Nominalisms Ancient and Modern: Samuel Beckett, the Pre/Post/Modernist?

Nominalisms Ancient and Modern: Samuel Beckett, the Pre/Post/Modernist?

Holly Phillips

While describing the work of Beckett as deeply influenced by nominalism, Holly Phillips explores “ineffable permutations of intellectual history” and demonstrates how medieval philosophy has deeply influenced twentieth century literature. Simultaneously, Phillips undermines the idea that nominalism’s dismantlement of universals has finally been accomplished by postmodernism.


Let me begin, as Brian McHale does in “What Was Postmodernism?” (2012), by quoting from Raymond Federman’s novel Aunt Rachel’s Fur (2001). McHale likes to remember his friend, first and foremost, as a “notorious” member of the first generation of American postmodernists. To me, however, as a scholar of modernism, Federman is most familiar as a Beckettian of great renown. Indeed, Samuel Beckett haunts the quote that McHale selects from that novel to illustrate postmodernism’s passing. At this point in Aunt Rachel’s Fur, a character, based closely on Federman himself, unleashes a tirade against the assistant editor of a French publishing house, named Gaston, who has just turned down the manuscript of Federman’s first novel because it is “too postmodern”:

So you find my novel too postmodern, wrong again Gaston, you’ve arrived too late, we are already beyond postmodernism, it’s dead, dead and gone, don’t you know, it’s been buried, where have you been, and that’s precisely the problem for literature today, now that postmodernism is dead, writers don’t know how to replace it, the disappearance of postmodernism was devastating for the writers, but it was not surprising, it was expected to happen for some time, the last gasp happened the day Samuel Beckett changed tense and joined the angels, I can give you an exact date if you want to, postmodernism died because Godot never came. (245)

If Beckett’s “changing tense” on December 22, 1989 was postmodernism’s last gasp then perhaps it first spluttered into life, surely not with Beckett’s birth on Good Friday 1906, but with the culmination his great aesthetic transition. At the beginning of the 1930s Beckett started out as an aspirant Joycean: keen to know, keen to control that knowledge, and prone to drown his work in erudition. But by the end of the Second World War, he had transformed into a humble “non‐knower” - a “non-canner” (Knowlson 353). During this period, Beckett had become gradually convinced that his master, Joyce, had “gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material.” Observing that Joyce was always “adding” to his material, as his heavily amended proofs testify, Beckett “realized that [his] own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding” (qtd. in Knowlson 319). This revelation, however, was hard won.

Writing at the beginning of the 1930s, immature and frustrated but with a great admiration for his modernist masters Proust and Joyce, Beckett produced a number of wild, libidinous works. Works like Whoroscope (1930), a dense and witty poem dealing with the personal, public, and philosophical life of René Descartes, and Beckett’s bewildering (and unpublishable) first “novel” Dream of Fair to middling Women (1932), groaned under the weight of two millennia’s worth of Western intellectual culture, the details defining a transitional time in Beckett’s life. For Beckett, these were years of directionless travel, commercial failure, and crippling self-doubt. But they also marked his entry into a prolonged period of what Matthew Feldman calls “intellectual gestation” (92). Turning from the “loutishness of learning” that Beckett associates in the early poem “Gnome” with his time in the academy, he pursued a course of autodidacticism that would be “vital for the breakthrough achieved in the ‘frenzy of writing’ between 1945 and 1950” (“Gnome” 9; Feldman 92). Beckett’s learning chiefly took the form of an extensive and systematic process of reading and note-taking on no less than the entire history of Western philosophy, from Thales to Nietzsche.

