- Samuel Beckett, Repetition and Modern Music by John McGrath
As a contribution to Word and Music Studies, John McGrath's Samuel Beckett, Repetition and Modern Music is a fascinating exploration of the great Irish writer's late works and how they operate in relation to the themes of repetition, representation, improvisation, and artistic experimentation. Making much of the musical qualities of Beckett's work, the 'musical' for McGrath, following Proust, the Symbolists and Romantics, is not reducible to an 'analytical object' and 'musicality' refers to what is 'inexpressible in words alone' (pp. 1–2). Tracing the concept of repetition through various twentieth-century musical and literary streams, McGrath identifies 'the formation of a transmedial discourse through the art of repetition' as an integral aspect of Beckett's aesthetic. The development of repetition and the assumption of a certain musicality in the language of his late works are important means through which he responds to 'the inability of words to express depth and intangibility sufficiently'. Repetition produces 'semantic fluidity' (p. 2) even to the point of semantic 'saturation', where meaning is eroded rather than reinforced and texts assume 'a music-like quality' (p. 3). While McGrath's key theoretical source for this renewed concept of repetition is the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, the musicality of Beckett's language is understood in the light of the musicologist Harry White's well-supported observation that 'Irish literature is particularly "musical"'.
In chapter 1, McGrath 'traces the historical trajectory' of 'the idea of music' following the Enlightenment as the passage 'from sound to metaphor' (p. 6). With the concept of intermedia very much in mind, he considers the arts in terms of their interrelation and independence, [End Page 567] noting the fracture of their primordial harmony at the time of the Enlightenment, with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's insistence on the independent working of each art, and their division into the teleological (music, poetry) and the juxtapositive (painting, sculpture). While Wagner sought to make the arts function as one with his Gesamtkunstwerk, McGrath follows the neo-Laokoonian windings of the debate in the twentieth century through Irving Babbitt's The New Laokoon and Clement Greenberg's 'Towards a Newer Laocoon'. Looking to Beckett's radio play All that Fall (1957), McGrath pinpoints Greenberg's failure to recognize that 'in an intermedial work, the individual artforms can synthesise in a manner that foregrounds the individual materials' (p. 9). Following the work of Dick Higgins (who coined the term 'intermedia') and Yvonne Spielmann, McGrath commends the state of intermedial studies, whereby 'the structure of combination and collision' in art works is embraced as both art's content and as a proper area of aesthetic enquiry. Noting that 'the narrowing of the disciplinary gap between music and literature during the twentieth century has been left relatively untheorised until recently' (p. 10), McGrath provides his own historical survey of the interaction of the two media in various workings; as diegesis, structural device, and 'the sounding of text'. The chapter concludes with an extended discussion of the state of Word and Music studies from 1948 onwards, which is both rich and informative and which sets out the kinds of approaches and methodologies adopted thus far by other researchers, notably Calvin S. Brown, Steven Paul Scher, Lawrence Kramer, Eric Prieto, and Peter Dayan. Of primary importance to this is Prieto's insight that 'the fundamental flaw in the dominant methodology in musico-literary scholarship is, at its most basic level, the clichéd and vague use of music terminology in literary scholarship' (p. 29).
The place of repetition in music and literature is the subject of chapter 2, which, after an initial discussion of transmedial repetition, moves quickly to repetition as conceptualized by Deleuze in Difference and Repetition (1968). As McGrath notes, 'the spiralling world of Beckett's texts questions the very notion of the "original", as characters and themes consistently return intertextually, from work to work' (p. 37). From here, he considers 'repetition in music', 'repetition in experimental music', and 'repetitions in...