Friday, March 28, 2014

Samuel Beckett Reassessed: Silence, Minimalism, Late Modernism

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. --Beckett: Worstward Ho 1983

There are many ways in which the thing I am trying in vain to say may be tried in vain to be said. --1949 interview

by Eric Mader

A review of / response to
Duncan McColl Chesney:
Silence Nowhen: Late Modernism, Minimalism,
and Silence in the Work of Samuel Beckett

Peter Lang: New York, 2013
(hardcover; 248 pp.)

Samuel Beckett is one of a handful of writers that draws me back every few years for a rereading or first reading of this or that. Last year I picked up the novel Watt, reread Murphy and parts of the Trilogy, and finally settled into the more important theater and short prose. It was, as expected, a jaunt both deadening and exhilarating, a feast all of scraps and bread crusts, but somehow it left me at a loss. (Indeed? You don't say.) The questions Beckett provoked in me had nagged before, but never quite so pressingly: How had he managed to stick to this strict regime over such a long career? And: How was one to explain the power of this work, its "power to claw", the poverty that somehow kept one coming back?

I decided to look into recent critical writing on Beckett, to see what sharper minds had lately been saying. It wasn't much. But I finally came upon a 2013 study by Duncan McColl Chesney, Silence Nowhen: Late Modernism, Minimalism, and Silence in the Work of Samuel Beckett. Chesney, I learned, had come out of Yale's Comparative Literature Department and this was his first book-length study. In fact it was the minimalism in his subtitle that led me to take up the book. Beckett's minimalism was the aspect of the work that most intrigued me: the steady paring away, the pages edging ever closer to silence.

Not working for a university myself, I have the luxury of putting down academic books when they don't hold my attention. Though I came out of Comparative Literature, like Chesney, I'm more resistant to high-theory jargon than most academics. I take up ten or so academic titles a year, but finish only a few of them. Again: a luxury.

Chesney's book is not in the put down category. It's actually, and surprisingly, hard to put down, which is almost unheard of for academic writing. The book is challenging, critically sophisticated, and cuts right to the chase of what made Beckett tick. Chesney poses the right questions, and his answers are developed in dialogue with a brilliant selection of previous work on Beckett--especially Blanchot's, Adorno's, and that of French scholar Pascale Casanova.

Samuel Beckett

One reason this book is such a pleasure to read is that it nowhere seems forced. It's obvious Chesney has a vast body of critical insight at his fingertips, modes of reading and prizing meaning that he's thoroughly made his own, and this allows him to reach for the thinker best able to help answer the kind of difficult questions Beckett's texts set going in a good reader's mind. Chesney's facility with continental philosophy and theory is made clear early on, when he takes to addressing ethical problems in Waiting for Godot through the lens of Emmanuel Levinas. The results are striking, and allow him to sketch out a kind of minimal ethics present in Godot, one that will no longer animate Endgame and other later works. His treatment of the Beckett oeuvre as a whole is balanced. His dismissive assessment of Beckett's early Joycean prose seems hard to disagree with (he concurs in my perception that "Dante and the Lobster" is the best piece in all early Beckett) and in general one feels while reading this work that one's finger is right on the pulse of a crucial late modern enigma. Unlike some critics, Chesney neglects neither the drama nor the prose. In fact, as my title indicates, I'd venture to call Silence Nowhen a major reassessment of Beckett as Beckett.

I did have a moment when I feared it would be otherwise. For one, the book's title almost put me off. What we have here is purportedly a study of silence in Beckett. What can one hope from an academic book on silence? Isn't, to pose a dumb but obvious question--isn't silence a matter of lack, a void of meaning requiring no special comment?

Those familiar with theory or philosophy, or indeed mysticism, will know that it's not always so. Still, Chesney's premise didn't look very promising--at least not to me. And here he was already in his Introduction talking about finding a "productive" approach to Beckett's work. I knew enough about Beckett to be suspicious of anything seeking to make this work productive. But I also knew academics were in the business of . . . well . . . in short, I knew I ought to cut Chesney some slack. The young literary academic today is in a situation quite like that of the narrator at the end of the Trilogy, whose voice winds down with the words: "one must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."

Chesney begins his first chapter by laying out what ancient rhetoric had to say about silence. Longinus, Cicero, Quintilian--a definite whiff of olive oil here. Happily the chapter quickly moves on from the ancients to delve into what sociolinguistics might teach us about the modalities of verbal silence. These pages are interesting in their own right and go some way toward answering my initial quibble--What can a study of silence tell us in any case? If it is a study of modern literature, it might in fact tell us quite a bit. Neither, as linguists know, is silence void of meaning in our everyday communication; quite the contrary. The opening chapter, then, provides a good practical basis for what will follow. Silence has been presented in its various genres, we might say.

