. .Figures of Subjective Destiny: On Samuel Beckett
. . .Alain Badiou

Why there is a close relationship between poetry and philosophy, or more generally between literature and philosophy? It’s because philosophy finds in literature some examples of completely new forms of the destiny of the human subject. And precisely new forms of the concrete becoming of the human subject when this subject is confronted to its proper truth.

I name figure this textual presentation of forms of the subjective truth. The figures are of great interest for a philosophical theory of the subject. My example today will be some figures that we discover in the novels of Samuel Beckett.

The fabulation of the subject’s figures will occupy Beckett for a long time in his texts after 1960, among which the most significant montages are the very “structuralist” one of Le Dépeupleur, in English The Lost Ones, published in 1970, and that of Comment c’est, in English How It Is, from 1961. In both cases, fiction lays out an abstract place that connotes no established figure of the sensible whatsoever. The space is homogeneous, regulated, subjected to strict parameters. The nakedness of such coded places allows all attention to concentrate on the figural dispositions of the subject.

In Le Dépeupleur, or The Lost One, the place is a giant rubber cylinder where the variations of light, sound, and temperature are regulated by rigorous laws that are empirically observable and yet conceptually unknown. A simple cosmos, purified, reduced to the complex of closure and legality. In there, a tiny lot of people busy themselves with obeying a single imperative: to look for their other. I say “their other”, but in french the word is son dépeupleur, and in english it is “its lost one”. The difficulty, as you see, is that Beckett does not write exactly se same thing in french and in english. But it is clear that the imperative is to look for the other, or to be more precise, it is up to each one to look for “its” other. Here is the very beginning of the fable: Séjour où des corps vont cherchant chacun son dépeupleur, or: “abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one.”

The lost one is the one who, by being “your” lost one, singularizes you, tears you away from the anonymous status of those who have being only when lost among the people of searchers. When somebody is“depopulated”, in french, or when, in English, somebody find its lost one, he becomes oneself in the encounter with one’s other. 

The search for the other is constant and varied. People run a bit everywhere in the cylinder, they climb the ladders to see if the lost one wouldn’t be in one of the niches installed at different heights, all of which is a very complicated exercise that Beckett describes in all its painstaking minutiae. But, in the end, we can distinguish four figures of the quest, and thus four figures of the subject, four possible positions for “each one” who searches for its lost one.

Roughly speaking, there are two criteria for setting up this typology of figures.

The first one opposes those who search and those who have renounced the search. Those who still live under the unique imperative and those who have given up on this imperative, which is the same as giving up on one’s desire since there exists no other desire than that of finding one’s lost one. To be vanquished, let’s take note, is never to be vanquished “by” the other, but to renounce the other.

The second criterion has its origin in the Platonic categories of rest and movement, the importance of which for Beckett’s thought it is always necessary to insist. There are searchers who circulate without stopping, there are others who stop sometimes, and then there are those who stop often, and even some who no longer move at all.

You thus end up with four types of subject: 

1). The searchers who circulate nonstop, whom we might call the nomads, and who are the “initial” living beings, for example the babies. Babies never stop circulating, on the back of their mother to be sure, but without ever halting. The mothers also fall in this category, they cannot be immobile for even an instant. 

2). The searchers who stop sometimes, who “rest.”

3). The searchers who are definitively motionless, or immobile for a very long time, but who–and this is very important–continue to search with their eyes for their depopulator. Nothing in them moves, except the eyes that turn without end in all directions.

4). The non-searchers, the vanquished.

Those who are constantly or for a long time immobile are called sedentary. By crossing the criteria of the imperative (search) and of movement, we can distinguish fundamentally two “extremal” positions, that is, the absolute nomadic livings beings, on the one hand, and the vanquished, on the other. Between these two figures, there is partial and total sedentarity.

The principle that underlies this distribution of figures is the following one: Since the law of desire is the search for the other, this search can never be interrupted, except in the approximation of death as irreversibility. The moment one gives up on the imperative is without the possibility of a return. The one who stops circulating becomes sedentary, and then enters the figure of the vanquished.

