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Reviewed by:
  • Samuel Beckett's "Philosophy Notes." ed. by Steven Matthews and Matthew Feldman
  • Marc Farrant
Samuel Beckett's "Philosophy Notes." Ed. Steven Matthews and Matthew Feldman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 576. $125.00 (cloth).

Samuel Beckett's "Philosophy Notes" comprises the Irish writer's (largely) complete notes on the history of Western philosophy, an autodidactic enterprise undertaken in the 1930s alongside—and between—the publication of his first forays in fiction, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932), More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938). First discovered in a trunk in his cellar after his death in 1989, and hitherto unavailable to a general academic audience, this Oxford University Press edition of the notes consists of the full text of two manuscripts held at Trinity College Dublin, consisting of some 267 folios totalling over 110,000 words. The moniker "Philosophy Notes" derives from a prior publication of the volume's coeditor, Matthew Feldman's Beckett's Books: A Cultural History of Samuel Beckett's 'Interwar Notes' (2006)—a seminal publication of the archival turn in Beckett Studies. Feldman and his coeditor, Steven Matthews, do an excellent job of framing the material that is included here (which runs to over five hundred pages), suggesting ways for the reader to navigate Beckett's compendious research into what he referred to once as the "loutishness of learning."1

Indeed, this volume's introduction is exceptionally useful. Building on Feldman's prior work in this area, the introduction consolidates a narrative of Beckett's engagement with philosophy [End Page 598] that helps crystallize several significant hermeneutic focal points. Feldman lays out Beckett's engagement with philosophy in several works that argue that the "direct relationship between 'Beckett and philosophy'—meaning Samuel Beckett's struggle with Western philosophy as it influenced his poetics and outlook—lasted only a decade, from 1928 to 1938."2 Based on the extant archival notes themselves, Feldman's thesis is convincing and is further compounded by the publication of Beckett/Philosophy—a 2015 essay collection that might be considered a companion to this Oxford University Press edition of the notes (chapters are cited repeatedly in the editors' introduction). What follows from this narrative is a twofold skepticism towards both Beckett's own claims of ignorance regarding Western philosophy—"I never read philosophers"—and theoretical or philosophically inspired readings of Beckett's works.3 For Feldman, these readings all too often repeat their axiomatic premises at the expense of the works themselves. An implicit claim here is that a "work" of literature points more in the direction of its origin (its author; its archival beginnings) than its destination, the countersignature of the critic or reader. In other words, for Feldman's empiricist approach, the question of the philosophical meaning of Beckett's works is separate from the question of Beckett and philosophy (Feldman, "Beckett and Philosophy, 1928–1938," 167).

This Oxford University Press edition follows Feldman's empiricist lead. This is amplified by the fact that the notes themselves, as the editors remark, consist of "a kind of edited version from parts of three major source texts" that Beckett largely copied verbatim, with a minimum of interventional commentary or "authorship" (Matthews and Feldman, xxv, xl). Thus, although the notes offer little to help form an idea of Beckett as philosopher, as a documentary record of his engagement with the philosophical tradition they do help categorically to refute the idea that he was writing from a position of ignorance with regard to the major ideas and debates that had preoccupied philosophers from the pre-Socratics to Friedrich Nietzsche (where the notes abruptly end). As a work of scholarship, too, the Philosophy Notes are a remarkable achievement. The footnotes that run throughout track every reference to Beckett's published works, allowing the reader to shuttle back and forth with ease. The introduction is also, on its own, a significant resource. Therein the editors extensively detail and date (where possible) Beckett's note-taking practice, developed alongside his period spent with James Joyce working on Finnegans Wake. The specific philosophy notes included in this volume were begun in 1932 in London (although they contain no internal dating). The first major...


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