Prior to his first major work as a writer of fiction, the young Samuel Beckett made his mark as a critic and advocate of modernist writing. In 1929, at age twenty-three, he was among the handpicked contributors to a volume of encomium and explication of James Joyce's magnum opus in progress, eventually to become Finnegans Wake . Beckett's essay for the volume, "Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce," exhibits the young Trinity graduate's formidable learning and analytic skills, along with his unsteady tone, which from page to page careens from pedantry to snarling polemic, between scornful detachment and the enthusiasm of a true believer in Joyce's "revolution of the word." In 1930, after an exchange year in Paris as a lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure, he was commissioned to write a monograph on the writings of Marcel
Proust (published 1931). And throughout the midthirties, he continued his critical work by reviewing contemporary Irish and European literature for newspapers and literary periodicals.
These critical essays provide a crucial point of reference in tracing the formation of Samuel Beckett as a writer shaped by both the specifically Irish cultural context and continental modernist literary trends. Recent critics such as Richard Kearney, J. C. C. Mays, and John P. Harrington have argued that these early critical texts reveal the previously underestimated extent of Beckett's cognizance of and involvement in Irish cultural debates. In his essays and reviews, they suggest, Beckett worked out an artistic and cultural-political stance against the backdrop of an almost absurdly restrictive censorship law and a rising tide of anticosmopolitan Catholic nativism. Yet while such contextual readings of this early work fill an important gap in the Beckett criticism, more relevant for my purpose is Beckett's early encounter with modernist tendencies ranging from the cosmopolitanism of English-speaking expatriates in France to the cultural differences of French, German, Italian, and Spanish modernist writers.
Both the Joyce and the Proust essays reveal their author as a committed modernist initiate. In the Joyce essay, Beckett provokes his reader with a sneering swipe at the habit of "rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense," a kind of reading that might be appropriate to the mawkish realism of the Victorian novel and its contemporary heirs but not to Work in Progress's pages and pages of "direct expression." Similarly, Beckett notes with approval Proust's disdain for descriptive literature, "for the realists and naturalists worshipping the offal of experience, prostrate before the epidermis and the swift epilepsy, and content to transcribe the surface, the facade, behind which the Idea is prisoner." He argues that in contrast to naturalistic description, "the Proustian procedure is that of Apollo flaying Marsyas and capturing without sentiment the essence, the Phrygian waters" (Proust , 59).
Overall, Beckett stresses the modernists' attempt, through formal innovation and involution, to tap into the source and essence of literature. Language, form, and content constitute a unity that supersedes any "partial" system of values. The artist must concentrate firmly on the world to be disclosed within the work of art, not on some part of the world he might reflect, in a conventionalized mimesis, by means of it: "For Proust the quality of language is more important than any system of ethics or aesthetics. Indeed he makes no attempt to dissociate form from content. The one is a concretion of the other, the revelation of a
world" (Proust , 67). Correlatively, Beckett champions works in which the text's meaning devolves on the material and formal properties of its artistic language, projecting a new form of hieroglyphic immediacy, a writing free of the codes and conventions governing ordinary signification yet marked by the deepest rigor of craft. Beckett calls this communication "direct expression" in the Joyce essay (Disjecta , 26) and "auto-symbolism" in Proust (60). By attending to the intrinsic qualities of literature—above all, to literature's existence in and as language—he implies, the writer risks the freedom of experience outside the stable mental, moral, and linguistic frames that render everyday life intelligible. Experience beyond these limits is close kin to madness, both because unintelligibility appears mad to those content to stay within the commonplace and because the line between radical art and insanity is all too easily crossed. Yet willingness to suffer for authentic experience is, in the critical view of the young Beckett, the test of the modern artist's integrity.
Beckett delineates here a rationale for modernist literature similar to that later articulated by Michel Foucault in Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things). In its efforts to uncover the essence and source of language, Foucault argues, modern literature confronts those structures that constitute the limits of "the world"—a world mediated by the grids and codes of intelligibility, by the architecture of propositions rendering the unknown knowable. Literature becomes a "counterdiscourse" to the discourses of the natural and human sciences: a collocation of darknesses in the midst of their illuminating sentences, a mutism and madness at the heart of reasonable speech. Literature, Foucault writes, "encloses itself within a radical intransitivity . . . and becomes merely a manifestation of a language which has no other law than that of affirming . . . its own precipitous existence." In Foucault's view, this intransitive language emerges most clearly in relation to real madness—for example, that of the writers Raymond Roussel and Antonin Artaud—because the experience of limits that literature represents points to an impossible, unbearable, in-sane experience of spaces and intensities outside these limits. In his earlier study Madness and Civilization , Foucault argues that madness is the moment of truth of the work of modern art and at the same time its abolition. Modern art and madness are imbricated in a paradoxical dialectic:
There is no madness except as the final instant of the work of art—the work endlessly drives madness to its limits; where there is a work of art, there is no madness ; and yet madness is contemporary with the work of art, since it
inaugurates the time of its truth. The moment when, together, the work of art and madness are born and fulfilled is the beginning of the time when the world finds itself arraigned by that work of art and responsible before it for what it is.
