T here is, Adorno says, a certain conceptual connection between Samuel Beckett and the Parisian Existentialists; not only due to their literary practice, but also due to their struggle with the category of the absurd as an expression of the modern crisis of sense. For the Existentialists the absurd remains an idea, a theme that is treated on the contentual level within a traditional form the play, the novel. Beckett, on the other hand, reflects the absurd on the formal level, because the loss of meaning will necessarily impair the possibility of performing and watching plays, just as it will impair the possibility of uttering meaningful sentences. It is obvious which side Adorno is on; but wherein lies his critique of the Existentialists?
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According to the philosopher, explaining the unexplainable was more or less the project of the Enlightenment. In the process, pure reason had to sever itself from nature and forcefully dispel the obscurity around it in order to assert itself, erasing in the process the many shades of blackness and grayness that lay out there, the many nuances that were so important to Beckett.
In other words, a great deal was thus left in ignorance since the world was thereby reduced to what could be rationally thought about it:. Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of triumphant calamity Adorno , 1. It designates the crumbling of the whole edifice of knowledge predicated upon reason that had been erected throughout the past centuries.
By the same token, it also precluded any artistic project that aimed at aesthetic perfection. CLOV sadly : No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as we. HAMM: We do what we can. CLOV: A smithereen.
HAMM: This is slow work. Idiomatism seems to be the rule of their verbal exchange. The lines, when added up, do not constitute any sort of argument. And these in turn inevitably foster the temptation to interpret them. HAMM: Nature has forgotten us. HAMM: No more nature! You exaggerate. CLOV: In the vicinity. HAMM: But we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals! HAMM: But you say there is none.
After which he retreats with a caveat which substantially reduces the bearing of what he has just affirmed. For his part, Hamm eloquently retorts with the empirical evidence of tangible physicality.
After all, the artistic idiom is supposed to supply a more visceral expression of whatever cannot be set out in plain and accurate technical language, so as to make it more palpable. According to common sense, Art supplements the language of Science, allowing Man to complete his exploration of the world.
All content of subjectivity, which necessarily hypostatizes itself, is trace and shadow of the world, from which it withdraws in order not to serve that semblance and conformity the world demands Adorno , Adorno , But the laughter it inspires ought to suffocate the laughter. HAMM: Clov! CLOV impatiently : What is it?
CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! Brief laugh. HAMM: I wonder. Voice of rational being. Clov starts, drops the telescope and begins to scratch his belly with both hands.
Normal voice. And without going so far as that, we ourselves Such a return to rationality cannot be conceived of, for it would constitute a future, and that is definitely far too presumptuous and frightening for the character.
But at least he may entertain the possibility that their own words might just have some immanent meaning, that is: some significance in themselves in spite of their apparent platitude and inanity for those who utter them. The evocation of that second possibility seems enough to comfort Hamm.
Angel-Perez and A. One can definitely not resume the enterprise of clarification and exhaustive description of the universe that safely dissociated the knowing subject from the known world. Or else, it must certainly be a joke. Already, in the preceding quote, the brief laughter of Hamm is dissociated from any idea of enjoyment or exultation, not to mention the plenitude of happiness. Our scientific detachment has excluded us from it. And, having alienated ourselves from Nature, the latter escaped us even more, becoming in the process a source of fears and anxieties.
CLOV anguished, scratching himself : I have a flea! HAMM: A flea! Are there still fleas? HAMM very perturbed : But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God! He moves the telescope. Bad luck to it! HAMM: More complications! Clov gets down. Not an underplot, I trust. Clov moves ladder nearer window, gets up on it, turns telescope on the without. CLOV dismayed : Looks like a small boy! HAMM sarcastic : A small He gets down, drops the telescope, goes towards door, turns.
He looks for the gaff, sees it, picks it up, hastens towards door. HAMM: No! Clov halts. CLOV: No? A potential procreator? The only observable line that circumscribes a locus of identity is the contour of the body which is neither the seat of organized thoughts nor the site of intentional action. For the time being, the historical crisis of the individual runs up against the single biological being, its arena.
The succession of situations in Beckett, gliding along without resistance from individuals, thus ends with those obstinate bodies which have regressed. As soon as the subject is no longer doubtlessly self-identical, no longer a closed structure of meaning, the line of demarcation with the exterior becomes blurred, and the situations of inwardness become at the same time a physical one.
As a general rule, ascribing any measure of deliberation to characters is certainly a dubious critical move. For it is only by being like what it imitates that art can object to it.
Consequently, it is all the same, it is all one, it is worthless. All is All is what? CLOV: What all is? In a word? Is that what you want to know? Just a moment. He turns the telescope on the without, looks, lowers the telescope, turns towards Hamm. HAMM: Look at the sea. His histrionic behaviour is plainly a parody of scientific observation, involving deduction and induction. After scrutinizing the objects that constitute the external world, he pretends to derive a universal statement from this study.
Indeed, Hamm does not rest content. And his unrest precisely manifests what remains of life within him. And the same is also true of his companion. Conversely, content or contentedness would precisely describe that quality of the objects whose life has been extinguished. As for the rest, observation and deduction are just a variation, a phase or phrase in a composition that spans a wider range of tones and intensities.
And comparison requires a reference point to assess and measure the resemblance between one thing and another and eventually prove them to be the same: it calls for a second term which is conspicuously absent in the passage.
The situations that Beckett dramatize s do not detract or add anything to the presentation of a modern condition, and least of all do they comment upon such a state of things. Perhaps he even does it with a measure of exaggeration. But mostly, the playwright lets the situation speak for itself. Yet in the final analysis, there is more to it than strict presentation because this mimesis appears to us as untenable, it compromises, unsettles and harms what it presents.
For Adorno insists on the necessity of a commitment to the world in the artistic process. For in both cases, the artist would impose an interpretative order on reality. Yet if Art consequently dissociates itself from reality and exists for its own sake, then what remains of its commitment? Art, then, is unavoidably caught in this double bind Adorno
On Absurdity. Adorno, Beckett, and the Demise of Existentialism
John Molyneux is a socialist, activist and writer. He formerly lectured at Portsmouth University,but now lives in Dublin. In the words of the much quoted interview with James Knowlson, Beckett distinguishes his own style from that of James Joyce: I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one's material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding. For Adorno, the avoidance of ostentation and ornament and a strictly maintained minimalism is all that is permitted to art if it is to be true, if it is to retain any hope for reversing the barbarism of culture after its collapse after Auschwitz.