The object of my analysis is not a reinterpretation or any revelation about Beckett’s body of work, although as writer I am tempted to travel in that direction; rather, my focus is on the nature of reputation, the public nature or publicity-factor of a writer, and how this can be contended-with, examined, thought-about, and whether these modes are at all useful. I am using two links; one diagram charting the whereabouts of several writers’ thematic drive, and one “monologue” from French philosopher Alain Badiou, in which he describes his initial encounter with Beckett’s work, and then his rearrival (forgive the creative impulse) to this work in later years.
Tonight, a plunge outward into Beckett’s career, up to How It is, published in 1961. We may as well know who we are talking about, and Samuel Beckett, despite being the most written-about figure of the 20th century is notoriously difficult to schematize. Derrida himself resolves to remain largely silent on Beckett’s writing, and this, considering Derrida’s work, is surely the highest of praise. Derrida does write:
“How could I write, sign, countersign performatively texts which ‘respond’ to Beckett? … Given that Beckett writes in a particular French, it would be necessary, in order to ‘respond’ to his oeuvre, to attempt writing performances that are impossible for me…”
First though, I want to briefly rehash. In Sunday’s post I postulated a dominate understanding and approach to Beckett. I argue that Beckett is largely perceived as a veritable 4th horseman of the apocalypse, probably Famine, maybe Death. And, to be fair, these rumors are not entirely unjustified. In terms of Beckett’s “texture,” all of the elements are there– characters are unanimously infirmed, place is all but, and eventually erased, the text itself becoming the only scenery, the narrator itself even becoming an aspect of the slush. Beckett’s ‘trilogy’ (although written sequentially, Beckett never referred to them as a unit) of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable feature what is a dissolving and finally eradicated (or nearly) Cartesian subject. Thus, subjectivity loses its base of operations, and is no longer eligible to pronounce what seems to be a personal traumatic experience as its own. The absence of paragraph-breaks alone make these a bit daunting to read, and if you are in it for plot, hold your breath. Yet the language of these books is woefully and meticulously beautiful, to say nothing of its humor. The Unnameable famously concludes:
I’ll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any– until they find me, until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it’s done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.)It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know. You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
But this is not where Beckett started, nor is it where he ended with his death in 1989. Beckett’s early career, aside from a few poems, was hugely influenced by fellow Irish-expatriate and one-time employer, James Joyce. The majority of Beckett’s early writings fall squarely within the limits of Joyce’s lineage. By Joyce’s lineage, I am referring to a tradition in which language is harnessed exactly for its propensity toward possibility. The author assumes God-like (big up Stephen Dedalus) creative control, and as in the case of Finnegan’s Wake, meaning is expressed through its power of multiplicity.
Beckett’s break from this approach is of the utmost interest, and it is oft-speculated that the moment of this break is sited (almost!) explicitly in Krapp’s Last Tape:
What I suddenly saw then was this, that the beleif I had been going on all my life, namely–(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape foreward, switches on again)–great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighhouse and thw wind-gauge spinning like a propellor, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality–(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape foreward, switches on again)
We can make an assumption here about what “the dark” is for Beckett, namely a great ally, but notice that Beckett doesn’t even grant us this much. This tactic is often where he is confused for a cheap-skate and a solipsist. A cheap-skate because we know where he is going with meaning, and yet he does not even grant us his implications, and a solipsist because no conclusion is permitted to be a communal resource. Basically, he refuses to communicate.
Where Joyce was plentiful, Beckett became absent, concerned with what could be taken away, what was the Bair-bones of the literary mission. This is the mark of his “middle period,” which contains the bulk of his well-known material. Notice the congruence between scenery in his plays and novels during this period. Waiting for Godot and Molloy take place on abandoned country roads. Endgame and Malone Dies feature all of a single room. Beckett’s world is shrinking. If his career had ended with The Unnameable or Texts For Nothing, perhaps the accusations of solipsism would not be so ridiculous.
Yet this emptying of ornamentation will prove not only capable of rendering “prose at a distant remove from any realist or representational intention, […] a story and the reality of a reflection on the work of the writer (Badiou),” ie being qua being, but also served as the manhole into which the cesspool drained, and from which, Badiou will argue, an honest and courageous attempt at writing “for people,” will emerge.
On Sunday I will be writing about Badiou’s relationship with Samuel Beckett.Tags: Beckett, Joyce