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BECKETT: A GUIDE

FOR THE PERPLEXED


JONATHAN BOULTER

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CHAPTER 1

INTRODUCTION

We need a dreamworld in order to discover the features of the real


world we think we inhabit.
—Paul Feyerabend, Against Method

BACKGROUND AND INFLUENCE


Samuel Beckett (1906–89) is one of the most important and influ-
ential writers of the twentieth century. Born into a middle-class
Protestant family in Dublin, Beckett studied Modern Languages
(French and Italian) at Trinity College, earning a B.A. in 1927. In
1928, after a short and unsuccessful stint as a teacher at Campbell
College, Belfast, Beckett became lecteur at the Ecole Normale
Superieure in Paris replacing Thomas MacGreevy, the person respon-
sible for introducing Beckett to James Joyce. Beckett was massively
influenced by his fellow Irishman’s writing and in fact published an
essay on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce’)
in 1929, the same year that he published his first short story ‘Assump-
tion’. In 1934, while living in London, Beckett published More Pricks
than Kicks, a collection of short stories and in 1936 he completed
his novel Murphy (which was published in 1938). In 1937, Beckett
moved to Paris and made France his permanent home until his death
in 1989.
Beckett’s early works, including the novel Watt (published in 1953),
the last novel to be written in English before Beckett turned to writ-
ing in French in 1946, failed to attract much critical attention.1 It was
while Beckett was writing his first novel trilogy, which includes
Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953), that
Beckett produced his most famous work and indeed the play that was

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BECKETT: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED

to transform twentieth-century drama, Waiting for Godot (composed


1948–49). Beckett said that this play was essentially written as a
diversion, a ‘relaxation, to get away from the awful prose I was writ-
ing at the time’.2 The two-act play, featuring the now iconic tramps
waiting for this Godot who never will appear, was revolutionary and
contributed in no small part to his being awarded the Nobel Prize for
literature in 1969.
Waiting for Godot, a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’,3 as
Vivian Mercier famously put it, radically questions the grounds of its
own genre. That is to say, Beckett presents a drama that overturns
audiences’ basic assumptions. There is no character development, no
plot of any consequence, no clear progression of any narrative con-
tent or action: it is a play staging the anticipation of action rather
than action itself. Initially, the play baffled audiences; when first per-
formed in the United States (having been billed as the ‘laugh hit of
two continents’4) people flocked out in droves. Eventually, however,
it became clear that Beckett’s work, if not traditionally dramatic, did
speak to what was perceived to be a recognizable condition in the
1950s: anxiety. In some senses, and this is true for all of Beckett’s
work, not simply Godot, Beckett is interested in analyzing the human
being at moments of intense self-awareness and anxiety (and what is
anxiety if not a condition of extreme self-consciousness?). Godot
spoke to a generation that recognized itself as anxious for meaning,
for significance.
And although it is perhaps too easy to historicize Beckett’s work for
interpretive comfort, we should notice that his major work (including
the first trilogy and the drama of the 1950s and 1960s) was produced
in a context of great shock and protracted anxiety: the Second World
war had recently ended, the truth of the death camps had begun to
be fully known, and the growing conflict between the West and the
Soviet Union served as a constant reminder of the threat of total
nuclear annihilation. Indeed, Beckett’s Endgame (1957), which takes
place seemingly after some great catastrophe (the world has been
‘corpsed’, to use Clov’s horrific word) speaks directly, as the great
critic Theodor Adorno argues, to a post-Holocaust world.5 For all its
difficulty Beckett’s work thus does speak to its time, does present, if
read carefully, a diagnosis of the twentieth century; read from another
perspective the work becomes symptomatic of the twentieth century.
That is to say, Beckett’s work could only have been written in a cen-
tury that witnessed such massive scenes of destruction and brutality.

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INTRODUCTION

Beckett produced Waiting for Godot while creating his most impor-
tant and influential body of prose work: the first trilogy of novels,
Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. If Waiting for Godot revo-
lutionized drama, this prose trilogy did the same to the novel. Indeed
we may argue, as does A. Alvarez, that in these works Beckett essen-
tially ‘assassinates’ the novel form.6 If Waiting for Godot removed the
drama from drama, these novels removed all comfortable signposts
from narrative: coherent plot, stable character, events occurring in
identifiable space and time. It is clear that Beckett is not primarily
interested in telling ‘stories’ in any conventional sense here; indeed,
one cannot even really suggest a novel like The Unnamable—which is
narrated by shifting, perhaps bodiless, personalities in what may be
some kind of afterlife—has a story at all. In later works like How It
Is (1961), All Strange Away (1963–64), Imagination Dead Imagine
(1965), and the second trilogy (which includes Company [1980],
Ill Seen Ill Said [1981], and Worstward Ho [1983]), Beckett offers texts
which seem to dismantle the generic markers between prose and
poetry to the point where it becomes clear that his main concern is
simply (but what a word!) language itself and the way human experi-
ence is bound up in the linguistic. My interest in this Guide will be to
suggest that this obsession with language, in the way we know and
are known by the world via languages themselves perhaps ineffective
and failing, is the through-line connecting Beckett’s work, both in
prose and drama. In this sense, and I will return to this point in detail,
Beckett’s career is an elaborate and nuanced commentary on a state-
ment by philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer: ‘Language is not just
one of man’s possessions in the world; rather, on it depends the fact
that man has a world at all’ (Truth and Method: 443).
Beckett’s work revolutionized twentieth-century literature. Certainly,
to write a conventional play would prove rather more difficult after
Waiting for Godot, Endgame, or the later more stylistically avant-garde
work. Dramas like Happy Days (1961), which sees a character buried
to her waist (later to her neck) in the earth; or Play (1963), in which
three characters interned in urns are forced, unaware of the others’
presence, to speak about the nature of their tortured relationship; or
Not I (1972), in which a disembodied mouth frantically spews out
a narrative of assault and madness; or Breath (1969), a 35-second
play featuring a stage filled with rubbish and the sound of a cry at
birth and death, all challenge notions of what constitute ‘drama’ as
such. Playwrights like Harold Pinter (who acknowledges Beckett

