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Beckett's Stirrings Still.

Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end. --Samuel Beckett, Stirrings Stilt

Chronicles. (S)till

Stirrings Still, published "on the last day of 1988" [1] is regarded by a number of Beckett critics as "the disembodiment of Western tradition" (Davies, 136), in line with traditional, and yet extremely diverse, readings of the Beckett canon, encompassing in their presuppositions, existentialism and phenomenology, as well as poststructuralism, and beyond.

So much has been written along the Beckett. canon, that it is hardly surprising that this literally penultimate Beckett work, has often been interpreted, together with other "late" works, either as a text "writing the work of mourning" (Hill, 10), or as "Beckett's Dying Words" (Ricks). The Guardian's description of the piece, where it appeared just before its official publication, albeit in a textually debatable form, presented it as "a meditation on loneliness and old age," thus emphasizing even further the possibility of a direct allusion to Samuel Beckett's life. Also Mel Gussow's description of the piece frames its interpretation in relation to a biographical setting: "His last work to be printed in his lifetime was Stirrings Still, a short prose piece published in a limited edition on his 83rd birthday. In it, a character who resembles the author sits alone in a cell-like room until he sees his double appear--and then diasappear. Accompanied by 'time and grief and self so-called,' he finds himself 'stir ring still' to the end" (Gussow, 76).

Not only do such mytho-biographical readings rely on dogmatic presuppositions (for example the definition of the "Author"), but they also ignore the fact that repetition is central to the Beckett canon, and it was not just at the end of his life that a self/subject/character, "sits alone in a cell-like room until he sees his double appear." As The Unnamable put it: "it's all been done already, said and said again, the departure, the body that rises" (413).

Why would Beckett go on re-writing "the same" scene for thirty years (having possibly started with Endgame in 1957)? Why then again? How then again?

Furthermore, it is to be demonstrated that this is, literally and realistically, an old, dying man('s) story, since its themes of subject formation in relation to narration or to memory (and its unreliability), the seeking of "a way out," and the questioning of one's being "in his Tight mind," do not necessarily imply old age, but simply, the constitution of experience as self-(dis)appropriation. (Whose understanding is criticism anesthesizing, I wonder, by implicating "old age"?)

The other predominant line of interpretation of. Stirrings Still, has referred to it as a work of intertextuality (Davies; Renton), but I would rather say of intratextuality, given the recurrence of certain stylistic and thematic traits and "canonical" motifs, which make this an explicitly Beckettian text. As a matter of fact, the Beckett canon grows on repetition, micro-systemically and macro-systemically, and even on "thematic reduplication," as Angela Moorjani has clearly indicated in her lucid reading of Beckett's "Abysmal Games."

Thus, critical interpretations that refer to Stirrings Stilt merely as "an intertextual act of self-plagiarism" (Finney, 130), obfuscate the general economy of this writerly text, constructed precisely as a boundlessly bound textuality. [2] Andrew Renton rightly emphasizes the fact that: "this is not simply a stylistic resonance, but a re-negotiation of something altogether more solid" (Renton, 167). I imagine that the "solid" he refers to, but regretfully with no further specification, has to do with linguistic ontology (a concern central to Beckett's writings).

In any case, the logocentric notions of "intratextuality" and "inter-textuality," albeit with the accuracy of metalanguage, imply (but cannot reliably distinguish), the significant difference between citation (as a kind of iterability often associated with literature) and plagiarism (as the expression of a choice, regarding the 'propriety' of an expressive difference). In this sense, both terms are still insufficient, if not altogether misleading, as qualifiers of this text, whose concern is precisely around the "one's own" of a subject, and the 'propriety' of writing.

"The invisible claims"

Both the notions of inter-textuality and intratextuality do not account for, and/or reflect, the showing of the obscene, which takes place in this text, precisely through the very use of citation, thematic repetition and lexical reiteration, often strategically combined in the "unwording" of the text itself.

