Adam Winstanley

Beckett and the ‘State[s]’ of Ireland
University College Dublin
12-14 July 2012

While Samuel Beckett’s work had traditionally been thought to mark the furthest limits of an ahistorical and deracinated European modernism, recent years have seen the publication of a series of monographs, articles and an edited collection devoted to the re-appraisal of Beckett’s vexed relationship with Ireland. Held at the UCD Humanities Institute of Ireland over three balmy days in July 2012, the second conference on ‘Beckett and the “State” of Ireland’ brought together an invigorating mix of established Beckettians and younger scholars, in the hope of further developing this debate. There were, in all, twenty-six papers organised into ten panels, with an opening reception by Eoin O’Brien which coincided with an exhibition at Ardmore House of photographs and materials from The Beckett Country (1986) and a keynote address delivered by Professor Andrew Gibson on the Franco-Irish post-war contexts informing Mercier et Camier.

Feargal Whelan presenting ‘The Beckett Country: Beginnings and reflections 25 years on’
Photo: UCD State of Ireland Conference

On Thursday afternoon, the conference began with a panel on artistic and theatrical conceptions of trauma and torture. In his opening paper, Rodney Sharkey sought to differentiate between the treatment of trauma in Beckett’s early prose and his late theatrical works, arguing that while the former occasionally ‘bears the mark of trauma’, the latter displays a wider recognition of what Sharkey termed ‘traumatic institutions’. Beginning with a brief comparison of Garret Phelan’s video installation Racer Recaptured (2003) and the short story ‘Fingal’, Sharkey undertook a Foucauldian reading of Not I and Catastrophe, wherein both texts were deemed to underwrite and undermine the authority inherent within authorship and the theatre as a form. In the second paper of this panel, Christina Grammatikopolou examined Beckett’s influence upon depictions of the body in contemporary art, in a thought-provoking discussion that would prove to be one of the highlights of the conference. Whilst scholars have frequently acknowledged Beckett’s influence in the work of artists like Bruce Naumann, Stan Douglas and Barbara Knezevic, Grammatikopolou drew attention to adaptations of Beckett’s terse dramaticule Breath by Damien Hirst, Niko Navridis and Adriano and Fernando Guimarãres. The majority of the audience was, of course, familiar with Hirst’s Breath (2000) from the Beckett On Film collection, but less so with the violent interrogation of the Guimarãres Brothers’ Respiração + (2007), where two actors are submerged in tanks of water and recite portions of text upon their emergence, or with Navridis’s installation First Love, a song and the yogi (2007), which juxtaposes the breathing of a reading from ‘First Love’ with those of a performance by the singer/songwriter Eleftheria Arvanitaki and a yoga master as he purifies his body through respiratory exercises.

The second panel of the afternoon brought together three papers from Gerry Dukes, Siobhán Purcell and Rina Kim under the topic of ‘writing Ireland’. Dukes regaled the audience with stories of his own acquaintance with Beckett, but his discussion was, in all honesty, more memorable for a passing allusion to Éamon de Valera as a ‘creeping Jesus’ than for any sustained engagement with Beckett’s work. In contrast, Siobhán Purcell’s paper on Molloy and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman was a rich and thought-provoking affair, which read their shared preoccupation with impairment and prosthetics alongside a twentieth-century discourse of degeneration and eugenics. Finally, Rina Kim built upon her recent monograph to discuss the portrayal of women and Ireland in ‘First Love’ in relation to the Kristevean concept of abjection, whilst, at the same time, augmenting her argument with some nicely chosen passages from Beckett’s own readings in psychology and psychoanalysis. As the afternoon drew to a close, the conference relocated to Ardmore House to visit the exhibition and hear an evocative, albeit overtly sentimental, talk by Eoin O’Brien on the extent to which the apparently surrealistic nature of Beckett’s writings is often tied to his Dublin roots. O’Brien’s repeated assertion that Beckett’s work is marked by a ‘tremendous compassion’ was, however, met with bewilderment by some of the delegates, particularly since this account failed to acknowledge the random acts of cruelty, misogyny and misopaedia strewn throughout Beckett’s oeuvre.

