Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 9)

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Last Updated on July 3, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12003

Beckett, Samuel 1906–

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An Irish-born dramatist, novelist, and poet who writes in both French and in English, Beckett is best known for his play Waiting for Godot. His work combines humor with tragedy, creating an existential, often baffling view of the human condition within a meaningless and nameless void. This theme is reinforced by a literary style that experiments with formlessness and fragmentation of language, and often reflects the influence of James Joyce, to whom Beckett was both secretary and literary colleague. The translator of his own works from French to English, Beckett has received numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Whereas for Proust the emancipation from time is possible, being brought about by memory and even more satisfyingly by artistic creation, for Beckett it is impossible. Not only does Beckett require emancipation from the spatial dimensions as well as from time …, but also, for him, neither memory nor art is a means to salvation. The powerlessness of memory against the disintegrating force of time is, for example, one of the themes of Krapp's Last Tape, while art appears everywhere in Beckett as a kind of absurd but inescapable imposition, a "pensum" exemplary of the absurd punishment that is our life, so that the idea of escape through art has become no longer the joyous certainty it is in Proust but a kind of impossible dream. Beckett's themes are therefore anti-Proustian as much as they are Proustian, but the initial impulse is in each case the same: the sense of life as an exclusion from some timeless inner essence, and the attempt to use art as a means of escaping from time and rejoining that essence.

Beckett's dualism of the self and the non-self, timelessness and time, essence and existence, belongs to a lengthy tradition, and in particular his affinity with certain forms of baroque sensibility (and especially with Descartes) is well recognized. (pp. 152-53)

The irrelevance of death, art as an absurd pensum, and life as a long exile—these three closely interrelated ideas form the theme of the novel-trilogy, Molloy, Malone meurt, and L'Innommable, a theme that can be stated in two ways as the unattainability of the self or, conversely, the inescapability of existence…. [This] theme depends on the notion of a self conceived not dynamically, as an instrument, but spatially, as a place—but paradoxically, as a non-dimensional place, outside of space and time. This conception, which is central to Beckett, is traceable at least as far back as his first novel, Murphy. Murphy's main aim in life is to escape from it, that is, to escape from an outside world of "pensums and prizes" into the inner world where there is "only Murphy himself, improved out of all knowledge," a world that for him is creditably represented by a padded cell, that is, a kind of defined emptiness where, as Beckett puts it, "the three dimensions, slightly concave, were so exquisitely proportioned that the absence of the fourth was scarcely felt." (pp. 153-54)

A mote in the dark of absolute freedom, a pebble in the steppe, a tiny plenum in the immensity of the void, something autonomous and separate from the void (as blind Hamm is a separate mote in the visual world), but not separated from it by a wall—such is the self in Beckett: something undefinable in space, something dimensionless, but something (we can call it consciousness), and something which, because it is dimensionless, exists outside the world of space and time and is by definition unattainable within that world. As such, it is like the center of a circle (which we know to exist but cannot attain because each attempt to circumscribe it merely creates not a center but a new circumference...

(The entire section contains 12003 words.)

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Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 6)