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Law of the Excluded Middle and Beckett’s Realm of Neitherness

In: Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui
Author:
Umar Shehzad University of Edinburgh Edinburgh UK

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Abstract

This study traces the play of thresholds in Beckett’s short text “neither”. Since its publication in 1976, the text has been haunted by its thematic indeterminacy. Originally published as a poem, it was gathered with other pieces of short prose on Beckett’s suggestion when he insisted that it was a short story. The protagonist (though it is too strong a term to be used in the present context) finds themself before the mobile gates of the neitherworld “whose doors once neared gently close/once turned away from gently part again”. Beckett’s text creates a paradigmatic limbo, a non-space tussling with the ghosts of being. The movement is not, as Garin Dowd contends, “from its presence to its absence, from its being to non-being, from its formation to its emptying”; the beingness of being is already reduced to shadows. The reflex of opening and closure, the subject of the text, is further displaced on to the door, effectively quashing the potency of human agency. The door here is the reality of being. The effigy of a person is left stranded on the in-between spaces. This inbetweenness is located on the site of excluded middle—a site considered untenable in the classical logic. Moreover, the study looks at the ontological praxis of this inbetweenness.

to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow

from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither

as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close, once away turned from gently part again

beckoned back and forth and turned away

heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or the other

unheard footfalls only sound

till at last halt for good, absent for good from self and other

then no sound

then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither

unspeakable home

“neither” by Samuel Beckett

The overwhelming success of his plays especially Waiting for Godot masked the appeal of Samuel Beckett’s novels and may perhaps also account for the lukewarm reception of his shorter prose works. However, as Stanley Gontarsky points out, “to see Beckett as fundamentally a dramatist who wrote some narratives is seriously to distort his literary achievement” (10). A shorter text like “neither” may afford even a more intimate look into the thematics of Beckett’s work and also open up a window upon its spatial metaphorics. Even as a genre, the short work “neither” has been haunted by its title: as Gontarsky tells us, written in 1976, “it has routinely been published with line breaks suggestive of poetry, but when British publisher John Calder was about to gather “neither” in the Collected Poems, Beckett resisted because he considered it a prose work, a short story” (11, emphasis added). The text came into being when the American composer and Professor of Music at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Morton Feldman approached Beckett with the request to write him a piece for musical rendering. Beckett was quizzical as to why he did not use any of his existing writings. To which Feldman said that “they were pregnable, they didn’t need music. I said that I was looking for the quintessence, something that just hovered” (Knowlson 781–782). This shadow of a story, which, according to Derval Tubridy, “opens with a movement of gentle undulation between two boundaries ghosted by darkness, a reflexive motion between a self and its negation” can paradoxically serve both as an archeological site for self-discovery and the burial ground for the always already despaired question of Being in Beckett (145).

The text “neither” is iconic among Beckett’s works due to its relentless quashing of identity and its simultaneous resurgence. This experimentation with the vagaries of the “self” and the “unself”, “sound” and “no sound”, “self and other” proposes the work as a sustained enquiry into the question of Being (258). Using Brian McHale, we can perhaps ascribe to it “the special logical status of the fictional text, its condition of being in-between, amphibious—neither true nor false, suspended between belief and disbelief” (33). This in-betweenness is inspired by its perpetual oscillation between being and nothingness. The short text is about a door which is not a door as it fails to offer the promise of crossing. Or, it is more like a window because it opens and closes without essentially promising an ingress or an egress. However, even as a window, it does not seem to offer much in terms of sights, sounds or smells from the yonder side. It is a door which is a wall; it is a wall which is also a door. This simultaneity of disjunctive presences namely door/window and wall/door flounders the law of excluded middle.

