Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

THE NON-LIEU OF HUNGER: Post-War Beckett and the Genealogies of Starvation

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

THE NON-LIEU OF HUNGER: Post-War Beckett and the Genealogies of Starvation

Article excerpt

Hunger is a pervasive trope in Beckett's major works of the post-war period. This article examines the possibilities for situating this trope historically. It seeks to mediate between the tendency of hunger to resist contextual markers, and the competing historical narratives of Irish and French history - the Famine and hunger strikes on the one hand, and World War II rationing and food shortages on the other - that predispose us to read hunger as a point of engagement with history and nation.

I.

In the aftermath of World War II, in what would become some of Beckett's most important works, hunger emerges for the first time as a pervasive theme, an underlying condition experienced by almost all the protagonists. Writing of hunger's emergence in this way - as an emergence, as something that appears for the first time, at a moment that is, itself, historically and biographically significant - already implies the trope's historicisation. It raises the possibility of a connection between the literary fact of hunger and the historical moment of postwar France, locating the appearance of hunger within this moment. The nature, even the existence, of such a connection, however, is unclear. Famously, of course, we have the general difficulty of orienting Beckett's work historically or contextually, a recalcitrance that is currently undergoing a major re-examination in Beckett studies.1 More specifically, hunger's national and historical orientation is suspended between two equally significant but opposed national contexts - Ireland and France - and an impulse that would abstract hunger from either one of them, presenting the characters' starvation as singular and ahistorical.

Hunger itself is characterised by precisely this ambivalence over location and history. Starvation is structurally isolating; it is, by its very nature, defined by the subject's failure to take anything into the body, and in this sense it always begins with a split between the subject and the world. Cutting the subject off from interaction with the world in this way, it contains within it a germ of placelessness and timelessness. At the same time, though, starvation has a moral and emotional force - think, for example, of the use of starving children in advertisements for charities - that makes it ripe for reinsertion back into national and communal narratives. It readily becomes historical - through collective experiences of hunger, like famine; and through representative or symbolic ones, like political hunger strikes. It becomes a site where nations can identify shared suffering or persecution, where isolated, individual experience bleeds into the national, the historical and the communal. It therefore represents an ideal occasion for testing a model of history and place, for attempting to understand how Beckett locates himself between two different contexts that both claim hunger as their own, and the enduring lure of abstraction that would annihilate the claims of both.

The task here is not only to identify the specific moments at which hunger connects with history, but, more pressingly, to consider what these historical dimensions of hunger bring to the text, and how this use of history might be conceptualised. Beckett's portrayal of hunger within the novels and plays of this period consistently represents it as a retreat both from the wider community and from all sense of place, casting it as a placeless hermeticism in which starvation seals the characters off from interaction with those outside their closed world of privation. This portrayal of hunger as a resistance to context and to community, however, is undermined by allusions both to Ireland's historical engagements with hunger through the Famine and the twentieth-century tradition of hunger strikes, and to Beckett's recent experiences of food shortages and rationing in World War ? France. These contexts provide two competing frameworks for reading Beckett's characters' experiences with hunger, both of which insist on their historical and national significance. …

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