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Notes on Samuel Beckett and Writing

Text of Beckett and Language Pathology

  • Beckett and Language PathologyAuthor(s): Benjamin KeatingeSource: Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Summer, 2008), pp. 86-101Published by: Indiana University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25167571 .Accessed: 24/05/2011 02:07

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  • Beckett and Language Pathology

    Benjamin Keatinge South Eastern European University, Macedonia

    This article begins with an account of Beckett's translations of Surrealist texts for the

    September 1932 issue ofDiis Quarter, which contained extracts from Breton and Eluard's Simulations. The essay argues that Beckett was influenced by these sketches

    in psychic confusion and suggests that traces of this encounter can be found in Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot. Beckett is seen to use pathological language structures in a deliberate

    way and Lucky's schizophrenic language seems to

    correspond to the psychiatric

    concept of formal thought disorder. Irrational speech patterns in Watt are also examined and viewed as another deliberate sabotage of logical speech. A discussion 0/Worstward

    Ho using Deleuzean conceptions of language pathology suggests that Beckett is swayed, in the later prose, by the rhythms of pathological language in

    an unconscious way. Beck

    ett's linguistic play is seen to echo, in an austere manner, the more expansive language of

    Finnegans Wake.

    Keywords: Beckett / Surrealism / Joyce / language pathology / schizophrenia

    Beckett's early views on language and literature were formulated during his

    spell as a lecteur at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris between 1928 and 1929. Here he met his lifelong friend Thomas MacGreevy who introduced

    him to Joyce whose work was to prove a dominant influence during Beckett's early creative life. The intellectual climate in Paris at this time was very much influenced

    by Surrealism, and Beckett was acquainted with the ideas of writers like Andre Breton and Paul Eluard through the numerous avant-garde magazines then in

    circulation. These included transition, which serialized Joyces Work in Progress, and Beckett's

    eloquent response to Joyce's experimental novel, in an essay published in 1929, bears testimony to the young Beckett's thoughts on the possibilities and

    pitfalls of language. Beckett writes, in a well-known quotation:

    Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in

    English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read ? or rather it is not only to be

    read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something, it is that

    something itself. (Disjecta 27; emphasis Beckett's)

    Beckett influentially suggests that the form of Joyce's novel and its content or, to use

    contemporary jargon, its signifiers and signified, seem to coalesce so that sounds

  • Beckett and Language Pathology 87

    and meaning become one. The lexical qualities of the words cannot be disjoined from their sense and Joyce, Beckett suggests, has broken down the traditional form/ content dichotomy. This distinction, and its subversion by Joyce, is something to

    which I shall return in relation to Beckett's own work. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Beckett was digesting some of the Sur

    realists' experiments with language. In particular, he translated

    a selection of col

    laborative writings by Breton and Eluard for a small English language publication called This Quarter, which produced a Surrealist special issue in September 1932, guest edited by Breton, with a section on Surrealism and madness. Surrealism, as

    is well-known, tends to emphasize the unconscious over the conscious mind and

    to practice spontaneous, automatic writing in which the supposed wellsprings of

    creativity are tapped without reference to the world of reality. Beckett takes up this theme in his first published novel, Murphy, in which he disparages what he calls "the rudimentary blessings of the layman's reality" {Murphy 101) and uses the character of Mr. Endon, a hospitalized schizophrenic, to discredit the world of reality. And it is this discrediting of reality which Beckett adapted for his own

    purposes from the Surrealists. He also adopted the use of insanity from the Surrealists as a way of bolstering

    this campaign against the real. The passages Beckett translated included three of Breton and Eluard's famous Simulations, which were published in their book The Immaculate Conception, in which they sought to imitate and enter into the irrational

    thought processes and the deranged thinking of the insane. Their creative method for these Simulations is described as follows:

    Surrealism now aims at re-creating a condition which will be in no way inferior to

    mental derangement. Its ambition is to lead us to the edge of madness and make us feel

    what is going on in the magnificently deranged minds of those who the community shuts up in asylums. Is it not possible experimentally, by a simple play of the mind, to

    attain to the same result attained in psychoses and neuroses? May one not succeed in

    "systematising confusion", as Salvador Dali puts it, "and so assist the total discrediting of the world of reality." (Breton, This Quarter 110)

    The notion of "systematising confusion" is a useful one in relation to Beckett. He did,

    after all, refer to the "consternation" behind the form of his work, and in the Simu

    lations Beckett may have found a language that accommodates the consternation

    of form which he was so acutely aware of.1

    In addition, the Simulations illustrated how sane and balanced minds could enter into and participate in unusual and pathological mental states. So, for exam

    ple, in Breton and Eluard's "Attempted Simulation of Dementia Praecox"we find the following more or less incomprehensible, or at least nonsensical, passage, which

    illustrates the disintegration of speech in schizophrenic psychosis:

    For myself, I, the undersigned, concurd. A mist of feeling makes me apartment to

    raise with cover for my people and mushroom understanding crinkles the herb while

    tearing off its head as required. And mounted on a wall-clearing which Elbes its way

  • 88 Journal of Modern Literature Volume 31, Number 4

    His Country Graetfully, Elbe all modern condolences and our Lorelei which bust as

    they come down. When I bestow from top to toe to be the beech, the forename, the

    countername, the intername and the Parthename my prayer and I say No and Canoe

    and I shoot and the bong gadrins and disappears into my thin within and percusses

    in. (Breton, The Automatic Message 191-92)

    Although Beckett did not translate this precise passage for This Quarter, he would have been familiar with the French original. Beckett may have recognized the

    possibilities of a delirious use of language which, by playing with conventions of sense and meaning, could subvert and challenge established literary techniques. In this respect, the Joyce of Finnegans Wake had led the way in his extensive use of

    macaronic puns which challenge the boundaries of sense and nonsense. Beckett

    was to receive an unfortunate reminder of the credibility of Breton and Eluard's

    experiments in the form of a letter from Joyce's schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, in London in January 1935. In his biography of Beckett, Anthony Cronin refers to this letter as resembling "surrealist automatic writing" (Cronin 210) in its disorien tated use of language which Beckett found terrifyingly real, rather than simulated. Beckett had witnessed in Paris Lucia Joyce's descent into madness and he was both distressed and perhaps also fascinated by it. He may privately have taken the view that certain features of her father's genius had become displaced in his daughter leading to her breakdown, a view that has commonly been advanced, not least by

    Carl Gustav Jung who treated Lucia in Zurich. Whatever the truth about Lucia, Beckett saw at first hand that madness and incoherence are not always a matter of

    simulation, but of lived experience. Interest in Beckett's links with the Surrealist movement has surfaced only

    recently. Daniel Albright's Beckett and Aesthetics, for example, strongly emphasizes the influence of Surrealism on Beckett. Albright believes that "Beckett's early translations of the Surrealists were ... as important to his artistic development as