BLP Conversations: Michael Coffey & Mark Epstein

Welcome to the BLP Conversations series, featuring dialogues between people whose lifework, like BLP’s mission, explores the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences, and has become a testament to how science and the humanities can join forces to educate and inspire. This online series is inspired by E.O. Wilson and Robert Hass, whose talk about the connections between science and the arts was published in our book The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass.


In this conversation, Michael Coffey, author of the short story collection The Business of Naming Things, and Mark Epstein, M.D., a psychiatrist and author known for exploring the interplay of Buddhism and psychotherapy, discuss the life and work of Samuel Beckett, emotional experiences that surpass language, and literature as a means toward self-discovery and mindfulness.

Michael Coffey: Most of my short fiction deals with how identity is constructed socially, culturally, and to some inevitable extent, psychologically—which, being a psychiatrist, Mark, is an area of your expertise. My probings of identity stem from my experience of being adopted, trying to discover who I am and who I want to be while knowing nothing of my origins. All this is in the aftermath of a separation from the birth mother, perhaps as a kind of trauma, a particular area of your expertise and the subject of several of your books. One of the ways I found myself was through literature. Several of my stories deal with recognitions of myself in the works of others—Harold Brodkey, James Joyce, Henrik Ibsen, for example. And lately, I have been thinking a lot about Samuel Beckett, a writer who consistently challenged the very presumptions of identity.

From Texts for Nothing, written just after Beckett finished the great trilogy of novels:

How long have I been here, what a question, I’ve often wondered. And often I could answer, An hour, a month, a year, a century, depending on what I meant by here, and me, and being…

That is, Beckett’s narrators understand that concepts such as place, identity, and existence are indeed presumptions of a sort, and his works put those constantly in play.

I, too, found that identity can be taken apart, but in a narrative sense, as in my story “Moon Over Quabbin,” in which a mother, in grief over the loss of her son, manages to reconstitute his wholeness by imagining the whereabouts of his donated organs and how in some sense they are all subject to the pull of “our one moon.” They achieve a unity, at least in her mind. Beckett takes things apart at a deeper level, pronominal even. One could argue that the dissipations of the self, the disappearance of the body in The Unnamable, necessitated Beckett’s embrace of theater, the very nature of which required a place and a time and a being (actor). Of course, in time Beckett would work to remove those as well—for example, Breath, less than a minute in length, a heap of rubbish on stage, and a single inhalation of breath and then a single exhalation. Curtain.

Given that you are both a Buddhist and a psychiatrist (and have written a psychobiography of the Buddha), how would you characterize the nature of “mind” commonly found in Beckett’s work? And secondly, based on what you know of Beckett’s work and his two years of analysis with the important British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion in the 1930s, how do you understand Beckett’s psychodynamics and their effect on his work?

Mark Epstein: I think you are definitely onto something in your linking of adoption, trauma, dislocation, and identity. I have been very influenced by the work of the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (a contemporary of Bion’s) who wrote extensively about the “primitive agonies” of early childhood. Winnicott’s focus was on the time before language kicks in, when emotional experience is alive and happening but words are not there in the mind of the infant to help make feelings tolerable, or understandable. Children, in their early years, are completely dependent on their caregivers to “hold” them (in the larger sense of the word), on the parents’ capacity to be attuned and responsive to their emotional states, so that feelings don’t become overwhelming and unbearable. The parents’ minds “hold” the infant’s emotional experience, just as their arms and bodies cradle them physically. Winnicott wrote of how a “good-enough” parent tries to be there for the baby, privileging the infant’s well-being over their own. Failures inevitably occur but the “good-enough” parent endeavors to mend his or her failures, eventually giving the child a much-needed experience of reliability that helps them learn to contain, tolerate, and make sense of their feelings. When failures are not sufficiently mended, deprivation results and an infant can feel “infinitely dropped.”

In writing my “psychobiography” of the Buddha, I was struck by the fact that his mother is said to have died when he was just seven days old. No one has ever made much of this supposed fact but I saw it as pivotal. Like you, he was adopted (at least partially)—in his case by his mother’s sister. I see this separation from the mother as the infant Buddha’s first taste of suffering, giving him empathy for the “primitive agonies” that many people, both adopted and not, have to struggle with in their adult lives.

Beckett, while not adopted, seems to have suffered tremendously from “primitive agony.” The tension in his work between what language can convey and the unbearable, unnameable emotional reality that underlies language is evidence of this.

MC: Recall that, in the course of his three-a-week sessions with Bion over a nearly two-year period (paid for by Beckett’s mother, by the way), Beckett reported that he re-experienced his own birth:

I used to lie down on the couch and try to go back in my past…. I think it helped me perhaps to control the panic. I certainly came up with some extraordinary memories of being in the womb. Intrauterine memories. I remember feeling trapped, of being imprisoned and unable to escape, of crying to be let out but no one could hear, no one was listening.

