Pleasure, Death, and Being Human: Philosophy and Samuel Beckett

Spring Open
Class Standing
Kathleen Eamon
Steven Hendricks

“Poets are the sense, philosophers the intelligence of humanity.” – Samuel Beckett

"What Beckett offers in the way of philosophy he himself also reduces to culture-trash..." – Adorno on Beckett's "Endgame".

“I never read the philosophers… I never understand what they write.” - Samuel Beckett


Our study will blend careful, in-depth reading of major philosophical thinkers with a close reading of Samuel Beckett's "Trilogy" (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable). That trilogy offers us a monumental reading, steeped in the literary and philosophical provocations of the classical and modern eras. Our two central goals are both connected and in tension. On the one hand, we will let Beckett direct our philosophical interests to specific moments in and approaches to a whole vast range of questions about being human, about pleasure, and about death. Our readings of those moments and approaches will in turn open up new readings of Beckett's fiction and allow us to mine them for the poetic and other truths, truths that both escape but also ground philosophy.

In philosophy, we will read early modernists Descartes and Leibniz, Kant on the specifically human limits on and possibilities for knowledge, Freud to think about play, creativity, pleasure, and death, and Schopenhauer on art, aesthetics, and representation. Beckett's work will provide an opportunity to look carefully at the philosophic and literary legacy of the Enlightenment as encapsulated in its endgame, modernism. We'll see how, in absorbing and transforming that historical arc of Western European thought, Beckett moved away from Joycean erudition, literary refinement, and culture, and toward an aesthetic of powerlessness. Finally, Beckett arrives at the difficulty of expressing – or being – anything at all. In so doing, Beckett crafted a unique and unified body of work that draws on the devastations of war, on wordlessness in the face of a universe made provisional, and on the strange voice of one who has nothing to express, no means to express, yet the obligation to express.

Each week will offer (or demand, depending on your perspective) extensive reading and writing and will include live and recorded lectures, seminars, small group collaboration, and writing workshops. Students will develop strong critical reading skills and hone the craft of the literary essay through a quarter-long writing process. Creative writing workshops will enhance our engagement with Beckett's experiments in idea and form.

This program is designed for students who have completed Literary Arts Foundations or equivalent studies within another path. It is best suited for those interested in pursuing advanced work in either the Literary Arts Path or the Culture, Text, and Language in World Societies Path.


Anticipated Credit Equivalencies:

4 - Intermediate Literary Arts: Creative and Critical Writing

4 - Introduction to Philosophy: Knowledge and Subjectivity in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis

8 - Intermediate Interdisciplinary Seminar in Literature and Philosophy: Samuel Beckett and Being Human


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