We must remember that the early title of this text was "Fragments: for Barney Rosset," but that it was changed when the final piece ("Still Stirrings," now Section 3) was added to the text. The Stirrings Still title marks the final, published form of this micro-trilogy. The choice of "stirrings" instead of "fragments" implies the impossibility of a closure of the text (which the notions of inter / intra textuality imply), as well as underscores the refusal of a romantic allusion to the ineffable, and derivatively to a subjective in-effability.

In his Damned to Fame, a very learned Beckett biography, James Knowlson quotes Beckett's note to Avigdor and Anne Arikha written in relation to Stirrings Still: "My old head nothing but sighs (of relief?) of expiring cells. A last chance at last, I'll try. 'from where he sat with his head in his hands he saw himself rise and disappear.' Ineffable departure. Nothing left but try--eff it" (Knowlson, 612). In the prison cell of language, effability becomes an imperative: eff it, so that ineffability is only a "departure." Eff it, say it: try inexpressively.

Only the refusal of trying to express (for example, through strategies of asemantization), or the dissolution of the desire to express (unwording), can reveal the impossibility of an escape from language. Inexpressiveness will show best the impossibility of a way out of language, because even when one sees oneself "rise and disappear," someone will inevitably be found, at "another place in the place where he sat" (115). Language is silently pervasive, whether expressive or inexpressive, but the silence of writing is radical, not to be found in expressive insufficiency, nor in some form of the ineffable, but eventually, at the very core of the inexpressive effability of expression.

If understood qua "inter-textuality" or "intratextuality," Stirrings Still cannot show the off-scene of the scene of writing, i.e., the very (im)possibility of silence, which is one of the forceful themes of this composite and tensional text, a text which beckons (towards) invisibility. "The invisible claims us behind all that is seen, as if its absence were only what hides at the heart of the manifest--or else hides from us what is nevertheless manifest --and silence; what is unsaid within the uttered word" (Jabes, 1993, 42).

The evidence of in-visibility brings me to imagine a reading of Stirrings Still as the simultaneous articulation of the limits of writing (and interpretation), together with the articulation of the possibility of writing (and interpretation). "Stirrings Still" is literally a figure of writing (in the double sense of the genitive); it is a figure of the limits of possibility, and of the possibility of limits in writing. Just like the "cell" is, homophonically, both prison and elemental constituent of the body, I propose seeing limits in Stirrings Still as conditions of possibility, and possibility as a limit condition. Limits and possibility can be imagined as complementary modalities of reciprocal definition.

In fact, we can find in Stirrings Still the "desire of writing, writing of desire" described by Maurice Blanchot: "Desire, writing, do not remain in place, but pass one over the other: these are not plays on words, for desire is always the desire of dying, not a wish. And yet, desire is related to Wunsch, and is a nondesire too--the powerless power that traverses writing--just as writing is the desired, undesired torment which endures everything, even impatience. Dying desire, desire to die, we live these together --not that they coincide--in the obscurity of the interim" (Blanchot, 42; emphasis added).

"Writing [ldots] endures everything," writes Blanchot, and Beckett reverberates: "And patience till the one true end to time and grief and self and second self his own" (120).

"In the obscurity of the interim" is where Blanchot sees human life, and Beckett resonates again: "For when his own light went out he was not left in the dark. [[ldots]] This outer light then when his own went out became his only light till in its turn went out and left him in the dark. Till in its turn went out. [[ldots]] In the dark. In a strange place blindly in the dark of night or day seeking the way out" (113, 114, 116--7).

After the ineffable departure of "when his own light went out he was not left in the dark," repetition can show difference in the same paradigm: the difference within, of "in the dark" and "blindly in the dark," when light "went out and left him in the dark." Repetition discloses difference, producing the evidence of a syntagmatism of untranslatable motifs. The patience of repetition, in time, or rather, in due course, shows the time variable of a pervasive onward lessening that runs throughout writing. "Patience has already withdrawn me not only from the will in me, but from my power to be patient. [ldots] Patience opens me entirely, all the way to a passivity which is the pas ['not' and 'step'] in the utterly passive (Blanchot, 13).

