‘Beckett with Lacan’ by Slavoj Žižek

One can understand James Joyce, with all the obscenities that permeate his writings, as the ultimate Catholic author, “the greatest visionary of the dark underground of Catholicism, an underground embodying a pure transgression, but one which is nevertheless a profoundly Catholic transgression.” [1] Catholicism is legalistic, and, as Paul knew it so well, the Law generates its own transgression; consequently, the staging of the obscene underground of the Law, the travesty of the Black Mass (or, in Joyce’s case, the elevation of Here Comes Everybody into Christ who has to die in order to be reborn as the eternal Life-Goddess, from Molly Bloom to Anna Livia Plurabelle), is the supreme Catholic act.

This achievement of Joyce simultaneously signals his limit, the limit which pushed Beckett to break with him. If there ever was a kenotic writer, the writer of the utter self-emptying of subjectivity, of its reduction to a minimal difference, it is Beckett. We touch the Lacanian Real when we subtract from a symbolic field all the wealth of its differences, reducing it to a minimum of antagonism. Lacan gets sometimes seduced by the rhizomatic wealth of language beyond (or, rather, beneath) the formal structure that sustains it. It is in this sense that, in the last decade of his teaching, he deployed the notion of lalangue (sometimes simply translated as “llanguage”) which stands for language as the space of illicit pleasures that defy any normativity: the chaotic multitude of homonymies, word-plays, “irregular” metaphoric links and resonances… Productive as this notion is, one should be aware of its limitations. Many commentators have noted that Lacan’s last great literary reading, that of Joyce to whom his late seminar (XXIII: Le sinthome) [2] is dedicated, is not at the level of his previous great readings (Hamlet, Antigone, Claudel’s Coufontaine-trilogy). There is effectively something fake in Lacan’s fascination with late Joyce, with Finnegan’s Wake as the latest version of the literary Gesamtkunstwerk with its endless wealth of lalangue in which not only the gap between singular languages, but the very gap between linguistic meaning and jouissance seems overcome and the rhizome-like jouis-sense (enjoyment-in-meaning: enjoy-meant) proliferates in all directions. The true counterpart to Joyce is, of course, Samuel Becket: after his early period in which he more or less wrote some variations on Joyce, the “true” Becket constituted himself through a true ethical act, a CUT, a rejection of the Joycean wealth of enjoy-meant, and the ascetic turn towards a “minimal difference,” towards a minimalization, “subtraction,” of the narrative content and of language itself (this line is most clearly discernible in his masterpiece, the trilogy Molloy – Malone Dies – L’innomable). Beckett is effectively the literary counterpart of Anton Webern: both are authors of extreme modernist minimalism, of subtracting a minimal difference from the wealth of material.

Beckett’s Texts for Nothing (first published in French in 1955 as Nouvelles et texts pour rien) is the fourth term which supplements the trilogy Molloy – Malone Dies – The Unnamable – Beckett himself referred to Texts as “the grisly afterbirth of L’innomable,” the “attempt to get out of the attitude of disintegration /of the trilogy/ but it failed.” [3] The obvious link is that the first line of the first text (“Suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn’t any more”) echoes the famous last line of The Unnamable (“you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”), a true Kantian imperative, a paraphrase of Kant’s Du kannst, denn du sollst (“You can, because you must.”). The voice of conscience tells me “you must go on,” I reply, referring to my weakness, “I can’t go on,” but as a Kantian, I know this excuse doesn’t count, so I nonetheless decide that “I’ll go on,” doing the impossible.

Since, for Beckett, what “must go on” is ultimately writing itself, the Lacanian version of the last line of The Unnamable is something that ne cesse pas a s’ecrire, that doesn’t cease writing itself – a necessity, the first term in the logical square which also comprises impossibility (that which ne cesse pas a ne pas s’ecrire, doesn’t cease not writing itself), possibility (that which cesse a s’ecrire, ceases to write itself), and contingency (that which cesse a ne pas s’ecrire, ceases not writing itself). It is crucial to note here the clear distinction between possibility and contingency: while possibility is the opposite of necessity, contingency is the opposite of impossibility. In Badiou’s terms of the attitudes towards a Truth-Event, necessity stands for the fidelity to Truth, impossibility for a situation with no truth, possibility for the possibility of a truth-procedure to exhaust its potentials and to stop, and contingency for the beginning of a new truth-procedure.

