Alain Badiou on discovering Beckett

French philosopher relates the influence of Samuel Beckett on his life and work
French philosopher Alain Badiou. Photograph by Voranc Vogel
From Alain Badiou, 'On Beckett' (edited by Nina Power and Alberto Toscano):
'I discovered the work of Beckett in the mid-fifties. It was a real encounter, a subjective blow of sorts that left an indelible mark. So that forty years later, I can say, with Rimbaud: "I'm here, I'm always there" [j'y suis, j'y suis toujours]. This is the principal task of youth: to encounter the incalculable, and thereby to convince oneself, against the disillusioned, that the thesis "nothing is, nothing is valuable" is both false and oppressive.

'But youth is also that fragment of existence when one easily imagines oneself to be quite singular, when really what one is thinking or doing is what will later be retained as the typical trait of a generation. Being young is a source of power, a time of decisive encounters, but these are strained by their all too easy capture by repetition and imitation. Thought only subtracts itself from the spirit of the age by means of a constant and delicate labour. It is easy to want to change the world - in youth these seems the least that one could do. It is more difficult to notice the fact that this very wish could end up as the material for the forms of perpetuation of this very world. This is why all youth, as stirring as its promise may be, is always also the youth of a "young cretin". Bearing this in mind, in later years, keeps us from nostalgia.

'When I discovered Beckett, some years after the beginning of his French oeuvre (that is, around 1956), I was a complete and total Sartrean, though I was possessed by a question whose importance I thought I had personally discovered to have been underestimated by Sartre. I had yet to realise that it was already, and was going to be for a long while, the abiding obsession of my generation and of the ones to follow: the question of language. From such a makeshift observatory, I could only see in Beckett what everybody else did. A writer of the absurd, of despair, of empty skies, of also a 'modern' writer, in that the destiny of writing, the relationship between the endless recapitulation of speech and the original silence - the simultaneously sublime and derisory function of words - was entirely captured by the prose at a distant remove from any realist or representational intention. In such 'modern' writing, fiction is both the appearance of a story and the reality of a reflection on the work of the writer, on its misery and its grandeur. [...]'

French philosopher Alain Badiou. Photograph by Voranc Vogel
'Basically, my stupidity lay in unquestioningly upholding the caricature which was then - and still is - widespread: a pitiless awareness of the nothingness of sense, extended by the resources of art to cover the nothingness of writing, a nothingness that would be materialised, as it were, by means of increasingly tight and increasingly dense prose pieces that abandoned all narrative principle. The caricature of Beckett meditating upon death and finitude, the dereliction of sick bodies, the waiting in vain for the divine and the derision of any enterprise directed towards others. A Beckett convinced that beyond the obstinacy of words there is nothing but darkness and void.

'It took me many years to rid myself of this stereotype and at last to take Beckett at his word. No, what Beckett offers to thought through his art, theatre, prose, poetry, cinema, radio, television, and criticism, is not this gloomy corporeal immersion into an abandoned existence, into hopeless relinquishment. Neither is it the contrary, as some have tried to argue: farce, derision, a concrete flavour, a "thin Rabelais". Neither existentialism nor a modern baroque. The lesson of Beckett is a lesson in measure, exactitude and courage. That is what I would like to establish in these few pages [...]'