1 Theodore Adorno, ‘Trying to Understand Endgame’ in Samuel Beckett: Longman Critical Reader, eds. Jennifer. Birkett and Kate Ince (Essex: Pearson. As Theodor Adorno famously notes: ‘Understanding [Endgame] can mean Disagreement arises only over the identity of the side seeking to checkmate Ham. The text under discussion will be Theodor Adorno’s essay on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, “Trying to Understand Endgame” [Versuch, das.

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T here is, Adorno says, a certain conceptual connection between Samuel Beckett and the Parisian Existentialists; not only due to their literary practice, but also due to their struggle with the category of the absurd as an expression of the modern crisis of sense. Trying to Understand Endgame [UE], For the Existentialists the absurd remains an idea, a theme enrgame is treated on the contentual level within a traditional form the play, the novel. Beckett, on the other hand, reflects the absurd on the formal level, because the loss understamd meaning will necessarily impair the possibility of performing and watching plays, just as it will impair the possibility of uttering meaningful sentences.

It is obvious which side Adorno is on; but wherein lies his critique of the Existentialists? Where do they fail? Let us first ask how the category of the absurd changes from the Existentialists to Beckett. Even though, then, the Existentialists have experienced absurdity, the senselessness of human existence, they essentially end up affirming the perpetuity of the human subject, which is exactly what the experience of absurdity, being one of evanescence, denies.

Why do the Tryinb end up in this paradoxical situation? Myth of Sisyphus, cit. Because who is having it? This means, that the experience of the absurd is an authentic one; for it to be authentic, though, it needs to be experienced by an equally authentic subject.

For Existentialism, then, the tgying subject is a metaphysical and ahistorical category as opposed to the empirical and ephemeral world that will be able to experience absurdity in any historical condition, or, rather, even more so the direr the condition is, leading Sartre to such paradox statements as the ones from his article for The Atlanticwhich began with the words: We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak.

They insulted us to our faces. Paris Alive [PA], During the Nazi occupation, the external world has become so hostile that the individual was potentially urged to break its ties with society, assume responsibility for what is happening and was thrown back to its authentic self.

According to the Existentialists, then, if everything is removed, it is individuality that remains; and it is because of that, that the Existentialists could affirm the absurd condition. The subject therefore does not make an exception in the dissolution by the absurd, as it did for the Existentialists. This cuts the subject away from the access to any authenticity, a consequence that, as we will see, necessarily and essentially changes the experience of the absurd; it becomes essentially un-affirmable, and neither Adorno nor Beckett do so.

This might sound abstract, but it is of immediate political urgency, primarily regarding the experience of fascism and the events of WWII, which all of them, the Existentialists, Adorno and Beckett, had witnessed:. Quite the contrary, as we will arorno shortly. While Existentialist philosophy is more straightforward in providing its readers with hope to resist against the forces of evil, it does so at the cost of cloaking the truth of how much was really at stake in the struggle against totalitarian regimes.

If, on the other hand, individuality is a historical category, it becomes much more precarious; meaning, that had the resistance against totalitarianism failed, there undersatnd have come a point where rebellion was categorically impossible because the instance that could lead it, a subjectivity rising against all-embracing collectivity, would simply not exist anymore. Human beings, once they are completely reduced to machines, will not spontaneously become individuals due to an antecedent metaphysical structure.

For example, direct democracy requires citizens that are not only capable to participate, but also capable of participating in political decisions, and it should therefore be interested in promoting good education for everyone, one that can teach enxgame citizens to think independently in theory, that is ; on the other hand, the individuals need to make sure that this setup does not get corrupted, by participating in the political decision process and voting. Despite the hopelessness at the end of the novel, a glimmer of hope is conserved in the thought that outward circumstances can always be changed and considering that Orwell also uses the traditional form of the novel with Smith as its protagonist, we could again say that he presupposes the immutable individual straight away as he is singled out right from the start.


A thing is what it is, a mere presence, nothing more. Meaning that as long as we have a present subject that observes, uses, destroys the thingthe thing is more than a thing, and the reification is not absolute. Because it is exactly the contraction of these various connections that allows us to identify a concrete object, that makes a concrete object: A molecule, an atom, is adofno a contraction of different elements, a quality that establishes a connection.

As soon as we identify a concrete thing, the subject sneaks back in. If we truly take away the subject, there is nothing more undrestand the singular, free-floating, absolutely contingent event, which, at the same time, is absolutely void and abstract. This is the reason, why the former could affirm this condition, while for Beckett and Adorno, it is to be overcome at all cost; the absurd is not something we are confronted with metaphysically, but something that we are threatened with historically.

If Beckett renders the absurd ad absurdumwe can surmise a critical potential; but to understand it, we need first to tryinh, how Beckett arrives at this grying of absurdity by reflecting the crisis of sense on the formal level.

Here, we return to the differentiation sketched above between the contentual and the formal. The solution for the conundrum is to reflect the absurd on the formal level by drawing the consequences of the dissipation of sense.

On Absurdity. Adorno, Beckett, and the Demise of Existentialism

After all, if the subject is lost, how can we still speak of protagonists, antagonists, plots, decisions, feelings? This is the point where the subject no longer creeps back in and where we are able, even if only for a glimpse, to experience absurdity in its horror. Expressing the absurd is impossible, because if we unferstand to do so, we need to assume the position of a subject that does the expressing; meanwhile the absurd alludes to a condition, where the subject is disintegrated.

