Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

Cartesian Mechanics in Beckett's Fin De Partie

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

Cartesian Mechanics in Beckett's Fin De Partie

Article excerpt

In this article I investigate the influence of Descartes's model of the machine on Fin de partie / Endgame, drawing on archival, primary, and secondary sources. The first part focuses on a number of stage props that function as prosthetic extensions of the body; the second and third parts examine instances of Cartesian mechanics, especially his bodily hydraulics and optics, in Beckett's play.

The influence of Descartes in Beckett's Fin de partie I Endgame has been an object of speculation for some time. In particular, the stage image of the inside of a skull has led commentators to view the characters as fragments of one self assembled within the Cartesian conarium (Ackerley and Gontarski, 177). In this essay, I explore in more detail the presence of Descartes in Beckett's play in terms of Cartesian mechanics: first, by examining prosthetic extensions to the body, second, by interrogating references to Cartesian hydraulics, and finally, by inspecting the optical machine in the cranial chamber.

Prosthetic Extensions

In his investigation of the interrelation of body and machine in modernism, Yoshiki Tajiri points out "the strong penchant for mechanisation of the human body in [Beckett's] work" (5). The Cartesian heritage of Beckett's mechanized bodies, harking back to Descartes' s conception of the body as a machine, was famously recognized by Hugh Kenner in "The Cartesian Centaur." In this essay, first published in 1959, Kenner examines the manner in which Beckett's protagonists and machines intermingle: Molloy's bicycle, for instance, "extends and stabilizes" his body and compensates for his physical infirmities (118). For Kenner, the Cartesian Centaur "is a man riding a bicycle" (121), a mechanized "body and mind in close harmony" (124). "Cartesian man deprived of his bicycle," Kenner writes, "is a mere intelligence fastened to a dying animal" (124).

In Endgame, of course, there are no more bicycles. "Now there are none," Clov laments, having been deprived of a bicycle when they were still available (8). Finding "the thing [...] impossible," Hamm asks Clov incredulously, it would appear, whether he always inspected his master's "paupers" on foot. Clov's reply, "Sometimes on horse" (8), suggests an earlier form of the centaur, the extension of the human body by a horse.1 In Endgame, though, both forms of bodily extension, animal and machine, can only be recalled from the past, as "Now there are none."

What remains in Fin de partie I Endgame in the way of Cartesian prosthetic extensions are "un fauteuil à roulettes /armchair on casters," "une gaffe I gaff," and "une lunette /glass or telescope." To what extent Hamm' s chair is an inadequate replacement for the bicycle is clear from his words to Clov who is wheeling him around the shelter: "We'd need a proper wheel-chair [un vrai fauteuil roulant]. With big wheels. Bicycle wheels!" (1958, 25; 1957a, 41). Hamm and his chañare a much reduced version of the "Cartesian centaur," but nevertheless evoking Descartes, who sought to manufacture fauteuils roulants, among other prosthetic devices, to compensate for physical deficiencies and injuries (Bridoux, 1 1). In Beckett's play, the loss in mechanical efficiency from bicycle to fauteuil roulant and even more so to fauteuil à roulettes is still further exacerbated by the situation of the maimed Nagg and Nell. No mechanical prosthesis for them, only the extension of body by the degrading ashbins that serve as their last abode. The mechanically enabled speed of bicycle and rider is only a far-off memory, replaced by the paralyzed Hamm' s lumbering chair and the motionless dustbins. Instead of the "positive" prosthesis of the bicycle, a Utopian extension of the Cartesian mechanized body, Beckett's play stages the "negative" prosthesis of Hamm' s chair and the even more "negative" ashbins that compensate badly for the decrepitude of a deteriorating anatomy.2

Extensions to the arm and hand - gaff, stick, or crutches - appear in many of Beckett's works, especially those he was translating or composing at the same time as Fin de partie I Endgame. …

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