As Beckett’s erudition became increasingly formidable during this time, though, a strange thing happened. He began in his writing a process of aesthetic subtraction - a paring away of knowledge, the terminus of which can be heard in the singular gasp of the late dramatic work, “Breath” (1969). Occurring alongside this aesthetic contraction was a pronounced change in Beckett’s personality. Describing Beckett as a young man in the early 1930s, Beckett’s close friend and biographer James Knowlson is unflinching: Beckett was “arrogant, disturbed, [and] narcissistic” (173). In 1936, writing with painful self-awareness, Beckett seemed to pre-empt Knowlson’s judgement in a letter to his long-time correspondent Thomas McGreevy:

For years I was unhappy, consciously & deliberately ever since I left school & went to T.C.D., so that I isolated myself more & more, undertook less & less & lent myself to a crescendo - of disparagement of others & myself […] The misery & solitude & apathy & the sneers were the elements of an index of superiority & guaranteed the feeling of arrogant “otherness.” (Fehsenfeld and Overbeck eds. 186)

Yet from these unbecoming beginnings Beckett evolved, as Knowlson goes on to describe, “into someone who was noted later for his extraordinary kindness, courtesy, concern, generosity and almost saintly ‘good works’ ” (173). One of the keys to Beckett’s transition lies, I argue, in the detail of his reading.

As the 1930s progressed, Beckett was increasingly drawn to texts that affirmed humility as a central tenet. Amid the more lurid details he took from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1691), for example, Beckett recorded the following significant statement in the so-called Dream Notebook: “parvus sum nullus sum altum nec spiro nec spero” (“I am insignificant, a nobody, with little ambition and small prospects”) (Pilling ed. 104). Beckett’s subsequent readings of Arthur Schopenhauer, Thomas à Kempis, and Arnold Geulincx established, as Chris Ackerley writes, a “foundation of the doubt and self-worthlessness, or bêtisement, underpinning much of his work” (Ackerley 2000, 86). So Beckett’s great learning, begun in the modernist tradition of Pound and Joyce, became paradoxically a means of distancing himself from that tradition and observing, like Geulincx’s “spectator,” will-less, powerless, and from without (qtd. in Ackerley 2010a, 29).

Reflecting on her conversations with Beckett, Anne Atik wrote that he long “feared erudition swamping the authenticity of a work” (52). Although these so-called “Philosophy Notes” only added to that store of knowledge, they also document Beckett’s encounter with a philosophical doctrine that would eventually free him from its tyranny, and prove as decisive for Beckett’s own aesthetic development as it had for the course of Western civilization: nominalism.



First, a brief thought experiment.This thought experiment originates in Paul Vincent Spade’s introduction to Five Texts on the Medieval Problem of Universals: Porphyry, Boethius, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Ockham (vii-viii). Consider the two capital letters above. Ignore everything else about them and for now observe only that they are of the same color; they are both black.

As you look at these two letters, how many colors do you see? Two different answers are plausible. You may want to say you see only one color here, blackness. You see it twice, once in each of the capitals, but it is the same color in both cases. After all, did I not just say that the two letters were “of the same color”? Isn’t that obvious by just looking at them? If you assent to this, then you also assent to the fact that this single blackness is the kind of entity that is repeatable, found intact in both letters at the same time; it is what philosophers call a “universal.” If this is your answer, then you believe in the reality of at least one universal, and are in that sense a “realist” on the question.

Now reset your mental apparatus and look at the two letters again. On second glance, isn’t it obvious that you see two colors here, two blacknesses: the blackness of the first A, this blackness, and then the blackness of the second A, that blackness? The two colors look exactly alike, yes, but aren’t they visually as distinct as the two letters themselves? If this is your answer then you do not believe in the reality of universals (at least not in this case) and are a “nominalist” on the question, as Beckett is often assumed to be. Beckett’s work, with its emphasis on precariousness, ignorance, and disintegration, broadly aligns with the nominalist side of this dichotomy. For Beckett, then, this would mean that the A’s represent two individual blacknesses, bereft of a universal ur-black in which to participate. The two A’s wait, like Vladimir and Estragon, for a deliverance into the universal blackness that never comes. This is all very well, but, aside from leaving the flashes of transcendence that also punctuate Beckett’s work unaccounted for, a purely epistemological account of this alliance obscures the fact that Beckett first encountered nominalism as a historically embedded phenomenon - one not even modern, let alone postmodern, but medieval.

