Most of my more philosophical posts have been aimed at defending my approach to art and interpretation. Yesterday, however, I read Gilles Deleuze’s essays on Whitman and Melville (in Essays Critical and Clinical), and I want to engage in a bit of pure exegesis here in order to get a better grip on them. In these two essays, Deleuze refers to the “American Dream”, which he elucidates in his own terminology, but which he finds to be shared between the two authors. His analysis of Melville especially reveals how literary acts can effect this dream, helping to draw the reader toward it. My aim is to trace out the shape of Deleuze’s version of the American Dream. I don’t want to evaluate it for faithfulness to Whitman or Melville (though I do think much of his Melville exegesis is excellent). Nor do I wish to touch on the connection Deleuze draws between this and his views on psychoanalysis (a connection made in the very title of the essay collection). I am simply not competent to evaluate that. I am interested, instead, in the picture of human flourishing that emerges, what Deleuze calls the “American Dream”. (I will also draw implicitly on the essays Literature and Life and To Have Done With Judgment, both in the same collection, but I will not emphasize them or focus on them specifically.)
The two essays, Whitman and Bartleby; or, the Formula (henceforth Bartleby), arrive at the same vision by different routes. In the former, Deleuze sets out a metaphysics of relations, exploring the ways relations between objects may be built up and destroyed. In the latter, Deleuze again develops a metaphysics, this time of lawless primary nature and lawful secondary nature. Here, unlike in the Whitman essay, Deleuze analyzes in depth how Melville’s characters and language relate to these two natures, so I will mostly focus on Bartleby. I will begin, however, with Whitman, which introduces some core ideas that will recur later.
Deleuze makes a useful contrast between two images, which provides a good entry point into the metaphysics of Whitman. Deleuze juxtaposes the image of an endless wall of stones heaped upon one another to the image of a wall of stones cemented together. In the latter case, there is a clear totality, and fixed relations: the stones do not move in relation to one another. In the former, however, relations are not fixed. The balance is precarious, and may be upset, but when, say, a portion of the wall falls down, it may be put back up, stone upon stone. The new arrangement will not be identical to the old, of course, and this is just the point. We can imagine a ceaseless cycle of stones falling and being replaced: ever shifting relations. There is no stable, constant wall, no overarching totality. The wall is in a constant state of becoming. The totality of the wall is located in the external relations of a given moment, which are always shifting.
These stones are meant to represent what Deleuze elsewhere in the essay calls “fragments”—he frequently refers to American literature as a fragmentary literature. Fragments have existence in themselves, but they also have relations to other fragments, relations which are, as above, constantly shifting. Deleuze labels two processes that effect this shifting. On the one side is Nature/History, and on the other side is War. (I will use capital letters to indicate Deleuze’s terms of art, since they are not meant to be identified with the physical realities that provide the metaphors.) Nature (for simplicity I’ll ignore any differences between Nature and History) builds up relations between fragments, while War tears them down.
The view of human flourishing that Deleuze develops is one where people ally themselves with Nature, which he finds in Whitman to be a Society of Comrades, where the dominant relationship is Camaraderie. Here he deploys another image: that of wounded soldiers in the hospital. The soldiers in the hospital are isolated from one another, are fragments stripped of their relations by War. The individual who is allied with Nature, then, must go to each soldier individually and establish a relation of Camaraderie with him. A slow, diligent process of building back up relations that War has stripped away. Here, then, in brief, we have the notion of human flourishing that Deleuze wants to develop. But what is War that it would strip away such relations? And what is Camaraderie that it can build them back up? For answers, we need to turn to the essay on Melville.
Bartleby begins as an analysis of the famous formula of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, before becoming Deleuze’s analysis of all of Melville, and then Deleuze’s analysis of all of life. In that short story, Bartleby, when asked to do various tasks, inevitably replies, “I would prefer not to.” Deleuze begins his analysis by looking in depth at the language of this formula.
When confronted with a request (“will you do this”) or even an order (“do this”), Bartleby says he would prefer not to. Deleuze notes that this doesn’t amount either to a clear negation (“I don’t want to”) or a clear affirmation (“Instead of X, as you suggest/request, I prefer Y”). Bartleby’s task in the office is, at first, copying, which he does quite efficiently. When asked to do something else, he of course would prefer not to. What Deleuze notes (this is ingenious) is that, because of this, Bartleby cannot go on copying as he had before. For to go on copying would be to express a positive preference, to prefer copying to this other task, and that is just what the formula is meant to exclude.
