The question of multiple identities in Samuel Beckett's works

Thesis (M.A.), 2014
33 Pages, Grade: 16 / 20



The void has been a great source of inspiration for Samuel Barclay Beckett and his critics who tend to take into account the characteristics ofhis mind rather than his writings. Such a deconstructionist discourse on negative identity is redundant but also contradictory. This study aims at exploring the fundamental question of multiple identities in Samuel Beckett's fictions and dramas, particularly The Unnamable from the trilogy, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape and other relevant works. As a novelist, playwright and translator, Beckett can be said to be part of a revolutionary literature. His rejection and exploitation of the literary tradition make him an ambivalent writer. The problem of singularity regarding his works is crucial in the stabilization of identity. Moreover, the lack of a major theme becomes an obstacle to the definition of such works. The representation of these multiple identities will be analyzed in order to elucidate the following inquiry: To what extent does Beckett's texts shed light on the seminal notions of rootlessness and cultural in-betweenness as well as on the rejection of identification through self-exploration and radical experimentation? A certain number of critical readings will be used to discuss Beckett's place in literature through his characters' apparent lack of attachment to any tradition. Does literature have a function in the formation of identity? What sort of renovation does the Beckettian texts offer? It will be first noted that his borrowings from the French and Irish traditions coupled with his aloofness to them are indicators of the complexity of his mode of communication which is itself predicated on individual and conventional systems of discourse. By means of exploring the essential antagonisms that departure and return represent, this study will attempt to identify the literary forms of identity and apprehend the constant redefinition of the self whose ambiguous nature have to be examined in the light of the paradox between multiplicity and reduction.

How are marginalization and alterity experienced in the author's post-colonial writings? Beckett's bilingual experience via the relationship between the man and his work will complement this research. Particular emphasis will be laid on the role of repetition in the assertion of the protagonists' selfhood. In addition, it will be seen that the problem of expression and the interrogation about the subject of the writing are key factors in the process of rewriting.

I) The Beckettian cosmos

1. Discarding the literary tradition

Yoshiki Tajiri argues in his introduction to Samuel Beckett and theprosthetic body that technology shapes Beckett's work: 'The media technologies that emerged in the late nineteenth century transformed writing profoundly.'' (11) For this reason, it is essential when addressing the question of Beckett's philosophy to see literature as a separate and independent world whose main function is to the clarify existence by minimizing its incidental or minor details in order to go through the essential experiences. The period during which Beckett composed was marked by a rupture with scientific revolution and the emergence, after industrialization, of a new form ofhuman condition with progress in scholarship. His place in literature was certainly not facilitated by the modern/postmodern debate. On the one hand, postmodern writing can be seen as an intensification of modernism, on the other hand it encompasses two periods with different modes of writing. In reality, one of the problems in the debate on post­modernism is a taste for dual oppositions. The multiplicity of centres, points of view and genres signaled a move away from the objective view and from society as a whole.

In Beckett's prose fictions, it is perceived through a discontent with the narrative resulting in a greater focus on the individual. Consequently, the absence of a fixed centre poses the crucial problem of the identity of the writings which can thus be regarded as parodies of a modernist cultural pluralism. What enables the eccentric writer to discard the past literatures is the invention of a tradition made possible by the limitations in his mode of narration. Certainly, the presence of theories instead of certainties complicates the location of a novel like The Unnamable within literary history. As Bruno Clément points out in L'oeuvre sans qualités, “pochades”, “mirlitonnades”, “foirades” and “dramaticules” are images for a discussion on literary genres which are invented to resist categorization. Thus, Beckett defends his new literary form by disorienting us. His sense of anti-foundationalism is accounted for by Bruno Clément who asserts that “La littérature tente ici de rompre avec les liens millénaires qui la retiennent dans les domaines divers du savoir.” (41) There is not a single truth in his writings but a universal disorder with a profound sense of insecurity.

It is especially significant in the context of post-modernism which rejected the modernist idea that a work should be absolute. Given the fact that Beckett used different mediums to communicate, his texts transcend the postmodern as a mode of writing.

