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Death within Life: Beckett and Montaigne

2013/09/29 1 comment

Samuel Beckett once wrote, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” (Murphy). The nothing new glistening in the sunlight includes, of course, Samuel Beckett’s own oeuvre, which is no more novel than anything else, despite including several. I want here to suggest a few parallels between Beckett’s Three Novels, which I discussed extensively in an earlier series of posts, and Montaigne’s essay on philosophizing as learning to die. The upshot is that we may understand Samuel Beckett’s work as pure philosophy by this criterion.

Naturally, there being nothing new under the sun, the ideas that I am attributing to Montaigne need not have originated there. The essay, number 20 in book I of his Essays, contains a long section in which Montaigne imagines personified Nature chastising her human inhabitants for their fear of death. My copy of the work (in the Everyman’s Library edition of Montaigne’s Complete Works, pp. 67-82) suggests this speech is largely a paraphrase of Seneca and Lucretius (fn5, p. 77). And certainly the notion of philosophy as preparation for death can be traced back to that venerable lineage.

A few intriguing themes arise in Montaigne’s essay. One is the impossibility of newness that we have already seen in Beckett. “And if you have lived a day, you have seen everything. One day is equal to all days.” (78) What good is it to fear death, if remaining alive will bring you only more of the same? Indeed, the tedium might even make one desire death—which occurs in Beckett’s novels.

Even more interesting than this, however, are Montaigne’s reflections on the relationship of death to life. Montaigne brings up the classic theme that death is not a harm, since after your death there is no one left to be harmed by it, and while you are alive you are not yet dead and so not harmed by death—except insofar as you fear it. “It [death] does not concern you dead or alive: alive, because you are; dead, because you are no more.” (80) And related to this is the correct remark that death cannot be experienced, for you must be alive to have experiences; death ends all experiences and so stands as the unexperienceable limit of experience. This is grounds for condemning those who condemn death: “How simple-minded it is to condemn a thing that you have not experienced yourself or through anyone else.” (80)

This impossibility of experiencing death is hugely important in Beckett’s work. In my earlier posts I discussed at great length the ways in which Beckett word and object are mixed up in his work. Retelling is reliving, so what is said to occur and what actually occur come to exist in a zone of indiscernibility (to use Deleuze’s phrase) in which it is inherently impossible to tell one from the other. And what this means is that death never actually enters into Beckett’s work. It always exists at the limit, outside of it. For if retelling is reliving, then death is the end of retelling. But the retelling itself cannot contain its own end; the end is its limit. Thus Molloy, Malone, and the unnamable narrator of The Unnamable all approach infinitesimally close to death, but their deaths never enter the text. The inexperienceability of death is thus an essential portion of the structure of Beckett’s work.

Montaigne, earlier in his reflections, bluntly states, “The goal of our career is death” (69). Life itself is no more than a long march toward death. Every step forward (in time or space) is a step forward to death. In Nature’s speech, this becomes, “The constant work of your life is to build death. You are in death while you are in life; for you are after death when you are no longer in life. Or, if you prefer it this way, you are dead after life; but during life you are dying; and death affects the dying much more roughly than the dead, and more keenly and essentially.” (78)

What I take Montaigne to suggest here is that life, at least human life, since humans are conscious of their ineluctable end, is inevitably structured by its end, death. Life is best conceived as the process of dying. And this more than anything else I have mentioned is crucial to Beckett’s Three Novels. That dying is a process is established on the first page of Molloy: “For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury.” (4) Dying here is an extended process: one may die more or less (and as the rest of the novel makes clear, Molloy is progressively dying more and more). Eventually one reaches a threshold past which one is dead “enough to bury.” Beckett’s novels are about the process of dying, as it is structured by death, which exists at their limit but is not contained within them. In short, Beckett’s novels are about life itself, in its essence.

Montaigne’s Essays are the record of a man rigorously at work on himself, diagnosing himself that he might cure himself. In so doing he prepares himself for death—that is to say, he philosophizes. On this mountainous model, such work is precisely the work of philosophy. What I hope I have compellingly defended here is that Beckett’s Three Novels constitute just this same sort of work, and that we should not let a superficial difference of genre obscure the fact that the Three Novels are, fundamentally, philosophy.

