Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Beckett Again Beckons...

From the initial Absurdist reception in the 1960s to the more recent Postmodernist and Poststructuralist appropriation in the 1990s, the works of Samuel Beckett have always been either celebrated or denigrated for their virulent resistance to the process of meaning-making. To begin with, his works baffled both critics and general audience and readers with what can be called a misconstrued absurdity or meaninglessness. It was Theodore Adorno who hit the nail on the head by saying that far from being meaningless, Beckett’s works “put meaning on trial” (Adorno: 1997, 201). In due course, the critical commonplace around Beckett changed from an absolute foreclosure of meaning to an allowance of free-play to meaning and a foregrounding of the deconstructive aporias in discourse. Beckett became the “poet of the poststructuralist age” in the words of Lance St. John Butler and Robin J. Davis (qtd in Katz: 1999, 03). Be it the existentialist approach where meaning is seen in a metaphysical and affective manner and meaninglessness becomes a form of anxiety and despair or the Postmodernist approach which highlights the linguistic inexpressibility of meaning in a pervasive critique of the representational powers of language, Beckett’s treatment of meaning still remains one of the most debatable issues in Beckett Studies. It is from this debate regarding signification that I want to come to the problem of the academic dissemination of Beckett’s works.


Beckett’s refusal to interpret his own works has always been based on a claim of nonknowledge [“I don’t know”]. He has claimed “ignorance”, “impotence” and described himself as a “non knower” and a “non-can-er” (Graver and Federman: 2005, 162). While Mathieu Protin reads this as a rhetorical posture of pseudo-naiveté to counter the ideologically engaged and committed figure of the author in contemporary France, I would like to take my departure here. I think we need to take Beckett’s insistence on terms like “impotence” and “ignorance” seriously because they are part and parcel of Beckett’s resistance to system-building. This is what marks his problematic and contestational relationship with academia. Once he was asked whether his system was the absence of a system and Beckett responded: “I can’t see any trace of any system anywhere.” (162) I would argue that Beckett’s critique of academic dissemination is centred on the idea of a literature of non-knowledge which resists all systemic appropriations. Beckett’s is a literature of evacuating knowledge which turns the “Academy” into “Acacademy” or better still “Aquaquademy”. I think this is the major reason behind the difficulty of teaching Beckett in the classroom. As I would show, Beckett’s non-system of non-knowledge both subverts and extends the discourse of the university and I would develop my argument by focusing on two areas: Beckett’s brief stint as a teacher and his anti-hermeneutic and anti-epistemic authorial practice.


the presence of knowledge. Truth always breaks with existing knowledge since it initiates something new into the world. It is only by subtracting knowledge that truth can be approached as a kenotic point where knowledge is lacking or in other words, it is placed in a lack. Following Lacan’s axiom: “The effect of truth is only a collapse of knowledge” (Lacan: 2007, 186), Badiou develops his own theory of truth as a rupture in knowledge: “[…] truth causes the failure of knowledge.” (Badiou: 2005, 79) In Beckett’s works, there is an increasing concern with the evacuation of knowledge. We may remember the first line of ‘Lessness’ [1969] here: “Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind” (Beckett: 1995, 197). The recurrent expression “all gone from mind” (197) from ‘Lessness’ upholds the essential kenotic movement of consciousness Beckett’s work dramatizes. Throughout How It Is, the narrator serio-comically mourns the loss of different categories of specialized knowledge he once possessed: “the humanities I had” (Beckett: 2009, 24), “the history I knew” (28), “the geography I had” (35), “the anatomy I had” (46) and so on. This movement of emptying the mind develops in tandem with the evacuation of the signifier which is the declared literary project of the young Beckett. In the famous German letter to Axel Kaun in 1937 he announced his literary project in terms of the act of boring holes into the “terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface” (Beckett: 2009a, 518). This act of drilling intends to dissolve the surface and cut open the veil of language “until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through” (518). As an author, Beckett’s words propose to punch holes in the existing register of language and its given body of knowledge. In his 1956 interview with Israel Shenker, Beckett described his literary trajectory as one of impotence and ignorance as opposed to Joycean omniscience and omnipotence:
The more Joyce knew the more he could. He’s tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I’m working with impotence, ignorance.” (Graver and Federman: 2005, 162)