Taken to its acme, modernist art realizes the "absence of the work"—the madness that was all along the truth of the modernist artwork yet unrealizable as (that) work. Both madness and its manifestation in the modernist artwork contest the "reasonable" world of knowledge, labor, and rationalized bureaucratic power.
Analogously, Beckett appeals to a holistic mental experience as essential to art, an experience able to include not just the rationally or traditionally sanctioned but also the radically new or "other." In a defense of the poet Denis Devlin in a 1938 review, he thus asserts the comprehensive scope of artistic consciousness against restrictive demands for "clarity": "The time is perhaps not altogether too green for the vile suggestion that art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear, any more than the light of day (or night) makes the subsolar, -lunar and -stellar excrement. Art is the sun, moon, and stars of the mind, the whole mind" (Disjecta , 94). The "whole mind," Beckett implies, includes not just the rational portions but those that are irrational, silent, or mad as well. Devlin's creativity, he concludes, allows "a minimum of rational interference"; his "is a mind aware of its luminaries" (Disjecta , 94). In a dialogue between Belacqua and "the Mandarin" in Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the abandoned precursor of More Pricks Than Kicks , Belacqua offers a related view of Beethoven and Rimbaud: "I was speaking of . . . the incoherent continuum as expressed by, say, Rimbaud and Beethoven. . . . The terms of whose statements serve merely to delimit the reality of the insane areas of silence, whose audibilities are no more than punctuation in a statement of silences. How do they get from point to point." The "statements" of modern art return to the source of music or literature, revealing in their singular concentration on sound or language an alter-ity inherent to the medium: the silence and in-significance from which music and language emerge. They set figure and ground in play, exposing the limits of humanly produced significance by making sensible, as a kind of dim halo around the work, the madness and contingency kept at bay by the artist's imposition of aesthetic necessity.
These arguments of Beckett and Foucault, intended to defend and legitimate modernist writing, also reflect general assumptions and
concerns of modernism. Although peculiarly inflected, their concern with a self-reflective, self-referential, essentializing practice of intransitive writing can be seen as participating in high modernism's fore-grounding of epistemological problems in their relation to writing. Modernist literature stages a crisis in the linkage between the mind and reality, between subject and object: "the rupture," as Beckett put it in his 1934 review of "Recent Irish Poetry," "of the lines of communication" (Disjecta , 70). For Beckett, the crucial point about this epistemological "breakdown" is not any one particular response of the writer; there are several he entertains as valid:
The artist who is aware of this [rupture] may state the space that intervenes between him and the world of objects; he may state it as no-man's-land, Hellespont or vacuum, according as he happens to be feeling resentful, nostalgic or merely depressed. . . . Or he may celebrate the cold comforts of apperception. He may even record his findings, if he is a man of great personal courage. (Disjecta , 70)
Rather than this or that response, none of which may on grounds of content be favored, the degree of awareness embodied in the work is the ultimate standard of value. This consciousness is, above all, cultivated in and communicated through the intrinsic nature of writing.
In its essentials, Beckett's position is not unlike the classic modernist position articulated more than three decades earlier by Joseph Conrad in the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus . Conrad's artist, confronted by the "enigmatical spectacle" of the world, "descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife . . . finds the terms of his appeal"; he is abandoned to "the stammerings of his conscience and to the outspoken consciousness of the difficulties of his work." Beckett, in turn, as late as 1934, reaffirms the heroic ethos of high modernism, in which the artist, tough enough to relinquish his illusions, may risk sanity and social approval for lucid awareness of his situation. Part of Beckett's "untimely" commitment, in his critical work, to a high modernist stance may follow from the apparent backwardness of the Irish context that he addressed in his early writings. As John Harrington puts it with understated irony, "common thought in Ireland or out of Ireland would question whether Dublin in the 1939s was an indubitably representative example of a 'modern society.' " In answering with regard to his own case, Beckett might have quoted his own "Dante and the Lobster," from the quickly censored More Pricks Than Kicks : "It is not." Beckett had to travel to London to be psychoanalyzed, for in the
Ireland of the time Dr. Freud's talking cure was proscribed as a temptation to atheism and sexual license. If in France and Britain claims for modernism's oppositional character were already subject to doubt, the Free State surely would have seemed to Beckett still in need of some modernistic kicking against the pricks.
In a 1938 review published in transition , Beckett argued that the objective situation itself dictated a modernist response from the writer. The social situation—the modernist crisis of both subject and object, the political context of fascism and communism—required art to return to its essence as question, as what Foucault calls "counterdiscourse": "Art has always been this—pure interrogation, rhetorical question less the rhetoric—whatever else it may have been obliged by the 'social reality' to appear, but never more freely so than now, when social reality (pace ex-comrade Radek) has severed the connexion" (Disjecta , 91). The artist's challenge to the status quo, whether that of Ireland or of Europe, of literary habit or of repressive political regimes, lies in his consciousness of art's social separation. He must vigilantly occupy the autonomous space of literature and maintain his awareness against any illusions of reconciliation.