GENETIC JOYCE STUDIES - Issue 6 (Spring 2006)



Returning to Beckett Returning to the Presocratics, or,

'All their balls about being and existing'


Matthew Feldman


For this special issue of Genetic Joyce (and Beckett) Studies, the present article will argue a few points generally overlooked in both Beckett Studies and, thereafter, in research carried out on the varied group retrospectively termed 'the Presocratic philosophers'.  Not without various difficulties, what we have come to understand as the canon of Presocratics (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, Protagoras, Gorgias, Pythagoras, Euclid, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus; and usually Democritus, and the Sceptics) were, generally speaking, a melange of individuals, and in some cases, schools; flourishing between 7th and 4th century B.C. around the islands off the coast of present-day Turkey.   These loosely-connected intellectual revolutionaries – grouped around the consideration that they either died before Socrates' famous encounter in Athens with hemlock around 380 B.C., or were otherwise untouched by his 'moral' turn in Greek philosophy – have been rightly understood as the initiators of what we have come to understand as the tradition of Western philosophy.  Like most scholars, Geoffrey Dobson views the contribution of the Presocratic philosophers as centring upon their rationality, systematic attempts to understand the world, as well as their anthropocentrism: 'The Presocratic mind-shift was a defining moment in Western history because knowledge and truth became a human responsibility without the need for divine norms sanctioned by a high priest or pharaoh'.[1]  While this reading is certainly fair enough, we shall see that ascribing such a 'mind-shift' to the Presocratics – implying, in a sense, that they emerged from an intellectual vacuum – overlooks the dominant paradigm in which they were writing; one which shall be here argued was not overlooked by Samuel Beckett in his own consideration of Presocratic philosophy.

Prior to considering this 'genetic' philosophical development and Beckett's response to it, a few theoretical comments should be made on precisely why this is insightful to the reception of Beckett's writings; and more to the point, how this relates to the 'genetic' treatment of his art.  By way of broaching the former point first, let us return to the quotation from my title: 'They must consider me sufficiently stupefied with all their balls about being and existing'.  This is taken from the last of Beckett's trilogy of novels, The Unnamable, which (interminably) continues, 'Anything rather than these college quips .... Oh look, life, again, life, everywhere and always, the life that's on every tongue, the only possible!'[2] Most readers of this text, particularly those working within the burgeoning discipline of Beckett Studies – if they thought too much about the archaeology of the Unnamable's phrase – would ascribe it to one or another of Beckett's contemporaries; most likely to existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre or Martin Heidegger, who were at the height of their popularity when Beckett was writing these words in the late 1940s.  Undoubtedly, context and zeitgeist seemed to favour such an association: Existentialism set up what may be regarded as an 'anti-school' of thinkers in Beckett's adopted home, Paris, and he was certainly familiar with a number of these Left Bank intellectuals and their writings (especially those in Les Temps Moderns). 

Moreover, 'being' and 'existing' – in the philosophical sense at least – were at the core of the postwar philosophies of existence; terms often linked to other Existentialist concepts like 'authenticity', 'angst', 'thrownness' and 'nothingness'.  To a varying extent, these have all been applied to Beckett's work, not least by a number of critics, largely from the 1960s and 1970s, eager to paint Beckett's work as 'absurdist', 'existential', or even 'nihilistic'.  To be sure, this was a fashionable literary approach at the time, one that both predated 'post-structuralist' views of literature, especially Beckett's literature, and was to some degree displaced by these more 'postmodern' approaches.  By way of example, some of the more prominent Anglophone works to undertake this Existential reading of Beckett are clearly revealed by their titles: Waiting for Death; Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being: A Study in Ontological Parable; The Existential and its Exits, and so on.[3]

A second reason one may be forgiven for connecting Existentialists to the pronoun 'their' in the Unnamable's 'balls about being and existing' can be found in Beckett's paradoxical rejection of Existentialism, given in two (now infamous) 1961 interviews.  Indeed, these negative proofs extend to Beckett's relationship with philosophy as a whole: the following comments demonstrate an awareness of philosophical terms, while at the same time pleading incomprehension with respect to their meaning.

