Samuel Beckett’s work for the French Resistance set against his dogged refusal of all ideology. The traces of Ireland’s history—hunger, deferment, deflation, indeterminacy—in his exile art.
In September 1941, one of the twentieth century’s most apparently non-political artists secretly took up arms against fascism. Samuel Beckett, who with exquisite timing for a notorious pessimist was born on Good Friday (and Friday the 13th) 1906, had been living in Paris since 1937, self-exiled from his native country in the manner of many an eminent Irish writer. The Irish, unlike their erstwhile colonial proprietors, have always been a cosmopolitan nation, from the nomadic monks of the Middle Ages to the corporate executives of the Celtic Tiger. If the oppressiveness of colonial rule turned some of them into nationalists, it turned others into citizens of the world. Joyce, Synge, Beckett and Thomas MacGreevy, men already caught between two or three cultures and languages, were to flourish in the rootless, polyglot, ambience of high-modernist Europe, rather as half a century later their compatriots were to embrace the European Union. It helped, in signing up to a linguistically self-conscious modernism, to stem from a nation in which language, as a political minefield, could never be taken for granted.
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If bourgeois society requires both ceaseless economic dynamism and permanent ethical stability—disorder of invention and desire, order of labour and justification—what figures of the imagination offer a synthesis of these contradictory demands? The intertwining of routines and romances, virtues and villainies, in Scott and Goethe, Dickens and Balzac, Zola and Mann.
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