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BECKETT: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED

as his master), Edward Albee, and Sarah Kane, are all massively
influenced by the plays: their experiments with form and staging
are all responses to Beckett’s elaborate and relentless critique of dra-
matic convention. And equally, we need to recognize the influence of
Beckett’s prose on twentieth-century fiction. Beckett’s first trilogy, as
well as his later prose, has had enormous influence on writers who in
their turn have become important in the progression of twentieth-
and twenty-first-century prose. Paul Auster (whose New York Trilogy
can be read as a direct postmodern rewriting of Beckett’s first trilogy),
J. M. Coetzee (who in fact wrote his PhD dissertation on Beckett’s
Watt), and John Banville (who in works like The Book of Evidence
shares Beckett’s fascination with the workings of the possibly deranged
mind) all claim an artistic inheritance from Beckett’s singular vision:
their representations of the inner self—psychotic, traumatized—can
be traced to Beckett’s interest in the solitary and marginal figure,
reduced in possessions and body, negotiating a path through a hostile
or indifferent world.

BECKETT’S STYLE
It is precisely this quality of singularity that readers key into when
encountering Beckett’s work: there is simply nothing remotely like
Beckett in the world of literature. While Beckett’s early work (Murphy,
More Pricks than Kicks, the posthumously published Dream of Fair
to Middling Women7) bears traces of Joyce’s influence (as seen in
what is, for Beckett, unusually energetic even playful, prose), his later
work—the turn to which I locate in 1953’s Watt (written between
1941 and 1945)—is uniquely Beckett’s. While it is perhaps unfair to
summarize and distill the qualities of a writer’s work, we can make a
few general comments here. Beckett’s work always, even as its most
extreme limit of uncanniness and strangeness, is relentlessly humor-
ous, if darkly so. At moments of extreme despair on stage a character
will offer a line that will make us laugh, uneasily. In Waiting for
Godot, for instance, Vladimir and Estragon witness Pozzo’s brutal
treatment of Lucky; they then have this brief exchange:

Vladimir: That passed the time.


Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly. (40)

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INTRODUCTION

At moments of extreme pain in the novels a character will deflate his


despair with irony. Malone, alone and dying in his bed, for instance,
offers this: ‘My body is what is called, unadvisedly perhaps, impo-
tent. There is virtually nothing it can do. Sometimes I miss not being
able to crawl around any more. But I am not much given to nostalgia’
(Malone Dies: 180).
This brutally amusing writing alleviates the gloom of the Beckett
play or novel, but it does add a certain uncanny frisson to our experi-
ence of the work: why are we laughing at this? How can there be
humor in such a depleted world? In an interview Beckett once said:
‘If there were only darkness, all would be clear. It is because there
is not only darkness but also light that our situation becomes inexpli-
cable’ (220).8 Beckett is the master of mixing light and dark, of humor
with pain, of the recognizable with the unfamiliar. The result is a
kind of writing that is consistently disorienting but not strange
enough to be fully alienating: we do recognize and respond to some-
thing in the work, a quality perhaps of shared suffering, of shared
despair and, be it ever so humble, shared compassion.
Readers often remark on the particular quality of Beckett’s sen-
tences, especially in the prose. Unlike that of his early master Joyce,
Beckett’s mature prose is crystalline in its concision. Indeed, Beckett
once remarked on the difference between Joyce’s method of compos-
ing and his own:

‘we are diametrically opposite because Joyce was a synthesizer, he


wanted to put everything, the whole of human culture, into one or
two books, and I am an analyzer. I take away all the accidentals
because I want to come down to the bedrock of the essentials, the
archetypal.’ 9

In Damned to Fame Knowlson quotes Beckett’s views on Joyce:


‘ “I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction
of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always
adding to it . . . I realised that my own way was in impoverishment,
in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than
in adding” ’ (319). And thus while Beckett’s sentences are easily
enough read (we may have to look up the odd word now and again),10
there is a slow-burn quality to this writing, as meanings and resonances
come to light, and apply pressure, long after we have passed over

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BECKETT: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED

the individual words. The famous line from Malone Dies, ‘Nothing is
more real than nothing’ (186), is an example of a sentence which snags
our attention with its peculiar use of a word or idea. Nothingness,
radical absence, the sentence suggests, is the most pressing reality
with which we must deal. The sentence’s circularity and repetition,
moreover, uncannily transfers absence into presence: nothing thus
becomes something as we feel its real claims on us. The sentence bril-
liantly demonstrates how a single word can shimmer with multiple
resonances: the first use of the word ‘nothing’ is very different from
the second. Indeed, the word seems simultaneously to have casual
and deeply philosophical meanings all of which fold into each other
and are exchanged. Malone, aware of the effects of his own words,
offers this commentary on this sentence: ‘I know those little phrases
that seem so innocuous and, once you let them in, pollute the whole
of speech . . . They rise up out of the pit and know no rest until they
drag you down into its dark’ (186–87).
Another related uncanny effect occurs when Beckett offers an idea
only to negate its claims immediately: ‘Live and invent. I have tried.
I must have tried. Invent. It is not the word. Neither is live’ (Malone
Dies: 189); ‘I am dead, but I never lived’ (Texts for Nothing 11: 333);
‘Say a body. Where none’ (Worstward Ho: 471). The final lines of
Molloy are perhaps the most famous example of Beckett’s self-
contradictory, self-cancelling rhetoric: ‘Then I went back into the
house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows.
It was not midnight. It was not raining’ (170). The effect, a dizzying
one, is to keep the reader consistently on her interpretive toes, prevent-
ing her from settling on any comfortable or comforting meaning.
This effect reaches its terminal point in Beckett’s late prose, in texts
like Worstward Ho. Beckett here forgoes conventional grammar,
character, plot, and story and presents language itself as character (in
this way we are justified in asserting, as suggested, that language is
always Beckett’s main concern). The language of the late texts is con-
tradictory and produces familiar vertiginous effects:

