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2. Modernist Non-fictional Narratives: Rewriting Modernism

“Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce:” Samuel Beckett’s “identified contraries”



Cet article se penche sur le premier essai critique de Samuel Beckett intitulé “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” et publié en 1929 dans la revue d’avant-garde littéraire transition, à une époque où le modernisme s’institutionnalise. Si l’essai de Beckett fait l’éloge de James Joyce, l’un des écrivains emblématiques du courant moderniste, il se nourrit également d’autres arts tels que le cinéma et sa relation à l’écriture idéographique, mais aussi de sources plus contestées telles que la science de l’occulte. Beckett s’oppose là à une avant-garde sclérosée, qu’elle se constitue d’écrivains ou de critiques. Beckett puise ainsi dans les écrits du philosophe italien Giordano Bruno pour forger, selon nous, son propre principe littéraire, “l’identité des contraires,” proposant une formule sans toutefois imposer un programme. C’est ce qui propulse Beckett au cœur de trois crédos modernistes : le “modernisme historique,” le “modernisme hiéroglyphique” et le “modernisme alchimique.” Cet article propose de les explorer au prisme de l’essai critique de Beckett.

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1In 1964, John Fletcher drew attention to the critics’ lack of consideration for Samuel Beckett’s critical writings as singular discursive pieces. Thirty years later, Rupert Wood drew the same conclusion: despite the deconstructive logic of the essays, the critics cannot resist the metatextual status they grant to the author’s philosophical and aesthetic theories. This discrepancy between the critical standing of Beckett the writer and Beckett the literary critic, can be related to the fact that his non-fictional pieces, which either came out in magazines or in books, are still scattered. The collection of criticism gathered and edited by Ruby Cohn in 1984, Disjecta Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment: Samuel Beckett, still remains one of the main substantial sources for critics despite its very selective choice of essays and relative lack of editorial apparatus and critical insight. It is the reason why David Tucker and Mark Nixon recently pleaded for a scholarly edition of Beckett’s critical writings, whose collection would match that of Beckett’s letters: “One that would be complete and with critical annotation” (Tucker 49-56). If these discursive writings undoubtedly constitute a determining prism through which the writer’s canon can be established, editorial predicaments together with Beckett’s own dismissal following his confession to Ruby Cohn, “as mere products of friendly obligation or economic need” (Foreword, Disjecta, 7), create pitfalls one can nevertheless avoid by probing the literary context in which they were written.

2In this respect, I will take into account Beckett’s very first critical essay “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce, which marks his debut as a writer in June 1929. The piece was first published in a double issue of transition 16/17, a little literary avant-garde magazine run by Eugene Jolas, before being reprinted shortly afterwards as part of critical material for the publication of a collection of essays, Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, commissioned by James Joyce, seven years after the publication of Ulysses. The collection, which Beckett’s lead essay opens, introduces and explains the development of Joyce’s upcoming novel, which would be eventually known as Finnegans Wake when published in 1939. If the discursive piece of writing lets Beckett’s reluctance for such an academic exercise transpire through the use of contradictions, it also reveals the literary context, especially the modernist movements against which it stands or which it tries to reconsider. For that reason, I will argue that Beckett challenges three different tenets of modernism in “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” so as to grapple with his own.

3This piece demonstrates how Beckett’s essay first tackles the establishment of modernism at the very end of the 1920s, and then focuses on modernism and its innovative connections between writing and new technologies, especially through the comparison that has been made between cinema, its principle of montage and ideographic writing. Finally, and as a result of these two modernist filters, the avant-garde and the hieroglyphic, I will argue that Beckett sketches his own vision of modernism at a time when the occult greatly influenced the modernist writers in their creations, and that he drew on the Italian philosopher and cosmological theoretician Giordano Bruno to forge his own principle of “identified contraries.”

1. Historical modernism

a. “The danger is in the neatness of identification”

4In The Ghosts of Modernity, Jean-Michel Rabaté argues that the end of the 1920s paradoxically celebrated “the sublimation of modernism into academic enshrining” (203) just as it similarly denoted a crisis. Rabaté’s expression “historical modernism,” sanctifies this moment as a milestone in the history of modernism, marking the loss of its avant-garde status and its coming into tradition. The little literary magazines, which had participated in the renewal of avant-garde movements by giving to young writers the opportunity to express themselves through formal innovations and experiments, and in which manifestos had had pride of place, were now declining. What had been considered as modernism’s shop window, no longer offered a perspectival eye on its movements but retrospective one. In Europe at the turn of the decade, the little magazines of T.S Eliot and Ezra Pound respectively, The Criterion and The Exile, experienced editorial difficulties. Across the Atlantic, two major leading modernist reviews, The Little Review and The Dial, disappeared at the same time in 1929 (Mansanti 29-53). If broadly speaking, those little independent magazines had previously succeeded in replacing the “‘extrinsic’ scholarship [based on literary history, philology and biography] with ‘intrinsic’ criticism” so as to focus on literary technique, entailing “iconoclastic declarations and prescriptions” (Waugh 91-2), they nevertheless failed to resist “the danger [of] the neatness of identifications” (Dante…, Disjecta, 19). So Beckett warns in the opening sentence of his essay about Joyce for transition, before wondering and concluding: “Must we wring the neck of a certain system in order to stuff it into a contemporary pigeon-hole, or modify the dimensions of that pigeon-hole for the satisfaction of the analogymongers? Literary criticism is not bookkeeping” (19).

