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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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196 silence nowhen 2. Related is Clesus’ obticentia, or interruptio according to various others. See Richard A. Lanham, A Handbook of Rhetorical Terms. 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); see also Roland Barthes, L’Aventure sémiologique (Paris: Seuil-Points, 1985), 159: “L’ellipse consiste à suprimer des éléments syntaxiques à la limite de ce qui peut affecter l’intelligibilité . . . la réticence ou aposiopèse marque une interruption du discours due à un changement brusque de passion (le Quos ego virgilien). La suspension retarde l’énoncé, par rajout d’incises, avant de la résoudre: c’est un suspense au niveau de la phrase.” I am avoid- ing the old debate about tropes and figures and simply referring here to all of these devices as figures which then, on a higher level, I will use metaphorically to describe Beckett’s style. 3. “L’aposiopesi si attua nelle forme (stilisticamente le più brusche e radicali) dell’ellissi. L’effetto retorico è dato dal lasciare a mezzo l’espressione di un pensiero, facendone tuttavia intendere perfettamente gli impliciti sviluppi e le prevedibili conseguenze . . . È la retorica del silenzio; di un implicito che ha forza tale da far intendere assai più di quanto non si dica.” Bice Mortara Garavelli, Manuale de Retorica (Milan: Bompiani, 1988), 255. 4. An example from Predigt 59: “Willst du Gott auf göttliche Weise wissen, so muß dein Wissen zu einem reinen Unwissen und einem Vergessen deiner selbst und aller Kreaturen warden.” Meister Eckhart, Deutsche Predigten und Traktate, ed. Josef Quint (Zürich: Diogenes, 1979), 433. 5. Predigt 1: “Will...

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