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Shane Weller (University of Oxford, UK)
'All the Dead Voices': Beckett and the Ethics of Elegy

    In his 1931 monograph on Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, Beckett pays particular attention to that experience of involuntary memory through which the narrator’s grandmother is returned to him after her death as what Beckett (significantly mistranslating Proust) terms a “divine familiar presence.” Beckett emphasizes both the ironies characterizing this return and that proleptic moment, anticipating her death, when Proust’s narrator hears his grandmother speaking to him on the telephone in what Beckett (loosely translating Proust this time) describes as “a grievous voice, its fragility unmitigated and undisguised by the carefully arranged mask of her features […] as impalpable as a voice from the dead.” It is, one might argue, just such a voice, multiplied beyond all calculation, that is heard as “all the dead voices” in Godot, and in a less mediated fashion in many of Beckett’s later, postwar works. In Proust, Beckett suggests not only that this voice “as impalpable as the voice from the dead” is the one we hear in the genuine work of art, but also that a certain death (in Proust’s case, a displaced mother’s death) lies at the origin of all art. Almost two decades later, in “Peintres de l’empêchement” (1948), Beckett states that all art is “in mourning for its object” (deuil de l’objet), reaffirming the sense that, for him, art requires this death, is born of it. Indeed, Beckett will come to conceive of art as governed by what in his 1929 essay on Joyce he terms a “savage economy,” an economy which is far from easy to reconcile with any ethics, and which considerably complicates Schopenhauer’s definition of art as an “occasional consolation,” a definition that, as Julia Kristeva observes, is still very much in place in Proust’s novel.

    In “‘All the Dead Voices’: Beckett and the Ethics of Elegy,” I propose to analyze this “savage economy” in relation to a number of Beckett’s less canonical works from both early and late in his writing life, and in particular his poetry, both English and French, and across the space of self-translation. Among the works under consideration will be “Malacoda” (written after the death of Beckett’s father in 1933); “Mort de A. D.” (c. 1947); “Je voudrais que mon amour meure” (1948); “Song” (1962) and Words and Music (1962), in which the generation of this poem is dramatized; and the late play for television … but the clouds … (1976), in which Beckett subjects Yeats’s “The Tower” to an irony characteristic of the “savage” and, as I shall attempt to demonstrate, anethical economy of the elegiac.

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