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Laura Salisbury (Birkbeck College)
In the July of 1988, Beckett fell in his kitchen and was discovered unconscious. Hospital tests were inconclusive. Although the specific cause of his neurological illness was uncertain, the effect was clear: Beckett experienced a temporary yet debilitating aphasia. As he slowly recovered the ability to speak and to write, Beckett began to create his final work, a poem in French entitled ‘Comment Dire’ and later translated as ‘What Is the Word’. Scattered with stuttered dashes, abrupt elisions, compulsive repetitions and controlled echoes that inhabit an uncanny hinterland between the voluntary and the involuntary, the poem can be seen as a representation and exploration of Beckett’s literal aphasia and the fruitless compulsion to search for words. But it is clear that the text is not a deviation from the concerns of Beckett’s earlier work; if anything it has been read more as something like their culmination, the final articulation of what are often, if not unproblematically, read as Beckett’s essential truths. ‘What Is the Word’ is not Beckett in a defective mode; instead, it offers up a Beckett who seems most perfectly to resemble and echo the linguistic style and signature of Beckett the artist of indigence. This paper traces Beckett’s interest in a specifically modernist poetics of aphasia throughout his work, connecting it particularly with his reading of psychological texts in the 1930s. It explores the suggestive correspondences between the new scientific discipline of neurology and its experiments with language and brain function, with modernism’s interest in aberrant language use and the materiality of the signifier. As language breaks down into its various material elements (optical, acoustical sensory, and motoric nervous impulses) under the neurologist’s experimental eye, it can no longer be used to underwrite the stability of the coherent human subject. Beckett’s poetics of aphasia can thus be read as part of a broad yet specific reconfiguration of the relationship between language and subjectivity in modernity.
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