Terminal Art: Steiner on Beckett

Critic and scholar George Steiner on the work of Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett

George Steiner on the later prose texts of Samuel Beckett, first published in the New Yorker in 1968:
[...] Beckett's landscape is a bleak monochrome. The matter of his singsong is ordure, solitude, and the ghostly self-sufficiency that comes after a long fast. Nevertheless, he is one of our indispensable recovers, and knows it, too: 'Peekaboo here I come again, just when most needed, like the square root of minus one, having terminated my humanities.' A dense, brilliantly apt phrase. The square root of minus one is imaginary, spectral, but mathematics cannot do without it. 'Terminated' is a deliberate gallicism: it signifies that Beckett has mastered humane learning (these texts bristle with arcane allusions), that he has made an academic inventory of civilization before closing the lid and paring himself to the bone. But 'terminated' also means finis, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape. This is terminal art, making most criticism or commentary a superfluous vulgarity.

The vision that emerges from the sum of Beckett's writing is narrow and repetitive. It is also grimly hilarious. It may not be much, but, being so honest, it might well prove the best, most durable we have. Beckett's thinness, his refusal to see in language and literary form adequate realizations of human feeling or society, make him antithetical to Henry James. But he is as representative of our present diminished reach as James was representative of a lost spaciousness. Thus there applies to both the salutation spoken by W. H. Auden in Mount Auburn cemetery: 'Master of nuance and scruple.'

George Steiner, 'Of Nuance and Scruple'
George Steiner at the New Yorker
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