So what do Texts for Nothing register, a possibility or a contingency? A possibility, definitely – a possibility to “cease writing,” to betray fidelity, to cease going on. The failure of Texts is thus good news: Texts are failed betrayals, failed attempts to get rid of the ethical injunction. They are a comical supplement to the great triad – an opportunist’s attempt to squeeze out of the call of duty, somehow like Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death,” where a mortal human being attempts to escape immortality, its unbearable ethical burden/injunction. In this sense, Texts are an optimistic work – their message is that one cannot but “go on” as an immortal bodiless drive, as a subject without subjectivity: “No, no souls, or bodies, or birth, or life, or death, you’ve got to go on without any of that junk”…

Jonathan Boulter thus got it right – on condition that we strictly distinguish between subject and subjectivity. The whole of the trilogy can be read as a gradual getting rid of subjectivity, a gradual reduction of subjectivity to the minimum of a subject without subjectivity – a subject which is no longer a person, whose objective correlative is no longer a body (organism), but only a partial object (organ), a subject of DRIVE which is Freud’s name for immortal persistence, “going on.” Such a subject is a living dead – still alive, going on, persisting, but dead (deprived of body) – undead. Texts are a comical attempt to resubjectivize this subject – among other things, to provide him with a body, to travel back the road from Cheshire cat’s smile to its full body. Boulter is right to correct Alvarez who claimed that Texts are written in the same “breathless, bodiless style” as The Unnamable:

“One of the things the reader notices about Texts from its outset is that the body (of the narrator/narrated) has made an uncanny return from its near obliteration in The Unnamable : the narrator of The Unnamable is disembodied (it may be that “he” is merely a brain in an urn). At the very least, the issue of subjectivity is a complex one in the trilogy because the relation between voice (of narrator) and body (of narrator) is continually called into question. We may in fact argue that the trilogy in toto is about the dismantling of the physical body: in Molloy, the body is ambulatory but weakening; in Malone Dies the body is on its last legs, immobile and dying; in The Unnamable the physical body may in fact have ceased to be an issue as the narrator floats between personalities and subject positions. All of which is to indicate that in Texts, the body has made /…/ an unexpected comeback.”(333-334)

The subject without subjectivity, this “living dead,” is also timeless – when we reach this point, “time has turned into space and there will be no more time till I get out of here” (note how Beckett repeats here Wagner’s precise formula of the sacred space of the Grail’s castle from Parsifal “time become here space,” which Claude Lévi-Strauss quotes as the most succinct definition of myth). The subject we thus reach, a subject without subjectivity, is a subject which

“cannot maintain with any certainty that the experiences he describes are in fact his own; we have a narrating subject who cannot discern if his voice is his own; we have a subject who cannot tell if he has a body; and most crucially, we have a subject who has no sense of personal history, no memory. We have, in short, a subject whose ontology denies the viability of mourning and trauma, yet who seems to display the viability of mourning and trauma.”(337)

Is this subject deprived of all substantial content not the subject as such, at its most radical, the Cartesian cogito? Boulter’s idea is that, for Freud, trauma presupposes a subject to whom it happens and who then tries to narrativize it, to come to terms with it, in the process of mourning. In the case of the Beckettian narrator, on the contrary,

“there is no hope of establishing a link between his own present condition and the trauma that is its precondition. Instead of having a story seemingly given to him unawares – as in the case of the victim of trauma who cannot recognize his past as his own – the Beckettian narrator can only hope (without hope /…/) for a story that will reconnect his present atemporal /…/ condition to his past.”(341)

This is the division of the subject at its most radical: the subject is reduced to $ (the barred subject), even its innermost self-experience is taken from it. This is how one should understand Lacan’s claim that the subject is always “decentered” – his point is not that my subjective experience is regulated by objective unconscious mechanisms that are decentered with regard to my self-experience and, as such, beyond my control (a point asserted by every materialist), but, rather, something much more unsettling: I am deprived of even my most intimate subjective experience, the way things “really seem to me,” that of the fundamental fantasy that constitutes and guarantees the core of my being, since I can never consciously experience it and assume it. One should counter Boulter’s question “To what extent do trauma and mourning require a subject?”(337) with a more radical one: to what extent does (the very emergence of) a subject require trauma and mourning? [4] The primordial trauma, the trauma constitutive of the subject, is the very gap that bars the subject from ITS OWN “inner life.”

Scenes From a Happy Life. This inner and constitutive link between trauma and subject is the topic of what is undoubtedly Beckett’s late masterpiece: Not I, a twenty-minute dramatic monologue written in 1972, an exercise in theatric minimalism: there are no “persons” here, intersubjectivity is reduced to its most elementary skeleton, that of the speaker (who is not a person, but a partial object, a faceless MOUTH speaking) and AUDITOR, a witness of the monologue who says nothing throughout the play (all the Auditor does is that, in “a gesture of helpless compassion”(Beckett), he four times repeats the gesture of simple sideways raising of arms from sides and their falling back. (When asked if the Auditor is Death or a guardian angel, Beckett shrugged his shoulders, lifted his arms and let them fall to his sides, leaving the ambiguity intact – repeating the very gesture of the Auditor.) Beckett himself pointed to the similarities between Not I and The Unnamable with its clamoring voice longing for silence, circular narrative and concern about avoiding the first person pronoun: “I shall not say I again, ever again”. Along these lines, one could agree with Vivian Mercier’s suggestion that, gender aside, Not I is a kind of dramatization of The Unnamable – one should only add that, in Not I, we get the talking partial coupled/supplemented with a minimal figure of the big Other. – Here, then, is the text of this piece in its entirety:

