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Reloading Beckett’s philosophical libraries

By Richard Marshall.


In a paper presented in 2011, Jean-Michel Rabaté discusses a divergence between Beckett‘s and Bataille‘s treatment of “… an experience of impotence, dispossession and unknowing…” in terms of “… the different libraries they bring to bear on these issues.” The impact of these different libraries is immense: from his library Beckett writes his plays and novels; from his, Bataille develops his system of thought “… in which waste and excess are crucial notions.” Mauss, Hegel and Nietzsche are the representative luminaries of Bataille’s library; Spinoza, Geulinincx and Democritus those for Beckett.

This essay extends the implicit idea that interpretation is not always library neutral. A concern is that much Beckett scholarship that has wanted to develop philosophical connections has used a library containing what has been crudely and erroneously labelled ‘Continental philosophy’ and ignored an alternative one, equally crudely, equally erroneously, labelled the ‘Analytic philosophy’ library. The one library includes the likes of Badiou, Critchley, Derrida, Lacan, Bataille, Zeno, Deleuze, Clemente, Blanchot, MacIntyre, Hegel, Heidegger, Ardorno, Zizek, Guattari, Foucault, Nietzsche, Lyotard, Cavell, Rorty, and Rabaté himself. It is a rich library.

The second library includes Williamson, Sorensen, Priest, Sellars, Fodor, Lewis, Sosa, Russell, Quine, Frege, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, McDowell, Unger, van Frassen, Carnap, Grice, Putnam, Dummett, Davidson, Rosenberg, Leiter, Schwitzgebel, Parfitt, Chalmers and it is immediately clear that there are philosophers, such as McDowell or Wittgenstein, who can be found in either or both. Recently there has been little ecumenical exchange between denizens of the two libraries, although Rorty and Cavell are perhaps exceptions to this.

But anyway, it’s stupid to have two libraries. It’s better to think that there’s just the one, with all sorts of possible reading lists and reference points. The naturalist philosopher Brian Leiter has done much to insist that there is nothing principled about the existence of these two libraries, even though he takes a distinctive philosophical position and finds some philosophical positions jejune and some writers bogus. He condemns the arguments and styles of those he dislikes because they are all in the same library and so he believes they should adhere to common standards of excellence.

In particular, Leieter insists that there are no actual Analytic or Continental traditions to underwrite the notion of the two libraries. ‘Analytic’ picks out a style of doing philosophy that looks to be clear and precise, logical and leans more towards the sciences and maths than the humanities, whereas ‘Continental’ tends to pick out a more literary, a more culturally and politically orientated style, one with a greater focus on the human condition and meaningfulness than the Analytic. Perhaps the most interesting difference in focus is that continental philosophers tends to always wear an historical overcoat. The historicist bent frames much of its philosophy, but it’s not mandatory, nor is it mandatorily absent in the work of analytic philosophers.

Leiter makes it clear that actually there is a great deal of overlap both in style of approach and substantive commitments up until the twentieth century. And he also points out that under both headings are philosophers who have almost nothing in common with each other. If there is something that helps us recognise the Analytic approach to philosophy it is what Leiter describes as ‘its adoption of the research paradigm common to the natural sciences, a paradigm in which numerous individual researchers make small contributions to the solution of a set of generally recognised problems.’ He goes on that, ‘[t]his is true, interestingly, of even the best work by Anglophone philosophers about so-called “Continental” philosophy: researchers debate and work out the details of the readings of Hegel by Brandom, Forster, Pippin, and Wood, or the readings of Foucault by Dreyfus and Rabinow, Gutting, and Pile.

The staring-at-trees-rather-than-forests aspect of this approach has its critics, but Nietzsche, in discussing the philologists of his day, is quoted by Leiter as arguing that this condemned approach is necessary if it is to bring rewards:

‘Almost always the books of scholars are somehow oppressive, oppressed: the “specialist” emerges somewhere—his zeal, his seriousness, his fury, his overestimation of the nook in which he sits and spins, his hunched back; every specialist has his hunched back. Every scholarly book also mirrors a soul that has become crooked; every craft makes crooked.…Nothing can be done about that. Let nobody suppose that one could possibly avoid such crippling by some artifice of education. On this earth one pays dearly for every kind of mastery.…For having a specialty one pays by also being the victim of this specialty. But you would have it otherwise — cheaper and fairer and above all more comfortable — isn’t that right, my dear contemporaries. Well then, but in that case you also immediately get something else: instead of the craftsman and master, the “man of letters,” the dexterous, “polydexterous” man of letters who, to be sure, lacks the hunched back — not counting the posture he assumes before you, being the salesman of the spirit and the “carrier” of culture — the man of letters who really is nothing but “represents” almost everything, playing and “substituting” for the expert, and taking it upon himself in all modesty to get himself paid, honored, and celebrated in place of the expert.

