Negativity

Negativity

In a letter from 1937 to Axel Kaun written in German, Samuel Beckett suggests that the "the highest goal of today’s writer [ich kann mir für den heutigen Schriftsteller kein höhere Ziel vorstellen]" consists in a form of active decomposition, in working against grammar and style, in making holes in language. With characteristic humor, Beckett writes:

"Grammar and style! To me they have become as irrelevant as a Biedermeier bathing suit or the imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask. It is to be hoped the time will come, thank God, in some circles it already has when language is best used where it is more efficiently abused. Since we cannot dismiss it all at once, at least we do not want to leave anything undone that may contribute to it disrepute. To drill one hole after another into it until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through [Ein Loch nach dem andern in ihr zu bohren, bis das Dahinterkauernde, sei es etwas oder nichts, durchzusickern anfängt]."

Writing thus demands a certain scorn for the means at the writer’s disposal: language. A certain negativity. Language is to be brushed against the grain, “efficiently abused.” And yet writing cannot simply become a refusal to write. Quoting Goethe’s Elective Affinities [Die Wahlverwandschaften], Beckett quips that it is better to write NOTHING than nothing at all. [Lieber NICHTS zu schreiben, als nicht zu schreiben.] To write NOTHING is not a matter of a simple negation, i.e., of not writing. To write becomes rather an extreme effort to mark the place of a negativity irreducible to negation.

In The Unnameable (L’Innommable), the third in a trilogy of novels preceded by Molloy and Malone Dies, Beckett takes this effort to an extreme. “In this last book, L’Innomable,” as he tells Israel Schenker in 1956, “there’s complete disintegration. No ‘I’, no ‘have’, no ‘being’. No nominative, no accusative, no verb. There’s no way to go on.” This novel will provide the focal point of the seminar and our shared effort to think the relationship between negativity and art. In addition to reading this novel and other texts by Samuel Beckett, we will also have occasion consider the work of Adorno, Blanchot, Deleuze, and Badiou.