What is more true than anything else?  To swim is true, and to sink is true.  One is not more true than the other.  One cannot speak anymore of being, one must speak only of the mess.  When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don't know, but their language is too philosophical for me.  I am not a philosopher.  One can only speak of what is in front of him, and that now is simply the mess.[4]


"Have contemporary philosophers had any influence on your thought?"

"I never read philosophers."

"Why not?"

"I never understand anything they write."

"All the same, people have wondered if the existentialists' problem of being may afford a key to your works." 

"There's no key or problem.  I wouldn't have had any reason to write my novels if I could have expressed their subject in philosophic terms."

"What was your reason then?"

"I haven't the slightest idea.  I'm no intellectual.  All I am is feeling.  Molloy and the others came to me the day I became aware of my own folly.  Only then did I being to write the things I feel."[5]

In keeping with similar remarks by Beckett, these views are often read as 'hints'; paradoxical endorsements of a particular theoretical lens to use in approaching Beckettian texts.  And as we shall see, Beckett's claim to 'never read philosophers' must be treated with profound scepticism.

A final reason for locating Existentialism in the phrase 'being and existing' – and by extension, of course, existential themes in Beckett's writings as a whole – is intimately related to Beckett Studies' idiosyncratic development since its inception.  In short, scholars have largely reflected dominant interpretative paradigms within literary criticism in approaching Beckett's minimalistic literature.  As a consequence, existential readings dominated Beckett Studies roughly from the 1960s until the author's death in 1989.  Much of this can be accounted for by the lack of critical footholds offered most famously by Beckett's postwar art which, as a result of its radical nature, frequently progresses without the basic features of fiction like plot, character, and settingAs Beckett phrased this divestment in an interview with Charles Juliet in the early 1970s, 'You have to work in an area where there are no possible pronouns, or solutions, or reactions, or standpoints ... That's what makes it so diabolically difficult.'[6]  I have elsewhere noted that the very opacity in Beckett's art has acted as a kind of literary Rorschach Test, whereby scholars project their own meanings onto an oeuvre often distorting and caricaturing the very readings attempting to 'understand' Beckett's work.[7]  This 'prism of interpretation' has to no small degree conditioned vastly different readings of Beckett's work; for example, from David Lodge's 'idealist' reading of "Ping" as 'the struggle of an expiring consciousness to find some meaning in a situation which offers no purchase to the mind or to sensation',[8] to Eyal Amiran's 'realist' view of the same short text, where a 'human confined in a room [... within] a seemingly fixed world ... which proclaims the end of life'.[9]  This is even before one gets into the perspectives offered by a linguistic critique of Beckett's work along 'post-structuralist' lines, a Marxist critique of the 'materiality' of Beckett's art, or existential approaches to the perpetually creating individual sketched above.  (For my own part, I previously regarded Beckett's art, exemplified by the quotation employed in my title, through a personal fascination with Existentialism in the 1990s, and thus regarded "Ping's" 'Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white' as a kind of existential challenge to 'make meaning' were none intrinsically exists.[10])

But as a result of such impressionistic critiques of "Ping" like Lodge's, Amiran's, and indeed mine that, it should be stressed, commence their scholarship from the text as a finished product, it seems all the more important to embrace 'genetic' scholarship; that is, to conclude with the finished text by way of a scholarly inquiry into how it was composed.  By this I mean that only turning to extant manuscripts, to the influences and 'work in progress' of literary creation, are scholars able to establish readings that can be 'falsifiable' – to again appropriate Karl Popper's sense of the term[11] – that is to say, arguments that can be shown through documentation to have been an actual stimulus in the act of artistic construction, and therefore a provable influence upon the artist's imagination rather than a product of the critic's imagination.  This seems to me especially important with an author like Beckett, whose conscious attempts to, as he called it, 'vaguen' his own writings has largely given rise to the diffusion of prismatic and unfalsifiable interpretations.  As a result, special issues like this seem especially vital to understanding Beckett's, and indeed Joyce's, revolutionary, if ultimately diverging,[12] artistic projects.