In his book entitled Technique and Tradition in Beckett's Trilogy ofNovels, Gönül Pultar sees the novel as the “product of a bourgeois society” (133) In that sense, The Unnamable is an anti-novel which provides a commentary on the demise of traditional literature and indicates Beckett's maturity as a writer who has acquired confidence. For him, the novel can find its place in literature only by bringing its form to exhaustion. His anti-dogmatism enables to see The Unnamable as a meta-narrative in which the negation of the self compels us to acknowledge what it is to be human. The self­reflexive voice invites the reader to challenge his or her own assumptions about knowledge as culturally relative:

"I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.'' (418)

Here, there is a new reality where authoritativeness and all the traditional beliefs have vanished. The protagonist's life is defined by what he lacks, that is to say; language and nationality. By innovating his mode of narration, the novelist was able to establish his poetics of reduction. Indeed, the stream of consciousness technique which had been used by writers such as Joyce and Woolf was supplanted by the narrative consciousness technique. As Gönül Pultar has it, “Beckett wrote within the Modernist paradigm, at a period of time after the Modernists who made such extensive use of the [stream of consciousness] technique” (48) This new mode of narration can be regarded as a response against psychologism since the author of The Unnamable must have been aware that no one had the capacity to know everything about men's inner thoughts. Also, because Nietzsche famously declared that God was no longer in existence, it was not possible to see the world objectively. One of the consequences is that the omniscient narrator is absent and at the same replaces the traditional author. As Gönül Pultar signals, “what is at stake is not narration but exploration, the search for our own identity.” (72) In other words, what matters is how the subject perceives the events that befall him. In the case of The Unnamable, it takes the form of a monologue in which the narrator, a consciousness destitute of his physicality, announces: “The best would be not to begin, but I have to begin. That is to say I have to go on” (268) Here, his status as a character is undermined since he is not only unnamable but also unable to begin or end his story. The question of preexisting identities is significant in Beckett's works, one can observe that the character who has been dispossessed is likely to hypothesize the future. Beckett laments the loss of something that has never existed instead of commemorating the loss of the subject. Thus, he is able to reinterpret. Antecedence is also present in Watt when Mr Hackett asks Mr Nixon about his knowledge of “Nationality, family, birthplace, confession, occupation, means of existence, distinctive signs, you cannot be in ignorance of all this.” To that Mr Nixon answers: “Utter ignorance” (21) Clearly, Beckett's fictions protest against the knowledge that is bound in consciousness. The unnamable narrator asserts: “I am a mine of useless knowledge” (290) What Gönül Pultar sees as “willed ignorance” (54) is the discarding of the absolute knowledge about the world. His argument is that “Consciousness stems from suffering” (112). In actual fact, suffering is the only option for the Beckettian character if he wants to get rid of his prejudices and habits. At the same time, it allows the writer to experiment his work and situate himself at a specific moment in Literature. Another key element which is paramount is the role of questions. Because “Who now?” (1) remains unanswered by the narrator whose quest for his artistic self proves to be infinite, the path to the development of his wisdom is hindered. As Bruno Clément argues, “la question “connaissante” est à proscrire par principe (c'est l'identité du projet littéraire)” To put it differently, a literature which would be free of questions is hardly conceivable. What is certain is that The Unnamable challenges our awareness of the history of Literature: “Questions, hypotheses (call them that).” (1) The same process is at work in Endgame when Clov deplores “the same questions, the same answers” (6) In this aesthetics of rejection, the writer plays with language and literature. Many of his works are marked by a sense of failure: The Unnamable, Stories and Texts for Nothing and From An Abandoned Work are notable examples. However, what is worthy of note is not mere pessimism but the narrator who stands out “faisant ainsi d'une pierre deux échecs” (171) as Bruno Clément insists. This prestige of failure reveals a sort of indirect optimism. By means of characterization, Beckett can express uncertainty. For instance, in Waiting for Godot he has Estragon claim: “No, nothing is certain.”

This inability to give a name to things reveals how persuasive is the constant location of the self in the thought process as well as in the past and future texts. Declan Kiberd notes that in Waitingfor Godot, Vladimir and Estragon as tramps are “Unable to construct a story of the past”, consequently they “learn nothing from their mistakes” (538) Since their past have been dismissed they are constrained to create their own tradition which, like discovery and progress, operates through the misuse oflanguage.

