“I am not a philosopher,” Samuel Beckett told an interviewer. What other modern writer has felt pressed to make such a disavowal? Not even T. S. Eliot, who had studied at Harvard to become one. The very depth of the literary imprint of Beckett’s engagement with philosophy, which this rewarding anthology confirms and clarifies, wrested the denial from him.
“Beckett seems the most philosophical of writers in both his ‘early’ and ‘mature’ (postwar) work,” Matthew Feldman says in the book’s introduction (3). No qualification is necessary. Beckett read Schopenhauer in German, Vico in Italian, Geulincx in Latin, and Bergson in French, mailed home from his German sojourn Kants Werke, compiled copious notes from such overviews as Wilhelm Windelband’s A History of Philosophy, wrote his longest poem about Descartes and his shortest story about an axiom of Heraclitus, examined Viennese Sprachskepsis for Joyce, was solicited by Sartre for contributions to Les Temps modernes, noted in his German travel diary his Leibnizian aim to bring “light in the monad,” urged in a letter the aesthetic value of nominalism, wrote a screenplay inspired by Berkeley, and in the opening of The Unnamable ironically echoed the Tractatus interdiction “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”:1 “I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak.”2 This anthology contains accounts of Beckett’s engagements with all but one of these philosophies.
Gertrude Stein recalls Picasso saying that Joyce and Braque were “les incomprehensibles que tout le monde peut comprendre.”3 Beckett is so clear we hardly understand him at all. Scholars have long been concerned to identify Beckett’s philosophical kinships and gauge affinities, while philosophers like Adorno, Cavell, Deleuze, and Badiou have engaged with his work as with that of an intellectual peer.
Some of these have succeeded only at the expense of obscuring the immediacy of the work. However, with the increased availability of archival documents, including the 266 folio pages (recto and verso) of the philosophy notebooks held at Trinity College Dublin, and the painstaking account in Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon’s Samuel Beckett’s Library of his shelves of philosophy, Beckett criticism has been greatly enhanced, and sometimes chastened, by genetic scholarship, as this anthology, like the November 2011 special issue of Modernism/Modernity, attests. [End Page 599]
Beckett/Philosophy has almost the character of a Festschrift to its coeditor, for Feldman, author of the indispensable Beckett’s Books, has been a prominent exponent of genetic criticism and “Historicizing Modernism,” as the series he co-edits for Continuum is titled. He is cited and quoted throughout the anthology, to which he contributes three essays, including a painstaking anatomy of the stages of Beckett’s immersion in nominalism.
In an essay also derived from research into the philosophy notebooks, Peter Fifield ascribes Beckett’s preoccupation with “the justice of suffering and death” as much to study of “the oppositional metaphysics of early Greek philosophy” as to “Judeo-Christian and psychoanalytical rationales” (108). David Addyman casts convincing doubt on whether Beckett had read Bergson before writing the seemingly Bergsonian Proust, finding more credible sources in Protagoras and arguing that, after a brief period of absorption in the philosopher, Beckett deviated from Bergson by shifting emphasis from temporality to place.
The dilemma facing those contributing chapters here on the early Greeks, Geulincx, Leibniz, Kant, Berkeley, Johnson, Schopenhauer, and Mauthner is the extensive treatment these instigations have received, sometimes by these very scholars. Thus Erik Tonning cites his own publications thirteen times, making his essay seem more a synopsis of his scholarship than an addition to it. Having already given us exhaustive annotations to Murphy and Watt, Chris Ackerley can but brilliantly reaffirm the inability of their eponymous protagonists to sustain monadic self-sufficiency. Tucker’s essay has by now largely been incorporated into his Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx; he detects parallels between Beckett’s interest in Geulincx and in Kleist’s essay on marionette theatre, which Beckett read over thirty years after reading Geulincx.
More tendentious claims...