restricted access The Contradictions of Samuel Beckett
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The Contradictions of Samuel Beckett

Beyond New Critical Paradox

“He could have shouted and could not,” begins Samuel Beckett’s first published story, “Assumption.”1 It appeared in transition in 1929 just as Ludwig Wittgenstein began an epochal reestimation of the peculiar sense such a contradiction can make. The philosopher told his students at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1933 that the purported “law” of contradiction (the rule forbidding statements of the order “p & ~p”) is really a set of norms, “which may recommend itself highly. This does not mean that we cannot use a contradiction. In fact it is used, for example, in the statement ‘I like it and don’t like it.’”2 This is not mere semantics. “If we say a thing can’t at the same time be both red and not-red, we mean that in our system we have not given this any meaning” (Wittgenstein’s Lectures, 72).

Beckett continues this rehabilitation of contradiction, showing its legitimate operation in specific language games and the extent to which language games subtend even the most verifiable utterances. Wittgenstein proposes that the agreement in getting a result is the justification of a technique, be it a mathematical proof, logical proposition, or empirical statement; this agreement is not logical but grammatical.3 Contradiction in Beckett similarly need be neither an absurdist or existential device, nor an instance of aporia and infinite undecidability; instead, it can be a paradigmatic manifestation of what Wittgenstein calls the “elasticity” of linguistic norms (Wittgenstein’s Lectures, 72).

While recent scholarship continues to elucidate Beckett’s philosophical sources and complements, Wittgenstein is seldom [End Page 449] addressed, despite the fact he was one of the few modern philosophers Beckett was interested in.4 Scholars have long surmised an acquaintance with the arguments of the Tractatus, as suggested by the novels Murphy and Watt, but Beckett’s relationship with Wittgenstein proves to be more intensive and prolonged.5

Beckett’s Paris library, catalogued and clarified by Mark Nixon and Dirk Van Hulle, contains a wide range of books both by and about Wittgenstein that has no equivalent among his collections of modern philosophy. These include German and English editions of the Tractatus, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief, and the 1960 two-volume edition of the collected works (Schriften), published by his own German publisher Siegfried Unseld at Suhrkamp. 6 In addition to the Tractatus, it contains Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations), Philosophische Bemerkungen (Philosophical Remarks), and Tagebücher 1914–1916 (Notebooks 1914–1916), an early version of the Tractatus.7

The Schriften was no mere bookshelf embellishment, for Beckett acquired a secondary literature on the philosopher. In addition to owning the supplementary Suhrkamp Beiheft, which he annotated, Ulrich Steinvorth’s edited collection(?), Über Ludwig Wittgenstein, Beckett read David Pole’s and the Suhrkamp volume Über Ludwig Wittgenstein, Beckett read David Pole’s The Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein, writing to Barbara Bray on December 21, 1962, that he was “reading Pole on Wittgenstein again.”8 He extensively annotated Bertrand Russell’s introduction to the Tractatus. He also read memoirs containing much explication of the philosopher’s earlier and later thinking, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Personal Recollections, edited by Rush Rhees, and Paul Engelmann’s Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein with a Memoir. A September 17, 1967, letter to Bray reports that he has received the German translation of Norman Malcolm’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Samuel Beckett Papers, MS 10948/1/402), while a New Year’s Day 1971 letter thanks Mary Hutchinson for its English edition: “Wittgenstein book safely arrived. Very glad to have it” (quoted in Nixon and Van Hulle, Samuel Beckett’s Library, 167).

Associates of Beckett’s also testified to his interest in Wittgenstein. John Fletcher recalled Beckett telling him that he had been reading Wittgenstein since the late 1950s, the theater technician Duncan Scott recalled a conversation with Beckett about the Tractatus in the 1970s, and André Bernold recalled Beckett telling him in 1984 that he had been reading Wittgenstein.9 The philosopher E. M. Cioran published a memoir of Beckett in 1976 that stressed his friend’s similarity to Wittgenstein, while Bray, who met Beckett when she...