In his rhetorical adoption of epistemological questions only to void their rhetoric of its epistemological importance, Beckett takes a significant literary risk. For problems of consciousness and knowledge served modernist writers as crucial points of departure for formal and
linguistic choices, as they composed works of fiction outside of traditional models of plot and character. The degree of awareness the writer exhibited in handling these problems served as the ultimate standard for the integrity and value of the work, while the literary qualities of the work were, reflexively, taken as evidence of this awareness. Beckett takes a step outside of the specular closure this value system presumes, an autonomy of both author and work from extra-artistic determination, to call in question the whole centering of literary value in consciousness and to unleash the "idiocy" of language freed from the burden of intention and truth. Put otherwise, and taking more distance from modernism's aesthetic ideology: Beckett breaks the modernist juncture between textual figures of subjectivity (whether tropes or larger-scale forms) and knowledge, the presupposition that aesthetic value and truth converge in such figures and that the author's task is to seek indefatigably to uncover them from their hiding places (suppressed traditions, mythic archetypes, the unconscious, the etymological depths of language) and renew them for the present ("Make It New"). He aims instead to desublimate, wholesale, such figures of consciousness straining after the fleeting beauty of anguished truth.
In his early fiction, from More Pricks Than Kicks to Watt , Beckett desublimates consciousness not just through wicked parody of the seedy intellectual- or artist-type characters in his works, in the flaws and foibles of his comic semblables , but also in making his own act of writing ridiculous, his risible handling of literary enunciation and narration. If the character Murphy, for example, in keeping with Henri Bergson's definition of the comic, exhibits a mechanical inelasticity, an inability to adjust to the modern, bureaucratic-commercial London that lies outside his mind, that maladjustment is equally a feature of Beckett's composition of Murphy . His ostentatiously clumsy handling of chronology; his prosaic cross-referencing from section to section, typical of academic and technical discourse but not literary narrative; the battery of clichés, asides, arcanities, and malapropisms—all these exhibit at the level of narrativity the same loss of control in the face of social rationalization that makes Murphy a comic figure in the text. The specular closure of author and language is broken by a third factor, a force irrupting from without: a technological-social force, which leaves its trace in the automatisms, the creaking syntactical rat traps, the "mechanical inelasticity" of those very images of voice, body, and affectivity that should, yet cannot, converge into mimetically plausible "characters." Instead of projecting meanings for a future hermeneutic reading, a labor of dis-
closing truths blocked and mocked in advance by deliberate erasures and dead-end allusions, Beckett's late modernist works assiduously cancel meanings, suspend interpretations, in defensive laughter. To the modernist investment of form with a pregnancy of meaning, Beckett counterposes the (in-, de-) forming principle of "riant spaciousness."
Beckett's compositional risk-taking extends into his relation with cultural tradition. For modernist writers saw consciousness not simply as an index of cultural crisis but also as an agency for the redemption of the past, especially as embodied in texts. In his provocative essay "Against Ulysses ," Leo Bersani draws out the way in which Joyce's modernism envisages literature, pulverized and reconstituted within Ulysses , as the salvation of culture as such:
Ulysses indulges massively in quotation . . . but quoting in Joyce is the opposite of self-effacement. It is an act of appropriation, which can be performed without Joyce's voice ever being heard. . . . Joyce miraculously reconciles uncompromising mimesis with a solipsistic structure. Western culture is saved, indeed glorified, through literary metempsychosis: it dies in the Joycean parody and pastiche, but, once removed from historical time, it is resurrected as a timeless design. Far from contesting the authority of culture, Ulysses reinvents our relation to Western culture in terms of exegetical devotion, that is, as the exegesis of Ulysses itself.
In contrast, Beckett presents the cultural allusion as inconsequential, at best an effect of language's incessant dialogue ("Hearing nothing I am none the less a prey to communications"), at worst an automatism, a kind of reflex action or mental dribbling ("Anything rather than these college quips"). As Bersani notes:
Beckett's authentic avant-gardism consists in a break not only with the myths fostered by cultural discourse but, more radically, with cultural discourse itself. The mystery of his work is how it is not only sustained but even begun, for intertexuality in Beckett . . . is not a principle of cultural continuity . . . but the occasion for a kind of psychotic raving. Cultural memories exist in the minds of Beckett's characters like fossils belonging to another age.
I might quibble with Bersani's use of the term "avant-gardism," which raises more questions than it resolves; but seen in light of what I take to be his intent, to illustrate Beckett's break from the modernist use of allusion, the point is well taken.