Historically speaking, nominalistic epistemology is the product of an 11th-century scholarly dispute at the University of Paris.The précis here derives from Richard J. Utz’s excellent article “Medievalism as Modernism: Alfred Andersch’s Nominalist Littérature Engagée (1993), 79-80. Since antiquity, epistemology had been dominated by Platonic idealism which held that universals were the only true reality and hence the chief prerequisite of any true knowledge. During the early 12th-century disputes on universals (Universalienstreit), this position was challenged for the first time. Deriving from Aristotle’s undecided statement on the status of universals as reported by Boethius in his Commentaries on Porphyry, two main opinions developed: the nominalists, for example, John Roscelin, defined universals as mere voces, that is to say, mere “voiced air,” or as nomina, mere names (hence “nominalists”), or abstract concepts with only a very low degree of reality; the extreme Platonic realists, for example, William of Champeaux, held that universals were res, or things prior to sensible individual objects, and that they represented the highest degree of epistemological reality. A preliminary synthesis of the problem was reached later by Peter Abelard, a student of both Roscelin and William of Champeaux.

Though Roscelin found himself accused of heresy for employing his theories to undermine the doctrine of the Trinity, this earlier medieval nominalism was on the whole purely academic and triggered few reactions outside institutions of higher learning. The opposite is true of late-medieval nominalism, which shares only a few epistemological details with Roscelin and Abelard. It started as a conservative theological reaction to what nominalists saw as the limitation of God’s omnipotence by rationalistic 13th-century metaphysics. Thomas Aquinas and others had maintained that human reason could prove even the existence of God. The nominalists denied the status to human ratio of a capability to plumb this mystery. Following William of Ockham, they concentrated on God’s absolute power and postulated two strictly separate levels of truth: a religious truth of revelation, which was the only secure truth and gained by faith alone, or a contingent, secular truth gained by human thought. Such separation of truth resulted in a shift of interest from transcendence towards immanence. The secular sphere lost its character as mere significans and gained importance as a worthwhile subject of investigation, thereby freeing philosophy and the natural sciences from their position as mere ancillae theologiae. Late-medieval nominalism was thus a force of ideas that determined the development of European intellectual life.

It is crucial to note that this view on the importance of late-medieval nominalism is relatively recent. Given the lack of scholarship on late-medieval nominalism in general and the Thomist orientation of early 20th-century theology, the significance of the doctrine was minimized when it was not totally ignored. Beckett encountered nominalism in precisely this critical landscape, beginning in 1932 when he took some four hundred pages of notes from Wilhelm Windelband’s synoptic volume: A History of Philosophy (1901). Windelband, an academic philosopher in fin-de-siècle Germany, was a neo-Kantian committed to the revival of philosophy as a “system of norms” (Addyman and Feldman 759). Only through the study of European philosophy as a “connected and interrelated whole,” he believed, could the discipline retain its integrity in the face of contemporary foes such as “historicism, naturalism, positivism, and materialism” (Windelband x; Beiser 2). This quest led not only to Windelband’s minimizing of nominalism in his History (the doctrine is passed over in a single page), but perhaps inspired Beckett’s contrarian attempts to excise dry, isolated, and laborious details from the work; these details he would later term “the straws, flotsam, etc., names, dates, births & deaths” that were all that could be known (Nixon ed. 178).

The forces that Windelband set himself against, and that Beckett’s excisions seemed to intuit, are recognizably “modern.” They are directed toward the immanent, and reflect what Fredric Jameson calls a “repudiation of the universal” that anticipated nominalism’s rebirth in 20th-century thought (152). Nominalism, you see, had the audacity of happening twice: first as the force that cleaved medieval ratio from fides, and second as the central presupposition of 20th-century intellectual culture. As Borges pronounced in 1947, “No one [today] says that he is a Nominalist, because nobody is anything else” (231). Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith provide a useful summary of the many major 20th-century critics who used ancient and medieval theologies to diagnose European and American modernism and postmodernism against a background of “modern” nominalism:

From Roland Barthes’s punctum to Pierre Bourdieu’s use of the scholastic concept of habitus; from Martin Heidegger’s early and continued fascination with intention in the work of John Duns Scotus and Thomas of Erfurt to Fredric Jameson’s engagement with the fourfold model of allegorical interpretation; [and] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s haecceitas (after Scotus) (1)

