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Reviewed by:
  • Beckett at 100: Revolving it All
  • Anthony Uhlmann
Beckett at 100: Revolving it All. Linda Ben-Zvi and Angela Moorjani, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xiv + 334. $99.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper).

This collection is drawn from papers delivered at the Trinity College Dublin centenary Beckett conference in 2006. Yet the number 100 is paired with another, set at around 50, which refers to one of Beckett's first and most important critics: Ruby Cohn, currently ill, who began to work on Beckett when Godot first appeared in 1953. The collection begins with two "images" for Ruby: a series of photographs by Peter Gidal and a biographical sketch by James Knowlson of the Beckett who toured Germany in 1937. It is best to read this collection, then, with a kind of double perspective. On the one hand it is pointing us back to a world surprised, nonplussed, or astonished by the emergence of Beckett's major works after the Second World War (a world brilliantly reimagined by Mary Bryden who moves behind the cover notes to the LP recording of the 1956 Broadway production of Godot to illuminate the powerful impression this play made on the author of the liner notes: American playwright William Saroyan). On the other hand it considers that present world which has been formed, informed, or deformed by the brute fact of Beckett's works.

The collection is focused around three principle ideas: coming to grips with how Beckett makes us think about the world; coming to grips with the works, which we are still trying to understand; and attuning ourselves to responses to, and echoes of, them. The first essay of Part One, "Thinking Through Beckett," in a way links all of these ideas together. Herbert Blau, who worked with Beckett as a director, and with Cohn as an academic colleague, offers us a performance as much as an essay: he projects an image of himself superimposed on to images from Beckett in order to illustrate how Beckett is not simply abstractly but also directly applicable to life as the traumas and humiliations of aging represented by Beckett return and speak again as one experiences them for oneself.

Yet the question of how Beckett's writing might be considered to interact with "thought" has long been a point of contention in the field. Here H. Porter Abbott returns to Beckett's well-known statement that he "is not a philosopher" to challenge philosophical "appropriations" of Beckett's works. For Abbott there is a fundamental distinction between philosophy and art and this relates to another well-known dictum of Beckett's that "to be an artist is to fail." Yet while usefully provocative, there are problems in Abbott's approach, which offers an overly narrow conception of how art might interact with philosophy. In attempting to distance Beckett's works from philosophy he appeals to another means of modeling thinking from cognitive science.

Any understanding of thought in relation to Beckett should help us to better come to terms with the works themselves. One can clearly see, for example, how readings, like those offered in [End Page 191] this collection which discuss the use Beckett made of his documented reading of Bergson (S. E. Gontarski) or Leibniz (Naoya Mori) might add to our understanding of certain elements within Beckett's works. One fails to see how Abbott's model of cognition which "goes about its business in the dark . . . and then something comes to one" (87) could account for the important processes of interaction between disciplines (and not just philosophy but literature, politics, history, the visual arts, music, cinema, and television) which one simply needs to take into account when beginning to interpret Beckett's works. Mori's essay in particular offers new insights which show that Beckett was not only thinking of the image of the monad when writing Murphy (and translating it into French) but the room in which Leibniz wrote the Monadology (which Beckett visited during his 1937 trip to Germany). Mori also shows how Beckett deliberately erased explicit references to Leibniz that had been made in early drafts of Fin de partie. So, too, Beckett's works...