For since when were Watt's concerns with what things were, in reality?
Samuel Beckett, Watt
So far the picture I have given of Beckett is that of a young critic committed to the defense and legitimation of high modernist writing in the tradition of Conrad, Joyce, Proust, Eliot, and others. Yet this image refers primarily to his criticism, which is also to say, to his role as a reviewer and commentator within the Irish literary context. Recent investigations of both genre and nationality, however, should alert us to possible differences between and within genres of cultural production, especially as these genetic distinctions intersect with national ones (the "French novel," the "English novel," etc.). To take a simple example, thus, "modernism" may look quite different in a particular span of years depending on whether one is examining the English, the Russian, the German, or the Argentine context. Similarly, within the limited context of "Anglo-American writers in Paris in the 1920s," there may be
relevant distinctions between developments in the novel, in lyric poetry, and in the singular invented genres of a writer like Gertrude Stein.
Accordingly, distinctions between criticism and other literary genres and between the Irish setting and the Parisian environment may prove to be decisively relevant to reading Beckett's work historically. It is easy enough to understand how an artist working in several genres or media might have advanced at a different pace in one than in another. To take an extraliterary case, it was often remarked that John Coltrane's soprano saxophone playing always seemed to be about six months behind his pathbreaking tenor work. Yet if this is intuitively easy to grasp, such an observation has nevertheless left surprisingly little mark on the historical frameworks of literary study, which deal uneasily with multiple contexts and untidy careers. In the fascinating case of Beckett, a writer who worked in multiple genres and wrote within an intricate national-linguistic complex (Irish/English/French), the interplay of various contexts makes for a particularly complicated picture, in which many different rhythms of development can be observed within a single author's corpus. I want to trace out one part of this picture, and in turn, account for the challenge Beckett as a late modernist poses for literary history and criticism, precisely because of the resistance his writing mounts against the schemes for situating his works and, through critical interpretation, rendering them meaningful.
Insofar as Beckett presented himself as a critic in the arena of Irish cultural politics, I suggest, he adopted a high modernist stance, with its cosmopolitan emphases on consciousness, epistemological concerns, and the refinements of an autonomous literary writing. His early fictions More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy , however, addressed a different audience, an international community reading Anglo-American and continental modernist writing, even as these works still present recognizably Irish contents and characters. In composing and trying to publish these books, the Irish tyro had to confront the "actuality" of the small but sophisticated community within which modernist fiction was written and read. In this process, Beckett began to subject the high modernist stance—his own, with regard to the narrow horizons of his native Ireland—to a withering reexamination. Precisely at the moment, then, that he is articulating a coherent modernist critical position, advocating the modernism he discerns in the fiction and poetry of other writers, he is also working to sabotage its functioning in his own fiction. Perceptible already in More Pricks Than Kicks and even in parts of the Proust essay, Beckett's unease with the modernist posture plays a deter-
mining role in the tone, characters, and action of Murphy and Watt . Along with his divided position with respect to audience and context, the functional distinction between criticism and fiction as modes of writing shaped Beckett's ambivalent modernism. Whereas the young critic felt it necessary, on the whole, to defend the modernist tendency within which he wished to situate his own work, Beckett's stance became far more vexed and agonistic when it came to applying his critical positions to the writing of fiction. Perhaps at first defensively and only later as a "positive" strategy, Beckett would turn to parody and self-ridicule to call in question a number of modernist authorship's basic assumptions.
I have noted that Beckett's explicit aesthetic—like that of earlier modernists and of the early "modernistic" Foucault—emphasizes epistemological problems and the concomitant value of "awareness" as a response to these problems. The primary evidence of this epistemological awareness is the writer's self-conscious handling of literary point of view and other formal and discursive aspects of the text. These formal aspects, skillfully manipulated, create the impression of a particular mind struggling within itself to lend order to the phenomena it confronts. This struggle is often a defensive one, a struggle to maintain autonomy against overpowering external forces, and it in turn frequently constitutes a self-reflexive figure of the author's struggle to master discursively the recalcitrant matter of the modern world. This battle for autonomy, moreover, may exact a high price on the struggling consciousness dramatized in the modernist work. As Patricia Waugh notes, "In modernist fiction the struggle for personal autonomy can be continued only through opposition to existing social institutions and conventions. This struggle necessarily involves individual alienation and often ends with mental dissolution."
