, for as many as two hundred to be seen in the out-patients department in a day. Among such ambulant cases a large number are suffering from scabies and other diseases of the skin, the result no doubt of malnutrition or an ill-advised diet. Accident cases are frequent. Masonry falls when least expected, children play with detonators and detaining continues. The laboratory, magnificently equipped, bids well to become the official laboratory for the department, if not of an even wider area. Considerable work has already been done in the analysis of local waters.

These few facts, chosen not quite at random, are no doubt familiar already to those at all interested in the subject, and perhaps even to those of you listening to me now. They may not appear the most immediately instructive. That the operating-theatre should be sheeted with an expensive metal, or the floor of the labour room covered with linoleum, can hardly be expected to interest those accustomed to such conditions as, the sine qua non of reputable obstetrical and surgical statistics. These are the sensible people who would rather have news of the Normans’ semi-circular canals or resistance to sulphur than of his attitude to the Irish bringing gifts, who would prefer the history of our difficulties with an unfamiliar pharmacopia and system of mensuration to the story of our dealings with the rare and famous ways of spirit that are the French ways. And yet the whole enterprise turned from the beginning on the establishing of a relation in the light of which the therapeutic relation faded to the merest of pretexts.

What was important was not our having penicillin when they had none, nor the unregarding munificence of the French Ministry of Reconstruction (as it was then called), but the occasional glimpse obtained, by us in them and, who knows, by them in us (for they are an imaginative people), of that smile at the human conditions as little to be extinguished by bombs as to be broadened by the elixirs of Burroughs and Welcome, - the smile deriding, among other things, the having and the not having, the giving and the taking, sickness and health.

It would not be seemly, in a retiring and indeed retired storekeeper, to describe the obstacles encountered in this connection, and the forms, often grotesque, devised for them by the combined energies of the home and visiting temperaments. It must be supposed that they were not insurmountable, since they have long ceased to be of much account. When I reflect now on the recurrent problems of what, with all proper modesty, might be called the heroic period, on one in particular so arduous and elusive that it literally ceased to be formulable, I suspect that our pains were those inherent in the simple and necessary and yet so unattainable proposition that their way of being we, was not our way and that our way of being they, was not their way. It is only fair to say that many of us had never been abroad before.

Saint-Lô was bombed out of existence in one night. German prisoners of war, and casual labourers attracted by the relative food-plenty, but soon discouraged by housing conditions, continue, two years after the liberation, to clear away the debris, literally by hand. Their spirit has yet to learn the blessings of Gallup and their flesh the benefits of the bulldozer. One may thus be excused if one questions the opinion generally received, that ten years will be sufficient for the total reconstruction of Saint-Lô. But no matter what period of time must still be endured, before the town begins to resemble the pleasant and prosperous administrative and agricultural centre that it was, the hospital of wooden huts in its gardens between the Vire and Bayeux roads will continue to discharge its function, and its cures. ‘Provisional’ is not the term it was, in this universe become provisional. It will continue to discharge its function long after the Irish are gone and their names forgotten. But I think that to the end of its hospital days it will be called the Irish Hospital, and after that the huts, when they have been turned into dwellings, the Irish huts. I mention this possibility, in the hope that it will give general satisfaction. And having done so 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.