Anthony Barron explores the relationship between the philosophy of Schopenhauer and the forms and themes of Beckett’s critical and creative writings. He shows that Beckett’s aesthetic preoccupations are consonant with some of Schopenhauer’s seminal arguments regarding the arational basis of artistic composition and appreciation and the impotence of reason in human affairs. While Beckett’s critical writings are, in places, formidably opaque, this work examines the ways in which such texts can be elucidated when their intertextual affinities with Schopenhauer’s arguments are revealed. Using Schopenhauer’s thought as a presiding interpretative framework, Barron demonstrates how the widespread presence of philosophical and theological ideas in Beckett’s creative texts signifies less about his personal convictions than it does about his authorial aims. He thereby highlights the ways in which discursive ideas were appropriated and manipulated by Beckett for purely literary ends. A central contention of this book is that to judge the place of ideas within Beckett’s art, we should ignore questions of their theoretical persuasiveness and consider their role as purely aesthetic devices, the value of which is revealed in terms of the existential impact they have upon his characters. In each of the chapters that deal with Beckett’s fiction, Barron underscores the artistically energizing tensions that exist between the concepts that Beckett’s characters invoke in their attempts to comprehend the import of their experiences and their conative and affective tribulations which invariably prove resistant to such analysis. Here the means by which such conceptual aporias engender semantic potentialities underpin an exploration of Beckett’s creative assimilation of rational discourse. While the focus of this publication is upon Beckett’s early and middle fiction, which was composed at a time when the relationship between the chaos of quotidian ordeals and the value of rational thought became most acutely relevant for him, numerous cross-references to his dramatic and poetical works are provided in order to highlight the overall significance of these issues within his oeuvre.
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In Loving Memory of Mum, Louie, and Nan
By nature man tries to explain to himself everything, attributes a meaning to everything.
(Arthur Schopenhauer, Manuscript Remains)
Of infinitely more interest than how this came to be so was the manner in which it might be exploited.
(Samuel Beckett, Murphy)
‘When I was ill I found the only thing I could read was Schopenhauer’, wrote a 31-year old Samuel Beckett, just off his sickbed: ‘I always knew he was one of the ones that mattered most to me’. (Beckett, Letters vol. I, 550). Commencing even before Beckett’s death in 1989, much has been written on his love affair with the melancholic nineteenth-century philosopher and quasi-quietist, ranging from temperament and aesthetics to eastern spirituality and literary utility (for an excellent overview, see Tonning 2015). It seems this relationship properly began in the summer of 1930 to the ridicule of Beckett’s interwar Parisian friends and continued right up to the final decade of his life. Beckett scholars can now assert this with greater empirical precision given the publication of four volumes of correspondence by Cambridge University Press, in addition to the traces left in Beckett’s ‘grey canon’ of archives, including the interwar commonplace book, the ‘Whoroscope Notebook’ (Pilling), as well as his extensive summary of the history of western philosophy. In the latter ‘Philosophy Notes’, also composed in the 1930s, Beckett referred to Schopenhauer in familiar, even intimate, terms, describing ‘dear Arthur’ as a philosopher who held that ‘it must be a balls aching world’ (Feldman, 2006: 50).
This intertextual connection continued into the appendices of Watt, completed in 1945, and was rekindled in the final decade of his life in the so-called ‘Sottisier Notebook’. From the latter, Beckett recorded phrases from the second volume of Schopenhauer’s Parerga and Paralipomena, seeming to reinforce a deep affinity with the philosopher’s oeuvre: ‘The world is just a hell and in it human beings are the tortured souls on the one hand, and the devils on the other’; and again, ‘Life penal colony’ (cited in Pothast, 15). Since Beckett’s German was fluent enough by the mid-1930s to purchase Schopenhauer’s six volume Sämmtliche Werke (Leipzig, 1923; see Nixon and van Hulle, 283)—which he kept in his library for the remainder of his life—these Anglophone translations are helpfully provided by the only other book-length study of Beckett’s relationship to Schopenhauer, The Metaphysical Vision: Arthur Schopenhauer’s Philosophy of Art and Life and Samuel Beckett’s Own Way to Make Use of It.
Reading Schopenhauer’s key texts against works from the 1931 essay “Proust” to the one-act play Endgame, Pothast’s labours have been of great service to Beckett studies and are a key point of departure for the present volume. Pothast shows, for instance, that Beckett’s eighth decade saw him returning to themes taken up much earlier, as in the Schopenhauer-suffused “Proust” essay, which concludes that there is an ‘“invisible reality” that damns the life of the body on earth as a pensum and reveals the meaning of the word: “defunctus”’. For Pothast, this is Beckett’s ‘metaphysical vision’—one ever impeded by the ‘veil of Maya’ (Nixon 2011, 170)—a phrase which clearly derives from Parerga and Paralipomena, volume II (300; cited in Pothast, 123). That Beckett transcribes this phrase in the ‘Sottisier Notebook’ fully a half-century after concluding with it in “Proust” is surely testament to this lifelong engagement with Schopenhauerian ideas: ‘Life is a pensum to be worked off; in this sense defunctus is a fine expression’ (cited in Pothast, 123).
And yet, for its genuine insights Pothast does not delve deeply into the majority of Schopenhauer’s works, focusing largely on the canonical World as Will and Representation that Beckett knew so well. It is here that Dr Anthony Barron’s study is of inestimable value. Bringing a philosopher’s eye to the whole of Schopenhauer’s philosophical output and a Beckett specialist’s nose for literary nuance, this interdisciplinary work is at once overdue and comprehensive. Rather than the ‘metaphysical’, Barron’s analysis is grounded in the philosophically material, aesthetic themes of which Beckett makes such creative use. Looking closely at Beckett’s works preceding his ‘frenzy of writing’ after 1945, Against Reason incisively focusses on the dilemmas of expression that so vexed these two writers.
Here, facile notions of philosophical influence are rejected in favour of shared preoccupations and artistic perspectives, whereby the Nobel Laureate’s ‘critical and creative practices cohere with Schopenhauer’s own meticulously developed views about the means by which art can engage with conceptual thought’ (3). These overlapping views extend to non-rationality; art as a ‘quieter’ of the will; issues of (pessimistic) temperament, as well as other ‘affinities’ (127) relating to human suffering and misery, individual perception, and, above all, the ‘shape of ideas’ so valorised by both writers. A strong and consistent case is made for Schopenhauer’s artistic importance to ‘Beckett [who], as a literary artist, could use Schopenhauer’s inherently systematic and discursive writings’ (8). Barron’s critical engagement with the extant literature on this subject is up-to-date, incisive and fair-minded. Yet at the same time, Against Reason palpably goes beyond these approaches in constructing a novel, deeply learned reading.
Accordingly, this is a serious and original contribution to Beckett studies, and to modernist uses of philosophy more broadly. Vitally, and unusually for a literary-critical monograph, Barron is well-versed in both Kant’s and post-Kantian philosophy, from which Schopenhauer’s philosophy explicitly departs, casting the knowable in terms of individual perception and Will. In turn, this makes for a rich, contextualised approach to Schopenhauer’s ideas and their decades-long development. Various thematic strands are insightfully analysed across this study, with a particularly able discussion of Schopenhauer’s hostility to traditional forms of reasoning, no less than his often-obscured sense of the inadequacies of language (301).