"Passivity: we can evoke it only in a language that reverses itself [ldots] suffering such that I could not suffer it [ldots] passivity is posed or deposed as that which would interrupt our reason, our speech, our experience [ldots] passivity evades all formulations-- yet it seems that there is in passivity something like a demand that would require it to fall short of itself" (Blanchot, 14--16). In this sense, Stirrings Still (as well as the other post--Second Trilogy texts) can be read as an exploration of the relation between writing and passivity. Stirrings Still can be read as a supplement to the Beckett canon, and that qua supplement, it (re)defines the very quality of the canon, constituting it as a textuality of signification, as opposed to a textuality of representation (Locatelli, 1990). This supplement constitutes the Beckett canon in the way in which "something which never yet takes place happens nonetheless, as having long since already happened" (Blanchot, 14).

In order to grasp the radical end of representation that Beckett's late texts bring about, one should apply to Beckett Derrida's suggestions on how to read Mallarme: "a reading here should no longer be carried out as simple table of concepts or words, as a static or statistical sort of punctuation. One must reconstitute a chain in motion, the effects of a network and the play of a syntax" (Derrida, 1981, 194). One is invited to read precisely the "stirrings still," the "chain in motion," the "rhetorical question less the rhetoric" i.e., the master subtraction which, according to Beckett, constitutes "art" (Beckett, 1983, 91).

Judith Dearlove's definition of "residual fiction," well applies to an ineliminable and unavoidable form of living on, situated both inside and outside the patience of writing, that is, a residuum ineliminable because the residuum is the last ring of a chain that has no beginning if not in the fiction of the equiprimordial "Being-(of the)-there" and "understanding" (Heidegger, 1962; in particular, Sections 31-4). "But soon weary of vainly delving in those remains he moved on [ldots] resigned to not knowing where he was or how he got there or where he was going or how to get back to whence he knew not how he came. So on unknowing and no end in sight" (124-5).

"He saw himself rise and go"

Bearing the uncertainty of reflection and self reflection, the protagonist of Stirrings Still gets lost in himself, as if he were too impatient (with his death-wish), and/or as if he had to be punished for daring to be a human being: "but you are hard on the rose stung by the sand. A certain truth, truth taught by the desert, let her get lost in herself, as if she had to be punished for daring to be a flower" (Jabes, 31).

Unlike the prodigal son, who rises himself and goes back to his father, the subject of this narrative relies on no founding paternity, on no patriarchal rock of subjectivity, but relinquishes even his subjective representation: "detached from everything, including detachment" (Blanchot, 12). Even his cupia dissolvi is parodized, by the very' dispersion inscribed in the constitution of his non a-priori subjectivity: "As one in his right mind when at last out again he knew 'not how he was not long out' again when he' began to wonder if he was in his right mind" (120). In a transcendent movement of non-transcendence even the cupio dissolvi finds its own inscription as/of residual subjective figurality.

Strikingly unusual, in Stirrings Still, is the at tempt to configure the unmasterable condition of subjective temporality ("the interim," the subjective "on" of "he moved on"), as the very condition of mastering/failing any (self)understanding. Subjective temporality, qua time variable of a lessening; becomes the key to understanding that: "The one's own is not identity or coincidence, but compulsion for itself, appropriative compulsion" (Lingis 198.5, 164). The one's own (dis)places the subject, i.e., the "one's own" literally puts it "stayed" in the trace of its compulsion: "So on till stayed" (126).

Another figuration of subjective non-coincidence, or appropriative differance, can be seen in the use of a "third person self," in the representation of the protagonist of Stirrings Still. This "Not-I" is necessarily "seen always from behind whithersoever he went" (116): he can never meet his face.