This is if we view things from the side of life, from the side of the imperative of the depopulator. But, from the other point of view, that of sedentarity, there exists a variety of possibilities, one can circulate between partial immobility and total immobility. There is even a possibility for this miracle, which contains all of Beckett’s paradoxical optimism: the return (which is rare enough, almost never, but there are cases) of a vanquished in the arena of research. There is an arrangement by torsion here: to give up on the imperative is irreversible, but the result (or the punishment) of this defeat , which is apathetic immobility, is not irreversible. Or again/still: irreversibility is a law of choice, a law of the moment, it does not regulate a state of affairs. Seized in all its consequences, in its figures, and not in its pure moment, irreversibility is not irreversible.

The subject’s maxims are thus stated: to give up is irreversible, but “all” possibilities exist even there where nothing attests to them, in the midst of the figures of sedentarity. Beckett says as much in an extraordinarily succinct passage, which is very abstract and profound insofar as the link is concerned between an imperative and the domain of possibilities where this imperative is exercised.

dans le cylindre le peu possible là où il n’est pas n’est seulement plus et dans le moindre moins le rien tout entier

“when in the cylinder what little is possible is not so it is merely no longer so and in the least less the all of nothing”

The smallest failure is complete (because less = nothing) but no possibility is annihilated (because not-possible = no longer possible).

The ethics of the cylinder knows no “eternal” damnation, but neither does it know any accommodation of the imperative of the Other. A figure of the subject is that which “distributes” the two sides of this ethics. 

The description of the subject’s figures takes place in another fictional arrangement in Comment c’est, in English How It Is, which will bring us closer to the crucial problem of the Two. 

The four subjective types in How It Is are as follows:

1). To wander in the dark with a bag;

2). To encounter someone in active position, falling on top of someone in the dark. This is the so-called “tormentor’s” position.

3). To be abandoned, immobile in the dark by the one that is found;

4). To be found by someone in a passive position (someone falls on top of you while you are immobile in the dark). This is the position of the so-called “victim.”

Such are the generic figures of everything that can happen to a member of human kind. One very important point is that these figures are egalitarian. In this disposition there is no particular hierarchy, nothing that would indicate that this or that one of the four figures is to be desired, preferred, or distributed differently than the others. The words “tormentor” and “victim” should not mislead us in this regard. These figures are only the generic avatars of existence. They are equivalent, and this profound equality of fate authorizes the following remarkable statement: 

En tout cas on est dans la justice, je n’ai jamais entendu dire le contraire

“In any case one lives in justice I never heard the contrary said.” 

The justice that is here evoked, in a judgment about the collective being, of course by no means refers to any kind of finality. It concerns only the intrinsic ontological equality of the figures of the subject.

In this typology, we can nevertheless group, on the one hand, the figures of solitude, and on the other, the figures of the Two.

The figures of the Two are the tormentor and the victim, postures that are the consequence of a chance encounter in the dark, and that are tied to one another by the extortion of speech, by the violent provocation of a story. It is what Beckett names “life in stoic love.” 

The two figures of solitude are: to wander in the dark with one’s bag and to be immobile because one has been abandoned. 

Let’s observe that the journey and immobility, as figures of solitude, are the results of a separation. The journey is that of a victim who abandons her tormentor, and immobility in the dark applies to the abandoned tormentor. It is clear that these figures are sexuated, but in a latent manner. Beckett does not pronounce the words “man” and “woman” precisely because they refer too comfortably to a structural Two, which would be permanent. But the Two of victim and tormentor, of their journeys and immobilities, depending as it does on the chance encounter, does not realize any preexisting duality.

In fact, the figures of solitude are sexuated according to two big existential theorems, of which “How It Is ” plots the evidence: 

First theorem: only a woman travels;

Second theorem: whoever is immobile in the dark is a man.

