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  • Beckett, Minimalism, and the Question of Postmodernism
  • Duncan McColl Chesney (bio)

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett, 1983

Art indicts superfluous poverty by voluntarily undergoing its own.... Along with the impoverishment of means entailed by the ideal of blackness…what is written, painted, and composed is also impoverished: The most advanced arts push this impoverishment to the brink of silence.

Theodor W. Adorno1

This article addresses a simple question: Is Beckett a post-modernist writer? Of course, the question is not so simple at all, for it begs a number of other tricky questions that get only more complicated as we address them: How am I defining modernism and postmodernism? What does the post in postmodernism signify? And in any case, Beckett’s work does not suffer from not fitting easily into either of these categories or periodizations, so who really cares? Yet all the same, it seems that if postmodernism has any analytical value as a category, a style, or a “cultural dominant” applied to literature (in Fredric Jameson’s appropriation of Raymond Williams’s term), then Beckett is a crucial test case: He follows perhaps the most exemplary of prose modernists, James Joyce, and produces a body of work which is very much unlike that of his famous predecessor and compatriot/co-exile, as well as that of the subject of his youthful scholarly interest (another quintessential prose modernist), Marcel Proust. Beckett clearly, and not just temporally, comes after these modernists and their [End Page 637] moment. His defining war is the Second, not the First. His childhood was not that of the fin-de-siècle; his abandoned homeland was the Republic of Ireland; his exile was so famously marked by the change of language in order to achieve what he called “the right weakening effect”2 in a clear attempt to escape the style of Joyce in the language of Proust, and thus attain a style all his own. If post simply means after, then Beckett is perhaps the first great postmodernist. But we all know it is not so simple.

Postmodernism as American avant-garde

It has been argued that postmodernism is essentially an American phenomenon. According to Antoine Compagnon, the French understanding of the Modern derives from Baudelaire and Nietzsche, and the “Baudelairean modern, melancholic and dandified, includes the postmodern as an awareness of the end of history and a refusal of the modernist logic of overcoming, with its dialectic of progress that recasts old religious messianisms.”3 Thus for the French (and we should never forget that most of Beckett’s major works were written in France, in French), Beckett has never been considered postmodern—but then, this tells us nothing about his relation to an Anglo-American understanding of modernity. Things are perhaps more complicated in Germany, a discussion of which is not relevant to the current essay,4 but let’s accept this claim for the moment: Postmodernism is American. Why?

In one of the earlier yet most astute discussions of postmodernism, After the Great Divide, Andreas Huyssen provides a compelling account of the development of the American avant-garde in the 1960s. According to Huyssen, it is first of all essential to distinguish the historical avant-gardes in Europe from modernism. The modernist writers and artists followed the nineteenth-century development of l’art pour l’art of aesthetic autonomy—deriving from Kant and Schiller but reacting against Romantic conceptions of art’s organic relationship to nature and society and its (revolutionary) political vocation (as, for example, in the Parnassians). Modernism was a reaction against the breakdown of traditions and systems of belief resulting from the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, the industrial revolutions, urbanization, and so forth. The increasing leisure time of a growing class produced a need and thus a market for art through which the very notion of art, artist, artistic production, and consumption were changed. The growth of this market was partially masked by the ideology of autonomy. Art was released from its courtly, ritual, and religious roles in a breakdown of the system of patronage, and thus the artist became...


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