Having shown that existential readings of Beckett are not the product of interpretative 'bad faith', the dearth of empiricism underpinning such a view nevertheless makes such a reading problematic.  Yet it must also be stated that, prior to the publication of Knowlson's paradigm-shifting biography in 1996, Damned to Fame, most of the documents and primary-source material needed to challenge existential readings like the above – or any other interpretation, for that matter – were either unknown or unavailable to the scholarly community.  This has changed dramatically in recent years, and a substantial revaluation of Beckett's literature is now underway.  These cover a variety of themes, and all generally commence from the perspective that what may be demonstrably proven to have been influential in the construction of Beckett's texts is, prima facie, of particular importance to scholarship.[13]  This 'genetic' turn in Beckett Studies is thus centrally constructed upon refutable evidence, which itself directly relates to the philosophical influence in the 'being and existing' in my title.   In empirically charting this influence, we shall now consider a 'falsifiable' reading of the Unnamable's judgement by way of asking three further queries implied above: How 'philosophical' was Beckett? How did philosophy, and indeed which philosophical traditions, appear in Beckett's art? and finally, Can the investigation of philosophy in Beckett's art provide new insights into Beckett's literature, especially at this, the centenary of his birth? 

         By way of partially responding to these contentious questions, let us return to Beckett and the Presocratics in two distinct ways.  The first is relatively straightforward; namely, through 'genetic' scholarship on Beckett's recently-discovered, substantial reading notes.  These "Interwar Notes", chiefly compiled during the 1930s (although some were taken in the later 1920s), cover subjects as varied as philosophy, painting, literature, psychology, and language – especially the German language.[14]  For present purposes, most worthy of note are the 267 pages, recto and verso, forming what I have termed the "Philosophy Notes".[15]  Although no composition dates on these notes are evident, and Beckett makes no reference to working on the history of philosophy in available letters or manuscripts, it is likely that these 500 or so sheets (for a few sides are left blank), covering the history of European philosophy from its Ancient Greek inception to Friedrich Nietzsche in the late 19th century, were compiled at some point between mid-1932 and mid-1934. 

Thanks to the dating provided by John Pilling in his essential Beckett Before Godot, the earliest use of Beckett's notes on philosophy is to be found in his poem, "Serena I", a draft of which was completed by October 1932:

without the grand old British Museum

Thales and Aretino

on the bosom of the Regent's Park the phlox

crackles under the thunder

scarlet beauty in our world dead fish adrift

all things full of gods[16]


THALES (650)

      His primal substance water.  Earth afloat (dead fish) on surface of primal substance.


All things are full of gods.[17]

Like so much of his erudition from the interwar period, the most recent text Beckett read is frequently the first marshalled in his art, ranging from the (brief) 1930 encounter with René Descartes in advance of the poem "Whoroscope" to the veiled use of Fritz Mauthner in Watt.  But unlike many of the other 'college quips' collected by the young Beckett, the notes on Presocratic philosophy remained a source of artistic pillaging for the next fifty years.  While these too would be subjected to the author's injunction to 'vaguen' references in his postwar work, the use of these notes can be traced across Beckett's oeuvre.  For example, twenty-five years after their initial composition, responding to Alan Schneider's letter of 21 November 1957 on the direction of Endgame, the latter inquires: 'Have you remembered who "that old Greek" was?' – a reference to one of Hamm's late monologues in the play. In replying, Beckett is explicit about his debt to what he calls his 'notes on the pre-Socratics':

Old Greek: I can't find my notes on the pre-Socratics.  The arguments of the Heap and the Bald Head (which hair falling produces baldness) were used by all the Sophists and I think have been variously attributed to one or the other.  They disprove the reality of mass in the same way and by means of the same fallacy as the arguments of the Arrow and Achilles and the Tortoise, invented a century earlier by Zeno the Eleatic, disprove the reality of movement.  The leading Sophist, against whom Plato wrote his Dialogue, was Protagoras and he is probably the "old Greek" whose name Hamm can't remember.  One purpose of the image throughout the play is to suggest the impossibility logically, i.e. eristically, of the "thing" ever coming to an end.[18] 

From this response, it is clear that Hamm's utterance is actually a veiled reference to an ancient trope centring upon paradoxical knowledge and philosophical scepticism, drawn directed from the "Philosophical Notes":