No, my scholarly friends, I bless you even for your hunched back. And for despising, as I do, the “men of letters” and culture parasites. And for not knowing how to make a business of the spirit. And for having opinions that cannot be translated into financial values. And for not representing anything that you are not. And because your sole aim is to become masters of your craft, with reverence for every kind of mastery and competence, and with uncompromising opposition to everything that is semblance, half-genuine, dressed up, virtuosolike, demagogical, or histrionic in litteris et artibus — to everything that cannot prove to you its unconditional probity in discipline and prior training (The Gay Science, sec. 366).

So this kind of work tends to lead to very detailed, very cleverly argued miniatures. Synoptic visioning they are not. This is work that tends to demand knowing everything about a little. For a grand vision you need to know a lot about a lot, and much of the grand synoptic visioning in philosophy has been in writers like Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx done before the explosion of specialist knowledge. ‘Semblance, half-genuine, dressed up’ is the accusation thrown back at attempts at grand visioning without the requisite specialised knowledge. So this isn’t a question of traditions, it’s a question of intellectual honesty and quality of thought and nothing else. (Certainly not geography.)

In this spirit I approach some philosophical queries about Beckett. I have noted that many writers examining Beckett and his interest in philosophy tend not to use the analytic library. But if the walls between the two libraries is conventional and arbitrary then there’s no good reason for this to continue. As an example of what bringing the libraries together I will argue that insights from recent work in the so-called analytic philosophy ibrary into vagueness offer new readings to the Beckett canon.

Beckett writes that he wanted to write impossibility, in order to disrupt those who want to merely enjoy art rather than become enlightened by it. Beckett makes this clear in his essay La peinture de van Velde ou le Monde et le Pantalon, where he writes: “For it is not question here of the grotesque and despicable animal whose specter haunts artists’ studios, like the tapirs one is likely to find in the dorms of the Normaliens, but of the inoffensive barmy one who rushes, as other people go to the movies, into galleries and even into churches, seized by the hope – listen carefully now – of enjoying himself (de jouir). He doesn’t want to be taught, the pig, or become better. He only thinks of his pleasure. He is the one who justifies the existence of painting as a public thing. I dedicate to him these remarks, all made to make him even dizzier. He only wants to enjoy. The impossible is made to prevent him from enjoying.” It is this dedication to the ‘impossible’ that is striking here.

Beckett announces this programme in his famous letter to Kaun in the 1930s: “It is to be hoped the time will come, thank God, in some circles it already has, when language is best used where it is most efficiently abused. Since we cannot dismiss it all at once, at least we do not want to leave anything undone that may contribute to its disrepute. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through – I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.”

So Beckett writes to create the impossible in order to prevent art being just enjoyed. Beckett’s art aims to be disreputable, to work like a drill, and the vivid image of ‘that which lurks behind’ language is sinister, threatening, suggesting the eerie loathsome monstrousness worthy of Lovecraft or M.R. James.

One of his efforts to create such lurking impossibility was to draw on his knowledge of pre-Socratic philosophers and their discovery of various paradoxes to embed them into the fabric of the worlds he presents. These impossibilities worked as the drill holes he writes of in the Kaun letter. But thanks to work done in recent years in the analytic library, it is clear that he makes a mistake. He truly adds an impossibility in the form of an ancient Greek paradox, but mistakes it for a different puzzle. The mistaken identity means that he was deluded about the nature of the particular hole he was drilling. But he got lucky, because the one he actually uses is better than the one he thought he had.

Matthew Feldman‘s essay linking Beckett to the Presocratics called for a ‘genetic scholarship’, “…that is, to conclude with the finished text by way of a scholarly inquiry into how it was composed. By this I mean that only turning to extant manuscripts, to the influences and ‘work in progress’ of literary creation, are scholars able to establish readings that can be ‘falsifiable’ – to … appropriate Karl Popper’s sense of the term – that is to say, arguments that can be shown through documentation to have been an actual stimulus in the act of artistic construction, and therefore a provable influence upon the artist’s imagination rather than a product of the critic’s imagination.”