The strains in Beckett's relations with Joyce, both literary and personal, can already be seen in the unpublished Dream of Fair to Middling
Women and its successor, More Pricks Than Kicks . As the linguistic textures of Dream reveal, Beckett tried out the Finnegans Wake style. The excerpted chapter entitled "Sedendo et Quiesciendo," published in the March 1932 transition and obviously linked to the stories collected in More Pricks Than Kicks (it concerns Belacqua's trip to Germany to visit the "Smeraldina"), rings like an excised section of Work in Progress :
In Perpignan exiled dream-Dantes screaming in the planetrees and freezing the sun with peacock feathers and at last at least a rudimentary black swan with the bloodbeak and HIC! for the bladderjerk of the little Catalan postman. Oh who can hold a fire in his hand by thinking on the frosty Caucasus. Here oh here oh art thou pale with weariness. I hope yes after a continental third-class insomnia among the reluctantly military philologists asleep and armed as to nasals and dentals. Laughter. (DFMW , 64)
By the end of the first paragraph, Beckett has run through many of Finnegans Wake's signature mannerisms: references to sleep ("dream-Dantes," "weariness," "insomnia," "asleep"), the coupling of myth and popular song (Prometheus: "Oh who can hold a fire in his hand by thinking on the frosty Caucasus"), comically recontextualized literary tags ("art thou pale with weariness"), sonic declinations of words (hero: "Here oh here oh"), and punning references to language and interpretation (armed to the teeth: "military philologists," "armed as to nasals and dentals"). The problem with all this is, of course, that technically skillful and ironically self-aware as it might be, it is a dead end if one's name is not James Joyce but Samuel Beckett. It may be argued, of course, that Beckett is consciously parodying Joyce here, and certainly Beckett is aware that he is not offering his reader the "pages and pages" of "direct expression" that he claimed for his elder's Work in Progress in "Dante . . . Bruno. Vico. . Joyce." At the same time, however, it is easy to detect the lack of a determinate and independent voice in Dream of Fair to Middling Women as a whole, and Beckett was not wrong when he remarked of "Sedendo et Quiesciendo" that it "stinks of Joyce in spite of most earnest endeavours to endow it with my own odours."
In his Dream of Fair to Middling Women , which never came together into a publishable work, Beckett ironically expressed doubts about his ability to master his complex material and give it a unified form. One passage, for example, involves Belacqua's vision of a book: " 'If I ever do drop a book, which God forbid, trade being what it is, it will be ramshackle, tumbledown, a bone-shaker, held together with bits of twine, and at the same time as innocent of the slightest velleity of coming
unstuck as Mr. Wright's original flying-machine that could never be persuaded to leave the ground.' But there he was probably wrong" (Disjecta , 50; DFMW , 139-140). Beckett later cannibalized the rejected manuscript of Dream for his short story collection More Pricks Than Kicks . The declining course of this work, from a Finnegans Wake -like novel to a Dubliners -like short story collection, would seem to indicate that Beckett's swerve from the Joycean model was in the first instance impelled by his inability to handle the complicated mode of writing that Joyce had evolved over years of dedicated literary work. Yet as Harrington argues, Beckett was no more able to develop a positive revisionary relationship to Dubliners than he was able to beat Joyce at his own (language-) game in the mode of the Wake . For unlike Joyce, Beckett was unable to facilitate any dialogue between his representations of Irish cultural paralysis and the possibilities of renewal implied in the sophisticated narrative consciousness arranging the stories. In fact, for Beckett, Dublinerswas one more part of the problem, one more cultural encrustation among others. "In More Pricks Than Kicks, " Harrington writes, "the example of Dubliners appears unsalvageably rigid. . . . Beckett's use of Dubliners , updating without positive revision, could not be assimilated by a literary culture committed to some social salvation."
Where Beckett made an advance in More Pricks Than Kicks was, instead, in his relation to his own earlier text, a relation that he would later generalize to intertextuality as such. A clue to the nature of this relation can be found in the last story, "Draff," which recounts the events following the death of the book's antihero Belacqua due to an accident during routine surgery. Beckett writes of Belacqua's friend and successor in the affections of the redoubtable Smeraldina, Capper "Hairy" Quin:
Belacqua dead and buried, Hairy seemed to have taken on a new lease of life. . . . Perhaps the explanation of this was that while Belacqua was alive Hairy could not be himself, or, if you prefer, could be nothing else. Whereas now the defunct, such of his parts at least as might be made to fit, could be pressed into service, incorporated in the daily ellipses of Capper Quin without his having to face the risk of exposure. Already Belacqua was not wholly dead, but merely mutilated.