Worsening words whose unknown. Whence unknown. At all costs


unknown. Now for to say as worst they may only they only they.
Dim void shades all they. Nothing save what they say. Somehow
say. Nothing save they. What they say. Whosesoever whencesoever
say. As worst they may fail ever worse to say. (478)

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INTRODUCTION

Surely this is some of Beckett’s most challenging, most difficult


writing. But if we listen to it carefully we can attend to themes he will
explore throughout his career. We can hear Beckett’s obsessive return
to the rhetoric of ‘nothing’; we encounter his interest in ‘failure’ as a
trope of writing; we see his interest in moving past the barriers of
conventional language to explore the limits of what can be said and
not said (or missaid) in language which is itself dead or spectral:
‘void shades’. Beckett, for all his difficulty, can be read clearly because,
as I explore in detail below, his writing gives us the interpretive clues
we need. An interpretive dizziness is a given when reading Beckett:
what we do with that dizziness, how we choose to interpret our
moments of uncertainty, becomes our task, our obligation.

THE DIFFICULTY OF READING BECKETT: GENRE,


NOTHINGNESS, THE POSTHUMAN BODY
Genre
The year 2006 was the centenary of Samuel Beckett’s birth. At vari-
ous festivals and conferences his works were performed, discussed,
and criticized. Indeed, even the mainstream media, usually oblivious
to the work of the literary avant-garde, took notice if only to recycle
the primary critical clichés about Beckett’s work: it is bleak, difficult,
and ‘about’ the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence. This last
cliché, given at least tacit support by Beckett himself, is one this
Guide will in part seek to dismantle, but for now we need to acknowl-
edge the truth of what is generally perceived about Beckett’s work: its
uncompromising difficulty.11 We are presented, in both the drama
and prose, with unfamiliar and seemingly unreadable situations: two
tramps on a near-empty stage, waiting; a blind tyrant, accompanied
by his crippled parents and a peevish servant, yearning for his life
(and the play he seems to know he is in) to end; a play in which a
mouth, speaking in near incomprehensible language, is the main
‘character’; an old man, lying in bed, telling stories until he dies.
And one could go on, and we shall here, listing the myriad difficul-
ties posed by Beckett’s work. At a basic level, however, we notice one
common feature of these texts, one link which may be our interpre-
tive entry point: they all deliberately dismantle generic expectation.
That is to say, every Beckett text defies our notions of what a play or
a novel should be doing. If we recognize this generic ‘decomposition’

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BECKETT: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED

as Beckett’s primary method of problematizing interpretive proto-


cols, we come to an important initial realization: Beckett’s texts resist
being interpreted and categorized and this may in fact be what they
are about, the problem of interpretation itself.
This Guide thus will begin with an analysis of the way Beckett
manipulates genre in his work. Waiting for Godot, for instance, is a
drama in name only: if the root of the word ‘drama’ is the Greek for
‘action’, Beckett is deliberately writing a drama that is not, in fact, a
drama at all (nothing happens in the play; or, more precisely, nothing
happens: the experience of nothingness is what the play is about).
The novels of Beckett’s first trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The
Unnamable) again, are novels in name only: as this trilogy progresses,
there is a diminishing of plot and a removal of all identifiable char-
acters within identifiable space and time. Beckett’s late prose and
drama blurs the distinction between genres: How It Is, a ‘novel’, reads
like poetry; A Piece of Monologue (1982), a ‘play’, reads like a short
prose story; Beckett’s last major work, in the so-called second trilogy
(Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho), reduces the very lan-
guage of prose to nongrammatical clauses, and places ‘characters’
(who function merely as grammatical indices, may indeed only ‘be’
disembodied grammatical indices) in locations that are beyond life
and death.
It is my suggestion that the trajectory of Beckett’s career as
dramatist and novelist traces a systematic deconstruction of the very
premises of drama and prose, a deconstruction that witnesses the
simultaneous and systematic dismantling of the self, or subject, who
would rely on narrative as a means of self-understanding. I propose
here to suggest that this deconstruction, this dismantling of all
received structures of subjectivity and narrative, be it in prose or
drama (and his characters on stage are only ever telling stories), is the
major theme of Beckett’s work and, of course, the cause of the major
difficulties in the reading of this work.
Once we understand that Beckett’s method is to call into question
the very premises of drama and prose, we may be better able to
understand what I see as his major purpose: to call into question all
those methods—narrative being the primary one—we have of under-
standing ourselves. Genres come ready built with meaning and
expectation: plays and novels have structures—beginnings, middles,
endings; character and plot ‘development’; settings—that readers natu-
rally assume should be in place. Plays and novels have recognizable

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INTRODUCTION

characters and tell stories that, while perhaps confusing and challeng-
ing, assume what we can call ‘knowability’. That is, these narratives
are assumed to reflect a recognizable reality, one to which the reader
can orient herself. A central, if unspoken, assumption of what is called
classic realist literature, is that narrative itself is a natural and author-
itative way of communicating reality.12 Language, in other words, is
the adequate vehicle for representing reality, and most importantly,
for representing the self; in classic realist fiction, crucially, the self—
think, for instance, of Dickens’ David Copperfield—precedes language
and uses it, controls it, to transcribe his reality.
Beckett is working to reveal all these expectations as artificial and
constructed. He indicates that we construct ourselves as selves in the
stories we tell, the histories we construct, and thus his dismantling
of these narratives is his way of examining the very fragility, the very
constructedness, of the human and human understanding itself.
Narrative and other generic conventions are ways of controlling
experience, of shaping experience; they are not unproblematic reflec-
tions of experience. In the end, however, by systematically reducing
narrative to its essence, to what he calls its ‘worsening words’, Beckett
discovers the persistent essence of the human, whose narratives ‘fail
again’ and ‘fail better’, but who is insistently present in that failure,
if only as a trace, specter, or ghost of itself. My argument, ultimately,
is that for all Beckett’s seeming difficulty and negativity, his novels
and plays work systematically to celebrate, if in an inverse way, the
human subject who will not cease to narrate and who will, thus,
always be.

