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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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“The artist who stakes his being is from nowhere, has no kith.” Samuel Beckett, “Homage to Jack B. Yeats,” (1954) “I have lived, indeed, in the world, madam; but I have kept very little company. I have been but an observer upon life, madam, while others were enjoying it.” Oliver Goldsmith, “She Stoops to Conquer” (II.i) Whether from the discovery of new material—or rather new access to material previously difficult to view—or perhaps simply from the need of a new genera- tion of scholars to publish something and get their careers under way, there is, recently, a lot of attention being paid to the “Irishness” of Samuel Beckett.1 Indeed, somewhat surprisingly, not that many books have been devoted to this issue in the past, the notable exception of reference being John Harrington’s The Irish Beckett of 1991 (and the beautiful coffee-table book The Beckett Country by Eoin O’Brien, 1986). Naturally the issue of Beckett’s roots has been discussed by his biographers (Bair, Knowlson, Cronin, and now Gibson), just as Beckett’s texts have been briefly discussed in studies of modern Irish literature like that of Norman Jeffares (Anglo-Irish Literature), Declan Kiberd (Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation), Norman Vance (Irish Literature Since 1800), or The Cambridge Companion to the Irish Novel edited by John Wilson Foster. Without yet going into detail, what is clear is that Beckett can, of course, be meaningfully related to Ireland—after all he was born and raised in Dublin, schooled at the...

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