Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

BLACK HOLES: A Philosophical View on Endgame's and Bartleby's Stalemates

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

BLACK HOLES: A Philosophical View on Endgame's and Bartleby's Stalemates

Article excerpt

This article focuses on two significant texts revealing the crisis and stalemate of narrative during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Herman Melville's short tale Bartleby, The Scrivener and Samuel Beckett's Endgame. Particular attention is paid to Gilles Deleuze's and Theodor Adorno's philosophical interpretations of these two authors. Overall, the interruption and impasse of narrative are shown to happen in two radically different ways in Melville and Beckett, leading to two equally different consequences for the definition of subjectivity in contemporary aesthetics.

Because of the extreme terms of its proposition, Herman Melville's short story Bartleby, The Scrivener has long been at the centre of numerous discussions of a more philosophical than literary nature. A crucial question in that work is the 'extremity' or 'limit' of narrative. At what point does it happen that a literary work poses some real philosophical questions? It is not sufficient for the work to contain such questions within the body of its text as part of the 'script,' since in that case it would do no more than unduly replace a more exhaustive philosophical essay. In fact, a literary work poses philosophical questions when it passes the limits of literariness itself, i.e., when it comes to an extreme point that has never been touched on before and whose overcoming sets ipso facto the problem of the borders of the work. Indeed, authors like Joyce and Beckett have so shaken the foundations of the literary event (making it, often, a meta-narrative within the narrative itself) that this shake-up almost necessarily calls for a new definition. In ways similar to Joyce's and Beckett's works, Melville's Bartleby also passed a limit never crossed before and redefined a brand new, unknown - and destabilizing - extremity, calling insistently to be interpreted outside literary borders.

Bartleby, or the Active Black Hole

As Gilles Deleuze points out, it is by means of a linguistic formula - which is "ravaging, devastating, and leaves nothing standing in its wake" and finally "burgeons and proliferates" in an exponential way (70) - that Bartleby obtains his "glory" and the "limit-function" of the text (68). This formula, Deleuze also says, shows a "certain mannerism" and a "certain solemnity," since 'prefer' is rarely used in this sense and the formula usually used is T had rather not.' "But the strangeness of the formula," Deleuze adds, "goes beyond the word itself' (68). With all its variants (in some cases, abandoning the conditional tense and becoming more curt, "I prefer not to"; in other cases, "losing its mystery" by being completed by an infinitive, for example, "I prefer to give no answer"), the formula occurs in ten principal circumstances, and each of these may be repeated several times (Deleuze, 69). Overall, the verb 'to prefer,' which formally represents the joining point of this expression, underlines the bizarre and anomalous nature of the negation pronounced by Bartleby. In fact, as Deleuze asserts, the formula is neither an affirmation nor a negation: Bartleby, explicitly, does not refuse and does not accept what he is offered from time to time - he only sets its impossibility. However, this impossibility is an active seed that germinates in that very moment and from then on. As if it were within a modality of future in the past, it has already 'swallowed' the actions that, up to that point, it was still 'preferable' to achieve. In this way, as well as refusing the new duty just proposed, Bartleby's "blocking-formula" "I would prefer not to" - which has a nullifying and retroactive effect1- declares the impossibility of what had previously been possible, and now is not (Deleuze, 71).

As Deleuze writes, what we are observing here is not "a will to nothingness, but the growth of a nothingness of the will" (71). Such a nothingness of the will passes through a linguistic formula which, precisely by means of its eccentricity, digs out of ordinary language a sort of foreign idiom that turns out to be the restitution of an original language. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.