In addition, a more general engagement with the Middle Ages can be seen in the work of Julia Kristeva, Slavoj Žižek, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom find elements of medieval thought “strikingly analogous” to postmodern sensibilities (1). This turn to medieval theology also found early creative expression in Jose Luis Borges’ short story, ‘Funes the Memorious’ (1942), where, after a fall from a horse, protagonist Ireneo Funes is cursed with remembering absolutely everything. The circumstances of his eidetic recollection leaves Fune, like the nominalist, frustrated with language’s generalities. He first proposes, as Locke did, a language ‘in which each individual thing, each stone, each bird and each branch would have its own name’ (93). However, Funes’ prodigious memory demands an even finer granularity of naming - this system is ‘too general to him, too ambiguous’ in a world of ‘intolerably uncountable’ details (93, 96).

Medieval nominalism was irrevocably bound to the postmodern project in Umberto Eco’s famous work of historical fiction, The Name of the Rose (1980) where William (an implied disciple of Ockham) uses a nominalist logic to unravel the dark mysteries of the abbey. Though Jameson diagnoses “the one uniquely privileged symptom” of postmodernism as “a loss of historicity,” the partial recuperation of the medieval “Other” by late 20th-century theorists contains, within itself, a strange sense of a work completed, or, even, a prophesy fulfilled: nominalism is “finalized” in the radical indeterminism of postmodernist art (x). As Jameson concludes:

it follows, to take only the most dramatic examples of such denial of the transcendent, that social classes do not exist, or that, in literary history, concepts like “modernism” are crude substitutes for that very different and qualitatively discriminate experience of reading an individual text (about which there is no longer even any point in identifying it as somehow “modernist”). Contemporary thought and culture are in this sense profoundly nominalist (to expand a diagnosis Adorno made about the tendencies of modern art), Postmodernism more thoroughly so than anything that preceded it. (185)

In Jameson’s paradigm, then, Beckett’s “nominalist” repudiation of Joyce’s universalism (his preference for aesthetic “subtraction” over “addition”) exists as a microcosm of postmodernism’s broader evacuation of the utopian promises of modernism. In turn, this moment in the history of 20th-century ideas echoes late-medieval nominalism’s curtailing of the power of finite human ratio when confronted by an infinite God. Amid these ineffable permutations of intellectual history remains the question of postmodernism’s periodization that in this essay I hope to address. The place of Beckett’s nominalist art in such an effort to historicize postmodernism is perhaps best approached via textual specifics. What follows is intended as an overview of how Beckett’s nominalist reading manifested in two of his mid-century novels, Murphy (1936) and Watt (1945). Here I argue that the nominalist orientation of these works represents, chiefly, the attitude of impotent humility that Beckett had developed towards his great erudition, as opposed to any sense of “completing” the work of medieval thinkers.


Critics have identified Murphy as the “peak” of Beckett’s grafting technique, and so, one would assume, the peak of Beckett’s Joycean-style universalism (Ackerley 2010a 10). However, as Ackerley stresses, the novel manages to draw on the “intense cerebration” of Beckett’s early years, yet avoid “the manifest flaws and arrogance of other early works” like Dream and More Kicks (Ackerley 2010a 10). Instead of the gaudy plagiarisms that characterize these early pieces, in Murphy Beckett’s erudition functions as part of “a private dialogue.” Instead of dancing to the tune of Joyce’s “universal music” that reached its climax in Finnegans Wake, Beckett uses vague echoes to cultivate an aesthetic distance from his sources. Beckett’s new critical “distance” from his learning allowed him not only to deploy it with subtlety, but also to make humbler claims of the details accumulated: they are merely “straws of knowledge” - “straws of understanding,” not in themselves restorative, but material with which Beckett’s “imagination might break or build” (Ackerley 2010a 20).