These are profound insights, particularly where Barron, following Pothast (248), demonstrates that this ‘alogical’ stance was not present in other candidates for the well-worn cliché of “Beckett’s favourite philosopher”. Barron accordingly makes a convincing case that Schopenhauer, from very early on, underwrote a great deal of Beckett’s unfurling resistance to reason as well as some of his artistic alternatives—whether against moralising, or on the overcoming of the will (as in Murphy’s celebrated chess game with Mr Endon). As this suggests, Barron’s is a monograph aptly focussing upon Beckett’s art and its intellectual development in light of, rather than as a proxy for, Schopenhauer’s thinking.
In terms of Beckett’s writing—rightly the focus throughout Against Reason—several aspects of this study provide ground-breaking findings. Amongst the most significant are chapters 2 and 3 here, covering Dream of Fair to Middling Women and More Pricks Than Kicks, Beckett’s first extended works of fiction. While a scholarly consensus rightly holds that the 1931 “Proust” was refracted through Beckett’s contemporaneous reading of Schopenhauer, this is very rarely applied to other works from the early 1930s. Barron’s work in this respect is truly eye-opening: his approach to Dream of Fair to Middling Women and More Pricks Than Kicks makes a powerful case for the heavy, if characteristically obscured, presence of Schopenhauer. That Beckett’s views ‘cohere’ (85) with Schopenhauer’s approach to art and music is then carried forward into Murphy and Watt in the ensuing chapters (4 and 5), with the latter text—arguably Beckett’s pivotal novel, written during the bloody vicissitudes of the Second World War—further revealing substantial affinities with Schopenhauerian ideas: from aporias of rationalism suffusing the novel to the aforementioned quotation in the appendix to Watt: ‘zitto! zitto! dass nur das Publikum nichts merke! [silence! silence! so long as the public notices nothing!]'. As with that novel’s concluding passage, ‘no symbols where none intended’ indeed. (Watt, 217, 223). An extended conclusion then sets these findings against Beckett’s ‘mature’ prose, which is both compelling and throws the gauntlet for a new generation of Beckett researchers to take up.
Finally, both writers’ rejection of conceptual art, underpinning much of the discussion here, will doubtless find an interested readership in Beckett studies, and surely also beyond it. In reiterating that Beckett was an artist rather than a philosopher—and thus transformed ideas and experience into his revolutionary art—, Against Reason is a welcome, substantial addition to scholarship on Beckett’s relation to Schopenhauer. Put simply, this monograph may well represent the most detailed and critical pairing of ‘pseudocouples’ yet undertaken in Beckett studies. As the reader delves in, however, a Schopenhauerian injunction may well be of use in navigating the artistic-philosophical terrain mapped, albeit in different ways, by these poets of pessimism, who strongly felt, together, that ‘life is an expiation of the crime of having been born’ (Schopenhauer, ‘On the Suffering of the World’, 50). Perhaps surprisingly, this maxim is followed by an empathetic Schopenhauerian ‘lesson’ that Barron has taken to heart, as did Samuel Beckett before him:
… one might indeed consider that the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not “monsieur”, sir, but fellow suffer, “compagnon de misères”. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us need and which each of us therefore owes.
Matthew FeldmanJuly 2017
Beckett, Samuel, The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett, vol. 1: 1929-1940, eds. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Lois More Overbeck, with George Craig and Dan Gunn (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge:2009)
________, “Proust”, in Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (Calder, London: 1969)
________, Watt, ed. C. J. Ackerley (Faber and Faber, London: 2009)
Feldman, Matthew, Beckett’s Books: A Cultural History of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Interwar Notes’ (Continuum, London: 2008)
Nixon, Mark, Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries, 1936-1937 (Bloomsbury, London: 2011)
Nixon, Mark, and Dirk van Hulle, Samuel Beckett’s Library (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2013)
Pilling, John, ‘From a (W)horoscope to Murphy’, in The Ideal Core of the Onion, eds. John Pilling and Mary Bryden (Reading, Beckett International Foundation: 1992)
Pothast, Ulrich, The Metaphysical Vision: Arthur Schopenhauer’s Philosophy of Art and Life and Samuel Beckett’s Own Way to Make Use of It (Peter Lang, New York: 2008)
Tonning, Erik, ‘“I am not reading philosophy”: Beckett and Schopenhauer’, reprinted in Beckett/Philosophy, eds. Matthew Feldman and Karim Mamdani (Ibidem, Stuttgart: 2015)
Schopenhauer, Arthur, ‘On the Suffering of the World’, in Essays and Aphorisms, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Penguin Books, London: 1976)
________, Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays, volume II, ed. E. F. J. Payne (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1974)
This study examines the relationship between the philosophy of Schopenhauer and the forms and themes of Beckett’s critical and creative writings. It aims to show that Beckett’s aesthetic preoccupations are consonant with some of Schopenhauer’s seminal arguments regarding the arational basis of artistic composition and appreciation and the impotence of reason in human affairs. While Beckett’s critical writings are, in places, formidably opaque, this work explores the ways in which such texts can be elucidated when their intertextual affinities with Schopenhauer’s arguments are revealed. Using Schopenhauer’s thought as my presiding interpretative framework, I propose to demonstrate that the widespread presence of philosophical and theological ideas in Beckett’s creative work signifies less about his personal convictions that it does about his authorial aims. In this sense, I highlight the ways in which discursive ideas were appropriated and manipulated by Beckett for literary ends. A central contention of this study is that to judge the place of ideas within Beckett’s art we should ignore questions of their theoretical persuasiveness and consider their role as purely aesthetic devices, the value of which is revealed in terms of the existential impact they have upon his characters. In each of my chapters that deal with Beckett’s fiction I describe the artistically energising tensions that exist between the concepts that Beckett’s characters invoke in their attempts to comprehend the import of their experiences and their conative and affective tribulations which invariably prove resistant to such analysis. Accordingly, the means by which conceptual aporias engender semantic potentialities underpin my exploration of Beckett’s creative assimilation of rational discourse. While my focus is directed to Beckett’s early and middle fiction, which was composed at a time when the relationship between the chaos of quotidian ordeals and the value of rational thought became most acutely relevant for him, I provide numerous cross-references to his dramatic and poetical works in order to highlight the overall significance of these issues within his oeuvre.
My academic development has benefited in numerous ways from the conscientious encouragement and profoundly insightful guidance of Sam Slote, who, in his role as my Ph.D. supervisor, aided the completion of the dissertation upon which this book is based. While many will continue to benefit from Sam’s academic expertise, my own sense of gratitude to him will be recalled with profound esteem for his qualities as a scholar and as a man.
I also wish to acknowledge the benevolence of Mark Nixon who, in providing me with early access to his work on Beckett’s German Diaries, helped to shape some of my nascent ideas about my chosen theme. In promptly responding to various queries which arose during my studies, Mark showed a consistent willingness to assist my emerging thoughts.
My readings of Beckett’s unpublished writings at TCD were facilitated by the efforts of Jane Maxwell and Paula Norris; they were unstintingly helpful in enabling me to access such material. I hereby commend them for their efforts on my behalf.