5If Beckett’s questioning found its place in transition, it is because the literary magazine responded to the modernist crisis by providing a new perspective on the established avant-garde. Indeed, according to Céline Mansanti, it kept up with the tradition of its kind by promoting formal experiment, while offering an alternative to the crisis of modernism by choosing to explore the unconscious thus going against Eliot and Pound’s stated tenets (Mansanti, 55-95). Joyce became the figurehead of the magazine: it printed 25 issues, 17 of which included extracts in draft of Finnegans Wake. Pound’s refusal to publish Joyce’s manuscript in The Exile comes as no surprise. Indeed, the poet addressed to the novelist bluntly in a letter of November 15th, 1926: “I will have another go at it, but up to present I make nothing of it whatever. Nothing so far as I make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization” (Selected Letters, 202). Pound’s last expression circumambient peripherization pastiches and derides Joyce’s style: the two-word phrase suggests in grander words than needed what might be expressed through the single word circumlocution. In “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Beckett deprecates such critique, comparing it to some sort of behaviourist reaction: “When Miss Rebecca West clears her decks for a sorrowful deprecation of the Narcissistic element in Mr Joyce by the purchase of 3 hats, one feels that she might very well wear her bib at all her intellectual banquets, or alternatively, assert a more noteworthy control over her salivary glands than is possible for Pavlov’s unfortunate dogs” (‘Dante…,’ Disjecta, 26-27).

6As a matter of fact, Beckett’s commissioned praise of Joyce clashes with the title of the critical volume in which it appeared after its first publication in transition. Indeed, Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress was designed to celebrate and publicize Joyce’s language, thus adhering to some sort of intellectual conformism. Franck O’Connor’s review, which he wrote in the Irish Stateman one year after Joyce’s collection of essays had been released, is truth-telling: “Two or three of these essays I am thinking in particular of Samuel Beckett’s, Eugene Jolas,’ and Thomas McGreevy’s are very interesting, and with a little more detachment would have been first rate criticism; others are merely dull” (Bair 77). Beckett rejects such intellectual dullness or decorum, which in the case of the writer’s critical piece and as P. J Murphy notes, stems from “an obligation to express”, hence the essay’s “elliptic” nature, “defects” and “odd features” (Murphy 29-30). For instance, the elliptical title of the essay, and more especially the order in which the names appear, forming as it does a transhistorical lineage through mirroring couples, Dante Bruno on the one hand, Vico Joyce on the other, clashes with the historical timeline, and thus linear treatment, which Beckett adopts to discuss first Bruno, then Vico, then Dante and finally, Joyce. This mismatching reveals Beckett’s predicament with such an academic exercise but also how enticing it is for him to impart his own view, not merely as a literary critic but also as a writer. In fact, Beckett seems to go against a modernist tendency exemplified by T.S Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent(1919) or Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934), which consists in setting a pedagogical frame or reading map to one’s own method of writing. It is in these terms that one may understand Beckett’s criticism of Pound’s Make it New (1934), when he concludes about the poet’s critical activity, “In sum, a galvanic belt of essays, education by provocation, Spartan maieutics” (Ex Cathezra, Disjecta, 79). Beckett not only mocks Pound’s method of writing but also writing style, responding to the latter’s gibe at Joyce’s own use of language.

7In this respect Rupert Wood’s words concur, when he asserts that Beckett’s critical writings “demonstrate the untenability of the metatextual status they have apparently assumed for themselves” (Wood 3). In his essays Beckett negatively performs what he underlines so as to “undermin[e] the foundations upon which anything serious can be written by the critic” (Wood 2). In “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” such a method affects the author’s vision of the artist and the concept of what Graves and Riding call the “plain reader’s rights.”