REDUCTION TO THE ESSENTIALS: NOTHINGNESS


AND THE POSTHUMAN
To begin, perhaps we should acknowledge that while Beckett’s work
explores questions concerning the fundamental nature of the human,
Beckett himself will seem to be of little help to us in interpreting that
work. Although he has offered some important, if opaque, critical
insights into what appears to be a personal philosophy of art and life,
Beckett tended to resist offering direct interpretations of his work,
resisted offering what a character in his novel Watt calls ‘semantic
succour’ to his readers, his actors, his directors. When, for instance,
Alan Schneider, a friend and director of many of Beckett’s plays,
asked for Beckett’s interpretation of Endgame, Beckett replied ‘I simply

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BECKETT: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED

can’t write about my work, or occasional stuff of any kind’. He went


on to excoriate journalists and critics:

But when it comes to these bastards of journalists I feel the only


line is to refuse to be involved in exegesis of any kind . . . My work
is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended), made as
fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If
people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them.
And provide their own aspirin. (No Author Better Served: The
Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider: 24)

It is curious to note the way Beckett resists interpreting his work


yet at the same time provides something of a clue to reading: his
work, he says, is a ‘matter of fundamental sounds’. One way of
understanding this comment, and certainly this is the way I tend to
read his work, is to notice how Beckett tends to strip away all excess
on stage and page: he is after an analysis of the fundamentals, the
core, or ‘essence’ of what maps out human experience. There is no
accidental word or occurrence in a Beckett text, no distraction from
the real business of trying to understand what it means to be. Hence,
for instance, a novel like Malone Dies, where there is only one char-
acter, immobilized in bed and thinking about his impending death.
Here Beckett is asking a crucial, perhaps the fundamental, question:
What does it mean to exist, to be, at the moment when your life is on
the verge of flickering out? Can we recognize what it truly means to
be alive, what we may call the fundamental impulse of being, only
when life itself is about to cease? Beckett pares plot, character, and
language down to its essentials, stripping away the ‘meat’ (of both
prose and character) to examine life lived at extreme limit points.
Indeed, as I have indicated, in later texts such as Worstward Ho, the
first sentence of which reads ‘On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on.
Till nohow on. Said nohow on’ (471), Beckett reduces plot and char-
acter so radically that it is possible to say that we have text where
grammar, itself functioning at the limit of comprehensibility, indi-
cates a subjectivity on the verge of nothingness.
By writing about fundamental sounds Beckett presents himself as
an intensely curious and courageous writer. Curious about the pre-
cise nature of the human being, Beckett takes himself and his readers
to the extreme limits of humanity and asks us, obliges us, to look
carefully at ourselves at moments of crisis. These moments of crisis

10

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INTRODUCTION

work in Beckett as points of fundamental, if compromised and opaque,


revelation: it is here, at the point where the world ceases to make
sense or correspond to one’s presuppositions, that the real, the fun-
damental interpretive and ethical questions arise: How do I go on in
the face of this crisis of meaning? What is my responsibility to myself
and others when meaning collapses?
These moments of the collapse of meaning, of the crisis of interpre-
tation, are central to Beckett’s work (indeed we may say they comprise
the totality of the work) and to his philosophy of art. In some ways
Beckett’s real interest is in the encounter, existential, artistic, and
interpretive, with what he importantly refers to as ‘Nothing’. The
experience of nothing, the nothingness realized in the boredom of
Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot (the first line of which is ‘Nothing
to be done’), the nothingness that threatens our interpretive security,
what Clov in Endgame calls the ‘zero’ point of meaning, the nothing-
ness of loss and absence that informs so densely the later trilogy, is
one that paradoxically (how do you write about ‘nothing’?) articu-
lates and motivates Beckett’s own work.
In 1949, Beckett published Three Dialogues, a series of pseudo-
dialogues between ‘B’ and ‘D’. B, who critics identify as Beckett
himself (rightly I believe), offers what has become perhaps the most
often cited entry point into Beckett’s own work. B has been discuss-
ing modern art and comes to offer his own view of the proper subject
matter and motivations of the modern artist:

B.—Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of its


puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able,
of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little
further along a dreary road.
D.—And preferring what?
B.—The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with
which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to
express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to
express. (556)

A number of things are crucial here. First, notice how B expresses


a weariness with artistic convention, how the idea of ‘doing a little
better the same old thing’ bores him (this is an idea to which we will
return). It is clear even relatively early in his career that Beckett would
not be creating conventionally familiar art. Notice, second, how the

11

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BECKETT: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED

word ‘nothing’ gathers a kind of incremental resonance in this final


sentence, how it becomes clear that nothing, to speak perhaps para-
doxically, becomes something, something to be explored as a theme,
as a reality (we may recall that line from Malone Dies: ‘Nothing is
more real than nothing’). As this astonishing sentence concludes
Beckett acknowledges a personal ethical obligation as an artist, an
obligation to observe, analyze, and express these moments when the
nothing arises—perhaps even against his own will—and appears
to nullify meaning, to threaten our comfort, to erase our grasp of
the real.

‘POSTHUMANISM’
To have based a career on the exploration of ‘nothing’ may seem per-
verse to some. Certainly the reader’s encounter with Beckett’s various
representations of the void, of absence, of loss will be a difficult one
for the simple reason that Beckett’s world is difficult to bear. And
some readers over the years have found in Beckett’s work a certain
ruthless, perhaps even a cold inhumanity. If we trace the trajectory
of Beckett’s work, on both stage and in prose, we do notice that his
systematic reduction of things, what I have suggested is his reduction
to the ‘fundamentals’, does involve the reduction of the human self,
what I will in this study be referring to as the ‘subject’. Notice how
for instance, in the drama, we move from fully embodied subjects in
Waiting for Godot, to the less physically able characters in Endgame
(Hamm is blind and crippled; Clov can only walk in a stiff-legged
gait; Nagg and Nell both have lost their legs), to characters immobi-
lized in urns in Play, to the disembodied Mouth of Not I. A similar
trajectory holds in the first prose trilogy: Molloy, whose body is fail-
ing yet able; Malone who is immobilized in bed; the unnamable, who
may simply be a brain in an urn. In the later prose texts, it is difficult
even to determine precisely the nature of the human and the status of
its body, ‘Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at
least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in’ (471).
Beckett seems to strive throughout his career to rid his work of the
body, to work thus toward what we may call a kind of posthumanism.
Posthumanism can be defined as that strand of philosophy which
radically critiques the idea that the individual subject is the center of
all things, the beginning and end of all knowledge and experience:
this is therefore a radical critique of Humanist philosophy which would