I leave these theorems for your meditation. What we should see is that the doctrine of the sexes, which states that wandering “defines” a woman, and that, if you have a mortal who is immobile in the dark, it must be a man — this sexuation is by no means empirical or biological. The sexes are distributed “as a result of” an encounter in which, through “stoic love,” the active position, called “the tormentor’s,” and the passive one, called “the victim’s,” are tied together. The sexes “happen” when a mortal, crawling in the dark, encounters another mortal who crawls in the dark, like everyone else.

Active and passive positions, however, are not the most refined account of sexuation. In order then to come to the bottom of the matter, we must examine Beckett’s final thought for its own sake. This is the thought that establishes truth as the power of Two.

In all the writings of Beckett, one feature remains unchanged: love begins in a pure encounter, which is neither destined nor predestined except by the chance crossing of two trajectories. Prior to this meeting, there is only solitude. No Two, in particular no sexual duality, exists before the encounter. Sexual difference is unthinkable, except from the point of view of the encounter as it unfolds within the process of love. There is no originary or prior difference that conditions or orients this encounter. The encounter is the power from which the Two, and thus love itself, originate. This power, which nothing precedes in its proper order, is practically without measure. It is, in particular, incommensurable with the power of feeling and the sexual and desiring power of the body. This excess without measure of the encounter is asserted in the 1930s by Neary in Murphy :

se rencontrer comme moi je l’entends, cela dépasse tout ce que peut le sentiment, si puissant soit-il, et tout ce que sait le corps, quelle qu’en soit la science.

“And to meet and part in my sense exceeds the power of feeling, however tender, and of bodily motions, however expert.”

Beckett never reduces love to the amalgam of sentimentality and sexuality endorsed by common opinion. Love as a matter of “truth” (and not of opinion) depends upon a pure event: an encounter whose strength radically exceeds both sentimentality and sexuality.

Love offers beauty, nuance, color. It presents what one might call the other or second nocturne, not of the grey darkness of being, but that of the rustling night — the night of leaves and plants, of stars and water. Under the very strict conditions of the encounter and toil, the Two of love splits the dark into the grey darkness of being, on the one hand, and, on the other, the infinitely varied darkness of the sensible world.

This is why in Beckett’s prose one suddenly discovers poems where, under the sign of the inaugural figure of the Two, something unfolds within the night of presentation, that is to say, the unfolding of the multiple as such. Love is, above all, an authorization granted to the multiple, under the never-abolished threat of the grey darkness where the original One bears the torture of its own identification. 

I would like now to quote two such poems that are latent in this prose so that another Beckett may be heard — one expressive of the gift and the happiness of being. The first is taken from La dernière bande, “Krapp’s Last Tape” where the hero of the play, a man coming to his end, is launched into interminable attempts at anamnesis (he listens to recordings of his voice at different stages of his life), and recalls the crucial moment, when the Two of love had reopened the multiple:

Le haut du lac, avec la barque, nagé près de la rive, puis poussé la barque au large et laissé aller à la dérive. Elle était couchée sur les planches du fond, les mains sous la tête et les yeux fermés. Soleil flamboyant, un brin de brise, l’eau un peu clapoteuse comme je l’aime. J’ai remarqué une égratignure sur sa cuisse et lui ai demandé comment elle se l’était faite. En cueillant des groseilles à maquereau, m’a-t-elle répondu. J’ai dit encore que ça me semblait sans espoir et pas la peine de continuer et elle a fait oui sans ouvrir les yeux. Je lui ai demandé de me regarder et après quelques instants — après quelques instants elle l’a fait, mais les yeux comme des fentes à cause du soleil. Je me suis penché sur elle pour qu’ils soient dans l’ombre et ils se sont ouverts. M’ont laissé entrer. Nous dérivions parmi les roseaux et la barque s’est coincée. Comme ils se pliaient, avec un soupir, devant la proue! Je me suis coulé sur elle, mon visage dans ses seins et ma main sur elle. Nous restions là, couchés, sans remuer. Mais, sous nous, tout remuait, et nous remuait, doucement, de haut en bas, et d’un côté l’autre. (Pause) Passé minuit. Jamais entendu pareil silence.