Mirroring Beckett’s new distance from his learning, he begins Murphy with an image of the world as a fixed mechanism: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” (3). Combining elements of Biblical scripture with fragments from Heraclitus, Beckett sets up the “big world” as a “deterministic machine” (Ackerley 2010a 28). Both Murphy and Beckett are merely spectators, powerless to shape the eventual outcome. Murphy, “naked in his rocking chair” (3), attempts, as Belacqua did in Dream before him, to enter a “Limbo purged of desire” (Dream 38). His quest echoes the crucial sentiment in Geulincx’s Ethica: “Sum igitur nudus speculator hujus machinae. In ea nihil ego vel refingo; nec struo quidquam hîc, nec destruo; totam id alterius cujusdam opus est” [I am therefore merely the spectator of this machine. In it I produce nothing, nor reproduce nothing; nor do I construct here, nor deconstruct; all that is the work of someone else] (qtd. in Ackerley 2010a 29). Murphy’s self-imposed exile takes on a distinctly nominalist motivation.

In Murphy, Beckett creates a world where words consistently miss their mark. Eco’s Name of the Rose provides a useful postmodern complement. There, nominalist theologian William explains to the novice Adso: “a book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things. Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts; therefore it is dumb” (396). Murphy, anticipating Watt, dramatizes speechlessness. When Murphy attempts to elucidate his “monstrous proposition” - that work will cost him some combination of Celia, his body, or his mind - Celia feels, “as she felt so often with Murphy, spattered with words that went dead as soon as they sounded; each word obliterated, before it had time to make sense, by the word that came next; so that in the end she did not know what had been said” (27). Though Celia is the “eye” (the Other) that perceives Murphy, his words (the signs) fail to generate concepts (universals) as they should, and they remain “demented particulars.” According to the dictates of Beckett’s nominalism, Murphy’s signs remain “dumb,” so instead of staying to read them, he tries to take flight into the “little world” of his mind (107). However, when confronted with the sightless eyes of the catatonic Mr Endon, Murphy realizes that to experience the same kind of deliverance, he would have to pay with his sanity.

It is in Murphy that Beckett begins to intimate that the only way to avoid being shackled to the realist system of the “big world” is to never have been born at all. Ordered back to Stillorgan by a disgruntled civic Guardsman, Neary agrees: “back to the cell, blood heat, next best thing to never being born, no heroes, no fisc” (30). Later, taking this logic to its conclusion, he curses, “first the day in which he was born, then - in a bold flash-back - the night in which he was conceived” (31). Neary’s reflections echo the classic dictum, as copied by Beckett into the Whoroscope Notebook: “Optimum non nasci, aut cito mori” [L. ‘the best is not to be born, but to die quickly’]. The sentiment appears in Geulincx’s Ethica; in Burton’s Anatomy; and as the epigraph to Otto Rank’s The Trauma of Birth, cited from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy” (qtd. in Ackerley 69). Earlier, Belacqua had wished very much to be “back in the caul,” on his back in the dark forever; but in Murphy this desire surpasses the uterine experience and is transformed into a will to return to the inorganic. This retreat Murphy eventually makes when his physical remains are swept away with “the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit” (164).

This will to the inanimate nominalist fragment is ultimately a flight from suffering. In 1926 Beckett accompanied his father to All Saints Church at Blackrock to hear his father’s friend, Canon Dobbs, deliver a sermon. Dobbs spoke about his pastoral visits to the sick, the suffering, the dying, and the bereaved. “What gets me down,” he said, “is pain. The only thing I can tell them is that the crucifixion was only the beginning. You must contribute to the kitty” (Knowlson 67). This argument appalled Beckett. The notion that suffering is somehow part of a divine plan beyond human understanding was an insult to the suffering individual. In Murphy this memory is transformed into Miss Counihan’s sneering jibe that Celia’s suffering over Murphy is her penny worth for “the post-golgothan kitty” (138). For Beckett, to subsume individual suffering under a universal banner is a savage consequence of the system of Christian-Platonic Realism, to which the nominalist ethic offered an imperfect alternative. Ultimately, though, any alternative that such an ethic can provide is but “palliation” - a treatment of suffering for which there is no cure (38). Ackerley comments: “if life is suffering than only sympathy can be a fundamental ethical feeling; but this alleviation of the hurt is but a palliative for it does not abolish the will, and with the will unhappiness remains” (2010a 78). Only through his study of medieval nominalism, however, could Beckett begin to craft in his writing a fidelity to individual suffering that was stripped of all transcendental qualities. Thus the ethic that emerges in Murphy is one that anticipates that which was recognized in 1969 when Beckett won the Nobel Prize: the “muffled minor key sounding liberation to the oppressed, and comfort to those in need” (Gierow, “Award Ceremony Speech”).

