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Jonathan Wilson © 1999


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Rimbaud's statement "I is another" draws our attention to the split that is inherent in any piece of autobiographical writing. The written "I" can never be the same as the "I" that writes. As Lejeune points out, personal pronouns have reference only in discourse [1]; in this point he essentially repeats Benveniste's assertion that there is no concept "I" -- "I" is nothing more than a token that refers to an individual who is speaking and is identified by that fact of his speaking [2]. This is problematic in that first person pronouns express the identity of the subject of the speech act and the subject of the utterance. Philippe Lejeune uses a number of examples to highlight the difficulties posed by this ambiguity. If I say "I was born" I am identifying the speaker with the person being born, yet I now, twenty-two years on, am surely very different from what or who I was then, a baby being born at a time I cannot remember. Samuel Beckett's narrators in The Trilogy are unusual in seeming to have some recollection of their pre-natal selves. Another of Lejeune's examples is that of an actor. When in a play he says "I", that I is manifestly different from the same actor saying "I" in a different play or offstage: what then is the relationship between the role the actor plays on the stage and who he is off it is that "I" also a role? [3]

Friedrich Nietzsche would answer yes: the construction of the "I" is a consoling fiction of unification, a representation of the incomprehensibly complex and essentially random determinants of human existence:

There are still harmless self-observers who believe "immediate certainties" exist, for example "I Think" - but the philosopher must say to himself: when I analyse the event expressed in the sentence "I think", I acquire a series of rash assertions which are difficult, perhaps impossible to prove for example that it is I who think, that it has to be something at all which thinks, that thinking is an activity and operation on the part of an entity thought as a cause, that an "I" exists, finally what is designated by "thinking" has already been determined. [4]

Groddeck, similarly states that,

There is no such thing as an I; it is a lie, a distortion to say: "I think, I live". It should be: "it thinks, it lives". It, that is the great mystery of the universe Science has long since proved even to pedants that this I is made up of millions of smaller "I"s. [5]

Freud, indeed, admits that he drew his notion of the "id" from Nietzsche by way of Groddeck [6]. This sense of an "it", something that thinks the "cogitator", something that wills the "cogitans", occurs regularly in philosophical thought on responsibility and the freedom of the will [7]. Locke, for instance, argues that

Since then it is plain that in most cases a man is not at liberty whether he will or no, the next thing demanded is whether a man be at liberty to will which of the two he pleases, motion or rest. This question carries the absurdity of it so manifestly in itself that one might thereby sufficiently be convinced that liberty concerns not the will. For to ask whether a man be at liberty to will either motion or rest, speaking or silence, which he pleases, is to ask whether a man can will what he wills, or be pleased with what he is pleased with. A question which, I think, needs no answer; and they who make a question of it must suppose one will to determine the acts of another, and another to determine that and so on in infinitum. [8]

Locke's argument is repeated by Galen Strawson, who says that "one is truly self-determined if and only if one has somehow or other determined how one is in such a way that one is truly responsible for how one is" [9]. If we cannot want what we want, if our wants are not self determined, then in what sense is the view of the self as an uncaused originator of action that lies behind the Christian idea of the soul, the Kantian noumenal self and the Cartesian ego adequate?

This question of what is willing the thinking, particularly with regard to Descartes, is, I would argue, Beckett's major concern in The Trilogy. As Stephen Connor points out, if we accept the Cartesian system of doubt, in which the perception of the world and memory can be deceptive, then we are left with nothing but the doubt, the cogito everything else is deemed inadmissable, and the cogitator is left isolated and confined [10]. The image of a being enclosed, separated from the rest of the world, of course, is a common motif throughout Beckett's work: Malone, for instance, is confined to his bed, while Mahood exists in a jar. This enclosedness has two major effects: it is agonising, as the narrator of The Unnamable makes clear -- "lashed to a rock, it's a body, it's not I, I'm not outside, I'm inside, I'm inside something, I'm shut up" (378); and it leads to a self-centredness "I on whom all dangles, about whom all turns" (342).

Every now and again, one of Beckett's narrators is able to free himself from his confinement and become somehow aware of a different state of being. Perhaps the most explicit of these revelations comes to Molloy, as he stands in a garden and listens to the "sound the earth makes, that far unchanging noise which other noises cover, but not for long":

There was another noise, that of my life became the life of the garden, as it rode the earth of deeps and wildernesses. Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be. Then I was no longer that sealed jar to which I owed my being so well preserved, but a wall gave way and I filled with roots and tame stems, for example. (46)

This passage is significant for a number of reasons, not least because Molloy achieves some sort of communion with plants and roots, being, like all Beckett's narrators, seemingly incapable of relationships with other humans.

