Zen and the Art of Self-Negation in Samuel Beckett’s Not I


Kyle Gillette


Samuel Beckett's late plays stage minimal images and tortured thought. From the isolated head of That Time to the repetitive words and pacing of Footfalls, fragmented consciousness plays out against restrained figures who hardly form coherent "characters." As several Beckett scholars have noted, the minimalism and enigmatic illogic of these pieces resonate with philosophical notions of subjectivity informed by Zen Buddhism. In this essay, Gillette analyzes not Buddhist philosophy but the practice of Japanese Soto Zen meditation as a framework for understanding the performative dimension of Beckett's figures who sit, pace, think, and negate their own subjectivity.

Beckett's 1973 play Not I in particular, this essay suggests, fleshes out the mental suffering that Zen Buddhism cites as being caused by grasping thoughts or sensations and clinging to the delusion of a persistent self. Beyond that, this play in performance, like the Zen practitioner in seated meditation (zazen), establishes a distinctively embodied empty space through which the very notion of a subject is radically emptied of intrinsic value.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.