In order to understand the effects this works on Bartleby, I need to introduce some more of Deleuze’s metaphysical machinery. (He presents it as Melville’s metaphysical machinery.) Deleuze finds in Melville a distinction between Primary Nature, which is “original”, “oceanic”, and “lawless”, and which carries out its irrational aims through innately depraved beings. It is supersensible nature. Opposed to this is ordinary, sensible, Secondary Nature, which is governed by laws, regularities, reason. This sets up a fourfold distinction of types of people. (Deleuze only lists three types, but there is an implicit fourth type.)
First, and second, we have Monomaniacs and Hypochondriacs. Monomaniacs are characters like Ahab of Moby-Dick, driven by an insane bloodlust. (Claggart, from Billy Budd, Sailor, is another Monomaniac.) What defines Monomaniacs is that their bloodlust, their great will to nothingness, forces them to make a “monstrous choice”. Whaling culture prohibits whalers from choosing among whales: they must go after simply those whales they come across. Ahab’s relentless search for Moby-Dick, then, is in defiance of this culture, of this “law”. This defiance of the law makes Ahab a creature of primary nature—more on this shortly. Opposed to the Monomaniacs are the Hypochondriacs, of which Bartleby and Billy Budd are prime examples. Hypochondriacs have not a will to nothingness but a nothingness in their will: they get their satisfaction in suspension of judgment, of choosing, of preferring. Where Monomaniacs are thundering, Hypochondriacs are petrified. Where Monomaniacs are beyond all punishment, Hypochondriacs are beyond all responsibility. Hypochondriacs are thus, in the opposite way, equally “against” the law. Bartleby, for his job, must choose, must have a preference. And yet: “I’d prefer not to.” His abdication of preference is just as opposed to the lawfulness of secondary nature as Ahab’s terrible preference.
Third, we have Prophets—and, implicitly, fourth, we have everyone else. Prophets are creatures of secondary nature, endowed with special sensitivity that lets them “see” the other two types. Ishmael of Moby-Dick is a prophet; so is Captain Vere of Billy Budd. The Prophets are significantly impotent: they are unable to ward off the demons, the Monomaniacs, which are too quick and too strong for the law. Likewise, they are unable to save the innocent Hypochondriacs, which are immolated in the name of the law: Captain Vere has Billy Budd executed for killing Claggart, and Bartleby ends up thrown in a prison, preferring not to to the end. What do they do, then? In the wake of what they’ve seen, they try to put back together the law that has been so violently disrupted. As for everyone else, they are creatures of secondary nature not endowed with special sensitivity—in Moby-Dick, at least, they all die, with only Ishmael left standing.
One last distinction: Originals vs. Particulars. The Hypochondriacs and Monomaniacs are creatures of primary nature, which work in secondary nature and influence its course—it is Prophets who recognize this influence, who see its source. Originals exceed any applicable form; they are solitary and unfathomable. They are neither general types, Aristotelian categories under which particulars may be subsumed, nor themselves particulars, influencing other particulars in accordance with general laws. They are, I suppose, singularities.
Now we can see how Bartleby’s formula works. Deleuze lays out a tripartite scheme. First, a formless trait of expression opposes particular images and expressed form. Bartleby, the scrivener is a particular, but the application of his formula gradually divests him of any particular characteristics. Because his preferring not to is neither negation nor affirmation, his preferring not to adopt some new particular characteristic means he can no longer keep his old characteristics without expressing a positive preference. In short, it makes his particular characteristics impossible to keep. This is the first stage, in which a particular loses his particularity (without thereby becoming a general type).
What happens next involves Deleuze’s concept of a Zone of Proximity. Particulars often engage in mimesis, in the attempt to imitate or conform to some privileged image. This involves a subject trying to shape itself in particular ways. But the subject, the particular, has been effaced, and so mimesis is impossible. Instead, Bartleby enters into a Zone of Proximity to the Hypochondriac BARTLEBY (all caps simply to make the difference obvious). What this means is that Bartleby is no longer distinguishable from BARTLEBY, where BARTLEBY is an Original, a creature of Primary Nature. Here the connection between Primary and Secondary Nature is established. Importantly, BARTLEBY is not some preexistent reality that Bartleby becomes indistinguishable from. Rather, Bartleby, by applying his formula, creates and then becomes BARTLEBY. The lawless irrationality of Primary Nature comes to disrupt the lawfulness and reason of Secondary Nature. We witness, for instance, his boss behaving more and more as if he is mad, as his attempts to force Bartleby to behave reasonably fail. Bartleby becomes a locus around which the “everyone else” of Secondary Nature finds life disrupted. (In Moby-Dick, recall, everyone around Ahab—except Ishmael—dies.)