Chesney moves on to consider how Beckett's work relates to those of his great precursors Dante, Joyce and Proust. This second chapter, I suspect, gave the professor more than a few headaches. Still he pulls it off gracefully. The difficulty here lies in the fact that each precursor is important for Beckett, crucial even, but is also, in fundamental respects, effaced in the writer's mature work--silenced or somehow turned on his head. And it's not merely a matter here of Bloomian anxiety of influence. Beckett's debt to Joyce, which has been commented widely, is especially problematic. Both Irish writers owed much to Dante, both chose exile from Ireland, they knew each other in Paris, and Beckett even wrote for some years heavily under Joyce's influence. After the war, however, Beckett turned in his own direction, discontinuing what may have developed into a kind of heady Joycean tradition. Chesney has much to say on this, which I won't reiterate here, but Beckett himself clarified the main difference between himself and the older writer in a 1959 interview with Israel Shenker:
I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could go in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one's material. He was always adding to it . . . I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding. (quoted by Chesney, p 64; unless otherwise indicated, all page citations are to Chesney's book)
In my view Beckett's relationship with Dante may also be seen as something along the lines of a photo negative. As I read through Chesney's careful enumeration of silences in the Commedia, I realized to what degree most of the tropes in question were aimed in the opposite direction from what we would find in Beckett's work. The problem Chesney faces establishing continuity from Dante to Beckett is thus nearly insurmountable. Aside from the figure of Belacqua, certainly a minor figure in Dante's work, there is little that might help. Whereas the Florentine employs silences to indicate great reverence (for the Virgin, Beatrice, the divine) or to stress the limitations of language (vis à vis mystical experience, great emotion, etc.) the Irishman uses silence to bracket out the unnecessary, to point up language's limitations (its poverty) in a very different way. The first is trying to structure and figure forth a universe the upper reaches of which are infinity or Eternity; the second seeks to pare down language's expressive capacity to Zero, to find out, as one approaches Zero, what reliable bits may be left, if any.

Beckett's linguistic rigors have led critics over the years to read his work as postmodernist, which is perhaps not surprising given that postmodernism was coming into its own during the later decades Beckett was writing. One of the very earliest theorists of the postmodern, Ihab Hassan, put Beckett among the first postmodernists. Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hassan was necessarily flailing about in his efforts to define a tendency that hadn't yet established itself. His work now seems important mostly in terms of directions in which it pointed, concepts it put into play, central of these being the concept of postmodern itself. Hassan's literary groupings of writers now seem bizarre, however. Chesney, I think, is absolutely right to reject the idea that Beckett is in any significant sense a postmodern writer. He makes much headway here by considering Beckett's literary practice in relation to developments in the modern visual arts, particularly painting, which Beckett himself followed closely and sought to emulate. Chesney's chapter on modern and postmodern visual art and its theorists (which I will discuss below) is brilliantly placed to help him in one of the main burdens of his study: theorizing a Late Modernism distinct both from High Modernism and from the postmodern in which we now find ourselves oh-so-joyously awash.

Beckett's rough contemporary Maurice Blanchot penned one of the first great critical appraisals of the writer's work in 1953. Blanchot's major essay "Où maintenant? Qui maintenant?" ("Where now? Who now?") set the terms for an important strand of Beckett study in France. With its constant reminders of the uselessness of its own continuation, Beckett's prose provided a good exemplar of what Blanchot would theorize in 1955 as a necessary uncorking in the act of writing:
The purer the inspiration, the more dispossessed is he who enters the space where it draws him, where he hears the origin's closer call. It is as if the wealth he comes into, that superabundance of the source, were also extreme poverty, were indeed refusal's superabundance, and made of him one who does not produce, who wanders astray within an infinite idleness. (The Space of Literature, 182; "idleness" here translates the Fr. désoeuvrement, which I would render uncorking)
For Blanchot the writer is not engaged, as Heidegger would have it, in hearkening to the voice of Being: rather he or she hearkens to an "incessant murmur" and tries to silence that murmur through, as Chesney puts it, "stutterings and impotent attempts to give it voice, to master it":
This impotent mastery has nothing to do with self-expression or even a willed self-abnegation. It is a renunciation, an allowing of the Work to happen obviously related to Romantic theories of inspiration. But far from being related to a Muse or some divinity or genius, it is a minimal, silent murmur of the incessant that speaks. And far from a triumphant channeling or mediation, being inspired is, on the contrary, failing. (114-5)
Blanchot puts it succinctly: "From inspiration we sense only failure."