“… Upper lake, with the punt, bathed off the bank, then pushed out into the stream and drifted. She lay stretched out on the floorboards with her hands under her head and her eyes closed. Sun blazing down, bit of a breeze, water nice and lively. I noticed a scratch on her thigh and asked how she came by it. Picking gooseberries, she said. I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on and she agreed, without opening her eyes. (Pause) I asked her to look at me and after a few moments. (Pause) After a few moments she did, but the eyes just the slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause Low). Let me in. (Pause) We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side. (Pause) Past midnight. Never knew…”

As you can see, this is the poem of the opening of the waters, the multiple of the absolute moment when love, even if it were to announce its own end, proposes the infinity of the sensible world. 

The second quotation comes from Enough, a short text that is entirely devoted to love. It establishes precise connections between love and infinite knowledge. The two lovers who walk, broken in two, in a world of flower-covered hills, are never as close to one another as when they discuss mathematics or astronomy. And the figure of the beloved man becomes this source of knowledge in which the sky is given in its own order: 

Par une rampe de cinquante pour cent sa tête frôlait le sol. Je ne sais par à quoi il devait ce goût. A l’amour de la terre et des mille parfums et teintes des fleurs. Ou plus bêtement à des impératifs d’ordre anatomique. Il n’a jamais soulevé la question. Le sommet atteint hélas il fallait redescendre.
Pour pouvoir de temps à autre jouir du ciel il se servait d’une petite glace ronde. L’ayant voilée de son souffle et ensuite frottée contre son mollet il y cherchait les constellations. Je l’ai ! s’écriait-il en parlant de la Lyre ou du Cygne. Et souvent il ajoutait que le ciel n’avait rien.

“On a gradient of one in one his head swept the ground. To what this taste was due I cannot say. To love of the earth and the flowers’ thousand scents and hues. Or to cruder imperatives of an anatomical order. He never raised the question. The crest once reached alas the going down again.
In order from time to time to enjoy the sky he resorted to a little round mirror. Having misted it with his breath and polished it on his calf he looked in it for the constellations. I have it! he exclaimed referring to the Lyre or the Swan. And often he added that the sky seemed much the same.”

Love is when we can say that we have the sky, and that the sky has nothing. The multiple of constellations is thus held in the opening of the Two. 

These are examples of the Two of love as the passage (passe) of the One of solipsism to the infinite multiplicity of the world, and the nocturnal fissure of the grey darkness of being. But, in addition to these, there is also a plotting of the Two — an insistence by way of loyalty, or fidelity. This fidelity organizes four functions for Beckett, which are also four figures of the subject “within” love.

The first of these functions is “wandering” or traveling, which presents the infinite chance of a faithful journey of love, the endless crossing of a world that is henceforth exposed to the effects of the encounter. This function institutes the duration of the Two and establishes time as mandated by chance.

The second function is just the opposite, that is, “immobility”, which holds, maintains, or keeps still the fixed point of the first nomination, the naming of the event-encounter. 

The third function is that of the “imperative”: always continue, even through separating–decree that separation itself is a form of continuity. The imperative of the Two relays that of the soliloquy (”You must go on… I’ll go on”), but it subtracts from it the pointless torture and imposes the strict law of happiness, whether one be victim or tormentor.

The fourth function is that of the “story”, which delivers, from the standpoint of the Two, the latent infinity of the world and recounts it unlikely unfolding, by inscribing step by step, in the manner of an archival escort of the wandering, all that one may discover in what Beckett calls “the blessed time of blue” (le temps béni du bleu).

Love weaves within its singular duration these four functions: wandering, immobility, imperative, and story.

Beckett formulates the Idea of the sexes, of the two sexes, by combining these four functions, always under the assumption that the event of love has taken place. He thus establishes the masculine and feminine polarities of the Two independently of any empirical or biological determination of the sexes.

