Into the Breach: Samuel Beckett and the Ends of Literature

Into the Breach: Samuel Beckett and the Ends of Literature

by Thomas Trezise


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ISBN-13: 9780691604541
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1116
Pages: 190
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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Into the Breach

Samuel Beckett and the Ends of Literature

By Thomas Trezise


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06789-6



Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu'on a perdus.


The problem of time has suffered a rather ignominious fate in the canon of Beckett criticism because its study, when undertaken at all, has either been confined to a squarely phenomenological perspective or, which is most often the case, remained philosophically uninformed. It is for this reason that the reading here proposed, which will focus on the second part of Molloy considered as a temporal paradigm for the trilogy as a whole, begins by reviewing and expanding the concept of supplementarity discussed briefly in the introduction. Although it certainly goes against the grain of a literary criticism that, jealous of its fictitious prerogatives, would disclaim any need of philosophy and in so doing merely persist in the ignorance of its own philosophical presuppositions, this "beginning" ascribes no priority to philosophy. Indeed, if the introduction has served its purpose, it might even go without saying that the following prefatory remarks represent what is properly the postface to a certain reading of Molloy and more generally of the entire trilogy. Such a reversal is, to be sure, no less the belated product of supplementarity than philosophy itself—when philosophy is literature.

When Derrida, in his critique of Husserl, speaks of "the strange structure of the supplement," according to which "a possibility belatedly produces that to which it is said to be added on," so that signification, having belatedly produced consciousness or the for-itself, is then misconstrued as posterior to it, he describes the problematic origin of the first person in an economy whose principle is not separation but difference, and which remains irreducibly other than that of the first person itself. This origin proves indeed to be genuinely problematic inasmuch as the strange structure of the supplement involves a reversal of historical time, and with it a fundamental discrepancy between the origin of the for-itself and the for-itself as origin, between the genesis of consciousness and its misinterpretation of this genesis. The articulation of this same discrepancy is, moreover, at least threefold.

It is important to note first of all that the for-itself as origin not only reverses but simultaneously inaugurates historical time. This becomes clear if, in simplified yet instructive terms, we observe that, as origin, the for-itself is necessarily the origin of ..., and that its originarity is no less necessarily conferred upon it by that of which it is the origin or the essentially non-originary. To be more precise, we may say that the for-itself as origin of, or indeed, for itself, can be characterized as originary only to the extent that it originarily differs from its self, and hence can only become what it is belatedly, "a retardement," nachträglich. Whence, in an essay on Freud, the thinker of Nachträglichkeit, Derrida's statement that "it is a non-origin which is originary." What is originary, in other words, is not the origin itself but its delay or deferral; what is originary is not a moment, distinct from and prior to another, but a communication of moments preclusive of priority itself; what is originary, in short, is not separation but difference, which denotes both the pre-originary non-self-identity of the for-itself and the deferral or delay of its origin, that is, of its separation. And since, furthermore, this separation or sameness is achieved only through and as the belated repetition of a pre-originary difference, the instant at which the for-itself supposedly becomes what it is corresponds in fact to the return of a past that is the very deferral of temporal priority. However, precisely because separation coincides with the birth of consciousness or the for-itself, this past remains essentially immemorial, an irrecoverable "already," while the for-itself, in its very belatedness, inevitably assumes for itself the status of origin. Thus, at one and the same time or, in Husserl's words, "im selben Augenblick," the for-itself reverses and inaugurates historical time.

As this very reversal of historical time, the for-itself bespeaks, in the second place—and in correlation to the "already" or irrecoverable past—an indefinite futurity or à venir. Insofar as it assumes for itself the status of origin and becomes the cause of that cause of which it is the effect, the for-itself necessarily repeats or reiterates—and does so as though it entirely preexisted—its own genesis. That it should thus preexist itself means that the for-itself is essentially not yet, yet to come, à venir. The punctual moment at which the for-itself, in its supposed separation or sameness, presumably originates "once and for all," is exceeded by a movement in which the for-itself appears to be both cause and effect, beginning and end, ITLαITL and omega, and perhaps most notably in Sartre, Father and Son—or else not yet the one nor the other, since the first can become what it is, again, only by virtue of its pre-originary relation to that of which it is the origin, only, therefore, by virtue of its own à venir. The à venir, the "yet to come" or "not yet," thus recalls the "already" to the extent that it ascribes a belatedness or futurity to the origin of the for-itself, or more precisely, to the for-itself as origin, in an economy where the moment or instant is a duration, a delay, a deferral. It is for this reason that Derrida compares the structure of the für-sich to that of the für etwas, that is, to the structure of signification in general: the für-sich as origin for itself essentially differs from itself and may accordingly be said to signify, to stand for, to take the place of, its self. "The for-itself would be an in-the-place-of-itself: put for itself, instead of itself." In this sense, the for-itself would represent the pre-originary difference from which its self, in its traditional definition as consciousness, self-presence, or separation, belatedly originates. But again, the very structure that produces the for-itself as separation also and at once produces the temporal reversal by reason of which the for-itself so understood misunderstands itself as originary. Only an economy in which the moment is constitutively involved with other moments can yield the unbelievable reversal or confusion of historical time that is the for-itself, and because of which it is as though signification were a "mere" supplement to it, as though the return of the "already" in the "not yet" were merely the repetition of an originary same.