Skepticism at the Margins III: Bartleby, the Scrivener

I have already looked somewhat at the reasons for thinking Melville’s Bartleby to be a member of some idealist reality more properly than of physical reality. This is seen when his appearance at the law office is described as his “advent” (636), as literally his coming into being. The unresolvability of what he is, the fact that he seems to take on distinct identities (divinity, animal, human, ghost, corpse) depending on how he is perceived, also speaks to this idealist character of Bartleby. And finally, we should remember that in Emerson idealism as a metaphysical doctrine and idealism as loyalty to unpolluted ideals are impossible to pull apart. They are as well in the case of Bartleby, who throughout the text is emphasized to possess a purity that cannot be tainted, a purity that reveals the depths of the impurity of the world—of its reasons, of its passions, of its ethics.

Bartleby, then, is an emissary from the ideal, in the Emersonian sense of ideal. I want now to look at Bartleby as a skeptical rejoinder to Emerson. This continues the theme of my first post on Skepticism at the Margins (read the beginning of that post for discussion of the origin of this theme). For Emerson, contact with the ideal, grasping ideal truth, is the source of human creativity, the height of human existence. Human existence is not ideal, not pure—Emerson consistently remarks that there has never been a complete man—but it may momentarily grasp the ideal. This grasp is always precarious, always in danger of being lost, but it is possible. Indeed, the very fact that it is precarious is in a certain sense what makes it possible in the first place, for it is recognition that there has never been a complete man that prevents us from idol worship, from looking up too much to the accomplishments of others—the anti-thesis of Emersonian self-reliance.

Bartleby scuttles this view. Where the ideal is the locus of the divine, for Emerson, Bartleby represents an ideal world devoid of the divine. He is at times described in religious terms—indeed, “advent” is a word for the second coming of Christ—but it is clear that he is at best a warped Christ figure. For Christ is supposed to bring hope (Emerson connects idealism with hope as well), yet Bartleby is (perceived as) forlorn and hopeless, and causes hopelessness in those around him. That Bartleby is a ruin of religion—not opposed to religion, not the devil, but what is left when the edifice crumbles—is made explicit when he is likened to “the last column of some ruined temple” (658). Bartleby is what is left of the divine, ideal world when divinity has left it.

For Melville, then, coming into contact with the ideal is not coming into contact with the divine. So there is a first opposition to Emerson. A second opposition comes in looking at the effects of Bartleby. When people come into contact with him, they are not momentarily pure; instead their impurity is highlighted. Utterly dispassionate Bartleby, the über-Stoic, inflames the passions of those around him, drives them mad. Demented, deranged Bartleby—who nonetheless offers an unassailable reason for his inaction, that he would “prefer not to”—ruins the reason of those who meet him. And forlorn, absolutely solitary Bartleby thwarts merely human ethics, shows its basis in self-interest, its willingness to settle for what is merely “good enough”.

In each case, then, the purity of Bartleby drives impure humans to further impurity. To come into contact with the ideal is not to become ideal oneself, however briefly. It is to become even more impure, even paltrier, even more all too human. It is the most thoroughgoing skeptical response to Emerson I know.

A violence against reason: Bartleby versus human nature

2013/09/24 2 comments

As the readings for the seminar I am taking on the boundary between human and ani­mal nature have progressed beyond Plutarch, I have noticed an interesting trope used in several scholastic and Cartesian texts. After putting forward a position, the author condemns those who oppose it as being unable to rise above their imagination. This occurs in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, and in Thomas Willis’ Two Discourses on the Souls of Brutes. (Of course, that it appears in these three readings, all part of the same seminar, indicates that it was likely widely used at the time.) All three texts at various points are concerned to distinguish what sets apart humans from the other animals.

The boundary, for each of them, is drawn along the boundary of reasoning: man has a rational soul, whereas the animal does not. In the case of Descartes’, this is shown by the uniqueness of language to humans. Willis’ treatise (at least the part I have read) is likewise concerned with the intellectual capabilities of the brutes, and finds them stopped short of proper reasoning. The power of rational judgment is denied to the animals. That is a faculty solely of the rational soul, which is unique to humans. What is granted to animals is imagination, a faculty incapable of reason. (Even Marin Cureau de la Chambre, who defends the thesis that animals reason, does so by arguing that the imagination has powers sufficient to be called reason—he nonetheless denies that animals have judgment.)

