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Samuel Beckett and the End of Modernity (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 5, Number 1, January 1998
pp. 174-179 | 10.1353/mod.1998.0003

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Modernism/Modernity 5.1 (1998) 174-179

Book Review

Samuel Beckett and the End of Modernity

Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett

Samuel Beckett and the End of Modernity. Richard Begam. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. Pp. 237. $39.50.

Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett. Adam Piette. New York: Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. 285. $65.00.

Since the late 1980s, much scholarship concerned with Samuel Beckett's relationship with philosophy has argued that postmodern or post-structuralist theory, rather than existentialist philosophy, is the proper context for understanding Beckett's work, particularly his trilogy of novels Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951 [Malone Dies]), and L'Innommable (1953 [The Unnamable]). Books by Steven Connor (1988), Leslie Hill (1990), and Thomas Trezise (1990), among others, have shown in various ways how such quintessentially Beckettian themes as radical negation, self-contestation, narrative aporia, the power of language to "say" the subject, etc., resonate within a post-structuralist framework, and indeed as Richard Begam points out at various moments throughout his book, Beckett's work has been important for post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (one could add Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as well), helping them to articulate such notions as the "death of the author," différance, unnamability, the "body without organs," and écriture.

Begam's stated goal, however, is not to analyze the French post-structuralists' use of Beckett, but rather to demonstrate how what he calls Beckett's pentalogy (Murphy, Watt, and the trilogy) anticipates postmodernism. In such a project there are always risks of anachronism: Begam must avoid allowing his understanding of post-structuralism to become a facile interpretive grill through which to sift Beckett's novels. Such sifting, unfortunately, is precisely what occurs.

Through reference to the work of Richard Rorty, Gianni Vattimo, and Derrida, Begam begins by defining the postmodern not as a simple opposition to modernity, but rather as "a 'mixed' [différantial] discourse, a kind of writing that draws simultaneously on divergent, even opposing, traditions" (21). Beckett's "deconstructive sensibility," according to Begam, develops in the pentalogy a kind of writing that exemplifies a number of "postmodern themes and devices" such as "moving beyond the cogito and the metaphysics of presence, moving toward supplementarity and doubling, the end of the book and the beginning of writing, différance and unnamability" (185). After an opening theoretical chapter, Begam devotes each of the remaining five chapters to one novel, moving chronologically from Murphy to The Unnamable (except for a short segment in his last chapter, Begam deals exclusively with Beckett's own English translations of the trilogy). Each of these chapters opens with one of the post-structuralist themes listed above and proceeds to apply it to the novel in question -- for instance, chapter five brings Derrida's, Roland Barthes's, and Foucault's respective notions of the "death of the author" and the beginning of écriture to bear on the problem of ending in Malone Dies. Beckett emerges at the book's conclusion as a "de facto theoretician of the postmodern, one who sets forth in his writing a set of ideas and procedures that have figured prominently in French poststructuralism" (185).

This view of the author as a "de facto theoretician of the postmodern" relies upon a chain of equivalencies developed in the first chapter, linking Beckett and postmodernism in a similar deconstructive, playful (Nietzschean) attitude toward "Western metaphysics" (5). The first link in the chain is the target of postmodernism's deconstruction: the "philosophy of the subject," which Begam identifies as the philosophy upon which modernity is based. This "philosophy of the subject" boils down to Cartesianism (Begam's claim rests on references to Rorty and Vattimo). The next link bridges the distance between "Western metaphysics" (= philosophy of the subject = Cartesianism) and literature: Cartesianism's dualistic logic undergirds the nineteenth-century literary realism of Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola, "enabl[ing] us to translate epistemological terms, such as subject and object, into novelistic terms, such as character and environment" (30). Beckett enters at this point: referring quickly to Alain Robbe-Grillet's and Nathalie...


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