By Jennifer Martin
. . . language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique.
. . . it will be I, you must go on, I can't go on, you must go on, I'll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.
Samuel Beckett concerns himself with the system of language and the faultiness of the proposition that the complex system of signs can actually communicate meaning. In many of his plays: Waiting for Godot (1954), Endgame (1958), Happy Days (1961), Krapp's Last Tape (1958), and Not I (1974), Beckett starkly paints the nature of reality as he sees it -- as an endless stream of signifiers, signifying nothing much at all. The irony in Beckett's works is that to speak is to exist, but in order to speak, one must adopt the system of language, words, which has no inherent meaning. Beckett's technique, to demonstrate the lack of referent (or signified) in language, illustrates the lack of meaning not only in language but also in life. These five plays are stripped to their bare essentials; there are few characters and even fewer props so that the meaninglessness of postmodern life is starkly highlighted. Moreover, the dialogue, the language, is made more prominent by virtue of Beckett's sparse use of props. What few props exist are used symbolically: holes and ashbins in which characters are situated illustrate the gaps and holes in language and the lack of shared meaning (or the inability of language to communicate meaning) that is caused from these "gaps." However, Beckett does not provide the reader/viewer with a definitive, logocentric text with decidable meaning -- nor is this his purpose. In this sense, Beckettian drama anticipates many Foucauldian and Derridean philosophical ideas. Foucault borrows Beckett's Molloy in order to illustrate that language, discourse, "truth," is somehow closed off from us. Derrida's concept of deconstruction implicitly questions the validity of the underlying structures upon which other "truths" lie; this concept is fundamental to his philosophy and can be readily applied to Beckettian drama. Beckett does not presume to present a closed hermeneutic system with decidable meaning. Instead, Beckett's dramatic works challenge the reader/viewer to become actively engaged in the text -- with it words and with its silences.
More specifically, these five plays can be looked at as a progression through the stages of postmodern life. Beckett's portrayal of postmodern life can be viewed as stark, hopeless and ironic: where language does not have a decidable meaning; humans lack foundational assurance; and communication continually breaks down. Waiting for Godot illustrates the desire to prove one's existence and make sense of the world. Derrida's quotation at the beginning of this essay problematizes the situation of the characters in the play. Estragon and Vladimir have only language to rely on to prove their existence and maintain their sanity in a seemingly hopeless world; however, language is an inadequate system in reaching any type of abstract truth or foundational assurance. Endgame looks at the futility of relationships -- the idea that language, which promotes contact with other human beings, is self-serving, for the only goal of humans is to cling to another to avoid separation and solitude. It is through solitude that one may examine the nature and purpose of one's existence; one must also comes to terms with the issue of mortality. Endgame examines the irony that is at the heart of human relationships; we engage in relationships in order to prolong the inevitable: the examination of existence, which, as Beckett continually shows, is meaningless. Happy Days examines middle age and the unfortunate and ironic realization that life is (again) meaningless and mechanical; the characters, Winnie and Willie, attempt simply to "get through" and take comfort in the small things and in each other. The main focus of the play is on Winnie, who is alienated, psychically, physically, and sexually. In her "imprisonment," she is unable to consummate her marriage or anything else. Krapp's Last Tape looks at the senior years of life, when one looks back, in solitude, on the past. Krapp, in his self-imposed exile, displays narcissistic tendencies; he becomes his own subject. As Julia Kristeva states: "Separation is our opportunity to become narcissists or narcissistic, at any rate subjects of representation. The emptiness it opens up is nevertheless also the barely covered abyss where our identities, images and words run the risk of being engulfed" (257). Krapp is in fact engulfed by his own identity and it is Beckett's next work, Not I, that takes this engulfment of the ego to its logical extreme.
Not I represents symbolic death and/or the continuation of the life cycle (death/rebirth). This play has but one speaker: a mouth only. Beckett's use of "character" in this manner provides us with a window into the theoretical gap that is fundamental to postmodern thought. This "gap" represents that absurdity of language: simultaneously, language provides us with an excess of meaning while also providing a lack of meaning because language is always already overdetermined. Language is slippery; we explain concepts through the use of other concepts, via the chain of signifiers; thus, we can never "get to" the truth -- we are alienated from (or lack) absolute truth. This lack or "decentering" is born from the failure of language to convey meaning and, by extension, a tearing of the existential, foundational assurance caused by the destruction of metaphysics that preoccupies postmodern thought. Not I, it could be argued, represents the emptiness that results when one attempts to confront one's identity, which is describable only in words, and finds it indescribable. As Kristeva states: "This [narcissistic] emptiness, which is apparently the primer of symbolic function, is precisely encompassed in linguistics by the bar separating signifier from signified and by the 'arbitrariness' of the sign, or in psychoanalysis by the 'gaping' of the mirror" (257).