In this light, we can see that the accusation of being unable to rise above the imagination is an insult that cuts more deeply than is initially apparent. It is a denial of the ability to reason, and thus a denial of being fully human. It likens the accused to the animals, mute and arational.

Against this background, I want to look at the impact of Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”. (I will use the Library of America volume containing Melville’s Piazza Tales; all page references are to this volume.) Specifically, I want to understand how Bartleby presents a violent affront to reason, and does so in a way that undermines the human/animal boundary.

Bartleby is, of course, the one who “would prefer not to”, and who in the course of the story progresses to the point of complete motionlessness. Bartleby’s sedateness, however, has tremendous, inflammatory effects on those around him. Indeed, as frequently as Bartleby is described as cold or “cadaverous”, the narrator describes himself as incensed, burning. How does Bartleby produce these effects?

To understand how Bartleby changes the humans around him, we must understand how they perceive him. One reason for this, which I hope to discuss further in a future post, is that there is something inherently idealist (metaphysically speaking) about Bartleby. This is seen in many ways; for instance, the first appearance of Bartleby at the law office of the narrator is described as his “advent” (636)—he does not exist before he is perceived. Furthermore, when he augments “I would prefer not to” with “I am not particular” (666-7), we can read a pun in the word “particular”: Bartleby is not a particular, physical object. Bartleby, in a sense, does not exist apart from being perceived.

What is most fascinating about how he is perceived, however, is that this perception is radically unstable. The narrator’s descriptions of Bartleby, his sense of who Bartleby is, never resolves itself, but instead cycles through a series of temporary, unsatisfactory resting places.

Perhaps most prominent among these is the sense that Bartleby is something inhuman. After the first instance of “I would prefer not to”, the narrator muses that he would have “violently dismissed him”, if only there had “been any thing ordinarily human about him” (643). Yet there is nothing human about him. This is shown starkly a few pages later when, after another instance of “I would prefer not to”, the narrator responds, “You will not?” and receives the reply, “I prefer not” (648). Bartleby does not will; he does something else, something strange: he prefers not. Yet we think to will is what is quintessentially human, the counterpart of reason. If Bartleby does not will, he is not human.

And indeed, Bartleby is described throughout as being many inhuman things. On two occasions, once by the narrator and once by Nippers (a copyist in the office), Bartleby is described as a mule. Yet another instance of Bartleby’s formula results in the narrator asking, “How? Surely you do not mean to persist in that mulish vagary?” (647), while Nippers more angrily yells, “I’d give him preferences, the stubborn mule!” (655). Here Bartleby is reduced to the animal; he is not human, but less than human. (This is, in part, because he is an affront to reason. I will return to this thought.)

Bartleby is also viewed as less than human in another way: he is “cadaverous” (cf. 650, but the word is rampant in the story), like a dead body. This stems from his paleness and sedateness: in both color and (lack of) motion he resembles a corpse (cf. also the “morbid moodiness” of 653). He is like a human body without a soul. Yet here there is an interesting contradiction. For the third inhuman way of perceiving Bartleby is precisely the opposite of the soulless body of a cadaver: he is the bodiless cadaver of a ghost. Upon being summoned, he appears “like a very ghost” (648), and, much later, he is seen “haunting the building generally” (666).

Lastly, there is also something divine about Bartleby, as is seen for instance when the narrator finds Bartleby in the office on a Sunday. Speculating about why he could be there, the narrator concludes, “Besides, it was Sunday; and there was something about Bartleby that forbade the supposition that he would by any secular occupation violate the proprieties of the day” (651). There is a sacred purity to Bartleby. Yet he is also devoid of divinity, likened to “the last column of some ruined temple” (658). He is not so much divine as a remnant of what was once divine, but has been abandoned by divinity. (He is even compared at one point to an “incubus”—663—though this sort of image of Bartleby occurs only once.)

Thus it seems clear that, whatever Bartleby is, he is not quite human. Wherever the boundaries of the human lie, Bartleby stands somewhere outside them. Yet the narrator cannot accept Bartleby as inhuman. Or, at least, he keeps returning to the attempt to treat Bartleby as human. After encountering Bartleby in the office in Sunday, and seeing this as an illustration of the “forlornness” of Bartleby, the narrator remarks, “The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom” (652). This occurs again when Bartleby stops copying altogether, and the narrator is “touched” (656), an empathetic feeling.

