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  • Vegetating Life and the Spirit of Modernism in Kafka and Beckett
  • Joseph Anderton (bio)

Belatedness and recommencement are inherent to modernism’s pursuit of the now and the new. As an artistic sensibility dedicated to the ephemeral and elusive flux of modernity, modernism can be conceived as a contradictory spirit that enacts an auto-defeating and therefore auto-sustaining rapid cycle of attempt and failure, purpose and obsolescence. In this essay I argue that the unachievable, self-perpetuating aspiration that modernism contains is refigured as despondent, late modern “vegetating life” in the works of two limit-modernists, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Despite producing the bulk of their most memorable work over thirty years apart, both Kafka and Beckett repeatedly offer comparable expressions of endlessness—through purgatorial narrative conditions encapsulated by the continuous recontextualization of deictic language—that resonate with the inevitable belatedness and creative recommencement of modernism. Although deictic language is not especially frequent in Kafka or Beckett, it acquires great significance in their evocations of “vegetation,” an underexplored state identified by critics such as Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno that encompasses a series of related binaries: activity and stasis, desire and passivity, life and death. In Kafka’s protoform and Beckett’s later-form, each writer conveys what Shane Weller calls the “paradoxical experience of endless ending, an experience that is alien to the Enlightenment conception of progress that underlines the powerful myth of modernity, and that lies at the heart of the late modernist conception of history.”1 Through portrayals of such interminable vegetative states, Kafka anticipates and Beckett epitomizes a virtually exhausted [End Page 805] late modernist life, undergoing the throes of modernism’s drive for novelty and immediacy while subject to the pervasive negativity and failure that replace the possibility of achievement. If modernism’s intrinsic tardiness fuels its invention of ever-new forms, the lateness in late modernism manifests as futility, burden, and nostalgia. The vegetating life narratively and linguistically evident in Kafka’s “The Hunter Gracchus” (1917/1931) and Beckett’s Texts for Nothing (1950–51), for example, demonstrates the purgatorial condition of modernism habitually starting anew, and converts it into late modernism’s protracted ending.

The Spirit of Modernism

It is common for the critical distillation of discrepant modernisms to result in an elemental dynamic spirit that goes back to its etymological roots: modern, modo, “just now.” In his essay “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” first published in German in 1981, Jürgen Habermas portrays modernism as a persistent rebellion kicking against the normative past: “With a different content in each case, the expression ‘modernity’ repeatedly articulates the consciousness of an era that refers back to the past of classical antiquity precisely in order to comprehend itself as the result of a transition from the old to the new.”2 As an agent of change, modernism appears necessarily retrospective to disturb sedimented cultural traditions legitimately and repeatedly. Likewise, in an earlier 1967 essay, “The Culture of Modernism,” Irving Howe discerns the intense reactivity of modernism, arguing that “no matter what impasse it encounters in its clashes with the external world, modernism is ceaselessly active within its own realm, endlessly inventive in destruction and improvisation.”3 Howe accentuates the energetic versatility of the modernist spirit to the point of infinitude, underlining its restless originality in defiance of shifting historical contexts. More recently, Gabriel Josipovici summarizes his book Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2010) with the claim that modernism “will always be with us, for it is not primarily a revolution in diction, or a response to industrialisation or the First World War, but is art coming to a consciousness of its limitations and responsibilities.”4 Rather than a specific aesthetic, historical, or ideological understanding, Josipovici articulates the enduring spirit of modernism: a diffuse sense of modernist art as an aggressive, resistant dynamic. His present tense phrase, “coming to,” suggests that modernism is a continual process, one of reflection and renewal. Susan Stanford Friedman describes such conceptions of “modern/modernity/modernism” as the “relational definition” which “stresses the condition or sensibility of radical disruption and accelerating change wherever and whenever such a phenomenon appears, particularly if it manifests widely. What is modern or...


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