The third and final articulation of this discrepancy, correlative to the "not yet" and the "already," is precisely what Libertson, after Levinas, has called the "as though" or comme si, and which one might also call the conditionality of the for-itself. The conditionality of the for-itself refers quite literally to its being conditioned by an economy whose principle—difference—is not its own and in which, just as the instant becomes the communication of a past that was never present and a future that never will be, so the identity or separation of the for-itself turns out to be an inextricable involvement with the exterior that both invests and exceeds it. The "as though" of the for-itself thus describes its essentially latent, inactual, or illusory character within a differential economy, as well as the illusory character of the "unconditional" originarity of the for-itself understood as separation. In other words, it is the for-itself as difference that conditions its "unconditional" separation; it is the pre-originary non-self-identity of the for-itself, or rather the repetition of this non-self-identity, that yields the impossible reversal by virtue of which it is as though the for-itself were an originary same; in brief, it is the strange structure of signification itself that accounts for the familiar illusion that signification merely supplements the for-itself.

To summarize, one may say that the for-itself "unites the 'not yet,' the 'already,' and the 'as though,' by virtue of its communicational excess over both punctuality and actuality," that is, in the terminology of the present study, over separation. In so uniting the "not yet," the "already," and the "as though" as articulations of the strange structure of supplementarity, the for-itself originates, as I have suggested, only as the repetition of a difference, as a repetition in the absence of any origin(al)—which is to say that it is always already a re-presentation, indeed that the very foundation of modern philosophy is "merely" a story. Told in the first person. A story whose truth necessarily relies on the illusion that the first person may preexist its own genesis. For as we have seen, it is this reversal of historical time that inaugurates the illusory priority of beginning to end intrinsic to historical or narrative time itself. A story, therefore, that can only tell the truth of this illusion at the price of its self, that can tell the truth of the "as though" only if it describes its subject as both an "already" and a "not yet," if its structure embodies the originary fêlure or breach that is subjectivity.

* * *

These remarks constitute what I should like to consider an indispensable prolegomenon to the reading of Molloy—in dispensable inasmuch as the structure of this work, which critics are inclined either to ignore altogether or to regard as no more than a curiosity, derives in fact from a necessity intrinsic to Beckett's meditation of subjectivity in its fundamental affinity with differential thought in general. Thus Molloy, the "origin" of the trilogy, is two stories, the question of whose relation arises not only from their inclusion within a single volume, and not only from their un canny similarity, but also and especially from the order in which they are told. For in the first part, Molloy recounts how, impelled by an obscure imperative, he set out to visit his decrepit mother, to whom a rather extended voyage brought him no closer but whom he now very much resembles; while in the second (which is almost exactly equal in length to the first), a former agent named Jacques Moran tells of having one day received from his superior "the order to see about Molloy" and proceeded to embark on a journey during which he not only failed to locate his quarry but came to resemble him more and more. As even so brief a summary of the novel's double plot cannot fail to suggest, it is indeed as though Moran were a younger Molloy, and Molloy's story a later and, as it were, yet more impoverished version of Moran's. Further parallels between them appear to bear this out. For example, both Moran and Molloy receive a visitor, certain of whose traits would lead one to believe that he is in both cases the same; however, while Molloy's is otherwise but dimly portrayed and remains in fact entirely anonymous, Gaber immediately and fully assumes the status of what we are accustomed to call a character. Moreover, both narrators begin with a description of their present situation; nevertheless, whereas Molloy, his quest having ended unceremoniously in a ditch, can only wonder how he later came to occupy the very room (his mother's) that earlier eluded him, Moran is writing at a desk in his own house, to which he managed to return with only the meager assistance of a dilapidated umbrella, and from which, having told his story, he prepares to depart anew in very much the same condition as that in which Molloy began his search. Finally, the physical deterioration suffered by Molloy and Moran both, but which, as I have noted, remains considerably less advanced in the case of Moran, coincides with an increasing discursiveness or errancy of language and, consequently, with an impoverishment of storytelling itself; and yet, the problem of language appears less acute in the second than in the first part of the novel.