This occurs even though the inhumanity of Bartleby is inescapable. Indeed, it is the very forlornness that evokes this common bond that, a page later, snaps it: “but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion” (653). Despite this, the narrator cannot but treat Bartleby as reasonable.

And it must be stressed that to treat Bartleby as human and to treat him as reasonable are inseparable. Reason is the mark of the human, here. The attempt to treat Bartleby as human is often marked by the narrator’s attempt to reason with him. When the narrator is trying to be rid of Bartleby, he considers one strategy (that he has already tried and failed), then rejects it and “resolved to argue the matter over with him again” (660)—in short to reason with him. And later: “In a calm and serious tone, I commended the idea to his careful and mature consideration” (663)—again an attempt to reason.

If we look at what Bartleby is, however, what most characterizes him is that he is an affront to reason. Indeed, his very sedateness, his preferring not to, is “violently unreasonable” (645). This is the only accusation of violence leveled against motionless Bartleby: violence against reason. Needless to say, every attempt to reason with him, to treat him as human, fails. He is so offensive to reason that he even undermines the reasoning of those around him. In a telling passage, imagination and judgment are juxtaposed, when the narrator finds his judgment (i.e. his reason) incapable of understanding Bartleby’s “passive resistance” (646). The narrator instead leaves his imagination, his animal faculty, to dream up an explanation of Bartleby’s condition.

There is one charge that seems to stick to Bartleby: madness. He is a “demented man” (656), “a little deranged” (670). This charge I think accounts for all of the others, both his incredible inhumanity and the irresistibility of attempting to treat him as human. For if reason is what characterizes the human, then madness is something both human and not human. Plutarch, for instance, argues that dogs can reason on account of the existence of dogs that are deranged—one cannot be mad if one could not reason in the first place.

Yet in Bartleby his madness is even deeper than this. This comes out when we consider a passage in which the narrator commends himself on a brilliant plan to rid himself of Bartleby (it fails, needless to say). He says the plan must appear “masterly” to any “dispassionate thinker” (658). This is the standard image of reason: that it is dispassionate. Yet what has been emphasized, throughout the story, is that it is Bartleby who is dispassionate, and that this is just what sparks the passions of the narrator. In the narrator, reason and passion are inseparable, inextricably intertwined. In Bartleby, by contrast, he is perfectly dispassionate, the model of reasonableness. Yet he is mad. He exists at the point where madness and reason are no longer separable, where they run together, where the boundaries are blurred.

This is a function of Bartleby’s purity, and his purity shows up the impurity of everything human. Human boundaries are blurred not because pure madness and pure reason are inseparable (as in the case of Bartleby), but because what is human is inherently impure. The boundaries are blurred because everything is mixed up in everything else. One example will suffice to show this, though they can be multiplied. The narrator reflects on the commandment to love one’s fellow man, which he says “saved” him (661). He comments, “aside from higher considerations, charity often operates as a vastly wise and prudent principle […] Mere self-interest, then, if no better motive can be enlisted, should, especially with high-tempered men, prompt all beings to charity and philanthropy” (661). The divine foundation of human ethics is mixed up with “mere self-interest”, until one can no longer tell which is which.

With impurity, the boundaries are blurred; with purity they vanish. Such is the lesson of Bartleby.

A skeptical move of my own

In my post this morning on Montaigne, I speculated about why Montaigne ended the essay as he did, with a vivid picture of slaughter and lack of compassion. The choice to end the essay with an example, especially after he had seemingly just reached a conclusion, puzzled me. My sugges­tion was that he aimed to provoke a particular reaction, sadness, that primed the reader for the next essay, “Of Sadness”.

I do not want to retract that hypothesis. But I do want to qualify it in light of further reflection on the essay. For just preceding the example is the conclusion of the essay, the moral, and that moral is precisely that “it is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment” on man. This should provide some pause about my hypothesis. Montaigne has just shown us by example how distinct techniques may provoke the same response: both obsequiousness and stubbornness may, for example, elicit mercy. And he has further shown us how the same technique performed on different people may bring about entirely contrary reactions. Indeed, the example of Alexander that ends the essay shows exactly this.

