Samuel Beckett: World and Works
For Samuel Beckett, foreign languages beckoned with the promise that most would associate with literal travel: escape. Mistrustful of himself in his native tongue, and the necessary stylization that he could not staunch, English threatened Beckett with "mispersonification." In his Holtzbrinck Lecture, Leland de la Durantaye, Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of English at Harvard University, pointed to a 1937 letter written by Beckett in "richly flawed" German as an entry into the writer's philosophy on laying siege to language "im Namen der Schönheit" (in the name of beauty).
"More and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it," wrote Beckett in the letter. "Grammar and style! To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Biedermeier bathing suit or the imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask." What would compel such a talented writer to turn so violently on his medium, to urge "logoclasm" upon the written word? De la Durantaye suggests that Beckett's aim was ultimately mimetic: for him, the world was fundamentally chaotic, a mess. This premise was one that music and visual art had long since allowed to permeate their processes, whereas language seemed bound by something "paralyzingly sacred" that prevented its dissolution. Yet Beckett glimpsed another approach to writing, one of subtraction, a movement towards the "un-done," through a willful, energetic misuse of language.
Beckett's counterpoint in this effort, de la Durantaye says, can be found in the writing of his friend James Joyce, which represented, for Beckett, a "sanctification of language," an "integral embrace of word and thing." While Beckett acknowledged the genius of Joyce's work, he stood outside such belief, in the cold rain of calling language unnatural and ultimately arbitrary. Yet it was precisely this determinedly liminal status, de la Durantaye suggests, that prompted Beckett “to make a foreign language his own, and his own language foreign.”