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  • Enduring Recurrence: Samuel Beckett’s Nihilistic Poetics
  • Steven Miskinis

In Proust, Beckett remarks, “by no expedient of macabre transubstantiation can the grave sheets serve as swaddling clothes,” a parenthetic comment that explains why the moments of the self’s transition between different habitual adaptations to its world “represent the perilous zones in the life of an individual.” 1 Beckett’s comment could easily apply to his own oeuvre insofar as we place it within the broad context of the close of the historical epoch of Western metaphysics. Beckett’s work then marks a transition that manifests itself by the increasing capacity to delimit, criticize and undermine metaphysical conceptions—including the conceptual framework within which Beckett’s writing occurs. That Beckett’s writing serves this very critical function is attested by the various post-structural methodologies which find in Beckett exemplification of their precepts. 2 But, as Iain Wright notes regarding Beckett’s affinity to contemporary theory, the “deconstruction of logocentric illusions” in Beckett leads to no “erotic jouissance” or “Nietzschean Froheliche Wissenschaft.” 3 On the other hand, looking at the contemporary critical scene, there is not much jouissance to found anywhere, in part because liberational politics have themselves lost appeal as they have been found complicit with what they would overthrow. Within this perspective, Lyotard asserts, “the politics which ‘we’ have inherited from revolutionary modes of thought and actions now turns out to be redundant (whether we find this a cause for joy or a matter to be deplored).” 4 In effect, grave sheets cannot serve as swaddling clothes, and as Beckett asserts in Murphy and repeats in Company, “Only the most local movements were possible.” 5

What can grave sheets then serve for? What is one to do with what Nicholas Zurbrugg calls Beckett’s “studied nihilism”? 6 Beckett’s nihilism is not something to be evaded, excused or simply criticized; it is integral to what one may call post-structuralism’s very possibility. What this nihilism is and how it is experienced can be addressed by turning with fresh eyes upon the pessimistic vein that colors Beckett’s fiction, a pessimism stemming from the acknowledged inescapability of writing within the aesthetically exhausted Western expressive tradition. [End Page 1047]

In order to gain fresh insight, I need to go back to the modernist predecessors of post-structuralism and commence with Heidegger and Nietzsche. These thinkers allow us to grasp Beckett’s non-representational writing within the context of time’s passing away and, more importantly, of history’s lingering and return. Representation, for Heidegger, is precisely the way the will wreaks revenge on that which can pass away: “Hence the will is the sphere of representational ideas which basically pursue and set upon everything that comes and goes and exists, in order to depose, reduce it in its stature and ultimately decompose it.” 7 Free of representational thinking, “The will becomes free from what revolts it when it becomes free as will, that is, free for the going in the passing away—but the kind of going that does not get away from the will, but comes back, bringing back what is gone.” 8 What passes away in order to be redeemed in returning is temporality itself, that which is through coming-to-be-passing-away, and which offers no ground of identity insofar as it is only present as a returning repetition of itself.

The sense of being as recurring assumes an historical dimension in Nietzsche’s thought of the eternal recurrence of the same—the hardest thought for Zarathustra to bear:

And this slow spider, which crawls in the moonlight, and this moonlight itself, and I and you in the gateway, whispering together, whispering of eternal things—must not all of us have been there before? And return and walk in that other lane, out there, before us, in this long dreadful lane—must we not eternally return? Thus I spoke, more and more softly; for I was afraid of my own thoughts and the thoughts behind my thoughts. 9

Why is this thought so hard to bear? In thinking recurrence, the overman loses whatever teleologic status it may have had in the wake of Christianity’s...

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