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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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Beckett l’Abstracteur The critical literature on Beckett is simply too vast to engage with or even summarize in the space of this chapter, which seeks to assess the role of silence in Beckett’s work (as exemplary of a particular strand of late modernism). One relatively recent book that has introduced a new element, or at least a new emphasis, into the criticism (one, that is, not relating simply to fashions in critical discourse itself or the sheer mania of criticism around the centenary) is Beckett l’abstracteur by Pascale Casanova (1997). Casanova’s book certainly sits on the French side of the divide in Beckett criticism, and her main object of attack is a strand of criticism deriving from Maurice Blanchot’s “Où main- tenant? Qui maintenant?” of 1953, as well as (French) critical associations of Beckett with Sartrean existentialism or with Ionesco and the “theater of the absurd.” On the contrary, argues Casanova, “[f]ar from being frozen in the bombast consubstantial with the rhetoric of Being, Beckett more than anyone else was concerned with aesthetic modernity.”1 By focusing on his late works, especially Worstward Ho (1983), Casanova shows with some force that Beckett’s “project of a genuinely autonomous literature, freed from the imperatives of representation and respecting the principle of a combinatory of THE ABSTRACT, THE INCESSANT, THE NEUTRAL · 3 · 106 silence nowhen elements that has broken virtually any link with reality (or the conventions thought to represent reality),2 and the elaboration of a novel literary syntax, are on...

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