The Unnamable is a voice subjected to interminable speech, neither its subject nor its predicate -- "I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not me.
Alternatively he is a parody of the writer who cannot stop writing -- Sade, Balzac, Sartre, Derrida himself -- and so his subjected condition entails the possibility that literature's alleged "power to say everything" is a curse, or merely the inability of a sorcerer's apprentice to turn things off. In fact in much of Beckett's work speech is experienced as an ironically Irish malady, namely a mad vociferation that, in the play "Not I," for example, reduces the subject to a mouth, a voice, and a single-minded repudiation of the first-person singular.
Taking the pun as an example, the literary work is a kind of semantic exorbitance that in principle might have, to use Derrida's phrase from the Attridge interview that Szafraniec singles out, "the power to say everything [ tout dire ]" Acts , Critic Stanley Fish receives a particularly harsh bashing but there are few others who get off lightly. Making this visible via psychoanalytic ideas of retroactivity, Alfie Bown explores how laughter — far from being a mere response to a stimulus — changes the relationship between the present, the past and the future. June Negativity is what a commitment to absolute singularity or alterity requires as dare one say it?
Szafraniec thinks of the Unnamable as moved by a desire to be restored philosophically to self-presence and self-identity, not to say self-mastery, and she elicits the help of Paul Ricoeur's writings on narrative as self-formation to show how the Unnamable fails, and how his failure is also the defeat of Ricoeur's theory, and perhaps of any theory of literature except maybe one that says that literature is, like the Unnamable, just made of words, but not of any of the things we use words to produce concepts, propositions, narratives, expressions of a subject.
The Unnamable is wise to this theory and so maybe is Derrida -- "I'm in words, made of words, others' words, what others, the place too, the air, the walls, the floor, the ceiling, all words, the whole world is here with me, I'm in the air, the walls, the walled-in one, everything yields, opens, ebbs, flows, like flakes, I'm all these flakes, meeting, mingling, falling asunder, wherever I go I find me, leave me, go towards me, come from me, nothing ever but me, a particle of me, retrieved, lost, gone astray, I'm all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words, with no ground for their settling" Grove , Too many words.
Perhaps this is why literature has always been called upon to justify itself. What authorizes it? What is it for? Szafraniec formulates this problem in what seems to me exactly the right terms -- recall Derrida's conception of the literary work in relation to the "institution" of literature: "What is it," Szafraniec asks, "that gives the subversive literary work its 'right' to enter into and modify the literary institution?
For philosophers like Arthur Danto, it is precisely at this impasse that art or poetry turns into philosophy, because each work poses the conceptual problem of What is it? But this nothing, this void, is nothing else but a void surrounded by a torsion of an artistic object upon itself, a self-reference of a poem to itself" cited by Szafraniec, The task of philosophy is to intervene in this solipsism and to determine something like the "truth conditions" of the poem -- what is it that makes it the thing it is.
For Badiou this appears to lie in the poem's capacity to breach the alternatives of universal and particular and to connect up or, anyhow, connect us up with an absolutely singular event conceived perhaps as a kind of break with things as they are.
It is not entirely clear how much of Beckett can live up to the task that Badiou has in mind -- recall Beckett's early repudiation of "the art of the feasible":. Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further down a dreary road. Here is the poetics of The Unnamable in all of its uncompromising finitude.
Not surprisingly, Badiou, as Szafraniec points out, doesn't much like Beckett's Trilogy or, indeed, much of anything until the late, austere works like Worstward Ho , but he might have been able to extract from the Unnamable's interminable but still strangely exuberant monologue the unforeseeable event to come for which the Unnamable never gives up hope, namely release from the "obligation to express" that heroically, Sisyphus-like he never fails to satisfy -- that is, release at last into a final, terminal silence which one might think of as a condition of freedom: recall that for Blanchot being forced to speak is the greatest injustice.
Of course, we who read Beckett, as if knowing better "dream, dream again, dream of a silence, a dream of silence, full of murmurs" [ Grove , ] , may feel no better for it, but the incongruity between the stasis that confines each Beckett subject and his or her indefatigable, irrepressible subjectivity, as in Happy Days , is simultaneously painful and redemptive, like laughter itself conceived as a moment of freedom.
Whether this line of thought would be acceptable to Badiou is a matter that I'll leave to the specialists. In the epigraph above Derrida writes: "a literature that talked only about literature would immediately be annulled…. This negativity in its various contexts and nuances is for Szafraniec the third point of transaction between Beckett and Derrida, whose interest in negative theology has been well documented but perhaps less often seen as definitive. Negativity is what a commitment to absolute singularity or alterity requires as dare one say it? But of course at some point one has to contrast the garrulousness of Derrida's writing with the increasing austerity of Beckett's work, particularly in some of his later pieces for radio and television, not to mention the tour de force, "Breath.
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Like many literary theories, ultimately it sounds self-fulfilling as if when we look at every book through a Freudian viewpoint we will find a vapid argument between the id, ego, and superego, or for a Marxist, the proletariat struggling for identity in society of commodities. Sontag essentially makes this claim in Against Interpretation. What then remains for us to take away from this book? How will all of his arguments affect the way we read or talk about writing or art?
When we review a book of fiction should we simply summarize the plot then check off the five components Eagleton provides to see how this book accomplishes its task? Obviously not. Rather, if I can pierce through the density of these myriad arguments, Eagleton calls for a more self-aware analysis of books. We make statements, carelessly, referring to a novel as morally enlightening, or transcendent, or cathartic when he wants us to investigate what these terms possibly mean.
At this point, however, we run into a wall when attempting to talk about literature. For Eagleton, a discussion of literature entails a destabilization of our assumptions about literature. What he leaves unanswered is how to translate all of this abstract argumentation into more refined discussions of the actual texts.
In a book review, we cannot at every turn qualify our statements i. To that extent, Eagleton leaves the reader wanting. He fails to accomplish this loftier task of concretizing his conclusions in a compelling way.
However, he acutely points out the pitfalls of our current state of unenlightened phenomenological literary criticism. She barely explores her assumptions about authorial intent, novelistic coherence, and the nature of fiction. Consequently, we need to find a balance in which we can still make phenomenological critiques of art, the most pervasive form of criticism today, and yet resuscitate the desire and ability to grapple with these larger questions. Reading through the arguments, even barely understanding some of the subtleties between the different thinkers he quotes, engenders a heady rush of intellectual excitement, akin to the feeling of reading about the God particle without completely understanding the physics behind it.
It lends a weightiness to literature, to writing, to criticism. Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living in the Upper West Side. When not ingesting all things cultural, he attends classes for a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support this extravagant lifestyle, Joe teaches, tutors and babysits, unabashedly.