The Terror of Literature in Beckett's Texts for Nothing

By Langlois, Christopher | Twentieth Century Literature, March 2015 | Go to article overview

The Terror of Literature in Beckett's Texts for Nothing


Langlois, Christopher, Twentieth Century Literature


The impulse to think, to inquire, to reweave oneself ever more thoroughly, is not wonder but terror.

--Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

A little formalism turns one away from History, but ... a lot brings one back to it.

--Roland Barthes, Mythologies

It is a commonplace within Beckett studies today that the philosophical modes of interpretation that dominated critical analyses of the Beckettian oeuvre at least since the 1980s have been challenged in recent years by the rising popularity of archival methods of scholarship. Papers presented at the "Beckett: Out of the Archive" conference that took place at the University of York in June 2011 were reprinted in a special issue of the journal Modernism /Modernity in November 2011, thereby consolidating the academic influence of this mode of research on Beckett's life and writing. In his editor's introduction to this special issue, Peter Fifield writes that "Beckett is an archivist's author. Storing his proofs, drafts, diaries, and notebooks for up to sixty years, the author has left textual remains that document his development as a writer in great detail. These are held in numerous libraries--public, academic, and private--but are also steadily becoming available to a wider audience via publications in print and online" (2011, 673). Archival research into Beckett's work has been invigorated in no small part by the publication through Cambridge University Press of two volumes (with two more forthcoming) of Beckett's letters. (1) With the vast amount of archival material becoming increasingly accessible, it should come as no surprise that philosophical and hermeneutical methods of approaching Beckett's writing have started to lose influence in the contemporary climate of Beckett criticism. At this stage, then, we might do well to reconsider if philosophical and hermeneutical types of readings cannot still further our understanding of Beckett without abstracting his writing from the particular historical and biographical contexts of its composition and reception.

This divergence of critical approaches is starkly visible in the readings of Texts for Nothing presented in Jonathan Boulter's "Does Mourning Require a Subject?" (2004) and in Sean Kennedy's "Does Beckett Studies Require a Subject?" (2009), which Kennedy frames as a critical riposte to philosophically minded Beckett scholars like Boulter. Whereas Boulter reads the narrator of Beckett's Texts for Nothing as "unable to present itself as a stable, unified (or potentially unified) subject," such that it becomes uncertain whether or not "the concepts of mourning and trauma," specifically, become "unworkable in the texts of Samuel Beckett" (2004, 333, 346), Kennedy, in trying to make "the case for a historicized reading of Beckett's work," is insistent that this sacrificing of the Beckettian subject to the ahistorical paradigm of poststructuralist interpretation (Kennedy cites Boulter's reading as emblematic of this position), this eagerness to merely dispense with the subject of history" in Beckett's work, "can only be a debilitating gesture." Kennedy asks rhetorically,"In the absence of history/memory, is an ethical Beckett possible? Does Beckett studies require a subject, and does that subject require a politics?" (2009, 25).

In response to this ongoing debate, this article argues that to exclude either philosophical or archival modes of critique is to preclude an investigation into how Beckett's persistent engagement with historical phenomena and cultural discourses is manifested in those aspects of his work to which poststructuralist readings of Beckett's prose are singularly responsive. Rather than hunt down references to real historical events and places in Texts for Nothing, of which there are a diverse many, I link an influential strand of postwar French literary criticism to Beckett's postwar writings by focusing on the historical and philosophical archive of terror. …

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