Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

"TOO RED A HERRING": The Unattainable Self in the Unnamable

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

"TOO RED A HERRING": The Unattainable Self in the Unnamable

Article excerpt

Brian McHale posits that the distinction between the modem and the post-modern lies in their respective emphases upon epistemological and ontological considerations. Samuel Beckett, long considered a liminal author, provides a bridge between the modern and the postmodern in The Unnamable in the shape (or lack thereof) of his unnamed character. Viewed from this light, The Unnamable provides answers for and yet demands further questions regarding both the modern and the post-modern.

Samuel Beckett is often cited as an author who bridges the literary world's transition from modernism to postmodernism. When one considers that Beckett was a protégé of James Joyce, one of the quintessential modernist authors - along with Kafka, Pound, Woolf, Neruda, Eliot, Faulkner - whose goal was to "make it new," it seems appropriate that Beckett's work would contribute to a changing of the guard. The concerns of the modernists, according to Brian McHale in his article "What Was Postmodernism?" (and before that, in his Postmodernist Fiction) can be characterized as largely epistemological. Perhaps the most notable aspect of their writing, especially that of later modemist fiction writers like Céline, Bataille and Rhys, is the focused and intensified experience of the self. Whether that experience is one of elation, subjugation, trauma of a sexual or violent nature, or boredom, Céline's Ferdinand, Bataille's Simone and Rhys's Sasha feel and think the way any character does, but to the greatest extreme of feeling, the greatest extreme of thought. These experiences reveal new sides to the respective characters and inform the reader as to what it is to live in the world as this character.

McHale writes that the transition to post-modernism was emblematic of a shift in focus from the epistemological to the ontological. As he puts it, "This is the distinction that I developed. Modemist fiction was preoccupied with what we know and how we know it; with the accessibility and reliability of knowledge; it explored epistemological questions. Postmodernist fiction, by contrast, explored ontological questions - questions of being rather than knowing" (2008).

He suggests other possible distinctions between modernism and post-modernism, such as the double-coding effect of combining 'high' and 'low' art, but it is the shift in philosophical emphasis that reveals the most in Beckett. Clearly, the distinction between epistemology and ontology is a tenuous one, as one cannot examine the act of being without in some way considering the self that is doing the work of being. However, when one investigates the nature of the conflicts encountered by Beckett's characters, it becomes clear that it is the act of existing at all that the author is ultimately questioning. That is to say, it is not the act of living in a certain country in a certain time period as a person with certain sensibilities, but simply living at all, in any space, at any time, as any being. And, as he demonstrates in many of his works, he is interested in the act of existing where spatial relations are uncertain and when temporal relations are unclear for a being whose corporeality is stripped away.

In Postmodern Fiction McHale writes, "Samuel Beckett makes the transition from modemist to postmodernist poetics in the course of his trilogy" (12). While this is quite true, The Unnamable itself, the final novel in the so-called trilogy that includes Molloy and Malone Dies, marks a gradual shift in emphasis from epistemological to ontological considerations. This is worth noting because in this single novel, Beckett creates a distilled effect of the trilogy as a whole. Whereas Molloy and Malone are far from traditional characters, they do feature identifiably human characteristics: backgrounds, memories, relatively unified voices and a familiarity with their environment, however sparse. The narrator of The Unnamable lacks any sense of definition. In essence, he lacks a self. The narration is given by a being - who will be referred to herein as the Unnamable - whose sense of self is diffuse, occupied by multiple voices, and who doggedly refutes each of his own statements about himself and the world which he inhabits. …

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