Tuesday, January 31, 2012

THE UNNAMABLE by Samuel Beckett

Thirty days ago I began what promises to be a year of our discontent (to put it mildly) with a reading of Beckett's The Unnamable, a decidedly dreary way to start a year that began drearily enough, with overcast skies the color of woodsmoke and tree-tearing winds blowing down frozen air from Guy Maddin Land. l'Innommable, as the author called it en Francais, is a complex, disturbing, unsettling little interior monologue that demands multiple readings. Most of the difficulty arises from the fact that Beckett builds his monologue out of contradictions that radically undermine the interior monologue form and images that assault that form's humanistic underpinnings. None of this, however, has deterred humanists from trying to recruit the work for their team, citing its closing cadence, "I can't go on, I'll go on," as a statement of existential affirmation in the face of absurd nothingness. This attempt to strategically confuse Beckett with Camus quickly founders, though, with the realization that The Unnamable ends with this phrase, that "I" does in fact stop--forever--immediately upon uttering it. The text thus ends not in affirmation but in another of the explicit contradictions that rhetorically define it. Indeed, one might go further and state that all of the text's contradictions culminate in this most unsettlingly terminal one, the fatal period and blank silence after "I'll go on."

The Unnamable is also another of those works (like Moby Dick and Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy) that makes much of post-structuralist literary theory seem redundant, little more than a prosaic (or deliberately obscure) codification of ideas presented more ably and accessibly by the earlier artists. Sam and Herman and Alain got there firstest with the mostest, and their works are still much better reads than those of Jacques D. or Jacques L. or even Michel F. (who was a good and lucid writer much of the time, better than his brethren) and Roland B. (ditto). Of course, this raises the question of how readily the "poststructuralist" aspects of these works would have been recognized if we were not reading them through the unbreakable lens of our knowledge of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Barthes, et al. So the criticism and theory does seem necessary after all, if only (to borrow a simile from Northrop Frye) as a kind of hermeneutical scaffolding to be knocked away once the hard work of authentic reading is underway.

While reading The Unnamable I became convinced that this book would profit remarkably from a sensitive dramatic reading of the kind Joyce performed with a fragment of the Wake. This is a text that cries out to be read aloud... slowly... deliberately... with measured pauses between each phrase. The thought of Joyce also brought up the notion of Beckett's monologue(s) as a radically deconstructed 'revision' of Molly Bloom's--an idea to provoke a future re-reading.


Dutchy Hollando said...

I recommend you download http://www.slsknet.org/ and simply search for "samuel beckett", The Unnamable will return amongst others. It is read by Sean Barrett.

Tor Hershman said...

Perhaps, Brian, ye'll dig a read of "My Life As A Small Boy," by Wally Cox.