Samuel Beckett’s Critical Aesthetics
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
Hardcover. xiv+240 p. ISBN 978-3319753980. £79
Reviewed by Pascale Sardin
Université Bordeaux Montaigne (France)
Tim Lawrence is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, University of York, UK. His monograph Samuel Beckett’s Critical Aesthetics is the result of the transformation of his doctoral thesis (defended in 2015 at New Yok University) into book form. As its title suggests, it focuses on the aesthetic discourse that surfaces in Beckett’s critical writings. It looks at the points of contacts of literary and aesthetic reviews published in Transition and elsewhere from the late 1920s to the late 1950s with his creative works, more specifically his prose and poetry. It also discusses them in the light of contemporary philosophical and aesthetic discourses by Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and Wassily Kandinsky among other writers and thinkers.
Exploring the nature of representation and paying attention to motifs such as “empêchement” (impeding), this study considers how the style of Beckett’s late prose recalls and develops themes in his critical writing. But the author’s main focus is on the tropes of visuality and liminality which, according to Lawrence, is where Beckett’s “fiction and critical essays most crucially meet” . In his work as a critic, Lawrence argues, Beckett developed a new aesthetic relating to phenomenology and existentialism, theories of abstraction, and avant-garde movements such as Surrealism. Evading ekphrasis, his essays on art reflect upon theoretical stakes pertaining to the eye, the object and the subject of representation, and to the experience of the artist and viewer. In this respect this monograph is an interesting complement to David Lloyd’s recently published Beckett’s Thing : Painting and Theatre (Edinburgh UP, 2016), to Conor Carville’s Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts (Cambridge UP, 2018) and to the wealth of monographs that have come out in the past decades on Beckett and philosophy.
Lawrence’s first chapter entitled “Representation and Resistance: Beckett as Reader and Critic” shows how Beckett’s work is indebted to Kant and Schopenhauer. It further reflects the influence of Kandinsky’s “Abstract and Concrete Art.” Kandinsky was a figure of importance for expatriate artists resident in Paris in the inter-war period. Beckett’s philosophical metaphor of “resistance” appears in his writing, as do the related notions of a(p)perception and the recurrent figure of the eye. Lawrence looks at the affinities between Beckett’s “poetics of ignorance” and Georges Bataille’s concept of “unknowing.”
Chapter two, “Beckett’s Aesthetic of Vision : Figuration and Surrealist Influence” frames the notion of visuality in the light of Beckett’s responses to Surrealism and phenomenology, especially in relation to Murphy which Beckett translated into French in 1940. Beckett’s review of “MacGreevy on Yeats” and his essays on Geer and Bram van Velde are considered alongside his poetry and fiction from the 1930s to the postwar period. Intersections between Breton’s novella Nadja and Sartre’s novel Nausea and Beckett’s own fiction and critical writing are also elaborated upon. Roger Vitrac’s play Victor ou Les Enfants au pouvoir (1928) is further explored in relation to Beckett’s own Eleutheria (1947) and their respective ambivalent relationship with surrealist tropes.
In “Transitions and Abstractions : Periodical Culture and Beckett’s Revisions of the Visual”, the third chapter of the monograph, Beckett’s correspondence with Georges Duthuit and his writings for Transition help outline aesthetic concerns having to do with liminal states and the idea of the threshold. It investigates the relation between Beckett’s essays on art and the methods outlined by Kandinsky’s in Point and Line to Plane and Concerning the Spiritual in Art, drawing upon Gestalt psychology’s theories of perception, which were familiar to Beckett from the 1930s. These themes are foregrounded in Watt, as well as in the novella Premier amour written in the 1940s.
The final chapter “ ‘This Running Against the Walls of Our Cage’ : Beckett at the Boundary”, discusses Beckett’s short prose fragments, mostly written during the 1960s and 70s. This “closed space” fiction, as it is known, questions the possibility of representation and the figural. These both abstract and painterly texts are read alongside writings by Beckett’s contemporaries such as Bataille and Blanchot. The chapter also addresses Beckett’s relationship to Kant’s theory of representation by reading “Imagination Dead Imagine” (1965) in the light of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
This monograph is the first book-length attempt at encompassing Beckett’s critical writing in the English language since Lawrence Harvey’s seminal study Samuel Beckett : Poet and Critic published in 1970. For this reason it will be of valuable use to Beckettian scholars and students. It will also be of interest to students and researchers in literary modernism, the avant-garde, European visual culture and philosophy. The critical texts considered range from Beckett’s 1929 essay “Dante … Bruno . Vico .. Joyce,” to his 1931 book-length essay Proust (1931), his two essays in French on the Dutch painters Geer and Bram van Velde, “La Peinture des van Velde ou le monde et le pantalon” (1945-1946) and “Peintres de l’empêchement” (1948), and his “Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit” (1949). Lawrence also considers texts collected in Ruby Cohn’s edited collection, Disjecta (1983), and reassesses Beckett’s relationship with Surrealism in the light of his many translations of surrealist texts. The addition of an exhaustive list of these writings might have been useful for future researchers and academics interested in Beckett in particular and in critical writing in general.
Finally, the fact that this monograph pursues the sole line of enquiry of “visuality” and “representation” makes for a strong argument. The downside is that the reader hardly gets a global or wide-ranging view of Beckett’s critical writings, since much of the content they provide is inevitably left out. There is also relatively little discussion of Beckett’s style in his critical essays. Despite these reservations, this book is well worth reading for the insight it gives into the context of Beckett’s essays and their ongoing discussion of issues pertaining to vision and aesthetics.
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