Gaston Bachelard’s mystical Poetics of Space quite rightly emphasizes the relevance of doors to any ontological inquiry:

La porte me flaire, elle hésite.
[The door scents me, it hesitates.]
Jean Pellerin, La Romance du Retour

Dwelling upon the role that doors play in the life of an individual, Bachelard quotes Jean Pellerin from La Romance du Retour (223). Almost prophetically, the philosopher declares, “If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open, one would have to tell the story of one’s entire life” (224). And, Beckett seems to share this insight. Postapocalyptic Endgame dramatizes the stalemate around a door to the outside world that Clov proceeds to cross but fails to do so till the very end. Doors betray extraordinary significance by their conspicuous absence in Beckett’s fictional work, especially of later period, which remains preoccupied with a life bottled up in places shut tight: “A closed space five foot square by six high, try for him there. Couldn’t have got in, can’t get out, did get in, will get out, all right” (“Faux Départs” 232).

Whether it is fiction, drama or poetry, doors and windows remain the site of significant (non)action, dialogue and/or reflection—theatrically initiating or inhibiting them. In Unnamable, which is often touted as metafiction, Beckett declares, “The door, it’s the door interests me (a wooden door). Who bolted the door, and for what purpose? I’ll never know”, adding, “There’s a story for you!” (363). The story of the novel ends on a threshold and it is precisely on this threshold that the unraveling of the self takes place and the bare bones of the psyche that persists despite its melt down are revealed:

[…] perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

370

Considering the spare ambiance it evokes, the public sphere is not entirely the concern of Beckett’s text, yet the inside/outside binary inevitably attends the metaphor of door. Beckett, however, further complicates the issue of movement between these two domains with an attitude of recalcitrant doubt. The inhabitants of Beckett’s realm of neitherness remain trapped—inside or outside—wherever they are. Even when they do seem to cross the threshold, they find themselves inhabiting the same milieu. Therefore, the difference between “two lit refuges” mentioned in the text can hardly be construed as significant. The gates do not admit a passage to the other world but they do provide an opening to nothingness, the same which litters inner as well as the outer space. Wholesale disenchantment makes a mockery of the difference between in and out while Beckett’s characters remain “perpetually incontinent, night and day, indoors and out of doors” (Molloy 30). Occasionally, however, some sort of epiphanic character is ascribed to the experience of the gates but then the epiphany is a particularly dark one. M. Henry Krap in Eleuthéria thinks himself to be “the cow which at the gates of the slaughterhouse, realises all the absurdity of pastures” (54). It is a sad comment upon existence—one which seals up the absurdity of it all.

This unhomely world without doors and hence without passage or any opportunity of exit comes to be populated by eerie beings. Hence, the citizenry of these in-between spaces renders them volatile because of its own fluidity, and vice versa. Beckett describes this world of shadowy presences in the opening lines of “neither”: “to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow/ from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither” (258).

Quasi alternatives as the one between the inner shadow and the outer shadow and also between “impenetrable self” and “impenetrable unself” frustrate the classical logic that, intoxicated with its own cocksureness, proceeded to announce its inviolable laws and principles—law of the excluded middle being one of them. This law simply enunciates that an argument is either right or wrong, and cannot be both, at the same time. The law of excluded middle which McHale defines as “the absence […] of any third alternative to the polarity of true and false, any mode of being between existence and nonexistence” does not apply here (106). Aristotle formulated three principles which he considered fundamental to logic. The law of identity states that P is P. The law of noncontradiction declares P is not non-P. And, the law of the excluded middle insists that it is either P or non-P.

Beckett’s text under consideration here namely “neither” flounders these laws of classical logic by creating a paradigmatic limbo, a non-space tussling with the ghosts of being. The space of the text stages an impasse between non-existence and existence, door and wall, and silence and speech. “Unheard footfalls” that thread the narrative and echo in the claustrophobic space of the text testify to the violation of the three laws by conflating silence and sound. Untraceability of the footfalls further complicates the matter. The text hints at the presence of a beingless being or a bodiless body whose movements create this eerie sound.

