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Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx: Tracing "A Literary Fantasia.".

David Tucker's Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx poses questions and provides answers regarding a relationship with which Beckett scholarship has long flirted yet until now has never satisfyingly addressed with a full-length book study. As Tucker acknowledges, the Belgian post-Cartesian philosopher Arnold Geulincx (1624-69) was an idiosyncratic figure in philosophy while alive--even in Beckett's own library of (at times) arcane sources, Geulincx may seem to stand out. Yet Beckett's fascination with this little-known philosopher was genuine (he famously proposed one of Geulincx's dictums as a point of departure for reading his own work), and the connection between the two writers has for too long been addressed without combining two things: a return to the origins of Beckett's interest and a careful close reading across his oeuvre to explore the resonance of Geulincx in his texts.

How comprehensive was Beckett's knowledge of Geulincx and his works? Did this interest survive past the late thirties? And might Geulincx have had an impact on Beckett's drama and fiction that moved beyond the philosopher's appearance at the level of allusion or theme? Tucker's book suggests that, although Beckett first encountered Geulincx in Wilhelm Windelband's A History of Philosophy (1893 and 1901)--Beckett's go-to philosophical digest--his knowledge of Geulincx's work was likely more comprehensive than his understanding of other philosophers for whom prominent cases for such influence have been made (for instance, Leibniz or Sartre). The philosophical notes Tucker examines make it plain that Beckett spent time with Geulincx and puzzled over him: for instance, in the late 1930s he took forty pages of notes on Ethica. And this interest did not, Tucker argues, simply remain within this formative decade or at the level of theme and allusion. Geulincx, he avers, impacted Beckett's writing process and continued to survive in his work as a trace or a specter even in very late pieces like Nacht und Traume (1983).

As the title of the series in which this book appears (Historicizing Modernism) suggests, Tucker's study is grounded in a historicist bent, and like other volumes in this series (among which are a number of Beckett studies), it utilizes aspects of a manuscript-based and genetic-critical approach and largely eschews theoretical reinterpretations. This is particularly important with regard to Tucker's account of Geulincx's Occasionalism: a body of metaphysical and ethical theory that struggled with the Cartesian distinction between mind and body. Rather than drawing on the revival of interest in the motivations underpinning Geulincx's ultrarational metaphysics (for instance, in the writings of Slavoj Zizek or John Cottingham) to provide a new reading of Geulincx and Beckett together, Tucker grounds his study in an attempt to understand how Beckett himself would have received the philosopher. He therefore dedicates a significant part of his study to re-examining Beckett's notes, his varied transcriptions in the thirties, and his correspondence in the same decade. The interested reader will find at least two texts helpful as companions in this connection: the recent joint effort between Han Van Ruler, Anthony Uhlmann, and Martin Wilson in their scholarly edition of Geulincx's Ethics (2006) with Beckett's notes on that text (published in Brill's Studies in Intellectual History) and Matthew Feldman's chapter on Geulincx in his Beckett's Books: A Cultural History of Samuel Beckett's "Interwar Notes" (2006), a forerunner to the Historicizing Modernism series.

One of the merits of Tucker's study is that it bolsters a careful consideration of the historical and the archival evidence with a close attention to the texture of Beckett's texts. Just as important, it attempts an evenhanded appraisal of previous readers' under- and over-estimations of Geulincx's significance for Beckett. For instance, addressing Beckett's second novel, Murphy, Tucker argues that the longstanding consensus that this book is "the most Geulincxian" of Beckett's writings needs to be reassessed (47). Aided by Beckett's correspondence, Tucker explores the chronology of this novel's genesis to show that Beckett's in-depth study of the philosopher was likely undertaken too late to affect any but the final portions of Murphy. In a fresh close reading of the novel's eleventh chapter, Tucker then shows that Geulincx does appear to have influenced the chess match between Beckett's protagonist and Mr. Endon: a "quasi autological" game that crystallizes, in miniature, the Geulingian fascination with the reduction of self to "immanent mental activity in man" (65).

One of the bolder claims that Tucker makes is that Geulincx's literary relevance might also be traced in important shifts in Beckett's writing: for instance, the move away from his note-taking tendencies toward the processes at work in his third novel Watt, where "Geulincx features more in the protracted process of composition ... than in the final published novel where much of this presence is ... subsumed ... or discarded" (73). Tucker is tracing an "almost ineffable, phantasmal presence" here--a phantom which can only be limned by a theory that is "itself somewhat Occasionalist" (in the way that Tucker cannot demonstrate a causal connection between Geulincx and the processes described) (74). But whether or not Geulincx was significant in this way, one of the study's drawbacks begins to emerge in this chapter: Tucker is too responsible not to hedge his arguments with cautions because, faithful to the empirical, historicist approach he adopts, he remains moored to the (admittedly slender) body of evidence available within the novels and "grey canon." The result is the most well-researched account of Beckett and Geulincx that we are likely to get, but it is decidedly for those who have spent considerable time within the Beckett circle. Readers who do not already have an entrenched interest in Beckett will find Tucker's (admirably honest) avowals of the often "fleeting," "non-exclusive" and "potential" nature of the relationship discussed throughout rather discouraging.

Yet Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx was always intended as an attempt at "tracing 'a literary fantasia": discovering Beckett's Geulincx, and in doing so, reassessing the longstanding questions his committed readers have had about the significance of this seemingly "un-Beckettian" philosopher. Tucker's study succeeds admirably in this regard, and in doing so performs a long-overdue service to Beckett studies. Accordingly, this book will also serve as a key reference point for the fast-growing body of scholarship on Beckett and philosophy more broadly.


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Author:Bolin, John
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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