The functions combined within the masculine polarity are those of immobility and the imperative. A “man” is one who remains motionless in love by retaining the name that founds it and by prescribing the law of continuity. Yet, because the narrative function is missing, this prescriptive immobility remains mute. In the case of love, a “man” is the name’s silent custodian. And because the function of wandering is missing, to be a “man” is also to do nothing that bears witness to this love, but only to retain, motionless in the dark, its powerful abstract conviction. 

The feminine polarity combines wandering and narrative. It concurs not with the fixity of the name, but with the infinity of its unfolding in the world, in the narrative of its unending glory. It does not stick to the sole prescription without proof, but organizes the constant inquiry and verification of a capacity. To be a “woman,” in the context of love, is to move about under the custody of meaning, rather than of names. This protective effort implies the wayward fate of inquiries, as well as its perpetual recounting in a story.

Love exists as the determination of this polarity, which “supports” the four functions and distributes them individually. This is why love alone calls for the observation that there is indeed “man” (immobility of the imperative, the guarding of the name) and “woman” (wandering of a truth, consequences of the name within speech). Without love, nothing would bear witness to the Two of the sexes. Instead there would be One, and then again One, but not Two. There would not be man “and” woman.

Existence of that sort of “and”, existence of lovers, is the setting of what Beckett quite rightly calls happiness. Happiness also distinguishes the process of love, for happiness can only exist in love. In the case of happiness the void of being is captured in the between-the-Two, in that which constitutes the effective character of the Two, and which is its separation, that is to say, the difference of the sexes as such. Happiness is not in the least associated with the One — the myth of fusion. It is rather the subjective indicator of a truth of difference, of sexual difference, that love alone makes effective.

At this point, at the very core of happiness, we once more come up against sexuation, which is both and at the same time its site and what is at stake. In happiness, “man” is the blind custodian of separation, of the between-the-Two. The heroin of EnoughAssez, will say: Nous nous étions scindés si c’est cela qu’il désirait“We were severed if that is what he desired”. The masculine polarity, indeed, supports a desire for scission. This is not at all a longing to return to solipsism, but rather the desire for the manifestation of the Two in the divided between-the-Two. Two exists only if there is this between-the-two where the void is located as the ontological principle of the Two. The desire of “man” is assigned to or by this void. We might say that man desires the “nothing” of the Two, whereas the feminine polarity desires “nothing but” the Two, that is, the infinite tenacity in which the Two subsists as such. This instance of the “woman” is magnificently proclaimed at the very end of Enough. It is there that a woman argues for persistence in opposition to the nothing of the Two, in opposition to the void which affects the Two from within and which is symbolized by the man’s having left in order to die. This woman is the one who insists on the “nothing but the Two,” even if only in its simple memorial tracing, within the constantly reworked narrative of wandering: 

Cette notion de calme me vient de lui. Sans lui je ne l’aurais pas eue. Je m’en vais maintenant tout effacer sauf les fleurs. Plus de pluies. Plus de mamelons. Rien que nous deux nous traînant dans les fleurs. Assez mes vieux seins sentent sa vieille main.

“This notion of calm comes from him. Without him I would not have had it. Now I’ll wipe out everything but the flowers. No more rain. No more mounds. Nothing but the two of us dragging through the flowers. Enough my old breasts feel his old hand.”

Happiness is indeterminately “man” and “woman”; it is at once a separating void and the conjunction that reveals it. As happiness, as the tracing of happiness, it is the nothing of the Two “and” the nothing but the Two. Such is its inseparable sexuation, immobile and wandering, imperative and story.

This happiness is basically what occurs between the beginning and the end of “I’ll Seen I’ll Said”. The entire beginning revolves around the word “misfortune,” while the end leans toward the word “happiness.” If at the outset we have the reign of the visible and the rigidity of seeing in the grey nocturne (a limbo between life and death), at the end there arises a type of transparent void, which is laid out in the second nocturne. What more is there to do than to listen to “what is happening”? 