Moreover, the movement is not, as Garin Dowd would have it, “from its presence to its absence, from its being to non-being, from its formation to its emptying” (374). The beingness of being is already reduced to shadows. The reflex of opening and closure, the subject of the text, is further displaced on to the door, effectively quashing the potency of human agency. The displacement, in effect, shows space as the register of self.1 The door here is the reality of being. As Bachelard points out, “man is half-open being … [and] the door is an entire cosmos of the Half-open” (222). Furthermore, “the door schematizes two strong possibilities, which sharply classify two types of daydream. At times, it is closed, bolted, padlocked. At others, it is open, that is to say, wide open” (222). However, a bloodless dream that is not even a nightmare may not bind itself to the clear-cut typology of Bachelard’s benevolent daydreaming. Secondly, the dialectics of open and shut do not describe the mobile gates of the neitherworld “whose doors once neared gently close/once turned away from gently part again” (Beckett 258). Yet, they do approximate “the half-open,” and better so. The tension is not between silence and speech or light and darkness, but between “one gleam or the other” and “gently light unfading,” and between “unheard … sound” and “no sound” (258). This midway stopover between being and nothingness takes us to a more commonplace but all the more fundamental concern of life and death.

Right from the outset, the fictional universe in Beckett is haunted by an anxiety over its ontological and hermeneutic indeterminacy. Textual boundaries are always already threatened by an overflow of meanings, crisscrossing of signifier-signified, and more fundamentally, by the very linguistic existence of text. Therefore, again, we are traversing the shades of grey in the world tagged “unheeded neither”. In essence, the shadow march “from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither” is ghosting both of being and nothingness, a march that ends up puncturing and punctuating both being and nothingness through deflection and inflection, and that too at the same time (258).

Martin Heidegger assigns cardinal role to language in the processual emergence of being. “Language is the house of being. In its home man dwells”, he tells us (217). What Heidegger describes as “the house of being”, Beckett calls it the “unspeakable home” ringing with the sound of “unheard footfalls” (Beckett 258). The unspeakability of home which is reflective of oxymoronic impossibility of “unheard footfalls” points to the paradox of language as it conceals what it purports to convey. Being, then, is an implied presence. It is implied in language games that continually return to the self without ever reaching it. “They must continue to speak,” Harry Vandervlist comments on the lingual existence of Beckett’s protagonists, “and thus construct themselves in language, even after it becomes clear to them that language may conceal something silenced, something outside naming and outside intersubjectivity” (185). Language does conceal nothingness that punctures and punctuates language with silence but can it ever step outside the intersubjective space it presupposes? The nothingness of silence hides behind the haze of language; the silence which occasionally seeps through, but that which never is entirely absent from language. Also, language is the process and the product of intersubjectivity, and it cannot help being intersubjective. This is how, in Beckett, language as the “medial poetics of existence” assumes the rights of the existent (Sloterdijk 80). Maurice Blanchot, though found in an opposing camp to that of Peter Sloterdijk, apparently may help us negotiate between meaninglessness and meaningfulness, silence and speech, subjectivity and intersubjectivity, being and nothingness or what in Beckett appears as a curious choice between “estrangement” of being from itself and “negation” of itself by itself (Knowlson 283). His travelogue from “Being” to “nothingness” records the space in-between:

But what is between the two opposites? A nothingness more essential than Nothingness itself—the void of an interval that continually hollows itself out and in hollowing itself out becomes distended: the nothing as work and movement. […] Of course, the third term, that of synthesis, will fill this void and close the interval; in principle, nonetheless, it does not do away with it but rather maintains it by accomplishing it, realizes it in its very lack, […] and thus makes of this lack a capacity, another possibility.