b. Towards a definition of the artist

8As well as its linear unfolding, the essay “Dante…Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” displays a circular structure. Beckett himself draws attention to this in the very first paragraph through the single use of the first-person singular: “And now here am I, with my handful of abstractions, among which notably: a mountain, the coincidence of contraries, the inevitability of self-extension in the world of Mr Joyce’s Work in Progress” (19). Beckett’s self-prospect is nevertheless withheld after the first paragraph to recur at the very end of the essay through the repetition of the conjunction “and” where “And now here am I” is echoed: “And no more than this; neither prize nor penalty; simply a series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail. And the partially purgatorial agent? The partially purged” (33). The conjunction “and” brings the essay to an end as it embarks on a play of negativity. The end offers an alternative that lies in-between the terms of its equation, “neither…nor…and,” encompassing the exclusiveness and inclusiveness of a process which is relentlessly germinating and aborting. So Beckett suggests: “The consciousness that there is a great deal of the unborn infant in the lifeless octogenarian, and a great deal of both in the man at the apogee of his life’s curve, removes all the stiff interexclusiveness that is often the danger in neat construction” (22-23). The artist is the bearer of that consciousness for he stands in-between and on the margins of the equation he has set. The equation fulfils the same function as a question, yet without requiring an answer:

Why, Mr Joyce seems to say, should there be four legs to a table, and four to a horse […]? He cannot tell you because he is not God Almighty, but in a thousand years he will tell you, and in the meantime must be content to know why horses have not five legs, nor three. He is conscious that things with a common numerical characteristic tend towards a very significant interrelationship. (32)

9The artist turns out to be a failed prophetic figure whose knowledge about the symbolism of numbers has been lost. In his following extended essay about Proust (1930), Beckett describes the artist as being caught in-between the contradictory forces that attract him, the periphery and the centre: “The artist is active, but negatively, shrinking from the nullity of extracircumferential phenomena, drawn in to the core of the eddy” (48). Through the coinage of the word “extracircumferential,” Beckett playfully draws on Joyce’s vocabulary, as he circumscribes the task of the artist. Beckett’s definition of the artist chiefly speaks out against dualism, which modernism strives to dismantle, whereas his earlier definition describes the artist as a failed prophetic figure goes against any transcendent aspiration or meaning. The figure of the artist as a failed prophet is also present in Eliot’s The Waste Land through the character of Tiresias. In fact, Tiresias embodies the central consciousness of the poem where the poet and the reader eventually meet: “You! Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable, – mon frère!” (Eliot 29). This interconnection between the writer and the reader leads Eliot to acknowledge and undermine a duality between the private world of the self and the public world of the outside. These opposites “are irreconcilable, yet on the other hand neither would exist without the other, and they met into each other by a process which we cannot grasp” (Howarth 64). Here it appears that modernism is not only concerned with the place of the artist but also with that of the reader. In “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Beckett seemingly mistreats the reader so as to tackle the concept of the “plain reader’s rights.”

c. “The plain reader’s rights”

10In James Joyce and the Politics of Egoism, Jean-Michel Rabaté notices that two modernist literary events concurrently occurred in 1927 (147): the launch of Jolas’s review transition and the publication of A Survey of Modernist Poetry, in which Robert Graves and Laura Riding dedicate the first chapter to the “plain reader’s rights.” In this chapter, Graves and Riding try to go beyond the cliché of the “high-brow’s game of baiting the low-brow” (10) in modernist poetry, which is, according to them, “merely a joke at the plain reader’s expense” (10). No modernist poetry is worthwhile, if it disregards the plain reader. As such, they invite the plain reader to change his or her critical attitude by encouraging him or her to identify what he or she would “expect of poetry” (10), that is to say, in relation to tradition, or at least, acknowledge the poet’s sincere innovations. Graves and Riding’s effort at soothing the plain reader’s hostility to modernist poetry seems to be compromised when he or she is asked to “admit that what is called our common intelligence is the mind in its least active state: that poetry obviously demands a more vigorous imaginative effort than the plain reader has been willing to apply to it” (10). The plain reader appears to have turned into an ideal reader who may be paradoxically “used as a limit to formal audacity” according to Jean-Michel Rabaté’s words in The Ghosts of Modernity (206). Two years later in June 1929, and in the very issue of transition 16/17 in which Beckett’s essay about Joyce is published, its editor Eugene Jolas presents the reviewer’s modernist manifesto, “Revolution of the Word,” whose two last principles define the artist’s task at the expense of the plain reader and against what appears to hinder formal innovation: “11. The writer expresses. He does not communicate. 12. The plain reader be damned.” Beckett clearly defends those principles in “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” though, as Laura Salisbury remarks in the first chapter of Samuel Beckett: Laughing Matters, Comic Timing, neither he nor Joyce signed the manifesto (45). Indeed, in the essay Beckett targets “the usual volley of cerebral sniggers” he deems “too decadent” to appreciate Joyce’s “direct expression:” “You [Ladies and Gentlemen] are not satisfied unless form is so strictly divorced from content that you can comprehend the one almost without bothering to read the other” (Dante…, Disjecta, 26-7). Despite his assertive and impassioned tone, Beckett’s argument shows inconsistency, which turns out to be in favour of the plain reader, or rather, at the expense of the bourgeois intellectuals, following the example of Rebecca West under the guise of behaviourism:

The rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense is made possible by what I may call a continuous process of copious intellectual salivation. The form that is an arbitrary and independent phenomenon can fulfil no higher function than that of stimulus for a tertiary or quartery conditioned reflex of dribbling comprehension. (26)

11Though transition and Beckett’s argument openly pit themselves against Graves and Riding’s “plain reader’s rights,” they might concur with the definition of modernism that is sketched: “Looking on impressionism as one of the earliest manifestations of the general modernist tendency to overcome the distinction between subject-matter and form” (Graves 42). This definition matches Beckett’s concern with Joyce’s direct expression, which he defines as follows, “Here form is content, content is form” (Dante…, Disjecta, 27). In Proust, Beckett still praises such kind of impressionist language style, “For Proust, as for the painter, style is more a question of vision than of technique. […] Indeed he makes no attempt to dissociate form from content. The one is a concretion of the other, the revelation of a world” (67). Vision and language are one and the same. They bestow a sense experience, which crystalizes through the metaphor of the hieroglyphic in modernism.

2. Hieroglyphic modernism

a. Modernist sensibility

12In “Dante…Bruno. Vico..Joyce,” Beckett uses the term “hieroglyphics” to describe Joyce’s direct expression:

This writing that you find so obscure is a quintessential extraction of language and painting and gesture, with all the inevitable clarity of the old inarticulation. Here is the savage economy of hieroglyphics. Here words are not the polite contortions of 20th century printer’s ink. They are alive. They elbow their way on to the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear. (28)

13For Beckett, Joyce has succeeded in “desophisticat[ing] [English] language” (Dante…, Disjecta, 28) by restoring its primitiveness through visual dimension. Hieroglyphics are like Chinese ideograms, they are radiating “objects of perception” (Metz 272). Though Pound puts Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese ideograms in opposition, his definition echoes that of Beckett. Indeed in his ABC of Reading, Pound summarizes Ernest Fenollosa’s essay The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (1920), which Beckett mentions as a determining factor in the reader’s enjoyment and appropriation of Make it New, arguing that:

[t]he Egyptians finally used abbreviated pictures to represent sounds, but the Chinese still use abbreviated picture AS picture, that is to say, Chinese ideogram does not try to be the picture of a sound, or to be written sign recalling a sound, but it is still the picture of a thing; of a thing in a given position or relation, or of a combination of things. (21)

14In fact, and as Pound’s words about hieroglyphics eventually intimate, hieroglyphics are not merely visual but audible as well. For Beckett, Joyce’s hieroglyphics link language, image and sound together. “It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. […] There is one point to make clear: the Beauty of Work in Progress […] its adequate apprehension depends as much on its visibility as on its audibility” (Dante…, Disjecta, 27-28). Here, the word “apprehension” has been carefully chosen. Beckett regards it as the best word one can possibly find in English to convey the sense of “a sensuous untidy art of intellection” (27). Beckett’s words expose the poetics of Joyce, for whom “sense experience is the precondition for creation” (Moliterno 38).

15In the essay, the term “apprehension” is construed against its opposite “comprehension,” which Beckett uses three times either as a noun or as a verb. The latter is associated with reason in opposition to the barbarians who could not think properly through abstraction but only through fantasy and the literary critics whose intellectual hunger betrays a conditioned reasoning (24, 26). In this respect, Beckett plays on the polysemic word “sense” which appears several times in the essay. According to the Oxford British Dictionary, sense primarily refers to “meaning,” be it either denotative, as it is in dictionaries, or connotative, that is to say, evocative. The OED also indicates that the term originally describes “any of the faculties of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch; any of the 5 senses.” Beckett uses the term in its two acceptations so as to call off their absolutism. Such is the case in the following extract:

His writing is not about something; it is that something itself. […] When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep. […] When the sense is dancing, the words dance. […] The language is drunk. The very words are tilted and effervescent. How can we qualify this general esthetic vigilance without which we cannot hope to snare the sense which is for ever rising to the surface of the form and becoming the form itself? (27)

16Beckett’s use of the word “sleep” is a bit odd for one would expect an adjective, “asleep,” or a present participle “sleeping.” This grammatical strangeness brings about a semantic chiming which can be glossed as follows: “when the sense means sleep, the sense is asleep.” Pursuing such linguistic operation leads to the following syllogistic grammatical structure: “the sense sleeps: the sense is sleep.” By means of such a slip, the sense can dance and provide sensation. In this way, it can be apprehended.

17Earlier in the essay, Beckett has praised sense as sensation through the art of poetry,

Poetry, [Vico] says, was born of curiosity, daughter of ignorance. The first men had to create matter by the force of their imagination, and “poet” means creator.” Poetry was the first operation of the human mind, and without it thought could not exist. […] Poets are the sense, philosophers the intelligence of humanity. Considering the Scholastics’ axiom: niente è nell’intelleto che prima non sia nel senso,” it follows that poetry is a prime condition of philosophy and civilization. (24)

18If nothing exists in the intellect that was not first filtered through the senses, it entails, according to Beckett, a state of inherent poeticity between thought and language. This poeticity is mirrored in Joyce’s hieroglyphics as well as in Fenollossa’s Chinese characters which he also labels “thought pictures” (Fenollosa 8).

