UPDATE: I am told that the title of Simon Critchley’s book is a quote from Jacques Derrida’s essay “Violence and Metaphysics,” though I still believe that Beckett once said something of the kind I describe below. I’ll have to look it up.
Simon Critchley‘s Very Little … Almost Nothing attempts a response to a stylish nihilism in which much of 21st century culture seems mired. He traverses a philosophical path signposted by Maurice Blanchot, Theodor Adorno, Wallace Stevens, and Samuel Beckett to “formulate a response to the question: How does one go on? That is, how does one continue in thought?” (12) This response, he goes on, lies “in meaninglessness as an achievement, as a task or quest … as the achievement of the ordinary or the everyday without the rose-tinted spectacles of any narrative of redemption.” (27) The book recenters the question of death in the discipline of philosophy as well as aesthetics and politics.
I believe — and I don’t have any references to hand at the moment — that the book’s title comes from a conversation someone had with Beckett late in life. Asked if he found, in his eighty years, any meaning, significance, or happiness in his life, Beckett responded, “Very little. Almost nothing. What’s more, I watched my father die.” I believe it may come from Anne Atik’s memoir; but again, I may have misread or misremembered it.
The conclusion of Critchley’s book:
… [The] world is overfull with meaning and we suffocate under the combined weight of the various narratives of redemption — whether they are religions, socio-economic, political, aesthetic or philosophical. What passes for the ordinary is cluttered with illusory narratives of redemption that conceal the very extraordinariness of the ordinary and the nature of its decay under conditions of nihilism. What Beckett’s work offers us, then, is a radical de-creation of these salvific narratives, a paring down or stripping away of the resorts of fable, the determinate negation of social meaning through the elevation of form, a syntax of weakness, an approach to meaninglessness as an achievement of the ordinary without the rose-tinted glasses of redemption, an acknowledgement of the finiteness of the finite and the limitedness of the human condition. … [Might] not the very extraordinary ordinariness, the uncanny everydayness, of Beckett’s work be the source of its resistance to philosophical interpretation?
But what remains after we have been saved from salvation, redeemed from redemption?
Only the vast profile of the night and the buzzing that recalls us to the infinite time of our dying, our breath panting on in the darkness, “Dying on. No more no less. No. Less. Less to die. Ever less.” And yet, into this night comes a voice, an injunction that resounds through Beckett’s texts: Imagine! For, like Hamm, we are cursed, cursed by the need for narrative, by the resorts of fable, flayed alive by memory. Hence we must attempt to people the void, to presume to be saved, “For why be discouraged, one of the thieves was saved, that is a generous percentage.” Because we cannot sit quietly in a room, because we have to live and invent, knowing that invention is the wrong word, as indeed is life. We go on. This is very little … almost nothing. But perhaps that’s just human, “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that.” Imagine. After all, a lobster couldn’t do it.
Very Little … Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature
New York: Routledge, 1997 (pp. 179-180)