Samuel Beckett’s unword

If there is one thing that my English degree taught me it is that when writers write about other writers, they write about themselves. This is why James Joyce can cast James Clarence Mangan and Oscar Wilde as his predecessors in exile. Similarly, when they denigrate a particular quality in another author, they project an anxiety about their own work. Hence Samuel Beckett’s dismissal of the Irish poets in his own time, for their being too prone to the ‘altitudinous complacency of the Victorian Gael’ and why his critical writings are so illuminating.

In the ‘Trois Dialogues,’ a conversation between ‘B’ and ‘D’, B and D discuss three contemporary painters, Pierre Tal-Coat, André-Aimé-René Masson and Bram Van Velde, although this account of the subject matter is probably misleading, as B, an analogue for Beckett, is primarily interested in discussing his aspirations for his own work, to the extent that D reprimands him: ‘the subject under discussion is not yourself.’

The thesis statement derived from this piece has become a kind of critical cliché and worn out through use. I made it the cornerstone of an argument in an undergraduate essay, which is definitely a bad sign: ‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’

Towards the end of the dialogue, B gives a brief outline of the history of art, which is a teleological movement towards the manifestation of truth via the construction of artifice. Those who are familiar with the history of avant-garde movements will be aware of how every generation proclaims themselves the heralds of authentic human experience on the page, even as some of them may move further and further from that which is strictly mimetic. B proposes that instead of insisting on the ‘reality’ of artistic representation, through which one would judge any given work’s success or failure, why not openly proclaim its failure to do so?

This is the defining principle that underpins Beckett’s literature of the unword, making the work of art reflexive enough to indicate its own artifice and refute the ‘twin tyrannies’, truth and beauty.

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