In these five plays, Beckett symbolically challenges conventional notions of existence, relationships, and language in order to highlight the stark realities/absurdities of modern society. Beckettian drama breaks down the barrier between speech and writing and presents a postmodern carnivalesque notion of language: his display of the ambivalence of language connotes the lack of a determinant meaning in his texts. Traditional notions of the signifier/signified relationship are blurred and symbolic dialogical spaces are highlighted in order to illustrate the absurdity of the logocentric tradition of Western thought with its foundation in origin because it closes the space between word and thing; in contrast, a word is only a representation of a truth and not truth itself. Perhaps more ironically, Beckett shows us that words are often all we have. But it is the way in which Beckett uses language and theater conventions that serves to change our conceptions of both. As Kristeva states in Word, Dialogue and Novel: "Carnivalesque discourse breaks through the laws of a language censored by grammar and semantics and, at the same time, is a social and political protest. There is no equivalence, but rather, identity between challenging official linguistic codes and challenging official law" (36). Beckett's techniques can be viewed as protest: a protest against conventional notions of language and theater.
Beckettian style delineates the ambivalence of language by the importance he places on symbol and analogy as opposed to traditional notions of character and conventional plot techniques. This style can easily be compared to Kristeva's ideas taken from Bakhtin's study of carnival: "Dialogue appears most clearly in the structure of carnivalesque language, where symbolic relationships and analogy take precedence over substance-causality connections. The notion of ambivalence pertains to the permutation of the two spaces observed in novelistic structure: dialogical space and monological space" (43). In his use of what Kristeva refers to as carnivalesque language or discourse, Beckett underscores the multiplicity of language as an interpretive system; that is, he seeks not to create one determinant meaning of the text. Instead, he plays with language and with dramatic conventions in order to make the readers/viewers active participants in the text. As Fischer-Seidel states: "Of all modern dramatists Beckett was probably most conscious of the double semiotic modality of drama as language and as translation of language into extralinguistic signs like visual images. Not only was Beckett very much aware of this double modality of drama, but he also makes his recipient very much aware of it" (67).
In Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir appear to be communicating with one another, but it is clear that what one character encodes, the other does not decode with the same intended meaning. As Kristeva states of carnivalesque language: "On the omnified stage of carnival, language parodies and relativizes itself, repudiating its role in representation; in doing so, it provokes laughter but remains incapable of detaching itself from representation" (50). Waiting for Godot does indeed parody language and it parodies the "fact" that although language is incapable of true presence or origin, it is all we have. It seems that the purpose of their [Estragon's and Vladimir's] use of words is only to prove to themselves that they do indeed exist; as Estragon states: "We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?" (77). Their purpose is one of inaction. The two simply agree not to act, but to wait for the coming of the elusive, enigmatic Godot, who never arrives. Estragon and Vladimir cling to each other in their inaction and fear, for they know not what else to do; even if they did have an inkling of a plan of action or how to make sense of their lives they would be afraid to act upon it. As Estragon states: "Don't let's do anything. It's safer" (13).
Perhaps Beckett's purpose in Waiting for Godot is to illustrate the uncertainty people face in their everyday lives. As Estragon states: "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful" (43). In the play, Estragon and Vladimir question the validity of the concepts of truth (religious and otherwise) and time; as Estragon states: "No, nothing is certain" (59). As Rabinovitz states: "Underlying the misery of human existence is an oscillation between the boredom of satiation and the longing of unfulfilled desire. . . . Both plays [Waiting for Godot and Happy Days] also reveal how we use cliches to insulate ourselves from the harshness of existence" (211). Although the two know they are incapable of drawing any definitive conclusions, they are incapable of keeping silent -- it is words that fill the void that is their lives:
Vladimir: (sententious). To every man his little cross. (He sighs.) Till he dies. (Afterthought.) And is forgotten.
Estragon: In the meantime let us try and converse calmly, since we are incapable of keeping silent.