Infinite Conversation 7

Clearly, it is a Beckettian possibility emanating from “neither” as opposed to the Joycean strategy of “Not only but also” (Rathjen 95). It is a nothing that, from its inner contradictions, translates into something. This “another possibility” which takes its origin from the void, neither pretending to be Being nor flaunting its Nothingness, is located on the site of excluded middle. No other text dramatizes this possibility in form and action better than “neither”. As a typical Beckettian character, the effigy of being traverses the liminal space between silence and speech, meaningfulness and meaninglessness, activity and stasis, being and nothingness, life and death.

The text is emblematic of the fact that the space is the register of self. Therefore, haziness of the spatial register in the text is reflective of the befuddlement of the self. This double movement that emerges as a norm in Beckett’s oeuvre entails mutual cancellation. The double helix model of self and space supported by a tense web of mutual negations is ontological structure being proffered here. In Beckett, space is actual other because of its material presence at hand in contrast to the largely solipsistic other others. Decimated particulars of the space correlate with the debris of imploded self. Thus, interstitial space and intermediary identity are conjoined. Confusion in space governs the perceptual domain. The imagery hovers between visual and auditory, light and sound. The conflict seeps within the sensuous categories and synthesizes impossible perceptions like “light unfading” and soundless sound of “unheard footfalls”. It is on these undulations, the “unheeded neither” floats the narrative.

The praxis of complementary annihilation is heralded in Beckett in his early text “The End”: “The sea, the sky, the mountains and the islands closed in and crushed me in a mighty systole, then scattered to the uttermost confines of space” (113). By obliterating the protagonist, the elements obliterate themselves as with the elimination of the perceiver, the perceived are gone. This displacement of agency from the perceiver to the perceived marks the flow of entropy in Beckett’s texts. The subsequent lines in the same text that skeptically comment upon the story being told also seem to indicate the triumvirate structure of dissolution where self, space and text are tangled in a mutually destructive embrace: “The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life” (113). Garin Dowd is convinced of the narrative bind between body and space in Beckett: “In the process of being assembled and constructed, body and structure are subject to intermingling” (369–370). And, “In architectural terms the three components identified—text, inhabitant, edifice—are subjected to mutual interpenetration”, he adds (370, emphasis in original). In “neither”, we see emptying out of the hermeneutics of the triad of self, space and language. Language is chaotic, space contradictory and sentience muddled.

The light that gently “unfades” rather than shine upon the face of “unheeded neither” in the middle of “unspeakable home” is birthing of a ghost of being. As Bachelard points out, house and its daydream is always already involved with the formation of psyche. So, despite its intractability, the text comes to anchor itself at “home”, which though still “unspeakable”, and by extension unwelcoming, inhospitable, and uninhabitable is home nonetheless. And, despite being no different from the outside world, it is one of the two “lit refuges”. What is the other—its Other? Since both are “lit”, they are indistinguishable in terms of vision. There are no further ocular marks to differentiate between the inner and outer domains. Because of non-localization of the source of “unheard footfalls”, the difference cannot be traced in the auditory images either. Consequently, aporias pile up without offering any relief to reason or logic—classical or modern.

Adding to the pile, there is the question of time whom Beckett christened as “that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation” (Proust 11). There are three temporal movements. The repetitive use of temporal phrase “for good” punctuates the text and divides it into before and after. It seems as if the infinitude of “for good” is located at the cusp of circular and linear time. Although “for good” in itself can be taken as a mark of linearity, it occurs in the text more like a bump than a culmination, much less the culmination. To and fro movement both of the person hinted at and the door referred to betrays a world caught in a circular loop. Therefore, the time before the occurrence of “for good” is cyclical and repetitive.

The end section stages post time or post death that is surprisingly ordered temporally despite the chaos of senses. After the subsiding of the footfalls “for good” and the conclusive absenting both of “self and other” marches in chronicity of “then no sound” and “then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither”. The word “then” here is a normative marker of dependable and very structured linearity of time. Therefore, the concluding section though still trading in oxymoron offers a tentative affirmation. The text ends with a familiar word which though “unspeakable” is “home” nonetheless. So, the structure both of time and space is being restored. This restoration in turn opens up a clearing and creates a possibility of an ontological presence.

