Beckett’s Search for a Form

‘Ah, the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them.’

Occasionally Pascale Casanova overreaches to support the supremely elegant argument of Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution, but this is infrequent, and I more or less agree with her historical, formal reading of Beckett, a riposte to the Blanchotian interpretation. Whether or not you fall in with Casanova’s historical criticism of Beckett, her textual analysis is magnificently enjoyable.

I’m taking an outrageous liberty to pull out, sans context, ten sentences that made me suck a tooth in contemplation:

  1. This heroic [Blanchotian] imagery has proved one of the surest ways to obscure the specificity of literary form, to refuse Beckett any aesthetic impulse, the search for a form therewith being reduced to an artifice unworthy of the quest for ‘authenticity’.
  2. His refusal of the presuppositions underlying realism, representation, and credence in literary ‘truth’ can only be understood if we hypothesise that he spent his whole life working on a radical aesthetic revolution: literary abstraction.
  3. The literary abstraction he invented, at the cost of a lifetime’s enormous effort, in order to put literature on a par with all the major artistic revolutions of the twentieth century – especially pictorial abstraction – was based on an unprecedented literary combinatory.
  4. [..] [Beckett] is led to question, one after the other, all the ordinary conditions of possibility of literature – the subject, memory, imagination, narration, character, psychology, space and time, and so forth – on which, without our being aware of it, the whole historical edifice of literature rests, so as to achieve the gradual erasure of its images in ‘the dim and void’.
  5. From the Second World War onwards, he deliberately situated himself in relation to the whole literary and pictorial avant-garde he mixed with in Paris – and definitely not Existentialism or the Theatre of the Absurd, whose presuppositions were alien to him.
  6. The literary transmutation to which Beckett subjects philosophy is thus a prosaic metamorphosis, a kind of novelistic secularisation, restoring to abstract, elevated speculations their quotidian banality.
  7. The aesthetic and logical inversion that was to be effected in Beckett’s texts on this basis had found its initial form or formulation: in order to escape the ‘I cannot paint’, it is necessary to paint what impedes painting.
  8. It was the desire to usher literature into formal modernity that enabled him gradually to abandon the presuppositions of representation and take as his object the very impediment to representing reality; or rather, to discover new literary tools to deliver the death blow to the object, whether extinct or not, and its representation.
  9. The autonomy of each text is a kind of reiterated manifesto against the foundations of what had hitherto been regarded as a constitutive of the literary (or at least literary narrative), and which Beckett’s whole oeuvre shows to be nothing but the stamp of the profound conservatism of literature, incapable of ridding itself of the presuppositions of realism.
  10. Beckett proceeds by successive breaks, but also by am immense totalisation of the most successful processes, experiments. and failures attempted in each of his texts, including the oldest ones, in order to arrive at a progressive, systematic pruning of his language.

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