Silence as Testimony in Samuel Beckett and Derek Mahon

in Silence in Modern Irish Literature
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Theodor W. Adorno’s claim that “[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” alludes to the diminishment of aesthetic values in the wake of the Holocaust. In similar vein, George Steiner suggests that the post-war writer may prefer “the suicidal rhetoric of silence” to the act of writing. This essay argues that the inheritance which Belfast poet Derek Mahon derives from his compatriot Samuel Beckett resonates with the sceptical humanism of George Steiner and with Adorno’s sense of the contamination of language. It acknowledges the contrasting approaches to the Holocaust taken by Beckett and fellow Anglo-Irish intellectual, Hubert Butler. In contrast to Butler’s assertive voice, Beckett and Mahon’s silences reflect their Irish Protestant backgrounds in a general distrust of the aesthetic and an ambivalent attitude towards their own origins. I propose here that there is an abiding sense in the writing of Mahon and Beckett of language as a devalued currency, forcing the poet to work with defective materials or give up altogether: something that Beckett’s narrators are always threatening to do.

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