BECKETT AND GEULINCX'S METAPHYSICS: "Without Knowing Why Exactly"

By Frost, Everett C. | Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

BECKETT AND GEULINCX'S METAPHYSICS: "Without Knowing Why Exactly"


Frost, Everett C., Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui


This essay - the first in a two-part examination of why Beckett himself regarded the philosophy of the Cartesian occasionalist Arnold Geulincx as one of the "points of departure" for understanding his work - discusses Beckett's interest in the aspects of Geulincx' s metaphysical theory that serve as a foundation for an ethics:

1. Autology (Self-examination; inspectio sui).

2. Absolute separation of body and mind.

3. Quod nescis quo modo fiat, id nonfacis. (Whatever you do not in any way know how to do, that you cannot do).

A sequel, appearing separately in this issue, extends the discussion to "Beckett and Geulincx' s Ethics."

I have been reading Geulincx in T.C.D., without knowing why exactly. Perhaps because the text is so hard to come by. But that is a rationalization & my instinct is right & the work worth doing, because of its saturation in the conviction that the sub specie aeternitatis vision is the only excuse for remaining alive. He does not put out his eyes on that account [...]. One feels them very patiently turned outward, & without Schwärmerei turned inward. Beckett, Letter to Thomas MacGreevy, 5 March 1936

Metaphysica Vera. Introduction: Since Metaphysics should be primary knowledge [,] or more precisely, should have such firsthand knowledge as its starting point (for no matter what others may make of it, that is what I understand by Metaphysics), it is essential that you consider yourself emptied of all knowledge before venturing into Metaphysics. For how can you expect to begin with first-hand knowledge, if you look for it while already contaminated with preconceptions?

Geulincx, Metaphysica Vera; Beckett, Notes from Geulincx's Metaphysica Vera

The pervasive presence of Arnold Geulincx (1624-1669) in Beckett's work is a direct consequence of Beckett in motion between two (actually three) languages and institutions: traversing French, English, and Latin. His philosophic investigations began in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure, were resumed in London at the British Library where, by the end of 1935, he had begun to read Geulincx, and were continued in Dublin. By January 1936 Beckett's interest in this obscure Cartesian occasionalist had become substantial enough for Brian Coffey to encourage him to write a study of Geulincx for a projected series of monographs on philosophers (Beckett 2009, 295, 297n3). Beckett declined. Yet Geulincx was important enough to outweigh the awkwardness of returning to the Trinity College Library in order to transcribe and type some fifty pages of excerpts in Latin from the only copy of Geulincx' s works in Dublin (Frost and Maxwell, 141-55).1

1. Autology: Inspectio sui (Self-examination)

Une petite séance d' autologie, avec un bruit goulu de succion.

(A little session of autology, with an insatiable sucking sound.)

(Beckett 2006, 16)

Self-scrutiny consists of a conscientious inquiry into the nature, condition, and origin of oneself. In this inquiry, the first thing that has to be done is to get rid of everything that is not ours.... Having put these things from us, we must finally come to see that we are left with nothing except consciousness and will.

(Geulincx 3: 30, 203; Beckett 1936, f 14r, 35)2

Divine analysis that conduces thus to knowledge of yourself, and of your fellow-men, if you happen to have any.

(Beckett 1959b, 34)

Geulincx follows Descartes' s method of systematic doubt and its foundationalist assumption that the one thing of which apodictic certainty cannot be doubted is the existence of the mind doing the doubting: "First Proposition: Cogito[,] Ergo Sum" (Geulincx 2: 147; Beckett 1936, f2r). Even more radically than Descartes, however, and anticipating the "transcendental subjectivity" advanced in Husserl' s Cartesian Meditations (83), Geulincx refocused methodological doubt onto an interrogation of the self doing the doubting - a self-reflexivity for which he coined the Greek term autology when delineating its ontology in the Metaphysics, and inspectio sui when outlining its consequences in the Ethics. …

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