Exploring Emptiness: Beckett and Buddhism via Arthur Schopenhauer

  • Pavneet Kaur

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis develops a philosophical framework for Samuel Beckett’s writings. It does so in the light of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s understanding of Eastern philosophy. Beckett read Schopenhauer closely in the 1930s, late 1970s and early 1980s, taking notes from his work in the so-called ‘Whoroscope Notebook’ of the 1930s and the later ‘Sottisier Notebooks’ respectively. However, during the 1940s till early 1970s there are no direct references to Beckett’s reading of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. In preparing his ground-breaking philosophical works, in turn, Schopenhauer studied the Eastern thought of Buddhism and the Vedas. The religious and philosophical framework for Schopenhauer’s understanding of Buddhist philosophy – which I refer to below as ‘Schopenhauerian Buddhism’ – is used to analyse key Beckettian themes, such as emptiness and the ‘veil of Maya’, which is a Vedic philosophical concept. ‘Maya’ means illusion, and Schopenhauer’s phrase ‘veil of Maya’ refers to a mask that covers the reality of the world.

In Beckett’s work, ‘veil of Maya’ signifies that the representation of the world ‘as it is’ remains nothing but an illusion. The combination of both Buddhist and Vedic philosophies are considered due to Schopenhauer’s close reading of Buddhist texts and Oupnek’hat (a two-volume Latin book containing fifty Upanishads), as is his corresponding understanding of ‘veil of Maya’ and emptiness.

This background is suggestive of the purpose behind Beckett’s employment of the tropes of disintegration and Buddhist emptiness with which he was already familiar in the early 1930s. In bringing together the Eastern philosophical perspective through which Schopenhauer’s philosophy is deployed in Beckett’s work, this study considers Beckett’s interwar and late (post-Nobel) writing, as it was only during these times that Beckett was reading Schopenhauer.

Accordingly, this study focuses on different genres from these years: criticism, fiction, prose and drama. The opening chapter considers Beckett’s early criticism, Proust published in 1931, with subsequent chapters then moving onto the early novels Murphy (1938) and Watt (1945), the late ‘trilogy’, Company (1980), Ill Seen Ill Said (1982) and Worstward Ho (1983), the short prose works, ‘The Way’ (1981), ‘Ceiling’ (1985), ‘Stirrings Still’ (1988), and the dramas, Rockaby (1981), Ohio Impromptu (1981), A Piece of Monologue (1982), What Where (1984), and Quad I & II (1984). Throughout, Schopenhauer’s presence and, in turn, his reliance upon Buddhist thinking, will be shown to be refracted – with increasing opacity – in Beckett’s diverse writings.

This doctoral study is interdisciplinary in that it uses a philosophical framework which provides an interpretative value to Beckett’s works. This approach extends to novels, short prose, and later plays to show Beckett’s wide-ranging approach to ‘unveiling’ the ‘Maya’ through disintegration of the self, itself an aspect of Buddhist emptiness. Consequently, this study considers two major points: first, the genesis and relevance of Schopenhauer’s ‘Eastern’ thought as it relates to Beckett’s work; and second, how a ‘Schopenhauerian Buddhism’ lens– alongside the Vedic ‘veil of Maya’ – provides a crucial interpretation for Beckett’s works.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton
SupervisorMatthew Feldman (Supervisor), Janet Wilson (Supervisor) & Richard Canning (Supervisor)

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