Badiou on Beckett

rest then my mistakes are my life the knees draw up the back bends the head comes to rest on the sack between the hands my sack my body all mine all these parts every part

—Samuel Beckett, How It Is, p 34*

This Sunday past I read How It Is (for the second time; the first was over 20 years ago), Worstward Ho and Alain Badiou’s extraordinary essay on the latter, Being, Existence, Thought: Prose and Concept. Badiou’s essay is the third of four written in the 1990’s and collected in the book On Beckett, only available as of now as an online PDF. The second essay is a reiteration and embellishment of the first, which outlines Badiou’s primary ideas on Beckett, the fourth is a brief statement on “what happens” in Beckett, countermanding the notion that nothing happens in Beckett, and an additional essay by Andrew Gibson situates Badiou’s work in the critical context of the time.

This PDF On Beckett, unclear in places and with pages missing, is still in my view a valuable corrective to some stubborn misconceptions about Beckett, Gibson notwithstanding. The inner chamber of Beckett studies may be free of these clichés, but most readers, myself included, do not have access to these hallowed halls. In the great wide world the perception persists that Beckett is all about bleakness and despair, his work offers little or nothing by way of affirmative qualities and there is little agreement on what is funny (or supposed to be funny) in Waiting for Godot. Badiou argues that even admirers of Beckett (scholars who should know better) contribute to these distortions by emphasizing the work of the 1950’s above all others.

Beckett’s lifelong project was constructed around a corpus of questions and concerns, clearly articulated by Badiou in these essays. We see Beckett through an astonishing array of works covering every major genre orbiting around these issues, emphasizing one or another with varying degrees of humor and with sharp variations in tone, revealing, finally, that his emotional entanglements with them are every bit as important as the philosophical ones. We are not dealing with a linear development even if, as Badiou claims, the novel How It Is marked a sharp change in practice, the reasons being the changes were foreshadowed in the earlier work and the work of Beckett’s most celebrated period (just prior to How It Is) clearly culminated in a creative impasse.

It is doubtful that the casual reader can easily perceive the Beckett orbit (if I may call it that), or untangle it from the clichés and distortions that make up the popular image of Beckett. Badiou offers a torch but you must still be willing to follow him through a labyrinth. The primary difficulty is this: the very work (How It Is) that Badiou uses to light his torch, as well as others (The Lost Ones, Worstward Ho) happen to be some of the most arduous texts that Beckett wrote. To put it simply, the works that are, according to Badiou, the most representative of breaking out of Beckett’s creative impasse of the late 50’s and illustrative of the affirmative qualities of the writer most often described as “bleak”, are also among the most difficult to appreciate on the most basic level of art appreciation. In other words, there’s a reason why Godot, a few other plays and the Trilogy are so celebrated: they’re good, they’re enjoyable, they’re exciting. True, Badiou very rightly points out that Ill Seen Ill Said is among Beckett’s most beautiful works, but the other post-1960 works he writes about are not, and here I think Badiou’s orientation as a philosopher may be a limitation in following or accepting his argument. His primary concerns are philosophical, not artistic. The beauty of a concept, like that of a theory, is not the same as aesthetic beauty in practice.

Having said that, it seems to me reading Worstward Ho and Badiou’s essay on it back to back is a very fruitful exercise. Worstward Ho contains the most popular Beckett quotation: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” If you Google this phrase or use “Samuel Beckett” as a search term on social media sites or if you follow a lot of writers and artists, as I do, you will see it everywhere. Its meaning is clear and encouraging. But I would bet everything I own that a miniscule fraction of a percentage of those quoting it have read every word of Worstward Ho, despite its brevity, even though many of them will have read some of the 50’s plays and novels. It’s just not an easy or enjoyable read. Badiou actually provides a valuable service by breaking it down in terms of its philosophical contents.

But what of this sharp turn or new (though foreshadowed) strategy Beckett is said to have taken after 1960? Badiou describes it in many ways, but most succinctly on page 16 as involving, “the figural poem of the subject’s postures.” Beckett gets out of the “shameful temptation…. of subtracting oneself from the imperative of saying” [p 91]—an essential aspect of the creative impasse of The Unnamable and Texts For Nothing—by focusing on others, on situations, relationships and spatial configurations. If I might use a crude analogy: those suffering from depression find that one way out is to wrench one’s attention away from one’s self and onto others and the world at large. This can be tremendously difficult to do, which may help account for the difficulty of some of these texts. Besides, Beckett worked hard to reach that impasse; there’s no reason why he didn’t require an equal effort to get out of it.