Stage in darkness but for MOUTH, upstage audience right, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow. Invisible microphone. AUDITOR, downstage audience left, tall standing figure, sex undeterminable, enveloped from head to foot in loose black djellaba, with hood, fully faintly lit, standing on invisible podium about 4 feet high shown by attitude alone to be facing diagonally across stage intent on MOUTH, dead still throughout but for four brief movements where indicated. As house lights down MOUTH`S voice unintelligible behind curtain. House lights out. Voice continues unintelligible behind curtain, 10 seconds. With rise of curtain ad-libbing from text as required leading when curtain fully up and attention sufficient into:

MOUTH: … out … into this world … this world … tiny little thing … before its time … in a godfor– … what? … girl? … yes … tiny little girl … into this … out into this … before her time … godforsaken hole called … called … no matter … parents unknown … unheard of … he having vanished … thin air … no sooner buttoned up his breeches … she similarly … eight months later … almost to the tick … so no love … spared that … no love such as normally vented on the … speechless infant … in the home … no … nor indeed for that matter any of any kind … no love of any kind … at any subsequent stage … so typical affair … nothing of any note till coming up to sixty when– … what? … seventy? … good God! … coming up to seventy … wandering in a field … looking aimlessly for cowslips … to make a ball … a few steps then stop … stare into space … then on … a few more … stop and stare again … so on … drifting around … when suddenly … gradually … all went out … all that early April morning light … and she found herself in the–– … what? … who? … no! … she! … (Pause and movement 1) … found herself in the dark … and if not exactly … insentient … insentient … for she could still hear the buzzing … so-called … in the ears … and a ray of light came and went … came and went … such as the moon might cast … drifting … in and out of cloud … but so dulled … feeling … feeling so dulled … she did not know … what position she was in … imagine! … what position she was in! … whether standing … or sitting … but the brain– … what? … kneeling? … yes … whether standing … or sitting … or kneeling … but the brain– … what? … lying? … yes … whether standing … or sitting … or kneeling … or lying … but the brain still … still … in a way … for her first thought was … oh long after … sudden flash … brought up as she had been to believe … with the other waifs … in a merciful … (Brief laugh) … God … (Good laugh) … first thought was … oh long after … sudden flash … she was being punished … for her sins … a number of which then … further proof if proof were needed … flashed through her mind … one after another … then dismissed as foolish … oh long after … this thought dismissed … as she suddenly realized … gradually realized … she was not suffering … imagine! … not suffering! … indeed could not remember … off-hand … when she had suffered less … unless of course she was … meant to be suffering … ha! … thought to be suffering … just as the odd time … in her life … when clearly intended to be having pleasure … she was in fact … having none … not the slightest … in which case of course … that notion of punishment … for some sin or other … or for the lot … or no particular reason … for its own sake … thing she understood perfectly … that notion of punishment … which had first occurred to her … brought up as she had been to believe … with the other waifs … in a merciful … (Brief laugh) … God … (Good laugh) … first occurred to her … then dismissed … as foolish … was perhaps not so foolish … after all … so on … all that … vain reasonings … till another thought … oh long after … sudden flash … very foolish really but– … what? … the buzzing? … yes … all the time buzzing … so-called … in the ears … though of course actually … not in the ears at all … in the skull … dull roar in the skull … and all the time this ray or beam … like moonbeam … but probably not … certainly not … always the same spot … now bright … now shrouded … but always the same spot … as no moon could … no … no moon … just all part of the same wish to … torment … though actually in point of fact … not in the least … not a twinge … so far … ha! … so far … this other thought then … oh long after … sudden flash … very foolish really but so like her … in a way … that she might do well to … groan … on and off … writhe she could not … as if in actual agony … but could not … could not bring herself … some flaw in her make-up … incapable of deceit … or the machine … more likely the machine … so disconnected … never got the message … or powerless to respond … like numbed … couldn’t make the sound … not any sound … no sound of any kind … no screaming for help for example … should she feel so inclined … scream … (Screams) … then listen … (Silence) … scream again … (Screams again) … then listen again … (Silence) … no … spared that … all silent as the grave … no part– … what? … the buzzing? … yes … all silent but for the buzzing … so-called … no part of her moving … that she could feel … just the eyelids … presumably … on and off … shut out the light … reflex they call it … no feeling of any kind … but the lids … even best of times … who feels them? … opening … shutting … all that moisture … but the brain still … still sufficiently … oh very much so! … at this stage … in control … under control … to question even this … for on that April morning … so it reasoned … that April morning … she fixing with her eye … a distant bell … as she hastened towards it … fixing it with her eye … lest it elude her … had not all gone out … all that light … of itself … without any … any … on her part … so on … so on it reasoned … vain questionings … and all dead still … sweet silent as the grave … when suddenly … gradually … she realizes– … what? … the buzzing? … yes … all dead still but for the buzzing … when suddenly she realized … words were– … what? … who? … no! … she! … (Pause and movement 2) … realized … words were coming … imagine! … words were coming … a voice she did not recognize at first so long since it had sounded … then finally had to admit … could be none other … than her own … certain vowel sounds … she had never heard … elsewhere … so that people would stare … the rare occasions … once or twice a year … always winter some strange reason … stare at her uncomprehending … and now this stream … steady stream … she who had never … on the contrary … practically speechless … all her days … how she survived! … even shopping … out shopping … busy shopping centre … supermart … just hand in the list … with the bag … old black shopping bag … then stand there waiting … any length of time … middle of the throng … motionless … staring into space … mouth half open as usual … till it was back in her hand … the bag back in her hand … then pay and go … not as much as good-bye … how she survived! … and now this stream … not catching the half of it … not the quarter … no idea … what she was saying … imagine! … no idea what she was saying! … till she began trying to … delude herself … it was not hers at all … not her voice at all … and no doubt would have … vital she should … was on