The progression of this work from its origins as a Ph.D. dissertation to its current form was enhanced by the remarkable levels of kindness and encouragement shown to me by Professors Matthew Feldman and Christopher Morash. In their capacity as my Ph.D. examiners they offered advice which proved to be of inestimable value as I prepared this work for publication.
My work with The Waterford Philosophical Society has enhanced my awareness of the innumerable rewards to be enjoyed from sharing my passion for the arts and the history of ideas among devoted enthusiasts. I wish to thank those who, in actively participating in my classes in Waterford, helped me to attain deeper insights into the masterworks of Western culture.
On a more personal level, I am incomparably indebted to three people who enabled me to pursue my academic goals in an atmosphere of love and abiding loyalty. Having lost those individuals during my postgraduate studies I know that I have been left enduringly bereft, yet they reside within my thoughts as exemplars of all that I aspire to be. I dedicate this work to my mother, my uncle, and my grandmother, whose lives enriched my being, whose passing has proved utterly harrowing. Moments of desolation were, however, considerably eased by the company of Trixie, a sentient being whose cherished presence is dearly missed.
As this work neared publication I was blessed with domestic felicity. Joanna, you have taught me how the life of the mind is nourished by abounding love. Non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem (Saint Augustine).
Parts of Chapter One appeared in my essay entitled ‘An Agon with the Twilighters: Samuel Beckett and the Primacy of the Aesthetic’ in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of the Irish University Review. I am thankful for the willingness of the editors of that journal, in particular Lucy Collins, to publish sections of my research.
Table of Contents
Works by Samuel Beckett
Works by Arthur Schopenhauer
Notes on the Text
Definitions + Paradigms
Concepts of Influence
Suffering and Solitude
The Hermeneutics of Pain
Chapter 1 The Aesthetics of Ambiguity
The Irreducible Aesthetic
The Primacy of the Percept
The Palliation of Life
Stating the Particular
Between Ennui and Desire
The Proustian Ideal
The Ablation of Desire
The Suffering of Being
The Impenetrable Without
The Ferocious Dilemma of Expression
Chapter 2 Torture by Thought and Trial by Living
Not Just Material
A Son of Adam
The Better Consciousness
The Burden of Existence
The Sublime Character
Chapter 3 This Strange World
The Accursed Questions
An Old and Dear Enigma
Chapter 4 Antinomies of Unmarried Love
The Brydell of Reason
The Imponderables of Personality
This Life Disease
Peace That is Higher Than All Reason
The Post-Golgothan Kitty
A Place of Unique Delights
Chapter 5 Lacerated With Curiosity
Words Fail Us
Nothing is Known
A Hell of Unreason
The Vague Abyss
Conclusion Words Inane / Thought Inane
This Absurd Life
The Blessed Pus of Reason
Words and Music
Living and Bewildered
Great Confusion No Knowing
All is Strange
Works by Samuel Beckett
Works About Samuel Beckett
Works by Arthur Schopenhauer
Works About Arthur Schopenhauer
(CDW)The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1990).
(CIWS) Company / Ill Seen Ill Said / Worstward Ho / Stirrings Still, ed. Dirk Van Hulle (London: Faber and Faber, 2009).
(CPS) The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett, eds. Seán Lawlor and John Pilling (London: Faber and Faber, 2012).
(CSP) Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, ed. S. E. Gontarski(New York: Grove Press, 1995).
(D) Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn(New York: Grove Press, 1984).
(DFW) Dream of Fair to Middling Women, eds. Eoin O’Brien and Edith Fournier(London: Calder Publications, 1993).
(DN) Beckett’s Dream Notebook, ed. John Pilling (Reading: Beckett International Foundation, 1999).
(EB) Echo’s Bones, ed. Mark Nixon (London: Faber and Faber, 2014).
(ECEF) The Expelled / The Calmative / The End & First Love, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Faber and Faber, 2009).
(El) Eleutheria, tr. Barbara Wright (London: Faber and Faber, 1996).
(HII) How It Is, ed. Édouard Magessa O’Reilly (London: Faber and Faber, 2009).
(LI) The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I: 1929–1940, eds. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
(LII) The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II: 1941–1956, eds. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dann Gunn and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
(M) Murphy, ed. J. C. C. Mays (London: Faber and Faber, 2009).
(MC) Mercier and Camier, ed. Seán Kennedy (London: Faber and Faber, 2010).
(MD) Malone Dies, ed. Peter Boxall (London: Faber and Faber, 2010).
(Mo) Molloy, ed. Shane Weller (London: Faber and Faber, 2009).
(MP) More Pricks Than Kicks, ed. Cassandra Nelson (London: Faber and Faber, 2010).
(PTD)Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (London: John Calder, 1965).
(TNO) Texts for Nothing and Other Short Prose, 1950–1976, ed. Mark Nixon (London: Faber and Faber, 2010).
(U) The Unnamable, ed. Steven Connor (London: Faber and Faber, 2010).
(W)Watt, ed. C. J. Ackerley (London: Faber and Faber, 2009).
(BM) On the Basis of Morality, tr. E. F. J. Payne (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995).
(EFR) Schopenhauer’s Early Fourfold Root,tr. F. C. White (Aldershot: Avebury, 1997).
(FR) On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, tr. E. F. J. Payne (Illinois: Open Court, 1974).
(FW) Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will, tr. E. F. J. Payne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
(GB) Gesammelte Briefe, ed. Arthur Hübscher (Bonn: Bouvier, 1987).
(MRI) Manuscript Remains, Volume I, tr. E. F. J. Payne (Oxford: Berg Publishers Limited, 1988).
(MRII) Manuscript Remains, Volume II, tr. E. F. J. Payne (Oxford: Berg Publishers Limited, 1988).
(MRIII) Manuscript Remains, Volume III, tr. E. F. J. Payne (Oxford: Berg Publishers Limited, 1989).
(MRIV) Manuscript Remains, Volume IV, tr. E. F. J. Payne (Oxford: Berg Publishers Limited, 1990).
(PPI) Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume I, tr. E. F. J. Payne(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
(PPII) Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume II, tr. E. F. J. Payne(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
(VC) On Vision and Colours, tr. E. F. J. Payne (New York and Oxford: Berg Publications, 1994).
(WN) On the Will in Nature, tr. E. F. J. Payne (New York and Oxford: Berg Publications, 1992).
(WWRI) The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, tr. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1969).
(WWRII) The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, tr. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1969).
(CPR) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan, 1929).
(GF) Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman (eds.), Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1979).
(Har) Maurice Harmon (ed.), No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998).
(JK) James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996).
(TCD) Trinity College Dublin Library, Department of Manuscripts.
Publication dates of Beckett’s texts are provided in accordance with the original appearance of works in the specific language from which they are cited.
