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Towards a Greener Beckett: The Diversities of Modernism

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This paper aimed to demonstrate the ways in which one can enter into, and conduct, an ecocritical analysis of Samuel Beckett's writing. By entering through the more frequently-taken route of phenomenological analysis, and then extending this
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  1Hello, my name is Michael Bates and I am a postgraduate research student at the University of Sheffield. My current research is an eco-critical reading of the work of W.G. Sebald and SamuelBeckett, and as a result I am here today to discuss the way in which this relatively new, and in someways still uncertain, methodology can be applied to Beckett. For the most part, Beckett is seeminglyuninterested in environmentalism and green writing, so I am more than aware that the idea of studying Samuel Beckett in an eco-critical light may sound somewhat out of the ordinary to many of you here today. Therefore, I will begin by addressing the question of what eco-criticism is and howthis would apply to the work of Samuel Beckett.   First off, what is eco-criticism? Camilo Gomides defined eco-criticism thusly:The field of enquiry that analyzes and promotes works of art which raise moralquestions about human interactions with nature, while also motivating audiences to livewithin a limit that will be binding over generations. 1  However laudable the intentions of this approach may be, I have two issues with Gomidesdefinition. F   irstly it suggests that we should only discuss and promote those works of art that engagewith issues of environmental morality and not those that are less overtly environmental. I personallyfeel, that ecological criticism should open out in order to study any works of art that are culturallyvaluable and commonly received, rather than selectively discussing works based upon a sharedsystem of ethics between the author and critic. Secondly I believe that the application of moralityto ecology is problematic: morals are a human system of responses that are not shared betweenspecies. Similarly they constantly change between historical periods, societies and even individualsrendering the suggestion of a trans-generational moral agreement problematic. I would therefore 1 Camilo Gomides, Putting a New Definition of Eco-criticism to the Test: the case of  The Burning Season , a film(mal)adaption, in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment  , vol. 13, no. 1, p. 16.   Comment [MRB1]: First Slide Comment [MRB2]: Slide of Quote Comment [MRB3]: Slide of Highlighted quote  2  say that the eco-critic should analyse the interaction between species within works of art, and theapplication of morals to this interaction should be discussed in relation to their application by theworks creators and contemporaries. This would allow an understanding of not only our changingartistic engagement with the environment to be formulated, but also for analyses of our changingunderstanding of nature between artistic and literary movements to be formed. By studying morethan green artistic expression, we can achieve a greater understanding of humanitys interactionwith, and perceptions of, its environment over time and thus the eco-critic would be performingsomething much closer to the scientific idea of ecology than they would under Gomides definition.So how can this approach be applied to the work of Samuel Beckett? Well today I will be discussingprimarily Becketts prose, because it is the archetypical modernity of these pieces that lends them sowell to environmental critique. By employing techniques typical of the movement, a first-personperipatetic narrator such as in U lysses , a stream of consciousness narrative like that of VirginiaWoolfs The Waves and the surreal humour of the Dadaists, Becketts prose is rife with examples of interaction with and reflection upon different spaces and species. Analyses of Becketts prose,especially texts like The U nnameable are often made from a phenomenological point of enquiry, andas both Heideggerian phenomenology and my approach to eco-criticism take the interactionbetween the individual and their world or environment as their subject, this would seem to be anexcellent point of entry.In Being and Time , Martin Heidegger writes:To Being-in-the-world, however, belongs the fact that it has been delivered over to itself - that it has in each case already been thrown into a world  . The abandonment of Dasein   Comment [MRB4]: Slide of quote  3to itself is shown with primordial concreteness in anxiety. Being-ahead-of-itselfmeans, if we grasp it more fully,  ahead-of-itself-already-being-in-the-world  . 