- Beckett's Political Imagination by Emilie Morin
The field of Beckett studies continues to grow exponentially. Beckettology has become so wide-ranging, so all-encompassing, that it must now surely rival the Joyce industry in the depth of its commitment to excavating the formal minutiae of his texts as well as to demonstrating the breadth of his political and historical contexts. In the scholarship that connects Beckett to cultural studies, a quick survey of recent research shows work on Beckett and neurology, Beckett and sound studies, Beckett and climate change, Beckett and the War on Terror, and Beckett and computer coding. As our world approaches so many possible ends, his work is more relevant than ever. In the case of new studies that adhere to reading the formal nuances of Beckett's texts, recent publications on Beckett and translation, for example, delve into the intricate details of Beckett's word choice and rhythms as he moved back and forth between English, French, Spanish, and sometimes German. The Modern Language Association has just announced its annual 2018 prize for a "Bibliography, Archive or Digital Project" to the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. This international collaboration traces and makes available online the evolution of the writer's manuscripts and notebooks, replete with their alternations, doodles, erasures, and idle [End Page 447] musings. The smallest jot, addition or deletion, all now digitally enhanced, sheds new light on Beckett's motivations and processes. It's an exciting time to be a Beckett scholar.
The surge in interdisciplinary attention to Beckett is not just thematic; it is also driven by the form and structure of Beckett's writing itself. Beckett's novels, plays, and characters are famously caught between abstraction and materialism, between a universal humanism and the echoing of very particular circumstances (postcolonial Ireland, postwar France, the Cold War). Every Beckett conference, every article that engages his work must wrestle with this tension between the text's realism and its idealism, between its poetic evocations and its sordid, often violent, references. Beckett's works are of their time and timeless. This is no different from any great work of art, of course. It's just that the ambiguity, the back-and-forth between the poles of elusiveness and precision, is endemic to Beckett's aesthetic.
The pendulum in Beckett studies swings, therefore, between attempts to account formally for the transcendent appeal of the work and fevered efforts to locate its cultural origins. Emilie Morin's Beckett's Political Imagination is not the first attempt to pull Beckett back from the precipice above a world of "political abstractions," "placelessness, and remoteness" (13, 15). It is, however, the most incredibly rich, detailed account to date of the governmental figures, the political activists, the immediate circumstances, and the partisan struggles that Beckett encountered, engaged, avoided, rejected, and assimilated. Beckett studies needs this book. Chronological in terms of his career, clearly organized around a series of themes such as translation, internationalism, and anticolonialism, the book is free of jargon and wonderfully illuminative. Morin's exhaustive research should put an end to any lingering myths that Beckett's "principal design [was] the creation of a narrative voice divorced from recognizable political and historical parameters" (5).
Morin has provided Beckett scholars with an encyclopedia of political names, dates, petitions, and social struggles. Her thesis proves "his fascination regarding the day-to-day stuff of politics" (25). Modernist studies, too, requires this book, as it exhaustively accounts for the ways in which one of its leading characters was shaped by, and in turn influenced, the world of politics as he wandered through Europe from one end of the twentieth century to the other. Beckett put the weight of his name behind causes as diverse as slaughterhouse reform and the freeing of dissidents in Eastern Europe, and from the banning of torture to the critique of colonialism in Africa. The reader comes away from Morin's study convinced that Beckett's world of politics was as broad, if not as consistently public, as that of Jean-Paul Sartre's...