     Plato's Eristics, Euthydemus and Dionysidorus, brothers, who practised with great success this art of logomachy or eristic.  Euclid's adherents Eubulides and Alexinus were famous for a series of such catches, among which the Heap (which kernel of grain by being added makes the heap?) and the Baldhead (which hair falling out makes the head bald?), were fundamental thought [sic] far back to Zeno, who used it to [argue – added above] that the composition of magnitudes out of small parts is impossible. (TCD MS 10967/42)

Fast-forwarding yet another twenty-five years, use of Empedocles' 'systole - diastole' system in the late text Ill Seen Ill Said – as a way to express the heart palpitations of an anxiety attack (which were plaguing Beckett at the time of composing these philosophical notes) – demonstrate that Beckett's recourse to these notes recurred across the decades of his literary output:

In the beginning, the Sphere [in] which Love keeps the "roots" in solution.  Strife enters, drives Love to centre, and separates elements (Cf. concept of world breathing).  Until reverse process begins (systole - diastole), Love expanding and Strife expelled.  (E. was the first to formulate theory of flux and reflux of blood to and from heart). (TCD MS 10967/30.1)


Panic past pass on.  The hands.  Seen from above.  They rest on the pubis intertwined.  Strident white.  Their faintly leaden ting killed by the black ground.  Suspicion of lace at the wrists.  To go with the frill.  They tighten then loosen their clasp.  Slow systole diastole.  And the body that scandal.  While its sole hands in view.  On its sole pubis.  Dead still to be sure.  On the chair.  After the spectacle.  Slowly its spell unbinding.  On and on they keep.  Tightening and loosening their clasp.  Rhythm of a labouring heart.  Till when almost despaired of gently part.  Suddenly gently.[19]

Also interestingly, as with other notes on psychology, literature and art from the same period, Beckett opted for secondary synopses in his reading of philosophy: Archibald Alexander's 1907 A Short History of Philosophy; John Burnet's 1914 Greek Philosophy, Part I: Thales to Plato; and by far the most important, Wilhelm Windelband's 1902 edition of A History of Philosophy.[20] Notes from the former author are typewritten, and only cover the period from the Presocratics to the Alexandrians – roughly 800 years and a third of the Alexander's text – ending with the interesting biographical interpolation: 'Justin Martyr, first learned theologian and Christian thinker among early fathers.  Martyrdom about 165.  Festival April 13th!' (TCD MS 10967/141).  Beckett took a much greater interest in Burnet's survey of Ancient Greek philosophy, a point to which we shall return.  Extensively noting from each chapter and section in Greek Philosophy, paying especial attention to the philosophical movements within Presocratic thought, Beckett's use of Burnet in the striking, especially with respect to Murphy.  In his first published novel, Beckett uses Burnet's understanding of, and language for, Pythagoreanism to construct substantial dialogue between the Irish 'puppets'; and in particular, as a model for the character Neary – from his stoppable heart (variously called 'Apmonia', 'Isonomy' and 'Attunement') – a sign of health in Pythagorean thought – to his love for Miss Counihan ('My tetrakyt!'):

health was "isonomy" of opposites in the body, disease undue predominance of one or other.     

      Health was "attunement" (Apmonia) and blend (temperament) [....]


      Early Pythagoreans represented numbers and explained their properties by means of "figures" (as on dice).  Most celebrated of these was the tetrakyts by which they used to swear, which showed at a glance what they regarded as most important property of number 10, namely that it is the sum of first four natural integers (1+2+3+4 =10):


.   .

.   .   .

        .   .   .   .               (TCD MS 10967/21-21.1)

Yet even more important to Beckett than Early Greek Philosophy was Wilhelm Windelband's revised A History of Philosophy from 1902.  This brilliant and still-unsurpassed overview of philosophy was used by Beckett in its entirety, even to the extent of using its 'General Classification' to structure the entirety of his philosophy notes:

