Theoretical debates and the critical erasure of Beckett’s cinema
Samuel Beckett's Film was written and filmed at what is often considered to be the tail end of the modernist period, yet it draws on the idea of cinema as an art that is not verbal. This chapter shows that its fate has been largely determined by the strained relations between film and literature. It examines the way in which cinema critics approached Film in newspapers and magazines, particularly by Cahiers du Cinéma during the 1965 Venice film festival. In the world of cinema, Film is referred to primarily as the work of its scriptwriter: the man with a pen. As of the end of 2008, a search of the most widely used bibliographic databases yielded a total of around fifty articles dealing specifically with the script of Film or on the film itself in at least one of its two versions.
Beckett’s television plays and the idea of broadcasting
In the context of a tradition of critical discussion that characterises Samuel Beckett's plays for television as attempts to engage with nothingness, absence and death, this chapter argues that the television plays are critical explorations of the problematics of presence and absence inherent in the conceptions and histories of broadcasting. Television as a medium and a physical apparatus sets up spatial and temporal relationships between programmes and their viewers, relationships with which Beckett's television plays are in dialogue. The conceptions of medium and audience that Beckett's television plays suggest can be understood in terms of the contrasting implications of broadcasting as dissemination. Broadcasting is dissemination in good faith, despite its haunting by the prospect that some of what is broadcast will turn out to be a dead letter sent into the void.
On 21 April 1958 Samuel Beckett writes to Thomas MacGreevy about having written a short stage dialogue to accompany the London production of Endgame. A fragment of a dramatic dialogue, paradoxically entitled Last Soliloquy, has been identified as being the play in question. It is tempting to read Last Soliloquy as such a caricature, as if Beckett were following his own suggestions for the staging of a 'text for nothing', doomed, for reasons different from those of Joseph Chaikin, to be in turn rejected and jettisoned. The all-controlling eye of the invisible author, able to tell the difference between 'what not' and 'not what' in the soliloquy even if nobody else can, is both a comic and a serious staging of one of the main paradoxes of the Beckett canon. The chapter also presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in this book.
In August 1936, Samuel Beckett wrote in his notebook that it is better to be afraid of something than of nothing. The fact that Beckett wrote in German is significant because it is in part a linguistic exercise. Additionally, it articulates with admirable lucidity an insight that was clearly important to Beckett, coming as it does during a renewal of his anxiety attacks in the wake of an apparently failed course of psychoanalysis. This chapter examines the figuration of anxiety in Beckett's work, using as a primary example a passage from the opening of Molloy. It provides information on two broader questions: the role of 'feeling' in Beckett's writing, particularly in the postwar period, and Beckett's aesthetic preoccupation with the evocation of an unfathomable 'nothingness'. The 'nothingness' of anxiety is the anchor-point of the oscillation, and the movement itself a means of disclosing a central absence.
This chapter addresses the argument: following Samuel Beckett's way would actually come much closer to the bone of Jacques Lacan's teaching. The least - unnullable least? - one could say is: nothing has changed. The double meaning of this sentence invokes on the one hand the claustrophobic and static setting of Beckett's writing, a site where nothing could ever change. Beckett's art, as opposed to James Joyce's, is the art of (n-1). The words have to be deprived of their magic, hollowed, their meaning has to be subtracted from them so that they become scarce and empty. Language itself is a veil, that was Beckett's insight already in the late 1930s, not the locus of expression, a veil to be pierced, not expanded, not a canvas to paint upon to conjure a new infinite universe. Rather, the veil is there only to get behind it, to what seemingly lies beyond.
This chapter focuses on some of the ways in which Samuel Beckett's own gaze has been reflected in work by J. M. Coetzee and W. G. Sebald. The way in which Beckett's nothingness is accorded value can be seen as an index to the critical mode in which he is approached. The emptiness that inhabits Beckett's writing suggests and provokes an affinity with the reader, allows the reader to find his or her self reflected in Beckett's work, as reader and listener reflect each other in Ohio Impromptu, as Murphy is reflected in Mr Endon. This emptiness allows for and provokes such affinity, but it is also just this negativity that is eradicated as affinity gives way to stifling proximity, to a becoming one.
Samuel Beckitt's explicit imperative concerning nothing echoes troubles over nothing that had persisted until after the Renaissance, with Descartes, for instance, believing that a perfect vacuum was impossible. The manuscript of his play that came to nothing, Human Wishes, contains his highest concentration of doodled faces and figures, some seventy-seven of them across two consecutive versa pages. Beckett's doodles clearly have nothing to hide. Complete in themselves, they want for nothing, have nothing to prove, nothing to declare, nothing better to do, and strictly in the wider scheme of spontaneous drawings are nothing special, nothing to write home about. For those still tempted to speculate on avoiding the viruses and booby-traps that every attempt at detailed psychological analysis contains, nothing is more appropriate than Beckett's cautionary advice to Billie Whitelaw: 'If in doubt - do nothing'.
Not much in Samuel Beckett is left wholly unaffected by the notion of 'not being there', even though he remains haunted by the self-imposed imperatives of 'going on'. Not being there is only one of 'the problems that beset continuance' of which Beckett spoke in connection with the art and craft of his friend Avigdor Arikha. There are differences between the 'not' of 'Dante and the lobster' and the 'not's of Beckett's Watt. With Beckett not given to 'new ground', there are other ways in which similar elements recompose themselves. Forms are one of them and one such form is the September 1976 text, sometimes thought of as a poem. The chapter presents the example of 'going on' from a text that is 'not there' in the special sense that it has never been published, having been jettisoned in the 'tidying up' that permitted Watt to emerge.
What lies behind textual images of the hard surface of the skull in Samuel Beckett's work is nothing but words; linguistic matter that describes cranial interiorities, wounded heads and a way of uttering traced through with lesions and disturbances. Beckett's late work is relatively well-known for its fascination with the interiority of the skullscape. It is perhaps more than felicitous idiom that gathers D'un ouvrage abandonné, Imagination morte imaginez, Bing and Assez into a collection published in 1967 in French as Têtes-mortes, or dead heads. The repetition of violent skull trauma in Beckett's texts is particularly significant because the effects of penetrating head wounds are also articulated. In Beckett's German letter, the attack on language punctures the abscess, causing a hole in its material fabric that allows inside to ooze into outside as the interiority of the cavity becomes topologically continuous with the surface of the skin.
This chapter offers a philologically orientated analysis of Samuel Beckett's engagement with the nothing as conceived ontologically and ethically. It provides an analysis that focuses principally on his deployment of the words 'nothing', 'naught', 'nihil' and 'void'. The chapter presents consideration of some of the sources by way of which these words entered his literary vocabulary and came to serve as markers for an aporetic experience. These words might themselves be thought of as among Beckett's most important 'unwords'; words that work against what in the letter to Axel Kaun he terms the 'veil' of language in order to disclose that which lies beyond language. In opting for the words 'naught' and 'nihil' in his letter to Sighle Kennedy, Beckett indicates not only the precise textual nature of his encounters with philosophical writings on the nothing over three decades earlier but also the order in which these encounters took place.