The status of consciousness in Beckett's fiction has from very early on occupied his critics. Jacqueline Hoofer, in her 1959 article on Watt , suggested that Watt could be read as a "philosophical satire" on logical positivism and related Beckett's fiction to Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus . Hugh Kenner, in his classic Samuel Beckett: A Critical Stud), , read Beckett's trilogy as a reductio ad absurdum of Cartesian and post-Cartesian philosophy in its "fatal dream of being, knowing, and moving like a god." In the wake of these early studies, numerous articles and books relating Beckett to existentialism, phenomenology, Jungian psychology,, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and deconstruction have appeared, becoming mainstays of the criticism. In
introducing his own reading of Beckett, Eric P. Levy gives an apt summary of this tendency:
The aspect of Beckett's fiction exciting the most controversy is the preoccupation with self-consciousness. Critics have had great difficulty determining the appropriate frame of reference in which to understand the introspection of the Beckettian narrator. Is this self-consciousness primarily that of the artist trying to grasp his own creative act or is it that of a person withdrawing from the world of others either through insanity or sheer impotence? In contrast, does this self-consciousness involve something more basic—an exploration of the very nature of the self?. If so, is this self to be construed in Cartesian, Hegelian, Kierkegaardian, Sartrian, or neo-Freudian terms, to list just a few explanations attempted?
Levy goes on to offer another interpretation of this self-consciousness, in terms of Beckett's supposed epistemological concern: "Beckett's fiction no longer concerns merely the objective pole of experience . . . but now addresses the very process of structuring experience into the poles of subject and object" (4).
I do not wish to discount the value of this body of criticism, which has provided many important insights into Beckett's work. Nevertheless, by recontextualizing Beckett as a late modernist who puts in doubt the presuppositions of modernist writing, I must reopen the question of how important epistemological problems really are to Beckett, as well as question the "epistemological bias" of the criticism. Provisionally, I would claim that epistemology—that corpus of issues about how the mind may connect with the world "outside," about the nature of consciousness and its problems in knowing the world—is largely without consequence for Beckett. I am not just suggesting that an essentially modernist Beckett can be read against the grain "without epistemology" (as Gerald L. Bruns has done brilliantly with Wallace Stevens). I am making the more sweeping claim that Beckett—in his early fiction at least—has little interest in the mind and its vicissitudes as such. From her correspondence with Beckett about his reading (in 1929 or 1930) of the Austrian philosopher of language Fritz Mauthner, Linda Ben-Zvi cites the following significant verse:
For me it came down to:
Such was my levity.
Nor is this just retrospective revision on the part of a writer no longer taking seriously the philosophical enthusiasms of his youth. In a letter of July 1930 to his close friend Thomas MacGreevy, Beckett discussed his recent reading of Arthur Schopenhauer: "I am reading Schopenhauer. Everyone laughs at that. . . . But I am not reading philosophy, nor caring whether he is right or wrong or a good or worthless metaphysician." Having returned to Schopenhauer in September 1937 during a bout of illness, Beckett once again writes to MacGreevy: "it is a pleasure also to find a philosopher that can be read like a poet?"
It is my contention in what follows that Beckett's repeatedly asserted "levity" about philosophical thought should be taken seriously. One can, I am furthermore arguing, track Beckett's turn from modernism along the lines of escape marked out by this unburdening of epistemology, this uncoupling of rhetoric from questions of truth, this vaporization of weight into lightness, unbearable as it might later prove to be. Insofar as epistemological questions appear in Beckett's early work, it is by way of parodic reference to a modernist stance from which he is taking leave. Or as Beckett himself wrote in a review published in 1945, "There is at least this to be said for mind, that it can dispel mind" (Disjecta , 95). Accordingly, in his confrontation with earlier modernist paradigms, Beckett debunks modernism's epistemological concerns and depicts the mind's autonomy as hopelessly vulnerable to the extramental and excremental contingencies of the body as the object of pleasure, pain, social power, and death. As Charles R. Lyons has suggested, comparing the implicit concerns of Beckett's plays with Foucault's late investigations of self-formation, Beckett abandons the (typically modernist) focus on subjectivity and the question of knowing in favor of "exploring" (a trope often literalized by his nomadic characters) the conditions that inform and infirm the subject. Beckett declines problems of consciousness into matters of suffering and solace, domination and servitude, while exposing how social relations like mastery, solidarity, and free encounter depend little or not at all on their "groundability" in knowledge.