Though descended from Romantic poetics, this poetics is something quite different. Clearly Blanchot is onto something in pointing to this incessant linguistic neutral as an animating force in Beckett's post-War work. If Heidegger found his poetic witness in Hölderlin, Blanchot, arguably, finds an even more compelling witness in Samuel Beckett.

Chesney quotes Simon Critchely on how this poetics derives from a search for "origin": "[The] goal of writing is not the work, the production of meaning and beauty, rather the writer writes out of a desire for the origin of the work, which means the work must be sacrificed in fidelity to the pursuit of its origin." I admit I have some trouble with the theorization of origin here. I don't have the Critchely text at hand. Is origin here partly a matter of the writer's desire to shut down the murmur of the incessant: the paradoxical desire, again, for silence? Chesney moves forward with a consideration of Blanchot's famous words on the myth of Orpheus: "Why," Chesney opens, "does Orpheus, who has used his art to defeat death and bring back Euridice, turn back, lose her, and eventually sacrifice himself as well?" Blanchot answers:
Not to look back would be infidelity to the measureless, imprudent force of his movement, which does not want Euridice in her daytime truth and her everyday appeal, but wants her in her nocturnal obscurity, in her distance, with her closed body and her sealed face--wants to see her not while she is visible, but when she is invisible . . . wants, not to make her live, but to have living in her the plenitude of her death.
These words, which I've read a half dozen times over the years since I first encountered them, now strike me, besides what they tell us about the desire to write, as a fine definition of eros itself as against Christian charity or agape. Blanchot: "All the glory of [Orpheus'] work, all the power of his art, and even the desire for a happy life in the lovely, clear light of day are sacrificed to this sole aim: to look in the night at what night hides, the other night, the dissimulation that appears." (115-16) Chesney glosses: "What is this other night? It is otherness itself as source, as mystery, as the unknowable that drives knowledge, the unattainable that drives desire." Again: eros.

Chesney proceeds to a discussion of Blanchot's debt to a powerful strand of thinking on language that derived ultimately from Hegel and one which Blanchot developed especially through his reading of Mallarmé, who had famously written:
I say "a flower!" and, drawn from that oblivion to which my voice consigns any contour, something other than any known calix arises, musically appears, idea and softness--that which is absent from all bouquets. [tr. mine]
The philosophical import of this line, in terms of what is said here about language, is in the recognition that every uttered word is a negation of the world. To say the word "flower" is to kill off any real flower by a movement toward the concept. Likewise, the concept man is a negation and betrayal of the inescapable individuality of any real man. When we use language, every word we use in fact, is a negation of something that, try as we might, we could never truly seize in language. (Yes, I leave aside here the more positive Symbolist aesthetic implicit in Mallarmé's line.) As Chesney puts it: "[W]ords are tombstones marking the absence of what they say."

The vast majority of people, of writers as well, remain unconscious of this negation at work. They use language as if it were a transparent and unproblematic tool of communication. They not only think they know what they're talking about, but that their words are adequate to the things to which they point. Starting from this basic human given, this nearly universal unconsciousness of language's negative power, we can think literature on at least two levels of sophistication. The first, Literature 1, seeks to be evocative and to weave persuasive depictions of reality in order to entertain, sway or otherwise inspire its readers. This is the literature of the great majority of novels, also of journalism and propaganda. Of course this kind of language use also reaches right down to many speech genres in everyday communication. Avid readers of such literature are likely unaware of its betrayal of the real; or at least, if they sense betrayal, they willingly suspend disbelief in order to keep the story, or the ideology, going.

The second level, Literature 2, is what interests Blanchot and, arguably, many serious literary readers today. In its basic gestures, Literature 2 is painfully aware of the shoddiness of language, its constant betrayal of the real and its often sinister untrustworthiness. This literature forefronts the problem of language by rigorously pushing language to its breaking point. For Blanchot, the most important, the most authentically literary of such work, is thus doggedly set on achieving its own failure. Teeth grit, it continues to spin out the nonsense of its utterly broken medium: language itself. Here, certainly, we can understand the French critic's admiration for Beckett's (non)accomplishment. Who failed more gloriously than Beckett?

