Scepticism of Erudition (Fritz Mauthner)

A reference in George Steiner’s great essay Real Presences sent me in search of references to Fritz Mauthner’s influence on Samuel Beckett, and specifically Beckett’s development of scepticism about erudition.

Samuel Beckett’s student library in Watt is worthwhile and usefully points towards other possibly rewarding texts, especially the Linda Ben-Zvi article.

“Beckett came in contact with Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache during his second collaboration with Joyce. For a long time it was thought that Beckett had read passages from Mauthner out loud to Joyce, helping him with preparations for Finnegans Wake. In reality Beckett was asked by Joyce to read the volumes himself. Beckett ended up engaging even deeper with the Beiträge, as he extracted a number of entries and included them in the “Whoroscope” Notebook. The length of the verbatim notes suggests Beckett did not own a copy at the time. Later, Beckett did acquire a copy of the Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache. However, it can only have come into Beckett’s possession after 1954 when he wrote to the German translator Hans Naumann saying that he would have liked to re-read it after the collaboration with Joyce but that it was difficult to find a copy. Beckett preserved his heavily marked three-volume collection until the end of his life in his personal library.

The influence of Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache is one of the most relevant to Beckett Studies, equally important as Descartes or Geulincx. In her seminal article, Linda Ben-Zvi presents Mauthner’s stance on language in the Beiträge. According to his philosophy, language encompasses many meanings, including knowledge. By “systematically denying [the] basic efficacy” of language, Mauthner indirectly argues for the ultimate failure of knowledge. However, one cannot discuss the limitations of language by avoiding the medium of linguistic communication. To Ben-Zvi this is equivalent to “the possibility of using language to indict itself”.[My bolding].

A similar argument can be made to explain Beckett’s changing perspective on erudition. In his works, he resorts to knowledge in numerous ways, ranging from an encyclopaedic to a deliberately superficial use of allusions. After Murphy, Beckett revised his use of language as shown in the 1937 letter to Axel Kaun, as well as his relation to the knowledge he had acquired until then. Reading Mauthner at this point in his writing career coincided with his turn to not only linguistic scepticism, but also to a scepticism with regard to erudition. In Watt, Beckett’s resort to intertextuality is diminished substantially in comparison to the previous novels. More importantly, when present allusions are treated less explicitly. Beckett deals in this manner with the problematic question of erudition without excluding the use of external sources.

The theme of complexity from the TCD lectures returns in Watt, this time through the filter of Fritz Mauthner’s ideas and Beckett’s creative reworking. From Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, Beckett extracted the idea that the inner world is unknowable because there is no language to express it, since language is a system created only for external experiences. Reading Mauthner must have appealed to Beckett due to a number of aspects discussed in the TCD lectures. More precisely, it resonated with his own interpretation of the mind in Racine’s plays, according to which the mind is a hermetic organ that cannot be accessed or explained.

Beckett’s connection with the treatment of the mind includes the presentation in chapter 6 in Murphy: instead of the true picture of the “apparatus”, the interest lies in “what it felt and pictured itself to be”. Watt in his turn applies the dualism between the inner and the outer world: “For Watt’s concern, deep as it appeared, was not after all with what the figure was, in reality, but with what the figure appeared to be, in reality. For since when were Watt’s concerns with what things were in reality?”. Complexity is in this way linked to the fragmentation of mind also in Watt, as it is in Racine.