Michael D’Arcy (University of Western Ontario)
Maimed at the Start: Beckett, Adorno, and the Corruption of Culture
Theodor Adorno has maintained that Samuel Beckett’s drama represents the most acceptable response to the dilemmas of cultural production brought to a pitch by the Holocaust. One of the reasons Beckett’s drama becomes exemplary for Adorno is its solidarity with a realm of somatic materiality. Adorno reads Beckett’s preoccupation with physical suffering as a response to the particular ethical imperative bequeathed by “Auschwitz”, an imperative Adorno defines as follows: “thou shall not inflict pain.…this injunction can find its justification only in the recourse to material reality, to corporeal, physical reality” (Metaphysics: Concept and Problems 117).
Through an examination of Beckett’s appropriation of philosophical and religious asceticism, my paper reconsiders the relationship between Beckett and Adorno, and Beckett’s pertinence to the ethical obligations imposed on culture in the twentieth century. The solidarity with corporeal suffering Adorno sees in Beckett may be linked to the latter’s preoccupation with (theological) notions of originary evil (especially Manichaeism). Beckett mobilizes such notions as part of a distinctive address to the status of literary language, and to the pervasiveness of human suffering within the immanent (disenchanted) condition of modernity. Beckett’s approach converges in certain respects with the Adorno’s ethical and aesthetic concerns, but my paper locates a significant fault line between these late modernist projects, a distinction I frame in terms of differing visions of evil – more particularly, in terms of a distinction between Beckett’s substantive vision of evil and a privative conception of evil governing the aesthetics of negativity of Adorno and Walter Benjamin.
Adorno’s vision of Beckett’s aesthetic negativity is centrally invested in a conception of aesthetic semblance as a refuge for the possibility of a different regime of embodiment – what Adorno characterizes in terms of a “transfigured body” (Negative Dialectics 400). If redemption is thus linked to a transformed relationship to the somatic or the material, in Beckett’s Manichean vision “deliverance” is identified with the separation of oppositions (light and darkness, spirit and matter), and literary textuality is situated at antipodes to this deliverance as separation. At issue here is a realist principle of evil – sin, guilt, or evil are located with embodiment and materiality, and this approach contrasts with the equation, developed by Adorno and Benjamin, between evil and subjectivism. One central implication of this distinction is that Beckett conceives of evil (or textuality) in substantive terms, rather than in the privative terms developed by Benjamin and Adorno. That is, for Beckett, evil (or guilt) is coterminous with presence, embodiment, life. Thus, for example, he conceives of the “corruption” of Joyce’s textuality as a series of “endless substantial variations”, or as an “endless verbal germination”. By contrast, for Benjamin and Adorno evil is linked to various forms of privation – that is, to a negation of life, of sensuous particularity, or of a proper (spiritual) meaning denied to allegorical contemplation. My paper links this distinction in visions of evil to the particular intellectual traditions informing the projects of Beckett and Adorno, and I connect these different orientations to salient blind spots in Adorno’s reading of Beckett’s drama.