However, I don’t think it’s so new or so sharp. It seems so only because it follows on the heels of a few works, primarily The Unnamable, that roared into a dead-end. One must remember not only that this path was promised by Watt, but also that it was already taken in the dramatic works. Moreover, How It Is still only promises it (and not as entertainingly as Watt). It is not, in my opinion, one of Beckett’s most successful works of art. It’s difficult to enjoy, its humor—what there is of it—has a bitter edge, and its imagery is ugly: figures crawling in mud likened to human excrement digging their nails into themselves and others. A strange apparent affirmation of literature—rare in Beckett—occurs on page 143:

that for the likes of us and no matter how we are recounted there is more nourishment in a cry nay a sigh torn from one whose only good is silence or in speech extorted from one at last delivered from its use than sardines can ever offer

This has a bit of a false ring to my ear, coming in a work that should illustrate the point with its virtues. On the contrary, How It Is devolves into screams on the last pages. This is not the most exemplary Beckett one can turn to for edification, even if it can serve philosophy. Badiou maintains, for example, that

We cannot understand the text if we immediately see it as a concentration camp allegory of the dirty and diseased human animal. On the contrary—admitting that we are indeed animals lodged upon an earth which is insignificant and brimming over with excrement—it is a matter of establishing that which subsists in the register of the question…. Thus reduced to a few functions, humanity is only more admirable, more energetic, more immortal. [p 46]

And this goes to Badiou’s larger point that man is “naked, without either hope or hopelessness, relentless, surviving, and consigned to the excessive language of his desire.” [p 117] Along the way, beauty justifies these efforts; or to be more exact, beauty happens, and is its own justification:

when it is seized by beauty this acceptable material of a life without meaning attains a super-existence comparable to that of galaxies, in which the weakness, repetition and obstinacy of life disappears, becoming nothing more than a point of light…. the pinhole that saves us: through this hole truth and courage come to us.


Beauty surges forth when we understand that the path of words goes counter to the demand of thought. This is because words bear the courage of the multiple and the true, whilst thought obstinately seeks to approach the void. Beauty takes place when the poetic naming of events seizes thought at the edge of the void. [p 77 and p 115]

Badiou delineates in great detail the ways in which Beckett wrote “the figural poem of the subject’s postures”, but nowhere as superbly as on the subject of love:

Beckett never reduces love to the amalgam of sentimentality and sexuality endorsed by common opinion. Love as a matter of truth (and not of opinion) depends upon a pure event: an encounter whose strength radically exceeds both sentimentality and sexuality.

The encounter is the founding instance of the Two as such. In the figure of love—such as it originates in the encounter—the Two arises…. In no way does love turn a pre-existing Two into a One; this is the romantic version of love that Beckett never ceases to deride. Love is never either fusion or effusion. Rather, it is the often painstaking condition required for the Two to exist as Two…. The Two, which is inaugurated by the encounter and whose truth results from love, does not remain closed in upon itself. Rather, it is a passage, a pivotal point, the first numericality. This Two constitutes a passage…. from the One of solipsism to the infinity of beings and of experience. The Two of love is a hazardous and chance-laden mediation for alterity in general…. the Two of love elicits the advent of the sensible…. [p 28]

I have quoted this at length because it is one of the best definitions of love I have ever read. Do you see what is happening here? When what Badiou calls the One of solipsism (which in part lead to Beckett’s creative impasse) gives way to the Two of love, it opens one up to the entire world. And this is what happens, Badiou argues, in Beckett’s later fiction.

As noted in the above quotes, Badiou mentions courage. One can see it, if one chooses to look, in Beckett’s bearing in the world, but it is also most assuredly there in his writing. Indeed, if one has the courage to look, it is to be found even in his most difficult texts.


* Grove Press, Collected Works edition, 1970

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5 Responses to Badiou on Beckett

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    This is a remarkable essay, Mark, clear, thoughtful, and impassioned. Though I have little acquaintance with Beckett, and so can’t enter here with much intelligence, I must step in and applaud you. I will keep this essay, you can be sure. I do want to note, also, some observations that I found particularly striking.