19Joyce’s vivid and concrete hieroglyphics thus contrast with the English language, which is, according to Beckett, “abstracted to death.” “Take the word ‘doubt: it gives us hardly any sensuous suggestion of hesitancy, of the necessity for choice, of static irresolution” (Dante…, Disjecta, 28). Only radical formal experiment can mistreat the “polite symbols” of language, just as the avant-garde in painting, music and architecture show the way. For Beckett, those arts are free from their material existence, unlike literature whose very words resist any dissolution, that of their meaning. In an issue of transition from February 1929, Jolas laments the laziness of literature: “While these arts [painting, music and architecture] are going ahead, literature is still rooted in the past” (Ishikawa 86). Beckett strangely echoes Jolas’s words in 1937, when he expresses his literary project in a famous letter addressed to Axel Kaun,

To bore one hole after another in it [language], until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today. Or is literature alone to remain behind [my emphasis] in the old lazy ways that have been long ago abandoned by music and painting? Is there something paralysingly holy in the vicious nature of the word that is not found in the elements of the other arts?” (German Letter of 1937, Disjecta, 172)

20At the end of the 1920s and in the early 1930s, Beckett was interested not so much in music and art as in silent movies, especially those featuring Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd (Sheehan 144-146). And as early as 1919, the film historian Victor Perrot compared cinema to ideographic writing: “It is a writing, the old ideographic writing!” (Metz 271). I will argue that what Beckett’s “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” shares with the cinema and ideography is the notion of montage.

b. Ideographic writing and cinema

21The essay indeed is a literary montage of secondary sources that Beckett does not bother to quote. In an unpublished dissertation written in 1977, entitled “Beckett as Critic of Proust and Joyce,” Terence McQueeny shows how Beckett borrowed from critical writings, such as “Croce and Michelet for Vico, McIntyre for Bruno, and De Sanctis for Dante,” which he translated for the essay. Beckett’s essay is, according to McQueeny, a “brilliant mosaic of secondary sources done by a rushed apprentice, which nonetheless exposes “weakness in composition not comprehension” (Murphy 29-30). Though the discursive piece was commissioned and written under duress, leading Beckett to borrow from other critical sources, I would suggest that its montage proves to be less a matter of mere convenience than a true principle which lies at the core of modernism and its innovative connections between writing and new technologies, such as cinema. Indeed, in his study of the Chinese character Fenollosa endows ideograms with the quality of the moving picture. For him, ideograms are “shorthand pictures of actions or processes” (Fenollosa 21), whether they are single or grouped together, whether concerning the Chinese character or the whole sentence. Both are performative as they induce rhizomatic connections. “Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points, of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snapshots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things, and so the Chinese conception tends to represent them” (Fenollosa 10). Fenollosa compares the principle of composition and ordering of the Chinese ideograms, along with their reading, to the unfolding of the picture-track of a film, “The group [of Chinese characters] holds something of the quality of a continuous moving picture. […] In reading Chinese we do not seem to be juggling mental counters, but to be watching things work out their own fate” (Fenollosa 9). Fenollosa’s comparison of both Chinese character and sentence to the unfolding of the picture track of a film highlights a disagreement between the two Russian film-makers and theoreticians Sergeï Eisenstien and Vsevolod Poudovkine about the subject of montage at the end of the 1920s. For the former, cinematic montage is dialectical, and thus implies conflict or “collision,” whereas for the latter, it consists in a mere “linkage” or assembly.

22In his essay entitled “The cinematographic principle and the Ideogram” (1929), Eisenstein compares the combination of ideograms to his dialectical technique of montage in cinema. For him, a shot finds its parallel form in the ideogram insofar as both depict a piece of montage. “For example: the picture for water and the picture of an eye signifies ‘to weep’; the picture of an ear near the drawing of a door = ‘to listen’” (Eisenstein 30). Eisenstein’s examples pale in comparison to that of Fenollosa, which better convey the imagist intricacy of the ideogram, “The sun underlying the bursting forth of plants = spring. The sun sign tangled in the branches of the tree sign = east” (Fenollosa 10). Ideograms, which depict different objects or facts, are combined so as to give way to a concept. “By the combination of two ‘depictables’ is achieved the representation of something that is graphically undepictable” (Eisenstein 30). Beckett also proceeds to a montage when he chooses to expose the roots of the Latin word Lex:

