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Silence Nowhen

Late Modernism, Minimalism, and Silence in the Work of Samuel Beckett


Duncan McColl Chesney

The dramatic and prose works of Samuel Beckett have long been understood as central to twentieth-century literature and particularly to questions about aesthetics, ethics, and the modernism-postmodernism distinction. Duncan McColl Chesney addresses many of the main issues in Beckett criticism by focusing on a key aspect of Beckett’s work throughout his long career: silence. Chesney links Beckett’s language and silence back to his predecessors, especially Joyce and Proust – laterally to contemporary movements of minimalism in the sister arts and theoretically in in-depth discussions of Blanchot and Adorno. By doing so, Chesney addresses how Beckett’s works remain true, to the end, to a minimalist impulse that is essentially modernist or late modernist without giving over to the rising dominant of postmodernism. Chesney delineates a sigetics – a discourse of silence whose main strategies in Beckett are reticence and ellipsis – and through studies of Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, Happy Days, the Trilogy, Company, and other works, teases out of Beckett’s minimal aesthetics a Beckettian minimal ethics. In brief glimmers in his texts Beckett provides proleptic hints at reconciliation and the possibility of ethical life that are neither theological nor mystical, but that minimally hold to an alternate rationality from that of the reified world of exchange and catastrophe.


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Give up, but it’s all given up, it’s nothing new, I’m nothing new. Beckett, Text for Nothing # 10 To talk and to write about silence is what produces the most obnoxious chatter… Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language1 2 silence nowhen silence, and there is not silence” (Texts for Nothing # 13, 139). There is in fact a gamut of silence: situated pauses and rhetorical gaps; a minimalizing silencing of the garrulous early style; a silence of negation (e.g. words we can no longer say because they no longer have any referent in the world); even a silence of acceptance (whether warm, irritable, exhausted, or even vaguely hopeful) in shared conversational quiet. This is not as simple as the difference between the prose and dramatic works, though a kind of typology can be attempted. Rather, silence is one of the resources, like repetition, permutation, exhaustion, self- correction, and comic self-contradiction, that contribute to Beckett’s style and are used contextually as appropriate. Ultimately silence is asymptotic, as a final rest—of the mouth, of the mind, of the pen—ardently desired and infinitely deferred, but a countervailing impulse is constantly at odds with this urge, namely that to plod on, to keep going, keep writing, keep talking, a sort of heroic, corporeal resistance (including an embodied mind). The struggle that results has well known comic consequences, but we must never lose sight of the dead seriousness of it as well. Beckett inherits a tradition that is no longer viable...

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