- Beckett's Dedalus: Dialogical Engagements with Joyce in Beckett's Fiction
In Beckett's Dedalus, P. J. Murphy challenges a nearly foundational assumption in Beckett criticism: that Beckett shook off the early influence of James Joyce as he came to discover his characteristic "Beckettian" voice. As readers of Beckett scholarship know, several related biographical and critical judgments have fellow-traveled along with this story about Beckett's artistic relation to Joyce.1 For example, there is the typical presumption of Beckett's relatively late and difficult maturation into authorial adulthood, which included acknowledging but leaving behind the oversized paternal image of his predecessor. Other basic critical antinomies are similarly metaphorized under the names of Joyce and Beckett: the conception of literary language as replete (Joyce) and empty (Beckett); artistic construction as affirmation (Joyce) versus negation (Beckett); authorship as modernist innovative power (Joyce) versus authorship as impotency and the passion of being unable to "make it new" (Beckett); and the comic celebration of plurilingualistic flux (Joyce) versus the painful, absurd tragic-comedy of translation's leaky concourse between languages (Beckett). Murphy's intention is explicitly to challenge these critical commonplaces and, in doing so, revise the direction of Beckett criticism, as the programmatic title of his opening chapter, "Prolegomenon to Any Future Beckett Criticism," indicates.
His approach is focused specifically on Beckett's relation to Joyce's aesthetics, which Murphy claims play a more central and affirmative role in Beckett's oeuvre than has been previously appreciated by Beckett's critical readers. He argues that, to trace Joyce's "influence" on Beckett, it is not enough to seek out "sources" in the more conventional sense that this term functions in annotations and commentary; rather, one must discern "those ideas which determine the very structure and direction of the work itself" (130). For Murphy, such ideas reside [End Page 558] predominantly in Joyce's aesthetic theory, and he reads the "structure and direction" of Beckett's whole oeuvre as a "dialogical engagement" with the near-sacred corpus of his great modernist precursor (130, 151). Precisely because Joyce's aesthetic theorizing was most explicitly refracted through the aesthetic meditations of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so too, in Murphy's account of Beckett's relation with Joyce, the aesthetic issues and the problematics of epiphany derived from A Portrait—seemingly equated by Beckett with Joyce's own views—take center stage. Murphy's thesis encompasses the entirety of Beckett's corpus in its view, from near-juvenilia to the latest of Beckett's "late-style" whispers. He writes:
From "Assumption" to "What is the word" (1989), Beckett's development of his own aesthetic theory repeatedly targets his rejection and subsequent revision and rewriting of Stephen Dedalus's more traditionalist view that the supreme manifestation or quality of Beauty is "the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure" (P, 186). For Beckett the aesthetic experience is from the very beginning characterized as kinetic in nature: it is the pain and disorder of lived life that art must somehow accommodate.(5)
Beckett, Murphy suggests, discerns the impasse in Joyce's modernist aesthetics but also embraces this impasse as a necessary point of reference—as that singularly important failed solution to a problem that Joyce, among all artists, had formulated most forthrightly, seriously, and cogently. In this sense at least, Murphy claims that Beckett's stance is more positive and affirmative than his critics have been willing to admit:
Beckett begins his writing with a critical awareness of the various theoretical impasses inherent in modernist aesthetics. A generation after Joyce, Beckett takes up the challenges posed by the same set of very powerful ideas found in Stephen's theorizing in Portrait, testing out the limitations of these theories as well as trying to find ways to overcome the aporias upon which Joyce's aesthetic "foundered."(8)
Beckett could neither accept nor ignore Joyce's theoretical gambit but was compelled to restate and reconfigure it again and again, offering a...