[Beckett’s] late plays and fictions move […] from repetition as compulsion to repetition as release, testing out the ground, no longer concerned to separate the one firmly from the other. As we ourselves are lapped in the rhythm of repetition we sense that the work only exists, that we only exist, within the folds of that repetition, within the rhythm of that rocking.
I am called the last philosopher because I am the last man. No one speaks to me except me myself, and my voice reaches me like that of a dying man. With you, lovely voice, with you, last breath of a memory of all human happiness, let me be with you for just one more hour; through you I trick solitude and I let myself be deluded in multiplicity and love, because my heart refuses to believe that love is dead; it cannot sustain the shiver of the most solitary of solitudes and it forces me to speak as if I were two.
Do you still hear me, my voice? Do you murmur a curse? If only your curse could break up the viscera of this world! But the world still lives, and alone it watches me, full of splendour and ever colder with its pitiless stars. It is alive, stupid and blind as always, and only one dies - man.
And yet! I am still listening to you, lovely voice! Another beyond me also dies, the last man, in this universe: the last breath, your breath dies with me, the long Oh! Oh! breathed down on me, the last man of pain, Oedipus.
We ought perhaps to admire a book deliberately deprived of all resources, one that accepts beginning at that point where no continuation is possible, obstinately clings to it, without trickery, without subterfuge, and conveys the same discontinuous movement, the progress of what never goes forward. But that is still the point of view of the detached reader, who calmly considers what seems to him an amazing feat. There is nothing admirable in an ordeal from which one cannot extricate oneself, nothing that deserves admiration in the fact of being trapped and turning in circles in a space that one can't leave, even by death, since to be in this space in the first place, one had precisely to have fallen outside of life. Aesthetic feelings are no longer appropriate here. We may be in the presence not of a book but rather something much more than a book: the pure approach of the impulse from which all books come, of that original point where the work is lost, which always ruins the work, which restores the endless pointlessness in it, but with which it must also maintain a relationship that is always beginning again, under the risk of being nothing.
Blanchot on Beckett's The Unnameable, from The Book to Come
Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished, and the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions, are dumb. The statues are now only stones from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone. The tables of the gods provide no spiritual food and drink, and in his games and festivals man no longer recovers the joyful consciousness of his unity with the divine. The works of the Muse now lack the power of the Spirit, for the Spirit has gained its certainty of itself from the crushing of gods and men. They have become what they are for us now - beautiful fruit already picked from the tree, which a friendly Fate has offered us, as a girl might set the fruit before us. It cannot give us the actual life in which they existed, nor the tree that bore them, nor the earth and the elements which constituted their substance, not the climate which gave them their peculiar character nor the cycle of the changing seasons that governed the process of their growth. So fate does not restore their world to us along with the works of antique Art, it gives not the spring and summer of the ethical life in which they blossomed and ripened, but only the veiled recollection of that actual world.
Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, on the unhappy consciousness.
The end of my writing is coming, for things have now been revealed to me that make everything I have written and taught look foolish, and so I hope that with the end of learning that of life will also come soon.
All the things that I see, hear, breathe, touch, eat; all the beings I meet – I deprive the sum total of all that of contact with God, and I deprive God of contact with all that insofar as something in me says ‘I’. I can do something for all that and for God – namely, retire and respect the tete-a-tete … I must withdraw so that God can make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless of me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends. I am not he maiden who awaits her betrothed but the unwelcome third who is with two betrothed loves and ought to go away so that they can really be together. If only I knew how to disappear there would be a perfect union of love between God and the earth I tread, the sea I hear …
In this way, Company foregrounds equally the two dimensions of Beckett’s writing which make up the paradox I would like to discuss – formalizing abstraction and obtrusive affect, the ‘timeless void’, with its indeterminate blanks, and the time of life on earth – and it shows how these dimensions are inextricably linked in the language issuing from a narrative voice. And Beckett’s voices, despite their attenuation, are committed to being narrative voices: voices that tell stories and posit worlds in which events are said, however equivocally and indefinitely, to unfold in time. The repulsion of the subject and of a past thus draws into fictions that would be absolute, but that continually meet with the stuff of a singular time, on a scrambled border that divides ‘my own’ from the pure forms that make it possible.
Another way to pose this problem is to point out that, regarding the apparently forced synthesis of abstraction and affect in the preceding passage, for example, it is impossible to determine which of these two terms has priority – that is, which one was forced on the other. The passage suggests, as does most of Company, that an impersonal language drones on in a void and nowhere’ space, blankly and indifferently, determined more by a machinelike grammar than by anything like ‘experience’, injecting its tales with a perfunctory and artificial pathos.
But the fact that this droning language drones from a voice, and that each time it speaks it has a given source in a singular instance of language, entails its own inevitable structural implications. The most important of which is perhaps this: if a voice exists, it must have come into existence, thus it must have an origin in time and it must have a past that has marked it in its idiomatic singularity.
The unavoidable logic of this situation can be called a logic of birth, a logic of time and finite existence which necessarily saddles every voice with an at least implicit narrative of a life: am embodied existence marked by the violence of birth, and by all the dear old names. The logic of birth, however, is easily confuted by a logic implicit in the very conventions of literary, fictional narration, but which an unlocatable narrative voice is conceived as speaking anonymously from the void – or at least from the irreducible space separating the narrator from the empirical author – as positing its creatures with the sovereign speech of a god, that is, at the inevitable extreme so often evoked by Beckett, as an absolute and creative instance of language.
Such a logic of creation ex nihilo opens a space in which a voice may well exist without, apparently, being burdened by the eight, the deposits or ‘precipitates’ of a prior life, and Beckett is one of the first modern writers to radicalise the implication of this logic, revealing it both as inherent to any fictive gesture whatever, and as sharply untenable, riddled by the emptiness and vanity of a language that can in no way create what it names but that is strangely struck with the stuff it calls forth.
Now the paradox I am pointing to consists precisely in the simultaneous incommensurability and inseparability of these logics (of ‘birth’ and ‘creation’), and in the undecidable status into which this casts the question of what is real and what is artificial in a fictional text as such, what is irreducibly prior and what is a gratuitous supplement. For, referring again to the quote from Company, between the deadpan voice in the algebraic void and the sentimental attachment to a name and its past, which is the added artifice and which the true irreducible? Is there an originary impersonality inherent to language that somehow produces affect (and memory) as a sheer illusion of grammar and of the protocols of ‘verisimilitude’? Or is there a fundamental (and painful) affective drive, intimately bound to the names and places of a particular past, that has been distanced and defused by the fiction of a placeless language without history? Is the attachment to a past merely a palliative for the horror of being at bottom nowhere and no one (and therefore of being radically, uncannily interchangeable, as Beckett’s characters tend to be), or is the space of blanks and variables a desperate escape route from the places that stubbornly remain , from the painful residue, so hard to completely efface, of having been someone, of having had a life, out of which speech cannot help but draw its very breath – the rhythm, style, and contours of its habitus? Finally, which is more fundamental, the impossibility of expression, or the inevitability of expression?
It is well known that in his critical and polemical statements, Beckett placed much greater emphasis on the former than on the latter. But the same writer who insisted that ‘expression is an impossible act’, also made, in another critical piece, this crucial observation: ‘With words one can do nothing but tell one’s story. Even the lexicographers expose themselves. And we betray ourselves even in the confessional booth’.