Just as supreme artworks perennially defy reductive exegesis, the innumerable predicaments of lived experience elude neat categorisations and facile solutions. Beckett’s creative and personal realisations of the impotence of rationality in artistic and existential affairs were, in part, derived from his awareness of the ludicrous pretensions of thinkers who were all too willing to exalt intellection as a faculty upon which we could rely in our theoretical and practical endeavours. Research by critics such as Doherty and Feldman has revealed the extent to which Beckett’s early knowledge of philosophers was reliant upon introductory works such as Mahaffy’s Descartes (1880) and Windelband’s AHistory of Philosophy (1893). However, the extensive range of intertextual traces of Schopenhauer’s work which are to be found in Beckett’s early writings suggest that his knowledge of Schopenhauer exceeded that which could have been obtained from secondary sources. Acheson claims that Beckett’s “interest in Schopenhauer may have been initially sparked by an editorial in transition [Eugène Jolas’ ‘Notes on Reality’] in praise of the German philosopher”1 which was published in November 1929. While much of Beckett’s initial acquaintance with philosophy was developed through the medium of secondary works, one of the earliest indications of his direct engagement with Schopenhauer’s thought is contained in a letter to MacGreevy from July 1930: “I am reading Schopenhauer” (LI, 32–3). This was, as Van Hulle and Nixon confirm, the point at which Beckett’s “appreciation [for Schopenhauer] started.”2 Elsewhere, Nixon and Van Hulle note that Beckett read a French translation of Schopenhauer by Auguste-Laurent Burdeau in the same year.3 Given Feldman’s view that Beckett’s composition of his ‘Philosophy Notes’ “most likely”4 did not commence until July 1932, it is remarkable that much of his early knowledge of Schopenhauer was derived from primary texts.
Beckett was unusually forthcoming in his professions of enthusiasm for Schopenhauer’s thought. Having stated that he was “not reading philosophy,” Beckett insisted that he did not care whether Schopenhauer “is right or wrong or a good or worthless metaphysician” (LI, 33). The stylistic beauty of Schopenhauer’s philosophy clearly impressed Beckett with its profusive literary qualities, such as its magisterial command of metaphorical depiction. Beckett was particularly fascinated by Schopenhauer’s apparent disregard for the rigid proprieties of logical inference: “it is a pleasure also to find a philosopher that can be read like a poet, with an entire indifference to the apriori forms of verification. Although it is a fact that judged by them his generalisation shows fewer cracks than most generalisations” (LI, 550). Beckett purchased a collected edition of Schopenhauer’s works during his travels in Germany in 1936; they were among the books that he “sent home”5 on November 4th. However, his extensive use of Schopenhauer’s thought in Proust (1931) demonstrates that his familiarity with the philosopher’s work was already well established prior to his study of those German editions. Pilling asserts that Beckett’s absorption of Schopenhauer’s writings was so profound that, “by the time of the Murphy [‘Whoroscope’] notebook [it had] become so much second nature to him as not to need recording, with chapter and verse attached to facilitate re-reading.”6
In his probing study of Beckett’s ‘Interwar Notes’ Feldman describes how Beckett’s summaries of Windelband’s account of Schopenhauer’s thought “point toward both personal affinity and prior understanding.”7 He goes on to claim that, “with the exception of Schopenhauer, and to a much lesser extent Descartes, Beckett did not undertake any philosophical excursus prior to the composition of the ‘Philosophy Notes.’”8 Schopenhauer is scathing in his opposition to those who rely upon introductory texts and commentaries in their study of philosophy:
[O]nly in their own works and certainly not from second-hand accounts can we become really acquainted with philosophers . . . with those histories of philosophy the mind always receives only the movement that can be imparted to it by the stiff and wooden train of thought of a commonplace intellect. (PPI, 196)
Elsewhere, in a statement which typifies his aversion to how philosophy is ordinarily treated within academic contexts, he writes: “I can bear the thought that in a short time worms will eat away my body; but the idea of philosophy-professors nibbling at my philosophy makes me shudder” (MRIV, 393). However, Windelband’s work served Beckett well insofar as it contains an accurate summation of some of the main tenets of Schopenhauer’s writings. Van Hulle and Nixon report that Beckett, in his German edition of Schopenhauer’s work, “marked Schopenhauer’s long praise of Kant and the plea to read his works directly rather than through the mediation of an introduction, for the ideas of such an extraordinary mind do not allow any form of filtering.”9 Given his lack of a formal education in philosophy, it is understandable that Beckett would have been drawn to works such as that by Windelband, but he may also have been struck by how Schopenhauer’s gifts as a prose stylist renders his philosophy eminently accessible. The presiding aim of this book is to show that an intertextual reading of the oeuvres of Schopenhauer and Beckett reveals a vast range of thematic correspondence but I will also highlight how Beckett’s critical and creative practices cohere with Schopenhauer’s own meticulously developed views about the means by which art can engage with conceptual thought.
Beckett’s enthusiasm for Schopenhauer’s philosophy has been examined throughout the history of Beckett studies. Cronin states that Beckett’s reading of Schopenhauer constituted “perhaps . . . the most important literary discovery of his life,”10 while Knowlson claims that Schopenhauer was among those authors that Beckett had “so naturally absorbed and reworked . . . that, in some instances, when they [Schopenhauerian themes] creep unobtrusively into his work they are no longer easily detected” (JK, 653–4). Such remarks attest to the fact that the ultimate value of Schopenhauer’s thought to Beckett consisted of the means by which he could creatively manipulate Schopenhauerian discourse for distinctly aesthetic ends. In this sense, Schopenhauer’s concepts can be seen to figure in Beckett’s work not as discursive dogmas but as an intrinsic part of the ludic tendencies of his compositional strategies. In a letter to MacGreevy, written in August 1930, Beckett notes: “Schopenhauer says defunctus is a beautiful word—as long as one does not suicide. He might be right” (LI, 36). Beckett went on to inform MacGreevy of his intention to “try [Schopenhauer’s] ‘Aphorismes sur la Sagesse de la Vie’, that Proust admired so much” (LI, 43). In such cases Beckett provides clues which indicate the provenance of Schopenhauerian traces in his work, yet the variety of Schopenhauerian allusions in Beckett’s writings usually compel the reader to “guess where” a narrator potentially “stole” (DFW, 191–2) them from. In the present study the identification of thematic congruence is not assumed to constitute incontrovertible evidence of Beckett’s familiarity with specific textual sources of Schopenhauerian ideas. Critical works that are addressed to the avowed presence of Schopenhauerian traces in individual writings by Beckett will be examined in the following chapters. As a preliminary to such discussions, I will consider some of the more general developments in our understanding of Beckett’s engagement with Schopenhauer’s thought with reference to a number of issues which have been raised by previous studies upon which my research builds and from which it deviates.
