Travels in Nihilon: Critchley on Beckett and Adorno

British philosopher Simon Critchley reflects on the work of Samuel Beckett and Theodor Adorno
Samuel Beckett directs rehearsals for 'Endgame' in London, 1980. Photograph by John Haynes.
'I shall have to speak of things, of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, but also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter.'

Samuel Beckett, 'The Unnamable'
I've spent this morning in the throes of a merciless eye infection, attempting to read Simon Critchley's Very Little... Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature. A grand title for a book if ever there was one: a minimalist murmur on death, the greatest, most epic question of all. Critchley's book was written in part as a response to the death of his father, and constitutes an act of mourning in the form of a philosophical discussion. It might be said that this act of mourning is all the more poignant for its absence in the text itself; the death of Critchley's father informs the book completely, but is never mentioned.

I am just starting the book now, so I don't have any grand commentary on its thesis just yet. I'm reading it for the enjoyment of reading, and as a kind distraction from the pain in my skull. But, as I always have at least one eye open to anything relating to Beckett, I couldn't help sharing some of Critchley's ruminations on Beckett and Nothingness, or philosophical nihilism.

Through a brief outline of Western epistemology, Critchley recognizes an historical tendency towards nihilism, stemming from the breakdown of systemic Judeao-Christian values and ideals, where human beings are cast adrift in a universe of unstable meanings. Critchley goes on to describe some of the key theoretical approaches to nihilism, including Nietzsche's initial diagnosis, where the higher values 'devalue themselves' and the human subject becomes entrenched in a paradoxical movement forward towards truth and backward towards the comfort of a higher Messianic meaning; suddenly 'one cannot endure this world though one does not want to deny it' (Nietzsche).

And yet, the solutions to nihilism that Nietzsche suggests, according to Heidegger at least, offer little more than an overturning, or a reinscription, of the same nihilistic values. Heidegger suggests that instead we need a new theoretical vocabulary with which to confront the problems and complexities of Being. Heidegger reiterates that to simply cross out or overwrite the language of metaphysical nihilism will only lead to a reversal of the same values, the same dialectic, but not to an overcoming.

Theodor Adorno suggests that, in light of the Holocaust, the project of the Enlightenment has become dubious, and even dangerous to notions of humankind and subjectivity. And Adorno also recognizes that a straightforward overturning, or reversal, of the terms of the Enlightenment will lead to further oppression and subjugation. Adorno suggests instead that we should survey historical and theoretical events from the perspective of redemption, a state that might be easy to imagine but is in all likelihood impossible to ever realize. Which brings us to Critchley:

'[...] the most common and banal accusation levelled at Beckett's work is that it is apolitical and nihilistic because it lacks any of the critical social content evident, say, in the theatre of Brecht or Sartre. Yet, Adorno shockingly suggests that Beckett's work is the only appropriate response to the Holocaust, more so than direct witness accounts, precisely because it is not part of the manifest content of Beckett's work. What is being alluded to here [...] is Adorno's belief that the best modernist artworks, like Beckett's, is their aesthetic autonomy and their refusal of meaning (hence the superficial accusation of nihilism) function as determinate negations of contemporary society and can give formal semblance of a society free from domination.'

Simon Critchley, 'Very Little... Almost Nothing'
And so we have a bizarre formulation arising, where the only appropriate way of addressing a subject is to not mention it at all. Or, rather, if the form of a discussion refuses to engage with the terms of domination that reinscribe those same values, there is a greater opportunity for Adorno's idealized notion of redemption. But while redemption as such might seem outlandishly fanciful, the forms that Adorno praises can still offer a neutral space from which to interpret, discuss and dissect the problematic complications of nihilism, and of traumatic historical events.

Philippe Petit's Man on Wire, a documentary following the exploits of a tightroper balancing on a wire between the Twin Towers in New York, has been praised by many as the greatest 9/11 film yet made. Petit walked the wire between the towers of the World Trade Centre in the 1970s, and the tragedy of 2001 is never mentioned in the film; and yet, it is impossible to watch Man on Wire without some thought or reference to September 11th. Man on Wire, then, offers an optimistic portrait of a man willfully facing peril and adversity, while opening a new perspective and a new way of talking about a national tragedy.

It is this kind of resonance that Adorno suggests is imbued in the works of Samuel Beckett, an 'appropriate reaction' that does not reinstate values and meanings that will limit our interpretations or our power to understand. Instead, Beckett's work creates a space of ambiguity and meaninglessness from which we can refer and project meanings and discussions of our own. We have a freedom to situate ourselves differently, safe in the knowledge that our knowledge is incomplete, and will never hold us still.
'Beckett's sentences are a series of weak intensities, sequences of antithetical inabilities: unable to go on, unable not to go on. And yet, as Adorno astutely points out, what seems like Stoicism on Beckett's part ('I can't go on, I'll go on') is 'a legacy of action' that 'silently screams that things should be otherwise. Such nihilism implies the opposite of an identification with the Nothing. Thus, Beckett's 'nihilism' is not an affirmation of the Nothing, for there is no affirmation in his work. Rather, this 'nihilism' is redemptive in the specific sense discussed above - namely, the only philosophy that can be responsively practiced after Auschwitz is the attempt to view things from the standpoint of redemption, which is impossible, and yet this impossibility must be comprehended for the sake of the possible.'

Simon Critchley, 'Very Little... Almost Nothing'
Heady stuff! But fascinating nonetheless. This is but the most cursory explanation of some of the major themes running through Critchley's work, and doesn't do justice to the breadth and complexity of his argument. Nonetheless, I thought I'd share this small shard, and I'm sure that there will be more in the weeks to come.