Vladimir: You're right, we're inexhaustible.
Estragon: It's so we won't think. (68)
Words serve as their comfort. As Kristeva states: ". . . Francis Ponge offers his own variation of 'I think therefore I am': 'I speak and you hear me, therefore we are.' He thus postulates a shift from subjectivism to ambivalence. . . . Consequently, we may consider narration (beyond the signifier/signified relationship) as a dialogue between the subject of narration (S) and the addressee (A) -- the other" (45). Kristeva describes the abolishment of the distinction between the signifier and the signified. The concepts are rendered ineffective "for that literary practice operating uniquely within dialogical signifier(s). 'The signifier represents the subject for another signifier' (Lacan)" (46). In other words, the goal of language for Estragon and Vladimir is not to come to a consensus on the nature of objective reality, nor is it necessarily for the two to be heard and understood by the other. Rather, the purpose of their language, often misinterpreted or ignored by the other, is intended to ground their respective existences, since they can rely on no other objective "truth." And yet, the two are desperately hopeful that someone (Godot) will come along and solve the puzzle of existence for them; Beckett satirizes perhaps the most archetypical human dilemma.
The theme of Waiting for Godot and of Beckett's style of writing are similar in that they do not strive to capture objective reality. As Estragon and Vladimir collectively come to no conclusions about their lives, Beckett does not strive toward a collective transcendence with the reader in either style or content. Instead, he creates an ambivalent dialogue between the reader and the text. As Kristeva states:
Dialogism replaces these concepts [substance and causality] by absorbing them within the concept of relation. It does not strive toward transcendence but rather toward harmony, all the while implying an idea of rupture (of opposition and analogy) as a modality of transformation. . . . Dialogism situates philosophical problems within language; more precisely, within language as a correlation of texts, as a reading-writing that falls in with non-Aristotelian, syntagmatic, correlational, 'carnivalesque' logic. Consequently, one of the fundamental problems facing contemporary semiotics is precisely to describe this 'other logic' without denaturing it. (59)
In other words, Beckett's failure to use descriptive language and traditional writing/ staging not only forces the reader/viewer to become a more active participant in the text/play but also it displays Beckett's view of life as uncertain. As Rabinovitz argues: "Beckett argues that descriptive language sets up superficial models of human events that are ultimately reductive and unsound. In realistic and naturalistic writing, human motivations and interactions are presented as if they were logical, predictable, and comprehensible. Beckett, however, is persuaded that motives are ultimately obscure. . . ." (205). This uncertainty, so prevalent in Beckett's works, is reminiscent of Derridean antifoundationalism that is found in both language and life, illustrated in Beckett's technique and in the experiences of his characters.
In his texts Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida reexamines language through the tradition of philosophy and the history of ideas. In doing so, Derrida describes the destruction of metaphysics via the works of Nietzche, Freud, and Heidegger; these texts caused a rupture in the systems of thought that sought a reliable center, an origin, a foundation: "From then on it was probably necessary to begin to think that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a being-present, that the center had no natural locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play" (280). Thus, Derrida argues, the transcendental signified, the final signified, to which all other significations refer (God, Presence, Platonic forms, the Cartesian cogito, etc.) does not exist; or, if it does, we cannot know it. Derrida critiques the history of Western thought that grounds knowledge, language, in a transcendental signified. The transcendental signified is what has served to "center" us. The traditions of philosophy and metaphysics base their truths upon some concept of a transcendental signified back to which everything can be traced. The result of this is a splintering of the mind and body, and by extension, language, into speech and writing -- the sign, into signifier/signified. Derrida views the difference between the signifier and the signified and the idea of the sign in general with suspicion because they have never existed independently of the historical/philosophical tradition of being as presence: "The sign and divinity have the same place and time of birth" (Of Grammatology 14).
In Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir experience confusion at this "loss of presence." At the core of this confusion: the lack of meaning in language and thus the failure to communicate with the other; the lack of a referent or a transcendental signified to which they may ground their existences; and the void that is their lives, Estragon and Vladimir wait for someone who, it seems, will never come. As Vladimir states:
". . .What we are doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come -- " (91). Godot is their reason for being, without him they are nothing -- he gives meaning to their lives. Although he bares no inherent truth, the idea of Godot gives a degree of certainty to the uncertainty that is their lives. Beckett's technique of using language that does not communicate meaning or attempt to "get to" the truth of existence is revolutionary for it forces us to question the "truths" to which we cling. As Kristeva states: "Its language [carnivalesque discourse] seems fascinated with the 'double' (with its own activity as graphic trace, doubling an 'outside') and with the logic of opposition replacing that of identity in defining terms" (53).