Furthermore, if, as Lingis writes: "the most compulsive compulsion, the master compulsion, is the compulsion to appropriate one's own expropriation" (Lingis 1985, 164), then, the irreducible semantic ambivalence of the concluding words of Stirrings Still ("Oh all to end," 128), acquires yet another ring, beyond both melancholic regret ("all will end") and cupio dissolvi ("would it all end"). If the desire of possessing one's own dispossession, 'is the master desire, only a simultaneous (non)conceptual possession of the dispossession can bear any credibility as (non)object of desire. In this sense, the "back roads" taken, and the sought "way out," are and are not, metaphorical and/or referential tropes. The "stirrings still" and "still stirrings" articulate a cartography of subjective "passivity." We' must recall that the text succeeds in showing even the un-thinking of thought: "For when his own light went out he was not left in the dark. Light of a kind came then" (113).

The denotative adequacy of such a passive subject is clearly shown to be dependent on the co(n)textual organization of subjectivity, itself dependent on the temporality of theory, desire and practice of "seeing himself," a self already (as) devoid of teleological theory, desire and practice. Here the subject is constructed by affirmations, but ironically because "affirmation does without proof, provided it claims to prove nothing" (Blanchot, 62). In this light we can also understand the dis-homogeneity of the superimposed performative/constative instances in the concluding 'statement' of Stirrings Still: "Oh all to end" (128).

This deathbound subject resists the dichotomous thinking of dialectical transcendence and transcendental infinity, by articulating the reminder of "that missing word" (Beckett, 128; emphasis added), a signifier emptied of meaning, similar to the purloined space between words in the sentence, and between letters in the word. Qua signifier emptied of meaning, "a word he could not catch," i.e., "that missing word," disrupts the order of the subject (itself determined by a semantico-representational economy), threatens the teleology of subjective inscriptions, and displaces even the intentionality of Husserlian phenomenology (which would articulate a parenthesized subjectivity): "when to his ears from deep within oh how and here a word he could not catch" (126).

Furthermore, the already-there subject of representation, who sees "himself rise and go" ("he sat [ldots] he saw"), calls to our attention the fact that the autobiographical trace of writing (of any writing) needs to transcend and dissolve its own subject. The protagonist of Stirrings Still has renounced the first person subject, but cannot get rid of the autobiographical of (its) writing: "the renunciation of the first-person subject is not a voluntary renunciation, nor, thus, is it an involuntary abdication. When the subject becomes absence, then the absence of a subject, or dying as subject, subverts the whole sequence of existence, causes time to take leave of its order, opens life to its passivity, exposing it to the unknown, to the stranger--to the friendship that never is declared" (Blanchot, 29; emphasis added). Passivity is articulated by the residual syntagmatism of a (still) subjective trace: "Nothing to show not the same[ldots] Nothing to show not another [ldots] Nothing to show not another where never" (118-119).

The parody of the redundant biblical allusion to the prodigal son also alludes to the non-return of the autobiographical in autobiography; writing decrees the absence of a subject: "the absence of a subject [ldots] causes time to take leave of its order," and exposes life to the unknown: "he saw himself rise and go [ldots] Now as if strange to him seen to rise and go" (118; emphasis added).

"On unseen feet [[ldots]] starts to go"

How do we come to the end of representation, representation being unavoidably always ending, if not by representing again and again the represented, until "on unseen feet" it "starts to go" (115)? How can we get rid of the theology of the re-cognizable, if not by devoiding the most detailed description of its transcendental and/or projective content?

The repetition of familiar representations in the tension of the "Oh all to end," can allude to the unseen, or, more precisely, to nothing as the unseen. It is precisely the repetition of representation(s), i.e., the reiteration of (re)cognizable motifs, that shows how Beckett's texts promote and transgress the limit(s) of representation, in the sense that nothing new can be found 'there,' but the blindness in/of what, "ill seen ill said," is re-cognized (often, but not necessarily, as familiar).

The nothing-unseen breaks the chain of morphological re-cognition, showing an indescribable movement, "an unspeakable trajectory" in Beckett's words, which is simultaneously the trajectory of writing and the defacement of the autobiographical subject. The autobiographical of writing is not a copy of a subject, but is a compulsive trace, perceptible when, un-causingly anything else, the subject of autobiography "starts to go."

