No-Think is Left to Tell: Zen/Chaos Theory in the Dramatic Art of Samuel Beckett.
This is a genuinely engaging study of a complex of Buddhism and modern science, and their potential application to Beckett's aesthetics. Common to Beckett, Zen, and Chaos Theory, says the author, is on the one hand the idea of gibberish as maximal information, and on the other, 'meaning' (classically understood) as the predicament of the limitations of supposedly 'useful' information. Convert this conclusion into social and psychological terms and it becomes relevant to any literary art or any other art that entertains unpredictability in its fabric and method. We may say that such a tendency was the characteristic of the rise of Modernism in general, and the avant-garde in particular. The author makes a convincing step of translating these facts of the new sciences and of esoteric philosophy to carry relevance to social, historical, and aesthetic forms, and suggests in four intensive examinations, of Endgame, Godot, Happy Days, and some of the short plays, how Beckett reforms the elements of subjectivity, narrative, action, and outcome according to a perspective by which the world changes only through changes in our means of seeing.
This world may be experienced in two different ways. Samsara is the relative, phenomenal world as usually experienced, which is delusively understood to consist of a collection of discrete objects (including 'me') that interact causally in space and time. Nirvana is that same world but as it is in itself, nondually incorporating both subject and object into a whole. There is no difference at all in the world itself when one becomes enlightened; there is only difference in the 'self '--or, better yet, in one's vision. The alogical, intuitive understanding of the world that is nirvana removes the distinction between observer and actor (p. 28).
Crucially, the author refers to Beckett's views on art to support his own analysis:
For Beckett, [...] this change in vision is a crucial step in defining art of a new order. As he said of the painter Bram Van Velde, and which applies equally well to his own work, 'There is more than a difference of degree between being short, short of the world, short of self, and being without these esteemed commodities. The one is a predicament, the other not' (Beckett 1949). In other words, the problems generated by the shortcomings of the old paradigm create a 'predicament' for those living under its sway. Making a clean break to another mode of seeing, however, being 'without' the baggage of the old System, frees one by removing the source of the problem. (pp. 43-44)
The blend of New Science with oriental esotericism has come in for more than its share of coffee-table book treatment that sadly fuels cynicism in relation to it while making the subject both oversimplified and strangely indigestible except in the form of review, publicity, and the forging of status-symbolism. This fact alone might make it perhaps unwelcome in a serious study of modern literature. But it is the treatment and the depth of understanding that determine the success or failure of a work of interpretation. Out of an unpromising series of buzz words this critic has swiftly created a magnificent interpreting tool whose application to many aspects of modern culture only validates still further its relevance to Beckett, and Beckett's importance in the culture we still refer to as contemporary. I for one found the explanation of Chaos theory unprecedentedly lucid, and that of Zen Buddhism accurate (though I am afraid that to call it a 'religio-philosophy', as the other esoteric traditions referred to here are also called, exceeds the bounds of my taste). And several things of great interest are said in passing about the ways in which feminist and deconstructive thought relate to the cultural exposition in which Beckett features here as protagonist. This important book deserves to be widely read and not only by Beckett specialists, for I think it is likely to explain Beckett to many who are new to his work, and to convert just as many Beckett detractors.
<ADD> PAUL DAVIES UNIVERSITY OF ULSTER </ADD>
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2000|
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