Endgame continues where Waiting for Godot left off, with the revelation that a void exists at the center of human existence. In the play, a sado-masochistic relationship is revealed between Hamm and Clov. Hamm grounds his existence in the silly orders he gives to Clov and Clov does the same by remaining in the position of servant. The two cling to one another, despite the abuse, because both fear being alone, with no other through which to situate their respective existences. As Waiting for Godot views the friendship of Estragon and Vladimir not as one of mutual affection and shared goals but as clinging to another out of fear of being alone, Endgame does the same for the master and servant relationship. As with Estragon and Vladimir, the lives of Hamm and Clov are repetitive and mechanical; as Clov states: "All life long the same questions, the same answers" (5).
The relationship between Hamm and Clov differs from that of Estragon and Vladimir in that the element of power is introduced in the play. Hamm is in the position of power. He has his mother and father situated in ashbins and he often commands Clov to place his chair in the center:
Hamm: Back to my place! (Clov pushes chair back to center.) Is that my place?
Clov: Yes, that's your place.
Hamm: Am I right in the center?
Clov: I'll measure it.
Hamm: More or less! More or less!
Clov: (moving chair slightly): There!
Hamm: I'm more or less in the center?
Clov: I'd say so.
Hamm: You'd say so! Put me right in the center! (26-7)
As Jeevan Kumar argues: "Time, the greatest obstacle in the search for the self, keeps Estragon and Vladimir endlessly waiting and it incarcerates Winnie of Happy Days. Hamm's case is more hazardous as he is forced to play a game of chess with Time. Beckett presents the existential anguish of a man confronting the absurd, by depicting Hamm's centripetal quest" (542). Hamm's desire to remain in the center perhaps represents his compensation for the lack of center or assurance he finds in life in general.
Beckett's Happy Days also is a play stripped to its bare bones in terms of characters and props. The reader (viewer) is left only to ponder the curious placement of the characters: one, Winnie, buried up to her waist and then to her neck, and the other, Willie, often hidden behind a mound, always on all fours, and ponder their strange relationship. The two sleep and wake according to the command of an omnipresent ringing bell. The primary voice heard in the play is that of Winnie. Winnie's raison d'être is to speak; words flow from her in an endless stream as she busies herself with objects from her black bag. Winnie is comforted only by her mindless rambling, basic objects, and by the idea that someone, Willie, is listening:
. . . if only I could bear to be alone, I mean prattle away with not a soul to hear. . . . Not that I flatter myself you hear much, no Willie, God forbid
. . . . Days when you hear nothing. . . . Something of this is being heard, I am not merely talking to myself. . . . That enables me to go on. . . . what could I do, all day long, I mean between the bell for waking and the bell for sleep? (20-1)
For reasons unbeknownst to us, Winnie is trapped in a death-in-life situation. Although her movement and her sexuality have been rendered static by her partial burial, Winnie sees the situation as completely normal. Winnie's marriage is sexually dead because Willie is impotent in a variety of ways; he is restricted in movement and, it seems, in his use of language. He is unable or unwilling to respond often to his wife. However, this situation does not cause Winnie to become asexual: "And should one day the earth cover my breasts, then I shall never have seen my breasts, no one ever seen my breasts" (38). And later, "What I dream sometimes, Willie. . . . that you'll come round and live this side where I could see you. . . . I'd be a different woman. . . . Or just now and then, come round this side just every now and then and let me feast on you" (46).
As Thomas states: "Winnie's sexual experiences exist as fantasy or memory; the extent of her sensations is intentionally ambiguous" (623). Instead of being fulfilled sexually, Winnie is comforted only in busing herself with life's necessities and by her own speech, although, by her own admission, language is inadequate: "Words fail, there are times when even they fail. . . . What is one to do then, until they come again? Brush and comb the hair, if it has not been done, or if there is some doubt, trim the nails, if they are in need of trimming, these things tide one over" (24).