the point … after long efforts … when suddenly she felt … gradually she felt … her lips moving … imagine! … her lips moving! … as of course till then she had not … and not alone the lips … the cheeks … the jaws … the whole face … all those– … what? … the tongue? … yes … the tongue in the mouth … all those contortions without which … no speech possible … and yet in the ordinary way … not felt at all … so intent one is … on what one is saying … the whole being … hanging on its words … so that not only she had … had she … not only had she … to give up … admit hers alone … her voice alone … but this other awful thought … oh long after … sudden flash … even more awful if possible … that feeling was coming back … imagine! … feeling coming back! … starting at the top … then working down … the whole machine … but no … spared that … the mouth alone … so far … ha! … so far … then thinking … oh long after … sudden flash … it can’t go on … all this … all that … steady stream … straining to hear … make some-thing of it … and her own thoughts … make something of them … all– … what? … the buzzing? … yes … all the time the buzzing … so-called … all that together … imagine! … whole body like gone … just the mouth … lips … cheeks … jaws … never– … what? … tongue? … yes … lips … cheeks … jaws … tongue … never still a second … mouth on fire … stream of words … in her ear … practically in her ear … not catching the half … not the quarter … no idea what she’s saying … imagine! … no idea what she’s saying! … and can’t stop … no stopping it … she who but a moment before … but a moment! … could not make a sound … no sound of any kind … now can’t stop … imagine! … can’t stop the stream … and the whole brain begging … something begging in the brain … begging the mouth to stop … pause a moment … if only for a moment … and no response … as if it hadn’t heard … or couldn’t … couldn’t pause a second … like maddened … all that together … straining to hear … piece it together … and the brain … raving away on its own … trying to make sense of it … or make it stop … or in the past … dragging up the past … flashes from all over … walks mostly … walking all her days … day after day … a few steps then stop … stare into space … then on … a few more … stop and stare again … so on … drifting around … day after day … or that time she cried … the one time she could remember … since she was a baby … must have cried as a baby … perhaps not … not essential to life … just the birth cry to get her going … breathing … then no more till this … old hag already … sitting staring at her hand … where was it? … Croker’s Acres … one evening on the way home … home! … a little mound in Croker’s Acres … dusk … sitting staring at her hand … there in her lap … palm upward … suddenly saw it wet … the palm … tears presumably … hers presumably … no one else for miles … no sound … just the tears … sat and watched them dry … all over in a second … or grabbing at straw … the brain … flickering away on its own … quick grab and on … nothing there … on to the next … bad as the voice … worse … as little sense … all that together … can’t– … what? … the buzzing? … yes … all the time the buzzing … dull roar like falls … and the beam … flickering on and off … starting to move around … like moonbeam but not … all part of the same … keep an eye on that too … corner of the eye … all that together … can’t go on … God is love … she’ll be purged … back in the field … morning sun … April … sink face down in the grass … nothing but the larks … so on … grabbing at the straw … straining to hear … the odd word … make some sense of it … whole body like gone … just the mouth … like maddened … and can’t stop … no stopping it … something she– … something she had to– … what? … who? … no! … she! … (Pause and movement 3) … something she had to– … what? … the buzzing? … yes … all the time the buzzing … dull roar … in the skull … and the beam … ferreting around … painless … so far … ha! … so far … then thinking … oh long after … sudden flash … perhaps something she had to … had to … tell … could that be it? … something she had to … tell … tiny little thing … before its time … godforsaken hole … no love … spared that … speechless all her days … practically speechless … how she survived! … that time in court … what had she to say for herself … guilty or not guilty … stand up woman … speak up woman … stood there staring into space … mouth half open as usual … waiting to be led away … glad of the hand on her arm … now this … some-thing she had to tell … could that be it? … something that would tell … how it was … how she– … what? … had been? … yes … something that would tell how it had been … how she had lived … lived on and on … guilty or not … on and on … to be sixty … something she– … what? … seventy? … good God! … on and on to be seventy … something she didn’t know herself … wouldn’t know if she heard … then forgiven … God is love … tender mercies … new every morning … back in the field … April morning … face in the grass … nothing but the larks … pick it up there … get on with it from there … another few– … what? … not that? … nothing to do with that? … nothing she could tell? … all right … nothing she could tell … try something else … think of something else … oh long after … sudden flash … not that either … all right … something else again … so on … hit on it in the end … think everything keep on long enough … then forgiven … back in the– … what? … not that either? … nothing to do with that either? … nothing she could think? … all right … nothing she could tell … nothing she could think … nothing she– … what? … who? … no! … she! … (Pause and movement 4) … tiny little thing … out before its time … godforsaken hole … no love … spared that … speechless all her days … practically speechless … even to herself … never out loud … but not completely … sometimes sudden urge … once or twice a year … always winter some strange reason … the long evenings … hours of darkness … sudden urge to … tell … then rush out stop the first she saw … nearest lavatory … start pouring it out … steady stream … mad stuff … half the vowels wrong … no one could follow … till she saw the stare she was getting … then die of shame … crawl back in … once or twice a year … always winter some strange reason … long hours of darkness … now this … this … quicker and quicker … the words … the brain … flickering away like mad … quick grab and on … nothing there … on somewhere else … try somewhere else … all the time something begging … something in her begging … begging it all to stop … unanswered … prayer unanswered … or unheard … too faint … so on … keep on … trying … not knowing what … what she was trying … what to try … whole body like gone … just the mouth … like maddened … so on … keep– … what? … the buzzing? … yes … all the time the buzzing … dull roar like falls … in the skull … and the beam … poking around … painless … so far … ha! … so far … all that … keep on … not knowing what … what she was– … what? … who? … no! … she! … SHE! … (Pause) … what she was trying … what to try … no matter … keep on … (Curtain starts down) … hit on it in the end … then back … God is love … tender mercies … new every morning … back in the field … April morning … face in the grass … nothing but the larks … pick it up–