In order to concur with Harvey’s contention that, “Beckett evolves towards sparseness according to the Schopenhauer prescription,”11 we must assume that Schopenhauer argued that such compositional principles could be taught and that Beckett was willing to passively submit to such prescriptive dicta. For reasons that will become apparent in my first chapter such assumptions are overtly implausible. Schopenhauer observes that, “If the singer or virtuoso wishes to guide his recital by reflection, he remains lifeless. The same is true of the composer, the painter, and the poet. For art the concept always remains unproductive” (WWRI, 57). As we shall see, it was precisely owing to such convictions that Schopenhauer refused to provide aesthetic rules. Schopenhauer’s delineations between authentic and inauthentic art were formulated in accordance with strictly descriptive intentions. In stating that “Schopenhauer’s ideas would become in later years the philosophical foundation of Beckett’s thought,”12 Bair not only suggests that Beckett’s art became increasingly dependent upon Schopenhauer’s philosophy but that such reliance developed at a more advanced stage of Beckett’s authorial career than is now commonly accepted. In his discussion of Beckett’s Proust Pilling notes how Beckett “stole” his citation from Calderón by identifying its source in Schopenhauer’s thought.13 In the same year, Pilling, in his monograph entitled Samuel Beckett (1976), examined Beckett’s “very considerable” debt to Schopenhauer as he astutely observed how “much of the discussion in Proust is based on Schopenhauer’s very original aesthetics.”14 Rosen concurred with Pilling’s claims about the presiding role of Schopenhauer’s philosophy in Proust: “Beckett’s analysis depends not only on Schopenhauer’s main ideas, but also on the details of that philosopher’s thought, even on his literary allusions and examples.”15
Beckett’s use of Schopenhauerian notions in Proust and The Unnamable (1958) constitute the subjects of two essays, published in 1981 and 1988. In the first, entitled ‘Where There’s a Will There’s a Way Out: Beckett and Schopenhauer,’ O’Hara provides readers with an admirable précis of Schopenhauer’s thought. He then moves to a consideration of the applicability of Schopenhauerian principles to Beckett’s work, affording particular attention to The Unnamable. O’Hara also encourages us to be mindful of the stylistic impact that Beckett’s reading of Schopenhauer seems to have produced upon the development of his critical consciousness: “Schopenhauer won him over, and there is an energy to the baroque and abrasive style of the Proust monograph quite different from the self-conscious intellectual mannerism of his earlier essay on Joyce.”16 As I propose to show in Chapter One, Beckett had already employed exegetical principles in ‘Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce’ (1929) which are consonant with Schopenhauer’s aesthetic views. Accordingly, it may have been the case that his independently formulated ideas were not merely corroborated but intensified by his study of Schopenhauer’s work prior to his writing of Proust. Unlike the speaker in ‘From an Abandoned Work’ (1956) who, despite being “A very fair scholar” had “no thought, but a great memory” (TNO, 59), Beckett impressed Rudmose-Brown by his “thoughtful appreciation of the texts that they were studying” (JK, 48) during Beckett’s undergraduate years at TCD. In a letter to Valery Larbaud, written on 18 January 1929, Rudmose-Brown emphasised Beckett’s independence of mind: “Un des mes élèves les plus intelligents, grand ennemi de l’impérialisme, du patriotisme, de toutes les Eglises.”17 While Schopenhauerian discourse demonstrably pervades Proust, O’Hara, in his essay entitled ‘Beckett’s Schopenhauerian Reading of Proust: The Will as Whirled in Re-Presentation,’ is overly eager to downplay Beckett’s personal contribution to his examination of Proust’s masterpiece: “The affinity between Beckett and Schopenhauer was a close one at this time; the philosopher’s assertions spoke for the still mute, or nearly mute artist.”18
Like many of his predecessors in the field of Beckett studies, Wood was content to focus upon the salient parallels between the excoriating evaluations of earthly existence to be found in Schopenhauer’s work and those offered by Beckett in Proust. He points to the enduring significance of Schopenhauer’s despairing vision of worldly affairs for Beckett’s compositional procedures: “Half-remembered snippets of these expressions of pessimism, all taken from Schopenhauer, reappear with some regularity in Beckett’s later drama and prose.”19 From the aforementioned examples it is clear that Beckett scholars were becoming increasingly attuned to the significance of Schopenhauer’s philosophy to Beckett, but in broader academic circles even major publications could omit Beckett from the company of those who had allegedly been impressed by Schopenhauer’s thought. In a seminal collection entitled Schopenhauer, Philosophy, and the Arts (1996), Beckett’s engagement with Schopenhauer’s work is not discussed, while W. B. Yeats is included in the pantheon of major artists who were reputedly “influenced”20 by Schopenhauer’s thought, despite the fact that the biographical or intertextual evidence for Yeats’s interest in Schopenhauer’s writings remains scarce. Critics who have analysed the significance of Schopenhauer’s philosophy for our understanding of Beckett’s work have occasionally made the type of erroneous statement which merely serves to diminish our understanding of the range of Schopenhauerian echoes in Beckett’s oeuvre. Wood writes, “For Schopenhauer, the only way of escaping this futile force which controls our lives lies in the aesthetic experience,”21 while Wulf reiterates that view by stating that Schopenhauer considers “artistic contemplation” to be “the only means of overcoming the futility of our insatiable cravings.”22 According to Schopenhauer, “giving up and denying the will is the highest wisdom” (MRIII, 360). While aesthetic experience provides transitory respite from the ceaseless striving to which we are ordinarily subject, it is neither the sole nor the most effective means of doing so. It is “Through suffering [that] a man is chastened and sanctified, in other words is liberated from the will-to-live” (MRIII, 642). As we shall see, Beckett’s characters rarely achieve liberation from their woes through their experiences of artworks, but their personal tribulations occasionally inspire ephemeral cessations of their conative and epistemic cravings.
More recent studies have benefited from a use of Beckett’s letters and notebooks thereby enriching our awareness of the textual sources from which Beckett’s knowledge of Schopenhauer derived. However, key conceptual issues remain unaddressed, specifically the question of how Beckett, as a literary artist, could use Schopenhauer’s inherently systematic and discursive writings. Acheson evinced an awareness of the issue by asserting that, “Much as he admires Schopenhauer, Beckett does not, in his fiction and drama, seek to promote that philosopher’s theories.”23 However, that statement is difficult to reconcile with his later claim that, “it is clear that the philosophical ‘key’ to the Nouvelles is Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea.”24 The following passage, transcribed from a conversation that Beckett held with d’Aubarède, serves to highlight Beckett’s own aversion to such reductive statements: “people have wondered if the existentialists’ problem of being may afford a key to your works. There’s no key or problem” (GF, 217). In 1959 Mintz claimed that, “Murphy is inexplicable except by reference to [Geulincx’s work],”25while Bair averred that the philosophy of Geulincx constitutes “the key”26 to understanding Murphy.Knowlson and Pilling repudiate such views: “there is no key that will unlock every problem thrown up by his work, no formula that will elucidate every aspect of his oeuvre.”27 Similarly, Büttner is cautious about the hermeneutic value of bringing philosophical theories to bear upon the semantic enigmas that are continually posed by Beckett’s work: “no philosophy is able to ‘explain’ it.”28 While I will discuss a wide array of Schopenhauerian traces in Beckett’s art, at no point will any of Schopenhauer’s ideas be postulated as definitive solutions to the aesthetically-enriching interpretative puzzles which repeatedly arise in our engagement with Beckett’s work.