1.         Philosophy of the Greeks - from the beginning of scientific thought to death of Aristotle (600 – 322 B. C.)


2.         Hellenistic-Roman Philosophy - from death of Aristotle to the end of Neo-Platonism (322 B. C. – 500 A. D.)


3.         Mediaeval Philosophy - from Augustine to Nicolaus Cusanus, (5th – 15th century).

4.         Philosophy of the Renaissance - (15th – 17th century).

5.         Philosophy of the Enlightenment - from Locke to the death of Lessing (1689 –1781)

6.         The German Philosophy - from Kant to Hegel and Herbart (1781 – 1820)

7.         Nineteenth Century Philosophy. (TCD MS 10967/1.2)

Moreover, whereas all three of Beckett's philosophical texts cover Windelband's point 1 above – providing some 200 folios on Ancient Greek thought – and Alexander was used to assist with part of point 2, the remaining five points; that is, the remaining 1,500 years of European philosophy, are simply summarised by from A History of Philosophy.  In short, this book may well rank alongside The Divine Comedy, and the Bible as the most influential texts in Beckett's literary development.  Returning to Murphy, consider the epigraph to the famous Chapter Six on 'Murphy's Mind: 'Amor intellectualis quo Murphy se ipsum amat'.[21 Like so much else in that novel, this too is culled from Windelband; in this case, glossing Spinoza and Malebranche:

     He distinguishes finite and infinite modes, affirming three of latter.  To the finite modes of individual things corresponds as infinite mode the universe; and those of particular space-forms, the infinite mode of space, and matter; to those and ideation of will, the intellectus infinitus (amor intellectualis quo deus se ipsum amat = raison universelle of Malebranche).  (TCD MS 10967/188)

Not only was Windelband very likely Beckett's introduction to the Occasionalists Arnold Geulincx and Nicolas Malebranche – both surfacing in the postwar fiction; for example, in Molloy and How It Is, respectively – A History of Philosophy remained a source of both literary and personal utility right across Beckett's life.  Consider one final excerpt taken from Windelband's masterpiece, here preceding a portion of a letter to Beckett's lifelong friend, A.J. 'Con' Leventhal, on 21 April 1958:

GORGIAS OF LEONTINI in Sicily (483-375)


Three celebrated propositions –


1.       Nothing exists.

2.       If it did, it could not be known.

3.       If it could be known, it could not be communicated. (In his On Nature, or, The Non-Existent)

All opinions equally false.  (TCD MS 10967/48)



As thus solicited it can link up with the 3rd proposition (coup de grāce) of Gorgias in his Nonent:

1.    Nothing is.

2.    If anything is, it cannot be known.

3.    If anything is, and can be known, it cannot be expressed in speech.[22]

By way of returning to Beckett's cagey interviews from 1961 on his ignorance of philosophy, these secondary works demonstrate that, while it may be almost accurate to say that he never 'reads philosophers' (with Descartes, Geulincx, Mauthner, Schopenhauer, and a few other giants notwithstanding!), one would have to agree with Rubin Rabinovitz's comment that 'Samuel Beckett says in interviews that he knows little about philosophy; but his little could easily be another man's abundance'.[23]

         Furthermore, this 'abundance' is strongly concentrated around Beckett's 'notes on the Pre-Socratics' meaning that John Fletcher's early contention must be strongly contended: 'Although Beckett has at one time or another been attracted to the Presocratics, there is nothing to suggest that his interest has ever gone beyond the superficial or anecdotal'.[24] Again, in 1967 Fletcher did not have access to Beckett's "Interwar Notes", and can thus be forgiven for finding the above references to resonate with Existential themes – although a smattering of texts have explored Beckett's relationship to the Presocratics.[25]  But in returning to the Unnamable's 'balls about being and existing', it is clear that Beckett is more likely referring to the beginnings of Western philosophy in Greece than to his philosophical contemporaries.  Indeed, in Beckett's 20,000 words on Presocratic thought, the terms 'being' and 'existing' are used in a philosophical context some fifty and twenty-five times, respectively.  Let us, then, conclude with the second angle of enquiry announced earlier in considering what such Presocratic 'balls' may entail for the study of Beckett and philosophy.