What was of interest to me returning to this bleak Blanchotian territory was the question of whether or not Literature 2 really is necessarily a matter of failure. I am a firm believer both in the Hegelian insight regarding language's negative powers and in Blanchot's basic division of literature into two rough levels of rigor. But it is there in Literature 2, where the problem of language as negation is faced, that I may see things differently from Blanchot.

I'm thinking here of the Russian Formalist tradition, going back to Shklovsky, that sees in significant literary language an effort toward defamiliarization. In terms of breaking ideologies and frozen concepts, defamiliarizing poetics may liberate elements of the world from the dead or subjugated state to which both everyday language and Literature 1 have exiled them. Or, as Blanchot might put it, defamiliarization gives us something of "the reality of things . . . their unknown, free, and silent existence", what Critchely calls "things prior to their negation by language." (117) Is this work not one of positive recovery?

In this less bleak Formalist view, Literature 1 would be the level at which language negates the world. Literature 2 would be a counterattack: its work would be a negation of the negation, liberating some portion of "the reality of things". Does Blanchot's dogmatic pessimism, in other words, and Beckett's likewise, rest ultimately on something in the two writers' constitutions: a matter of their deep personal comportment toward the world? Cannot the same two-tiered presentation of Literature (1 and 2) be the basis for a kind of positive work of permanent revolution--Literature 2 as the only thing that might free us from the prison house of language?

There are in fact good reasons to be suspicious of such hopefulness. Where Shklovsky valued Sterne's Tristram Shandy as a supreme work in the canon, we may see today a parallel of such "liberating" notions of literary practice in the sterile unfolding of postmodern literature, which, as I believe Chesney would agree, has accomplished little by way of liberating us. It would seem to me in fact that postmodern aesthetics, once having attained dominance, managed only to further alienate us and make it more difficult for us even to formulate the problems we face.

In my view Chesney hits just the right tone in his description of what happened in the 1970s and 80s (a cultural shift that hit me as a high school student via the music and visual style of David Byrne and the Talking Heads--a style, moreover, by which I was immediately taken):
The arts decidedly entered into a new regime, the epoch of a new cultural dominant--the postmodern--which like any dominant has its aesthetic highs and lows, even if its criteria of value are exceedingly difficult to identify--or rather, to distinguish from pure market values. Performativity, poly-vocality, multi-perspectivism, heterogeneity, pastiche, eclecticism, double coding, fragmentariness, anti-realism, the melting of formal and generic borders, "indeterminance," "ontological uncertainty" (McHale) and so forth--many of these values or qualities are not so much different from modernist techniques per se, but different in tone--celebratory, playful and "liberating" (Hutcheon). (148-9)
Still taken by this postmodern ethos in some of its forms, and often practicing it as well in my own writing, I now see that as a dominant it has been mainly destructive--in some respects destructive precisely of what may have allowed us to remain alert and resistant. For me the phrase that especially sticks out in Chesney's words is "difficult to distinguish from pure market values". Indeed.

For those with a wider historical perspective, postmodernism has mainly succeeded in proving the sad truth behind a phrase I first heard in 1989: "Irony is destiny." As artists in the 80s and 90s, aware of the grand semiotic slippage that was culture, we donned the mask of the sardonic but liberating clown. This mask seemed so effective, so apt, that we kept it on at parties, in our politics, in our music, etc. Then there came a day when we realized the mask was no longer really helpful or even funny. But somehow we could no longer get it off our face. And the younger generation--we realized with a kind of horror--they had never seen anything but this mask. In fact it seemed that they understood this mask as the actual meaning of face. Come to think of it, if this was so, might we then say that our clowning had succeeded? Not at all. Rather, we had to face it that the mask had become a wedge dividing us from what needed to be done. But what was that? Could we even tell any more--with this clown face bending our every utterance, glaring back at us from every mirror?

Yes, as Chesney indicates, postmodernism has indeed become the "reigning dominant"; and is now, besides, indistinguishable from "market values".

Beckett's late work has almost nothing to do with this postmodern ethos. In many respects the difference is a matter of tone, but there is more to it than that. The very impetus behind Beckett's project is different. Rather than try to liberate the reader or the (dissolved) self, he seems to be trying to cling to something, all the while doing violence to it in order to keep it, to whatever degree, viable. What he clings to, as Adorno recognized, is a certain conception of art: art regardless of the collapse of all around it, including the self. This is why Chesney's reading of Beckett so stresses belatedness (Late Modernism): it is not merely an art or literary practice too late for High Modernism, but in some respects an art too late for art. Here is where we should seek the reason for Beckett's persistence. His driving question may be stated: Is it really, as it seems, all over for us? Here us could be defined variously: Europeans, artists, humans.