Curtain fully down. House dark. Voice continues behind curtain, unintelligible, 10 seconds, ceases as house lights up.

Beckettology, of course, did its job in discovering the empirical sources of the play’s imagery. Beckett himself provided the clue for the “old hag,” but also emphasized the ultimate irrelevance of this reference: “I knew that woman in Ireland. I knew who she was – not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, besides the hedgerows.” But, replying the queries, Beckett said: “I no more know where she is or why thus than she does. All I know is in the text. ‘She’ is purely a stage entity, part of a stage image and purveyor of a stage text. The rest is Ibsen.” As to the reduction of the body of the speaker to a partial organ (mouth), in a letter from 30 April 1974, Beckett gave a hint that the visual image of this mouth was “suggested by Caravaggio’s Decollation of St John in Valetta Cathedral.” As to the figure of the Auditor, it was inspired by the image of a djellaba-clad “intense listener” seen from a café in Tunis (Beckett was in North Africa from February to March 1972). James Knowlson conjectured that this “figure coalesced with [Beckett’s] sharp memories of the Caravaggio painting,” which shows “an old woman standing to Salome’s left. She observes the decapitation with horror, covering her ears rather than her eyes” (a gesture that Beckett added in the 1978 Paris production).

Much more interesting are Beckett’s own uncertainties and oscillation with regard to the Auditor (who is generally played by a male, although the sex is not specified in the text): when Beckett came to be involved in staging the play, he found that he was unable to place the Auditor in a stage position that pleased him, and consequently allowed the character to be omitted from those productions. However, he chose not to cut the character from the published script, and left the decision whether or not to use the character in a production at the discretion of individual producers. He wrote to two American directors in 1986: “He is very difficult to stage (light – position) and may well be of more harm than good. For me the play needs him but I can do without him. I have never seen him function effectively.” In the 1978 Paris production he did reinstate the character but from then on abandoned the image, concluding that it was perhaps “an error of the creative imagination”… From the Lacanian perspective, it is easy to locate the source of this trouble: the Auditor gives body to the big Other, the Third, the ideal Addressee-Witness, the place of Truth which receives and thereby authentificates the speaker’s message. The problem is how to visualize/materialize this structural place as a figure on the imaginary of the stage: while every play (or even speech) needs it, but every concrete figuration is by definition inadequate, i.e., it cannot ever “function effectively” on stage.