         Having clearly shown that Beckett often used these 'notes on the Pre-Socratics' in his art, it is worthy posing the question: So what?  In the spirit of this Special Issue on 'genetic' criticism, I have a rough and ready response as to why this might be, in the form of a still-rudimentary theory developed from the empirical evidence marshalled above: Beckett was asking the same questions of art that the Presocratics were asking of the world.  One thinks here of the famous opening line to the earlier-cited Unnamable, 'Where now?  Who now?  When now?', or the roughly contemporaneous interview with Georges Duthuit in transition – 'The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, together with the obligation to express'.[26]  As has been frequently noted, these are powerful Beckettian sentiments directed toward literature. 

         But in turning to a host of the Presocratics, while it is often noted that, collectively, they were 'The First Philosophers', what is frequently obscured is that this is a mantle bestowed on them by posterity, not least for their legacy of birthing science, causality, and metaphysics to the West.  Naturally, this obvious legacy was surely not lost on Beckett.  But what is lost on a number of philosophical commentators on the Presocratics, but what I suspect is not lost on Beckett the artist, is that a number of the Presocratics – especially Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles, and to a lesser extent Heraclitus, Democritus and Zeno – were not so much philosophers as artists working in the tradition of Homer, Hesiod, and Ancient Greek literature generally.  And so Beckett notes, for example, of Parmenides, 'Broke with Ionic tradition by writing in hexameter verse.  The Proem contains key to poem (TCD MS 10967/11.1); that Xenophanes 'Fled during Persian conquest of Ionia and gained a living as a wandering poet' (TCD MS 10967/10); and of Empedocles, 'Jumps into crater of Aetna to prove his divinity [....] Propagation is an evil, because it retards reorganisation of primitive unity [....] Had relations with the Sicilian school of orators. Besides his Songs of Purification left a didactic poem, of which fragments published by Karsten (Amsterdam 1838) and Stein (Bonn 1852)' (TCD MS 10967/28-28.1). 

The rudimentary theory derived from the 'genetic' evidence above is, therefore, that Beckett was as interested in their artistic output and human foibles as he was their thinking qua philosophy.  Thus we see, in addition to the 'straws, flotsam, etc.'[27] that piqued Beckett in respect of Presocratic philosophy, that his notes are shot through with a number of vignettes and aphorisms. Consider just the following three of many from, respectively, Heraclitus, Zeno and Democritus:

Heraclitus the dark, the obscure, the weeping philosopher.  "A Delian diver needed to sound his work" (Socrates).  Deposited his scroll in the Temple of Artemis and went up to the mountains & died there. (TCD MS 10967/24)


Inventor of dialectic of negation, disproof by reduction ad absurdum [....] 

These arguments an illustration of the antithesis between thinking and perceiving. (TCD MS 10967/14)


Honoured by antiquity as a great writer, but almost all his works are lost [....]

"Naught is more real than nothing". (TCD MS 10967/75.1; TCD MS 10967/75)

Although much more remains to be explored in this connection, we can see clearly – and more to the point, 'genetically' argue – that, at the very least, my given title is much less likely to derive from existential philosophers contemporaneous with Beckett.  But either way, that view, based only on the completed text itself and the knowledge of the critic, cannot be proved false, and exists in that void between a completed work of art and the imagination of the receiver.  And that, as  Beckett himself recorded nearly seventy-five years ago, may be said to be the difference between 'genetic criticism' and the chief characteristic of sophistry, 'For the advocate, refutation more important than proof' (TCD MS 10967/42).  To take a few more excerpts from the "notes on the pre-Socratics" by way of posing a last question: Can we be sure that a more 'scientific' and falsifiable approach to literature – one that opens the door to accurate theorising rather than one seeming to frequently reject the very door-jamb of context in its entirety – is not at risk by a new form of scholarly sophistry: '"Age of Sophists" above all an age of reaction against science' (TCD 10967/43)?  Indeed, even the relativism so prized by many of these doctrines is not in and of itself new, but sophistic, as Beckett recorded in the same section of his "Philosophy Notes", 'the relativity of human ideas and purposes struck them with such overwhelming force that they disowned inquiry into a universally valid [truth] in both theory and practice, and so fell into a scepticism which was at first genuine scientific theory and then became frivolous' (TCD MS 10967/40-40.1).  Against the fashionable Sophists of today, we have witnessed falsifiable proof that the 'balls about being and existing' was much more likely derived from the contemporaries of the Sophists themselves, who invented European philosophy and the boundaries of Western thought that Beckett's texts so artistically delimit.  And it is this conclusion, I feel, which brings us closer to the fundamental questions asked by Beckett's art, even if, long after he transcribed these 20,000 or so words on Presocratic philosophy, that knowledge was only to be used as a kind of Diogenic burlesque for literature, as in the short text from 1963, "All Strange Away":