This brings us to the third and final stage in the process. We have, with the intrusion of Primary Nature into Secondary Nature, a disruption of law, which Deleuze conceives as a paternal function: you shall do/believe/be this (for your own good!). There are two responses to this intrusion. One is the response of the Prophets: attempting to patch over the disruption, to clean up in the wake of the intrusion, to rebuild and reinstate the law. But the other is to replace the paternal function of law with a function of universal fraternity—this is the equivalent of the Society of Comrades, of brothers, that emerged in the analysis of Whitman. (Here, in the contrast between the paternal function of law/Secondary Nature and the fraternal function of Primary Nature, is a place where fruitful connections can be drawn to the more straightforwardly clinical work of e.g. Anti-Oedipus. Again, I am not competent to comment in depth on this; I simply note that it exists.)
Now we’re in a position to answer the two questions I raised at the end of considering Whitman: what is War, that it strips away relations? what is Camaraderie, that it builds them back up?
War is, roughly, the judgment of law, of Secondary Nature. This is discussed at length in To Have Done With Judgment, but it involves any fixed criteria of evaluation, which is repressive to what is new. This is why it matters that BARTLEBY (and other Originals) is not preexistent: the non-preexistence of Originals means that we simply do not have criteria developed to assess them, and so they defy and disrupt established criteria, which come out as repressive. War is also found in, of all places, charity and philanthropy, and these cases are quite instructive. Charity and philanthropy involve helping another by placing oneself in a higher position, by acting as a benevolent figure who decides what is good for another and does it. War, in these guises, functions to strip away relations by saying what something or someone must be, what relations it may and must have, and by condemning those relations it has built up for itself.
Camaraderie involves, on the other hand, meeting others as siblings, as equals: no charity, no attempt to “save souls”. (The Christian evangelist who believes he knows what your soul needs for its salvation is engaged in War, for Deleuze.) One last new concept: what defines Camaraderie is not belief in another, better world, in some saving doctrine, but Confidence in one’s fellows. Deleuze analyzes Bartleby’s application of his formula, after he ceased working altogether, as a request for Confidence. His boss, with increasing frustration and madness, however, offers him only charity: well here are other jobs you might be suited for, etc. The result is that Bartleby is left, at the end, in a prison. (No metaphor: a literal prison.) The Hypochondriac again sacrificed to the law.
Against this sacrifice lies the American Dream, the tripartite sequence: (1) A formless trait of expression divests the particular of its particularity, ends the mimetic subject. à (2) The particular, thus unburdened, enters a Zone of Proximity to an Original, a creature of Primary Nature, and opposes the law. à (3) This disruption of the law is the disruption of paternalism and War more generally, and makes possible the establishment of a Society of Comrades.
I will let Deleuze have the last word, with a beautiful passage in which he describes the sort of social relationship he champions:
Yet, what remains of souls once they are no longer attached to particularities, what keeps them from melting into a whole? What remains is precisely their ‘originality’, that is, a sound that each one produces, like a ritornello at the limit of language, but that it produces only when it takes to the open road (or to the open sea) with its body, when it leads its life without seeking salvation, when it embarks upon its incarnate voyage, without any particular aim, and then encounters other voyagers, whom it recognizes by their sound.
I have a close friend who is a former admirer of Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror. Yesterday, however, he watched the film again and was unable to enjoy it—quite the travesty. After some discussion, he requested that I write something about the film. This post is my attempt to do so. Every attempt I’ve ever made to write about why I find the film so powerful has failed, so I’ll begin this post simply with the hope of understanding one puzzling feature about the film, and if it develops into something that, in addition, explains some small portion of the film’s appeal, even better.
Many details of the film, even details considered at a fairly broad level (e.g. the existence of certain scenes) are difficult to understand. The movement of the film is slow and meandering, moving back and forth in time, and I confess that some scenes remain opaque to me. The film as a whole, however, is fairly simple. Tarkovsky relates the following anecdote in an interview:
One day, during a public debate organized after a screening the discussion dragged on and on. After midnight, a cleaning woman arrived to clean the screening room, wanting to throw us out. She had seen the film earlier and she didn’t understand why we were arguing for such a long time about The Mirror. She told us, “Everything is quite simple, someone fell ill and was afraid of dying. He remembered, all of a sudden, all the pain he’d inflicted on others, and he wanted to atone for it, to ask to be pardoned.” This simple woman had understood it all, she had grasped the repentance in the film.
So there it is, very simple. But the details are still puzzling and one must come to grips with them. The aspect of the film I wish to focus on is the double appearance of Dostoevsky, once in person and once by name.
To get a foothold on this double appearance, one first needs to note the most prominent doubling in the film: the same actress plays both the narrator’s mother and his wife. This is given an explanation in the middle of the film, when the narrator tells his wife that he cannot think of his mother without giving to her (his mother) her (his wife’s) face. Nevertheless, the differences between them are apparent: it is a credit to the actress, Margarita Terekhova, that when she first appears as the wife, you can tell she is playing a new role simply because she is making a face that the mother would never make.