The basic constellation of the play is thus the dialogue between the subject and the big Other, where the couple is reduced to its barest minimum: the Other is a silent impotent witness which fails in its effort to serve as the medium of the Truth of what is said, and the speaking subject itself is deprived of its dignified status of “person” and reduced to a partial object. And, consequently, since meaning is generated only by means of the detour of the speaker’s word through a consistent big Other, the speech itself ultimately functions at a pre-semantic level, as a series of explosions of libidinal intensities. At the premiere in Lincoln Center, the Mouth was played by Jessica Tandy, the mother from Hitchcock’s The Birds. Debating the piece with her, Beckett demanded that it should “work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect,” and advised Tandy to consider the mouth “an organ of emission, without intellect.” [5]

Where does this bring us with regard to the standard postmodern critique of dialogue, which emphasizes its origin in Plato, where there is always the one who knows (even if only that he knows nothing), questioning the other (who pretends to know) to admit he knows nothing. There is thus always a basic asymmetry in a dialogue – and does this asymmetry not break out openly in late Plato’s dialogues, where we are no longer dealing with Socratic irony, but with one person talking all the time, with his partner merely interrupting him from time to time with “So it is, by Zeus!”, “How cannot it be so?”, etc. It is easy for a postmodern deconstructionist to show the violent streak even in Habermas’s theory of communicative action which stresses the symmetry of the partners in a dialogue: this symmetry is grounded in the respect of all parts for the rules of rational argumentation, and are these rules really as neutral as they claim to be? Once we accept this and bring it to its radical conclusion – the rejection of the very notion of “objective truth” as oppressive, as an instrument of domination -, the post-modern path to what Lyotard called le differend is open: in an authentic dialogue, there is no pressure to reach a final reconciliation or accord, but merely to reconcile ourselves with the irreducible difference of perspectives which cannot be subordinated to any encompassing universality. Or, as Rorty put it: the fundamental right of each of us is the right to tell his/her/their own story of life-experience, especially of pain, humiliation and suffering. But, again, it is clear that people not only speak from different perspectives, but that these differences are grounded in different positions of power and domination: what does the right to free dialogue mean when, if I approach certain topics, I risk everything, up to my life? Or, even worse, when my complaints are not even rejected, but dismissed with a cynical smile? The Left-liberal position is here that one should especially emphasize the voices which are usually not heard, which are ignored, oppressed or even prohibited within the predominant field – sexual and religious minorities, etc. But is this not all too abstract-formal? The true problem is: how are we to create conditions for a truly egalitarian dialogue? Is this really possible to do in a “dialogic”/respectful way, or is some kind of counter-violence needed? Furthermore, is the notion of (not naively “objective,” but) universal truth really by definition a tool of oppression and domination? Say, in the Germany of 1940, the Jewish story of their suffering was not simply an oppressed minority view to be heard, but a complaint whose truth was in a way universal, i.e., which rendered visible what was wrong in the entire social situation.

Is there a way out of this conundrum? What about the dialogic scene of the psychoanalytic session, which weirdly inverts the coordinates of the late-Platonic dialogue? As in the latter case, here also one (the patient) talks almost all the time, while the other only occasionally interrupts him with an intervention which is more of a diacritical order, asserting the proper scansion of what was told. And, as we know from the Freudian theory, the analyst is here not the one who already knows the truth and just wisely leads the patient to discover it himself/herself: the analyst precisely doesn’t know it, his knowledge is the illusion of transference which had to fall at the end of the treatment.

1 + 3. And is it not that, with regard to this dynamic of the psychoanalytic process, Beckett’s play can be said to start where the analytic process ends: the big Other is no longer “supposed to know” anything, there is no transference, and, consequently, “subjective destitution” already took place. But does this mean that, since we are already at the end, there is no inner dynamic, no radical shift, possible anymore – which would nicely account for the appearance of the circular movement in this (and other) Beckett’s play(s)? A closer look at the content of the play’s narrative, of what is told in this 20 minutes long monologue, seems to confirm this diagnostic: the Mouth utters at a ferocious pace a logorrhoea of fragmented, jumbled sentences which obliquely tells the story of a woman of about seventy who, having been abandoned by her parents after a premature birth, has lived a loveless, mechanical existence and who appears to have suffered an unspecified traumatic experience. The woman has been virtually mute since childhood apart from occasional winter outbursts part of one of which comprises the text we hear, in which she relates four incidents from her life: lying face down in the grass on a field in April; standing in a supermarket; sitting on a “mound in Croker’s Acre” (a real place in Ireland near Leopardstown racecourse); and “that time at court.” Each of the last three incidents somehow relates to the repressed first “scene” which has been likened to an epiphany – whatever happened to her in that field in April was the trigger for her to start talking. Her initial reaction to this paralyzing event is to assume she is being punished by God; strangely, however, this punishment involves no suffering – she feels no pain, as in life she felt no pleasure. She cannot think why she might be being punished but accepts that God does not need a “particular reason” for what He does. She thinks she has something to tell though she doesn’t know what but believes if she goes over the events of her life for long enough she will stumble upon that thing for which she needs to seek forgiveness; however, a kind of abstract non-linguistic continued buzzing in her skull always intervenes whenever she gets too close to the core of her traumatic experience.

