Vegetating Life and the Spirit of Modernism in Kafka and Beckett

Anderton, Joseph (2019) Vegetating Life and the Spirit of Modernism in Kafka and Beckett. Modernism/modernity, 26 (4). pp. 805-827. ISSN 1080-6601

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As an artistic sensibility dedicated to the ephemeral and elusive flux of modernity, modernism can be conceived as a contradictory spirit that enacts an auto-defeating and therefore auto-sustaining rapid cycle of attempt and failure, purpose and obsolescence. In this essay I argue that the unachievable, self-perpetuating aspiration that modernism contains is refigured as despondent, late modern ‘vegetating life’ in the works of two limit-modernists, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Both writers repeatedly offer comparable expressions of endlessness – through purgatorial narrative conditions encapsulated by the continuous recontextualization of deictic language – that resonate with the belatedness and recommencement of modernism. Although deictic language is not especially frequent in Kafka or Beckett, it acquires great significance in their evocations of ‘vegetation’, an underexplored state identified by critics such as Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno that encompasses a series of related binaries: activity and stasis, desire and passivity, life and death. Through portrayals of interminable vegetative states, Kafka anticipates and Beckett epitomises a virtually exhausted late modernist life, undergoing the throes of modernism’s drive for novelty and immediacy while subject to the pervasive negativity and failure that replaces the possibility of achievement. If modernism’s intrinsic tardiness fuels its invention of ever-new forms, the lateness in late modernism manifests as futility, burden and nostalgia. The vegetating life evident narratively and linguistically in Kafka’s ‘The Hunter Gracchus’ (1931) and Beckett’s Texts for Nothing (1950-51), for example, demonstrates the purgatorial condition of modernism habitually starting anew and converts it into late modernism’s protracted ending.

Item Type: Article
Identification Number:
29 January 2018Accepted
1 November 2019Published Online
Subjects: CAH19 - language and area studies > CAH19-01 - English studies > CAH19-01-01 - English studies (non-specific)
Divisions: Faculty of Arts, Design and Media > Birmingham Institute of Media and English > School of English
Depositing User: Dr. Joseph Anderton
Date Deposited: 27 Apr 2018 13:20
Last Modified: 12 Jan 2022 16:26

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