[(essay date 1998) In the following essay, Ayers applies Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of dialogue to "First Love."]
Discussing Beckett and Bakhtin together presents a challenge, to say the least; it seems remarkable that two men who led somewhat parallel lives could come to such diametrically opposed conceptions of man's place in the world. They were, after all, rough historical contemporaries (Bakhtin's dates are 1895-1975, Beckett's are 1906-1989), and lived through some of the same experiences of the twentieth century. Both survived in precarious conditions during the Second World War, and although neither was inclined toward political activity, both occasionally found themselves objects of political suspicion. Furthermore, they both endured painful and debilitating illness over the course of many years. Both men were highly educated, very much at home in the Western literary tradition, and widely read. And they were, I think, both acutely aware of the collapse of coherent meaning systems in the twentieth century. They experienced the tension of the thinking individual whose relationship with the world is insecure and fragile. And yet the conclusions they drew from all this point in entirely different directions: Beckett's textual world is profoundly pessimistic, while Bakhtin's displays all the optimism inherent in the idea of open-endedness.
All the more interesting, then, to bring these two strong voices into dialogue with each other. Beckett's story cannot be "explicated" by applying Bakhtinian terms or concepts. Yet the two voices, one artistic and imaginative, the other philosophical and scholarly, can be brought together so that they enrich each other. Reading Beckett with the help of Bakhtin should, in Bakhtin's words, "renew" the literary event of the Beckett story. I would like, then, to propose an interpretation of "First Love" that is "many-sided". I will use Bakhtin's categories of genre, chronotope, and dialogue, and his words about them, to explore the story from various perspectives, at least some of which should shed some light on Beckett's dark narrative.
According to Bakhtin, much of the meaning that adheres to a literary work is contained in its genre. Every literary work has roots which extend backwards into time. Formal principles of organization, when they exist together in certain relationships with typical topics and devices, carry echoes of meaning from the distant past; these represent some of the semantic possibilities that the artist has at his disposal to exploit.1 On the other hand, "semantic phenomena can exist in concealed form, potentially, and be revealed only in semantic cultural contexts of subsequent epochs that are favourable for such disclosure".2 Thus, different elements of any generic complex might be dominant at different historical moments.
Among the generic categories Bakhtin describes, the one that seems to resonate most in "First Love" is the menippea. Menippean satire originated in the third century BC, an era which witnessed the decline of the tragic and epic, an era which, as Bakhtin says, ceased to recognize "the wholeness of a man and his fate".3 In the tradition of the menippea, the follies...