The Beckett Country: An exhibition of photographs and materials at Ardmore House
Photo: UCD State of Ireland Conference

Friday’s schedule consisted of four panels, covering the topics of ‘Beckett and Irish Film’, ‘Beckett and the Revival’, ‘State and Stateless Beckett’ and ‘Beckett and Yeats’. With a touch of wry humour, David Clare started the day with a compelling examination of the intertextual echoes between All That Fall and Martin McDonagh’s short film Six Shooter (2005), before speculating that McDonagh’s repeated invocation of Beckett in works like Skull in Connemara (1997) and In Bruges (2008) may, in fact, lead to his undoing. In the second paper, Julie Bates read the physical suffering and indigence of Mark O’Halloran’s Adam & Paul (2004) alongside Beckett’s Rough for Theatre I, arguing that both offer a sobering vision of the human as vulnerable and infirm. After a short break, events resumed with a panel on ‘Beckett and the Revival’, where Kristin Jones discussed Beckett’s subtractive aesthetic by reading Come & Go as a revision of the abandoned play ‘Human Wishes’ and Srinivas Venkata read Watt as a rejoinder to the cultural theocracy of de Valera’s Free State. In the final paper of this panel, Robert Kiely gave a fascinating account of Beckett’s ambiguous response to mysticism and theosophy in Murphy, arguing that the novel simultaneously adopts and parodies elements of the mystical and the occult. In doing so, Kiely sought to tease out the links between mysticism and more widely acknowledged Beckettian concerns, reading the novel’s Paracelsian reference to the ‘archaeus’ alongside Schopenhauer’s ‘will-to-live’, before contrasting the ‘dud mysticism’ of Dream of Fair to Middling Women with Eugene Jolas’s 1932 manifesto ‘Poetry is Vertical’.

Roughly half-way through the conference, then, it was becoming clear that the myriad discussions and reconfigurations of an Irish Beckett on display were less a question of ‘Beckett and the “state” of Ireland’, than of ‘Beckett and the “state[s]” of Ireland’. Seeking to complicate this debate further, Azadeh Radbooei turned to Gilles Deleuze’s essay ‘The Exhausted’ to examine the treatment of space in Ghost Trio, arguing that the audience encounters a space of possibility and potential in this late television play, where space and location are no longer quantifiable but intensive and participatory. In the next paper, Paul Stewart discussed the affinities between the shared experience of privilege in the work of Beckett and J.M. Coetzee, challenging a number of underlying assumptions of Coetzee scholarship to examine the manner in which both authors inscribe notions of power and authority into their work. In the final paper of this panel, Hui Ling Michelle Chang described All That Fall as a play in which Beckett persistently seeks recourse to a ‘storehouse’ of Irish memories radiating around the notion of loss, before reading it alongside the Derridean concept of supplementation, wherein the trace can never fully be represented. The final panel of the day focused upon ‘Beckett and Yeats’, where Amy Bauer contrasted the imposing gyres of subjectivity and objectivity in Yeats’s ‘A Vision’ with …but the clouds and Ghost Trio; whereas Seán Kennedy’s provocative paper read the short story ‘Echo’s Bones’ as a ‘proleptic critique’ of Yeats’s Purgatory. Paying close attention to the pan-European eugenic discourses informing the story’s depiction of impotence and entailment, Kennedy compellingly read Lord Gall as a ‘demented mouthpiece’ for the ‘demented politics’ of the 1930s.

