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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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This chapter addresses a simple question: is Beckett a postmodernist writer? Of course the question is not so simple at all, for it begs a number of other tricky questions that get only more complicated as we address them: how am I defin- ing modernism and postmodernism? What does the post in postmodernism signify? And in any case, Beckett’s work does not suffer from not fitting easily into either of these categories or periodizations, so who really cares? Yet all the same, it seems that if postmodernism has any analytical value as a category, a style, or a “cultural dominant” applied to literature (in Fredric Jameson’s appropriation of Raymond Williams’s term), then Beckett is a crucial test case, following as he does perhaps the most exemplary of prose modernists, James Joyce, and producing a body of work which is very much unlike that of his famous predecessor and compatriot/co-exile, as well as that of the subject of his youthful scholarly interest, another quintessential prose modernist, Marcel Proust. Beckett clearly, and not just temporally, comes after these modernists and their moment. His defining war is the Second, not the First. His childhood BECKETT, MINIMALISM, AND THE QUESTION OF POSTMODERNISM All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. Samuel Beckett, 1983 Art indicts superfluous poverty by voluntarily undergoing its own . . . Along with the impoverishment of means entailed by the ideal of blackness . . . what is written, painted, and composed is also impoverished: the...

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