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  • Against MetaphorSamuel Beckett and the Influence of Science
  • Nikolai Duffy (bio)

In conversation with Georges Duthuit, Samuel Beckett famously remarked, "there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express."1 Over the years, this statement has been read in numerous ways, and it is arguable that it has frequently been overread as an aesthetic manifesto that casts interpretative light on Beckett’s project as a whole. Irrespective of the complexities or problems that underpin such an overdetermined reading, however, what is particularly interesting about this statement for my purposes here is simply that for Beckett, language in its common form— language as we know it and use it on a daily basis—is not fit for purpose. In the famous "German letter of 1937," Beckett writes that language is increasingly "a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind." And as Beckett continues in the same letter, his task is to experiment with "grammar and style" in order that he might "drill one hole after another into [language] until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through—I cannot," Beckett adds, "imagine a higher goal for today’s writer."2

In Immemorial Silence Karmen MacKendrick notes how "the concern with the limits of language is a tradition with multiple roots: we find it in ancient mysticism as the ‘ineffable,’ in negative theology as the unnamable, in the Nietzschean warning that grammar seduces us into a belief in metaphysics, even in the Wittgensteinian warning that philosophy, being all language games, must not infrequently remain silent."3 Indeed, as Ludwig Wittgenstein famously cautioned in the seventh section of the Tractatus, "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."4 Yet it might also be well to remember Maurice Blanchot’s rejoinder, "to be silent is still to speak. Silence is impossible."5

The problem of how to respond to this conundrum might be said to be one of the most fundamental formal problems at the heart of much twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century avant-garde literary practice.

With reference to Beckett’s notebooks and letters, it has been relatively well documented that one of Beckett’s primary sources for the sense of ignorance at play in his works stems from his reading, in 1936, of work of the seventeenth-century Flemish metaphysician and mathematician, Arnold Geulincx.6 One of the central elements of Geulincx’s thinking that interested Beckett was his consideration of the limits of empiricism. While Geulincx argued that "everything seeks to be known: not to have been known is almost not to have been born" (nosci omnes appetunt: non notum fuisse, ferme est non natum fuisse), he also maintained that each and every empirical explanation is undone by the parameters of its own definition.7 "Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis," Geulincx stated, "Wherein you have no power, therein you should not will."8 "Yes, let’s go. They do not [End Page 37] move" as the famous final line and stage direction from Waiting for Godot have it; Vladimir and Estragon seek momentum but are riveted by their lack of power. According to Geulincx’s Metaphysica, "motion thus has two parts, from being and to being" (motus enim duas habet partes: abesse et adesse).9 If only they could give themselves to the passivity of waiting, in which one simply waits, rather than waits for something. It is the giving up, or over, of self that was most particularly expressed in Geulincx’s writing by the analysis of the term humilitas. "I am a mere spectator of this machine, whose workings I can neither adjust nor readjust; wherein I neither devise nor destroy anything: the whole thing is someone else’s affair."10 Humilitas connotes the renunciation of will, the abandonment of both claims to power and knowledge. It is, in other words, the principle at the heart of both Geulincx’s and Beckett’s thinking that comes to be expressed in condensed form by the maxim nescio, "I...