Determinacy Kills

Terry Eagleton

  • Theodor Adorno: One Last Genius by Detlev Claussen
    Harvard, 440 pp, £22.95, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 674 02618 6

One of the many things that Adorno admired about Beckett’s writing was its ‘scrupulous meanness’, to borrow Joyce’s description of his own literary style in Dubliners. Beckett’s works take a few sparse elements and permutate them with Irish-scholastic ingenuity into slightly altered patterns. Complete dramas are conjured out of reshuffled arrangements of the same few scraps and leavings. It is an economy with which Beckett had some acquaintance in real life, when towards the end of the Second World War in Nazi-occupied France, he and his wife scrabbled about for a few carrots or onions along with the rest of the half-starved population. The tramps of Waiting for Godot (though who says they are tramps?) are similarly reduced to hoarding the odd vegetable. Beckettian humanity is famished, depleted, emptied out of any rich bourgeois inwardness; and though there may be an Irish memory of famine here for Beckett, Adorno could find in this image the poor forked creatures of Auschwitz. The Jew and the Irishman could find common ground in this stark extremity, as they find common ground in Ulysses and in many popular jokes. Both understood that one could live and write well only by preserving a secret compact with failure.

What is most drastically impoverished in Beckett is language itself, which in a Protestant animus against the ornamental is hacked to the bone. Perhaps there is an Irish exile’s reaction to blarney here, a monkish distaste for the swollen rhetoric of the Irish Revival. Like Stephen Dedalus’s, Beckett’s is a life devoted to silence, exile and cunning. Adorno’s style reveals a similar austerity, as each phrase is forced to work overtime to earn its keep, each sentence wrought into a little miracle or masterpiece of dialectics. Both men have an aversion to opulence, one which is both aesthetic and political. In an age of propaganda, the fewer words you spin, the less likely you are to lie. Simply to propose was to risk being complicit with a language degraded by the horrors of modernity. Like Beckett’s, Adorno’s is a language rammed up against silence, a set of guerrilla raids on the inarticulable, in which the reader has no sooner registered a truth claim than the opposite is instantly advanced. Each proposition loops back on itself, struggling to avoid a bald presentation of the isolated object, but also to avoid swallowing it up in some ghastly concentration camp of the Absolute Idea. It is a distinctively Modernist style, in which the truth can no longer be portrayed directly but can only be squinted at out of the corner of one’s eye, grasped only by bouncing one proposition against its opposite. Perhaps this is what Adorno had in mind when he called art a negative image of reality.

Beckett’s language, which manages like some wounded animal to drag itself along when it has long since run out of breath, is constantly threatening to slip into the chaos that laps at its edges. What strikes us most, however, is the meticulous exactness with which it weaves the wind, the rigorous logic with which it tries, in the author’s phrase, to eff the ineffable. This is an art that trades in wisps and rumours of meaning; but it does so with a balletic elegance, a clear-headed, mock-pedantic precision that recalls Adorno’s stringently analytic attempts to give voice to the unsayable. Mock pedantry is a familiar Irish genre, from Swift and Sterne to Joyce and Flann O’Brien. Language must lend shape to truth without betraying its essential indeterminacy. In the Beckettian phrase, it must keep trying to fail better. Beckett once remarked that his favourite word was ‘perhaps’; and it is not too fanciful to link this to his membership of the French Resistance, for which he was later decorated by the French state. The opposite of indeterminacy from this viewpoint is Fascism or Stalinism, with their crazed assurances. Determinacy is what kills. Moreover, indeterminacy is a source of hope as well as scepticism, since if the world has no definitive shape to it then there is no reason why Godot may not show up after all. Instability may be a cause for comfort as well as distress.

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