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Articulating Movement on the Beckettian Stage

2 June 2022

Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge

A way of walking is no less a refrain
than a song or a little coloured vision.

– Gilles Deleuze.[1]

In this short essay, I will articulate several meanings that reside in the performing body of Samuel Beckett’s play Footfalls (1976).[2] The aim of such an exercise is to sketch a few distinctive significations and practices that pertain to the Beckettian body. Continue reading “Articulating Movement on the Beckettian Stage”

Book Review: Eliot and Beckett’s Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation

28 February 2022

Rory Hutchings, University of Kent

Rick De Villiers, Eliot and Beckett’s Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021)

The adoption of the “low” into critical theory is at once an alluring and complicated prospect. In the introduction to Eliot and Beckett’s Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation (2021), Rick De Villiers raises two central difficulties with the development of “low modernism”. The first is the danger of overdetermination. De Villiers observes how ‘scholarship’s recent swerve towards the low and the weak follows a methodological injunction to cast off modernism’s vaunted associations with the high and the strong.’[1] This refiguration seeks to define a prevailing character of modernism, which in reality constitutes what De Villiers aptly describes as ‘a provisional marker by which to grab a protean bundle of works, writers and interests.’ (4) The second is the paradox inherent in the critical study of the “low”: ‘we can stomach and even turn extreme degradation […] into an object of analysis, while also maintaining that humiliation, by definition, is something that most people do not desire.’ (4) This tension speaks to the often dubious deployment of the “low” and the danger that humiliation, degradation, and their accompanying forms of violence are becoming little more than critical spectacles. De Villiers avoids these trappings, balancing a clear-eyed view of Eliot and Beckett’s troubling elements with an acknowledgement of the recurrent power of humiliation in the modern imagination (5). This fascination with humility and humiliation attests to De Villiers’ contention that ‘Eliot and Beckett have shaped our modern minds in a particularly unmodern way’ (2), writing against a humanist mode of humility, instead grappling with a theological tradition wherein humiliation might birth humility. Continue reading “Book Review: Eliot and Beckett’s Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation”

Book Review: The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Company/Compagnie

6 December 2021

Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge

Georgina Nugent-Folan, The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Company / Compagnie (Brussels: University of Antwerp Press, 2019).

Tried to get going again in English to see me through, say for company, but broke down. But must somehow.

Samuel Beckett to Ruby Cohn, 3 May 1977.[1]

One of the arguments often levelled against genetic criticism is the following: tracing the composition of an artwork tells us little about the significance of the work itself. The most concise formulation of this critique of which I know is given by the late Roger Scruton: ‘what a thing is and how it came to be are two different questions, and the answer to the second may not be the answer to the first’.[2] For this reason, one critic has unreasonably argued that ‘genetic criticism explains nothing, and never has’.[3] But Georgina Nugent-Folan shows that there are substantive intellectual reasons for pursuing a compositional analysis of Beckett’s work. Of relevance to my review is the processual nature of his prose, which foregrounds the pursuit and motive of reading and writing creative texts. What genetic criticism allows scholars to do is offer tentative answers to the questions of how and why we go about these strange activities. 

Continue reading “Book Review: The Making of Samuel Beckett’s Company/Compagnie”

Publishing the Archive: Samuel Beckett’s Philosophy Notes. An Interview with Steven Matthews and Matthew Feldman.

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.[1]

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’.[2] 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.

Continue reading “Publishing the Archive: Samuel Beckett’s Philosophy Notes. An Interview with Steven Matthews and Matthew Feldman.”

‘Further confusing such already confusing words’: Lydia Davis’ footnotes to Beckett

7 December 2020

James Baxter, Independent Scholar

This article will consider Lydia Davis’ (1947-) response to the work of Samuel Beckett, revealing her indebtedness to twentieth-century formal innovations, while gently critiquing the (occasionally ponderous) weight of modernist legacies. Deceptively little sustained criticism exists on Davis’ writing; prior to the 2009 release of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (a critically acclaimed compendium of Davis’ short fiction that would go on to be awarded the 2013 Man Booker International Prize), Davis’ reputation as a translator would arguably supersede the attention devoted to her highly singular body of creative work.[1] Continue reading “‘Further confusing such already confusing words’: Lydia Davis’ footnotes to Beckett”

Book Review: Samuel Beckett in Confinement

4 August 2020

Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge

James Little, Samuel Beckett in Confinement: The Politics of Closed Space (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)

In October 1960, Samuel Beckett began his move into an apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques in Paris. From his new study window, he had a view of the sinister building of the Santé Prison. He wrote to his close friend Thomas MacGreevy of this detail prior to the move: ‘the view of the Santé Prison from the den I’ll have is beginning to upset me in prospect. I’ll learn to raise the eyes to Val de Grâce, Panthéon and the glimpse of Notre-Dame’.[1]But over the following years Beckett found his eyes drawn time and again to the prison blocks and exercise yards opposite his window, even on occasion attempting to communicate with inmates through hand gestures and a mirror. It is said that he came to know the panoptic layout of the prison extremely well.[2]This gestures towards Beckett’s abiding interest in confined spaces and his sympathy for the incarcerated, though, as James Little shows, he also remained acutely aware of his own distance from such experiences of suffering.[3]As early as his 1931 essay Proust, Beckett had written of the complications in speaking with or for the other: ‘Either we speak and act for ourselves – in which case speech and action are distorted and emptied of their meaning by an intelligence that is not ours, or else we speak and act for others – in which case we speak and act a lie’.[4]Looking and gesturing towards the prison across the Rue Jean-Dolent from his window, this gulf between self and other must have seemed vast. Continue reading “Book Review: Samuel Beckett in Confinement”

Book Review: Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic

Aaron Pugh, University of Kent

1 June 2020

Michael Davidson, Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)

In Invalid Modernism, Michael Davidson compellingly situates disability at the heart of what he terms ‘the missing body of the aesthetic’ in modernist art and literature. In this study, Davidson produces a sweeping and persuasive survey that reveals a litany of bodies and minds which, he suggests, could no longer be contained, reduced or marginalised within ‘normative versions of national, gendered or racialised identity’ (p. 12). Davidson develops an intersectional statement of intent which repositions disability as being, not an extension, but a constitutive element of a varied range of modernist texts. Supplemented by close readings of canonical modernists such as Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, F. T. Marinetti and Virginia Woolf, Dadaist and Surrealist aesthetic interventions, as well as a selection of experimental contemporary texts, Davidson resolutely constructs a study that expertly demonstrates ‘the various ways in which disability is an absent presence in the theory and practice of cultural production’ (p. 141). Continue reading “Book Review: Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic”

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