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  • L’Imaginaire mélancolique de Samuel Beckett de ‘Murphy’ à ‘Comment c’est’
  • Adam Piette
L’Imaginaire mélancolique de Samuel Beckett de ‘Murphy’ à ‘Comment c’est’. By Yann Mevel. (Faux titre, 320). Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008. 433 pp. Hb €87.00; $122.00.

Yann Mével is part of a new wave of Beckett criticism that has been situating the major works within a psychoanalytic frame. Beckett’s analysis with Bion in the 1930s and its staging in the fiction has borne fruit in the criticism of Evelyne Grossman, Angela Moorjani, Pierre Dufour, Didier Anzieu, and Phil Baker. Mével argues, and [End Page 363] demonstrates very convincingly, that the psychic imaginary in the fiction is generated as a fusion of early modern melancholy as described by Robert Burton, and of modern psychoanalytic melancholia after Freud’s ‘Trauer und Melancholie’. The mix of Renaissance and psychoanalytic aetiologies gives Mével enormous range, enabling him to key in the reflection on the Saturnine temperament in the European tradition from Albrecht Dürer to Samuel Johnson, as well as establishing persuasive links to analyses of the disorder from Otto Rank to André Green. Each chapter mixes up the four axes, a Burtonesque Renaissance taxonomy of symptoms, a psychoanalytic description of modern melancholia, theorists of melancholic textuality such as Jean Starobinski, Julia Kristeva, and Marie-Claude Lambotte, and Beckett’s texts, especially the Trilogy. Given the Oedipal nature of Beckett’s narrators, from the radically withdrawn Murphy through the psychotic Watt to the mother-questing/murdering creatures of the Trilogy, there is no doubt that Mével has a case. The features of clinical melancholia, catatonic motor disorder, a mournful hopelessness, entropic loss of energy, a breakdown in affective capacity, bouts of self-hatred, and strange entanglement of the self with the shadow of lost objects: all are traceable in Beckett’s stories and their self-maiming narrators. The biographies too provide enough evidence that Beckett was a Burton fan, and Mével does scholarship a service by proving that he was a disciple. There is much to admire here, especially the verve with which Mével tests so many angles of attack into the text world, its landscapes, geometries, babbling discourses, and thickets of allusion. Nevertheless, the monograph is infuriating in its broken-mirror structure. Given the importance of the Burton connection, one wonders (or perhaps this is an ‘anglo-saxon’ academic prejudice) why there is not a sustained and focused assessment of the influence. Instead, the Burton links are spread piecemeal along the many conference-paper-length sections. With no workable index, the reader has to rely on Beckettian feats of memory to string together Mével’s findings. Each section does good enough work on its chosen topic, whether it be the presence of Democritus, the distinction between ‘angoisse’ and ‘mélancolie’, or the melancholic ‘crise du voir’. At the same time, the same sections have so many mixed proofs and voices that it is difficult to see what the overall argument is. Mével has split this huge 400-page work into three chapters, on archaism and the ‘pittoresque’, on ‘mesure et démesure’ in the melancholic imaginary, and on alterity. But those topics fail to convince: the whole book collapses into a series of essays, with the main argument (the mix of Renaissance and psychoanalytic melancholies) left critically undeveloped, despite the plethora of instances in the colourful chaos that is this monograph.

Adam Piette
University of Sheffield


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pp. 363-364
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