What follows is the opening passage, in my view one of the most beautiful texts in the French language, one that captures the brilliance of misfortune:

De sa couche elle voit se lever Vénus. Encore. De sa couche par temps clair elle voit se lever Vénus suivie du soleil. Elle en veut alors au principe de toute vie. Encore. Le soir par temps clair elle jouit de sa revanche. A Vénus. Devant l’autre fenêtre. Assise raide sur sa vieille chaise elle guette la radieuse. Elle émerge des derniers rayons et de plus en plus brillante décline et s’abîme à son tour. Vénus. Encore. Droite et raide elle reste là dans l’ombre croissante. Toute de noir vêtue. Garder la pose est plus fort qu’elle. Se dirigeant debout vers un point précis souvent elle se fige. Pour ne pouvoir repartir que longtemps après. Sans plus savoir ni où ni pour quel motif. A genoux surtout elle a du mal à ne pas le rester pour toujours. Les mains posées l’une sur l’autre sur un appui quelconque. Tel le pied de son lit. Et sur elles sa tête. La voilà donc changée en pierre face à la nuit. Seuls tranchent sur le noir le blanc des cheveux et celui un peu bleuté du visage et des mains. Pour un oeil n’ayant pas besoin de lumière pour voir. Tout cela au présent. Comme si elle avait le maheur d’être encore en vie.

“From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when the skies are clear she savours its star’s revenge. At the other window. Rigid upright on her old chair. It emerges from out the last rays and sinking ever brighter is engulfed in its turn. On. She sits on erect and rigid in the deepening gloom. Such helplessness to move she cannot help. Heading on foot for a particular point often she freezes on the way. Unable till long after to move on not knowing whither or for what purpose. Down on her knees especially she finds it hard not to remain so forever. Hand resting on hand on some convenient support. Such as the foot of her bed. And on them her head. There then she sits as though turned to stone face to the night. Save for the white of her hair and faintly bluish white of face and hands all is black. For an eye having no need of light to see. All this in the present as had she the misfortune to be still of this world.”

And now the end, where the instant of happiness is won in the very brief and trying duration of an encounter with the void:

Parti pas plutôt pris ou plutôt bien plus tard que comment dire? Comment pour en finir enfin une dernière fois mal dire? Qu’annulé. Non mais lentement se dissipe un peu très peu telle une dernière traînée de jour quand le rideau se referme. Piane-piane tout seul ou mû d’une main fantôme millimètre par millimètre se referme. Adieu adieux. Puis noir parfait avant-glas tout bas adorable son top départ de l’arrivée. Première dernière seconde. Pourvu qu’il en reste encore assez pour tout dévorer. Goulûment seconde par seconde. Ciel terre et tout le bataclan. Plus miette de charogne nulle part. Léchées babines baste. Non. Encore une seconde. Rien qu’une. Le temps d’aspirer ce vide. Connaître le bonheur.

“Decision no sooner reached or rather long after than what is the wrong word? For the last time at last for to end yet again what the wrong word? Than revoked. No but slowly dispelled a little very little like the wisps of day when the curtain closes. of itself by slow millimetres or drawn by a phantom hand. Farewell to farewell. Then in that perfect dark foreknell darling sound pip for end begun. First last moment. Grant only enough remain to devour all . Moment by glutton moment. Sky earth the whole kit and boodle. Not another crumb of carrion left. Lick chops and basta. No. One moment more. One last. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.”

This is also what I would like to call the writing of the generic: to present in art the passage from the misfortune of life and of the visible to the happiness of a truthful arousal of the void. This requires the immeasurable power of the encounter, the wager of inventing a name, as well as the combination of wandering and fixity, of imperative and story. And if all this traces the division of the night, then under these rare conditions alone one may repeat with Beckett; in Enough“Stony ground but not entirely“. But let me finish that talk in the french language of Beckett : terre ingrate, mais pas totalement

Samuel Beckett’s translation courtesy of Bruno Boostels.