Grey Thinking

Matthew Feldman, Falsifying Beckett: Essays on Archives, Philosophy, and Methodology in Beckett Studies

ibidem Press, 250pp, £33.00, ISBN 9783838207063

reviewed by Elisabeth Sherman

In an endorsement of Beckett scholar Matthew Feldman’s first book, a fellow critic praised Feldman’s ability to teach his readers how to ‘read as Beckett himself read’ by incorporating Beckett’s ‘notebook material’ into his analysis. In Falsifying Beckett: Essays on Archives, Philosophy, and Methodology in Beckett Studies, Matthew Feldman employs the same method to take the reader on journey through the ‘bewildering array of scholarly readings’ of Beckett’s work.

Feldman’s premise is a daring one: he appropriates Karl Popper’s philosophical treatise that ‘universal statements are not verifiable,’ and that ‘the criterion for of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.’ Feldman wonders if ‘the scientific method for generating empirical knowledge of a given subject [has] any place in the study of literature.’ This is an intriguing question, which Feldman answers by pointing out that Popper’s ‘basic epistemological criterion’ was to increase human knowledge, and that the study of literature certainly does increase our knowledge. Therefore, applying a rigorous scientific method to literature, while a surprising and unusual approach to critically examining the oeuvre of a thoroughly studied and celebrated writer, can help us gain greater scholarly insight into Beckett.

So how does Feldman apply the the method of falsification to Beckett’s writing? He begins with an idea, for instance that Beckett’s writing was heavily influenced by Sartre, and then with a level of precision and grace that only an expert who is both deeply entrenched in and devoted to Beckett’s writing could achieve, distills the competing critical theories into a new argument that evolves on the page. Feldman cites the late Beckett scholar Edith Kern, who insisted that the ‘linguistic instabilities’ in Watt (1953) are based in the existentialist thought pioneered by Sartre; in the very next line, Jacqueline Hoefer is quoted asserting that Watt was inspired by Wittgenstein’s attempt to create an ‘ideal language.’ Reading this dynamic conversation on Beckett’s work is like a constant affirmation of ideas that Beckett’s readers have always felt instinctively but had never been able to articulate. Throughout the book, Feldman confirms what the reader has always known: that Beckett asks if ‘the truth can truly be apprehended,’ that he ‘assaults rational, systematic thought,’ that his writing stresses the fact that ‘memory is often an imperfect indicator of past events.’ These are just a few examples of Feldman’s ability to synthesize the key elements of Beckett’s writing into simple, easily digestible moments that ring true and clear in the mind of the reader.

Although this an academic text, and therefore mostly devoid of Feldman’s emotional response to Beckett, the underlying assumption that Feldman admires, even adores, Beckett’s writing, remains. There is so much stuff – so many papers, letters, essays, theses – surrounding Beckett’s legacy that the will to sift through it all, and discern which of it is the most useful, interesting and informative, must emerge from nothing less than a deep and lasting love affair with Beckett’s work.

Beckett has been the subject of critical thought for more than 70 years now; some might wonder if there is anything new left to say. The recent release of Beckett’s ‘grey canon,’ his trove of notes, drafts, letters, even doodles, gives Feldman the opportunity to enliven and revitalise this conversation surrounding Beckett’s exhaustively scrutinised collected works. He asserts that a lot of what was originally theorised about Beckett’s writing can be overturned or reformulated in light of the ‘grey canon.’ Feldman uses this material to highlight one of the most intriguing contradictions in Beckett’s work. He cites one of the rare interviews Beckett gave in his life, in which he’s asked if he is influenced by any philosophers. Beckett’ replies that he never reads philosophers because he doesn’t ‘understand anything they write.’ Feldman wonders aloud who the real Beckett is, the man who denied any familiarity with philosophy, or the writer who ‘unmistakably … incorporated philosophical thinking’ into his work. Feldman doesn’t buy Beckett’s evasions on the subject of philosophy – no-one familiar with his work would – but to back up his assertion that Beckett was ‘amongst the most philosophical of the modernists’ Feldman meticulously lists a sampling of appearances by philosophers in across Beckett’s work, from an unpublished ‘dramatic fragment’ based on the life of Samuel Johnson, to the opening of Endgame, which features Zeno’s Paradox. It is not the precise extent of Beckett’s level of engagement with philosophy that interests Feldman, but rather the contradiction itself, the fact that Beckett’s intention behind his continual denials remains obscured even now, even as scholars continue to write and think and explore his work. Beckett, long after his death, helps ‘to keep us, his readers, alive’ with the questions we can still put to his work.

The fact remains, however, that with the ‘grey canon,’ on which Feldman levels much of his focus, comes the revelation of the ‘Philosophy Notes,’ 500 pages of handwritten and typed notes that Beckett took going through a period of ‘self-education.’ Feldman reveals that Beckett painstakingly copied entire passages into his notes, including almost all the footnotes from A History of Philosophy by Wilhelm Windelband. Feldman’s extensive examination of these notes, as well as Beckett’s fixation with Windelband, further serves to reinforce Beckett’s position as a philosopher in this book.

Beckett said that he there would have been no point in writing his fiction if he could express his ideas in philosophical terms: Beckett’s fiction, Feldman argues, is equivalent to a philosophical treatise, in which he synthesises his meticulous notes into a fictional articulation of his own philosophical ideas. Certainly Beckett redefined literature; that achievement is not up for debate. But Feldman goes further, suggesting that Beckett was every bit as a much a philosopher as he was a novelist; by examining his ‘grey canon’ we examine Beckett anew, not just as a famed creator of fictional worlds, but as a thinker who influenced and indeed forever shifted the philosophies of consciousness, the self, and the essence and meaning of human nature. Feldman insists that Beckett’s followers must switch the lens with which we look at Beckett’s writing if we want to keep learning from it, and consider not just his literary value, but his value as a philosopher equal to the very thinkers whose meaning he claimed to be unable to comprehend.
Elisabeth Sherman lives in Seattle. She is a non-fiction submissions reader for Apogee Journal, a part-time teacher and a full-time writer.