Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

A RHETORIC OF DISCONTINUITY: On Stylistic Parallels between Pascal's Pensées and Samuel Beckett's L'Innommable

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

A RHETORIC OF DISCONTINUITY: On Stylistic Parallels between Pascal's Pensées and Samuel Beckett's L'Innommable

Article excerpt

Through a comparative stylistic analysis of Pascal's Pensées and Beckett's L'Innommable, this article assesses the significance of the striking correspondences between the two writers' use of language. Focusing in particular on their reliance upon the rhetorical figure of paradox, it suggests that Beckett's practice of a combinatory and fragmentary art was arguably inspired by his careful reading of the Pensées.

Samuel Beckett read Pascal throughout his life, and a copy of the Pensées, an undated reprint of the 1670 edition by the Parisian publisher Ernest Flammarion, was in his personal library at the time of his death.1 Traces of his readings of the Pensées can be found in his "Whoroscope" and "Sottisier" Notebooks, which he kept, respectively, in the late 1930s, and until the 1980s. Rachel Burrows' s notes show that Pascal was an underlying presence in the 1931 lectures on Racine in Trinity College Dublin, for Beckett frequently established a correspondence between the nature of the tragic in Racine's plays and Pascal's Jansenist denial of free will.2 The Pensées (1670) likewise remained a key reference in Beckett's early critical writings on art and literature, where frequent parody of, playful allusions to, and, occasionally, direct quotations from Pascal can be found. Some instances are given in the entry on Pascal in the Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett (Ackerley and Gontarski, 428) .3 Furthermore, a close reading of the 1931 Proust monograph would reveal that the Pensées also served as a primary subtext in Beckett's interpretation of ? la recherche du temps perdu. More significantly, Beckett seems to have knowingly incorporated thematic and aesthetic elements of Pascal's work into the essay.4

There are many indications that Beckett's use of Pascal corresponds to the intellectual practice of his time and that he shared his admiration for Pascal with his contemporaries, including some of the foremost writers and intellectuals of the Parisian scene, in particular those close to the Nouvelle Revue Française? His conception of Pascal was probably influenced by his admiration for writers such as André Gide and Marcel Proust, both of whom saw in Pascal the first 'modern' thinker and insisted on the unique quality of his prose (Gide, 281; Landes-Ferrali, 411). In 1923, Paul Valéry, with whom Beckett became acquainted through Joyce (Ellmann, 615), wrote a "Variation sur une pensée" for the celebration of the tercentenary of Pascal's birth, praising Pascal for his poetic eloquence and intellectual genius, even as he denounced the stifling impact of a Jansenist angst upon his work (461-63). Like some of these intellectuals, Beckett distanced himself from the apologetic and mystical elements of Pascal's thought (Bryden, 20). In addition, from reading Sainte-Beuve, he was aware of the ongoing critical tradition that sought manifestations of l'esprit français in the history of French literature, of which Pascal is an outstanding representative. Beyond intellectual fashion, however, given the many allusions to Pascal in Beckett's early work and teaching, his reading of Pascal arguably had a profound impact upon him, particularly in his formative years, even if he did not explicitly acknowledge a debt towards Pascal, as he had for other writers of the French seventeenth century, such as Descartes and Racine.

Some two decades after the publication of Proust, interpretations of En attendant Godot established the existence of thematic similarities between Beckett and Pascal in addition to a common ethical stance. In 1953, the playwright Jean Anouilh famously described the play as "a music hall sketch of Pascal's Pensées performed by the Fratellini clowns" (qtd. in Robinson, 248). He was alluding to the poignant evocation of the tragic nature of the human condition in the Pensées with its insistence on misère (suffering), human limitations, and contingency in the face of the passage of time that makes the very stuff of the Pensées. …

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