Chesney's short but suggestive chapter on twentieth-century art and theories of art offers needed perspective on the meaning of Beckett's minimalism. Unlike most of our major writers, Beckett was particularly conscious of literature's relations to the other arts, especially painting. Already in 1937, when he was thirty-one, he asked Axel Kaun via letter "if literature alone [was] to remain behind in the old lazy ways that have been so long ago abandoned by music and painting?" (106) Such remarks as this, combined with Beckett's extensive letter-writing on painting and his tramping about Europe in order to keep up with the work of contemporaries, suggest that his post-war work was in part an attempt to accomplish on the page what was being done by others on canvas.

Approaching the question of minimalism in art, Chesney quotes art critic Clement Greenberg writing in 1955:
It seems to be a law of modernism--thus one that applies to almost all art that remains truly alive in our time--that the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium be discarded as soon as they are recognized.
Five years later Greenberg would write: "The essence of Modernism lies . . . in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence." Chesney points out that although such developments in American art (on which Greenberg specialized) may seem far from Beckett, it is at least noteworthy that "the wonder years of Jackson Pollock (1947-1953), as well as the first triumphs of Abstract Expressionism . . . correspond exactly, though unrelatedly, to Beckett's tremendous 'frenzy of writing' . . . that produced the Nouvelles, the Trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone meurt, l'Innommable). . . and Godot. So too do related developments in the visual arts--and Beckett was a keen amateur of the visual arts--in Europe and the European tradition. . . ." (135-6)

Compared to writers, painters necessarily approach their work more as a matter of producing objects: the canvases that will stand on their own and convey what they will convey. This naturally leads painters to think of the work more in terms of its autonomy. Unlike a literary text, the canvas is not inevitably inscribed in anything so socially immediate as language--that everyday medium through which we negotiate our social being. Taking his cue from developments in visual art, Beckett sought to write works of a like abstraction and autonomy. He has been quoted saying of his work: "I produce an object. What people make of it is not my concern." (see The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, p. 67)

Which brings us to French critic Pascale Casanova's reading of Beckett. I believe Chesney returns to her work in his chapter on painting because this work, like the painting chapter itself, provides a useful bridge to his eventual turn to Adorno. In her 1997 study Beckett l'abstracteur (in English as Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution) Casanova offers a reading that treats the late prose texts as radically autonomous art objects, word machines painstakingly divorced, over a lifetime of labor, from any reference to reality or any fealty to the imperatives of representation. For Casanova, Beckett's Worstward Ho, which she sees as his supreme achievement, is "not the evocation of a nihilistic stance or the representation of ontological tragedy, but a kind of ultimate poetic art . . . a pure object of language which is totally autonomous since it refers to nothing but itself." (107) Chesney sees merit in this reading, and we might point out that it again underlines that quest for autonomy that Beckett may have adopted from the painters. What's more, this same radical autonomy may have ultimately, and somewhat paradoxically, expedited Adorno's Marxist reading of Beckett by forcing the philosopher to overcome this autonomy through critique. Indeed, such works as Beckett's throw down a gauntlet to all who think of literature as reflecting social realities: How is one to read these works? Chesney uses his remarks on Casanova to signal where he is headed in this study:
What seems lacking in Casanova's reading of Beckett, however compelling, is a larger theory of art's relationship to society. It is vital to understand artistic choices within a semi-autonomous field. Artists "think" in terms of their medium and they "know" this medium from the formal achievements of their predecessors and contemporaries in it. . . . But any given art system is only semi-autonomous, and is, of course, related . . . to society in general: the economy, technology, politics, and so on. Thus to understand the move to abstraction as characteristic of modern art, we must have some kind of theory of the relationship of art to society (in modernity) over and above detailed, sophisticated, formal and form-historical descriptions of the various artistic fields. (111-2)
Here Chesney turns away from Casanova and also from Blanchot by posing the simple question why. Not: does the turn to abstraction happen, or how does it happen, but why does it happen at this particular historical moment? In his fifth and sixth chapters, the hardest hitting of the book, Chesney will take up and develop Adorno's reading of Beckett as answer to this question.