The trashing of knowledge and a dialectical focalization of the intersection of knowledge and truth are at the heart of the psychoanalytic ethic of teaching. The analysand comes to the analyst with the presupposition that he knows it all and has the key to all his problems. But the end of analysis is constituted by a trashing of what Lacan would call the “subject who is supposed to know”. As Lacan says in Seminar XI, whenever there is a subject-supposed-to-know, there occurs the problem of transference (Lacan: 1977, 232). The analysand will gradually realize that the analyst does not know anything. He is a listener who only returns the analysand’s words in an inverted form thus unhiding the truth that was always already there in the speech of the analysand. Therefore, the Lacanian end of analysis consists of a trashing of the subject supposed-to-know or in other words it accomplishes itself by annihilating the transferential supposition of knowledge. In the ‘Overture’ to Seminar I, Lacan evokes the image of the Buddhist master as an analogue:
It behoves the students to find out for themselves the answer to their own questions. The master does not teach ex cathedra a ready made science; he supplies an answer when the students are on the verge of finding it. (Lacan: 1988, 01)
Apart from allowing the students to find their own answers here, the teacher also comes to know the possible answers from the search of the students. He does not know anything on his own; it is the students who impart to him all that he comes to know in course of the pedagogic process. This is a dynamic of teaching which is essentially different from the classroom pedagogy. I think it is this psychoanalytic ethic which comes closest to being a suitable pedagogic framework for teaching Beckett and Beckett himself makes a gesture towards this analytic reciprocity by supplementing knowledge with truth and undercutting the epistemological process with an ontological emphasis. At a more general level, taking into consideration, the revisionary insights of Beckett and Lacan, we can proceed towards building a new pedagogy of the 21st century classroom where the egotistical power games of teaching will be both unveiled and undone.
- Arke Chattopadhyay, "From Acacademy to Aquaquademy: Samuel Beckett and the Challenge to the University Discourse"

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Life Outside the Frame

Most of the things you made for me—blanket-
chest, lapdesk, the armless rocker—I gave
away to friends who could use them and not
be reminded of the hours lost there,
not having been witness to those designs,
the tedious finishes. But I did keep
the mirror, perhaps because like all mirrors,
most of these years it has been invisible,
part of the wall, or defined by reflection—
safe—because reflection, after all, does change.
I hung it here in the front, dark hallway
of this house you will never see, so that
it might magnify the meager light,
become a lesser, backward window. No one
pauses long before it. But this morning,
as I put on my overcoat, then straightened
my hair, I saw outside my face its frame
you made for me, admiring for the first
time the way the cherry you cut and planed
yourself had darkened, just as you said it would.
- Claudia Emerson, "Frame, An Epistle"

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ansel Adams - Visualizing

Shadows of light and darkness
Contrasting images of El Capitan
Half Dome sliced by an ice age glacier

I met him that day in Yosemite
Touched by the unique qualities of his photos
Fine prints are displayed at his gallery

I marveled at his skill
Black and white contrasts
Create spiritual moments and introspection

I brought him home with me
His work now hangs in my office
Ever inspiring, ever grand
-Carolyn Devonshir, "Amazing Art of Ansel Adams" (March 15, 2015)

The "Meaning" of Regret

“We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.”
― Milan Kundera, "Laughable Loves"

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Cry Rape!

They say that Leda once found
an egg—
like a hyacinth.
-Sappho of Lesbos

On Swans...and of black feather farmers.

Monday, March 7, 2016

On Deidamia, Achilles' Lover

Achilles too, forsooth, couldn't fight,
Out of Deidamia's Sight;
Oh! how his Stars he oft would bless,
Whilst lay disguis'd in Female Dress;
Among the Royal Fair One's rov'd,
Who highly the Campaign approv'd;
Whilst in their Arms he found Repose,
A Fig for Greece and all her Foes:
- Cornelius Arnold, "The Force of Beauty" (excerpt)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Re-Animated Movement

What a profound difference between living and simply being alive
I could never feel alright living sane
I'd much rather be living out of my mind

Don't you ever get bored, or are you really that easily amused
So apathetic and content without a purpose
This is existence desperately confused

We'll dream dreams of extraordinary men
In extraordinary days
And their extraordinary ways

Then awaken to our TV screens
And praise our fashion queens
The wax wings of mediocrity

Right underneath our noses they've raised an army of plastic men
You might have seen their recruiting posters
I WANT YOU! to be more comfortable than you've ever been

A life lived with reckless abandon is barbarism, or so they've said
Who are they to speak on the matters of living
Just look in their eyes and see that they're already dead

A more beautiful thing than the American Dream
Is a dead man coming back to his senses
Don't get me wrong, I'm a patriot too...
It's just I've got a strange affinity for burning picket fences

I want to go down in flames
I want to be the one
To thrive on sweat and blood
To finish what we've begun
I want every breath to scream
"My purpose is this"
Twelve rounds to knockout
I wont be meaningless.
- Brandan Eliot, "Reanimation for Dummies"

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Fightened Rabbit

You knelt on the trail,
hands cradling my head
while I worried about you
worrying about me. The fear
came later.

A rabbit freezes.
The raptor's shadow
darkens a stubbled field.

They arrived quickly,
but I could see your eyes
marking the moments between
steep slope, sled, and ambulance.

Sometimes the falcon
fails, hunger
his only prize.

The patrol moved carefully,
bundling me in a rigid papoose.
Later, you told me you winced
with each turn and bump,
but I welcomed the pain.

The danger passes.
The rabbit quivers
and returns to feed.

The x-ray tech
joked with me
until the films emerged,
damage stark silver
against the black.

Five years later,
I revel in long winter walks,
study lessons written by animal tracks
like hieroglyphs in snow.
- Lisa Janice Cohen, "The Healing"