- Samuel Beckett and The Problem of Irishness
Don't let the title of Emilie Morin's book deceive you. She knows there's more than one problem with Irishness—for Beckett and for critical approaches to his work, at least. Once in a job interview, for instance, the search chair put the following to me, in a flat tone that brooked no contradiction: "But I've always thought Beckett was a French writer." This shorthand identification—French—points to at least three traditions in Beckettian interpretation: the early reception of his French writing as absurdist, his later interpretation as a poststructuralist, and his work's ongoing fascination for writers in French such as Alain Badiou. The turn to Irishness in evaluations of Beckett's work—both in Morin's and in other recent critical studies—is a complex response to the oversights of earlier readings that often actively excluded Beckett's own biography, even as he includes it in his fiction; the specific historical or political concerns that his works articulate, respond to, or erase; and the persistence of Irish locales, landscapes, and speech patterns, the latter even in his French writing, as Morin points out.
Irishness, then, provides a handy way of addressing a number of critical conversations at once, and Morin's project, informed by her labor in the voluminous international Beckettian archives and beneficially indebted to Adorno's thinking, sensitively explores Beckett's intellectual links to Irish writing and the deployment of Irishness in his own work. A line in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, which Morin does not quote, helps to characterize her approach:
The basic levels of experience that motivate art are related to those of the objective world from which they recoil. The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society.1
Morin is sensitive to this line of argument and she avoids the mistake of trying to repatriate Beckett because we see Irish fields, phrasing, and allusions. (There's already a Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin that does that: it spans the Liffey in the form of a harp, an iconic shape that is to Beckett, no doubt, what Cuchulain's rump was to Neary in his novel Murphy.) At her best, Morin focuses instead on how the Irish signatures create or change the form of Beckett's work and then contextualizes those formal effects within debates about the Irish Revival or the European avant-garde.
Such an approach requires a deft hand, because the primary subject analyzed in the book—Irishness—is also sometimes the "objective content" that is theoretically already less important. Though useful, we often don't require Irishness, in other words, to recast Beckett in these terms. Long ago, for instance, Adorno read in Beckett a satire of existentialism, and, more recently, H. Porter Abbott recaptured the limits of poststructuralist interpretations by reading Beckett's corpus as autography—neither much referenced Irish history or culture. Morin herself often historicizes formal effects only within a narrative of Beckett's development as an artist, rather than thinking through "the antagonisms of reality" that a representation of Irishness might involve. And this tension in the book—between Irish content and the formal debates that involve both the avant-garde and the Irish Revival—often appears unresolved in the structure of the [End Page 704] chapters, as competing concerns sit in adjoining sections or paragraphs. But that is a mark of the project's ambition as well, of addressing so many debates at once.
The book initially situates Beckett biographically and intellectually in relationship with the Irish Revival. Morin finds consonance between Beckett's experimental techniques and those used by other Irish writers to re-imagine Beckett's debt to those whom he frequently satirized, and to recognize that the literary revival itself was more experimental and modernist than we might have imagined. Yeats put his actors in barrels when rehearsing, for instance, the better to let them focus...