Given Schopenhauer’s own assertions pertaining to the ability of genuine art to resist exhaustive interpretations, a reading of Beckett’s work in conjunction with Schopenhauer’s aesthetics enables us to appreciate the numerous ambiguities that suffuse Beckett’s literary worlds. It also provides us with a means of recognising why no philosophical reading of Beckett can prove ultimately determinative in exegetical terms. Given Schopenhauer’s assertion that, “a concept can never be the source, and its communication can never be the aim, of a work of art” (WWRI, 240), an investigation of the parallels between Schopenhauer’s aesthetic views and Beckett’s critical reflections, such as that provided in Chapter One of the present study, can underscore the need for a re-evaluation of our notion of influence in relation to Beckett’s use of Schopenhauer’s ideas. When Büttner declares his intention to explore “the ways in which Schopenhauer’s thought made it possible for Beckett to create his literary work”29 it would be easy to assume that Beckett’s creative impulses originated in the abstract and systematic principles of that philosopher’s writings. Büttner proceeds to highlight some of the ways in which Beckett’s work “makes use of” Schopenhauer’s “recommendations [involving] the practice of compassion and resignation.”30 However, Schopenhauer is adamant that aesthetics and ethics are not to be understood as areas within which deontological prescriptions could be efficacious:
[J]ust as all the professors of aesthetics with their combined efforts are unable to impart to anyone the capacity to produce works of genius i.e., genuine works of art, so are all the professors of ethics and preachers of virtue just as little able to transform an ignoble character into one that is virtuous and noble. (WWRI, 527)
Having asserted that “Many of [Beckett’s] works call forth similar feelings of compassion or resignation in the audience,” Büttner subsequently claims that, “Resignation, for Schopenhauer, consisted in the denial of the will-to-live that it is the role of tragedy to evoke.”31 While Schopenhauer argued that tragedy could actuate aspirations towards such renunciation, he did not think that artworks ought to have the type of instrumental purpose that Büttner describes. In Chapter One we will recognise the fervency with which Schopenhauer consistently decries ideas regarding the role of artworks as didactic repositories of ethical ideals. In such cases, art becomes “a mere means and instrument” (PPII, 562). Büttner’s views regarding the potentially edifying effects of Beckett’s own works are plausible, yet when juxtaposed so closely with his contestable estimation of Schopenhauer’s reflections upon tragedy, they may serve to suggest that Beckett’s creative impulses were fundamentally inspired by moral principles. The idea that it is the “role of tragedy to evoke” thoughts of withdrawal in the readers, viewers or listeners of Beckett’s art would be difficult to reconcile with Schopenhauer’s view that, “to wish to communicate [concepts] through a work of art is a very useless indirect course; in fact, it belongs to that playing with the means of art without knowledge of the end which I have just censured. Therefore, a work of art, the conception of which has resulted from mere, distinct concepts, is always ungenuine” (WWRII, 409). The present study will identify numerous correspondences between Schopenhauer’s ethics and Beckett’s oeuvre but I am more interested in the purely aesthetic implications of such affinities than I am with the extent to which Beckett accepted Schopenhauer’s arguments regarding compassion as an indispensable foundation of morally significant behaviour.
In considering Beckett’s employment of Schopenhauerian themes, Weller goes beyond a mere identification of intertextual correlations and encourages us to recognise how the notions of ontological guilt which are the focus of those studies which deal with the Schopenhauerian aspects of Proust are radically reworked in Beckett’s later writings: “Schopenhauer’s sense of life as expiation for the sin of having been born gets twisted out of shape by the crooked logic of a number of Beckett’s post-war works.”32 This study will highlight numerous cases wherein Beckett adapts various elements of Schopenhauer’s thought in accordance with his early authorial aims. Schopenhauer’s unparalleled importance for artists of the first rank such as Turgenev, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Conrad, Proust, Hardy, Mann, Wagner, and Mahler ensures that he will continue to inspire much critical commentary, yet within Beckett studies extended treatments of Schopenhauer-Beckett issues are strikingly rare. To date, Pothast’s The Metaphysical Vision: Arthur Schopenhauer’s Philosophy of Art and Life and Samuel Beckett’s Own Way to Make Use of It (2008) provides the most comprehensive published account of Beckett’s engagement with Schopenhauer’s work currently available in English. Like his predecessors, Pothast focusses on two of Schopenhauer’s works: The World as Will and Representation (1818) and Parerga and Paralipomena (1851). Given his acknowledgement that Beckett “seems to have studied” works such as On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (1813) “extensively indeed,”33 his neglect of Schopenhauer’s other writings, including On theFourfold Root, is somewhat perplexing. Schopenhauer’s core conceptual claims are embedded in a strict referential totality, whereby his aesthetic reflections are unintelligible without a sense of their epistemological presuppositions. Guided by Schopenhauer’s “demand that whoever wishes to make himself acquainted with my philosophy shall read every line of me” (WWRII, 461), I make extensive references to the entire body of English translations of his philosophical oeuvre. I also employ Schopenhauer’s posthumously published manuscripts in instances where a broader intratextual reading of Schopenhauer can illuminate concepts which seem to have been aesthetically valuable to Beckett. I deviate from Pothast’s view that Beckett “remained an author with a distinctly metaphysical tendency.”34 Quite apart from Beckett’s explicitly declared indifference to Schopenhauer’s value as a metaphysician, in Chapter One I examine how Beckett’s study of Proust is more in line with readings of Schopenhauer which regard the metaphysical connotations of his aesthetics to be dispensable in light of his own fervent views regarding the primacy of perceptual experience in creative practices. Pothast subsequently claims that, “important elements of the theoretical as well as aesthetic framework of Schopenhauer’s philosophy were left behind by Beckett very soon after having used them for his own purposes in Proust.”35 I aim to demonstrate that Beckett’s creative ventures which succeeded the composition of Proust contain numerous thematic and formal alignments with Schopenhauer’s thought.
My research also differs from that of Pothast in going beyond a mere focus on Proust and encompassing a wide array of Beckett’s critical reflections from a variety of periods in his life in order to demonstrate the extent of the consonance between Schopenhauer’s philosophy and Beckett’s aesthetic views. My inclusion of cross-textual references to Beckett’s later prose and drama throughout this study will oppose Pothast’s assertion that “There is an obvious parallelism between Beckett and Nietzsche in that both set out with Schopenhauer’s philosophy of art and left it behind later in their lives.”36 That statement is more verifiable in the case of Nietzsche, who, by working primarily through the medium of concepts, engaged in a more overt rebuttal of his erstwhile educator. Schopenhauer’s work was of abiding interest to Beckett. As Pilling and Knowlson have noted, it is far more plausible that Beckett had internalised Schopenhauer’s thought to such an extent that it informed his writing in a variety of subtle and nuanced ways throughout his authorial life. In a laudably comprehensive depiction of the problems facing discussions of the relationship between Schopenhauer’s philosophy and Beckett’s art, Tonning observes that,
Schopenhauer’s utility for Beckett is such that, once noticed, it becomes hard to discuss almost any passage in Beckett, or any aspect of his thought, without referring to this influence. However, such a vague sense of ubiquity has created something of a quandary for Beckett scholarship. Generalized explication of Beckett texts in terms of Schopenhauer’s ideas can feel like a distinctly tired exercise: the ideas themselves grow overfamiliar, distinctions between individual Beckett texts begin to blur, and the entire oeuvre starts to resemble a ludicrously extended argument for a certain metaphysics. On the other hand, strictly limiting the discussion to documented allusions risks seriously under-estimating the full impact of the relationship under study, not least because allusions generally are much fewer and often hard to identify in Beckett’s post-war work. This is not to suggest that the alternative method of simply assuming that Beckett “must be” alluding to this or that Schopenhauer passage in a given instance is any improvement.37
My research differs from Tonning’s insofar as it eschews notions of Schopenhauer’s “influence” over Beckett. I am also averse to his suggestions regarding the difficulties of ridding ourselves of a sense of Schopenhauer’s omnipresence in Beckett’s oeuvre. Tonning is, however, justified in accentuating the issue of repetition. Proust has been repeatedly revisited by critics in their search for instances of the thematic congruence between Schopenhauer’s writings and those of Beckett. Tonning is also aware that the specifically literary value of Beckett’s work can be diminished when he is portrayed as an apologist for Schopenhauer’s metaphysical views. This study prioritises the purely aesthetic value of Schopenhauer’s work to Beckett by showing how Schopenhauer’s epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical reflections were exploited by Beckett for creatively enriching ends.