To Declan Kiberd, the reason why they regard their native land submissively and dubiously is that “they represent a geography which has been deprived of a history" (540) Thus, the protagonists who are in search of an ideal stumble upon impossibilities. What they find out, at the end of the day, is their own condition. However, considering the fact that the playwright is wary of the interpretation of symbols, an existentialist view ofhis drama is in danger of excluding the equivocality ofhis work. As a creative writer, he offers a playful literature in which games have a social function. In Endgame, games possess rules which are unfamiliar to the audience and which render the identification of the characters with their speech impossible. As Jane Alison Hale has it, "Agame [...] is played to create order" (83) in a world of imperfections. Tradition is what generates order which is precisely what Beckett is in conflict with. The process of creation is affected by disorderliness and disobedience on the part of the writer who seems to suggest that the end which is to wait is that of literature. The tramps’ discussion about suicide in Waiting For Godot exemplifies this:

ESTRAGON: “We'll hang ourselves tomorrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes.” ESTRAGON: “And ifhe comes?”

VLADIMIR: “We'll be saved.”

One could argue that Vladimir implies that they will be saved from the novel genre. The play seems to be what Estragon calls “a relaxation” from literature itself:

VLADIMIR: “It'd pass the time. (Estragon hesitates.) I assure you, it'd be an occupation.”

ESTRAGON: “A relaxation.”

What the theory of literature and the theory of the character have confirmed is that a new form of renovation exists in the Beckettian fictions and dramas and that it is something original. However, it is possible to see a reconciliation between the new revolutionary or anti-conformist work and the more familiar traditional forms of representation. Beckett's exploitation of the literary material will be examined more closely in order to demonstrate that this renovation is not only new but that it is also a mockery of old conventions.

2. Borrowing from the literary tradition

After World War II, major shifts occurred in the literary and intellectual landscape. Beckett, who had found his own style after the war, is part of this evolution. Despite his philosophy of 'anti-literature', similarities exist between his works and other writers' at that time. Indeed, the war had triggered disbelief about the moral betterment of society. Man could be callous and pitiless but he could not be brave or heroic. His negative depiction sprang from a loss of confidence in human nature which was seen as unstable and illusory, hence the problem of assessing identity and the notion of uncertainty about one's role in life. Beckett's utilization of the confessional genre serves as a medium for conveying unpleasant introspection. Gönül Pultar asserts that ''The confessional type of narration is a most appropriate device for the limited perspective, the search for the self, the solipsism.'' (120) The priority of the diarist who fears reality and the practicality of life is to abandon the traditional elements of plot which he deems as constructive. Beckett and other novelists after World War II sought to assert that ''the omniscient realistic novel was far from depicting reality.'' (142) In that sense, his novels can be associated with surrealism usually characterized by a deficiency in logic and causality. What the Surrealists did was to blend prose into poetry. Malone Dies, another novel from the trilogy, underscores this repudiation of reality when the protagonist ironically says: “Nothing is more real than nothing” (16).

Gönül Pultar intimates that Beckett's novel can function as a parody of the Protestant diary: ''While the Catholic went to church and confessed to the priest, the Puritan wrote down his sins in his journal.'' (97) In other words, Beckett as an isolated writer makes use of the passive protagonist to reflect this ''mal de siècle'' (105). As Pultar puts it: ''Corporeal immobility [...] symbolizes the passivity that is an integral part of his identity.'' (118)

Again, Beckett mocks the clichés of the confessional mode. In order to imitate the novel form, The Unnamable borrows from the French,journal intime. What the reader can witness is the anti-hero of Western literature whose reason andjudgment have been replaced by self-consciousness. The unnamable cannot cope with the world rationally, he seems to be free of philosophy and ideology. Accordingly, his nihilistic values are a threat to the bourgeois values of materialism and rationalism. Unlike the traditional novels which offer humanist values, the phenomenological novels offer nothing but a commentary and a denial of these values.

In the 1950s, the novel was obsessed with the philosophical impasse of existentialism.

To a certain extent, Beckett solved the crisis of the novel by writing within French letters at a time when the metaphysical novel was emerging. It is essential to note that he wrote the trilogy in French. However the question is to know whether he adopted the tradition of the country in which he created his fictions. Gönül Pultar argues that “In France, Beckett was the forerunner of The NewNovel authors.” (136). These existentialist writers who dismissed the ''traditional forms of narrating, as well as entertaining'' (145) may have served as a model for the author in search of authenticity. Gönül Pultar refers to a ''French tradition of witty entertainment'' (139) explaining that Beckett, in his rejection, manages to create an ironic aloofness while infusing lively intelligence into his works.


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The question of multiple identities in Samuel Beckett's works
University of Rennes 2
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Kevin Oheix (Author), 2014, The question of multiple identities in Samuel Beckett's works, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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