Such an indescribable movement, which constitutes and dissolves the autobiographical subject, finds in Stirrings Still a performative/constative rendering: "As when he disappeared only to reappear later at another place. Then disappeared again only to reappear again later at another place again. So again and again disappeared again only to reappear again at another place again. Another place in the place where he sat at his table head on hands" (115).

Only the most drastic reduction of the strata of semantic allusion i.e., only the amnesia of the familiar can show both how writing is an attempt to operate from the occasion of an impossibility, and also how ineliminable the "compulsion of the own" of writing is, inasmuch as it is configured as "something [[ldots]] to give us the impression we exist" (Beckett, 1954, 69), and/or as "folly for to need to seem to glimpse what where" (Beckett, "what is the word," 1990, 132).

The "happy end" and the denouement of Stirrings Still is brought about by the play of performative and constative instances: the semantic entropy this play inscribes in the final "Oh all to end" takes us back, again and again, like the protagonist of the story who repeatedly "sought help in the thought that" (122, 123). Again and again, this subject of an intentional thought, this subject of reflection, comes back as the subject of an indivisible "so on till stayed" (126), and/or as the, one's own" compulsion, always already under the double pressure of the "Oh all to end." The subject is recognizable only as a "stayed" subject: it is the subject of an affirmation incapable of proof, and/or the phantasm of a subject that cannot be there, except in the form of a will-have-been there.

"Nothing so simple as anthitetical"

In 1932 Beckett's Belacqua declares: "'The experience of my reader shall be between the phrases, [[ldots]] not the terms of the statement, between the flowers that cannot coexist, the anthitetical' (nothing so simple as' anthitetical) 'seasons of words, his experience shall be the menace, the miracle, the memory, of an unspeakable trajectory"' (Beckett 1983, 49). Fifty years later, the "unspeakable trajectory" becomes the theme and performance of Stirrings Still.

The parenthetical "nothing so simple as anthitetical" indicates an early, profound resistance to the possibility of dialectical reconciliation. Together with the plural of "stirrings," it recomposes what Maurice Blanchot describes as a radical critique of dialectics: "Never either-or, simple logic. And never two at once, the two that always end up affirming each other dialectically or compulsively (antagonism without any risk to it). All dualism, all binaries draw thought into the conveniences of exchanges: the accounts will all be settled" (Blanchot, 1986, 46).

By relinquishing (the limits of) conceptual dichotomizing, subjective representation, and even the figuration of place, Stirrings Still articulates a radical resistance to "the conveniences of exchanges." It highlights the possibility that "the accounts may not be settled," and questions the very dichotomy of being and not-being presumed in the Heideggerian "being-thrown into being."

Stirrings Still maps out a trajectory of non-return, which de-limits an a-posteriori place: is it the very place of thinking? Is thought itself qualified by the irreversible tropology of a "never till then," which inscribes a new con-figuration of the ontological? Here is the Beckettian topos/trope of being: "another place in the place where he sat at his table head on bands. The same place and table as when [ldots] for example" (115; emphasis mine).

"The same [ldots] as when [ldots] for example"

The very issue of "exchange" possibilities (let alone of "the conveniences of exchanges") is central to Beckett's concerns, and I think, much in the same way in which Heidegger's configures it in his "Introduction to Metaphysics": "it remains questionable whether an individual being can ever be regarded as an example of being" (1959, 81) As Rodolphe Gasche brilliantly argues in his comment of the Heidegger text: "God, therefore, is perhaps the exemplary example both of the impossibility of exemplifying Being and of the need to do so in order to guide the Wesensblick" (Gasche, 168).

Translatability, conceived in its radical form, is also relevant in relation to Beckett's preoccupation with "exchange possibilities." Peter Gidal has brilliantly pointed out that while reading Beckett: "Our fear is, rightly, of nothing, not because it's a stand-in for death but because it does not manage to sustain the illusion of being anything else" (Gidal, 1995, 162; emphasis added).