So it is then a bit strange to suggest that Montaigne’s choice about how to end the essay is an attempt to cause a particular feeling in his readers. The very skepticism the essay attempts to establish undercuts any such attempt. I can certainly say that his choice worked that way in my case, but it would be quite disrespectful to the essay to generalize my case and make it Montaigne’s intention. Montaigne cannot predict and control that accurately his reader’s path through the Essays.

But, as I said, I do not wish to retract my hypothesis, but rather merely qualify it. We can understand what Montaigne is doing by considering the preface “To the Reader”, in which Montaigne describes the book as work on himself. So what I want to suggest now is that Montaigne is attempting to produce an effect in himself, using a technique based on his own self-understanding. Remember that he self-identifies as someone more prone to compassionate mercy than esteeming mercy—thus a sad image such as he presents is likely to impact him in the right way.

Seen as an attempt by Montaigne to provoke an effect in himself, then, we can understand the strange conclusion to his first essay. That it had the same effect in me is a fortuitous coincidence—or a clear source of interpretive bias. I am not competent to say which.

An immediate reaction to Montaigne

2013/09/23 1 comment

The first piece (“By Diverse Means We Achieve the Same Ends”) in Montaigne’s collection of Essays ends puzzlingly, with a long discus­sion of Alexander the Great’s hardness in the face of the valor of the defeated Thebans.

Yet the distress of their valor found no pity, and the length of a day was not enough to satiate Alexander’s revenge. This slaughter went on to the last drop of blood that could be shed, and stopped only at the unarmed people, old men, women, and children, so that thirty thousand of them might be taken as slaves. (6)

Up to this point Montaigne has been showing, via a mixture of examples and arguments, two means of achieving pardon. These are introduced in the first paragraph: first is “submission to move [those we have offended] to commiseration and pity” and second is “audacity and steadfastness” (3). The possibility of this latter technique’s success Montaigne shows through three examples. Just before the discussion of Alexander, Montaigne draws what I think is the core insight underlying this essay:

Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment on him. (5)

Obviously I have not read the rest of the Essays, but from what I know about Montaigne I suspect that this theme will underpin a great many of its chapters. The inconstancy of the human as the foundation of a form of skepticism. So why, after reaching this point, go on to give one last example, from which no explicit moral is drawn? That is my puzzle.

A first step toward resolving it may be achieved if we look to an earlier movement in the essay. Following his initial examples, Montaigne suggests that “indulgence and softness” are characteristic of “weaker natures”, whereas

to surrender simply to reverence for the sacred image of valor is the act of a strong and inflexible soul which holds in affection and honor a masculine and obstinate vigor. (4)

Montaigne immediately undermines this, suggesting that even in “less lofty souls” can “astonishment and admiration” have such an effect. So the distinction between these two means does not serve as a criterion by which to test the loftiness of souls. (I note in passing that Montaigne allies himself more with “compassion” than with “esteem”.)

The puzzling closing example is introduced with, “And directly contrary to my first examples…” (5), indicating that we have yet another movement in the direction of retracting what he has established. Alexander is a lofty soul, yet he is not moved by esteem—it only enrages him to further slaughter. So we can see one purpose for this passage: it underpins the skeptical conclusion of the essay.

But this does not explain why it should come at the end, rather than as a third example to bolster Montaigne’s undermining of the connection between mercy-from-esteem and loftiness of soul, where it seems to more naturally fit. That I think cannot be understood without looking to the essay that follows the first, “Of Sadness”.

In that essay, Montaigne takes grief as a starting point for reflections on the proper relation to strong emotions. What is interesting about the closing image of “By Diverse Means We Achieve the Same Ends” is that it seems designed precisely to elicit such emotions in the reader. After detailing Alexander’s “slaughter” of the Thebans, it starts to suggest mercy at least for those unarmed, but this is then undermined with a cruel twist: it is not mercy that saves them, but the desire to take thirty thousand of them as slaves.

The encounter with such an image, so bluntly and abruptly conveyed, is thus preparation for the next essay. It puts the reader in a position to be receptive to it. Moved to sadness by the plight of the Thebans, Montaigne will then move the reader to self-consciousness about this emotion.