Beckett's Critical Complicity

Beckett's Critical Complicity: Carnival, Contestation, and Tradition

Sylvie Debevec Henning
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 240
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    Beckett's Critical Complicity
    Book Description:

    Samuel Beckett's work harbors an inevitable complicity with traditional modes and values. His idealist and even nihilist inclinations, for example, are closely related to the abstracting and systematizing tendencies that have predominated in Western thinking. His drama and fiction, in reproducing these tendencies, also help to reinforce and legitimate them. Beckett's work can thus be said to encourage an attitude of stoic resignation or life-denying withdrawal.

    Sylvie Debevec Henning's study reveals an important countertendency. In examining Beckett's art and literary criticism, his novelMurphy, playsKrapp's Last TapeandEndgame, his only film venture, and the late story "The Lost Ones," she shows that through a variety of double-voiced techniques -- irony, parody, and satire -- Beckett also brings a powerful critical light to bear upon our culture's repeated attempts to reduce or eliminate the more problematic aspects of existence and even mocks our desire to do so. His disquieting and occasionally uproarious interweaving of contradictory perspectives -- somber and carnivalized, established and contestory -- suggests that suffering and anguish are fundamental to life, while it affirms their relation to laughter and creative vigor within a richer, if less settled, cultural context.

    Drawing upon the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and particularly Bakhtin, Henning argues that Beckett's profound critique of Western intellectual tradition does not necessarily entail the loss of all positive values and beliefs. On the contrary, his use of carnivalesque and dialogized modes signals a revitalizing capacity that has not been fully appreciated.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5860-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. INTRODUCTION: The Accompliced Critic
    (pp. 1-8)

    Samuel Beckett’s work is commonly regarded as symptomatic of Western anxiety and self-doubt in the twentieth century. Often it has been considered representative of modern existentialist or absurdist movements. This view tends, I believe, to obscure Beckett’s more critical relation to our cultural context, a relation in which certain fundamental philosophical issues are frequently addressed in satirical, or even carnivalizing, fashion. In jesting confrontation with major representatives of our cultural heritage, his work offers serious challenge to many of their basic assumptions, for example, the desire for final resolution, including every form of integral totality, closed system, the comprehensive dialectic....

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Poet Membered
    (pp. 9-28)

    Beckett’s art and literary criticism provide one important means of approaching his fiction and drama. Unfortunately, these essays have until recently been all but inaccessible.¹ Most appeared in obscure periodicals and exhibition catalogs; some remained in manuscript form. Only two long pieces were readily available. YetProustand “Three Dialogues” do not by themselves allow the reader to perceive the manner in which Beckett’s nonfictional work developed over time.

    Its bearing upon his fiction and drama, is not easily described. The latter are never simply illustrations of the former. Rather, Beckett’s literary works engage his criticism dialogically, accepting certain of...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Murphy’s Caelum
    (pp. 29-84)

    Murphyhas often been interpreted as an illustration of philosophical principles, usually, since Samuel Mintz’s study, those of Arnold Geulincx, the Occasionalist disciple of Descartes.¹ The novel, however, does not so much embody a specific philosophy as satirize what is perhaps the dominant strain of the Western tradition: a general faith in the reality, or possibility, of ultimate identity or totality.

    Whether it manifests itself in a monist, dualist, or pluralist philosophy, this desire, like the Demiurge of theTimaeus, reduces or suppresses “the reluctant and unsociable nature of the different into the same.” This unruly difference, which thwarts complete...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Variations on the Hermeneutic Theme
    (pp. 85-121)

    Murphy could still savor the repose of his mental mercyseat, hoping eventually to attain, by either positive or negative means, to the truth and plenitude of the “One.” InEndgame, however, Hamm and Clov, are too aware of Murphy’s failure to retain any illusions about their ever reaching such a meaningfultelos. They have cast into doubt the criterion of meaning itself, at least in any absolute sense. Nevertheless, even after the destruction of their faith in eschatological hermeneutics, their will to signification remains. If previously man had been acting out his own earthly roles, believing them integral parts of...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Dialogues with the Double
    (pp. 122-158)

    The double is often considered an organizing theme in literary criticism. As such it is usually studied from a mythological, or psychological, or even mythopsychological perspective. Such investigations tend to obscure certain fundamental problems by not giving sufficient attention to the ways in which the double plays with the peculiar logic of identity and difference. Consequently, although implicitly pointing to it, they usually fail to relate explicitly the double to a search for unity or totality. By not confronting these issues, they remain blind to the ways in which the double may, in fact, work to undercut any final integration,...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Solicitation of Science
    (pp. 159-195)

    InEndgamethe protagonists act out on a mental stage various scientific and philosophical attempts to elaborate a totalizing interpretation of temporal existence.Le Dépeupleur[The Lost Ones] takes the hermeneutical process a step further in the direction of abstraction, presenting the reader with phenomenological analyses of a closed system. The analyses themselves are, however, neither static nor internally unified. They represent a constant struggle to describe with precision phenomena that repeatedly threaten to transgress the rational boundaries and categories employed. Moreover, a number of possible models are provided. As they begin to play variations on one another, rehearsing as...

  11. CONCLUSION: Literature and Its Discontents
    (pp. 196-199)

    Harboring an inevitable complicity with traditional modes and values, Beckett’s work not only reproduces them but also, to some extent, contributes to their reinforcement and even legitimation. It is, in other words, symptomatic of its sociocultural context. Yet, the pathological connotations ofsymptomaticsuggest that it also signals the malaise and even neuroses of our civilization. The symptomatic thus shades into the critical. Often, indeed, the two are interinvolved, and it may ultimately be impossible to decide where one ends and the other begins, or to which of the two a text essentially belongs.

    In Beckett, certain things are, nonetheless,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 200-222)
  13. Index
    (pp. 223-230)