Nothing is more real than late modernism

The plays and prose of Samuel Beckett represent a curious middle point in twentieth-century literature as the “virtual hinge between ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism.’”1 His position as a sort of evolutionary missing link between the modernist movement and its successor provide for several disparate readings of his works, alternatively as the final throes of “late modernism or as the primary examples of postmodernist literature. Perhaps most frustrating among challenges facing those obsessive few attempting to categorize his works is the fact that his writing exhibits elements indicative of both traditions, and that his oft-incomprehensible style renders him near impossible to fully grasp. Beckett’s period of literary activity spans those decades when the modernist movement underwent its greatest transformations, morphing after the second World War into the late modernist blueprint for the postmodernism to follow. As Tyrus Miller mentions in his book on Late Modernism, categorization is difficult due in part to both “the impressive length of [Beckett’s] literary career and [to] his evolving but consistent corpus that spans from […] Joyce to uncompromising postmodern minimalism.”2 The author worked on the cutting edge of these schools, and through various progressive devices consistently pressed against the standards and ideals of the modernists and moved literature ever so gradually toward the revised postmodernist worldview. Because his work features both elements of late modernism and departures from the norm approaching prototypical postmodernism, Beckett fits snugly into neither category, and liminal works like Malone Dies are situated in a literary niche all their own.

One of the most obvious indicators of modernist tendencies in Malone Dies is the protagonist’s isolation and subsequent alienation from the outside world, as he remains prostate and bedridden in either hospital or asylum, cooped up from the rest of civilization. Worse yet, even worse an alienation is that of Malone’s stick, which becomes his only interaction with the exterior world that surrounds him. Having found himself “abandoned, in the dark,” Malone resorts to “play[ing] with himself,” inventing stories about animals, people, and perhaps about himself to pass the time before his inevitable demise.3 Here he constructs a secondary reality separate from the limited world accessible beyond his windowsill, one wherein he maintains complete control over the metafictional characters and environments while the narrative itself devolves into subjectivity through the eyes of an inventive narrator. This is an example of the characteristically modernist theme of alienation with qualifiers, modifications that significantly alter its function and throw into question notions of the device’s modernist deployment. In his article on Malone Dies and the modernist city, Danièle Katz relates Malone’s prison-like room to a womb, the window itself serving to represent the “umbilical […] link to and break from the haunted cities of High Modernism.”1 As he distances himself from the modernist motif of the alienating urban environment, Katz maintains that Beckett “eschews the entire dialectics of the […] encounter with alienation, which dominate the swathe of modernist writing ranging from Baudelaire to Joyce and Eliot” and replaces the city with “the regulated institution—a space neither urban nor suburban, following regimes neither of city life nor of that of the country.”1 Perhaps this first example illuminates Beckett’s unique position as an author who, while yet employing a modernist element so prevalent in earlier literature, does so with a distinctly altered spin.

Many of these “spun” modernist calling cards border on actual postmodernism, the definition of which was still being formulated at the time of Beckett’s writing. Among them is the trope of internalization and self-reflection, which perhaps achieves its apex in Malone Dies. Gerhard Hoffman features a section on Beckett in his book From Modernism to Postmodernism, and discusses how

Beckett radicalizes to the extreme the literary tradition that reveals the character consumed by self-analysis and its failure. Reflection in this process is existentialized and and de-existentialized at the same time. This places Beckett’s trilogy […] in a place between modernism and postmodernism: modernism because the self is the crucial target of reflection, postmodernism because the self is multiplied and dissolved in the stream of reflection.4

Here we witness the postmodern fragmentation of identity, the dissolution of Malone’s personage between his various pseudo-autobiographical characters as his physical form decays. With nothing to do save explore the recesses of his own psyche, Malone delves into the modernist mode of self-analysis, but returns from the void with little to show for it in a postmodern brand of irrationality. To continue the paradigm of fragmented identity versus consolidated identity being indicative of postmodernism and modernism respectively, Theodor Adorno tells us that, in Beckett, “pure identity becomes the identity of annihilation, identity of subject and object in the state of complete alienation.”5 In previous passages, Adorno expounds upon the more philosophical implications of Beckett’s absurdity, explaining that Beckett rejects “that [modernist] creed of the permanence of individual existence.”5 The lack of clarity of identity in Malone Dies, as the reader is left to question the exact nature of Malone’s relationship with Sapo—perhaps being a fictionalized or biographical version of himself—lends further weight to his deployment of modernist elements with a proto-postmodern set of subtle alterations, which here even represents a complete rejection of what were considered modernist norms.

Furthermore, Adorno touches upon the intrinsic and intentional meaninglessness of Beckett in his essay on Endgame, arguing that his work is “[o]bjectively without any polemical intent”5 and that “Beckett obliterates the meaning that was culture.”5 This fundamental absence of meaning is evident throughout Malone Dies, as neither the frame nor metafictional narratives have any clear foundational purpose or intent. But throughout the novel, neither the purpose of nor the potential audience for such writings is ever explicitly mentioned, and the narrator even bemoans his lot as teller of these tales as “tedium.”3 Regardless of his apparent boredom and reluctance to relate these stories, Malone appears to be attempting to salvage what meaning he can from his existence despite the gradual decline of his body, exerting some form of creative production in the midst of his destruction. This quest for meaning would seem a particularly modernist endeavor, but the incoherence and abstract nature of his results would suggest the author’s postmodernist leanings. “Absurdity in Beckett,” continues Adorno, “is no longer a state of human existence thinned out to a mere idea and expressed in images.”5 By forgoing any traditional understanding of a meaning to his work and supplanting it instead with this sort of cynical absurdity, Beckett certainly begins to approach those key fundamentals of the postmodern ethos years before they came into mainstream fruition.