This exercise of genetic scholarship is now well established following the Knowlson biography of 1996. But such an approach brings intriguing dilemmas for scholars and critics as a consequence of discovering that Beckett’s own scholarship and philosophical argumentation are flawed and that these mistakes are embedded in his resulting texts. What happens when errors are embedded into the texts so that intended authorial meanings are absent, replaced by unintended ones? Do the known and explicit author’s intentions override what he actually writes, inviting critical discretion and a license to restore by invention those meanings? Or rather, are critics to ignore the intended meanings and work with the actual achieved ones in the text, even if these contradict what the author was wanting to express, completing the process of discovery in the spirit of genetic scholarship?


For a writer of Beckett’s stature, and in the light of the type of critical scrutiny to which his texts have been subjected, that likes to emphasise the ideas and often buckles the structure of the texts to their content, Beckett’s scholarly and philosophical errors may signal a greater crisis than would be the case for writers whose ideas and outlook is taken less seriously. The publication of the second volume of his letters, already panning out as one the most significant literary projects of genetic scholarship ever, underlines this point.

Beckett draws wrong conclusions from the material he uses largely because his scholarship muddles up two different puzzles. What Beckett thinks he is presenting is not in fact what he presents. Critics who have followed Beckett’s intentions and read them into the texts have therefore written about what isn’t there. Where an author’s intentions and what is actually written come apart there is a crisis for critical interpretation.

Beckett drills a hole using a heap paradox. This he uses in non-trivial ways. It is referred to by Hamm at the start of Endgame to set the metaphysical mise-en-scène for the whole play, and Happy Days is dominated by its corrosive image. But it seems that Beckett didn’t grasp the threat of this puzzle, mistaking it for a less dangerous one that the mathematician Cantor tamed at the beginning of the last century. Beckett, by accidentally using a much more toxic puzzle, adds to the ferocity of his artistic project. The lurking presence he intends to drill through to and have seep out is more terrifying than he thought it was. Given that his aim was to make the pigs who want art to be merely fun squeal, this would have been a happy revelation for him.

What’s the evidence for this being the case? In replying to Alan Schneider‘s letter of 21 November 1957 on the direction of Endgame, Beckett writes in No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider:

Old Greek: I can’t find my notes on the pre-Socratics. The arguments of the Heap and the Bald Head (which hair falling produces baldness) were used by all the Sophists and I think have been variously attributed to one or the other. They disprove the reality of mass in the same way and by means of the same fallacy as the arguments of the Arrow and Achilles and the Tortoise, invented a century earlier by Zeno the Eleatic, disprove the reality of movement. The leading Sophist, against whom Plato wrote his Dialogue, was Protagoras and he is probably the “old Greek” whose name Hamm can’t remember. One purpose of the image throughout the play is to suggest the impossibility logically, i.e. eristically, of the “thing” ever coming to an end.

So in this letter we have the evidence that Beckett is unclear about who is the old Greek who is the source of the puzzles of the heap and the bald head. His reference to his lost notes suggests that he did at one time know but he has forgotten. He is certainly uncertain, quite rightly, that Protagoras is the man he’s looking for, because he isn’t. But he is specific about the inferences he draws from the puzzles. He takes them to show that mass doesn’t exist for the same reason that Zeno shows that movement is impossible. So he thinks that he is presenting one of Zeno’s paradoxes about infinity. But here’s his mistake. What he’s actually presenting is a different paradox, one that recent philosophical work shows to be about the indeterminacies of borderlines. Philosophers in the analytic library have labelled this puzzle one of vagueness. Zeno’s infinity puzzles and the puzzles of the heap (‘sorites’ in Greek) are therefore not the same puzzle.


Mind you, Zeno does have a puzzle involving a heap. It’s just not the sorites puzzle though. Zeno’s millet seed puzzle is not a sorites puzzle. So by mistake vagueness structures several of his texts, most obviously Endgame, Mercier and Camier and Happy Days, the latter being less an assertion of a puzzle than a display of one, like Escher’s print Belvedere and the language of a zombie.

The misidentified source material is the sorites puzzle. Clov at the beginning of Endgame comments, “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. I can’t be punished any more. I’ll go now to my kitchen, ten feet by ten feet by ten feet, and wait for him to whistle me. Nice dimensions, nice proportions, I’ll lean on the table, and look at the wall, and wait for him to whistle me.” In Ackerley and Gontarski’s Faber Companion to Beckett Beckett speaks of “Zeno’s grains, a logician’s jest” but we also learn that he “…told O’Brien that the allusion was not to Zeno but to a philosopher he no longer recalled.” Beckett’s philosophical source, Windelband, rightly identifies Aristotle’s contemporary Eubilides of Miletus as presenting the puzzle but wrongly claims that it was “retraceable to Zeno”. Modern scholars dispute this, although the misattribution is understandable. Zeno of Elea, a century earlier than Eubilides, was the originator of a puzzle involving millet seed, but not the puzzle, and at a twist it might be reformulated as a sorites puzzle.