1. Lex = Crop of acorns.

2. Ilex = Tree that produces acorns.

3. Legere = To gather.

4. Aquilex = He that gathers the waters.

5. Lex = Gathering together of peoples, public assembly.

6. Lex = Law

7. Legere = To gather together letters into a word, to read. (“Dante… , Disjecta, 25)

23Beckett’s philological study reveals the slow formalisation of the word Lex, from a pre-linguistic state to its lexicalisation. However what appears to be serious philology is in fact a psychological montage, throughout which Beckett draws an analogy between lex and legere by means of the word lego which he does not mention. Lego has two meanings: one which is related to the law (lex), “to bequeath,” and the other to nature, “to reap,” “to collect,” for which Beckett substitutes a broader meaning “to gather.” Lego also assumes a figurative sense, which can signify to gather by means of the ear, “to hear,” as well as, to gather by means of the eye, “to read.” Beckett makes up for this inconsistency through the compound “aquilex” and appears to do the same thing with the compound ilex to which can be related the very first meaning of lex. These rhizomatic connections give way to a last montage embodied by the very last word of the list insofar as its definition denotes its inner composition: in order to be read, it needs to be deciphered, so as to be deciphered, it needs to be read. Thing and action are not formally separated. The word can be performative. As Fenollosa puts it about the ideogram, it is not “cut off from its power of action” (Fenollosa 17).

24This power of action radiates through the list, which forces one to go back to its very beginning once he or she has reaped the letters Beckett sowed: L.E.G.E.R.E. As such, the structure of Beckett’s montage involves a circularity, between lex as “crop of acorns” and lex as “law.” Its making is enacted through its reading, from nature to civilization, from primitiveness to modernity, and back again. In fact, Beckett explores what appears to be sheer archaeology.

c. Archaeology

25Beckett’s so called philological analysis reveals the anthropological dimension of language, which is modelled after Giambattista Vico’s conception of society. “Words have their progressions as well as social phases. ‘Forest-cabin-village-city-academy’ is one rough progression. Another: ‘mountain-plain-riverbank’” (“Dante…,” Disjecta, 24-25). As Beckett suggests and Lydie Parisse notes, this evolutionary scheme originates in the topic of the coincidence of contraries, to which is associated the figure of circularity, from Aristotle to Heraclites, Meister Eckhart, Giordano Bruno, Berkeley, Pascal and so on. “His [Vico’s] exposition of the ineluctable circular progression of Society was completely new, although the germ of it was contained in Giordano Bruno’s treatment of identified contraries” (“Dante…, Disjecta, 20). The “inevitability of cyclic evolution” (“Dante…,” Disjecta,19) emerges in the montage presented above. From the first definition of lex to its fifth, society has evolved from an agrarian state (“crop of acorns”) to some kind of democratic system (“public assembly”). In the last phase from 5 to 6, this democratic system – a pragmatic approach of civic rights eventually crystallised into a concept, that of law. In phase 7, this concept can be enacted through its reading but not enforced. Indeed, if 7 is performative, it is in relation to its own definition and the entire montage, bringing about its re-reading while exposing a cyclic pattern. In relation to the law, 7 is merely constative. The law is thus a failure. Beckett’s attempt to condense Vico’s thesis based on Bruno’s illustrates this inevitable failure, which in turn implies a circularity, “the cave becomes a city, and the feudal system a democracy: then an anarchy: this is corrected by a return to monarchy: the last stage is a tendency towards interdestruction: the nations are dispersed and the Phoenix of Society arises out of their ashes” (Dante…, Disjecta, 20-21). If for Fenollosa and Pound, ideograms are the signs of the poet’s thoughts, here they prove to be archaeological signs. The same relation can be established between the author’s thought, the archaeological sign and the cinematic image, “The cinematic image is a sign of the thought of an author in the same way as the first design in ochre in pre-historic caves, a sign like Egyptian hieroglyphics, like Chinese characters, like the primitive scripts of America” (Metz 272).

26Hieroglyphics or ideograms are a combination of primitive and modern elements, but also a magic element with which to probe the unseen. Though Bruno is briefly mentioned, the philosopher’s alchemic principle of “identified contraries” permeates Beckett’s essay, at a time when the occult greatly influenced the modernist writers in their creations.

3. Alchemical modernism

a. Alchemical contraries

27Throughout the publication of transition, Jolas imparted his view on magic, as the title of the following editorial intimates: “Suggestions for a New Magic” (1927). For the editor, only formal experiments can help recreate the world magically. According to Jolas that Leigh Wilson quotes in Modernism and Magic, it is the reason why writers must seek “new words, new abstractions, new hieroglyphics, new symbols, new myths” (104). In the 1930 editorial of transition, entitled Literature and the New Man, Jolas announces that the writer “will create, with the material he possesses, another world in which he will make his own laws. This other world is not above his own world, but identical with it” (Wilson 42). Jolas’s prescriptions echo Bruno’s theory of the plurality of worlds, for which the latter was condemned for heresy. Bruno regarded the universe as both infinite and finite. It is infinite insofar as it is boundless, but finite regarding its constituent worlds, which are plural. Both are the products of God, who is boundless and infinite. The universe is one and complete, incorruptible, whereas its components are alterable and corruptible. As Beckett puts it in Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” “And all things are ultimately identified with God, the universal monad, Monad of monads” (21). He concludes later on, “Humanity is its work in itself. God acts on her, but by means of her. Humanity is divine, but no man is divine” (22).