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INTRODUCTION

posit the human’s reason and rationality as being transparently avail-


able to the thinking subject. Posthumanism begins by countering
Humanism’s belief that the human is self-producing, self-coincidental,
that it is somehow responsible for the production of its world and its
experience of the world.
As a philosophy, posthumanism can be traced to many sources,
but the thinking of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud is crucial. Each
worked to suggest that the human subject is not self-producing or
self-coincidental, but is, rather, produced by its culture (Marx), its
language (Nietzsche), and its unconscious drives and instincts
(Freud). Posthumanism strives to understand the precise economies
of these forces and asks questions like these: How is the human
subject to rather than the master of language? How does the subject
negotiate her relation to the drives—toward Eros, Thanatos—that
Freud posits? How can the subject free itself, if at all, from the cul-
tural forces of capital, ideology, and religion, forces which precede
and exceed the subject’s experience?
These are all Beckett’s questions and he will work out answers in
plays like Happy Days and novels like Murphy and The Unnamable,
texts which are about how the subject negotiates a relation to culture
(Happy Days), to the drives (Murphy), to language (The Unnamable).
But we should also note how Beckett’s posthumanism becomes
uncannily literalized in his middle-to-late-period drama and prose.
Beckett is interested in exploring the very limits of the human, the
very essence of what constitutes the human. To this end Beckett will
push the human past our common conceptual boundaries; that is to
say, at times he moves his characters into the space of death, of what
is, perhaps, a kind of afterlife.
In the prose this thematic begins with Malone Dies, a novel tracing
the moment a man passes into inexistence; in the drama, it begins
with Play, which sees three characters in what appears to be an after-
life (the characters are in funeral urns) bickering over the narrative of
their past lives; in the second trilogy we can easily imagine, indeed
should imagine, that the speakers of the texts, as well as the figures
that appear in the narratives, are specters, ghosts. I explore the figure
of the ghost, the specter—the literal posthuman—in detail in my
final chapter, but I just wish to indicate here how Beckett’s interest
in paring things down to the essentials leads logically to an interest in
the specter, the ghost, which becomes the image of the human after
all things have been stripped way. Precisely, the ghost becomes a trace,

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a mark, of the human’s passing out of existence but—and this is


absolutely central—the ghost is an insistent reminder of the human
that once was. The specter, in other words, serves to recuperate the
human even as the human passes into oblivion: the specter thus
becomes what Slavoj Zizek calls the ‘indivisible remainder13’. To put
it bluntly, for Beckett the total elimination of the human is a total
impossibility.
Perhaps, Beckett suggests, we can only find the nature of the
human, what he calls ‘the bedrock of the essentials’, at the moment
the human exchanges one state for another, one reality for another.
Perhaps only the absence of the human (the specter) truly reveals
what has been the human’s true nature. And what is for me fascinat-
ing, and crucial, about this process is the way Beckett eliminates the
human at precisely the same time as he eliminates, denatures, and
deconstructs, narrative form itself. In some ways Beckett is arguing
that language itself must be eliminated in order for the specter, the
ghost, the posthuman, to appear: language must be eliminated in
order for the truth of the human to be known.
We may see in this reduction a kind of cruel treatment of the
human, a perverse interest in illness and decay, but I think this would
be a fatal interpretive error. Certainly Beckett’s work implies that the
body is always a liability, something that will inevitably fail (an hilari-
ous line from Malone Dies suggests this: ‘If I had the use of my body
I would throw it out of the window’ [212]). But we must notice that
the body, or signs of the body, never fully disappears from Beckett’s
world. The persistence of the body, the fragmented body, the disem-
bodied body, is one of Beckett’s major themes and one that poses
some of his most interesting interpretive questions and challenges:
why does Beckett work to reduce and fragment the body? How are we
to interpret fragments of humanity?
One answer to these questions relates to what I have said above
about Beckett reducing things to the fundamentals in order to under-
stand the essence of the human: in Play and Not I, Beckett seems to
be suggesting that these characters really only are their voices, really
only are, to be more precise, their narratives. What matters to them,
at this specific place, at this specific time, is their ability—perhaps
their compulsion, their obligation—to speak. Beckett would seem to
be suggesting that the totality of the body, at this specific moment, is
not terribly important to the subject as she tries to understand her
present situation. But, as I suggest, we do notice that Beckett never

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INTRODUCTION

fully removes the body, or the signs of the body (voice, for instance),
entirely: the stories his characters tell, his work seems to imply, are
written on and through the body. Stories are translated, in other
words, by the body. Beckett’s characters may be posthuman but they
are not fully postcorporeal.
Another way of putting this idea, admittedly one of Beckett’s most
challenging, is that subjectivity—that sense the human has of itself
as a thinking, interpreting creature—is fully dependent on the body.
Subjectivity is embodiment: you are your body and your body’s desires,
as much as you are your mind. And thus while the body is an impedi-
ment and will always decay and fail, the body cannot disappear
in Beckett because the self, and the self’s understanding of itself,
would as well. There is, as I read it then, a kind of dark compassion
in Beckett for the compromised body, for the crippled and the ill:
there is a compassion for the suffering subject who can really only
understand herself and her world through the medium of a decaying,
painful, body. Our questions, as readers of Beckett, must now become:
if the self understands itself through the compromised, spectral,
body, what kinds of interpretations will it make? If the self under-
stands the world through its fragmented, posthuman body, what
kinds of interpretations of the world can be made?