As a matter of fact, "nothing" exhausts the fiction of infinity which is the empowering idea "with which the theoretical attitude is constituted." This is to say that "nothing" empties out "the idea, or idealizing form, of infinity that orders the layout of the space of the objective representation of the universe and that orders the axis of infinite time in which theoretical subjectivity locates itself" (Lingis, 1989, 3).

"Nothing" breaks the order of a subject that understands/constitutes itself as "ordered to order," caught in "waiting" ("Waiting to see [ldots] Waiting to hear," 116-7) and even in "waiting for nothing again" (116). It is a subject caught between disappearing again and reappearing again; between desiring and desiring not to desire; between negotiable and uncertain would/could boundaries of imaginative/mournful modalities. "Soon unknowing and no end in sight. Unknowing and what is more no wish to know nor indeed any wish of any kind nor therefore any sorrow save that he would have wished the strokes to cease and the cries for good and was sorry that they did not" (125).

The scene must cruelly go on (as in the "failures" of all the three Still texts: Still, Sounds, and Still 3), where the classic Beckettian," nothing to express" imperative comes to express the non-exchangeable "nothing," via the repetition of "nothing again" and of "waiting for nothing again" (116) The penultimate condition of existence (i.e., human life) is defined as the tensional "waiting for nothing again," because the repetition of nothing denies the absoluteness of death, and implies life as a "how," a "how" made intelligible by the very repetition where "nothing" is "waited for again": "when to his ears from deep within oh how it were to end where never till then" (126).

"Perhaps" and "that missing word"

As I have said, at the heart of this representation "stays" the silence of writing, itself "So on till stayed" (126). The absence of the subject, and writing's unrepresentability, analogous to death's unrepresentability, are motifs-screens central to the text, and against which writing itself is tested and found in-scribed: "Then such silence since the cries were last heard that perhaps even they would not be heard again. Perhaps thus the end" (119-20; emphasis added). The end is/as a possible imagined: "Perhaps" becomes the signifier of the aporia on which narration proceeds, an aporia that sanctions and shows the very impossibility of the closure of representation and of textual circularity, as well as of hermeneutic closure and circularity, typical in Beckett (Locatelli, 1996).

What in The Unnamable is a declaration of intent, i.e., "proceed by aporia," becomes in Stirrings Still a pure signifier: "These few general remarks to begin with. What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, or sooner or later? Generally speaking" (Beckett, 1965, 291). The "generally speaking" of The Unnamable shows its inherent lack by opposition to the "perhaps" in Stirrings Still: because "aporia pure and simple" is only an ideal notion ("generally speaking"), similar to "affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered." In other words, aporia is residual, but not lessening. The unanswerable "perhaps," on the contrary, preserves aporias in their time.

To conclude: Beckett's unmasterable hermeneutical mastering has to do with the impossible co(n)textual saturation of hermeneutical aporias engendered by linguistic ontology, while the very act of writing/interpreting is defined by, as well as caught into, occasional, but ineliminable, semantico-pragmatic saturation (de-finition). For example: "Perhaps, for example" which is/as the condition of (non)writing.

CARLA LOCATELLI is a professor of English at the University of Trento and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is on the editorial board of the University of Trento Press and of the literary journal Testuale. Her most recent book, Co(n)texts: Textual Implications, is forthcoming from the University of Trento Press.


(1.) "Preface" in Samuel Beckett, 1990, 9. All page references hereinafter are to this edition.

(2.) Barbara Johnson synthesizes the Barthesian distinction of "lisible/scriptible" as follows: "The readerly is the aspect of a text through which it is assimilated to ideological norms of meaning, while the writerly is a hypothetical state of textual resistance to such an assimilation. The readerly is a product to be consumed by the reader; the writerly is a process of production in which the reader becomes a producer" (Johnson, 1987, 26).


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