Beckett's Art of Mismaking
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Readers have long responded to Samuel Beckett’s novels and plays with wonder or bafflement. They portray blind, lame, maimed creatures cracking whips and wielding can openers who are funny when they should be chilling, cruel when they should be tender, warm when most wounded. His works seem less to conclude than to stop dead. And so readers quite naturally ask: what might all this be meant to mean?
In a lively and enlivening study of a singular creative nature, Leland de la Durantaye helps us better understand Beckett’s strangeness and the notorious difficulties it presents. He argues that Beckett’s lifelong campaign was to mismake on purpose―not to denigrate himself, or his audience, nor even to reconnect with the child or the savage within, but because he believed that such mismaking is in the interest of art and will shape its future. Whether called “creative willed mismaking,” “logoclasm,” or “word-storming in the name of beauty,” Beckett meant by these terms an art that attacks language and reason, unity and continuity, art and life, with wit and venom.
Beckett’s Art of Mismaking explains Beckett’s views on language, the relation between work and world, and the interactions between stage and page, as well as the motives guiding his sixty-year-long career―his strange decision to adopt French as his literary language, swerve from the complex novels to the minimalist plays, determination to “fail better,” and principled refusal to follow any easy path to originality.
toi, je t’emmerde]” (GC 1.399; 38). This leads to an exchange on the nature of the divinity, ending with the epithets “Omniomni” and “l’inemmerdable” (translated as the “the all-unfuckable”) (GC 1.399; 39). Later in the tale, as though warming up for the theater, Mercier asks Camier, “What have we done to God?” (GC 1.439; 125). Camier replies, “Denied him [Nous l’avons renié ],” to which Mercier exclaims, “You’re not about to tell me he’s that vindictive [Tu ne me feras pas croire qu’il est
call your mind” (GC 3.393). How Not to Read Philosophy, or Reading Schopenhauer In the 1970s a much marked-up ﬁ rst edition of Beckett’s ﬁ rst book, Proust, was discovered in a Dublin bookstore. On its title page was the note: “I have written my book in cheap ﬂashy philosophical jargon.” The handwriting proved to be Beckett’s own (Bair 1990, 109). Beckett was rarely happy with his work, and juvenilia is never easy to revisit (as Krapp 4 6 • B e c k e t t ’ s a rt o f m i s m a k i n g is made
struggling with a dead language” (GC 3.182). The same might be said to the author of those lines. Neither that play nor Beckett’s German letter represents the ﬁrst time Beckett had sought to articulate this sense of senselessness. Beckett’s very ﬁrst piece of published prose contains, aptly enough, a denunciation of the language in which it is written. “It is worth while remarking,” he noted in “Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . . Joyce,” “that no language is so sophisticated as English” (GC 4.504).
such. If all language is an excess of language, all use misuse, and all 8 0 • B e c k e t t ’ s a rt o f m i s m a k i n g making mismaking, then the goal becomes not clarity but chaos, not graceful concision but loutish logorrhea, not shining success in the artistic arena but failing better, worse, now. In those same years Adorno identiﬁed what he called the “demolition work” of Beckett’s “back-sliding language [die regredierende Sprache],” and would try for the rest of his life to chart
sixty years of criticism in French, English, and other languages attests to how difﬁcult it has been to deﬁne and describe those worlds and works. One question is what everyone is enjoying so much, and why. For they cannot all be seeking to acquire cultural capital, not all seeking to seduce by obscurity, and not all performing 1 62 • B e c k e t t ’ s a rt o f m i s m a k i n g aesthetic penance. They are obviously enjoying themselves at the same time as they are experiencing acute uncertainty