Who’s Saving Samuel Beckett?

I’m unsure where anything is going at the moment. There is no continuity or connection to any bits of my life, nor does there seem to be a connection – a neat narrative – within my mind. That’s a caveat for what I want to say, perhaps a caveat for disorganisation or non-organisation. But to begin somewhere, anywhere, I went to a free lecture yesterday late afternoon. It was dark, and felt like evening. The lecture was in Bedford Square, London WC1 and was given by Nina Power. It was about Samuel Beckett and, specifically, Alain Badiou’s reading of Beckett. I’ve been an increasingly obsessive and devoted Beckett fan since first reading The Trilogy in my early twenties and feeling great relief that I wasn’t mad after all. But it has been during the last eight years, since and while witnessing at least two wars first hand, close up, in the African continent (Angola and Ivory Coast) that Beckett’s prose (and latterly, plays) began to make sense to me. My response to Beckett has, therefore, been I s’pose experiential. I might dare to say that I’ve responded to the texts as lived experiences and the texts have come to me as reflections of what I have witnessed in ‘real life’, up close. When I first read How It Is, a text Nina focused on yesterday (and which she declared is her favourite novel of all time!), I felt as though Beckett might have been there with me, watching (periods of) the Angolan war up close. Yes the tin opener and the mud and coming up and down and up and down – brutal, violent and all – took me back to various journeys made between 1998 to 2000 into the Angolan provinces, to violence I had seen or been told about by someone else who had seen it. And yet, I’d always felt there was a beauty to the horror of the war, something poetical and artistic about brutality and man’s easiness with violence. I only quite realised that was right when I began to read Beckett in earnest.


I wanted to hear what Nina had to say because I have doubts about my spontaneous, experiential responses to the great man’s work. I wanted to learn a little more, add some knowledge to my own (knowledge and experience), to test my unformed/uneducated response to the work with that of the learned academics, the philosophers and great readers of the academy. It felt like a huge risk: there is a great tension between these two positions, that of the educated knowing learner/teacher and that of immediate player in the world. I don’t want to lose the exceptional light and excitement and energy that is gained from simply reading a text and responding to it. I don’t want to becoming so knowing that I begin to analyse Beckett through Badiou’s mind, and Badiou’s experiences. I’m not sure I want to think about the event of love that Badiou states occurs in Beckett’s work from How It Is (1961) onwards.

And yet, I learned stuff last night. And I’m glad I went. Nina’s skill as a lecturer is a total lack of pomposity or self-importance – to my mind, in part because she is a woman – and her very funny, rather quirky sense of humour. She has a way of talking about philosophy and philosophers that is totally unthreatening, and plain. I rather wish I’d had a lecturer like her at college: it would have made life so much better. And all you out there who are her pupils: make sure you bloody well appreciate it.

But enough of the praise… I’m nervous of philosophers colonising Beckett to be one of theirs. He was not a philosopher, he was an artist, a writer who took huge risks with his work and his mind, and who dug and dug and dug and mined his mind and his experience and the politics and times around him there and then. I’m not sure I care what Badiou thinks of Beckett because like Badiou I want to have my own experience of the texts first hand: Nina says that Badiou does not refer to any of the academic texts on Beckett in his own book on Beckett. And why should he? STudents are trained to read and learn from accounts of the original thinker/writer as opposed to reading the original texts. Beckett’s texts are not difficult. They are beautiful. Let future readers of Beckett not be put off by the walls that I wonder are being built as I write by philosophers who will write about Beckett in an impenetrable fashion.* Beckett is not up for colonisation, he is not up for sale, and he does not need rescuing from anyone, be it Martin Esslin or anyone else. Is this not some self-aggrandisement of the academic, who believes that their interpretation is the final word? The text, for sure, is the final word. That is all there is.

I think…. This is a thought out loud. This is only a blog. I’m working this out slowly.

P.S. Further to the ideas of a free proletariat education … I was just about to write about them, but the dear kind Nina Power – shit, she’s great, isn’t she – has done it for me over here. Always one step ahead that woman! (I hope she can forgive my ramblings here: I only have respect). I’d add that any of you punters who don’t know about this site – as I didn’t – you don’t have to be in the academy to use it. There are lectures posted here that you and you and you and you can attend. There is one coming up on JM Coetzee soon – part of the same series as Nina’s last night – which you can all attend if you so desire.

* When I first wrote this, I suggested that this article by Badiou, found here, was rather impenetrable (I actually said it was not as impenetrable as others). In fact, this is utterly untrue. It is not impenetrable at all. My point – which I should have made with much greater care, but didn’t – is that Beckett wrote using, on the whole, very simple language that anyone could understand. His great gift to us is the way he constructed each long sentence (sometimes an entire text of many pages was a sentence), but he did not use complex words. What concerns me with philosophy is that it will (and does often) make impenetrable a writer who wrote so carefully in simple language. Philosophy – and a great deal of academic writing – tends heavily to exclusionary writing styles that few can understand, (even, I’m often told by academics, academics).