Dostoevsky appears once in connection with the mother, and once in connection with the wife. A brief description of the scenes, first. I shall focus primarily on Dostoevsky’s role, and assume familiarity with the film.
The mother. The scene takes place at the printing house where his mother worked. The scene cannot be a straightforward recollection, since the narrator was not present and was just a child, but presumably he learned about it somewhere and is now “remembering” it as if he had been there. His mother feared she had made a mistake in proofing an important edition of a book, and so checks the proofs and finds that everything is alright. As she goes to check the proofs, a man wordlessly offers to do it for her, but she insists on doing it herself. The man walks away with the remark, “Everyone’s rushing. Nobody’s got any time.”
After returning to her desk, she is berated by her boss, who compares her to Maria Timofeyevna, Captain Lebyadkin’s sister. Timofeyevna is always making demands, and her brother beats her for them. These, it turns out, are characters in a story written by the man who made the remark above (and who is present in this scene, silently watching), referred to by the boss as “Fyodor Mikhailovitch”. The man is thus identified as Dostoevsky, though the last name is never mentioned. (Maria and Lebyadkin are characters in his novel Demons, which, alas, I have not read.) The boss then draws the true moral of the comparison: her (the mother’s) ex-husband was right to leave her (he has gone off to the war and not returned, but is not dead), and, “as for your children, you will definitely make them miserable.”
The wife. The narrator and his wife are arguing about their son, Ignat. The narrator is both ridiculing his son (the flunk) and requesting that he (the son) be allowed to live with him (the narrator). One reason is that (as he has expressed earlier), he thinks a single woman is not up to the task of raising a son: she will make Ignat miserable. The options, as he sees them, are thus: (a) Ignat lives with him, or (b) his wife remarries. In this scene, his wife asks whether she should marry this man she has been seeing, a writer named “Dostoyevsky”—here only the last name is given. The narrator brushes him off as talentless, but nonetheless later tells his ex-wife that she should (even must) marry him.
A number of connections emerge between the two scenes. The narrator suggests that Ignat has told his mother that he would like to live with his father, which the wife disputes. The narrator asks her if she thinks he has simply invented this claim for his own pleasure—an accusation strikingly akin to the accusation leveled against his mother by her boss. Moreover, the second scene includes a reference to Lisa’s death—Lisa was a coworker of his mother. The wife suggests that he call his mother, who was (it is hinted) depressed after the death of her friend. This phone call we have already seen earlier in the film, in the scene immediately preceding the printing house scene. Connecting these recollections to the external events of which they are recollections, then, we can see the encounter with his wife as the cause of his phone call with his mother, which in turn drives the very existence of the “recollection” of the printing house scene.
This provides interesting insight into the printing house scene, which, for reasons mentioned, is as much construction as memory. Much of what occurs must have been supplied by the narrator, for he simply could not have learned about the scene in the requisite amount of detail (at least, it is very unlikely). We can see the construction as shaped by recurrent concerns, worries that developed, perhaps unconsciously, in childhood, and which are coming into view more fully later in life. Why should a scene in which his mother is told she will surely make her children miserable be present at all in a film in which the narrator is remembering instances where he has caused someone pain? In fact, not every scene is such a recollection, but it’s a worthy question to ask nonetheless. Not because he blames his mother for making him miserable (perhaps he does, or once did, and perhaps this belief in part led to his estrangement from his mother, and so to pain he caused her), but because he is worried that her life was ruined because of him. In the later scene, his wife says as much: she asks what kind of relationship he wants with his mother, and suggests that one reason that relationship isn’t realized is precisely because he is so worried. But there is also another worry: the narrator in effect takes on the role of his mother’s boss by suggesting his wife, so long as she remains unmarried, is unfit to raise Ignat. In constructing a scene in which his mother’s boss leveled just that insult at his mother, he is inserting his own worry about his own children. Moreover, because he sees it in the third person, because the boss is not him, but someone else, perhaps he is better able to empathize with his mother, and thus by analogy his wife.
In this way, the issues of these two scenes are intertwined, and the scenes can to a significant extent be seen as mirror images—distorted and different in detail, perhaps, but at root the same. This is abstractly represented by the fact that Dostoevsky, who is inserted into both scenes (Dostoevsky the historical author was in fact dead before either took place), is called by his first name and patronymic in the first scene, and by his last name in the second. What is begun and left open in the first scene is completed in the second.
Which leads to the question, why Dostoevsky? Dostoevsky certainly explored the connection between repentance and illness, and the doctor in the penultimate scene intimates that the narrator’s illness is one of those peculiarly Russian illnesses of the spirit that become illnesses of the body, wasting it away. And it is also worth noting that Tarkovsky, throughout the 1970s, tried and failed to make a film version of The Idiot—and the image of the Holy Fool that that book exemplifies appears repeatedly in Tarkovsky’s films—although not in The Mirror.
