Simon Critchley: Beckett, Literature, Philosophy

An interview with the British philosopher
Esperando a Godot - Waiting for Godot. Samuel Beckett. Photograph by: juanluisgx at Flickr.com

In 2001, The Necronautical Society interviewed British philosopher Simon Critchley for his opinions on, amongst other things, death and literature. There is a discussion of some of the major themes running through his book, Very Little... Almost Nothing: Death, Literature and Philosophy, and Critchley is a candid and articulate respondent.

There are some wonderfully insightful summaries included in the talk, on literary and philosophical nihilism, the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Maurice Blanchot and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The work of Samuel Beckett is also mentioned in a reflection on German critical theorist Theodor Adorno and holocaust representation:
Simon Critchley: Also, yes. If I could go back to what I was saying about Nietzsche: what people get excited about in his work is this notion of affirmation: an affirmation in relation to death. I can affirm the meaninglessness of the universe and the ultimate meaninglessness of my own life, and heroically assume that. There's something almost disgusting about that thought after the holocaust, it seems to me. Adorno puts his finger on this quite well in the final part of Negative Dialectic. He's concerned with after Auschwitz. He says that a new categorical imperative has imposed itself on humankind: not to let Auschwitz repeat itself, and not to hand Hitler posthumous victories. He goes on to say that the situation of the death camps is best described not by descriptions of them, but by, for example, the work of Beckett. Why? Because it doesn't say anything about them; it doesn't attempt to represent what took place.

So then there's this question of death and representation: What would be the least disgusting aesthetic response to this situation? At one end of the scale we've got Spielberg and Schindler's List, which for all its sincerity is a disgusting film. At the other end we've got, say, Remains of the Day, which is all about processes that are bound up with what becomes the holocaust, but it's much more oblique. Or, in the French context, [Lanzmann]'s Shoah -

Tom McCarthy: That's the eight-hour epic…

Simon Critchley: Right. [Lanzmann]'s aesthetic, which is organised by lots of these concerns I've been talking about, is that he's not going to represent what happened and he's not going to judge what happened. He has interviews with, for example, an SS officer who was at one of the camps, and he's got a semi-hidden camera; and the SS officer wants to either say he's sorry or exculpate himself from guilt - and [Lanzmann]'s saying: 'No, I've got no interest in that; I don't care about what you feel. Just tell me what happened. What happened when the trains arrived? Who opened the doors? How did people get from there to there? How did they get into the rooms? Who put the Zyclon B in? What happened to the bodies? Who dug the ditches? How deep were they? How many?' - these things. So there's a sense in which that attention to factual description without representing the event would be adequate to that event. So to go back to the question: the way in which we'd be able to approach death is by not representing it, having an oblique relationship to it. So some cherished philosophical ideas of death, heroic ideas, would be gone. Beckett is interesting because he's the anti-heroic figure.

Tom McCarthy: We were talking about Beckett at lunch. Paul Perry's formulation of it was that Beckett puts all the markers in and then takes them away at the last minute. In the first draft of Happy Days, for example, the play started with a nuclear blast and a radio voice saying 'Nuclear War has been declared; London's gone, New York's gone etc' - and then Beckett just cut that but left the post-apocalyptic landscape intact. You get that throughout Beckett's oeuvre. There are points where he almost spells it out, like where Vladimir says to Estragon towards the end of Waiting for Godot: 'Can't you see the bodies piled up in mounds? Can't you smell the decomposition?' He could almost be talking about Auschwitz. Come to think of it, it's almost like Nietzsche's madman in the market place.

Simon Critchley: Or the farmers in Cumbria!

Tom McCarthy: Ah, well, this all opens up to another term I want to bring in, not least because I know you're writing a book about it at the moment -

Simon Critchley: Yes, it brings us neatly to humour.

Tom McCarthy: Yes. Beckett is also incredibly funny. It's not a separate thing: his deep ethical engagement with this whole problematic and his humour are completely bound together. I mean, how do you see comedy and death as fitting together?

Simon Critchley: They're in an intimate relationship. Comedy is much more tragic than tragedy, I always think, and much more about death. Tragedy is about making death meaningful - with some exceptions: you could say that in Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus there's a different relationship to death. But conventionally the tragic hero takes death into him- or herself and it becomes meaningful; we experience catharsis in relation to that and we all go away happily. Comedy is about the inability to achieve that catharsis. So either you can't die in comedy, which is why Waiting for Godot's a tragi-comedy: nobody can hang themselves and it's funny. Or if they do die they pop back up to life, like in Tom and Jerry cartoons. Now what's the more tragic thought: life coming to an end or life going on forever? The latter's much more tragic. Swift explores this in Book Three of Gulliver's Travels: there are the Immortals, the Struldbrugs, who are marked with a red circle in the middle of their foreheads, and lie around in corners having lost all interest in life and not even speaking the language they grew up with. They're tragic figures. The worst thing would be not death but life carrying on forever, and comedy's about that. It's also linked to depression and all sorts of things like that.

Anthony Auerbach: But is the repetition in Beckett the joke? Or is that the real tragedy? This theatre of the absurd that just starts again exactly the same once it's finished. Does that have something to do with Nietzsche's doctrine of recurrence?

Simon Critchley: What's great about Beckett is that you're given the high drama of European culture through a strangely comical Anglo-Irish lens which is much more pragmatic and down to earth. Beckett's ridiculing to some extent. He would be interested by the idea of eternal return but Nietzsche's laughter is a laughter of affirmation and ecstasy, whereas Beckett's laughter is a laughter of derision, a sardonic laughter, which is actually much more tragic. Jokes leave you in that position. The philosophically most nuanced discussion of Beckett is Adorno's by several kilometres. But what Adorno will not see in Beckett is the laughter. Adorno will say things like 'Laughter is the fraud practised on happiness', 'Laughter is complicity with domination'. I think that's a mistake. Blanchot also misses the humour in Beckett. The humour in Beckett is at the level of idiom, in the fine grain of detail. There's all sorts of stuff that we might want to call 'Irish' - although that would be too easy, but something like that - and it's that that philosophy misses.

Tom McCarthy: I see the humour in Beckett as being slapstick, too. That's the element he's getting from Buster Keaton. It's sort of like Bataille's reading of Hegel. Hegel is all about an elimination of matter, turning it into golden shit as you say; but with Bataille matter becomes 'that non-logical difference which represents in relation to the economy of the universe what crime represents in relation to the economy of the law'. It's something that gets in the way of the perfect Aufhebung, or synthesis, resolution. And I think that lots of the slapstick in Beckett is about that failure: the failure of tragedy, the failure of matter to get aufgehobt, to go up there and be sublime. We want to go to the heavens as heroes but we trip over our own shoelaces and piss ourselves.

Simon Critchley: Exactly: we're human. [Read more]

Thank you to 3:AM Magazine for the link.

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