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samuel beckett

Literature As Silence (Samuel Beckett Versus The Word)


In a famous letter to his friend Axel Kaun, Beckett broke down the basic principles of future literature; a type of literature which rose against its sole instrument: the word.

There are few creators who have set out to overcome the limitations of their own means of expression. The interpretative contradiction and difficulty in the work of Mark Rothko, for instance, lies in the fact that he tried to overcome paint itself, to elevate it beyond its material condition, with a paintbrush and a canvas as his only accomplices.

That urge to deny the implicit limitations of our human capacity have traditionally led us to the extravagance of transcendence or the desperation of gesture; some, more than others, came epically close to a utopian place.

Similar to what Rothko attempted with art, Samuel Beckett strived to do in literature. Gifted with a talent for words, Beckett, regardless, set it upon himself to eradicate the vain proliferation of the word; his purpose, declared in this early letter to his friend Axel Kaun, was nothing less than reaching silence —or more than silence, nothingness— through its staunchest enemy: the word.

Beckett wrote this letter when he was also translating some of Ringelnatz’ poems. In addition to being a reaction to these, the writer used this means to transmit to his friend his idea of literature:

More and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it.

As Lucio Fontana’s knife, which most violently tears the fabric of his painting to stare into its abyss, Beckett sets out to undermine the deceitful membrane of the word through silences, and through a particular way of turning the word against itself. In short, Beckett proposes a literature of wordlessness.

As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it —be it something or nothing— begins to through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.

Now we know that Beckett did not speak for the sake of speaking. His statement of intent would later be materialized in stories where words serve their own dissolution, tales where language seems reduced to a sort of technical prospection, to mere indications of space and body language which his protagonists must follow devoid of any identity. This is the case of narrations such as Ill Seen Ill SaidThe End, and Stories and Texts for Nothing, where the word is twisted upon itself to make room for stories without a story, for tales that border nothingness in order to attempt a drawing of its unimaginable shape.

Beckett’s determination would eventually hatch in theatre with works such as Act Without Words, in which he made explicit his admiration for Buster Keaton —whom he would later employ in his esoteric Film.

In The German Letter, Beckett proves his lucidity by recognizing the difficulty of his purpose: to attempt against language, which would inexorably lead him, at least for some time, to irony, an ingredient that would imbue his work with an implicit comedic humor.

For now, we must do with very little. At first, in one way or another, it can only be a matter of finding a virtuous method which we can use to represent this burlesque attitude towards words, only that this must be done through them.

Concerning the decomposition of language, Beckett would try to say that other thing that is never achieved through words, that underbelly which poetry has so often tried to bring to a bloom, that face behind the mask, which in his work seems to make an eventual apparition, like the sinister grimace of something we are, but do not dare to acknowledge.

In this discordance between means and their use it is perhaps possible to perceive a whisper of that final music, or that definitive silence that lies beneath Everything.

There is no sense, there is nothing to say or, better yet, there is no way of saying the nothingness which every word definitely is. Beckett’s goal resembles that Godot that never comes, but which, nonetheless, Vladimir and Estragon must inexorably await.

In the meantime, I am doing nothing at all. Only from time to time I have the consolation, as now, of sinning willy-nilly against a foreign language, as I  should love to do with the full knowledge and intent against my own —and so I shall do,— Deo juvante.

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