David Tucker is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and currently teaches at the University of Oxford, UK. He is the editor of British Social Realism in the Arts since 1940 (Palgrave, 2011) and author of the latest book in our Historicizing Modernism series – Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx: Tracing 'a literary fantasia' – the first full-length study of Samuel Beckett’s fascination with the seventeenth-century philosopher Arnold Geulincx. In this interview we ask David what fascinated him about their relationship, and how it changes our understanding of Beckett and his work.
What is the book about? How does it approach Beckett differently from other critical approaches?
It’s about Beckett’s interest in the obscure seventeenth-century philosopher Arnold Geulincx, and how this interest comes through in Beckett’s work. It uses some archival materials to help explore how and why Beckett thought of aspects of his own work as indebted to this idiosyncratic thinker. But while Beckett’s interest in Geulincx is itself a very interesting topic of study, it’s also one that allows a way of thinking about the historical developments of Beckett’s work more broadly. So I’d say the approach the book takes differs from others in that it’s sort of an experiment with using a finite set of resources to really try and trace across what Beckett called his ‘series’ or works in a search for continuities, breakages and broader shifts. I quite like that in sympathy with Beckett’s own works the project foregrounds a kind of minimalism, or sparseness, as integral to its own methodology and ways of ‘going on’.
What drew you to writing about Samuel Beckett’s relationship with Arnold Geulincx?
At one time I formally studied philosophy myself, but I was increasingly drawn to modern literature and to Beckett in particular, and I became fascinated by Beckett’s range of reference and how he distils complex and divergent ideas into something very much his own. Researching Beckett’s research into Geulincx meant I could study Beckett’s own studies, so to speak. It allowed me to navigate across disciplines in the context of Beckett’s specific ‘uses and abuses’ of philosophy for literature. So I’d say that the book is also therefore my own kind of fantasia at the same time as it navigates Beckett’s. It’s as much a licence to think creatively about Beckett as an empirically grounded historical narrative.
What was the most exhilarating aspect of your research for Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx?
Discovering some empirical fragments, previously hidden letters, drafts, that sort of thing that helped make the historical cases for what I’d started to believe and intuit about movements across the texts and years. So simply finding places Beckett discusses Geulincx that recur more regularly than previously noted by scholars, or fitting together various versions of the short story The End, and also thinking about puppetry in the late works. It’s exciting when otherwise archived materials can help support you out there on an interpretive limb.
In 1936 Beckett referred to ‘my Geulincx’ as ‘a literary fantasia’ – can you explain what he meant by this?
It’s probably no surprise that I talk about that quote a bit in the book. Fantasia is a strikingly un-Beckettian word to use, and as far as I know there’s no record of his using it again in the sort of way in which he uses it to describe Geulincx. He contrasts it with the word ‘Fach’, a German word used to classify Opera singers, and I describe how he’s giving himself license to interpret and reuse Geulincx however he sees fit, broaching generic boundaries rather than staying within a strict category, much as he does with his reading of Schopenhauer when he calls him a ‘tremendous thinker-poet’. The musical metaphors are just one instance of how Beckett can morph one type of knowledge into something else.
What originally inspired you to study Samuel Beckett? What does he mean to you professionally? And personally?
When I first read Beckett I was very suddenly and wholly captivated by what appeared to be somehow impossible objects – his books seemed like they just somehow couldn’t exist, but evidently they did. In 1970 Leo Bersani wrote that “The metaphysical pathos of Beckett’s work is that it exists”, and I’ve wondered if that might get close to the sort of presentiment I had that first time reading Beckett. There was something paradoxical about his major prose works, though not in a solely formal, experimental way, but on an affective level. I was aged about twenty, so there you have it; impossible beauty and outmoded terms like ‘authenticity’.
“Professionally” Beckett means a vibrant and supportive community of scholars, and a lot of high-quality work.
In fifty years time, what will resonate with future generations about the life, works and philosophy of Samuel Beckett?
Tough one. Not least because many other truly great authors, like Dante, Shakespeare or Joyce for instance, often had a wide, inclusive approach to experience and the world. So we can go to them on virtually any topic and find it there somehow. Beckett famously strove, paradoxically, for kinds of incapacity (something that’s also central to Geulincx’s thought). I think he’ll always be a lesson in singular creative vision and originality, and hopefully this would temper any of the broad grey miserablism that sometimes accompanies his reputation.
What quote typifies Samuel Beckett?
That’s one problem of his reception, I think, in his being encapsulated in sound-bite style quotes. I’ve seen them on mugs, sewn and framed, everywhere. I guess he had it coming though; after all, he did it a fair amount himself, not least with Geulincx’s ‘wherein you have no power, therein you should not will’.
What will your next book explore?
I’m scheduled to co-edit Beckett’s complete non-fiction prose – which is a very exciting project and will keep me busy for a while – as well as write a short-ish book on and produce a complete genetic edition of Beckett’s four Nouvelles for the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. After that, I really don’t know. I edited a book on British social realism recently, and I’d like to do some more work along that line, as well as try to find ways to write on some entirely new projects. There are too many things and not enough time, basically.
And finally, if readers only had time to read one book by Samuel Beckett, what would you suggest and why?
At the moment I seem to be going through a phase of interest in late works, works produced after those on which a reputation will rest. Whoever’s – Beckett’s or anyone’s. I like the kinds of sudden, unexpected veering turns in late works that nevertheless occur within a highly coherent system. Is that too abstract? Like in some of Bob Dylan’s witty late songs, where a self-consciously sentimental or traditional-style chorus suddenly anchors an otherwise disjointed narrative, or perhaps in the flashes of a certain shade of red in Lucian Freud. So along these lines maybe Company, where misty recollected sometimes semi-autobiographical scenes appear and dissipate again. Just that moment of the narrator suddenly standing still in the middle of a field, which I write about a bit in my book, is masterful. Beckett can really break your heart with just a description of someone standing, or of moving their hand up to their head as they sit in a chair in the short piece ‘Still’.
Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx: Tracing 'a literary fantasia' is now available to buy. Later this afternoon we'll be posting up an extract from the Introduction so check back on our blog or follow us on twitter so you can read it hot off the press!
To see all the other books in our Historicizing Modernism series click here