On the final day, there were four panels which fell into three distinct categories, namely, that of ‘Beckett and Nation,’ ‘Beckett and Place’ and ‘Beckett and Alterity.’ To start proceedings, Brian MacAllister began with one of my favourite papers of the entire weekend; a captivating account of the manner in which bureaucratic space is formally enacted in Imagination Dead Imagine. In a theoretically alert paper, MacAllister analysed the extent to which a bureaucratic narrative of compartmentalisation and over-systematisation stands in productive tension with a disruptive process of fragmentation in this later prose piece, which stages and undermines the logic of the bureaucratic nation state. Turning to Not I, Anna Sigg read Mouth’s ‘dull war in the skull’ as a traumatised response to Beckett’s own experiences in the French resistance, wherein the subject simultaneously refuses to acknowledge this trauma, whilst unconsciously producing a counter-melody that speaks back to the site of trauma. Finally, Benjamin Keatinge gave a compelling discussion of Beckett’s relationship with Brian Coffey, which acknowledged their irreconcilable philosophical differences whilst, at the same time, arguing that these same differences provided both authors with a profound creative stimulus, before tracing the influence of Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates and Murphy on Coffey’s second volume of poetry, Third Person. The second panel of the morning focused upon questions of place and location, wherein Garin Dowd interrogated the notion that Beckett’s work might be tied to a specific location by turning to the cultural anthropologist Edward Hall’s theory of proxemics to evaluate the socio-spatial relations of ‘The Expelled’, with the protagonist moving from dwelling to exposure, from place to non-place. Julien Carriere, on the other hand, discussed the bilingual nature of Beckett’s oeuvre and the difficulties inherent with the project of mapping a literary cartography from the etiolated spaces of his dramatic pieces.

The Beckett Country: An exhibition of photographs and materials at Ardmore House
Photo: UCD State of Ireland Conference

After lunch, the discussion of Beckett and place continued with a rich and stimulating paper by Yoshiki Inoue on the mathematical conception of space in The Lost Ones. On the one hand, Inoue tied this to Beckett’s interest in the visual arts whilst, on the other, locating it alongside William Petty’s mathematisation of the human in The Political Anatomy of Ireland (1691), which is famously parodied in Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ (1729). Pavneet Kaur Munjal was unfortunately unable to attend the conference in person, but after some technical difficulties, one of the conference organisers, Feargal Whelan, stepped in to give a lively performance of Munjal’s paper on Beckett, Schopenhauer and Buddhism. In the final panel of the conference, Mark Nixon drew upon a range of unpublished materials to analyse Beckett’s engagement with Irish cultural institutions, providing a timely reminder of Beckett’s resistance to the efforts of his alma mater, Trinity College, to co-opt and institutionalise his work during the late 1950s. The next paper by Joseph Long returned to the subject of the bilingual nature of Beckett’s oeuvre, in order to examine the use of the Anglo-Irish idiom in All That Fall, whilst Patrick Bixby turned to Beckett’s encounter with the eroticism of Roger Casement’s Black Diaries (1959) to analyse the brutal sadism of How It Is, whilst linking this to Alain Badiou’s notion of an ethical recognition of sameness. Following a lively introduction by Seán Kennedy, Andrew Gibson’s keynote address examined the differences between the French and English versions of Mercier et Camier and Mercier and Camier, arguing that these differences shed an interesting light on the novel’s post-war French context. In particular, Gibson linked the French text to the atmosphere of unofficial, extrajudicial vigilantism that dominated the early stages of the Fourth Republic, before arguing that Beckett’s critique of post-war humanism provided a rejoinder to the prevalent philosophical ideologies of post-war Ireland and France.

‘Beckett and the “State’ of Ireland” was, in all, a successful and well organised conference, which suggested that the recent historical tendencies of Beckett studies need not be as rigid and restrictive as they may first appear. Overall, there was a sense that much remains to be done before Beckett studies might move ‘beyond historicism’, yet, at the same time, many of the contributors sought to challenge any model of a historicist Beckett that would preclude theoretical approaches. A closing word of thanks should be offered, then, to Alan Graham, Scott Hamilton and Feargal Whelan, the triumvirate of conference organisers who fostered a relaxed and convivial atmosphere which helped to invigorate many of the discussions between delegates over the weekend.

Published in The Beckett Circle, Autumn 2012.

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Posted by:Rhys Tranter

Rhys Tranter is a writer based in Cardiff, Wales, UK. He is the author of Beckett's Late Stage (2018), and his work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and a number of books and periodicals. He holds a BA, MA, and a PhD in English Literature. His website is a personal journal offering commentary and analysis across literature, film, music, and the arts.

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