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Wittgenstein and Beckett on names

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.

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