The critical theory developed in the Frankfurt School of Social Research, and particularly by its greatest representative Theodor Adorno, offers the strongest reading both of Beckett's aesthetic and the historical meaning of that aesthetic. Where traditional Marxist approaches to Beckett could only find a decadent bourgeois escapism in such non-representational work (indeed Beckett shows nary a proletariat hurling a brick or working a saw) Adorno saw a revelatory index of the real historical situation. Chesney approaches Adorno's Beckett via a careful assessment of the philosopher's important essay on Endgame and a nuanced recapitulation of Adorno's aesthetics as found in his major works (Negative Dialectics, Aesthetic Theory, Minima Moralia). I will attempt a rough outline of this reading.

What does the Frankfurt School represent in relation to orthodox Marxism? The most salient feature differentiating Frankfurt School thought was the turn toward the valuation of consciousness as partly determinant of historical reality. Marx had theorized that base economic factors determined the content of consciousness (class consciousness, ideology, legal concepts, art, etc.) and that historical transformation depended on a given mode of production reaching its peak potential, upon which, unable to develop further, a revolutionary movement would arise to transform society, ushering in the next historical stage. Orthodox Marxist thinkers thus focused on analysis of economic factors (the extent of development of the capitalist system) and looked for signs of a growing proletarian class solidarity that would ultimately lead to revolution. Frankfurt School thinkers found this orthodox approach one-sided: it neglected the role ideology (consciousness) played in maintaining the capitalist order. Consciousness was not merely determined or projected by base economic factors, rather it was instrumental in ensuring a given society's economic order remained intact. In terms of the unjust capitalist system dominant in Europe and elsewhere, some Frankfurt School thinkers, among them Adorno, began to suspect the guardians of capitalist ideology might be able to keep the system intact indefinitely.

Beyond the turn toward consciousness, Adorno's thought effected an even more radical break from orthodox Marxism--a break, in fact, from Enlightenment tradition as a whole. The philosopher put into question the usefulness or neutrality of reason itself. If the culture created by Enlightenment had led to Auschwitz on the one hand and Stalinism on the other, was there not maybe something wrong at the very core of that culture? Adorno recognized that reason in modernity had attained to the status of myth. Unquestioned in itself, it had become a shiny fetish by means of which the horrors of the century had been justified. And who could predict what horrors it would justify in the future? In Negative Dialectics he wrote:
Auschwitz demonstrated irrefutably that culture has failed. That this could happen in the midst of the traditions of philosophy, of art, and of the enlightenment sciences says more than that these traditions and their spirit lacked the power to take hold of men and work a change in them. There is untruth in those fields themselves, in the autarky that is emphatically claimed for them. . . . All post-Auschwitz culture, including its urgent critique, is garbage . . . Whoever pleads for the maintenance of this radically culpable and shabby culture becomes its accomplice . . . (189-90)
In a culture so deeply corrupted, gone so thoroughly astray, what is the philosopher or artist to do? Adorno found part of an answer in the mature work of Samuel Beckett.

The high point of Adorno's engagement with Beckett is his essay on the play Endgame. First staged in 1958, Endgame is a starkly minimalist one-act drama that unfolds on a bleak stage between four characters--Hamm, Clov, Nagg and Nell--two of whom are reduced to near idiocy and remain ensconced in trash bins for the duration. The play was loosely conceived on the model of a chess game. We spectators watch the game's last useless moves. Beckett, who described the play as "more inhuman than Godot", commented on it as follows:
Hamm is a king in this chess game lost from the start. From the start he knows he is making loud senseless moves. That he will make no progress at all with the gaff. Now at the last he makes a few senseless moves as only a bad player would. A good one would have given up long ago. He is only trying to delay the inevitable end. Each of his gestures is one of the last useless moves which put off the end. He is a bad player. (Cambridge 70-1)
Giving a quick history of the reception of Adorno's essay on this play, Chesney argues persuasively that although it must be considered canonical in Beckett studies, its import hasn't yet been fully recognized. For Chesney, Adorno's essay represents a crucial opening of insight into not merely the play in question, but into Beckett's raison d'être as literary artist. Adorno's reading of Beckett begins from the general understanding of twentieth-century culture we've already glimpsed. He writes:
After the Second World War, everything, including a resurrected culture, has been destroyed without realizing it; humankind continues to vegetate, creeping along after events that even the survivors cannot really survive, on a rubbish heap that has made even reflection on one's own damaged state useless.
Adorno recognizes Endgame as a staging of the collapse of the Enlightenment subject: "Endgame assumes that the individual's claim to autonomy and being has lost its credibility." Chesney elaborates:
Endgame is the endgame of the subject, the truth of instrumental rationality realized in both Nazi death camps and American administered society. The subject, whose Enlightenment goal of rational domination of nature towards perfection and peace has been dominated by its own domination, its irrational rationality, has lost its autonomy, that for which it had conceived the Enlightenment project, and reason--having routed myth, dogma, and superstition--has, particularly in mathematics, logic, physics, and, today, economics, regressed to the status of timeless, unquestionable myth. As usual, this is a complex point for Adorno, for the autonomous subject is both the product of rationalization (the process of civilization, the long history of the formation of the self up to its distortion by irrational reason) and a refuge from utter domination (the place of happiness in, say, bourgeois art at its greatest period, and the last holdout against a uniform, reified society). (157-9)
If Endgame indeed stages this collapse as it occurs in twentieth-century Europe, how does it manage to do this while nowhere alluding to political parties, modern technology, fascism, the market, or the death camps? Isn't Beckett's play rather, as Marxists like Luckacs would claim, a work of bourgeois escapism? Isn't this a work, like nearly all Beckett's mature works, that precisely neglects to address historical reality?

