Sunday, 26 January 2014

Samuel Beckett: The Mad Abstract Dark



“Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving.” (Beckett, The Unnamable)



A sentence with a subject, gasping for air between two without. But the “I" is not so much a narrator piping up, laying claim to speech. It’s part of a gambit (“try saying I, that might work”) or the object of a wearied imperative (Speak, self!), issuing from a place before any “I”, a place from which the “I” is cast into language.



Because this place is formless and silent, lightless and shapeless, it is unnameable. This place, from which the “I” is thrown into language, is always betrayed by language. Each time the self contracts into language it loses something; each time if shrinks into a noun something slips away into darkness



We confront the same thing everywhere in Beckett. The moment the “I” is pitched into language - the vocalised or written I - it is also adrift in language, to some degree out-there, separate. It no longer bears the defining watermark of the pre-linguistic self (for want of a better word): the property of being before every object, silent, formless, ‘in recess’. It is now a kind of object itself, posited not positing.



Ordinarily, we are happy to forget the distinction, between the “I” that is posited and the “I” that is doing the posting. We shrink-fit ourselves into the ‘I’; it catches us.



Indeed, for Lacan, this is the elementary gesture that sets up the self - the ‘contraction’ of our being into the “I”. The gesture whereby we assume an “I” (as we speak of ‘assuming responsibility') also then becomes something assumed in the other sense – unconscious, already presupposed, behind us. This is the gesture that Beckett refuses. Or the set-up stalls at the crucial moment. What is ordinarily behind us is for Beckett out there in front, as a problem.

But to speak of an “I” pitched into language is already a fatal concession. Again, Who or What introduces this gambit; who or what wagers an “I”? Here’s the nub. This ‘who’ or ‘what’ has no positive attributes – it is only a kind of vacant point or (in Yeats’s phrase) a mad abstract dark. To call it ‘the self’, ‘the subject’ (or the anything) is only perhaps a continuation of the same gambit.



In the ‘mad abstract dark’ before the “I” strikes up and assumes sovereignty , what do we hear? Memories, intentions, thoughts, borne along by the impersonal circuitry of the brain. The churning and chatterings of a kind of pre-language, a babble, without narrative, belonging to nothing that could be called a self, an ego. This is what Beckett’s prose does, to tarry with pre-utterance, the 'mutter' and 'murmur', the continuum of sounds before the 'contraction', the contractive force of utterance allows you to begin.

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