The first axiom of interpreting this piece is not to reduce it to its superficial cyclical nature (endless repetitions and variations of the same fragments, unable to focus on the heart of the matter), imitating the confused mumbling of the “old hag” too senile to get to the point: a close reading makes it clear that, just before the play’s end, there IS a crucial break, a decision, a shift in the mode of subjectivity. This shift is signaled by a crucial detail: in the last (fifth) moment of pause, the Auditor DOESN’T intervene with his mute gesture – his “helpless compassion” lost its ground. Here are all five moments of pause:

(1) “all that early April morning light … and she found herself in the–– … what? … who? … no! … she! …” (Pause and movement 1.)
(2) “the buzzing? … yes … all dead still but for the buzzing … when suddenly she realized … words were– … what? … who? … no! … she! …” (Pause and movement 2.)
(3) “something she– … something she had to– … what? … who? … no! … she! …” (Pause and movement 3)
(4) “all right … nothing she could tell … nothing she could think … nothing she– … what? … who? … no! … she! …” (Pause and movement 4)
(5) “keep on … not knowing what … what she was– … what? … who? … no! … she! … SHE! … [Pause.] … what she was trying … what to try … no matter … keep on …” (Curtain starts down)

Note the three crucial changes here: (1) the standard, always identical, series of words which precedes the pause with the Auditor’s movement of helpless compassion (“… what? … who? … no! … she! …”) is here supplemented by a repeated capitalized ”SHE”; (2) the pause is without the Auditor’s movement; (3) it is not followed by the same kind of confused rumbling as in the previous four cases, but by the variation of the paradigmatic Beckettian ethical motto of perseverance (“no matter … keep on”). Consequently, the key to the entire piece is provided by the way we read this shift: does it signal a simple (or not so simple) gesture by means of which the speaker (Mouth) finally fully assumes her subjectivity, asserts herself as SHE (or, rather, as I), overcoming the blockage indicated by the buzzing in her head? In other words, insofar as the play’s title comes from the Mouth’s repeated insistence that the events she describes or alludes to did not happen to her (and that therefore she cannot assumer them in first person singular), does the fifth pause indicate the negation of the plays’s title, the transformation of “not I” into “I”? Or is there a convincing alternative to this traditional-humanist reading which so obviously runs counter the entire spirit of Beckett’s universe? Yes – on condition that we also radically abandon the predominant cliché about Beckett as the author of the “theatre of the absurd,” preaching the abandonment of every metaphysical Sense (Godot will never arrive), the resignation to the endless circular self-reproduction of meaningless rituals (the nonsense rhymes in Waiting for Godot).

This, of course, in no way implies that we should counter the “theatre of the absurd” reading of Beckett with its no less simplified up-beat mirror-image; perhaps, a parallel with “Der Laienmann”, the song that concludes Schubert’s Winterreise, may be of some help here. “Der Laienmann” displays a tension between form and message. Its message appears to be utter despair of the abandoned lover who finally lost all hope, even the very ability to mourn and despair, and identifies with the man on the street automaticaly playing his music-machine. However, as many perspicuous commentators have noticed, this last song can also be read as the sign of forthcoming redemption: while all other songs present the hero’s inward brooding, here, for the first time, the hero turns outwards and establishes a minimal contact, an emphatic identification, with another human being, although this identification is with another desperate loser who even lost his ability to mourn and is reduced to performing blind mechanic gestures. Does something similar not take place with the final shift of Not I? At the level of content, this shift can be read as the ultimate failure both of the speaker (Mouth) and of the big Other (Auditor): when the Mouth loses even the minimal thread of the content and is reduced to the minimalist injunction that the meaningless bubble must go on (“keep on … not knowing what”), the Auditor despairs and renounces even the empty gesture of helpless compassion. There is, however, the opposite reading that imposes itself at the level of FORM: the Mouth emerges as a pure (form of) subject, deprived of all substantial content (depth of “personality”), and, pending on this reduction, the Other is also de-psychologized, reduced to an empty receiver, deprived of all affective content (“compassion,” etc.). To play with Malevitch’s terms, we reach the zero-level of communication – the subtitle of the play’s finale could have been “white noise on the black background of immobile silence”…

