Tracing a Literary Fantasia: an extract from Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx

By | June 1, 2012

'With a few chapters left to write of Murphy in January 1936, Samuel Beckett ventured within what he called ‘the abhorred gates’ of Trinity College, Dublin library for the first time since resigning from a teaching post at his old University 4 years earlier. He returned repeatedly to the library over the following 3 months to transcribe extensive notes from the works of the little-known post-Cartesian philosopher of ‘Occasionalism’ Arnold Geulincx (1624–69). It was not a small undertaking, and it was also not the first time Beckett had encountered Geulincx. Earlier in the 1930s he had taken notes on the obscure thinker as part of the 267 pages of ‘Philosophy Notes’, where he wrote a brief section on Occasionalism as part of a genealogy derived from one of his compendium source books for philosophical history, Wilhelm Windelband’s A History of Philosophy (1901).

Following these two research projects, Beckett went on to name Geulincx in Murphy and Molloy, as well as in personal correspondence. As a consequence of all this, Geulincx has long been recognized as a name of some importance for Beckett. From the very first collection of articles on Beckett in 1959 and the first single-author monograph in 1961, to C. J. Ackerley’s work in 1998, which shed new light on Beckett’s uses of philosophy in Murphy , and publication in 2006 of the first ever English translation of Geulincx’s Ethica as Ethics in an edition that includes translations of Beckett’s 1936 transcriptions from that work, as well as further publications since 2006 that make use of the new Ethics, there are numerous studies devoting sections to Geulincx’s importance for Beckett.

Nevertheless, and a little surprisingly, no full-length study has explored the relationship. Is there any real need for one now, given how much information is already in the public domain? The extent to which Beckett mentions Geulincx by name or deploys terminology derived from the philosopher, not only in his fiction and drama and drafts of these but in personal correspondence as well, is in fact yet to be fully recognized. Consequently, the possibility of Beckett’s long-term thinking about Geulincx has been proposed only rarely, and explored with precision even less. Beckett names Geulincx or mentions Geulingian terms such as ‘autology’ in some 17 separate instances of correspondence. This correspondence spans three decades and itself powerfully counters a hypothesis that Geulincx for Beckett was merely an early, throwaway reference, one easily exhausted of limited potential before being forgotten.

Tracing ‘a literary fantasia’ follows a route through Beckett’s oeuvre that finds a mutable, protean Geulincx whose importance lies variously between the views most commonly put forward on the topic. It argues that Geulincx’s importance can most clearly and persuasively be identified in discrete moments of text, and yet also that these moments speak of broader shifts in Beckett’s aesthetics. ‘Moments’ in Beckett’s works, be they of fragmentary recollection, as a sudden slippage of one realm of existence into another, as a pause in the otherwise seemingly perpetual stream of unlovable experience in the world, even as an amalgam of all three, are vital. To disregard them can be to fail to take note of an important minor key in Beckett’s work that finds a realm of tangible experience opposable, albeit at times with futility, to a void of forgetting and, paradoxically, to impermanence.  This brief look at a specific type of ‘moment’, however, is not to intimate that when Geulincx comes to the fore of a text his presence thereby consistently manifests a moment of pause or opposition to impermanence, even though this might sometimes be the case. Rather, it is merely to assert the less controversial primacy in Beckett’s oeuvre of the fragmentary, the momentary and the half- forgotten. As will be seen, it is frequently in the context of these important foci that Beckett brings Geulincx to bear.

In 1936 Beckett tantalizingly referred to ‘my Geulincx’ as ‘a literary fantasia’. By writing ‘my Geulincx’ Beckett pointed to the existence of a version of the philosopher that existed privately, for himself. At the same time, Geulincx as ‘a literary fantasia’ implies that this individual version is unfixed, open to change, to spontaneity in the somewhat non-Beckettian notion of fantasy. The chapters of this book argue that for Beckett, Geulincx was indeed changeable, and was thus not simply a fixed paradigm of interiority or solipsism, even with due notice taken of the philosopher’s emphasis on what he calls inspectio sui (inspection of the self).  Nor is ‘my Geulincx’ a monomaniacal rationalist, whose spring might be wound while Beckett and the reader laugh together at the follies of ‘philosophy’, ‘language’ or even hubristic ‘worldliness’. Primarily, Geulincx’s ethics as derived from his metaphysics have implications for Beckett’s altering conceptions of freedom, incapacity and impossibility, and these conceptions morph and re-morph in interrelated realignments with Beckett’s altering aesthetic focus. I argue that multifaceted attentiveness to the various ways in which Geulincx is implicitly invoked, explicitly cited and even avoided entirely in different published works as well as in the grey canon, is required if the extent of his importance across the changeable impetuses of Beckett’s oeuvre is to be properly understood

Chapter 1 of this book introduces Beckett’s interest in Geulincx and his transcriptions from the philosopher’s works, and discusses a lineage of correspondence dating from 1936 to 1967 in which Beckett cites or alludes to Geulincx. Chapter 2 builds on this groundwork by proposing a chronology of Murphy ’s composition that reveals Geulincx’s importance to that novel to be as a frame of reference located predominantly in Murphy ’s later stages, but with important caveats. Chapter 3 investigates Geulincx’s presence in drafts of Watt, and argues that this presence is predominantly refined out of the novel’s final stages at the same time as it becomes variously hidden and subsumed. Chapter 4  focuses in on a specific paragraph that names Geulincx in the short prose text Suite , a text that became La Fin / The End . Chapter 5 traces the consequences of an aesthetic attitude that sought to rid itself of overt learning through imagery derived from Geulincx in Molloy , Malone meurt / Malone Dies and L’Innommable / The Unnamable , this last as a novel that also enacts certain of Geulincx’s ethical principles in the performativity of narrative voice. The final chapter argues that there are highly refined and abstracted reengagements with Geulincx that can be located in Comment c’est / How It Is , Act Without Words 1 , ‘Still’ and in certain of the later television plays read as a reinvigorated fascination with puppetry that is also owed to Beckett’s reading Heinrich von Kleist.

This full-length study finds that Geulincx’s altering and recurring presences across Beckett’s oeuvre bear new, and close, scrutiny; they are more thoroughly embedded within this body of work than previously noted by scholars, and in this they frequently reflect broader changing concerns, as what Beckett called his ‘series’ of works develops. Much as he had been in 1936, Geulincx and his singular philosophy remained for Beckett a lens though which a number of curious matters might continue to be observed.'

Samuel Beckett and Arnold GeulincxThe edited extract above is taken from the Introduction to Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx: Tracing 'a literary fantasia' now available to buy in the UK (and publishing in the US in July).

‘Every now and again, rarely, a book comes along that offers a definitive account of a particularly vexing critical question – this study is one of them. Drawing on a range of published and unpublished materials, David Tucker offers a comprehensive and sensitive examination of the role Geulincx plays in Beckett’s writing and aesthetics, and in doing so makes us think differently about Beckett’s work.’ Mark Nixon, Director, Beckett International Foundation, and Lecturer, University of Reading, UK

You can read our interview with the author David Tucker, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and currently teaches at the University of Oxford, here.

Jenny Tighe

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