Related to this is the similarity between Molloy's experience and Maurice Blanchot's demand of art:

Art requires that he who practises it ... should become other, not another, not transformed from the human being he was into an artist with artistic duties, satisfactions and interests, but into nobody, the empty, animated space where art's summons is heard. [11]

This "empty, animated space" we can see as what Blanchot elsewhere terms the "neutre", and in Beckett's work, this realm of "not-I"-ness is regularly depicted as mud or faeces. Molloy wonders of the "arsehole" whether "[p]erhaps it is less to be thought of as the eyesore here called by its name than as the symbol of those passed over in silence, a distinction due perhaps to its centrality and its air of being a link between me and the other excrement" (73). Similarly, in The Unnamable, the narrator speaks of "not knowing how to move, either locally in relation to myself, nor bodily, in relation to the rest of the shit" (322). The shit appears as a prima materia that is both repellent and attractive, and presumably redolent of that which precedes manifestation: "the calm that precedes life ... it's like slime, paradise, but for this noise, it's life trying to get in, no, trying to get him out" (335).

This existence or even consciousness before birth and individuation is implied by the way in which several of Beckett's narrators speak of birth as something that happens to them, and as something that could have been avoided. In The Unnamable, for instance, as Paul Davies notes [12], the narrator imagines his pre-natal existence in a state of not-being: "The shit has yet to menstruate capable of whelping me ... a sperm, dying of cold in the sheets, some people are lucky, born of a wet dream and dead before morning. I must say I'm tempted..." (349).

Beckett's use of the image of shit to depict somehow a state of not-being is significant for two reasons: firstly, shit is amorphous, suitably vague in form to represent a concept that escapes us in all but certain moments of revelation such as that Molloy undergoes in the garden; perhaps more importantly, it is defiantly representative of the body and its functions. Capra speaks of the Cartesian cogito as having led Western man to "equate identity with his mind, instead of with his whole organism." As a result of this division, individuals in the West tend to consider themselves as individual egos existing in and controlling their bodies, thus creating an apparent conflict between conscious will and involuntary instincts: "this inner fragmentation of man mirrors his view of the world "outside' which is seen as a multitude of separate objects and events [13]. In The Trilogy, Beckett's narrators demonstrate a consciousness, separate from everything including their own bodies, the link between the "outside" and the body being emphasised by this tendency to consider everything outside the isolated ego as shit or slime.

Davies asserts that as the sense of self diminishes as we proceed through each successive narrator in The Trilogy, there is a growing awareness of what Jung describes as "something strange that derives its existence from the hinterland of man's mind, as if it had emerged from the abyss of prehuman ages, a presentiment of the incomprehensible happenings in the plethora a glimpse of the psychic world that terrifies the primitive and is at the same time his greatest hope" [14].

For Georges Bataille, and, later, Blanchot, this underlying state behind consciousness is silence, and writing a crucial means by which an awareness of this nothing can be recognised. As Blanchot says, "the experience of literature is the very ordeal of dispersion, it is the approach of that which escapes unity, an experience of that which is without understanding, without harmony, without legitimacy" [15]. It is in relation to this that he defines the role of the poet:

The poet is he who hears a language which makes nothing heard ... It states but does not refer back to something which is to be stated, something silent, like the meaning behind an expression, which would guarantee it. When neutrality speaks, only he who silences it prepares the conditions for hearing ... [the neutral word] is an essentially errant word, for it is always cast out of itself. It designates the infinitely distended outside which takes the place of the spoken word's intimacy... [16]

It is easy to see Beckett approaching this role. In an early review of Molloy, Bataille wrote that

what Molloy reveals is not simply reality but reality in its pure state: the most meagre and inevitable of realities, that fundamental reality continually soliciting us but from which a certain terror always pulls us back, the reality we refuse to face and into which we must ceaselessly struggle not to sink ... [17]

Molloy helps us to an understanding of an "essence of being", of the "silence" and the actual "absence of humanity" [18]. Molloy says:

All I know is what words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead. And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or the other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten, life without tears as it wept. [19]

It is language that determines the world, language

whose significations provide the foundation for our cultures, our activities and our relations, but it does so in so far as it is reduced to a means of these cultures, activities and relations; freed from these servitudes, it is nothing more than a deserted castle whose gaping cracks let in the wind and the rain: it is no longer the signifying word but the defenceless expression death wears as a disguise. [20]

This sense of language as inadequate for representing the "true" state of things is a constant theme in The Trilogy. Molloy, for instance, comments that "whatever I said was never enough and always too much" (33). If language is arbitrary in relating words to "meanings", then is it anything other than a "clatter" or a "fatuous clamour"? Do we have any other choice than "to lie or hold your peace" (81)? If there is no truth in "all this babble" (216) then "would it not be better if I were simply to keep on saying babababa, for example, while waiting to ascertain the true function of this venerable organ?" (283) The narrator of The Unnamable, indeed, asks, "What can be said of the real silence?" (376) which has obvious significance with regard to Blanchot's theory of the role of the poet.