Unlike Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, the crimes for which the narrator must repent are not anything like murder—they are not extraordinary at all. Though perhaps more shamefully callous than most people at times (but perhaps not), nothing that the narrator has done to his family is particularly striking. Tarkovsky reveals how these same feelings and regrets can consume a man even if his crimes are entirely ordinary.
Symbols, in Tarkovsky, do not have fixed meanings. They do not refer to anything outside themselves: an idea, an event, whatever. Instead, they function more like both centers of attraction and jumping off points. Themes coalesce around them, and they serve as launching pads for the various particularities of his films. So too the figure of Dostoevsky: it situates the film in a particular tradition, links together two crucial scenes, and encourages us to read the film in light of Dostoevskian concerns. Ultimately, however, what matters is to feel the presence of Dostoevsky in the life of the narrator: haunting his childhood and his ambiguous relationship with his mother, haunting his adulthood and his selfish disregard of his former wife and his child. What matters is to feel the foolishness of his dismissal of Dostoevsky as a writer with no talent who is not read, foolishness made apparent by the bare backbone plot of the film, as captured by the cleaning woman. Dostoevsky is a presence in the narrator’s life, functioning to link together events, memories, and worries as he lies dying. He is a specter hovering over the film.
A term that appears fairly frequently on this blog is ‘artwork’ (or its rearranged equivalent, ‘work of art’). The terms in their standard sense refer to a finished artistic product, the result of the work of some artist. The product of the artist’s work is the artwork. This is established usage. But if we ignore this convention and simply look at the components of the terms, a second sense lends itself to us. ‘Artwork’ may refer to the work done by the novel, film, painting in question, may be the work of art, where ‘of’ is used to indicate possession. Insofar as we take this notion seriously (I think we ought), we can see relationship between art and its readers, viewers, etc. as one in which the person opens herself up to the art and allows it to do work on her.
To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that the relationship between the person and the art is on the one side passive and the other active. Opening oneself up before a work of art, humbling oneself before it (to use a phrase a good friend of mine once used), is no easy matter. It requires divesting oneself of prejudgment without thereby losing oneself, in effect making a gift of oneself to the work: do with me as you will. It means paying close attention to the intricacies of the way the work twists “language” (including visual and musical languages) in new and unexpected ways. Like anything difficult, being able to do this requires strenuous training, and as such it is no surprise that most people are not literate in any important sense. (I confess to being at best only marginally literate myself.)
My goal in this post is to explore, in sketchy detail, a few of the ways in which art may work on someone who has so exposed herself to a film, a novel, a symphony, etc. In order to stress the activity performed by art, the post is takes the form of examining certain verbs that we might use to (metaphorically) describe the work done on us by the art we experience.
Since I recently read Beckett’s Three Novels, that is a good place to start. Beckett’s novels seep through your skin and infuse themselves into your bloodstream, like a slow-acting toxin. I discussed in an earlier post how Beckett forces you to say “I”, to put yourself in the place of “The Unnamable”—more and more as the trilogy goes on you feel that you yourself as Molloy, Moran, Malone, Macmann, Mahood, Worm. The characters in the novel are all in a prolonged process of dying, but never reach death. The toxin Beckett introduces slowly drags you into this process.
Where Beckett is slow acting, other works are much more abrupt and immediate in their effects. In my post on Tolstoy and Nietzsche, I discussed how Nietzsche is like a dash of cold water to the face. Nietzsche slaps and reprimands, he diagnoses and tries to bring back to life. (He does this in all his works, but I am thinking here primarily of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his most literary effort. Though, with that said, the fact that philosophical texts may function in much the same way lends some credence to the view that the precise boundary between philosophy and art is blurry at best.) Nietzsche strives to diagnose, to wake up, and because of that he is brash and in your face. His art is physically violent.
I already contrasted Nietzsche’s style with Tolstoy’s, but it has another opposite in the work of Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu’s films are very delicate, with shots that linger before and after the main action, and in which the camera sits at a low, submissive angle. The effect of this is to create an inviting atmosphere: Ozu has built a home, and he invites you to come inside, look around, make yourself comfortable. By this I don’t mean that Ozu’s films are comfortable to watch; rather, the discomfort he creates stings precisely because it is something that is happening inside a place that feels like home.