Thus, if we regard the two parts of Molloy as different versions of the same story, it is clear that the order in which they are told reverses the chronology of that which they tell. There is, in other words, an evident disjunction between what Gérard Genette has called le temps de l'histoire and le temps du récti, between the time of the story itself and that of its telling, a disjunction that, furthermore, pertains no less to each part individually than to the relation between them. For again, just as the first part of Molloy relates what is chronologically second, and the second first, so in each part taken separately does the narrator begin his story at the end. The question of the relation between the two parts of the novel therefore entails the question of the relation of each part to itself; and both may be stated as the question of the relation between histoire and récit, in which the récit reverses the time intrinsic to the histoire.

In accordance with this reversal, I will begin at the end (which is of course also the beginning), that is, with the second part of Molloy. Here as in the first part, the narrator begins by referring to his present situation:

It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. I am calm. All is sleeping. Nevertheless I get up and go to my desk. I can't sleep. My lamp sheds a soft and steady light. I have trimmed it. It will last till morning. I hear the eagle-owl. What a terrible battle-cry! Once I listened to it unmoved. My son is sleeping. Let him sleep. The night will come when he too, unable to sleep, will get up and go to his desk. I shall be forgotten.

My report will be long. Perhaps I shall not finish it. My name is Moran, Jacques. That is the name I am known by. I am done for. My son too. All unsuspecting. He must think he's on the threshold of life, of real life. He's right there. His name is Jacques, like mine. This cannot lead to confusion. (M 153/92)

If the reader takes no special note of the temporal reversal or prolepsis that inaugurates the telling of Moran's story, it is no doubt because, as Genette remarks, "'first-person' narrative lends itself better than any other to anticipation," but not precisely, as he further maintains, "by the very fact of its avowedly retrospective character, which authorizes the narrator to allude to the future and in particular to his present situation." It is rather the "impossible" reversal of historical time, by virtue of which the narrator belatedly preexists and repeats his or her own genesis, that simultaneously accounts for the avowedly retrospective character of first-person narrative and "authorizes" the narrator to allude to the future. In fact, this "future" is already past, just as the "past" is yet to come; and what is here called the narrator's "present situation" is no more than the moment at which this past and this future communicate, at which the "already" returns as the "not yet." So indeed do the paragraphs quoted above describe both an end and a beginning, so does the present indicative in that most noteworthy statement: "I am done for," refer the reader to a past that is yet to come, to the repetition of an "already" whose pertinence to Moran's ruin, to his insomnia, and to his writing can only be anticipated. At the same time, however, it is to be noted that this paradoxical anticipation of the past parallels the very movement of signification, which produces the illusory priority of separation or sameness to signification itself. In other words, the temporal reversal by reason of which the first person appears to precede, found, and condition its own past subordinates the repetition of the "already" in the "not yet" to the economy of the same, that is, to the economy of what is proper to the first person. Thus, what "authorizes" the narrator to allude to the future is also what fosters the illusory priority of the proper: the economy in which the first person misinterprets itself as originary is also the economy in which the reader misreads a text as meaning what it says. This misreading, in its priority, is not avoidable, since it is produced by the strange structure of signification, whereby what comes first is precisely the effacement or oblivion of signification itself, whereby a first reading proves to be the misreading it is only belatedly. Such is the case with Moran's narrative, whose "impropriete" becomes clear, as we shall see, only at the end, that is, only with the return of the beginning.


Excerpted from Into the Breach by Thomas Trezise. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • PREFACE, pg. ix
  • Introduction: THE BREACH, pg. 1
  • Chapter One. DISPOSSESSION, pg. 34
  • Chapter Two. IMPERSONALITY, pg. 66
  • Chapter Three. ERROR, pg. 122
  • Conclusion: THE ENDS OF LITERATURE, pg. 160
  • INDEX, pg. 171

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