Tonning also remarks that, “While much excellent work has been done on Beckett’s reading of philosophy from about 1932 onward, it is arguable that Beckett’s fundamental philosophical (or anti-philosophical) position had already been formed through his first encounter with Schopenhauer.”38 Schopenhauer may have provided Beckett with a confirmation of ideas about life and art which he had previously intuited in an inchoate yet formative way. If we consider Beckett’s notes on authors such as à Kempis and Geulincx it is remarkable that many of the transcriptions contained therein are of a piece with Schopenhauer’s vituperation of worldly endeavours and his commendation of those who recognise the sheer futility of the incessant striving to which we seem ordinarily predisposed. At various points in this work I will note how Beckett’s prior reading of Schopenhauer would have acquainted him with themes which pervade the writings of figures such as à Kempis and Geulincx who espouse quietist views. As we shall see, the most revelatory aspect of such chronological precedence is that Beckett derived numerous insights from Schopenhauer regarding the means by which an author could employ the conceptual discourses of philosophy and theology in his texts without thereby imperilling their specifically artistic value.
Having read Tiedtke’s thesis on Proust, entitled Symbole und Bilder im Werke Marcel Prousts, Beckett was moved to condemn what he viewed as the “tedious academic distinctions” upon which it relied in its use of “[c]lassification, definitions + paradigms.” Beckett lamented that, in his reading of Tiedtke’s study, he did not receive even a “whiff of Proust as ARTIST.”39 Any interrogation of the intertextual concordance between the works of Schopenhauer and Beckett must provide an outline of the inherently systematic underpinnings of Schopenhauerian concepts. In this sense, provisions of “[c]lassification, definitions + paradigms” are indispensable if Schopenhauer’s arguments are to be properly contextualised. Proust is notorious for its omission of an adequate exposition of its Schopenhauerian foundations; Acheson justifiably avers that it is “obscured by the lack of an adequate background discussion of Schopenhauer.”40 However, Beckett may well have been confronted with an unavoidable problem that can be discerned in the aforementioned critical studies. In the essays which investigate Beckett’s engagement with Schopenhauer’s thought we invariably get little “whiff” of Beckett as artist owing to the unavoidable necessity for critics to cover the fundamental elements of Schopenhauer’s thought while facing relatively restricted word counts.
Tonning’s repeated use of the concept of influence in his exploration of Schopenhauerian notions in Beckett’s work echoes similar practices in the writings of many of those who have sought to probe the place of Schopenhauer’s ideas in Beckett’s oeuvre. By highlighting Beckett’s acute awareness of Schopenhauer’s opposition to art which is overtly guided by rational discourse, this study specifies the ways in which uncritical notions of influence can impede our understanding of Beckett’s commitment to the primacy of the aesthetic. Any consideration of the role of Schopenhauer’s philosophy in the work of a creative artist should acknowledge Schopenhauer’s own explicit assertions regarding the inferiority of art which is subservient to conceptual thought. Kaufmann, in his study of Thomas Mann’s engagement with Schopenhauer’s work, notes that, while the reading of Schopenhauer was “the decisive intellectual experience of [Mann’s] youth,”such an encounter was“of a catalytic rather than generative nature; it brought him into his own.”41 In the majority of discussions of the role of Schopenhauer’s thought in Beckett’s work critics have not addressed the notion of influence upon which their research manifestly relies. Within Beckett studies, categorical assertions such as the following, made by Lees, are commonplace: “Beckett was deeply and permanently influenced by the writings of Schopenhauer.”42 Acheson claims that in Murphy “The influence of Leibniz, Geulincx and Schopenhauer is especially important.”43 Grouping Schopenhauer with such philosophers overlooks core issues in his aesthetics which radically problematize our basic assumptions about the concept of influence between the writings of philosophers and literary artists. Unlike Leibniz and Geulincx, Schopenhauer examines the distinctions between philosophy and literature in a way which can prove profoundly instructive in understanding how Beckett’s ideas and practices can be related to Schopenhauer’s thought. Even the more recent surveys of Schopenhauer’s importance to Beckett are illustrative of a tendency to proceed without a prior examination of the conceptual implications of the notion of influence. Büttner notes, “From the first studies on Beckett in the sixties until the present, Schopenhauer has been recognized as a major influence on [Beckett],”44 while Tonning is adamant that previous explorations of Beckett’s engagement with Schopenhauer’s thought understate its significance: “there simply is no comparable influence on Beckett’s work, philosophical or otherwise.”45 Both writers appear to disregard the ways in which the application of the concept of influence to their subjects of study warrants prior analysis, especially in light of Schopenhauer’s highly refined sense of the relationship between philosophy and literature.
Pothast deviates from the aforementioned critics insofar as he would “very much hesitate to speak of an ‘influence’ of Schopenhauer on Beckett.” He goes on to claim that, “Concerning Beckett’s literature, the idea of influence seems to be altogether mistaken.”46 Pothast thereby echoes the views of Knowlson, who observes that, “With a creative mind like that of Beckett, influence is simply too straightforward and too deterministic a concept to be very helpful. Instead, recognition—of affinities and resemblances—is much more appropriate to the ambiguity, subtlety and suggestiveness of his artistic world.”47 Beckett may well have been sensitive to the problem of assigning the concept of influence to Proust’s engagement with Schopenhauer’s thought. In the words of O’Hara, “Curiously . . . Beckett never notes that influence, despite his own persistent application of Schopenhauer to the text.”48 As the present study attempts to show, Beckett was very much in agreement with Schopenhauer’s insistence upon the proper role of ideas in literary texts. In his consistent commendation of art which resists the logical proprieties of analytic thought in its inception and reception, his views are very much of a piece with those of Schopenhauer. This study will underscore various elements of Schopenhauer’s thought which render the concept of influence essentially contestable in relation to Beckett’s work, particularly in our attempts to comprehend the critical and creative significance of Schopenhauer’s philosophy to Beckett’s authorial procedures.
