- Samuel Beckett and the End of Modernity
What can reading Samuel Beckett’s five major novels—Murphy, Watt, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—within a context of postmodern and poststructuralist discourses teach us about postmodernism and poststructuralism? According to Richard Begam, who limits his use of the term postmodern to philosophical debates on the “end of modernity,” Beckett’s early novels are responsive to the writings of French critics such as Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes—and for good reason. Begam argues that Beckett’s work in the 1930s and 1940s anticipated and even helped to shape some of the postmodern themes and ideas that began to emerge from these writers in the 1960s, from the rethinking of subjectivity and consciousness to deconstruction and différance. Thus, if poststructuralist theory can help us to understand Beckett’s novels, Begam argues, we can also gain insight into poststructuralism through Beckett, who manifested a “deconstructive sensibility” long before Derrida popularized the term.
Though there is no current consensus among critics regarding which side of the modern/postmodern fence Beckett occupies (for H. Porter Abbott, Beckett is a modernist “in his bones”), Begam’s Beckett is decidedly postmodern. Begam is careful, however, to define postmodernism in nonoppositional terms, as an extension, not the overcoming, of the modern. He takes issue with critics who tend to view postmodernism as the “antithesis or negation” of Enlightenment rationality, citing the persistence of reason and argumentation in critical [End Page 1040] deconstructions of reason and argumentation. Begam is thus wary of an implicit determinism lurking behind certain “anti-foundationalist” approaches to Beckett, noting a tendency among critics like Steven Connor, Leslie Hill, and Thomas Trezise to draw essentialist conclusions from “anti-essentialist” arguments. One gets the impression that, for Begam, such “antimodern” proponents of poststructuralism remain silently within the modern to the extent that they participate in its language of demystification. Begam’s approach, by contrast, purports to explore a “différantial space that lies between modernism and antimodernism”—a space of indeterminacy and narrative self-transformation that, like Derridean écriture, stresses a kind of writing and “aesthetics of play” over truth-seeking.
The major difference between Beckett and modernists like Proust and Joyce, similarly, can be understood in terms of the former’s relative proximity to what Begam is calling the “end of modernity.” Whereas Joyce and Proust remain closer to the realist (Balzacian) tradition they are reacting against and, therefore, well within the dualistic horizon of the “Cartesian novel,” Beckett’s écriture advances toward a “pure textuality” in which traditional metaphysical categories would cease to function coherently as structural elements in narrative (e.g., the “logic of origins and endings . . . teleology and transcendence”). In other words, Beckett’s innovation, surpassing even Joyce’s in Finnegans Wake, does not stop at iterative recombination—linguistic permutation, self-generation in narrative, and the like—but endeavors to write itself clear of humanistic referents altogether, or to bring about an “end to foundationalism and the mimesis of traditional fiction.” Beckett’s is thus a radical attempt to arrive at the dissolution of the “old paradigms”—“ primal and archetypal” truths—to which “modernists” like Proust and Joyce return. By submitting narrative conventions to the “operations of différance,” Beckett develops a referential system bereft of categorical oppositions like narrator/narrated, inaugurating a language that expresses itself in terms of irresolvable contradiction and equivocation. What defines Beckett as postmodern, for Begam, is the incessant, relentless development of this language away from representation and referential clarity, toward that which may only be described in terms of what is “unthinkable” and “unspeakable.” In such a system even lapsarian epistemology becomes a positive term, because it “retells the story of the fall as a loss of subject-object unity.” [End Page 1041]
In his chapters on the novels themselves, Begam sketches a developmental trajectory that ironically begins with philosophical aporia in Murphy and ends with the neutralization of aporia in the free-flowing différance of The Unnamable (in whose world of pure fictionality “everything and its opposite are true”). In all, he does a good...