Adorno identifies three such formal levels, which we will analyse one by one: It concerns the collapse of the possibility to ascribe our life an objective sense due to our position in the cosmos, or, rather, in a cosmological order.

On Absurdity. Adorno, Beckett, and the Demise of Existentialism

Ensgame example, if we say that God has created us and has deemed his creation good, then our lives are legitimized due to our status as intended creation. If we say that all citizens have an obligation to serve the state, and the state reflects a natural order, then our lives are legitimized as long as we fulfil this task etc.

In Endgamethis condition is summarized as such: Both interpretations of nature undesrtand at least a minimum of sense for human life, a minimum ujderstand in preserving the status quo of staying alive and having children. Endgame depicts a world maybe rather a non-world: It is truly a state of no future. This is a condition of the complete dissolution, of the absence of any unified and integrating structure, meaning that all objects and people are dissociated from one another; a free-floating state, as we have already sketched it above.

But instead of reaching concreteness, a strengthening of their autonomous being, the characters of the play appear completely abstract in their indifference, in their lack of quality; unlike wndgame the Existentialists hoped for once the subject frees itself from the shackles of authority religion, the state.

Radically independent, the subject will dissolve, and not become free. In this light, we can return to the difficult quote above and understand it in its very concrete interpretation:.

A well-ordered play mirrors a well-ordered universe; even unintentionally. Their crises, safely embedded between Act II and III, prepare the arrival of the climatic meaning and are therefore themselves replete of sense.

This, as Adorno would say, is deeply anachronistic, ideological even, because the untruth of it is metaphysically attested. The subject creeps back in through the dramatic organisation.

In Endgame, there are no lessons learned, no essence to be derived, in fact, there is no hero to speak of: The busyness of the figures of Endgamewith their weird rituals and quirks, becomes as silly as the busyness which we invest into our daily lives: Silence is the death of language, the last consequence of senselessness, because there is no point of speaking about anything.


Language therefore becomes absurd not by silence, but by the paradox state where it speaks without speaking and therefore becomes truly senseless and empty. The sentence is sharp, distinct and tto.

It is separated by a void from the following one[. The singular sentence therefore remains untouched by the dissolution, it is even affirmed in its undersgand against the surrounding emptiness. The absurd remains external to the singular sentence or subject. Beckett, on the other hand, goes further by also dissolving the meaning of sentences and words; he thereby endgme the final consequence of the absurd, namely that in such a state of pure presence, of pure dissociation, the individual would perish as well.

Only because of this difference can Camus affirm absurdity, but, at the same time, his abstention of the subject from the process of dissociation ultimately remains ideological.

As long as we experience the dread that seeps between the lines of Endgameas long as we understand how much is at stake if we continue our path towards reification, not all is lost. What is it, at the endpoint of which stands absolute reification? Instrumental reasonAdorno says. But why does instrumental reason advance the total disintegration that leads to the absurd?

A mountain is nothing but a resource of granite and coal, a river one of water, fish and electricity.

Reduced to tools, the elements of nature are integrated into specific dynamics of profit and power and are no longer undrrstand to unite in a universal synthesis. Utility, after all, deflagrates as soon as the thing is used up in its usage, so to undershand. Consumption rightfully indicates that the consumed thing is used up in the endga,e and is therefore no longer part of a whole complete reification therefore consists of completely used-up things.

Utility is confined to the event of usage and can only be perpetuated in the repetitions of habit; but all in all, this event is dissociated from a whole. A condition where nature underrstand a mere thing to be used brings us dangerously close to the absurd state of absolute reification.

It is therefore not a necessity of thought or truth that leads us to the absurd, but in itself a historical tendency. In Dialectic of Enlightenmentthe figure of Kant is marked by exactly this ambivalence between critique acorno ideology; the dialectical structure between the instrumentalisation and liberation of and by reason. He draws the final conclusions of what absurdity actually axorno, and makes us realize that no affirmation can be obtained from it: The absurd is reification; reification is the absurd; and like the human subject, they both are historical categories.

What Adorno and Beckett are looking for are not new forms of affirmation that could give us final comfort and security; their necessarily negative, endga,e and unapologetic approach aims for the rare moments, where, unexpectedly, the untruth of the absurd, of the inhumane condition leaps out and makes us surmise the presence of something completely different:.

Trjing to Understand the Endgame. Literary and Philosophical Essays New York: Collier Books,pp. The Republic of Silence. He is also a co-editor of this magazine. Sign in Get started. This might sound abstract, but it is of immediate political urgency, primarily regarding the experience of fascism and the events of WWII, which all of them, the Existentialists, Adorno and Beckett, had witnessed: In this light, we can return to the difficult quote above and understand it in its very concrete interpretation: What Adorno and Beckett are looking for are not new forms of affirmation that could give us final comfort and security; their necessarily negative, critical and unapologetic approach aims edngame the rare moments, where, unexpectedly, the untruth of the absurd, of the inhumane condition leaps endgsme and makes us surmise the presence of something completely different: Get updates Get updates.