In what, then, does this shift consist? We should approach it via its counterpart, the traumatic X around which the Mouth’s logorrhea circulates. So what happened to “her” on the field in April? Was the traumatic experience she underwent there a brutal rape? When asked about, Beckett unambiguously rejected such a reading: “How could you think of such a thing! No, no, not at all – it wasn’t that at all.” We should not take this statement as a tongue-in-cheek admission, but literally – that fateful April, while “wandering in a field … looking aimlessly for cowslips,” the woman suffered some kind of collapse, possibly even her death – definitely not a real-life event, but an unbearably-intense “inner experience” close to what C.S.Lewis’ described in his Surprised by Joy [6] as the moment of his religious choice. What makes this description so irresistibly delicious is the author’s matter-of-fact “English” skeptical style, far from the usual pathetic narratives of the mystical rapture – Lewis refers to the experience as the “odd thing”; he mentions its common location – “I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus.” – the qualifications like “in a sense,” “what now appears,” “or, if you like,” “you could argue that… but I am more inclined to think…,” “perhaps,” “I rather disliked the feeling”):

“The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense. I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, ‘I am what I do.’ Then came the repercussion on the imaginative level. I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in my back – drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling.”

In a way, everything is here: the decision is purely formal, ultimately a decision to decide, without a clear awareness of WHAT the subject decides about; it is non-psychological act, unemotional, with no motives, desires or fears; it is incalculable, not the outcome of strategic argumentation; it is a totally free act, although one couldn’t do it otherwise. It is only AFTERWARDS that this pure act is “subjectivized,” translated into a (rather unpleasant) psychological experience. From the Lacanian standpoint, there is only one aspect which is potentially problematic in Lewis’ formulation: the traumatic Event (encounter of the Real, exposure to the “minimal difference”) has nothing to do with the mystical suspension of ties which bind us to ordinary reality, with attaining the bliss of radical indifference in which life or death and other worldly distinctions no longer matter, in which subject and object, thought and act, fully coincide. To put it in mystical terms, the Lacanian act is rather the exact opposite of this “return to innocence”: the Original Sin itself, the abyssal DISTURBANCE of the primeval Peace, the primordial “pathological” Choice of the unconditional attachment to some singular object (like falling in love with a singular person which, thereafter, matters to us more than everything else). And does something like THIS not take place on the grass in Not I? The sinful character of the trauma is indicated by the fact that the speaker feels punished by God). What then happens in the final shift of the play is that the speaker ACCEPTS the trauma in its meaninglessness, ceases to search for its meaning, restores its extra-symbolic dignity, as it were, thereby getting rid of the entire topic of sin and punishment. This is why the Auditor no longer reacts with the gesture of impotent compassion: there is no longer despair in the Mouth’s voice, the standard Beckettian formula of the drive’s persistence in asserted (“no matter… keep on”), God is only now truly love – not the loved or loving one, but Love itself, that which makes things going. Even after all content is lost, at this point of absolute reduction, the Galilean conclusion imposes itself: eppur si muove.

This, however, in no way means that the trauma is finally subjectivized, that the speaker is now no longer “not I” but “SHE,” a full subject finally able to assume her Word. Something much more uncanny happens here: the Mouth is only now fully destituted as subject – at the moment of the fifth pause, the subject who speaks fully assumes its identity with Mouth as a partial object. What happens here is structurally similar to one of the most disturbing TV episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, “The Glass Eye” (the opening episode of the third year). Jessica Tandy (again – the very actress who was the original Mouth!) plays here a lone woman who falls for a handsome ventriloquist, Max Collodi (a reference to the author of Pinocchio); when she gathers the courage to approach him alone in his quarters, she declares her love for him and steps forward to embrace him, only to find that she is holding in her hands a wooden dummy’s head; after she withdraws in horror, the “dummy” stands up and pulls off its mask, and we see the face of a sad older dwarf who start to jump desperately on the table, asking the woman to go away… the ventriloquist is in fact the dummy, while the hideous dummy is the actual ventriloquist. Is this not the perfect rendering of an “organ without bodies”? It is the detachable “dead” organ, the partial object, which is effectively alive, and whose dead puppet the “real” person is: the “real” person is merely alive, a survival machine, a “human animal,” while the apparently “dead” supplement is the focus of excessive Life.


[1] Thomas J.J. Altizer, The Contemporary Jesus, London: SCM Press 1998, p. 101.

[2] See Le seminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre XXIII: Le sinthome, Paris: Editions du Seuil 2005.

[3] Jonathan Boulter, “Does Mourning Require a Subject?”, in Modern Fiction Studies 50-2 (Summer 2004), p. 332. Numbers in brackets refer to pages in this volume.

[4] Judith Butler developed this point in detail, especially in her The Psychic Life of Power.

[5] In the 2000 filmed production, directed by Neil Jordan, we see Julianne Moore come into view, sit down and then the light hit her mouth – this makes us aware that a young woman as opposed to an “old hag” is portraying the protagonist.

[6] C.S.Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London: Fontana Books 1977, p. 174-175.


See also: ‘Not I’ by Samuel Beckett | Beckett on Film | 2001