The Skeptic Within the Closet: Beckett’s The Unnamable
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.”