Other art functions by mirroring the person who looks into it. In one sense you might be tempted to apply this metaphor to Nietzsche, who makes you go look into the mirror yourself, but to slap you and say, “Go look at yourself!” is distinct from functioning as a mirror. Here I am thinking instead of Plato (whose oeuvre is as much art as it is philosophy). It is a noteworthy and initially perhaps shocking feature of Plato’s works that Socrates’ interlocutors are often (but not always) rather faceless. They go along with Socrates and say “yes” or “surely” or “it must be so, Socrates” or “I cannot argue with that.” This allows anyone reading Plato to slide himself into the place of the interlocutor, and so to see the flaws in his own view, to be reduced to aporia himself. Socrates’ method reveals to you your own deficiencies, not those of his interlocutors.
Finally, I want to consider art that confesses itself, or that requests the confession of its viewers (or both). My example here is Tarkovsky. In my first post on The Sacrifice, I showed how a particularly uncomfortable scene in the film forces the viewer to sin. The natural continuation of this is for the film to request of the viewer that she confess that sin. Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror on the other hand, is itself a confession of sorts. A man, on his deathbed, remembers all the pain he has caused people. Having heard this confession, you must then go on in a new way.
This post is a promissory note more than anything, an attempt to think about the work of art. My analyses above are, as analyses, mere sketches of unsatisfying detail, but they point toward a way of thinking about art that I hope and expect will prove fruitful. One way to reflect on my or your experience of art is to pay attention to how it works on me (or you), to understand this in specifically physical terms. Not just what it means, but how it actively changes your very constitution.
There is a famous quote by David Hume, for which my life provides experimental confirmation a thousand times over, in which he highlights the difficulty of bringing the results of philosophy into the real world. He wrote (I am stealing this from his wikiquotes page):
There is an inconvenience which attends all abstruse reasoning. that it may silence, without convincing an antagonist, and requires the same intense study to make us sensible of its force, that was at first requisite for its invention. When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning; and ’tis difficult for us to retain even that conviction, which we had attain’d with difficulty.
This is especially pertinent to Hume, who was, of course a skeptic of the empiricist variety. Epistemological humility, as demanded by the abstruse reasoning taking place in his closet, would require withholding judgment about even the reality of external objects (e.g. his closet). But life does not leave much room for withholding judgment rigorously, because one must act. The skeptic, when he steps outside his closet, must be unfaithful to his skepticism.
My goal in this post is an attempt to explore how a similar thought poses a problem for the narrator of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. Before I begin, a few words about style are pertinent. In my previous post about the novel, I noted that, in order to do justice to the novel, one really ought to write about it solely in the first person, in order to avoid naming the narrator (which, in using the term ‘narrator’, I have already done). In this post I will not obey my own stricture, since it would make the post much more difficult to understand. In my defense, Beckett, in titling the novel The Unnamable, violates this edict, too, and in a way that illustrates the theme of the book that all language is a sort of violence against what is just and true, that all language falsifies reality.
Beckett’s novel is the third in a series, and taken together they constitute as thorough an excavation of the soul as any in literature. Hume famously introspected on his experiences and could find no experience of a uniting self, and used this as the basis for his skepticism about even what Descartes thought could not be doubted: that I am. Over the course of the novels, Beckett seems to ratify Hume’s conclusion: there is no stable, unified self. Instead, selves are fluid; identities shift and merge, multiply and coalesce, and even when we see to have bored down to the very center, to the ‘I’ of The Unnamable, we still find this lack of unity. (Charlotte Renner’s essay “The Self-Multiplying Narrators of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable” provides very useful discussion of this point, and is generally an excellent piece.)
This fluidity poses problems for the ‘I’ of The Unnamable, who strives throughout the novel to say the words that will allow him to go silent. In order to be able to go silent, truly silent (for the book is full of imperceptible silences that are not true silence), the ‘I’ must say something true to himself. This leads him into a dilemma. The dilemma is set out on the very first page of the novel, when he asks himself how he is to proceed:
What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple? Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, sooner or later? (285)
The ‘I’ has two options: aporia or falsehood. ‘Aporia’ is an interesting term—it is frequently used to describe Plato’s early dialogues. Aporia represents a state of seemingly insoluble puzzlement. Plato’s early dialogues work by taking some position held to be certain or obvious and having Socrates reduce the holder of that position to a state of aporia. To proceed “by aporia pure and simple,” then, is to proceed by, in effect, withholding judgment, by being puzzled. The other alternative is not to reserve judgment, but to go ahead and make claims, claims which must turn out false in the end. Because identities are fluid, there is no stable resting point about which something true may be said. Even if it is true momentarily, whatever the ‘I’ says about himself will be invalidated as soon as he goes through one of his innumerable shifts.
