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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 523-525



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Book Review

Beckett and Poststructuralism


Anthony Uhlmann. Beckett and Poststructuralism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. x + 202 pp.

Putting the literature and philosophy of contemporaries side by side is, for Anthony Uhlmann, one of the really fruitful ways we have for making genuine intellectual use of them. Uhlmann's aim and method are predicated on the idea that at any given time the producers of literature and the producers of philosophy share the same historical "problem-field." They don't have to talk to each other or even to read each other in order to share concepts or sensations associated with things like the Second World War, la guerre franco-française, or the decentered subject. [End Page 523] But the method is also predicated on the vital difference between literature and philosophy. Literature is, as Uhlmann writes, its own "powerful way of thinking." Putting Beckett's literary texts together with the philosophical texts of Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, and Deleuze/Guattari is a way of releasing the power of Beckett's thinking. In the process, readers do their our own thinking by experiencing the "resonance through counterpoint" of such pairings.

Such a method of fruitful interactions reflects an issue that dominates this book's later pages: the nature and relation of "same and other." Focusing on the novels of Beckett's Trilogy, Uhlmann works up to this theme in a series of delicate readings built on a creative interplay of history, philosophy, and narrative fiction. In the final chapter, he deploys Levinas's critique of Husserl and Derrida's critique of Levinas, and then situates The Unnamable in the context of these arguments, registering the text as "a true between of discourse, a between which allows a double movement between the same and the other, the other involving the same and the same involving the other." This works. In the fluid complexity of The Unnamable's deictics and shifters and hopelessly compromised fictions, Beckett comes as close as anyone to doing justice "to the infinitely other within the same."

"Justice" is not a throwaway term in this context. From his first chapters, Uhlmann works incrementally to develop the poststructuralist disjoining of "judgment" and "justice." Judgment comes out of a process of "comprehending," that is, of presuming to understand, effacing difference, torturing reality with moral typologies. Justice, by contrast, has to do with true understanding (not comprehension), which requires preserving rather than effacing difference ("those things which are not identical to me"). But where does this leave us in the world of action? After all, life in what Deleuze and Guattari call the "molar" aggregate of the social realm is laced everywhere with the injustice of judgment. Uhlmann underscores this inevitability with the eerie harmonies of the Occupation and its aftermath, of Vichy and the Fifth Republic, of Petain and de Gaulle. There is no scapegoating Petain and de Gaulle because, in this world, we are all involved in injustice. Yet, to opt out of the whole system of law on that scruple is to allow the unscrupulous free reign. As Uhlmann points out, even Derrida, when he uses Marx "to develop a critique of the New World Order," chooses finally to make the "undecidable decision," [End Page 524] to take sides and, in so doing, to become involved to some degree in the injustice of exclusion.

Beckett's distinction (one of many) is that he chooses not to choose. "Where Derrida confronts a world in which to act, Beckett contemplates acts without worlds." This makes Saposcat, whom Uhlmann is one of the few to take seriously, a hero of incomprehension, gliding in a kind of sublime disconnect through the worlds of bourgeois progress (the Saposcats) and royalist agrarian stasis (the Lamberts). Sapo's unimaginable transformation into Macmann is itself a sign of that freedom. In keeping with this reading, Uhlmann features the mayhem that concludes Malone Dies neither as gratuitous violence nor as Malone's desperate effort to fulfill his plan, but as a "rebellion" against the tyranny represented by Lady Pedal. Her charity...


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