‘POSTHUMANISM’: A PROVISO
These are all Beckett’s questions but I wish to offer something of a
proviso before continuing. I suggested above that Beckett is striving
for a ‘kind of’ posthumanism. I think it is best always to use terms
provisionally with Beckett for surely one of the effects of his work
is to call absolutely into question the very idea of stable categories,
stable oppositions (‘human-posthuman’). Perhaps it is best here, at
the outset, to suggest that his work critiques the idea of the human
and the posthuman equally. Precisely, by discovering the persistence
of the human even in its most denuded form, Beckett essentially col-
lapses the opposition ‘human-posthuman’ to the point where the
terms become interchangeable, and hence almost meaningless.
That is to say, for Beckett we are always already posthuman inso-
far as we are controlled by discourses (history, ideology, language)
preceding and exceeding us; we are always already posthuman as we
discover that our bodies are sites of inevitable failure and collapse;
we are always already posthuman insofar as the idea of a singular

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self is an illusion. Beckett acknowledges these ideas early in his career;


in Proust (1931) he acknowledges that the self is not a stable subject
but rather that the ‘individual is a succession of individuals’ (515);
moreover, ‘The subject has died—and perhaps many times—along
the way’ (513). My use of the term ‘posthuman’ then is something of
a convenience, a way of speaking ‘about’ or ‘around’ the peculiarities
of the Beckettian subject, the subject who always must negotiate his
reality via systems of thought—language being the primary—whose
parameters and protocols are always just beyond his full control.

THE PROBLEM OF INTERPRETATION


Beckett’s manipulation of genre, his reduction and dismantling of
the subject, his relentless interest in the various aspects of ‘nothing-
ness’ (loss, absence)—he calls this his ‘fidelity to failure’ (‘Three
Dialogues’: 563)—lead, as I have been suggesting, to some fairly
acute interpretive difficulties. Hans-Georg Gadamer, a philosopher
of the hermeneutic school (and student of Martin Heidegger), sug-
gests that all real interpretation, or ‘hermeneutics’, begins with
identifying a specific location of doubt or unease in a text. As he
writes in Philosophical Hermeneutics: ‘The real power of hermeneuti-
cal consciousness is our ability to see what is questionable’ (13). We
need, in other words, to be able to ask the proper questions of texts.
But in Beckett our problem becomes seemingly intractable because
everything in the text appears to be questionable. How are we to
interpret texts that seem, paradoxically, to offer so many questions
and then resist or foreclose the possibility of answering those ques-
tions? How, in other words, are we to read Beckett?
I will suggest here, in ways that look back to Beckett’s own sense of
obligation (recall his sense, expressed in Three Dialogues of the ‘obli-
gation to express’), that our interpretations of Beckett should begin
by paying careful attention to the ways in which his texts anticipate
our difficulties and perhaps offer some guidance. If we are puzzled by
certain things—Who are these characters? What are their histories?
Where and when exactly are these stories occurring? What exactly
does it all mean?—we should recognize that our perplexity with
the text is mirrored by the characters’ own perplexity about their
worlds. The reader’s situation of puzzlement is precisely that of the
characters and thus we arrive at a crucial observation: Beckett’s texts
themselves will set out the ground rules for interpreting his world.

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INTRODUCTION

We notice, for instance, that characters in Beckett recognize they


inhabit worlds in which meaning seems to have absented itself;
they seem even to recognize that the words they use to describe their
worlds are no longer meaningful. When Clov is asked by Hamm
about the meaning of the word ‘yesterday’ he erupts: ‘That means
that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use
the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more,
teach me others. Or let me be silent’ (122). The opening lines of The
Unnamable see a character asking questions of himself that surely
become the reader’s: ‘Where now? Who now? When now?’ (285). In
the novel Watt, the eponymous main character comes up against the
extreme limits of interpretation and begins to lose his grip on reality.
Watt’s loss of the real begins when he notices that it is difficult to pin
meaning down, and in a question that goes to the heart of the matter
the narrator asks: ‘But what was this pursuit of meaning, in this
indifference to meaning? And to what did it tend?’ (227). To recog-
nize what is questionable in Beckett is to recognize that the question
is being asked in the text, by the text itself. Our interpretive task here
is not to shy away from the difficulties in these texts but to recognize
how interpreting that difficulty becomes, in some fundamental way,
the main theme of Beckett’s work.
Because we must notice something essential about Beckett’s char-
acters: they all are, perhaps even without realizing it, in search of
meaning; they all are, in other words, interpretive creatures (just as
their readers and audiences are). Beckett’s characters may inhabit a
‘corpsed’ world in which there is ‘nothing to be done’, but they all
never cease in the attempt to discover something meaningful. Now,
of course, Beckett’s world is not one to offer some kind of easy con-
solation; this is not a world in which comfort will often, if ever, be
found. Perhaps the best description of Beckett’s world is that it is
‘haunted’ by the absence of meaning. This metaphor—one which
may account for the recurrence of spectral, ghostly characters in his
late drama and prose—suggests not precisely the absence of mean-
ing, but a world in which meaning did occur, where meaning once
existed. Beckett’s characters exist in a world where only spectral
traces of meaning exist: this is the twilight of meaning, the memory
of meaning. The pain of the Beckett character is in the realization
that meaning once did exist; and because it once did exist, there is
a sense, and not necessarily a positive one, that it can be captured
again.

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Beckett’s characters thus function in a state of profound regret and


agony—often repressed and disavowed—over what might have been.
In Krapp’s Last Tape, for instance, Krapp retraces his past history
through tape recordings of his own voice to revisit a moment of pos-
sible, though now forever lost, happiness. Krapp’s own voice, his own
history, is spectral because his recordings are of a dead and irretriev-
able past, but one which clearly still haunts him now. In what is surely
one of Beckett’s most painful—and intensely compassionate
moments—we see how a ghostly history brutalizes Krapp:

Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be unin-
habited . . . Here I end this reel. Box . . . three, spool . . . five.
Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of hap-
piness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me
now. No, I wouldn’t want them back. (229)

Beckett does not, as the critical cliché may have it, merely represent a
world of absurdity, a world without meaning. This is a world that
continually feels the claims of the past, of history. And there is a
meaning in discovering these claims, a meaning in recognizing one’s
indebtedness to the past, a meaning in realizing that one’s obligation
is to come to terms with these claims and debts.

