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.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book examines the role of the senses in the reception of art and the experience of intense emotion. It addresses the ways in which the passions, humours and senses merge within the complex physiology of the human body. The book shows us to what extent theories of vision were in flux and how the eyes were seen both as the "most noble, perfect and admirable" of the senses, while being burdened with the notion of 'visual deception'. As a result of this dichotomy, the ability of sense perception to enlighten or harm an individual meant that people were constantly reminded to be vigilant, guarded and to regulate their sensory activities. In addition to hierarchies and dichotomies, the senses are beset by conflict, vulnerable to deception and held hostage to the emotions.
John Donne, George Chapman and the senses of night in the 1590s
This chapter investigates the place of the senses in understandings of light, dark and shadow in the post-Reformation period, using the evidence of the writings of two contrasting poets, John Donne and George Chapman. It discusses Donne's will, where he disposes of his personal time keeping technology. The specificity of Donne's use of light, dark and shadow can be seen more clearly in comparison with Chapman's 'The Shadow of Night'. In 'A Nocturnall Upon St. Lucie's Day', the senses are interwoven with alchemical language and an elaboration, even multiplication, of the absence of light, the world of dark. The 'Hymnus in Noctem' explores night in terms of the senses, but also derives substantial sections from Natale Comes's allegorical fables. The Skeptick circulating in the 1590s is an indication of vernacular debate on the role of the senses, and sensory experience, in producing knowledge.
This chapter explores conflicting philosophical and early scientific attitudes to visual clues, before examining the moral judgements of seeing in late Elizabethan drama. Examples from late Elizabethan plays show appearance as a practical means of fulfilling courtly aspiration, but also suggest the moral concern surrounding such ambitions. These issues were of personal interest to the ambitious, playgoing young gentlemen of the Inns of Court. Suggesting the irony of such a debate in a medium which itself relies so much upon appearance and deception, the chapter considers the ways in which writers for the 'new technology' of the playhouse were engaged in guiding their audiences both in how to see, and how to interpret the validity of the visual. It concludes with information on Thomas, Lord Cromwell, which stages the existence of evil men unpunished in the world, 'for that they are not reputed evil'.