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Martin Esslin once opened a lecture on Samuel Beckett by recalling a walk taken with him on a sunny afternoon. “What a beautiful day!” Esslin exclaimed. “It makes you glad to be alive.” “I wouldn’t go that far,” retorted Beckett (Esslin). Beckett’s oeuvre multiplies variations of this refusal not to focus on misery. The consensual view of the contributors to the text under review is that Beckett’s implication in pain is ultimately generic, not personal or individual, and therefore concerns “the fundamental nature of the human” (233), the predicament of the artist or of various other subsets of humanity. A more fundamental consensus concerns the tendency to treat Beckett’s focus on pain as an effect of conditioning influences, biographical (linking Beckett with various psychological types or syndromes) or historical (as in Garin Dowd’s claim, in his essay here, that Beckett was a “physician of his times” ). There is no attempt, here, to explore Beckettian pain as a preference or strategy rather than as a circumstantial predicament and, therefore, no cognizance of an exploitative mentality at work behind the preoccupation with pain: “[T]he little wounds have time to close before being opened again” (Beckett, “He Is Barehead,” 26). The crucial questions are never asked: is Beckettian pain an affliction or a conviction –“an attitude,” to cite the narrator of Watt, “become, with frequent repetition, so [End Page 258] part of his being . . . ” (32)? Does this pain express an inescapable plight or an inveterate perspective defined by refusal to consider alternatives, “from this point of view, but there is no other” (Beckett, “First Love,” 65)?
On the methodological level, contributors also display common features; in this case, a tendency to interpret Beckett in terms of alien paradigms of explanation, construing Beckett’s texts in terms of other thinkers and theoreticians, to the point of reducing their content to ideas operant in foreign contexts, a practice that risks visiting upon Beckett’s oeuvre the same fate as afflicts the Unnamable: “I’m in words, made of words, others’ words” (Beckett, The Unnamable, 386). A case in point concerns Jonathan Boulter’s assimilation of Beckett to Maurice Blanchot: “Beckett’s posthuman subject corresponds perfectly thus with Blanchot’s idea of the philosophical and ethical condition of the subject after the disaster” (180). The Blanchot connection (concerning the victim of some self-concept-destroying calamity) is obviously illuminating but loses cogency when formulated in such Procrustean terms. The danger of such a practice is the risk of obscuring or distorting the thought of one writer by construing it in terms of another, without adequately noting or clarifying divergence and distinction. Yet, the preference today is for theorizing literature – approaching texts as instantiations of a theory or cluster of notions extraneous to it. The results can be illuminating. So my demurral can subside.
The editors have arranged the book according to basic categories. One section examines Beckettian pain in terms of source of inspiration or “creative force” (15). Here, pain is construed as a goad toward artistic expression that, in turn, clarifies the implications of the pain concerned. Another section investigates “pain in the age of uncertainty” (17). Here pain is construed in terms of circumstances and factors active during the historical period in which it occurs. The last segment, “Pain at the Limit of the Human,” treats “the question of passivity and exposure in the experience of pain” (18). Here, pain is construed in terms of its impact on subjectivity, reducing agency to vulnerability and, thereby, supposedly entraining moral demands regarding relations to others (a contention that, to my mind, seems contradicted by the hermetically reflexive insularity of Beckettian awareness). Thus, the book succeeds in relating Beckettian pain to a broad array of concerns and achieves its purpose: to “stimulate Beckett studies as well as literary and cultural studies of pain” (22).
This salute might give me licence to critique, briefly, two points crucial to a clear understanding of the Beckettian representation of pain. The first concerns...