THEORETICAL APPROACH: THE ‘LITERATURE OF THE


UNWORD’, MELANCHOLY, AND THE ARCHIVE
Part of my purpose here in this Guide is to provide ways of making
sense of Beckett’s difficult work. One way I will proceed will be to
draw on the work of philosophers, theorists, and critics whose ideas
allow us to understand the complexity of Beckett’s universe. I will
here be drawing on the likes of phenomenologists Martin Heidegger,
Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Emmanuel Levinas, marxist Theodor
Adorno, psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, and
deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. I believe that the work of these
theorists can effectively unpack certain interpretive problems in
Beckett just as I believe that certain moments in Beckett—I think of
Mouth’s entry into language in Not I—can effectively illustrate the
interpretive problems in the work of some theorists (indeed I will use
Not I to illustrate Lacan’s difficult notion of the Real). My intention
is not, therefore, simply to read Beckett through a particular theory

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INTRODUCTION

but to imagine that there is a mutual process of interpretation and


interrogation occurring between theorist and fiction.

THE GERMAN LETTER


I also believe, perhaps naively, that Beckett himself is his own first
and best critic. As I have mentioned Beckett offered few critical com-
mentaries on his work over the years but those that have come down
to us—as for instance, Three Dialogues—are of great value to any
reader. In the latter chapters of this study I will be referring often to
Beckett’s German Letter of 1937 and especially to his notion of the
‘literature of the unword’, a concept I think is central to the progres-
sion of his work. I wish, therefore, to take some space here and
outline the importance of this Letter.
In 1936 Beckett traveled to Germany on what essentially was an
art holiday: he visited several art galleries and, although angered by
the Nazi regime’s censoring of art it considered decadent, he was
greatly impressed—and influenced—by the work he saw. The trip
served as a kind of spiritual and philosophical awakening, as his dia-
ries attest. The German Letter is part of a correspondence between
Beckett and a friend (Axel Kaun, whom he met in Germany) written
three months after his return to Dublin. In the Letter Beckett speaks
of the need to move past received discourses and conventions, to lib-
erate himself from traditional languages and forms. I quote at some
length:

It is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for


me to write an official English. And more and more my own lan-
guage appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to
get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and
Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian
bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask.
Let us hope the time will come, thank God that in certain circles it
has already come, when language is most efficiently used where
it is being most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate lan-
guage all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that
might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole
after another in it, until what lurks behind it—be it something or
nothing—begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal
for a writer today. (171–72)

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In my estimation the full implications of the Letter, which for me


is Beckett’s artistic manifesto, will not be realized until the later nov-
els (especially the trilogies), but we should recognize how Beckett’s
stated impatience with traditional form resonates into even the early
prose and drama. Beckett’s disdain for ‘official English’, for ‘Grammar
and Style’, things as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit, speak to
a frustration, a boredom even, with the logic and trajectories of the
nineteenth-century novel. He speaks, further, to how music and
painting have found ways of moving beyond traditional form in order
to represent silence and absence (things not associated with represen-
tative art); he suggests that language itself must be shattered in order
to reveal what was previously unrepresentable.
And while Beckett’s manifesto sounds avant-garde, his idea that
language is a veil to be torn apart looks back to the Romantics and
their notion that poetry works to reveal the unseen. Beckett’s ‘my
own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart’ echoes
Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry and his sense that poetry lifts ‘the veil
from the hidden beauty of the world and makes familiar objects be
as if they were not familiar’ (117). There is, of course, a world of dif-
ference between lifting and destroying the veil—the difference,
perhaps, between the Romantic and the Modern!—but Beckett’s
desire as a writer is a familiar one: his work will attempt to show the
world in a new way. In my reading, Beckett’s tearing of the veil
becomes the perfect metaphor for the process of revealing, overtly,
self-consciously, and critically, the implications of art, here the novel
and drama, in a new way.

THE ‘LITERATURE OF THE UNWORD’


In the last paragraph of the Letter Beckett suggests that this process
of destroying language, of revealing its ‘terrible materiality’ (172)
will eventually lead to what he calls a ‘literature of the unword’ (173).
I wish in what follows to suggest that Beckett’s entire career as a
writer finds its beginning and end, its ground and goal, in this idea,
stated in 1937. A literature of the unword is, obviously, a contradic-
tion in terms, a paradox, an aporia (to use the Derridean construction);
a literature of the unword is an attempt to use language to silence
language (he calls it ‘An assault against words in the name of beauty’
[173]). His aim, essentially, is to find a means of decomposing and
moving beyond language, to shatter language into a kind of erasure

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INTRODUCTION

of itself (this attempt to eliminate language is geometrically propor-


tional to his attempt to eliminate the body, as we will see). My
argument is quite simply this: throughout his career Beckett is search-
ing for the means to put an end to literature, to put an end to writing,
to put an end to his own desire to write. The trajectory of his work,
from the early drama and prose to the late, is one of radical reduc-
tion, of working to find a means to literature’s end. In the drama we
move from the fully embodied drama of Godot to the late ghostly
plays where often language does not even feature; in the prose we
move from the playful garrulousness of Murphy to the shattered syn-
tax and diminished grammars of Worstward Ho.14
It is precisely because Beckett’s work is grounded on such complex
philosophical contradictions—a writer writing literature out of
existence: impossible!—that I believe we must have recourse to the
various theoretical and philosophical traditions that arose simulta-
neous with Beckett’s own development as a writer. My theoretical
approach in this Guide can perhaps best be described as promiscu-
ous but I tend to think that a deconstructionist psychoanalysis is the
best way of proceeding with Beckett, at least for me. To illustrate
what I mean here—and by way of concluding this Introduction—
I wish to outline two concepts which will prove critical in my reading
of especially the drama.