28This theory revolves around a principle which has been mentioned earlier, that of “coincidence of contraries.” In his essay, Beckett does not fathom the philosopher’s theory, but does consider its transformative vision to which he associates Vico. Indeed, in order to explain Vico’s theory of circular history, Beckett summons Bruno’s coincidence of contraries, which he renames “identified contraries.” This expression is not the most common in respect of Bruno’s principle. Indeed, one may more often come across “the conjunction of opposites,” “the reconciliation of opposites,” “the union of opposites” or “the identification of contraries,” rather than Beckett’s “identified contraries.” What Beckett’s forged expression suggests is a formula, an alchemical process, leaving transcendence and chance aside without excluding “Divine Providence” (22). This is exemplified by the essay’s only substantial passage on Bruno:

There is no difference, says Bruno[,] between the smallest possible chord and the smallest possible arc, no difference between the infinite circle and the straight line. The maxima and minima of particular contraries are one and indifferent. Minimal heat equals minimal cold. Consequently transmutations are circular. The principle (minimum) of one contrary takes its movement from the principle (maximum) of another. Therefore not only do the minima coincide with the minima, the maxima with the maxima, but the minima with the maxima in the succession of transmutations. Maximal speed is a state of rest. (21)

29Minima and maxima, but also centre and circumference, are Bruno’s familiar opposites. The metaphor of the circle, which he develops in Proust, is also Beckett’s favourite figure. The artist gravitates in the propinquity between the centre and the circumference of the circle, where the opposite centripetal and centrifugal forces annul each other. As a matter of fact, the figure of the circle stands for the emblem of the alchemical process, without which transmutation is not possible.

30Beckett’s essay is riddled with alchemical imagery. One of these images, and undoubtedly the most famous one, is the ouroboros. The emblem either depicts a snake or a dragon biting its own tail. At the end of the essay, Beckett uses the same image to encapsulate his reasoning, “a series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail” (33). Beckett also combines two emblems of alchemy, that of the circle and the life tree. The former allows an alchemical transmutation, whose secret magic can be drawn from the life tree. Beckett uses both images to carry out his own transmutation: “here is all humanity circling with fatal monotony about the Providential fulcrum – the ‘convoy wheeling encirculing abound the gigantig’s Lifetree’” (33). The “fatal monotony” shows that the circling is so imperfect that it gives way to a “retrogression” rather than a progression (23). Here Beckett has transmuted the circle into a spiral. In alchemy, the transmutation circle takes the shape of a figure called “squaring the circle.” This represents the ultimate aim of alchemy, that of the philosopher’s stone. It is made of an inner circle, which is framed by a square, itself contained by a triangle. The outer circle, which encompasses the three interlocked figures, represents the infinity of the universe. As for the triangle, it symbolizes the union of body and mind, respectively represented by the square and the inner circle it holds (Maïer). Through the union of body and mind, transmutation is possible. Alchemy thus thwarts dualism so as to allow the union of opposites. If Beckett uses alchemy to overcome dualism, it is certainly not to unite body and mind but to integrate the split-self of the artist.

31In his essay Les Deux Besoins written in 1938, Beckett creates his own alchemical figure by resorting to a pentagram in order to exemplify the image of the artist gravitating around a centre: “Ce foyer autour duquel l’artiste peut prendre conscience de tourner, comme la monade – sauf erreur – autour d’elle même, on ne peut évidemment en parler, pas plus que d’autres entités substantielles, sans en falsifier l’idée. […] L’appeler le besoin, c’est une façon comme une autre” (55) (This centre around which the artist may become aware of revolving, as the monad – unless I am mistaken revolves around itself, obviously cannot be talked about, no more than other substantial entities can, without falsifying its idea”). The need is at the core of the artist’s creative motive, which reveals a split-consciousness between “conscience du besoin d’avoir besoin” (“awareness of the need to need”), that is to say the need to keep one’s need unspoiled, and “conscience du besoin dont on a besoin” (“awareness of the need of which to need”), in other words the desire to satisfy one’s need (56). These two opposite needs fulfil the same desire which is related to the artist’s “obligation to express” and to Beckett’s vision of art as “the approximately adequate and absolutely non-final formulation” (Intercessions, Disjecta, 91). In Les deux besoins, the artist’s opposite needs find their place on Beckett’s pentagram, at the vertical extremities of the two opposite inverted triangles surrounding the centre of the figure. The centre is in fact represented by a dodecahedron whose very geometry symbolises the beginning and the end of the artist’s “creative autology” (56). Autology is related to the study of the self. Here it reveals the artist’s split-self between two needs, causing Beckett’s dodecahedron’s incompleteness. Indeed, the figure cannot be complete for the formula drawn by Beckett “(abcdef)” is imperfect. In-between the points “a” and “f,” which link the edges of the geometrical figure together, lies a void that Beckett describes as “l’incommensurabilité de la diagonale de carré avec le côté, sujet sans nombre et sans personne” (56) (“the incommensurability of the diagonal of a square with the side, subject without a number or person), “a” and “f”, the beginning and the end cannot connect the immeasurability that divides them.