2  This enforced experience for the individual (or Dasein) of entering the world is reminiscent of theopening salvo from Becketts Nouvelles . As the titular expulsion of  The Expelled  occurs, we are toldthat, as the narrator is thrown simultaneously out of his home and into narrative being (or being-in-the-narrative-world):I did not know where to begin nor where to end, thats the truth of the matter [...] Whatmust it have been like then for the man I had overgrown into? 3  As the narrator is literally flung into textual existence, he experiences the Heideggerian anxiety of being ahead of himself, of being, essentially, closer to death as a result of his having begun to exist.This being-towards death is also the narrative structure of  Les Nouvelles ; the narrator is thrown intothe world in The Expelled  , perceives of and formulates this world for himself in The Calmative andmanages to obliterate himself through narrative suicide in The End. This process follows more than anarrative progression through the interlocking narratives of the three texts, also coinciding withHeideggers theory of being. Dasein has already been thrown into the world as soon as it becomesaware within the narrative of  The Expelled  , and as the narrator moves towards his narrative death in The End  he is catching up with the physical body that, by coming into existence, has already died inthe future and subsequently narrates The Calmative from beyond the grave.But how does this apply to ecology? Heideggers discussion of being-in-the-world is a foundationaltext for the writing of Henri Lefebvre; as he writes in The Production of Space , if a countryside exists,there must have been peasants to give it form. 4 For the peasants to give a countryside form, they 2 p. 2 63 3 p. 3 4 p. 115. Comment [MRB5]: Slide of both quotes Comment [MRB6]: Slide of quote  4must be capable of both inhabiting the world and of perceiving it in relation to its constituent parts.In Heideggers discussion of being we find this explanation of perceptual signification: [Therelationships between objects are] a totality of signifying in which Dasein gives itself its Being-in-the-World. 5 The engagement between objects and the perceiving I is what grants Dasein the ability toestablish itself within the world. On a more overtly ecological note this can be expanded to relatenot only to the relationship of objects in the environment to the individual (the relationship betweena creature and its environment) but also the relationship between the perceiving creature and othercreatures (constituting the bulk of its ecosystem).The application of this phenomenological idea to an ecocritical methodology becomes apparentwhen one considers the following from The U nnameable :if only all that could stop, thered be peace, no, too good to be believed, the listeningwould go on, for the voice to begin again, for a sign of life, for someone to betrayhimself, or for something else, anything, what else can there be but signs of life, the fallof a pin, the stirring of a leaf, or the little cry that frogs give when the scythe slices themin half[...] 6     It is evident at this point that all signs of life are the result of inferences made by the perceivingindividual: the conclusion that there is life is the result of  Dasein establishing the relationshipbetween a sensory stimulus and its logical cause. Similarly, the very act of perceiving, and thenforming a world-view from this perception, is also a sign of life in itself. By establishing that heprobably exists (as a result of his ability to perceive) and then establishing that the sensory stiumulusthat has been perceived occurred as a result of the actions of another being, the narrator forms anunderstanding of its environment that contains other living beings. While for Heidegger, as GregGarrard writes, ecological crisis could not but fall into the realm of the inessential, beneath the 5 p. 1 20 . 6 Unnameable, p.376.   Comment [MRB7]: Slide of quote Comment [MRB8]: Slide of highlighted quote  5notice of the philosophers supposedly Wesentliches denkenessential thought, we can extendhis framework of perception in order to attempt a more thorough understanding of how artistsdemonstrate our perception of the ecosystems in which we exist. 7  In the case of Becketts writing, there are many instances of interaction with both humans andanimals: in Les Nouvelles , each story has horses as a recurrent motif. In The Calmative we see themin their most striking appearance:Behind the grille the curtains were drawn, rough canvas curtains striped blue and white,colours of the Virgin, and stained with great pink stains. They did not quite meet in themiddle and through the chink I could make out the dim carcasses of gutted horseshanging from hooks head downwards. I hugged the walls, famished for shadow. 8  The butchers shop is a scene wherein the killing of livestock is indicated as a ruthless endeavour. T   hedysphemistic language of gutted horses hanging from hooks head downwards and the starkcontrast drawn between the bloodstains and Christian imagery draws an uneasy balance betweenthou shalt not kill and meat production, reflected by the curtains inability to meet in the middle.However, I think that to suggest Beckett is advocating vegetarianism here, as may be the temptationfor some, would be a misstep; instead this would most likely be the imposition of a contemporaryview upon the text by a modern reader. The horse, as it appears in these pieces, have an intimaterelationship with humans; they carry the departed to their graves in The Expelled  and in The End  aMrs. Maxwell gifts them a water trough posthumously (perhaps in thanks for this same carriageservice upon her death). Although the narrator is usually indifferent towards these creatures, it isprobably Beckettian irony at work here; the horse is used to carry dead humans to the grave, wherethey are often given a Christian burial (presuming these texts are set in Dublin, as is often suggested). 7 Garrard, p. 2 54. 8 p. 3 2 .   Comment [MRB9]: Slide of quote Comment [MRB10]: Slide of highlighted quote
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