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Benjamin Keatinge (Trinity College Dublin)
Beckett and Language Pathology

This paper begins with an account of Beckett’s translations of Surrealist texts for the September 1932 issue of This Quarter which contained extracts from Breton and Eluard’s Simulations in which various states of mental disequilibrium are conveyed verbally. Arguing that Beckett picked up certain ideas about language and language pathology through these translations as well as from Joyce’s linguistic experiments in Work in Progress, I go on to analyse how these ideas influenced Beckett’s writing practice.

A detailed account of Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot is put forward as evidence of Beckett’s deliberate co-option of pathological language structures. I analyse Lucky’s speech in terms of ‘formal thought disorder’, a feature of schizophrenic speech pathology in which we find a variety of abnormalities as, for example: ‘derailment’ or loosening of associations, poverty of content, empty philosophising, ‘clanging’ (repetition of similar sounding words) and schizophasia (or ‘word salad’). Beckett, I suggest, has deliberately employed (with mimetic accuracy) certain aspects of schizophrenic language pathology to render Lucky’s speech formulaic and ‘stilted’ thus creating a sense of formal emptiness in Lucky’s monologue.

This paper goes on to examine unusual language patterns in the late prose works, notably in Worstward Ho. Taking up Gilles Deleuze’s suggestion that the writer “carves out a nonpreexistent foreign language within his own language”, I examine ways in which Beckett’s defamiliarisation of language overlaps with and echoes some facets of language pathology. The increasing ‘concretisation’ of language in the late Trilogy is seen as a good example of Beckett creating a “foreign language within his own language”. Here, I suggest, the form/content dichotomy, which Beckett pointed to in his essay on Work in Progress, comes together and we experience the phenomenon of ‘language as pure language’, almost divorced from its content. Beckett’s artistic procedure is thus seen to have certain parallels with schizophrenic language pathology.

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