Well, for one thing, neither Endgame nor any other Beckett work can be found attempting to construct anything resembling an ivory tower. Quite the contrary. If we take the work's radical minimalism and bleakness seriously, considered in its historical context, we see that it represents not an escape from so much as an indictment of society. For Adorno, bourgeois art and politics are all referred to in Beckett by the very absoluteness of their silencing. Beckett's is a negative art which makes itself as best it can out of what remains after the exclusion of all that is false.

Adorno had infamously claimed in 1955 that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric". Beckett's work led him to revise this judgment. Adorno's change on the possibility of a viable modern literature again shows his stark departure from the methods of orthodox Marxism.

If lyrical transcendence in its Romantic mode was barbaric, if even the "progressive" methods of socialist realism were compromised through their subservience to a bankrupt reason, how was literature to reflect social reality? In 1966, in a passage from Negative Dialectics that appears following a discussion of the loss of identity in Endgame, Adorno writes: "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems." Beckett's work represented such a scream through the very rigor of its own negative poetics: a poetics of subtraction, a teeth-clenched minimalism that refused to be diverted by the false hopes the world had on offer, whether through bourgeois ideology or the transcendence one might find in art. Beckett's aesthetic was in large measure an anti-aesthetic. Carrying a formidable rhetorical and artistic toolkit, the Irishman had struggled decades to build the very opposite of castles in the air. For Adorno, the withdrawal and autonomy of this work was its triumph as a social work. Endgame reflected the disaster of history in its very striving for autonomy.

Chesney contrasts Adorno's aesthetics with theories of engaged literature offered by his contemporaries:
According to Adorno's understanding of the autonomy of art, art is social and political, contra Brecht, Sartre, and so many others, precisely by its distance from the social and political, from everyday life, profit concerns, prises de position, and so forth. In a key definition . . . that weds a Marxist conception of art praxis to a Modernist conception of artistic autonomy, Adorno writes in the Aesthetic Theory: "By crystallizing in itself as something unique to itself, rather than complying with existing social norms and qualifying as 'socially useful,' [art] criticizes society by merely existing . . ." By silencing the chatter of the instrumental-communicative use of language, by resisting the market of exchange value in its complete uselessness and irrecuperability, the artwork accuses the very society of exchange where, as Mallarmé insisted, words themselves function like money. (156)
It was Adorno's rethinking of mimesis that allowed him to assert the Marxist validity of this aesthetics. Mimesis as traditionally formulated did not account for how radically autonomous artworks could also be read as dialectical representations of their historical situation. We might say that Adorno reconceived mimesis as a more primitive or animistic concept. He writes:
The communication of artworks with what is external to them, with the world from which they blissfully or unhappily seal themselves off, occurs through noncommunication. . . . That artworks as windowless monads 'represent' what they themselves are not can scarcely be understood except in that their own dynamic, their immanent historicity as a dialectic of nature and its domination, not only is of the same essence as the dialectic external to them but resembles it without imitating it.
Chesney glosses: "[A]rtworks speak to their historical situation not by speaking about it, but by embodying its constitutive contradictions." And how do they "embody" these contradictions if, indeed, they do not speak about them? Through animistic mimesis. Chesney: "[For Adorno] mimesis does not mean imitation through control, conceptual understanding, and realistic detail. Instead it indicates the intuitive impulse at the basis of the experience of the sensuous particularity of the world prior to clear distinctions of subject/object and even self/other." Chesney quotes Jay Bernstein in The Fate of Art: "Mimetic affinity is the primitive form of sympathy and compassion . . . Mimesis is appropriation without subsumption . . . As cognition [it] acknowledge the sensuous particularity of the other without dominating it." I've referred to this here as animistic mimesis because it describes the artist's relation the other as similar to that of a shaman to the spirit that invades him. In both cases, it is not a matter of domination but of reception and "mimetic comportment" toward the other.