Commenting upon dialectics of Beckett’s work in his Negative Dialectics, Adorno identifies this possibility as “the haven of hope” and locates it in “the no-man’s-land” which itself lies “between the border-posts of being and nothingness” (381). He further prescribes, “Rather than overcome that zone, consciousness would have to extricate from it what is not in the power of the alternative” (381). The consciousness, thus formed out of the distension of nothingness is above and beyond the scope of alternatives because it is “something that just hover[s]” (Knowlson). Adorno again reflects, “Out of the fissure of inconsistency […], the image-world of nothingness appears as something, which moors his poetry” (381). “The image world of nothingness” stems out of the negation of negation and creates a space for some form of ontological possibility on which it reflexively comments upon.

What is the mode of this interstitial being? How does this inbetweenness unfold ontologically? And, what form does it assume because, as is evident, despite its elusiveness, “neither” is an exercise in form-making. The missing subject of the sentence bespeaks a tentative subjecthood that is “heedless of way” but paradoxically intent on one gleam or the other. The subjectless sentence hints at the headless subject. The bifurcation of the subject, its fundamental duality as “self” and “unself”, is mirrored in the division of light in one gleam or the other. Confusion of the mind is apparent in perceptual dissonance. Psychosis is creating oxymoronic possibilities that can be read as fresh attempts at synthesization. The plastic self seems to emerge from the plastique eventality. This emergence can perhaps be best described by using the concept of plasticity propounded by Catherine Malabou, an eminent contemporary French philosopher who combines psychoanalysis, neuroscience and phenomenology to trace the formation of selfhood. Plasticity designates a dialectical movement. In her own words,

The term “plasticity,” one should recall, has three principal significations. On one hand, it designates the capacity of certain materials, such as clay or plaster, to receive form. On the other hand, it designates the power to give form—the power of a sculptor or a plastic surgeon. But, finally, it also refers to the possibility of the deflagration or explosion of every form—as when one speaks of “plastique,” “plastic explosive,” or, in French, plastiquage (which simply means “bombing”). The notion of plasticity is thus situated at both extremes of the creation and destruction of form.

17

It is precisely the third signification of plasticity, as the destructive plasticity, which seems to approximate the movement of Beckett’s text. The text raises, to borrow from Malabou, “the vertiginous question of the psyche’s survival of its own annihilation” (56, emphasis in original). It is a tale of disintegration of psyche or of a psyche whose praxis is disintegration.

The story perhaps (since Beckett insists that it is a story) is the story of a wound. Instead of telling about the wound, Beckett allows the wound to narrate its story. It is a rupture unfolding in the middle of space, time, language and sentience, and by extension in self. It is a psychic wound that festers. Its life is precisely in festering; its rot is alive with creative possibilities. It is a wound in self that is not available for conscious scrutiny by itself. It is a wound whose very opacity turns it into its own other. This unavailability of the wound to itself positions it on the edge of existence, threatening to turn it into a thing. It is a thing, all the same, because of its sheer impenetrability. But the internal contradictions invest it with life, with its thingness being challenged by its vacillation between existence and non-existence. This wound is border that becomes the territory. It is an outside that has folded into an inside. It is a Deleuzian fold that folds upon itself and turns into a being. It is space turning into self; it is a self merging into the space. It tells about the emergence of “the apparition of a new face of plasticity” (Malabou 17).

To Malabou, destructive plasticity designates a regime of events that lives the paradox of creation and destruction, and “ultimately remains an adventure of form” (17). Destructive plasticity “is precisely the plasticity of the wound through which the permanent dislocation of one identity forms another identity—an identity that is neither the sublation nor the compensatory replica of the old form, but rather, literally, a form of destruction” (18). It is a paradox because it shows that “destruction is a form that forms, that destruction might indeed constitute a form of psychic life. The formative-destructive power of the wound, as we are attempting to think it now, may thus be articulated in this way: All suffering is formative of the identity that endures it” (18, emphasis in original).

