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Beckett, Samuel Johnson and the 'Vacuity of Life'

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Title of host publicationBeckett/Philosophy
DatePublished - 2012
PublisherSofia University Press
Place of PublicationSofia
EditorsMatthew Feldman, Karim Mamdani
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

In the “Human Wishes” notebooks, Beckett draws a complex picture of Dr. Johnson, favouring the moralist devoured by love for Mrs. Thrale and the autopsy-defying medical enigma over the moral and political writer at the centre of literary London. The fickle, inconsistent and atomised figure that emerges
from these fragments, a voice reduced to a catalogue of anecdotes and aphorisms, is far removed from the Johnson later celebrated by Beckett as his faithful and ubiquitous shadow. How, then, might we reconcile Beckett’s readings of and claims about Johnson? Drawing upon the important body of scholarship dealing with Johnson’s influence, this article argues for the necessity of reading the significance of Johnson for Beckett in terms other than those addressed in Beckett’s oeuvre and acknowledges Johnson as an astute observer of that which lies beyond the boundaries of philosophical concern, rather than simply as a reservoir of idiosyncrasies and witticisms. Indeed, there is a strong case for understanding Beckett’s other Sam as a maverick humanist concerned with the ‘vacuity of life’, receptive to melancholy as a source of profound insight, enamoured with social justice and indignant about English policy in Ireland. Locating Beckett’s interest in Johnson at the level of the latter’s aspirations towards a moral and political philosophy carries important implications for Beckett’s peculiar reimagining of Johnson in an Irish context. Here, such Hibernisation is shown to operate as a vehicle for a pessimistic humanism inferred from Johnsonian morals, in which the possibility of betterment is overshadowed by the vicissitudes of the capricious mind.

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