As Knowlson affirms, the critical feature of Beckett’s next novel, Watt (1945), is its “comic attack” on the rationality that Beckett associated with his recent trauma at the hands of the “rationalistic barbarism” of Nazi bureaucracy (334, 336). In the novel, Watt’s efforts to know his master, Knott, take the “form of a frustrated mystical quest, but one sustained by a different Cartesian framework” (Ackerley 2010b 19). Watt attempts to apply the Cartesian Méthode to his master - in Arsene’s word, to “eff the ineffable.” However, the essence of Knott’s being is inaccessible to Watt’s rational understanding, and his quest leads only to insanity.

Despite Watt’s predecessor, Arsene, warning that Knott is “unutterable” or “ineffable” - a term borrowed from Geulincx, where it glosses the unknowable conjunction of body and mind - Watt persists in his belief that a rational and “complete enumeration” of his master’s particulars will, in the Cartesian style, reveal his essence (218). Instead, language and things begin inexorably to peel away from one another; langue disassembles into utterance. Several “incidents of note” occur after the visit of the piano tuners, the Galls father and son; for Watt, these events take on “a purely plastic content” and gradually lose “all meaning, even the most literal” (225). This “fragility of the outer meaning had a bad effect on Watt” (226). The “eccentricities of his syntax” become ever graver, until his speech is utterly indecipherable (272). Instead of revealing the universal Knott, Watt ends up, for all his efforts to “saddle” these events with meaning, with “a pillow of old words” (230, 262). Fulfilling William’s caution to Adso in The Name of the Rose, Watt’s experiences and utterances become so singular, so radically nominalist in orientation, that they eventually generate no concepts and fall “dumb.” The gulf between is nowhere more evident than in Watt’s exasperating encounter with the pot, when he finds himself in the midst of things which, “if they consented to be named, did so with reluctance” (232). Looking at a pot, for example:

or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr. Knott’s pots, of one of Mr. Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answers, with unexceptional adequacy, all the purposes, and performed all the offices of a pot, it was not a pot. And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt. (232-3)

In the galleys, Beckett was particular about the capitalization of the two “forms” of “Pot/pot,” intimating the Ideal and particular (qtd. in Ackerley 2010b 99). The latter misses the former by a hairbreadth. Robbed of the universals that Watt’s Cartesian Method promised to yield, he is left with particulars that are utterly incoherent.

Watt continues to try. He bears what Kenner calls “the Cartesian cross,” and pursues rationality into absurdity; he will eventually have to pay with his sanity (qtd. in Harvey 55). Evidence of his efforts are the truth-tables that pepper the novel (these often contain errors, most deliberate, but others inadvertent), and in his rambling exegeses where Watt seeks “the possible relations between such series as these, the series of dogs, the series of men, the series of pictures, to mention only these series” (278). “So it was necessary,” begins Watt’s chronicle of the famished dog (241): from the simple premise that if a dog’s dish is put outside at evening full and comes back the next morning empty, then it follows that someone or something must have wrought that change. This turns into an outrageous parody of the Scholastic method, in which Watt creates not only a dog, but a famished one, and a large and intricate family of dog breeders. Though the saga is introduced with a hypothetical, it ends, many pages later, with a categorical statement: “The name of this dog … was Kate” (259, my italics). Between these two statements is what Ackerley terms a process of “nominalist reification”; the dog, starting as a hypothetical entity, through the power of linguistic reification alone, becomes an empirical fact (2010b 108).