The abstruse reasoning, then, surely would favor aporia. And indeed aporia here would be a sort of silence, and if he could reach the ultimate Socratic aporetic state, that of knowing only that he knows nothing, perhaps he could achieve true silence. But there is a paradox of that state: if you say that you only know that you know nothing, then you are stating a bit of knowledge you possess, and so are denying your claim to know nothing. To really know nothing, you cannot even so much as say so without losing it. Indeed, aporia is not a real option for Beckett’s ‘I’, and for very much this reason. For, as the ‘I’ says, “I should mention before going any further, any further on, that I say aporia without knowing what it means. Can one be ephectic otherwise than unawares?” (285) The very problem is that one cannot be ephectic (given to suspense of judgment) otherwise than unawares. Awareness itself creates judgment. Since the ‘I’ is nothing if not aware, compulsively, pathologically aware, it is cut off from ephecticism, from aporia. It must speak, must utter judgments that will be invalidated “sooner or later.”
Thus we can see in Beckett a skepticism even more thorough and extreme than Hume’s. Hume thought that the skeptic’s conclusions must be abandoned and lost when leaving one’s closet to engage in the affairs of daily life, for the affairs of daily life certainly require judgment, as action presupposes judgment. Inside the closet, however, skepticism could be maintained. Introspection, at least, could provide the grounds for some certain judgments, augmented by logic. But in Beckett’s world, even reason and logic and introspection as suspect. The ‘I’ muses time and again about how some unknown “they” taught him reason, and about the fat lot of good it did him. And likewise for introspection: even the introspective “truths” of the ‘I’ seem to be invented by the ‘I’’s speaking, and “truth” that is created by fiat is no real truth at all (and, as we have seen, ceases to be “true” quickly, in any case).
It is interesting in this respect that the narrators of the three novels are all confined to narrow regions. Though Molloy and Moran (of Molloy) do wander, Molloy wanders in a narrow region, and both are, by the end of their respective sections, confined to a single room, where they write their “reports”. In Malone Dies, Malone is cooped up in the room for the entirety, and the only wandering that happens is that of the characters Sapo and Macmann, characters explicitly invented by Malone as part of his “playful” telling of stories. By The Unnamable, this confinement is even more extreme, as the ‘I’ is spatially confined to ‘here’—and ‘here’ is always the same, always unchanging. (My previous post, linked above, explores this further.) Molloy, Moran, Malone, the ‘I’—all are cooped up in regions as confining and impractical as Hume’s closet. They are cut of from the necessities of life that require judgment and forced Hume to (in action) abandon his skepticism. In effect, then, they are in the closet, in the one place where Hume could achieve some certainty, however meager.
And even here, even in this narrow region where there is only writing and speaking, skepticism is what abstruse reasoning dictates. But that is not right, it is not dictated by reason at all. Rather, there is a felt sense, made explicit by the ‘I’, that aporia might be the way to proceed, that any judgment made is sure to be invalidated. Only the very concept of aporia is inaccessible, because ephecticism is available only to the unawares, in much the same way that one who truly knows nothing cannot know that and cannot say it. Since the narrators of the novel are compulsively aware, they cannot ever manage aporia. Even in the narrow regions of the head, judgment is inescapable. Once you begin speaking, you cannot stop, “you must go on.”
I have recently been reading Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels trilogy (Grove Press edition). I wrote about Molloy here, and Malone Dies here and here, and I am now making my way through The Unnamable. I have not finished the novel, but I want here to explore an interesting aspect of the work, and the way that it forces its readers to think about it.
As I read, I take notes, both noting down important stylistic (and other) features and, every ten to fifteen pages, analyzing somewhat what I have read. This helps me to remember important details and make connections between earlier and later parts of the work. I advance hypotheses about the parts I have not read, some of which are confirmed, some refuted. In doing so, I naturally talk about the characters, describing who they are and how they change. My notes for Molloy and Malone Dies are full of, “Molloy is…” or “Malone did…”
I want to illustrate how this breaks down in talking about The Unnamable, in order to reveal the way Beckett forces us to read the work. The work begins with three questions: “Where now? Who now? When now?”, which are asked in a mood that is “unquestioning” (285). The first answer given is to the second question: “I, say I”, and the mood now is “unbelieving” (285). If you cannot guess them already from this, the answers to the other two questions are not difficult to find in the text. On page 295: “But I am here. […] I have never been elsewhere…” Location: here. The answer to the third question is given both with the greatest and least directness. It is given with the greatest directness because it is contained in the very question itself, when now?, but, perhaps because of this, it is also given with the least directness, and must be inferred from passages such as this (296-297):
For to go on means going from here, means finding me, losing me, vanishing and beginning again, a stranger first, then little by little the same as always, in another place, where I shall say I have always been, of which I shall know nothing, being incapable of seeing, moving, thinking, speaking, but of which little by little, in spite of these handicaps, I shall begin to know something, just enough for it to turn out to be the same place as always, the same which seems made for me and does not want me, which I seem to want and do not want, take your choice, which spews me out or swallows me up, I’ll never know, which is perhaps merely the inside of my distant skull where once I wandered, now am fixed, lost for tininess, or straining against the walls, with my head, my hands, my feet, my back, and ever murmuring my old stories, my old story, as if it were the first time. […] And yet I do not despair, this time, while saying who I am, where I am, of not losing me, of not going from here, of ending me.