Beckett's use of the ironic and the absurd in Happy Days illustrates the impotence and alienation of the individual in modern society. As Thomas states: "Winnie, part realistically human and part inanimate, incongruously entombed alive and yet somehow totally acceptable to the reader/spectator, exists as a surrealist metaphor for life itself" (625). Although Winnie is cut off from her body, from her husband, from her own freedom, she remains cheerful. Happy Days differs from many other Beckettian works in that pessimism is only implicit in the text. Winnie does not dwell on her "death-in-life" situation; instead, she is comforted by the sound of her own voice and by other sounds she hears: "What would I do without them? (Pause.) What would I do without them, when words fail?. . . . They are a boon, sounds are a boon, they help me. . . through the day. (Smile) The old style! (Smile off.) Yes, those are happy days, when there are sounds" (53).
The play ends with an impotent "consummation" of the married couple. Willie is finally able to situate himself in front of Winnie's mound (an obvious Beckettian sexual pun), looking up at her. The two do not touch physically, but Winnie sings the song, "I Love You So" and the two engage in a look; this suggests erotic undertones. Although Winnie seems pleased with this situation, the reader/spectator truly gets a sense of frustration. This frustration comes from the realization that despite the fact that Winnie is capable of using language, this capability, this ability to communicate, does help her out of her "death-in-life" situation. The function of her words is only to comfort her, so that she may temporarily alleviate herself from the void that is her life. Winnie's situation is similar to that of Estragon and Vladimir in that words serve only as a momentary comfort from the confrontation of the "truth" of existence, the hopelessness of despair, and inevitability of death.
In Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, much effort is made in performance: looking, touching, doing the mechanical, robotic almost: "Krapp remains a moment motionless, heaves a great sigh, looks at his watch, fumbles in his pockets, takes out an envelope, puts it back, fumbles, takes out a small bunch of keys, raises it to his eyes, chooses a key, gets up and moves to front of table" etc. (10). In the play, Krapp, a "wearish old man," listens to his memories on a series of reel-to-reel tapes as he proceeds to presumably get drunk offstage. Krapp's Last Tape exists as a dialogue between Krapp and his former selves encapsulated on tape. But these dialogues are almost void of emotion. Krapp does not come to any conclusion about his life except that his former selves are silly and presumptuous. We, as readers or viewers, are spared the emotional component of Krapp; he stops the tape whenever it seems he ponders the truth of his life or attempts to answer any existential question: "What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely -- (Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again). . . unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire -- (Krapp curses louder, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again)" (21).
However, it is exactly what is left unsaid that is unsettling to us. We do not hear any proposed answers on the meaning of Krapp's life as he reflects. We are left, as is Krapp, in the bleak void of ennui. We are left to face Krapp's pessimism and the fact that there are no answers, that there can be no justification for one's existence. Krapp does not want to hear about his old conclusions about his beliefs or the eventual questioning of formerly relied upon beliefs. He considers his former selves to be foolish for presuming that he once claimed to have any answers: "Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that's all done with anyway. . . . Nothing to say, not a squeak. What's a year now? The sour cud and the iron stool. (Pause.) Revelled in the word spool" (24-5). The finale of the play involves Krapp listening to the portion of the tape that describes a final sexual encounter with a woman; perhaps this illustrates Krapp's last chance for happiness but he does not want those years back:
I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side. . . . Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back. (27-8)
Kristeva defines narcissism as a "screen for emptiness" (240). This description is appropriate for Krapp. He is indeed empty; he is void of emotion. He can not bare to listen to his recorded emotional components of the past. He does not appear to have any human ties. He is his own subject. The purpose of his life is to record and listen to his own voice, alone. As Kristeva states: "Before calling itself 'death.' The libido undergoes a first threat to its omnipotence -- one that makes the existence of an other for the self appear problematic" (240). Narcissism protects emptiness and Krapp does much in terms of this self-protection. In Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett takes this theme of human alienation and disillusionment to absurdity. In the other plays, Beckett uses language/ dialogue to demonstrate that language in and of itself is inadequate in expressing pure thought or feeling. There are multiple meanings within the significations we choose and meaning exists in the gaps we leave (and, in choosing words, we create more gaps). Language, or meaning, escapes us, yet we are trapped within its boundaries. When one views language, discourse, truth, etc. the simplistic and albeit absurd reaction may be "why bother?" It seems that Krapp decides not to bother with other people but he also implicitly expresses that we cannot "get out" of the system of language by virtue of his reliance of recording his own voice on tape.