This was in 1933, when Beckett was twenty-seven and barely published, a mental and physical wreck, beset by depression, night sweats, and eruptions of cysts and boils on his neck and near his anus. He was also at this time grieving terribly for his father, who had died of a heart attack the year before, as well as what appeared to be his banishment from another father figure’s world, that of James Joyce, who at that time blamed Beckett for having treated his daughter Lucia’s affections crassly.

The sense of imprisonment and of not being heard are elements of a drama that played out in many Beckett works.

Do you understand this description by Beckett of his on-the-couch revisiting of his own birth as evidence of trauma? How would you have counseled a young Beckett in this set of circumstances?

ME: Beckett’s suffering during this period is redolent of the primitive agony of early childhood. While he frames it in terms of birth trauma, I would be much more inclined to see it as remnants of failure in the caretaking environment of early childhood. Beckett is known to have had a difficult relationship with a tyrant of a mother. His relationship with his father was easier. The panic attacks that led to his two-year treatment in London with Bion were precipitated, as you mention, by the death of his father and his estrangement from James Joyce, his literary father. Psychologically speaking, this left him alone with his mother. The claustrophobic feelings he outlines, of crying with no one listening, of being imprisoned and unable to escape, are straight out of Winnicott. Birth trauma was in vogue in these years (Otto Rank’s 1924 Trauma of Birth was translated into English in 1929), but I see Beckett’s traumatic feelings as stemming from his early childhood rather than from the womb. He was able, in the safety of the therapeutic environment, to finally experience the unbearable emotions of his youth. Better late than never.

MC: The therapy with Bion is something Beckett seldom talked about. He terminated the arrangement. Some have argued that Beckett then embarked on his own “auto-analysis” through his writing, through the writing of the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable particularly. Is that possible, in your view?

ME: I’ve read those arguments also. I think it is more likely that Beckett got what he needed from his analysis and was unleashed. I know many analysts think Beckett interrupted his analysis and had to complete it on his own but I think this privileges analysis over literature. Let’s assume he figured something out. His panic attacks were attempts to process anxieties that were once too overwhelming to understand. By touching those feelings in therapy, he could make sense out of them, even if he later conceptualized them as birth trauma. It’s interesting that the tension one finds between language and what language cannot describe in Beckett’s work is also a central feature of Bion’s mature work. Bion wrote of “O” as representing the unknowable, unnameable reality of emotional experience and “K” as the limited knowledge language imposes. Psychoanalysis, for the mature Bion, was not just about interpretation and insight, not just about “K,” it was about opening an individual to “O,” to an emotional reality beyond language. Both Bion and Beckett spent their lives creating scenarios in which the tension between “K” and “O” could be described.

MC: More broadly, is art of any form a practice that can solve some of these deep-seated problems of identity, loss, ego formation, etc.? Beckett does seem to have gone from wretchedness to a kind of contentment, no doubt helped to some extent by the public recognition that came to him in his fifties.

Some have noted, interestingly I think, that language became the medium (and is always the medium) in analysis. And that Beckett’s working things out in literary language was both an acknowledgment of this and a rejection of it. He famously moved from his—shall I say it—mother tongue to French, a language that he was not born into. As he felt trapped in his intrauterine memories, Beckett felt trapped in the inherited modes of English literary discourse. He found himself in French. The entire trilogy and the great plays of the period, Waiting for Godot and Endgame (En attendant Godot and Fin de partie) were written in French first, then translated by the author. Beckett wrote, as early as 1937, in a letter to his friend Axel Kaun:

It is indeed getting more and more difficult, even pointless, for me to write in formal English. And more and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart…. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through—I cannot imagine a higher goal for today’s writer.

ME: I think this is a very important point. Beckett had to find a new language to help him express that which language had failed at expressing. He had to create new forms in the theater to hold experiences that conventional notions of identity try to protect us from. It is interesting to me that the Buddha had to develop a new form of theater as well, a theater of the mind, so to speak, in which emotional experience could be “held” in a new way. He called this new kind of theater “mindfulness,” and he compared it to a “pasture” in which one lets an animal roam. He, too, was looking for a way to comprehend suffering, not just to describe it in language but to make a place where it could be held tenderly. Beckett did this, too, in the theater, as you have in your own way in your work.


Michael Coffey is the author of three books of poems and 27 Men Out, a book about baseball’s perfect games. He also co-edited The Irish in America, a book about Irish immigration to America, which was a companion volume to a PBS documentary series. The former co-editorial director of Publishers Weekly, he now divides his time between Manhattan and Bolton Landing, New York. The Business of Naming Things is his first work of fiction.


Mark Epstein, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and the author of a number of books about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy, including The Trauma of Everyday Life, Thoughts Without a Thinker, and Psychotherapy Without the Self. He received his undergraduate and medical degrees from Harvard University and is currently Clinical Assistant Professor in the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at New York University.