imagine as needed, unsupported interjections, ancient Greek philosophers ejaculated with place of origin when possible suggesting pursuit of knowledge at some period [....] leaving sometimes in some doubt such things as which Diogenes and what fancy her only.  Such then the sound roughly and if no clearer so then all the storm unspoken and the silence unbroken unless sound of light and dark, or at the moments of change a sound of flow thirty seconds till full then silent any length till sound of ebb thirty seconds till black then silence any length...[28]

But even Beckett's opaque and challenging art did not originate in a vacuum (for the Presocratics were the first to rationally prove that a vacuum cannot exist!).  Perhaps, then, by going backwards contextually – both in philosophical history and in the genesis of Beckett's art – new ways of advancing in Beckett Studies may visible; ways incorporating 'genetic' research; ways 'suggesting pursuit of knowledge', and 'not without success':


DIOGENES OF APPOLONIA [crossed out; written above: APOLLONIA]


      Disciple of Anaximenes.  His primal substance air.  His intelligence an attribute or mode of air.


      He connected the astronomical world-order doctrine of Anaxagoras with Hylozoism of Anaximenes, the primal substance of the latter with the Nous of the former, and hence derived the "rational air" or "spirit" of which is his formative principle in man and other organisms as well as in the universe [....] (TCD MS 10967/50)


DIOGENES OF SINOPE (413 - 323) [....]


      Walking through Athens at midday holding a lighted lantern: "I am looking for a man".


      Characteristic by-figure in the history of civilisation rather than a man of science.  Owed his paradoxical popularity to the ostentatious jest of attempting to live in civilised Greece as if in a state of Nature.


      Conducted the education of the son of Xeniades, a Corinthian Sophist, according to principles of Cynic naturalism, and not without success. (TCD MS 10967/68)


[1] Geoffrey P. Dobson, A Chaos of Delight (Equinox, London: 2005), p.93.

[2] Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable in The Beckett Trilogy, (Picador, London: 1979), p.320.

[3] Cormier, Ramona, and Janis Pallister, Waiting for Death: The Philosophical Significance of Beckett's "En Attendant Godot" (University of Alabama Press, Birmingham: 1979); Butler, Lance St. John, Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being: A Study in Ontological Parable (Macmillan, London: 1984); Dobrez, L. A. C., The Existential and Its Exits: Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Works of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter (Athlone Press, London: 1986). For an early existential reading of Beckett, see Esslin, Martin "Samuel Beckett and the Philosophers" in John Cruickshank ed., The Novelist as Philosopher (Greenwood, Westport, 1962).

[4] Beckett to Tom Driver (Summer 1961), reprinted in Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman eds., Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage (Routledge and Kegan Ltd., London: 1997), p.219.

[5] Beckett to Gabriel D'Aubarède (16 February 1961), reprinted in ibid., p.217.

[6] Charles Juliet, Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde (RA Leiden, Netherlands: 1995), p. 165.

[7] Matthew Feldman, "I Inquired into Myself: Beckett, Interpretation.  Phenomenology?", Samuel Beckett Aujourd'Hui [hereafter SBT/A] 12 (2002).

[8] David Lodge in Samuel Beckett, The Complete Short Prose 1929-1989, (Grove Press, New York: 1995), p. xxviii.

[9] Eyal Amiran, Wandering and Home: Samuel Beckett's Metaphysical Narrative, (Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 1993), pp.171-3.

[10] Beckett, "Ping" in The Complete Short Prose, p.193.

[11] Feldman, Matthew, "Beckett and Popper, or, 'What Stink of Artifice': Some Notes on Methodology, Falsifiability, and Criticism in Beckett Studies", SBT/A 16 (2006).