Michel Foucault's essay, "The Discourse on Language," mirrors and explicates the existential dilemmas of many of Beckett's characters. Foucault begins his essay with the seeming desire to stand "within the gaps" of discourse -- perhaps where, at least on a theoretical level, real understanding exists: "There would have been no beginnings: instead, speech would proceed from me, while I stood in its path -- a slender gap -- the point of its possible disappearance" (215). Using the quotation from Molloy (found at the beginning of this essay) suggests that language, discourse, "true" meaning is somehow closed off from us: "'I'd be surprised if it opened'" (Beckett qd. in Foucault 215). "To begin" is frightening because it implies the disengagement between pure thought, some perceived truth, to speech, which is stunted thought. Our language betrays us and subjects us to a variety of interpretations. However, we are taught via social institutions and accepted practices that we have nothing to fear, that discourse maintains the order of things, that it is the order of things: "'But you have nothing to fear from launching out; we're here to show you discourse is within the established order of things, that we've waited a long time for its arrival, that a place has been set aside for it -- a place which both honours and disarms it; and if it should happen to have a certain power, then it is we, and we alone, who give it that power'" (216). Foucault argues that discourse, throughout our history, has been made to seem "natural," "true," and thus, we are not critical of it: ". . .we are unaware of the prodigious machinery of the will to truth, with its vocation of exclusion" (220).
Foucault would argue that we must be critical of discourse and of the power that it holds. But also, we must not hold too tightly to our personal (or institutional) paradigms; we must be open to new ideas. Foucault's conclusions are reminiscent of Socratic wisdom: the only thing we can know with any certainty is that we know nothing, and Nietsche's will to ignorance: the only truth that appears is the universality of freeplay. Thus, our paradigms are held together with nothing; once we understand this and begin to view traditional notions of truth/language are mere frameworks for organizing reality, and not reality themselves, then we will be open to new ideas, ideas that may contradict traditional frameworks. Foucault's suggestions can be implicitly found in Beckett. Krapp is trapped by his own narcissism and his own language; he finds no truth in the logocentric tradition and he has ceased to seek any. Language, discourse, will fail us by virtue of us allowing it to exist, as does Krapp, as the sole interpretive system.
Not I is the most symbolic of these five plays and does the least with character and with props. This is theater reduced to the ultimate absurdity in the ironic style that is Beckett. Not I has no characters in the traditional sense. The play consists of an auditor, making compassionate gestures toward the mouth when prompted, and a mouth, which reveals to the reader (audience) a truly endless stream of signifiers with no beginning and no end:
. . . 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 . . . . it can't go on . . . all this . . . all that . . . steady stream . . . straining to hear . . . make something of it . . . and her own thoughts . . . make something of them. . . (19)
Not I represents less of a story than the other four plays mentioned in this essay but the intended meaning of the play is clearer. This "meaning" suggests the death of the body, and perhaps death in general (ultimate oblivion), leaving only the abyss of an endless freeplay of signifiers. As Kristeva suggests: ". . . the truth they seek (to say) is the real, that is, the 'true-real.' This obsessive fear, which we have always possessed, has become today a massive (if not mass) burden, all the more so since no common code exists to justify, and so neutralize it" (216-17). Kristeva argues that it is the Freudian discovery of the unconscious that has caused a break with the tradition of rational Western thought.(1) In other words, the "truth" has lost its former logical security.
I would argue that it is out of this insecurity, this narcissistic emptiness, found in Krapp's Last Tape, that Not I springs. As Kristeva argues: "And it is out of this 'not I' (see Beckett's play with that title) that an Ego painfully attempts to come into being . . . " (257). But Not I serves a departure from the pessimism that is inherent in Krapp's Last Tape. Symbolic death may be seen as a type of rebirth, the acceptance of the void, of the uncertainty, of the meaninglessness of life; this is what Not I brings to the reader. The one thing we can be sure of, as humans, is impending death. The acceptance of this, may be, the challenge of Beckett's piece. As Kristeva argues: "Freud notes that the most instinctual drive is the death drive. In this way, the term 'drive' denotes waves of attack against stases, which are themselves constituted by the repetition of these charges; together, charges and stases lead to no identity (not even that of the 'body proper') that could be seen as a result of their functioning" (95). It does not seem that Not I shares the same pessimistic, narcissistic paralysis that is true of Krapp's Last Tape. The writing style of Not I presupposes an acceptance of the freeplay of significations, not only by its author (as it seems Beckett has always been accepting of this) but also by the play's subject -- the mouth. As Kristeva states: "Suffering, he beguiles himself with the sound of his cross, an acrobat walking a tightrope: should he let himself be walled in alive or make a poem out of it?" (268). Not I does in fact succeed in "making a poem" out of the decentering of the speaking subject and the "delogocentering" of language, discourse, in general.
