UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The aesthetics of either/or in Samuel Beckett's novels Murphy, Peter


This thesis is concerned basically with the philosophical and aesthetic implications of the "yes or no" dialectic in Samuel Beckett's novels. While some aspects of this problem have been noted by critics (especially Richard Coe and Hugh Kenner), their full significance has not been elaborated. This thesis is especially indebted to Hugh Kenner’s provocative discussion of "art in a closed field" in Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians. But a new line of exploration is opened up by developing the notion of "art in a closed field" in conjunction with Kierkegaard's philosophy of either/or and Beckett's "yes or no." Such an approach allows for an awareness of the "existential " nature of Beckett's writings and helps emphasize the urgency of the emotional appeal of Beckett's characters as they make their "choices." A key question the thesis attempts continually to answer is: what are the nature and consequences of this "choice" made within the closed field of art and life? In Murphy the “yes or no" theme is dealt with in terms of the dualisms of Cartesianism and schizophrenia. (Note: Since the completion of my thesis, G.C. Barnard's Samuel Beckett: A New Approach which deals extensively with schizophrenia has appeared. He fails, however, to relate the psychological with the philosophical dimensions of Beckett's art and thought.). My own attempt to come to terms with Beckett is eclectic - but all discussions centre around the "yes or no" conundrum. A significant contribution to the study of Beckett's thought is, I believe, made in the discussion of Watt by indicating the relevancy of Kant and Hume to Beckett's philosophy of form - his aesthetics of the absurd. Beckett's indebtedness to Enlightenment thought, especially Descartes, has been recognized since Kenner's pioneer work. But the extended discussion of this debt in terms of Kant and Hume shows the complexity of this heritage as it influences Beckett's art. Tracing still further this intellectual tradition in the trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, it is possible to discern Beckett's Kierkegaardian-like parody of Hegelian rationalism and aesthetics. The philosophical underpining of Beckett's progressive treatment of the "yes or no" dialectic is thus made clearer. The discussion of How It Is in terms of the pornographic form illustrates how Beckett's relentless pursuit of his artistic premises' leads him to a unique philosophical treatment of what is usually regarded as a sub-literary genre. The conclusion, "No's Knife," deals briefly with some of the social and cultural implications of Beckett's art. This area of Beckett criticism is most weak and is often marred by an obvious failure to study in depth Beckett's work. It is hoped that this thesis helps in part to redress this failure in Beckett criticism.

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