Within this passage is a subtle nod to the intertextual logic of More Pricks Than Kicks , its mutilation and partial incorporation of the failed Dream of Fair to Middling Women , which also had Belacqua's life as its central thread. In turn, mutilated "incorporation" will become
crucial to the radical unhinging of narrative authority in Murphy and Watt . The footnote to Watt's addenda explicitly points to this process (which, as the manuscripts show, accurately reflects Beckett's composition of the book): "The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation."
In these passages, the first indications of a technique that furnished an astounding continuity to Beckett's literary production over six decades make their appearance: the reappropriation of his own texts in "mutilated" or "defaced" form. To the modernist sublimation of culture in the self-reflexive mastery of literary language and form, Beckett counterposes an aesthetic of entropic decay, deformation, debasement, and disfiguration. To the modernist self-presentation of consciousness, Beckett opposes a deliberately "surgical" handling of textual matter, "self-depiction as autodefacement." It is even possible to read this development in his fiction as a reactivation of a latency already present in the Proust : essay, but muted there by Beckett's explicit adherence to a high modernist stance. Like a rot hidden within this modernist polemic is a derisive counterdiscourse, waiting for the proper conditions to emerge. It speaks of deformation, of decantation, of malignancy:
There is no escape from yesterday because yesterday has deformed us, or been deformed by us. The mood is of no importance. Deformation has taken place. (Proust , 2)
The individual is the seat of a constant process of decantation, decantation from the vessel containing the fluid of future time, sluggish, pale and monochrome, to the vessel containing the fluid of past time, agitated and multicoloured by the phenomena of its hours. (Proust , 4-5)
My analysis of that central catastrophe [the Marcel-Albertine liaison] will clarify this too abstract and arbitrary statement of Proust's pessimism. But for every tumour a scalpel and a compress. Memory and Habit are attributes of the Time cancer. (Proust , 7)
Under the aegis of remarks about Proust's attitude to time, Beckett is setting in place a framework through which to begin to think for himself, beyond modernism's redemptive project, about cultural memory and intertextuality. In leaving behind modernism's attempt to reassemble the fragments of culture in the form of a grand anamnesis (for memory is an "attribute of the time cancer"), he isolates with increasing economy and precision culture's self-consuming tendencies: its autodefacement in its entanglement with time and history, the ways in which
without fail "deformation has taken place," whatever the mood might be in which we greet the discarded torso.
By 1938, the date of Murphy's publication, Beckett had, by his own testimony, rejected Joycean modernism—with its redemptive emphasis on consciousness, literary mastery, and cultural anamnesis—and was weighing as a possible alternative the "logographic" practice of Gertrude Stein. In a letter to a German correspondent, Axel Kaun, dated 9 July 1937, Beckett expresses his aggressive desire to tear the conventions of language to shreds: "As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another into it, until what lurks behind it—be it something or nothing—begins to seep through." "With such a program," Beckett continues, "the latest work of Joyce has nothing to do" (Disjecta , 172). Far from destroying language (and implicitly, the cultural heritage reposing there), Joyce apotheosizes the word. In contrast, Gertrude Stein, by practice if not wholly by intention, is more destructive. Her reduction of language into assemblable bits attacks the word's embeddedness in petrified cultural, semantic, and grammatical systems, treating it nominalistically and making the texture of language "porous" (Disjecta , 172-173). On this basis, Beckett goes on to discount the idea of a unitary modernism that would lump Stein and Joyce together. Their methods, he claims, represent tendencies and intentions as opposed as medieval nominalism and realism. He concludes, however, by arguing that Stein's ironizing of language does not go far enough, for his purposes: "It is not enough for the game to lose some of its sacred seriousness. It should stop" (Disjecta , 173).
Beckett only gradually, in his late works, achieved the radicality of language that these remarks would imply was his goal. His early fiction instead concentrates on higher levels of literary organization—narration, character, plotting—and over time introduces a more innovative linguistic texture (evident, for example, in Watt ). In part, this concentration on "literary" over (strictly speaking) "linguistic" concerns (despite his stated intentions) reflects his choice of genre: fiction, rather than lyric or a hybrid genre like Stein's or his own late prose-lyric, which might have given more immediate range to linguistic experiment. In a broader sense, however, it also signals Beckett's emergence from the modernist aesthetic he had advocated in his criticism. If consciousness was this aesthetic's castle of purity, then the formal conventions of modernist fiction, with its finely developed techniques for representing consciousness, was the point at which to lay siege on that citadel.