What's It Meant to Mean?': An Approach to Beckett's Theatre

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Author: Robert Wilcher
Editor: Dedria Bryfonski
Date: 1979
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,471 words

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Just as the `quality of language' in Proust was more important than `any system of ethics or aesthetics' [according to Beckett], so the quality of an experience in Beckett's theatre becomes more important than any system of `meaning' that might be extracted from the words of the text or from the `symbolism' of the sets, characters, and actions. A dramatic art is created that is `symbolic without symbolism'.

The purpose of this article is to explore further the implications of [his] statement `form is content, content is form' for Beckett's drama and to show that the allegorical approach, which is misleading when applied to the novels, is even less appropriate as a response to the plays. (p. 12)

For all his obvious familiarity with a wide range of philosophical speculation, Beckett has persistently rejected the philosopher's quest for a systematic statement about the nature of reality.... It is by the operation of habit, he argues in Proust, that man contrives to ignore changes both internal and external, and so imposes a system upon the flux of experience. He insists that `the creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day', and glosses `habit' as `the generic term for the countless treaties concluded between the countless subjects that constitute the individual and their countless correlative objects. The countless selves that constitute `the individual' no more add up to a fixed, knowable subjective entity than the fleeting impressions we receive from the external world cohere into an objective system. As Malone puts it, he has been `nothing but a series or rather a succession of local phenomena all my life, without any result.'

Along with his distrust of the intellect and the generalising tendency of language goes a rejection of the `grotesque fallacy' of realistic art, which subscribes to a conceptual, and hence expressible, view of reality. For the writer, realism is `the penny-a-line vulgarity of a literature of notations'.... In his earliest works of fiction, More Pricks than Kicks and Murphy, Beckett makes many of the `concessions required of the literary artist by the shortcomings of the literary convention.' His technique for evading these shortcomings is the simple and clumsy one of occasionally emphasising the essential unreality of what is presented according to the convention as real. (pp. 12–13)

Early on, Beckett made a number of attempts to establish a distinction between conceptual clarity and the immediacy of experience as it happens. This distinction, between the separation of form and content and the complete fusion of form and content, between the `literature of notations' and the `revelation of a world', is present in the first paragraph of his first published fiction, the story `Dante and the Lobster' which opens More Pricks than Kicks. Belacqua is reading Dante. He is `stuck in the first of the canti of the moon', Canto II of Il Paradiso, where Beatrice is explaining to the poet the nature of the spots on the moon.... The mental processes...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100000117