Nothing Experts

Julian Castronovo finds muffins and little plastic words at the Samuel Beckett conference.

By Julian CastronovoJune 14, 2024

    Nothing Experts

    9TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE OF THE SAMUEL BECKETT SOCIETY, Cal State L.A., Los Angeles, June 6–8, 2024.

    I was at the conference. I don’t know why I was there. After all, my knowledge of Samuel Beckett was somewhat limited. I had read some of the fragments, some of the early prose. I knew they were about nothing, as well as something. I was no scholar. In any case, I was there, and there I was, at the Beckett conference. In the labyrinthine concrete structure I moved, to and fro, from the stairwell to the window, from window to the stairwell, from the stairwell to my seat, from my seat to the stairwell, and so on, until at last the panel on torture began.

    The theme of this year’s Samuel Beckett Society annual conference, hosted by California State University, Los Angeles, was “Beckett and Justice.” Last week, Beckett scholars, translators, and “enthusiasts” found themselves in the neighborhood of El Sereno for three days of academic panels, roundtable discussions, and performances concerning what might broadly be called a “politics” of the last great modernist’s work. These proceedings, I was slightly disappointed to find, were not markedly more Beckettian than those of everyday human life. Despite the PowerPoint projector’s occasional announcement of “No Signal,” despite too the strange intermittent ding of one audience member’s iPad, we were not operating, that is, on an absurd, barren metaphysical plane where history, selfhood, and sense had been suspended. We were in the JFK Memorial Library, with sliced fruit, muffins, and discrete individuals who spoke multisyllabic words such as “postcolonial.” No arrival would be withheld: we were sticking to the schedule.

    I was curious about how Beckett’s work—which largely denies any cogent narration of consciousness—could be put in service of political objectives that are more or less based on stable social identities. His aesthetics of negation and silence, it turns out, are quite flexible. One by one, the panelists rose and delivered their papers to a small audience of academics and bespectacled hipsters. As discussions traversed niche topics from 19th-century vagrancy law to Mâconnais agricultural labor, I came to understand Beckett to be subversive, not despite his sense of the impossibility of being a person, but precisely because of it. The world desperately wants to make sense. It requires us to be legitimate subjects within it: singular, private, without contradiction. Such a requirement, Beckett knows, is deeply absurd. So when his work seems unreal and obtuse, it is not because it is severed from reality, but rather because reality itself is bewildering, violent, stupid, and tiring.

    In this way, I learned that Beckett is perhaps the ultimate realist. His writing deals in exhaustion. This I understood, for I was tired. As I went in search of an exit, I could and could not think. My so-called thoughts, ordinarily formless and void of language, had taken on a rather early-Beckettian quality themselves. They came to me as little plastic words seen one at a time and each shiny in the dark and strung in my skull just so with no marks or commas between them, excepting the occasional contradictory appositive, and yes on and on like that each thought would run, nonsense and nearly nothing, until at last there would appear a small dot to suggest that it was, perhaps, the end.


    Photo by contributor.

    LARB Short Takes live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

    LARB Contributor

    Julian Castronovo is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.


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