However, there is remarkably little suffering in the text. Although one might look for some form of “objective correlative”, there is not a single emotive word in the text. The loss of affect is at the core of this breakdown. The language of coldness and apathy evidences an emotional dissociation with whatever is going on. It is the poetry of the rupture, the narrative of decay. An extreme focus on the lived instant, in the likeness of a laser beam which cuts anything it strikes, with an absence of emotion and complete divestment from memory, informs the text. The exasperation with the alternatives is indicative of prevalent mood of disaffection. Nothing appeals to the self so nothing holds the self in place. Memory is similarly absent. A wedge exists between memory and cognition. There is no past to fall back upon and no future to look forward to. Malabou also speaks of “wounds that cut the thread of history, place history outside itself, suspend its course, and remain hermeneutically ‘irrecoverable’ even though the psyche remains alive” (27).2 The emergent psyche is “characterized by disaffection or coolness. A bottomless absence” (49). Malabou further asserts, “There is a manifest link between traumatic wounds and behavioral disaffection” (49). And the resultant loss of emotionality “produces a sort of nihilism in the patient, an absolute indifference, a coolness that visibly annihilates all difference and all dimensionality” (51). With the annihilation of all difference and dimensionality, the Beckettian self is left scrambling to give a new dimensionality to its world and itself.

So, what comes out is an engagement rather than an outcome: a relentless quest for form, a simultaneous obsession and distrust with the alternatives, a breakdown of decision making ability because no choice is good enough and everything is like everything else and, above all, a regime of incessant dialectics.

1

Self, psyche and being have been used interchangeably in this essay firstly because, in the contemporary non-specialist discourse, these words have come to mean the same thing and secondly, owing to the traffic between the disciplines to which these terms originally belong, boundaries between these terms have got sufficiently blurred to create room for such conflation.

2

Catherine Malabou considers the actual wound to be aleatory, senseless and meaningless. The sheer force of absurdity of the trauma grants it its lethal aspect: “Coolness, neutrality, absence, and the state of being emotionally ‘flat’ are the basic indexes of the meaninglessness of wounds that have the power to cause a metamorphosis which destroys individual history, that cannot be reintegrated into the normal course of a life or a destiny, and that, therefore, must be recognized as such even though it is impossible to categorize them as neurosis, psychosis, or, more vaguely, ‘madness’ ” (53).

Works Cited

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  • Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas, Beacon, 1994.

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  • Gontarsky, Stanley. E. “Introduction: From Unabandoned Works: Samuel Beckett’s Short Prose”. The Complete Short Prose: 1929–1989, by Samuel Beckett, edited by S.E. Gontarski, Grove, 1995, pp. 10–32.

  • Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on Humanism.” Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964). Translated by Frank A. Capuzzi, edited by David Farrell Krell, Routledge, 1993, pp. 213–265.

  • Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. Simon & Schuster, 1996.

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  • McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. Routledge, 2003.

  • Rathjen, Friedhelm. “The Magic Triangle: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Arno Schmidt.” Samuel Beckett: Endlessness in the Year 2000, edited by Angela Moorjani and Carola Veit, Rodopi, 2001, pp. 92–100.

  • Sloterdijk, Peter. Bubbles. Translated by Wieland Hoban, Semiotext(e), 2011.

  • Tubridy, Derval. “Beckett, Feldman, Salcedo … Neither.” Beckett and Nothing: Trying to Understand Beckett, edited by Daniela Caselli, Manchester UP, 2012, pp. 14359.

  • Vandervlist, Harry. ““A Voice from Elsewhere”: Impossible Survivals and the Annihilating Power of Language in Beckett’s Fiction.” Beckett On and On…, edited by Lois Oppenheim and Marius Buning, Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1996, pp. 178–186.

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