Robert Reginio (University of Massachusetts- Amherst)
Testifying Against the Archive: Reading Beckett with Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah
In his foreword to Samuel Beckett and the Arts: Music, Visual Arts, and Non-Print Media, Daniel Albright argues that interdisciplinary readings of a modernist like Beckett are essential not merely because Beckett himself explored various media, but because modernism “was about the fluidity, the interchangeability of artistic media themselves,” modernism being a “testing of the limits of aesthetic construction.”
In my presentation I will examine Beckett’s testing of the limits of drama by reading his plays in comparison with Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah. Rather than looking for allusions in Beckett’s texts to the twentieth century’s most vexing trauma, I will look closely at the formal properties of Beckett’s drama, how they foreground the problem of memory, and how a discussion of form can be critically energized by examining Lanzmann’s film in this context. As Lanzmann commented: “art for me is precisely to examine the possible and not to make hasty decisions.” In his editing of the film and in the interviews contained within it, Lanzmann proceeds with Beckettian precision, circling around his topic, the film accruing meaning as it stages and re-stages the essential, untranslatable experience of the Holocaust’s victims and survivors.
Lanzmann noted that the decisions he made in making his film “were all…I don’t want to say moral questions, but all the questions of content were immediately questions of technique and questions of form.” Beginning from the premise that for Beckett as well as Lanzmann questions of content are questions of form, I will suggest that rejection or renunciation, specifically of the archive or the archival, is the signal formal gesture underpinning these artists’ work.
For example, in Krapp’s Last Tape the claustrophobia of subjectivity—a result of its essential instability—is hardly relived by Krapp’s recourse to his personally constructed archive. Lanzmann too, instead of using the archival possibilities of film (he rejected outright any archival images in Shoah) wants rather to collapse the distance between the past and the present by contrasting the repetitive images of trains, railroad tracks and the vacant sites of past violence with the palpable trauma brought forth by the testimony of survivors.
Lanzmann frames the problems inherent in assimilating personal testimony of the Holocaust by placing himself, as interrogative listener, within the landscape of his film. So too does Beckett figure several listeners in his drama: the Listener in Not I, the Listener in Ohio Impromptu, Willie in Happy Days, and Krapp himself all trouble the interaction between his audience and his monologists. By their presence, Lanzmann in Shoah and these listeners in Beckett’s plays force their respective audiences to consider their own relations to the trauma and disfigured memory which make up the fabric of the past century.
I think we can invigorate a discussion of Beckett’s response to the twentieth century’s central historical trauma by asking how the formal gestures Beckett shares with Lanzmann suggest Beckett’s probing of the intersection between historical trauma and personal memory.