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  • Modern Manuscripts and Textual Epigenetics:Samuel Beckett's Works between Completion and Incompletion
  • Dirk Van Hulle (bio)

In A Beckett Canon (2001), Ruby Cohn discusses Samuel Beckett's works in chronological order. The discussion of each work starts with a footnote referring to the relevant manuscripts. The position of these references at the bottom of the page, printed in a smaller font than the body of the text, indicates the balance of importance between the published texts and their preparatory materials. The footnotes do not give an exhaustive account of what French genetic critics refer to as the "avant-texte," the full genetic dossier of extant manuscripts. Nonetheless, these documents are deemed important enough to be mentioned. On the one hand, the manuscripts are kept "underground"; on the other hand, they do constitute a part of this canon. And sometimes a manuscript manages to slip into the "upper" canon. For instance, unpublished manuscripts such as "Ernest et Alice" or "Last Soliloquy" are treated in the body of the text rather than in footnotes.1 Apparently, the border between upper and underground canon is not impermeable.

This article therefore endeavors to examine the "ontological status" of modern manuscripts within the field of literary studies, starting from the question: how do modern manuscripts relate to published texts?2 Modern manuscripts differ in function from medieval manuscripts, which had a public function; they were a form of publication. Modern manuscripts, conversely, are usually more private in nature. Nonetheless, many twentieth-century authors have donated their manuscripts to public archives. Beckett is a case in point, not just because he donated so many of his [End Page 801] manuscripts, for instance, to the University of Reading and Trinity College, Dublin, but also because of the interesting textual situation of many of his texts, which dangle between completion and incompletion. This textual situation is not merely of interest to philologists; it reflects an important thematic aspect of Beckett's work. As a consequence, the textual and genetic analysis of Beckett's manuscripts and typescripts can be usefully brought into play in the interpretation of his works in general.

A textual instance that is rather emblematic in this context is the opening passage of Stirrings Still, section two:

As one in his right mind when at last out again he knew not how he was not long out again when he began to wonder if he was in his right mind. For could one not in his right mind be reasonably said to wonder if he was in his right mind and bring what is more his remains of reason to bear on this perplexity in the way he must be said to do if he is to be said at all?3

The atmosphere of uncertainty and vagueness is emphasized a few lines further down, by means of the reference to Venus: "Then he sought help in the thought of one hastening westward at sundown to obtain a better view of Venus and found it of none."4 Venus, the second planet from the sun, reaches its maximum brightness shortly before sunrise or shortly after sunset and is therefore known both as the Morning Star and the Evening Star. It marks the clair-obscur of dawn or dusk. To study this clair-obscur from a genetic perspective, I would like to make use of two terms coined by Raymonde Debray-Genette, "exogenetics" and "endogenetics," to subsequently suggest a third one, "epigenetics."


The term "exogenesis" denotes external source texts relating to the creative process, such as the texts from which the jottings in the "Dream" Notebook derive.5 One of these texts, discovered by John Pilling, is Sir James Jeans's chapter, "Exploring the Sky" from The Universe around Us.6 James Jeans explains that, as a morning star, Venus "was called Phosphorus by the Greeks and Lucifer by the Romans; as an evening star it was called Hesperus by both."7 Beckett noted all these names in his "Dream" Notebook in the early 1930s:

Venus:                  Morning                Evening

                    Phosporus [sic]        Hesperus.


Toward the end of the 1930s, Beckett still showed an interest in this topic. In the "Whoroscope" Notebook, he noted that "Venus...


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