[12] 'The more Joyce knew the more he could.  He's tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist.  I'm working with impotence, ignorance.  I don't think, impotence has been exploited in the past.  There seems to be a kind of esthetic [sic] axiom that expression is achievement – must be an achievement.  My little exploration of being that has always been set aside by artists as something unusable – as something by definition incompatible with art.' Beckett to Israel Shenker (5 May 1956), reprinted in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, p.148

[13] For good yet varied examples of genetic and manuscript scholarship in Beckett Studies, see Van Hulle, Dirk, "Beckett – Mauthner – Zimmer – Joyce", The Joyce Studies Annual 10 (1999); Ackerley, Chris, Obscure Locks and Simple Keys: The Annotated Watt (Journal of Beckett Studies Books, Tallahassee: 2005); and  Part 1 of SBT/A 15 (2005) edited by Séan Kennedy, entitled "Historicising Beckett".  See also two recent doctoral theses: Mark Nixon, "What a tourist I've been": Samuel Beckett's German Diaries (Unpublished PhD., University of Reading: 2005); and Erik Tonning, Abstraction in Samuel Beckett's Drama for Stage and Screen 1962-1985 (Unpublished DPhil., University of Oxford: 2006).

[14] For extended discussion of Beckett's "Interwar Notes", see SBT/A 16 (2006), Special Issue entitled "Notes diverse holo", eds. Matthijs Engelberts, Everett Frost with Jane Maxwell.

[15] Feldman, Matthew, Beckett's Books: A Cultural History of Samuel Beckett's' 'Interwar Notes' (Continuum, London: 2006).

[16] Pilling, John, Beckett Before Godot (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1997), pp.86-7; Beckett, Samuel, "Serena I" in Collected Poems (Calder, London: 1999), p.21.

[17] The complete transcriptions of Samuel Beckett's reading notes can be found in the appendix to Feldman, Matthew, "Sourcing Aporetics": An Empirical Approach to the Philosophical Development of Samuel Beckett's Writings (Unpublished PhD., Oxford Brookes University: 2004); on Thales, Trinity College, Dublin Manuscript [hereafter TCD MS] 10967/5.  Further references to Beckett's "Philosophy Notes" can be found in the body of this article.

[18] Beckett, Samuel, and Alan Schneider, No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider, ed. Maurice Harmon (Harvard University Press, London: 1998), p.23; my italics.

[19] Beckett, Samuel, Ill Seen Ill Said (Calder, London: 1982), pp.31-2.

[20] Burnet, John, Greek Philosophy, Part I: Thales to Plato (Macmillan and Co, London: 1914); Alexander, Archibald, A Short History of Philosophy (Glasgow, Maclehose & Sons: 1907); and Windelband, Wilhelm, A History of Philosophy, trans. James Hayden Tufts (MacMillan, London: 1902). 

[21] Beckett, Samuel, Murphy (Calder, London: 1993), p.63.

[22] I am especially grateful to Mark Nixon for information on Beckett's letter to Con Leventhal.

[23] Rabinovitz, Rubin, "Watt from Descartes to Schopenhauer" in Raymond J. Porter and James D. Brophy eds., Modern Irish Literature: Essays in Honor of William York Tindall (Iona College Press, New York: 1972), p.261.

[24] Fletcher, John, Samuel Beckett's Art (Chatto & Windus, London: 1967), p.122.

[25] The principal Anglophone texts on Beckett and the Presocratics include Henning, Sylvie Debvec, "The Guffaw of the Abderite: Murphy and the Democritean Universe", Journal of Beckett Studies 10 (1983); Hesla, David, The Shape of Chaos (University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota: 1971); Hamilton, Alice and Kenneth Hamilton, "The Guffaw of the Abderite: Samuel Beckett's Use of Democritus", Mosaic 9/2 (1976); Mooney, Michael, "Presocratic Scepticism: Samuel Beckett's Murphy Reconsidered", ELH 49 (1982).

[26] Samuel Beckett, "Three Dialogues" in Disjecta, ed. Ruby Cohn (Grove Press, New York: 1984), p.139.

[27] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame (Bloomsbury, London: 1997), p.244.

[28] Beckett, Samuel, "All Strange Away" in The Complete Short Prose, pp. 175-6; my italics.


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