Another element of postmodern literature found in great abundance in Beckett’s novel is the idea of subjectivity, as we experience reality and even history through the lens of a subjective and untrustworthy narrator. While the purpose behind Malone’s creative ramblings is intentionally unclear, there are hints at what the exploits of his bizarre characters might represent. As he begins relating the story of Sapo, Malone intones, “I wonder if I am not talking again about myself. Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?”,3 suggesting that these stories are indeed reflections on his own life experiences, perhaps even approaching memoir. It would seem that Malone crafts something like a revisionist history of these experiences, especially as he discusses potentially negative portrayals of Sapo. “Sapo had no friends—no, that won’t do,” writes Malone, “Sapo was on good terms with his little friends.”3 The narrator appears acutely interested in how his “playtime” stories will be received, and offers an edited or improved version—relative to his subjective perspective—in their interest. As the metafictional narrative Malone crafts seemingly takes center stage, the reader finds himself in a world of the character’s invention or re-imagining, and any notion of objectivity is evacuated in favor of Malone’s own subjective experiences. The only insight the reader has to the dreary setting Malone woefully inhabits is through his hurried scribblings that become the frame narrative of sorts for the novel, and even these elements presented as facts are subject to Malone’s own interpretation and biased representation. The novel exists entirely within the character’s perception, and once again, this throws Malone Dies off balance and out of step with the modernist traditions that predated his writing.

The trifold dissolution of identity, objectivity, and meaning is complimented by a collapse of linguistic form, especially in Malone Dies as the narrative progresses. A hallmark of modernist literature was their constant emphasis on form, and it would certainly be against their tropes for Beckett to do away with many linguistic conventions entirely. In his chapter on Beckett, Miller explains that “[t]o the modernist sublimation of culture in the self-reflexive mastery of literary language and form, Beckett counterposes an aesthetic of entropic decay, deformation, debasement, and disfiguration.”3 This gradual disintegration of language is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the conclusion of Malone Dies, as our protagonist’s stumbling narrative finally dissolves into pure chaos and readers witness the novel’s language and literary form following suit:

he raises his hatchet on which the blood will never dry, but not to hit anyone, he will not hit anyone, he will not hit anyone any more, he will not touch anyone any more, either with it or with it or with it or with or
or with it or with his hammer or with his stick or with his fist or in thought in dream I mean never he will never
or with his pencil or with his stick or
or light light I mean
never there he will never
never anything
any more3

Here the established linguistic order is ultimately destroyed by Beckett’s prose, either to reflect his protagonist’s titular death or to close his potentially-meaningless novel with one final bottomless puzzle to vex us. Here, truly, “[t]he regressive language demolishes [the modern,]”5 and there is perhaps no better example of the author’s commitment to “debasement” and “disfiguration” than these last few rambling, incoherent lines of Malone Dies. The gradual omission of punctuation and sentence structure allows the prose to become nothing more than Malone’s fleeting final thoughts, mere unadorned images set against an ocean of empty page surrounding them. This passage stands in stark contrast to the modernists’ obsessive preoccupation with form, and Beckett here allows the haphazard words to pour forth from the pencil of a dying narrator and allows his entire narrative to fade abruptly into darkness, its “entropic decay” matching Malone’s. This is certainly an essential example of Beckett’s increasingly aggressive rejection of modernism and his embrace of more postmodernist tendencies, even before the latter was formally established in its entirety by others.

Samuel Beckett’s body of work reflects not only his growth and evolution as a writer chronologically but also the gradual evolution of the modernist movement toward postmodernism during the middle decades of the twentieth century, functioning as a sort of sediment sample for the history of literature in the English (but usually first, in French) language. In Malone Dies, we see his early experimentation with what would become fundamental identifiers of the postmodern literature to come, including the fragmentation of identity and dissolution of linguistic form. Perhaps serving as prototype or, at the very least, precursor to these latter authors who deployed postmodern techniques on a much larger scale, Beckett represents an important stepping stone between the rationality and meaning of modernism and the absurd pointlessness found in its successor. But his position as intermediary places his own work in a curious vacuum between what literature could, strictly speaking, be considered either true modernism or postmodernism. Without Beckett’s colossal and influential contributions, there might be neither the same abundance nor quality of postmodernist work to follow. For this reason, Beckett maintains a unique place in the literary history of the twentieth century and in the evolution of—or, some would maintain, the death of—the novel as a format.

  1. Katz, Danièle. “Beckett’s Absent Paris: Malone Dies, Céline, and the Modernist City.” Etudes Anglaises 1.59 (2006): 7-17. Web. 4 June 2011.  2 3

  2. Miller, Tyrus. “Improved Out Of All Knowledge: Samuel Beckett.” Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, And The Arts Between The World Wars. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1999. 169-203. Print. 

  3. Beckett, Samuel. Malone Dies. 1956. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. New York: Grove, 2009. 171-281. Print.  2 3 4 5 6

  4. Hoffman, Gerhard. “7.12.1. Grammatical Subject vs. Subject of Reflection: Beckett, The Unnameable.” From Modernism to Postmodernism: Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction. Amsterdam: Rodopi, B.V., 2005. 509-12. Google Books. Web. 5 June 2011. 

  5. Adorno, Theodor W. “Trying to Understand Endgame.” Trans. Michael T. Jones. New German Critique No. 26, Critical Theory and Modernity (1982): 119-50. JSTOR. Web. 4 June 2011.  2 3 4 5 6