In the Western world, the point of language is to communicate; words have been traditionally perceived as direct expressions of thought. The tradition of philosophy perceives the "gaps" as being closed. However, Foucault argues that these gaps are real and meaning is lost within them; conversely, there is meaning within these gaps. Thus, discourse is constituted by the uncontrollable freeplay of significations; it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It simultaneously limits and orders our world, our thoughts, and our emotions. Beckettian texts provide the reader/viewer with many gaps, both literally and figuratively. Beckett does not presume to present a closed hermeneutic system; this is why Beckett's texts are revolutionary in terms of the literary genre -- they defy traditional literary and dramatic convention and conventional notions of "the text."
Derrida's concept of deconstruction, the practice of reading which subverts or undermines the assumption that the system of language is adequate in the establishment of boundaries which provide determinate meanings of a text, implicitly questions the validity of the underlying structures upon which other "truths" lie; this concept is fundamental to his philosophy and can be readily applied to Beckett's works. Beckettian texts do not present a textual reliability. On the contrary, it is up to the reader/viewer to actively engage in the text -- with its words and with its silences. Beckett does not provide us with a definitive, logocentric text with decidable meaning -- nor is this his purpose. As Locatelli states: ". . . Beckett's vigilance takes into consideration both the unreliability of 'representational' knowledge, and the actual effect of the unsayable: 'I'm the clerk, I'm the scribe, at the hearings of what cause I know not. . . . Then what a relief, what a relief to know that I am mute forever, if only it didn't distress me'"(20). Another deconstructive and nontraditional technique Beckett uses is the ellipsis. Beckett makes great use of the ellipsis in his writing; ellipses are realized in action through silence. It may seem contradictory that Beckett makes use of implicit silences in his texts (made explicit on the stage) while simultaneously expounding upon, through the voices of his characters, the necessity of speech and the need to continue. However, the two techniques are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they both illustrate Beckett's deconstructive use of the text -- a revolt, an implicit protest, against the logocentric tradition of writing and thought. As Locatelli states:
Fragmentation through silences and pauses works there as more than a suspension of the linguistic or representation continuum: it works as a recontextualizing semiotic device that creates the horizon for systemic signification of both language and silence. In other words, fragmentation in discourse, that is, within the verbal chain, constitutes a way of expressing the limits of language as context, and can allude to silence as another possible context, comparable to language in this respect. (25)
In most circles, Beckett would not be considered a philosopher, although some may argue the contrary. I would argue that Beckett has done much in terms of changing the world, albeit the dramatic and literary world. Beckett's dramatic pieces not only challenge traditional textual and dramatic conventions but also they challenge the system of language as definitive (as able to reveal truth) and they challenge the logocentric tradition. Moreover, Beckettian texts challenge us to look at our own lives, for the often-absurd situations in which he places his characters provide a metaphorical mirror for various archetypical existential dilemmas that we all must face. It could be argued that Beckett is a pessimist, continually focusing on the meaninglessness of existence. However, after having examined the progression of these five plays, it appears that Beckett comes to a similar conclusion to that of Foucault or of Derrida. And that is, there is much freedom to be found in the flight from logocentrism. According to Derrida, the solution to the "quandary" of the existential vertigo that is caused from anti-foundationalism or the lack of reliable truth in life would be to revel in a "Nietzchean affirmation." That is, to view the destruction of metaphysics, of foundationalism, not as stemming from a loss of center but possessing a non-center: "This affirmation then determines the non-center otherwise than as loss of center. And it plays the game without security" (80). In other words, no longer can we take comfort in an omniscient origin -- the end to the questions. However, by affirming the freeplay, embracing the infinitude of significations: ". . . the joyous affirmation of the freeplay of the world and without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation. . . ," we can perhaps take comfort in the fact there is no end to the "game" (Derrida 80). Beckett provides us with the same Derridean challenge.