29 April 2021
Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge
Steven Matthews and Matthew Feldman ed., Samuel Beckett’s ‘Philosophy Notes’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)
Old Greek: I can’t find my notes on the pre-Socratics. The arguments of the Heap and the Bald Head (which hair falling produces baldness) were used by the Sophists and I think have been variously attributed to one or the other. They disprove the reality of mass in the same way and by means of the same fallacy as the arguments of the Arrow and Achilles and the Tortoise, invented a century earlier by Zeno the Eleatic, disprove the reality of movement. The leading Sophist, against whom Plato wrote his dialogue, was Protagoras and he is probably the “old Greek” whose name Hamm can’t remember.
– Letter from Samuel Beckett to Alan Schneider, 21 November 1957.
When asked in 1961 whether he was influenced by philosophical writing, Samuel Beckett said that he neither read nor understood philosophers. In the early 2000s, however, a corpus of reading notes, taken by Beckett between 1932 and 1938, came to the attention of scholars working on Beckett’s oeuvre. These notes cover the history of western philosophy, from the sixth century BCE to the late nineteenth century CE, and consist of roughly five hundred sides of handwritten and typed loose notebook pages. In the last two decades, these notes have been the source of much discussion and debate within Beckett studies, contributing to the questions concerning Beckett’s relationship with philosophy that have animated critics since the 1960s. Many scholars have sought to elaborate these notes’ significance to and place within the Beckett canon, sensitive to the ambiguities and paradoxes involved in philosophical readings of his texts. Peter Fifield, for example, has written that Beckett’s ‘texts are never a neutral ground to which we may bring an objective method; rather, philosophy is already present and at work in them’. How then might we use these notes to enrich our understanding of the philosophy at work in the texture of Beckett’s prose and theatre? In late 2020, Oxford University Press published their much anticipated edition of Beckett’s ‘Philosophy Notes’ edited by Steven Matthews and Matthew Feldman, opening the debate to a wider audience of researchers and students than previously possible. This edition contains a thorough introduction and extensive footnotes written by two scholars who have spent much of their career reading and thinking about Beckett’s oeuvre, making it an invaluable addition to the shelves of any library. I asked Steven and Matthew to share their experiences of working with these notes over the last two decades and their insights into the significance of these notes to Beckett’s work for this interview with The Modernist Review.