Beckett relied on Windelband for his knowledge of the pre-Socratics, and it is only relatively recently that philosophers have got to grips with vagueness and made it clear that Zeno wasn’t working at the same puzzle as the sorites. Timothy Williamson wrote the classic text about vagueness in 1994 and made this clear. Of course, Beckett would not have had access to the scholarship of this formidable logician and so his mistake is understandable. But here’s a case of work being done in the analytic library directly bringing fruits to bear on Beckett scholarship. Thanks to Williamson and others working on vagueness a new dimension of what Beckett’s texts mean is revealed, a meaning that eluded even Beckett.

Zeno’s seed paradox, as reported by Wiliamson, goes: “If the fall of a seed to the ground were completely silent, so would be the fall of a bushel of seed, which it is not.; thus each seed must make a noise when it falls to the ground.” Reformulated as a forced sorites, it becomes; ‘Does one seed make a noise when it falls to the ground? Do two seeds? Three?…’ But Williamson, author of Vagueness, the classic modern text on the sorites, is careful to distinguish Zeno’s puzzle from that of the later Eubilides, writing that “Zeno seems to have based his puzzle on something much more specific: a principle that the noise made when some grains fall to the ground is proportional to their weight.” Williamson is clear that Eubilides is the guy who discovered the proper sorites. And it’s likely that that Beckett once knew this. What he didn’t realise was what Eubilides’ puzzle was about.

Eubilides invented seven famous puzzles, two of which were the sorites and ‘phalakros’, similar in respect of their being ‘little by little’ arguments. The sorites and the phalakros are puzzles of vagueness. The sorites (heap) and phalakros (bald) were in antiquity formulated as a series of questions. ‘Does one grain of sand make a heap? Two? Three?…’ Similarly with the bald man; ‘Is a man with one hair on his head bald? Two? Three?…’ and so on. Eventually there comes a figure where it becomes doubtful as to what the right answer is. And this period of doubt continues for some time until another figure is reached where a right answer seems clear again.

This is the puzzle that Clov recognises in Endgame and to which Beckett refers in his Riverside Notebook when he writes, “C perplexed. All seemingly in order, yet a change. Fatal grain added to form impossible heap. Ratio ruentis acetvi.” This appeal to the sorites puzzle suggests that his mania for minimalism rests on more than just Adolf Loos’ injunction, ‘ornament is a crime’ and Mies van der Rohe’s ‘less is more’. It also adds reason for his ‘Process of Elimination’ in the What Where notebook (Theatrical II 437) where every little change adds up to impossible change. It also adds to what he says in his lecture on Racine, where he talks about the monologue within the dialogue, where several voices add up, little by little, echo by echo, fragment by fragment, until they form a unity. The notebook for TritteFootfalls – contains a discussion of voices which Gontarski glosses: “In the dialogue within the monologues (parts II and III), for example, the Mother’s “What do you mean, May, not enough” of part II should be echoed by the voice of Mrs. W’s in part III, “What do you mean, Amy, to put it mildly,” according to Beckett. “Same style for both relationships,” he notes” (IV 337). Understanding the sorites brings a new resource for freshly understanding all this.

Beckett’s art drills the blindspot of the sorites. The non-heap impossibly becomes a heap. The bald man becomes non-bald. Clov sees this when he mutters, scared as hell, ‘suddenly’ and names his horror, ‘the impossible heap.’ In Mercier and Camier there’s a reference to “every millet grain that falls”, suggesting Zeno rather than the Eubilides, but vaguely conceived as a sorites, and so deliciously vaguely vague. In Malone Dies we are given “fun and games with the cones and cylinders, the millet grains beloved of birds and other panics” which picks up the anxiety and terror of the sorites that Clov registers in the later work. In Malone we also have Big Lambert’s wife having two heaps of lentils on her table, the smaller getting bigger and the big one smaller. Beckett here presents the embedded logical contradiction of the sorites as a display, as with Happy Days.

Winnie in Happy Days, buried in ‘the impossible heap’ that so terrifies Clov in Endgame, trapped in the impossible, encroaching end where suddenly, one day, at some point, a threshold will be reached, a line will be crossed, but unknowably… What did Beckett think was going to happen? There’s evidence that by taking the problem as a question of infinity, Beckett has been taken to be presenting in many of his texts an unending process rather than any completion to zero, so his voices dwindle and reduce to minima just above ending, as if an ending was impossible, and that the torture of existence continued remorselessly. But if the issue is not infinity but vagueness then these readings may require revision.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 6th, 2012.