Where Martin Heidegger saw poetic language (Dichtung) as a means by which some great human truth can be accessed, Blanchot argues that literature, in its ambiguity, provides evidence of being as dissimulation: writing operates as an impersonal realm, eluding the efforts of human consciousness to apprehend it and provide it with a final "meaning", escaping the human desire to overcome death and find fulfilment for human finitude. This is essentially an extension of Samuel Weber's comment in The Legend of Freud that "the pursuit of meaning; the activity of construction, synthesis, unification all this indicates the struggle of the ego to establish and maintain an identity" [21]. Beckett's narrators -- and, presumably, Beckett himself -- driven by an ungratifiable desire for the permanence of the ego, write to overcome the emptiness, the silence that lies behind the fiction of the unified self, and, by so doing, in some way reveal that silence. Malone, Blanchot states, tells his stories "to fill the vacuum into which [he] knows he is falling. Because he dreads all that empty time which will become the endless time of death" [22]. Similarly, the narrator of The Unnamable states, "I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never" (294). As Blanchot says

The Unnamable is precisely experience experienced under the threat of impersonality, undifferentiated speech speaking in a vacuum, passing through he who hears it, unfamiliar, excluding the familiar, and which cannot be silenced because it is what is unceasing and interminable. [23]

We, the readers, are left to ask "who is in the vacant site where speaks the redundancy of idle words under the ill-fitting cloak or a porous agonising I?" [24]

Blanchot's model of subjectivity is not one of enclosed interiority, such as the Cartesian model is shown to be, but a model, like Bataille's, of subjectivity as heteronomy, fundamentally not a cogito but a cogitatur. Similarly, Groddeck speaks of "this I" as being "made up of millions of smaller "I's", and this we see in The Unnamable as the narrator, speaking of Mahood states,

It is I invented him, him and so many others, and the places where they passed, the places where they stayed, in order to speak, since I had to speak, without speaking of me. I couldn't speak of me, I was never told I had to speak of me, I invented my memories, not knowing what I was doing, not one is of me. It is they asked me to speak of them, they wanted to know what they were, how they lived, that suited me.

How then can we get to this greater "I" that lies behind the fictions of the smaller "I"s?

Beckett spoke of his work as being "fundamental sounds", and each of his narrators in The Trilogy at some point hears what Molloy, at the point already cited when the wall falls and he escapes the confinement of his Cartesian ego, terms "the far unchanging noise the earth makes and which other noises cover" (46). A little later he speaks of "a distant music ... pre-established harmony" (58). Davies suggests that this echoes Leibniz, Plotinus and Pythagoras -- though all three are dualists -- and indicates the inadequacy of a Cartesian notion of language in which sounds are tokens which in combination can add up to form knowledge, preferring the ancient theory of planetary music and its implication of something far more integral [25]. As Molloy says, "Homo mensura can't do without staffage. But to be beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters in, to the soul of the incurious seeker" (59). It is in this condition that he begins to feel the origins of his existence in the sounds of the universe, in a "lower frequency, or a higher, than that of ratiocination ... pure sounds, free of all meaning" (47). Beckett's narrators remember this lost vision, and stuggle on towards it, "clawing towards a light and countenance I could not name, that I had once known and long denied" (137).

We see, then, in The Trilogy, Beckett's narrators struggling with their "I"s, recognising the essential fictionality of the discrete unified Cartesian constructions of that "I" -- even to the extent of consciously having more than one in the case of the narrator of The Unnamable, and seeking a greater "I", something more primal, the shit, Rimbaud's autre, Blanchot's neutre, that lies behind and beyond language and the cogito.

Note: All references in parantheses are to Samuel Beckett, The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, London: Pan, 1979.


1: Philippe Lejeune, "The Autobiographical Contract", French Literary Theory Today: A Reader, ed. Tzvetan Todorov, trans. R. Carter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, repr. 1988, pp.192-222, 197.

2: Emil Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek, Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971, pp.217-22.

3: Lejeune, op.cit., pp.198-9.

4: Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J.Hollingdale, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979, repr. 1992, p.80.

5: Georg Groddeck, The Meaning of Illness, ed. Lore Schacht, London: Hogarth, 1977, p.162.

6: Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey, Vol. XIX, London: Hogarth, 1953-74.

7: I am grateful to Martin O'Neill for drawing these passages to my attention.

8: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690, London: Everyman, 1993.

9: Galen Strawson, Freedom and Belief, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p.26.

10: Stephen Connor, Samuel Beckett, Oxford: Blackwell, 1988, p.49.

11: Maurice Blanchot, "Where Now? Who Now?" The Siren's Song: Selected Essays by Maurice Blanchot, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch, ed. Gabriel Josidovici, Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1982, pp.192-8, 197.

12: Paul Davies, "Three Novels and Four Nouvelles," The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, ed. John Pilling, pp.43-65, 48-9.

13: Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, cited by Davies, op.cit., p.45.

14: Karl Gustav Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, cited by Davies, op.cit., p.45.

15: Blanchot, "The Pursuit of the Zero Point," The Blanchot Reader, ed. Michael Holland, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, 143-50, 146.

16: Blanchot, The Space of Literature, 1955, trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, p.51.

17: Georges Bataille, review from Critique, 15 May 1951, Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, eds. Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman, London: Routledge, 1979, pp.55-63, 55.

18: ibid., p.56.

19: ibid., p.56.

20: ibid., op.cit. p.56-7.

21: Samuel Weber, The Legend of Freud, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982, 25.

22: Blanchot, "Where Now? Who Now?", p.193.

23: ibid., p.194.

24: ibid, p.194.

25: Davies, op.cit., p.61.




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