MELANCHOLIA
A major theme in Beckett is that of memory, of characters, like
Krapp or Hamm, haunted by the ghost of memory. At a basic level
the Beckett character lives in a protracted state of regret and loss,
a state he or she may not even recognize as such. History, the past,
impinges profoundly on the character and, as Beckett writes in Proust,
threatens continually to ‘deform’ him. In 1917 Sigmund Freud pub-
lished an essay that has recently come to be seen as a crucial diagnosis
of a contemporary cultural condition. In ‘Mourning and Melancholia’,
Freud attempts to come to an understanding of how the subject deals
with trauma and loss. There are, he theorizes, two responses to loss,
to the loss of a loved one, or the ‘loss of some abstraction which has
taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, or so
on’ (252). The first and most healthy is what he calls mourning.
Mourning is a process by which the loss is comprehended and
accepted, ‘worked through’, to use his terminology. Mourning is the

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normal way one must deal with trauma and loss, with what Freud
beautifully terms the ‘economics of pain’ (252). Precisely how the
subject overcomes loss is not known by Freud—it is a difficult pro-
cess; it is ‘work’—but eventually the mourner accepts that the loved
one, with whom he may have identified, is no longer here to makes
claims on him.
Melancholia, on the other hand, is an abnormal response to loss
and situates the subject in a continual position of narcissistic identi-
fication with the lost object. In other words, the melancholy subject
cannot accept that her loved one is in fact gone and works pathologi-
cally ‘to establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned
object’ (258). What this means is that the past—loss, trauma—con-
tinually works its way into the present moment because the subject
cannot move past it. More troubling is the idea that the subject does
not wish to allow loss to recede into history but desires continually to
maintain a connection to the traumatic moment. In some ways the
subject maintains this pathological state—which may in fact not be
so pathological after all—because the traumatic moment is impor-
tant for her, may in fact have shaped who she is.
We may diagnose a great number of Beckett’s characters as being
melancholic in Freud’s sense. They are haunted by the past and some,
like Krapp, Hamm, and Winnie, deliberately attempt to reconnect with
a past that includes moments of loss and extreme pain. In other words,
the function of memory in Beckett is largely melancholic precisely
because the characters acknowledge, consciously or unconsciously,
that they are the products of a past which has mercilessly defined them
as suffering subjects. Beckett’s characters cling so relentlessly to the
past because, for reasons we will explore, the present moment is devoid
of significance; the agonizing past may brutalize but in it are the traces,
the historical fragments of identity and meaning.

THE ARCHIVE
Deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, drawing heavily on Freud, offers
a second related concept that I will use to read these characters’ rela-
tion to history, loss, and trauma. In Archive Fever, Derrida analyzes
the concept of the archive as a way of coming to an understanding
of the way the subject negotiates its relationship to history, to the
past, and the future: the archive is, thus, a means by which Derrida
tries to understand the human as a being situated in time, feeling the

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INTRODUCTION

claims of the temporal. Perhaps the best way to define the archive is
as a conceptual or material space of memory. The mind can serve as
an archive just as a library or physical monument can. Derrida sug-
gests that the archive is a place of commandment and commencement,
a place where events of the past are documented authoritatively as
marking the beginning of something, a life, a culture, a civilization.
Archives are spaces of preservation, conservation but also of creation:
a culture’s understanding of itself—a subject’s understanding of itself—
is created within the space of the archive.
It is clear that the archive is a way of materializing, making con-
crete, the past. And if history is largely, or can be largely, the narratives
of conquest, defeat, and violence, the archive is also going to function
as a space commemorating trauma and loss. It strikes me therefore
that the archive—as a space that maintains a continual relation to the
past—is always already a melancholy space. What I wish to suggest
here, in specific relation to Beckett’s work, is that the Beckettian sub-
ject becomes a literal embodiment of what I have elsewhere called the
‘melancholy archive’.15 The Beckettian subject, immobilized and
fragmented—think of Winnie, buried to her neck in earth in Happy
Days; of Mouth in Not I; of Malone in Malone Dies; of the figure in
Company—is always a historical subject, a subject, more precisely,
subject to, history. She is continually remembering, sometimes against
her will, what has occurred in the past; she is continually attempting
to recapture a past she may not fully comprehend.
And it is the Beckettian body which becomes the primary reposi-
tory for these remains, these traces, of history. The character may
exist—as in Happy Days, or Endgame—at what appears to be the end
of human culture, but she—her body—maintains the archival traces
of that lost culture. The images Beckett gives us in his drama and
prose—a disembodied mouth, a body immobilized in a wheelchair
or the earth, people in urns—are images that concretize the idea of
memory as embodied or archived. I suggested above that for Beckett
subjectivity—the sense of who we are—is fully dependent on the body.
What Freud and Derrida allow us to understand is the way subjectiv-
ity in Beckett is fully dependent on history and archived memory.
Freud’s notions of mourning and melancholia, together with the
Derridean reading of the archive, are concepts that will prove useful
in reading an author whose work is at a profound level always about
the past, a past which may have receded into forgetfulness but whose
claims are still being felt. In its strangeness Beckett’s work presents

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numerous difficulties, but as we shall discover he never abandons


his reader or audience completely. First, as I have mentioned, his
characters—who at times become our surrogates, our uncanny dou-
bles—express much the same confusion about their worlds as the
reader; as such, the strangeness, because shared, becomes in a sense
normalized. Second, and perhaps more important, Beckett’s work
keys into fundamentally recognizable situations. We all are creations
of histories we may not recognize, or wish to recognize; we all at
times disavow our pasts even as we feel the pressures of history; we
all, in other words, are historical—in Freud’s terms, melancholy—
creatures. Beckett’s work is crucial because it relentlessly, remorselessly,
compels us to confront the profound claims that history must make
upon us all. As we come to recognize the claims of the past and real-
ize the extent to which history constructs the human subject, we begin
to understand that Beckett’s work, at times seemingly so strange,
seemingly inhuman, is only ever a compassionate attempt to compre-
hend humanity itself.

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