This picture of recurrence reveals each time being experienced as the first time, and “I” am “here” always at “this time.” So the answer to “when now?” is: now. And this is right there in the question, when now. Taken together, then, the answer to the questions is: I here now.
I will return to the questions of where and when shortly, but for the moment I want to focus on the question, who now?, and its answer, I, say I. This forces us into an interesting predicament. For the natural inclination is to talk about the work having a first-person narrator, to talk about the ‘I’ that speaks in the novel. For instance, here are some example sentences from my notes:
The ‘I’ is here forever, though its eternity may be dated.
The ‘I’ and its place came into existence together.
The situation: ‘I’ is given a task at birth…
Now, however, we must pause and reflect briefly on the title of the work. Beckett gave it the title, The Unnamable, and this is clearly meant to refer to the narrator, the ‘I’. But now there is a problem: in saying that the title is meant to refer to the narrator, the ‘I’, I have named it.
To make this point clearer, consider a famous passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (§410):
“I” doesn’t name a person, nor “here” a place, and “this” is not a name. But they are connected with names. Names are explained by means of them. It is also true that it is characteristic of physics not to use these words.
This remark is placed directly after a series of remarks about identity. Wittgenstein notes that “there is a great variety of criteria for the ‘identity’ of a person” (§404). When we call a person by name, we use these criteria: Oh, that’s Friedrich, I recognize him by his walrus mustache! Wittgenstein directs our attention to this feature of our language use, and then urges us to contrast it with how we use the word ‘I’. Which criterion, of the “great variety” of criteria for personal identity, “leads me to say that I am in pain?” Wittgenstein answers his own question: “None” (§404).
The function of the word ‘I’ in the English language (‘Ich’ in Wittgenstein’s native German) is not that of a name. And this is precisely why the narrator of The Unnamable, in answering the question “who now?”, can only respond, “I, say I.” To do anything else would be to give himself a name, and thus to lose sight of his unnamability. (In saying ‘himself’ and ‘his’, I have given the narrator a gender that “he” does not possess.)
This applies equally to the answers given to the other two questions. Here is not a place and now not a time. In this respect, the novel could have been called The Unplaceable (unplaceable in space and in time). To pinpoint a specific person, a specific place, a specific time, we would have to apply certain criteria, and in doing so we would switch to naming, placing. This is exactly what we do when we speak of “the narrator of The Unnamable” or “the ‘I’ at the center of The Unnamable”—we give a name. When I wrote, “‘I’ is given a task…”, I turned ‘I’ into a name.
To read and think about the novel in this way is to it a great violence, because it is to deny what is at the very heart of the book, as indicated by the title: the unnamability of the ‘I’. As much as one might explicitly explore and “respect” that theme, in writing and thinking about it in that way, such respect is undermined and the theme denied. (That the act of denying the theme arises unintentionally as a function of the words used to explore it, thus eliminating the gap between word and deed, Beckett would no doubt appreciate, for the thickness, tangibility, and activity of words, their indistinguishability from real events, is a theme running throughout the trilogy.)
It can seem inescapable to do this violence to the text in thinking and writing about it. But there is one way to avoid it, and I think it was Beckett’s purpose precisely to force this upon his readers. I, the reader, must not hold “the narrator” apart from myself (as I inherently do in even speaking of “the narrator”). Rather, I, here, now, must narrate the novel. I must speak. Instead of writing, “’I’ is given a task…”, I must write, “I am given a task at birth, a punishment for something (original sin), which I have forgotten (was I ever told?) and must remember (knowledge as recollection).”
This is the only way to do justice to the text. Beckett forces the reader to take the novel as her own speech. Now there is another predicament. For in illustrating this point about Beckett’s novel, I have been forced to speak in just the language that I have argued does violence to his text. I tried to avoid it, but in the end I know of no other way to make it clear—had I really written this post in the style I think the novel needs to be written about, my point would have been lost to the foreignness of the style. But that means that this post, which is an attempt to help people treat the text fairly, is itself unfair to the text. Luckily, I can turn again to Wittgenstein for a resolution—this time to the early Wittgenstein. Much like Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I have spoken about what cannot be spoken about, but only in order to help people see that it cannot be spoken about. This post, then, contains not a thesis but a ladder, and once the ladder has been climbed it must be kicked away.