Ulrika Maude, Beckett, Technology and the Body

Ulrika Maude, Beckett, Technology and the Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 209pp. £50 hb. ISBN 9780521515375./£25.99 pb. ISBN 9780521181501.

In Beckett, Technology and the Body, Ulrika Maude offers a remarkable re-evaluation of the role of the body – in terms of both embodiment and  disembodiment – in Beckett’s oeuvre. By masterfully combining close readings of the works with relevant philosophical concepts, Maude has provided a compelling analysis of the topic and has challenged the reader to reconsider, from a different perspective, the relevance of bodily functions and of sensory impressions in Beckett. As Maude emphasizes in her concise but exhaustive introduction, the criticism on Beckett has undergone two major phases: the first considered Beckett as a “transcendental writer who subscribed to a Cartesian dualism” (1) and somehow neglected the importance of sensory experience in his works (as in the still relevant scholarship by Hugh Kenner and Martin Esslin), while the second, through a post-structuralist approach, focussed on the “discursively produced body at the expense of the material fleshly one” (2). Maude argues that in Beckett the “material body forms the ultimate foundation of identity, by constituting that self that is both singular and, in its perpetual complexity and mutability, always plural and indecipherable” (2). Her book thus addresses the primacy of bodily experience in the formation of Beckett’s aesthetics and it acutely examines the experience of embodiment in the light of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology (although several other theorists and philosophers are taken into account, such as Foucault, Bakthin, Ricoeur, and so forth).

The first chapter of the book is called “The Body of Memory” and it is the one most specifically devoted to the relationship between Beckett and Merleau-Ponty. The analysis focuses on “corporeal memory” expressed in tactile terms, and it directly refers to Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the “incarnate subject”, which Beckett seems to enact in his writings, specifically Krapp’s Last Tape , which Maude reads in the light of Beckett’s book on Proust, published in 1931.

The second chapter (“The Place of Vision”) is a sharp analysis of the concepts of sight and vision in Beckett’s novellas The Calmative and The End, and in his short-film Film. By drawing on the author’s correspondence with Thomas McGreevy, Maude addresses the subjectivity of the Beckettian eye, as well as the question of self-perception which is especially notable in Film. The chapter is grounded in the most significant theories on vision and representation (starting from Plato and involving Berkeley, Ricoeur, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty), and it also examines Beckett’s “preoccupation with the reorganization of perception in modern art” (6) in the light of Cezanne’s paintings.

In the following chapter, “Hearing Beckett”, Maude seems to align herself to a number of critics who have argued that sound in Beckett “functions as a marker of interiority” (6). Maude similarly considers  the rapid perceptual changes brought about by the new technologies such as the telephone, the phonograph and the magnetic recorder. She underlines the role of those instruments as enhancers of human perception and claims that sound, unlike the proximity senses, is able to overcome obstacles such as solid walls, and can therefore transport the subject “across spatial and temporal confines” (7). According to the author, such transgressions between inside and outside (as well as between past and present, as in Krapp’s Last Tape for instance) are rooted in the embodied experience of the subject, one that must consider a physical phenomenology of sound. In Maude’s view, sound is perceived as real and embodied (being both inside-the-subject and outside-in-the-world), but it also makes the subject aware of his “perpetual non-coincidence with itself” (69).

In the fourth chapter (“Skin Deep”), Maude explores the role of tactility in Beckett’s All Strange Away, Imagination Dead Imagine, Ping and The Lost Ones. She argues that these texts delve into the priority of the sense of touch over vision, so as to foreground exteriority and surface “over interiority and depth” (8), since the skin is both “endogenous and exogenous” (135). Maude thus considers the texts also from a stylistic and narratological point of view, suggesting how the abandonment of the first person narrator functions as a vehicle for such philosophical issues. Chapter five is entitled “Come and go” and, mostly by analysing Beckett’s Trilogy, reflects upon all kinds of movement depicted in Beckett’s work, such as the very famous activity of cycling but also the involuntary movement of trembling and shaking. In the light of the theories of Bataille and Kristeva (among others), Maude also analyses the Beckettian body in its abject characteristics, which undermine the very nucleus of subjectivity.

In the light of all these considerations, the last chapter (“Seeing Ghosts”) is the one that most purposely deals with the relationship between technology and the body. Modern technologies such as the microscope, the x-rays, the stereoscopes and chronophotography enable the subject through a more reliable, less fallible view of bodily perception, and they seemingly liberate the body from “its association with rationality and objectivity, freeing it for sensuous, subjective and aestheticised perceptual experience” (136). The chapter insightfully reveals Beckett’s concern with new medical technologies. As Maude clearly recounts, Beckett underwent a series of x-rays and bronchoscopies in 1968, and both events had an impact on his aesthetics of the body, as it is shown by the medical terminology which “figure prominently in Beckett’s writings” (124). The new technologies were able to virtualise the body and “re-code” it (127) in abstract and fictitious images, but they also made the subject reflect on the body’s fragmentary nature.

The book finally argues that Beckett’s work both investigates and resists fantasies of disembodiment (in the light of Nacht und Träume  and What Where). This tension, which is however to be observed in all of Beckett’s production, is poignantly to be referred to Giordano Bruno’s philosophy, a highly influential source for Beckett’s ideas which the book fails to take into account and which definitely calls for a development of this clever and insightful analysis.

The book’s strong merit, however, is to offer new compelling perspectives on the bodily nature of Beckett’s work and its emphasis on the incarnate nature of subjectivity. It is a welcome contribution to Beckettian criticism and, especially in its last chapter, it provides fertile reflection on the interconnection of science and literature in Beckett’s aesthetics.

Federico Sabatini, University of Turin