Beckett and Phenomenology reviewed in Journal of Beckett Studies

By | November 6, 2012

We are delighted with this excellent book review for Beckett and Phenomenology (and all-round excellent piece of writing on Beckett and Philosophy) by Russell Smith in the Journal of Beckett Studies:

It’s easy to see why Beckett looked like a
phenomenologist to earlier generations of critics: many of his characteristic
preoccupations – the nature of consciousness, sensory perception and embodied
experience – mirror phenomenological themes, while Waiting
for

Godot was
virtually a case study of the existentialists’ problem of meaningful action in
a meaningless world. Then again, it’s easy enough to see why the generations
reared on deconstruction developed an intolerance to even minute traces of
phenomenology: in their passion to construct a deconstructionist Beckett, phenomenology
–with its subject-centredness and its neglect of language – seemed incapable of
accounting for Beckett’s decentred subjects adrift among self-reflexive
linguistic aporias.

But as Maude and Feldman point out, this
dismissal of phenomenology ‘has often stemmed from misreadings of
deconstructive theory’ which have misconstrued the influence of Husserl on Derrida
and overlooked later developments of phenomenology itself. Husserl’s
‘transcendental phenomenology’ sought, through the famous epoché, to
establish the a
priori
conditions
under which phenomena appear to the consciousness of a perceiving subject. But
long before Derrida launched his critique of Husserl’s ‘phenomenology of
presence’, the ‘big three’ post-Husserlian phenomenologists had begun to address
these blind-spots: Heidegger on the temporality and ‘enworldedness’ of the
subject, Sartre on the ethicality of the subject as both in-itself and
for-itself, and Merleau- Ponty on the embodied nature of subjectivity and the
many ways in which the body fails to be present at its own experiences.

This volume (Beckett and Phenomenology) is divided into two parts. The first
four essays consider Beckett’s work in the light of each of the ‘big four’,
while the remaining seven essays consider various phenomenological themes in
relation to Beckett’s work, both in terms of its internal thematics (such as
Paul Sheehan’s fascinating essay on the paradoxes of the Beckettian
‘phenomenology of sleep’), and in terms of the theoretical elaboration of a
‘phenomenology of reading’ (via Ingarden, Iser and Hirsch) capable of dealing
with the unique interpretive challenges of Beckett’s prose…

Of the many excellent pieces in the second
part of the book, two in particular stand out. Daniel Katz’s ‘What Remains of
Beckett: Evasion and History’ returns to a topic that has received sustained attention
in recent years: the relation of texts such as Endgame and The Lost
Ones
to
the historical event of the Nazi genocide, and in particular to Adorno’s notion
of an ‘image ban’ governing its representation. Following David Houston Jones’s
excellent recent work, Katz draws out affinities between Giorgio Agamben’s elaboration
of Primo Levi’s ‘paradox of the witness’ – the true witness cannot bear witness
– and Beckett’s own sense of the impossible obligation of expression. Katz
shows how Beckett responds ‘through a not-saying, although such a not-saying
implies a pointing not only to the place where the image does not appear,
but to the ban which prohibits it’. What is most productive in Katz’s essay is
his rigorous interrogation of the more slippery moves in Agamben’s reasoning,
especially its use of Levinas’s account of shame, and Katz ends by opening up questions
for further work concerning Beckett’s bilingualism, the ethics of speaking by
proxy, and the shameful impossibility of escaping one’s own subjectivation.

Finally, Chris Ackerley’s essay provides a
fascinating introduction to the ‘phenomenology of annotation’ and the grounds by
which, according to E.D. Hirsch, an annotator determines the ‘validity’ of an
interpretation based on ‘a distinct context of relevant knowledge’. Ackerley is,
of course, the pre-eminent annotator of Beckett’s works, and this engaging
account offers a behind-the-scenes look at the annotator’s work, both the
invisible hosts of factual minutiae that crowd the margins of the text, and the
annotator’s triage of validity and relevance, in working towards, not a
‘correct’, but a ‘better’ interpretation. Ackerley stresses in particular its
essential relation to ‘ordinary reading practice’, shuttling between a
‘divinatory moment’ or ‘imaginative guess’, and a critical activity of ‘raising
interpretive guesses to the level of knowledge’.

Beckett
and Phenomenology
inevitably returns us to the indispensable chestnut of ‘Beckett
and Philosophy’, and what that particular ‘and’ might mean. I would argue,
along with some of the contributors here, that Beckett’s writing is most
interesting in the ways that it refuses philosophy, keeps it at arm’s length where it provides material
but never method. But when Beckett told interviewer Tom Driver in 1961 ‘I am
not a philosopher’, he made it clear that the particular kind of philosopher
that he was not was a Sartre or a Heidegger. Phenomenology has a special status
in this refusal, and as Shane Weller points out here, Beckett knew their work
well enough to insist on its categorical difference from his own project. This
‘not’ is a useful counterbalance to the implied intimacy of the ‘and’ in Beckett
and Phenomenology
. The nec tecum nec sine te of Beckett’s relation to philosophy, and phenomenology in
particular, remains an open question to which this book makes, after all these
years, an inaugural contribution.

Beckett and Phenomenology– Edited by Ulrika Maude and Matthew
Feldman, Beckett and Phenomenology compares and contrasts Beckett’s work with key
figures in phenomenology and analyses phenomenological themes and their
dramatization in his work. It is now available to buy in paperback. You can read the first 30 pages of the book for free here!

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