    Your comment: “I think Badiou’s orientation as a philosopher may be a limitation in following or accepting his argument. His primary concerns are philosophical, not artistic. The beauty of a concept, like that of a theory, is not the same as aesthetic beauty in practice.” This is true in so many realms. I think of the musicologist’s approach to any given piece of music–valuable in many cases, but not necessarily from a perspective that is focused on the artistic (the what), but often, rather, on structural analysis (the how).

    Badiou’s comment: “Beauty surges forth when we understand that the path of words goes counter to the demand of thought. This is because words bear the courage of the multiple and the true, whilst thought obstinately seeks to approach the void. Beauty takes place when the poetic naming of events seizes thought at the edge of the void.” I can’t altogether grasp what he is saying, but nonetheless, I somehow know it to be true. The way I react to his words, though it may be a tangent, is that thought demands the result of creating meaning, whereas words need not so confine themselves. Thought closes down; words have the capacity to open out.

    Last, not least, your comment: “When what Badiou calls the One of solipsism (which in part lead to Beckett’s creative impasse) gives way to the Two of love, it opens one up to the entire world.” Your words are beauty. They open out.

    • That whole passage on beauty, from pp 115 to 117, is worth reading in the Pdf. Badiou describes 3 types of beauty in Beckett. It is ironic that one of the best parts is on beauty, when Badiou could easily have focused his essay on more beautiful works by Beckett (‘Embers’, ‘Rockaby’, or ‘Ill Seen Ill Said’, for example). Even so, this is a major theme of Beckett’s work. He wrote (in ‘The Unnamable’, I think) “thought struggles on, seeking me where I am not to be found.” Beckett constantly brings to light the schism between two uses or orientations to language: the analytical and the poetic, revealing that language (in any single use of it) always promises more than what is given. Analysis struggles against this, wants to pin something down; poetry embraces it, opens it up. Beckett crystalizes moments of beauty when these two paths–lightning-like–cross. Thought is frozen in its tracks and poetry captures it in a moment of dazzling beauty. To be sure, movement is going on, still, always, somewhere, everywhere, but these moments of beauty are like the eye of the hurricane.

      The way Badiou describes the concept of love to be found in Beckett reminds me of a letter written by Van Gogh just after his failed attempt to be a priest. He said that whenever you love something (anything, not just another person), with all of your being, you come close to God. I interpret this in my own way as ‘seeing like god’. I’ve had this experience, when love seems to connect me to the whole world. And this concept of love comes from Beckett, the writer who is constantly said to be about bleakness, despair and meaninglessness!

      By the way, the web makes it easy to learn about Beckett. Some really good versions of his plays are on youtube (one of my favorites is ‘Rough for Theatre II’) and just today I listened to an astounding performance of ‘Embers’ by Stacy Keach on UbuWeb. 40 minutes well spent.

  2. angela says:

    Your opening poem is sublime… I’m terribly without a mind this evening, but came to visit this when I noticed this the reader at midnight last night – I shall need to reread to weigh in with much intelligence beyond a kudos for how you have presented Badiou’s critique. As I read your thoughts intermixed with Badiou’s on love, I suddenly had a flash from a film – two characters rather playfully calling each other names – I do believe it was the names from Endgame/ the film, Hannah Arendt. The only reason I find it fascinating (or worthy of mention) is your words reminded me of their (Arendt & spouse) relationship – IMHO, an example of what you speak here – two, though their ‘love’ was not traditional nor was it One – it was a honest love that allowed the individual to transcend without fracture of the couple-Beckett’s characters always read that way (those I have read anyway) some would say they were heartless while I say realistic, as we come into this world alone and that is how we leave…we are just very fortunate to find a yin to our yang along the way… ~

    btw – I refreshed and your opening poem disappeared??? Thankfully, I reopened a tab so I still have it – hmmm…why tinker with something so well crafted ~

    • One very important detail of this concept of love (which I wholly embrace) is that it involves work, and it is ongoing. The two have to work at it precisely because they are two, and they don’t become one but both of them become connected, potentially, to the whole world. Just to give an example from Beckett’s work: I think many would agree with me that Estrogon and Vladimir in ‘Godot’ love each other, that they are like an old couple that has been together many years.

      I’m encouraged that you liked the poem fragment. I took it away because I incorporated it into a longer poem that I plan to sub out.

  3. Pingback: The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume III | The Mockingbird Sings

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