With the rational project devastated and Knott remaining ineffable, Watt lapses into a version of nominalistically-inflected secular quietism. “From the long dead to the far unborn” each of us (Kate included) must pay “nature’s debt” (276, 247). Yet Arsene’s “short statement” earlier intimated that, despite this “debt to pay, there remains a fourth certainty (after birth, existence, and death): the need to express, however irrational that need might seem” (199; Ackerley 2010b 67). The only way to proceed, as Victor explains in Eleuthéria, is “as little as possible” (165). In Watt this means that, like the moving description of the baited bear that Beckett read in Walpole’s Judith Paris (1931), one must turn from one’s tormentors. When assaulted by Lady McCann, Watt takes “takes no more notice of the aggression than if it had been an accident” (193). He remains “faithful to his rule” which, as Ackerley identifies, is “the mode of secular quietism deriving (however unaware Watt may be of this) from De Imitatio Christi of Thomas à Kempis, which had moved Beckett considerably by its quiet intensity, its modesty, and its unflinching acceptance of pain” (Ackerley 2010b 53). Murphy has a similar ethos, and indifference to the contingencies of a contingent world is part of that.

Such indifference intimates a condition of nominalism: “all the sounds, meaning nothing” (199). For Watt’s predecessor, Arsene, something (possibly language) “slips” and he exists “off the ladder” that leads to transcendent understanding (203). Like the pot, Watt undergoes a “loss of species”: as his powers of rationalization erode, he can no longer be sure that he is a man (236). As words begin to fail him and his world becomes unspeakable, he becomes even less of a man. Beckett took issue with any theory of anthropomorphism, including that of anthropology: “the only way one can speak of man, even our anthropologists have realized that, is to speak of him as though he were a termite” (229). This “anthropomorphic insolence,” which Beckett abhorred, is critiqued through the “pre-established arbitrary” of natural phenomena. Though the frog-song in Watt seems to climax in an epiphany of synchronization, this only reflects the arrogant doctrine of Western man’s conception of himself in relation to nature: the conviction of Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things.” Instead, as Arsene concludes after his dubious experience of enlightenment, it remains:

useless not to seek, not to want, for when you cease to seek you start to find, and when you cease to want, then life begins to ram her fish and chips down your gullet until you puke, and then the puke down your gullet until you puke the puke, and then the puked puke until you begin to like it. (203)


It is indeed possible to consider Beckett’s repudiation of Joyce’s universalism as a microcosm of postmodernism’s evacuation of modernism’s utopian promises. Beckett’s encounter with nominalism provided him with a means of averting the savagery of a realist Platonic-Christian worldview that subsumed individual suffering. It was also a position of humility. This conclusion in relation to the historicizing of postmodernism is perhaps not satisfying (this is Beckett, after all), but, for Beckett, nominalism was ultimately an exit from the forces of realism (which underwrite the desire to periodize in the first place). The same conclusion reveals the problematics of the claim by some postmodernist theorists that late 20th-century criticism somehow “completed” the work of medieval thinkers. The work of late-medieval nominalists was theological, aimed at retaining the absolute ineffability of God in the face of encroaching rationalism, and not as an explicit attempt to “repudiate” universals as such. Even in the non-synchronous world of postmodern history, we must be careful not to read history backwards. For Beckett, ultimately, a trace of the transcendent remains. Even Federman, arch-postmodernist, senses this: in his vision Beckett does not disassemble into Atomist’s dust, as he may have desired, and as Murphy does on the floor of a low saloon, but leaves to join the angels.

Works Cited

Ackerley, Chris. Demented Particulars: The Annotated Murphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010a.

———. Obscure Locks, Simple Keys: The Annotated Watt. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010b.

———. “Samuel Beckett and Thomas à Kempis: The Roots of Quietism.” Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui 9 (2000): 81-92.

Addyman, David, and Matthew Feldman. “Samuel Beckett, Wilhelm Windelband and the Interwar ‘Philosophy Notes.’” Modernism/modernity 18:4 (2012): 755–770.

Atik, Anne. How it was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.

Beckett, Samuel. Dream of Fair to middling Women. Eds. Eoin O’Brien and Edith Fournier. Dublin: Black Cat Press, 1992.

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