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Durham University

School of Modern Languages & Cultures

Events in Modern Languages & Cultures

Justice and the Arts Research Group Seminar: Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge [East Anglia] “‘Humanity in Ruins': Samuel Beckett’s Testimony”

10th December 2015, 17:00, A56, Elvet Riverside I, Durham University

“‘Humanity in Ruins': Samuel Beckett’s Testimony” Lyndsey Stonebridge, Professor of Modern Literature and History, University of East Anglia ( 

Testimonies to the suffering of others, it is claimed, are key to the mobilization of moral sentiments that underpin today’s global human rights regime. For defenders of the progress of human rights, sad or sentimental stories are the means by which the rights-rich can come to tolerate, comprehend and even value the lives and identities of the rights-poor (Rorty). Others point out that these testimonies and the generous feelings and, sometimes, actions they provoke produce morally good but politically ambivalent consequences. While the stories of the abused are powerful precisely because they can elicit sympathy, care and, sometimes, political and legal recognition, that very humanitarianism paradoxically obscures the gross inequalities of rights and entitlements that give it cause (Fassin). I tell you my story of pain so that you, whose life is so different from mine, might glimpse my humanity. But you only see that humanity in so far as it is in ruins, in so far as it is precisely not like yours. The growth in universal moral sentiment is not proportionate to the redistribution of global rights.

In this lecture I return to one of the founding moments of modern rights, the immediate postwar period, to suggest how contemporary worries about the mobilization of testimony were already making themselves present in the new age of rights that was rapidly emerging out of the ruins of Europe, its dominance and ideals. My case history takes us both to a small chapter in the history of postwar humanitarianism, and to the beginning of a much larger one in the history of modern writing. In the summer of 1945, Samuel Beckett went to work for the Irish Red Cross in the bombed-out ‘city of ruins’ Saint-Lô in Normandy. What he discovered there was a new and complex way of imagining what he described as ‘the having and the not having, the giving and the taking.’ This discovery coincided with Beckett’s famous decision to abandon English. The first-person narrators who wander through the three short stories that he wrote in French later that year, ‘La Fin’ (between 1945 and 1946), ‘L’Expulsé’ (October 1946) and ‘Le Calmant’, (December 1946), are both subject to a regime of humanitarian indifference and restless agents, stumbling in a second language, groping for a new narrative. These are the new clowns of the postwar age of compromised humanitarianism, ironists of their own suffering, chroniclers of the gap that had opened up between the rightless and the rest of the world. Beckett, I argue, sets up the terms for a justly uncomfortable engagement with the new aesthetics of the very humanitarianism that became so necessary as the world struggled not only to legislate for, but also to conceptualize, the rightless.

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