Also important here is Adorno's rethinking of Walter Benjamin's concept of aura. Chesney writes of the artwork's aura under advanced capitalism:
The fundamental otherness of the object that had characterized pre-"Enlightenment" thought . . . is progressively lost to reification and rationalization, and retreats instead into the art object. . . . [The] unmasterable otherness of the work is crucial . . . beyond the aesthetic, as analogous to (or symbolic of) the unmasterable otherness of the other as such. The loss of aura then would be the possibly final loss of a certain kind of experience of otherness itself.
As Chesney puts it, Beckett's works are valuable not because they represent the writer's "experiences and pains. Nor do they express something universal, 'man's fate.' Rather they give voice (and silence) to a historically specific feeling of destitution and suffering." (167-9) This is how, for Adorno, these works manage to be in some respects adequate to the broken world in which they appeared. We may also note that through his heavy conceptual lifting here Adorno has accomplished something of a theoretical impossibility: a Marxist theory of art that is also an aestheticism. The philosopher succeeded in dropping neither of the poles toward which, on the one hand, gravitate materialist theories of art, and, on the other, art for art's sake or idealist theories of art.

Chesney's discussion of Late Modernism and belatedness in thinkers like Fredric Jameson (and also Adorno) offers much to consider, but here a few remarks will have to suffice. As I've hinted above, Chesney reads Beckett as a major European modernist working not simply chronologically later than the usual decades given for that movement but, more essentially, later even than the possibility of such work. This was Beckett's particular agon: to continue making art in a world where, as Adorno might say, art in its usual modes could be nothing but barbaric. Both as a man and as artist Beckett indeed had something of the heroic about him. He was a decorated fighter in the French Resistance, and his work has often been remarked for its palpable element of struggle, its "virile strength" of language, as J.M. Coetzee wrote. As Modernist, Chesney might say, Beckett was one of the last left standing: paring down, subtracting, but standing. Beginning as Joycean wit he ended by transcribing a barely audible voice at the very margin of silence. This silence was something that both threatened (as true ending) and something that beckoned. Here one may recall Blanchot's notion of the writer as one who works bravely toward a foreseen failure, and one who, after that failure, continues working. As Beckett put it: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Chesney's multifaceted reading of this struggle (taking in philosophy, contemporary art, ethics, aesthetics) has answered my own questions regarding that persistence of Beckett's that had nagged me as enigma. Regardless of the length of my review here (if that's what it even should be called) I've not touched on several of the most interesting questions. Specifically: How does Beckett's work, in the thinking of Adorno and others such as Jay Bernstein, suggest a minimal hope regardless of its radical hopelessness? Chesney's discussion of Adorno addresses this question, and his several glances at Jay Bernstein's work since the 1990s suggest new directions of study which may, for me at least, lead to ways of bridging what remain quite separate poles in my intellectual development: first, a concern for theological questions, the meaning of theological language in the modern/postmodern world; second, a concern for traditional literary genres, their various breakdowns, and what these breakdowns or metamorphoses reveal (how they may be made fruitful); third, a commitment to the political left and to seeking ways the left may again be effective against the totalizing neoliberalism now leading us to ruin.

Chesney has written a brilliant reassessment of Beckett, one that should also help in further defining a Late Modernism distinct from Postmodernism. On the basis of this reading I am led again to the question of what is gained by readers like myself who frequently return to Beckett. My own experience reading Beckett--how is it a matter both of reveling in the black humor and feeling a kind of awe? Awe before what? Before Beckett's writerly genius? Perhaps. But is there something else? Maybe there is, something, Adorno might insist, that remains unsaid, being impossible to say in the 20th century Europe Beckett knew.

Check Duncan Chesney's Silence Nowhen: Late Modernism, Minimalism, and Silence in the Work of Samuel Beckett at

Some of the best of Samuel Beckett:


Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable

The Complete Short Prose of Samuel Beckett

Endgame and Act Without Words

I Can't Go On, I'll Go On: A Samuel Beckett Reader
Critical works and sources:
Duncan Chesney: Silence Nowhen: Late Modernism, Minimalism, and Silence in the Work of Samuel Beckett

Adorno's essay on Endgame can be found in his collection Notes to Literature, Volume 1

Pascale Casanova: Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution

The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Beckett

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