Beckett and the Modern/Postmodern Debate

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Author: Andrew Kennedy
Editor: Timothy J. Sisler
Date: 2004
From: Drama Criticism(Vol. 22)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,231 words

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[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Kennedy argues that although Beckett's plays have postmodernist elements, they are fundamentally different from true postmodern works.]

Our general topic (at the Strasbourg colloquium, April 1996) invited paradox. For the title itself invokes a set of binary critical terms that Beckett never used, and might well have abhorred, as he had a clear perception of the superficiality and cramping effect of critical terms.1 Moreover, Beckett critics have also tended to avoid our current terminology of 'isms': a quick check through a representative collection of books on Beckett shows that the postmodern debate itself tended to be avoided--except by Ihab Hassan, note 7--until the appearance of the New Casebooks critical collection on Waiting for Godot and Endgame in 1992, illuminatingly edited by Steven Connor and one of my starting points here.2 Even studies of Beckett's late work--the work that does cross and cross-fertilise the era usually referred to as 'postmodern'--tend to avoid this terminology, fearing an intellectual quicksand. Thus Enoch Brater prefers 'minimalism' as a keyword, and Jonathan Kalb the 'avant-garde', covering more in time yet less in controversy than 'postmodernism'.3

At this point I must confess that I have used the term 'postmodern', once, in the concluding remarks of my own Beckett book:

The spiritual and linguistic complexity of Beckett (with its roots in modernism, as we have argued), comes into collision, at certain points, with a brasher, at once more superficial and more technological 'post-modernist' culture (a somewhat ill-defined term for literature, used here only as a pointer).4

For this moderate comment I was duly reprimanded by a reviewer5 who objected to "Kennedy's sense of Beckett as essentially a Modernist, conveyed by his claim that 'in Beckett's work we are entering types of vision and form no longer of our time.'" The context of this reviewer's rebuke included a welcome tribute to Beckett's late work and performance art but also, more controversially, an implication that if you want to be 'with it' you must be 'postmodern', and include Beckett in the great postmodern family.

Having got involved in a larger argument through such marginal cross-fire, I would now point--very selectively, with Beckett's work as my focus--to certain macro-contexts of the modern/postmodern debate. There are, roughly speaking, two main directions in the debate: one regarding postmodern writing as a continuation and intensification of modernism; the other drawing a sharp line between the two 'isms' both as period and even more as modes of writing. The first view gives me little trouble conceptually, for once you accept that Beckett was continuously renewing his own modes of writing--for instance, the fundamental structure and language of his plays--the name you give to that series of radical artistic transformations is secondary. Beckett's own avantgardist urgencies carried his work, away from the shadow of Joycean titanism in Finnegans Wake6 through stages of astonishing renewal, to the minimalist purity of performance poems in the final phase--"making it new," on the moving platform...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420058170