32The imperatives of art fuel Beckett’s formula while deriding such a search by means of its geometrical representation. The rationality of mathematics is of no help. Squaring the circle embodies this mathematical impossibility: a square cannot have the same area as a given circle. Alchemy overthrows this impossibility to expose the irrationality of art, and thus its beauty as long as it does not need to be explained. “Côté et diagonale, les deux besoins, les deux essences, l’être qui est besoin et la nécessité où il est de l’être, enfer d’irraison d’où s’élève le cri blanc, la série de questions pures, l’œuvre” (56) (“Side and diagonal, the two needs, the two essences, the being that is need and the necessity to be so, hell of irrationality from where the bland cry arises, the series of pure questions, the work”).

b. Beckett’s formula

33Like Bartleby’s formula, “I would prefer not to,” Beckett’s formula, “neither…nor…and,” which was identified at the beginning of this article, is unsettling. The formula is part of the writer’s concluding words, “And no more than this; neither prize nor penalty; simply a series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail. And the partially purgatorial agent? The partially purged” (Dante…, Disjecta, 33). The opening word “and” introduces a preterition, which is emphasized by the formula “neither…nor.” Two possibilities are excluded as the artist’s predicament – the artist’s two needs are formalized. It is enough to summon the image of the ouroboros causing the rest of the paragraph to coil upon itself. The conjunction “and” that opens the next sentence is used to introduce a rhetorical question, whose answer relentlessly calls back its question. Beckett’s formula underlines what it undermines and conversely. “Voilà par exemple une façon comme une autre d’indiquer les limites entre lesquelles l’artiste se met à la question, se met en question, en questions rhétoriques sans fonction oratoire” (“Les deux besoins, ” Disjecta, 56) (“Here is, for instance, a possible way to indicate the limits between which the artist deals with the question, positions himself in question, rhetorical questions deprived of their oratory function”). It is also a way to combine opposites, such as counterfactuality and factuality. It is precisely how Beckett’s short story Assumption, which was printed with his essay about Joyce in transition, starts: “He could have shouted and could not” (Complete Short Prose, 3). The laconic formula deflates what has not yet happened while empowering its actualization. The underlying ungrammaticality of Beckett’s formula is eventually exposed in his description of Joyce’s hieroglyphics, “When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep” (Dante…, Disjecta, 27). What was identified as grammatical bizarreness through the use of “sleep” as a noun in the first syntagm of the sentence, is in fact the formula fulfilling its “limit-function” (Deleuze 68) to other linguistic alternatives: “when the sense means sleep,” “when the sense is asleep,” “when the sense sleeps,” “when the sense does sleep.” Beckett’s essay is the very locus where language begins to stutter, to use Deleuze’s term. Montage is the seminal form of that stuttering that Beckett edits with the Latin word “Legere = To gather together letters into a word, to read.” The decomposition of the word feeds its composition through its reading.

34“Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” proves to be a catalyst of the modernist turmoil that coalesced at the end of the 1920s, whether it tackles the established literary avant-garde, avant-garde cinema or the occult. With his work for the international little magazine transition, Beckett stood at the heart of the European artistic fervour and crisis; as a young apprentice, he was caught in the modernist flux in spite of himself. In this respect, Beckett’s identified contraries not only express this uncomfortable position but also perform it. In this way, Beckett defines the writer’s ethos without setting a program but a formula the result of which is undetermined. For what matters remains a modernist preoccupation, that of sheer formal experiment. “[T]here is an endless verbal germination, maturation, putrefication, the cyclic dynamism of the intermediate” (Dante…, Disjecta, 29).

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Julie BÉNARD, « “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce:” Samuel Beckett’s “identified contraries” », E-rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 09 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Univ Paul Valéry Montpellier 3, EMMA EA741, F34000, Montpellier, France
Julie Bénard is a Ph.D. student in English literature at the University Paul-Valéry Montpellier3, France. Her thesis is entitled The Aesthetics of Samuel Beckett: the Voice and the Image (1950-1980). She is interested in Beckett’s use of the scenic, filmic and radiophonic devices, along with the aesthetic experience they involve.

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