The history of Beckett criticism abounds with examples of reductionist readings. Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage (1979) presents us with many instances wherein Beckett’s works are read as vehicles for philosophical investigations. French points to the apparently dogmatic tendencies of Beckett’s literary endeavours in stating that, by 1969, Beckett had “moved into an abstract world of unchallengeable assertion” (GF, 33). Beckett’s claim, reportedly uttered to Tandy, that he was “not unduly concerned with intelligibility” and that he hoped Not I (1973) “may work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect” (GF, 36), accords with similar statements made by him throughout his artistic career. He was, nevertheless, consistently treated as an author who used his art as a declarative manifesto which served to propagate his worldview. Commentators who had previously offered favourable reviews of Beckett’s work were moved to denigrate his supposedly doctrinaire purposes. Tynan railed against what he considered to be Beckett’s desire to elevate subjective intimations of despair to the level of indubitable fact: “I suddenly realised that Beckett wanted his private fantasy to be accepted as objective truth” (GF, 166). Beckett has also been regarded as a writer who employs allegory as part of his didactic intentions. According to Fraser, Waiting for Godot (1954) is best understood as “a modern morality play, on permanent Christian themes” (GF, 100). My discussion of Beckett’s aesthetic views in Chapter One demonstrates how Beckett’s hostility towards allegorical practices is commensurate with key aspects of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics. While I do not wish to suggest that Beckett subscribed to Schopenhauer’s philosophy as an authoritative system of normative principles from which he was loath to deviate, I aim to highlight those areas of Beckett’s art which align most suggestively with Schopenhauer’s views upon the creation and appreciation of art.
Some critics have taken Beckett to task for failing to exemplify the principles of despair that his work apparently espouses. In this sense, Beckett is assumed to have proselytising designs upon his readers. Toynbee argues that, “By continuing to live and, still more, by continuing to write, the author refutes his own message” (GF, 75). The fallacious notion that Beckett desired to supply his readers with a blueprint for living is based upon a failure to understand or accept his deeply Schopenhauerian attitudes regarding the relationship between philosophy and art. In an interview with d’Aubarède he categorically asserted that he “wouldn’t have had any reason to write [his] novels if [he] could have expressed their subject in philosophic terms” (GF, 217). Nevertheless, in spite of Beckett’s consistent disavowals of philosophical intentions, we can still come across statements which confidently assert that works such as Eleutheria (1995) are “true to [Beckett’s] philosophy.”49 Following his admirable exegesis of Schopenhauerian principles and their relevance to Beckett’s work, O’Hara confidently asserts that Murphy “has a thesis”50 and that the ideas in the novel “create an ambience” which “permits readers to experience the novel’s intellectual argument.”51 From a Schopenhauerian perspective, such statements pose serious questions regarding the status of Murphy as a work of art. O’Hara later sounds a note of censure in commenting upon Beckett’s earlier works where he contends, “aside from Murphy, Beckett’s presentations were essentially static. Each psychological problem was stated and examined; none was worked through.”52 One is here reminded of Beckett’s refusal to engage in an analysis of Hamm or Clov: “Hamm as stated and Clov as stated, together as stated, nec tecum nec sine te, in such a place, and in such a world, that’s all I can manage, more than I could” (D, 109). Beckett’s refusal to create art in which his characters’ predicaments are “worked through” reveals his distinct antipathy towards such therapeutic finality.
As we shall see, Beckett’s insistence upon the purely descriptive function of art is one of the most salient aspects of his affinities with Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer formulates a strict distinction between philosophical and literary methodologies. As a conceptual discipline, philosophy is concerned with abstract problems which distance the theorist from the world, whereas the perceptual basis of art is founded upon its creator’s inherence in the world. According to Schopenhauer, “the concept . . . is eternally barren and unproductive in art”(WWRI, 235). It is from this Schopenhauerian perspective that we can point the limitations of Butler’s view that, “if Beckett laughs at and plays with the answers of traditional philosophy it can only be because he is concerned with the same questions. In spite of all his protestations to the contrary, Beckett is working the same ground as the philosophers.”53 While it is the case that Schopenhauer points to a certain overlap between the aspirations of artists and philosophers given that both art and philosophy “work at bottom towards the solution of the problems of existence” (WWRII, 406), Butler is quite adamant in referring to what he deems to be Beckett’s strictly philosophical intentions. He attempts to extract a conceptual solution from Murphy by reading itas indicative of Beckett’s desire to look “for a way out of dualism.”54 As recently as 2013 Butler’s claim was reiterated by Okamuro who pronounced that “Surmounting Cartesian dualism was Beckett’s lifelong desire.”55
Those who wish to locate a specifiable worldview in Beckett’s work are frequently repelled by what they discern therein. One of the most notable examples of this is O’Casey’s impassioned declaration that Beckett’s “philosophy isn’t my philosophy, for within him there is no hazard of hope, no desire for it; nothing in it but a lust for despair, and a crying of woe.”56 Kenner asserts that Waiting for Godot is barbed with designs upon our philosophical dispositions. He cites the opening words of Godot in support of his claim that the words “Nothing to be done” (CDW, 11) constitute the play’s “message” and are voiced early on “as though to get the didactic part out of the way.”57 Kenner’s view is representative of a significant trend within Beckett studies according to which the attribution of a philosophical motive to his work is a prelude to a reductionist reading. Calder attempted to distil a philosophical essence from Beckett’s oeuvre in The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett (2001). This text, in its assertion that what we can expect to find in his work is “above all an ethical and philosophical message; the novels and plays will increasingly be seen as the wrapping for that message,”58 continues a critical tradition which was given rather extreme form by Esslin, who claimed that Beckett’s early poem, ‘The Vulture’ (1935), anticipates “the future argument of Beckett’s complete oeuvre.”59
In ascribing philosophical intentions to Beckett commentators have overlooked his overt alignment with Schopenhauer’s reflections upon the artist’s vocation. Schopenhauer’s confidence in the overall unity of his interrelated concepts prompted him to declare that his entire work articulates a “single thought” (WWRI, xii), yet he was also keen to point out that such coherence is the prerogative of the philosopher, not of the artist. The present work will show that to treat Beckett’s writings as if they are cumulatively related to some ultimate conclusion is to ignore the vast range of distinctly Schopenhauerian reflections within his own critical texts, interviews, and letters which consistently reveal his animus against such endeavours. My formal and thematic analysis of Beckett’s creative writings will underscore the means by which Beckett exalted semantic ambiguity in a way which can be mimetically related to his sense of the irreducible particularities of quotidian existence. As an author who had acquired direct insights into the distinctions between literature and philosophy, Murdoch’s dictum that, “the literary writer deliberately leaves a space for his reader to play in. The philosopher must not leave any space,”60 is invaluable for those who attempt to understand the delineations between systematic thought and literary art. Murdoch’s assertion echoes Schopenhauer’s view that, “We are entirely satisfied with the impression of a work of art only when it leaves behind something that, in spite of all our reflection on it, we cannot bring down to the distinctness of a concept” (WWRII, 409). Beckett was clearly fascinated by the capacity of art to point beyond itself to realities which could not be explicitly stated. He refers to poetry’s capacity for producing an “extraordinary evocation of the unsaid by the said” (D, 94) and notes how painting can involve “un métier qui insinue plus qu’il n’affirme” (D, 130). Schopenhauer considers literature to be markedly adept at affording “profound glimpses” of those perplexing aspects of human character which are “beyond explanation” (EFR, 58). My research evaluates Beckett’s assertion that the key word in appreciating the abounding interpretative ambiguities of his plays is “perhaps” (GF
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