Beckett and Death in the Journal of Beckett Studies

By | November 6, 2012

The Journal of Beckett Studies have been very kind to us lately – first, this review of Beckett and Phenomenology, and now this excellent article and review of Beckett and Death:

As Barfield and Tew note in their insightful critical foreword to Beckett and Death, it is almost unbelievable, given the central place of death in Beckett’s work, that such a volume has not appeared before. Beckett and Death addresses an underexplored area in Beckett criticism, or at least one which, despite its inescapability, has received few booklength treatments. Noting the exceptional status of Critchley’s and Ricks’s work in this context, Barfield and Tew go on to observe that death is ‘so uncannily, so uniquely productive in such different ways in Beckett’s texts, that it almost seems pointless to talk of it as a mere preoccupation’. The volume goes on to document a dizzying range of the modes of deathly production in Beckett, ranging from All That Fall and More Pricks than Kicks to the legacy of Jung, Mauthner and Augustine within Beckett’s work.

Augustine is the subject of Elizabeth Barry’s rich essay on the rhetoric of dying, and Barry aptly notes the ongoing enigma which Augustine represents within Beckett criticism, ‘often cited but not yet completely understood’. In particular, Barry’s analysis highlights the crucial but so far underdocumented correspondence between the imaginative use of narrative voice in their work. There are fascinating insights here into the parallel between Augustine’s circuire and the Unnamable’s journey back to the fold, both of which involve rhetorical, as well as spatial, round-aboutness. Most telling of all, though, is the material on the figure of distentio in Augustine, and Augustine’s perplexity with the verb moritur itself. As Barry says, there follows a pun worthy of Beckett: ‘as the thing it signifies [death] cannot be declined in fact, so the word itself [ie, the verb] cannot be declined in speech’. One has the sense here of new territory opening up, as Augustine continues to shed important light on the physical decline which so dominates the Beckett oeuvre and the rhetorical declensions through which it is articulated. Augustine is revisited in Paul Stewart’s essay on ‘Sterile Reproduction’, which focuses on the hope in All that Fall that suffering can be brought to an end by not renewing the species. Dan Rooney’s desire to kill some ‘young doom’ is recontextualised by reference to Schopenhauer and, via Jonathan Dollimore, the early Christian fathers and Augustine. For Julie Campbell, meanwhile, All That Fall exemplifies the specific connection between the omnipresence of death and the possibilities of radio drama. Campbell links the ‘dark comedy’ of the play to another form of darkness, that of the listener who, alone in the dark, constructs the fictive world of All that Fall from a soundscape with no form of visual corroboration. As she argues, ‘sound has the ability to portray a truth hidden by the “mask” of the visual, physical image’. That ability has significant implications for our reading of the play which, as Campbell notes, also contains the first unmistakable reference to the lecture by Jung attended by Beckett in 1935. Peter Fifield’s essay turns from Jung to neuropsychology, providing important evidence of Beckett’s knowledge of specific forms of clinical memory loss. Noting the status of ‘confabulation’ as a clinical term, Fifield links Beckett’s amnesiacs to ‘temporal morbidity’ and the imaginary creation of the past as a response to amnesia. The result is an original reading of the Trilogy, and new parallels are drawn with Korsakoff’s syndrome and A.R. Luria’s The Man with a Shattered World.

The contributions by Mark Nixon, Seán Lawlor and Steven Matthews address the place of death in Beckett’s body of work as a whole. Nixon’s essay links the advertisedly uncertain textual status of many works, such as From an Abandoned Work, to the troubled thematics of dying: ‘Beckett’s attempts to “fail better” as he puts it, are thus signposted by titles such as “For to End Yet Again”, so that it is now quite common to view Beckett’s entire oeuvre as a work in progress’. These are important questions in discussions of Beckett’s body of work, which continue to be dogged by Beckett’s reflexive titles and emphasis on the oeuvre as serial (one might add the bodily thematics of the titles and their imperfect correspondence between languages). For Nixon, ‘Beckett viewed the act of writing as comparable, even concomitant with, the process of living’, hence the textual instability which accompanied Beckett’s search for means of expression for declining life. The corpus as a whole is also at stake in Seán Lawlor’s essay, ‘ “O Death where is thy sting?” Finding words for the big ideas’, albeit in a different sense. Lawlor is concerned with More Pricks than Kicks, a corpus which both reflects the thematics of death and itself poses questions of life and corporeality.

Steven Matthews, meanwhile, is concerned with Beckett’s ‘late style’, applying the framework of Edward Said’s On Late Style to Beckett’s late work. Said’s is an appropriately subtle model, identifying in some authors a reconciliation between ‘bodily condition and aesthetic style’ and in others a refusal of harmony and resolution. Beckett, for Matthews, is of the latter camp, producing a late phase whose emphasis on speaking of and to the dead produces singular dilemmas of voice: ‘in these late works, to speak is to become posthumous to oneself, to become “no longer oneself”. The act of speaking, especially when speaking “close to death”, opens the self, andwords themselves, to repetition as a plurality of deaths, to the inability to speak of the dead as single and unique at the very moment when it is necessary and responsible to do so’. The analysis is an important one, and produces further parallels between Beckett and Derrida’s analysis of mourning.Matthews refers in detail to the Sottisier Notebook, and there are rich ‘late’ pickings here, although one sometimeswonders whether the problematic of voice and death in fact stretches back to earlier phases of Beckett’s career too. Shane Weller’s essay considers the ‘politics of death’ in Beckett’s work, revisiting Adorno’s reading of Beckettian suffering and its later consideration by Terry Eagleton and H. Porter Abbott. For Adorno’s Beckett, Weller argues, death takes on a radical political charge, as it comes to represent the dream of a world without suffering: ‘through his “pictures” of death, through his making of death a condition devoutly to be wished, Beckett would offer us the only tenable critique of both totalitarianism and capitalism’. Following this critique, Eagleton becomes an advocate of a ‘Beckett of the Left’, while Porter Abbott sees in Beckettian death a form of utopia, so that death’s political charge is countered by a metaphysical charge. Weller’s conclusion transcends the dichotomy, linking Beckett’s work to that of Sade via the conception of the ‘republic’, and a radical reconfiguration of the relation between suffering, pleasure and freedom. This, then, is an important volume which boldly tackles the near-omnipresence of death in Beckett, and sensitively accounts for the multiple forms it takes. One senses, inevitably, that Beckett’s dead still have much to say.

Beckett and DeathBeckett and Death, edited by Steven Barfield, Matthew Feldman and Philip Tew, analyses a number of Beckett's poems, plays and short stories through consideration of mortality and death. It is now available to buy in paperback – you can find out more by visiting our website.

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