References to Weeping in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable

Eye-detail (this and the other drawings in this post by Mark Kerstetter)

Eye-detail (this and the other drawings in this post by Mark Kerstetter)

The Unnamable is full of references to eyes: eyes opening and shutting, eyes with or without eyelids, disembodied eyes, eyes that can’t see, eyes that can’t help but see, and most of all, eyes that weep copiously and without ceasing. If one of the themes of The Unnamable is the unknowable, then all of these references to eyes, and particularly to eyes weeping, should not be surprising, if the eyes are a primary mode of access to the world and to knowledge. We learn from Foucault that the clinical gaze arose in part from the gaze of a child, and find a formulation that suits art as well as science: “The discourse of the world passes through open eyes, eyes open at every instant as for the first time.” [Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, p 65, Vintage Books Edition, 1973]

Mahood's Tears

Mahood’s Tears

But of course Beckett’s attitude toward the wide-open gaze of a child, ever in the present, is radically ambivalent. For what shall we say is behind those perfectly clear windows? That is until, piece-by-piece, the world is taken in to build, piece-by-piece, the adult? “The starting eye,” Beckett writes, “the labouring mind.” [Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable, p 86, Grove Press, 1958; all quotations from The Unnamable from this edition] And then, what is the adult, but someone who has broken the world into pieces, having lost the holistic vision of the child? Oh yes, neat classical order only breaks things down so as to be able to build a new and better world. But Beckett seems to see the adult world as a wreck, and “somewhere in the heap an eye, a wild equine eye, always open, they must have an eye….” [p 97]

brink eye

We know from James Knowlson’s biography of Beckett that Beckett derived his inspiration from impotence and ignorance. This was in part a reaction to his master, Joyce:

I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more…. He was always adding to it…. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away…. [Beckett quoted in Damned to Fame by James Knowlson, p 319]

But in The Unnamable something more serious than this is at play, for it is knowledge itself, or the attempt at knowing, and thus naming, that causes torment.

spider eye

…this great wild black and white eye…. stays open, it’s an eye without lids, no need for lids here, where nothing happens, or so little, if he could blink he might miss the odd sight, if he could close it, the kind he is, he’d never open it again. Tears gush from it practically without ceasing, why is not known, whether it’s with rage, or whether it’s with grief…. or at having to see, from time to time, some sight or other…. perhaps he weeps in order not to see, though it seems difficult to credit him with an initiative of this complexity. [101]

What, we might well ask, of the eye of the writer? Surely all of this high literary fun about pain and the impotence of seeing is a clarity of vision of sorts? That thought, always unspoken, seems to haunt Beckett from page to page, as if he’s ashamed of his artistry, his brilliance. He must leave it unspoken. It is not even the silence he sometimes claims to yearn for. He wants to be done with being hounded by classical order, and with the transparency of the games he feels compelled to play to mock an escape from it. He wants a real escape, short of death.

Solar Eye

perhaps that’s what I am, the thing that divides the world in two, on the one side the outside, on the other the inside…. I’m neither one side nor the other, I’m in the middle, I’m the partition…. perhaps that’s what I feel, myself vibrating, I’m the tympanum, on the one hand the mind, on the other the world, I don’t belong to either…. [134]

eye cutout

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8 Responses to References to Weeping in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable

  1. Very interesting. I loved this.

  2. If I had more patience, I would have fleshed this out more. For example, I could have given an example of Beckett’s ambivalence toward child-vision: “I’m an old fetus” etc.

  3. angela says:

    This is riviting, Mark! I wish I was not off to work (or using this phn to write) for many different thoughts come to mind. The child sees everything but interprets without adult perspective. The adult sees what she wants to see, ergo, explaining away the knowable that perhaps not wishes to be known by looking the other way. How curious, though, Beckett keeping the eyes open…the weeping without (it seems) the conjecture of pain as source of seeing – or do I read this wrong? This is what fascinates about Beckett, his vast understaning of the human condition, yet he refuses to “pretty” the ugliness of our ways- he does not play the game making the reader Really See what otherwise she would close her mind to naming.

    Your drawings are sublime, last one is my fave.

    (Ps, thanks for link!)

    • This post is really a juggling of questions. I’m glad that appeals to your mind. It’s been in the back of my mind for a long time to compile some of the weeping references and say something about them. This really isn’t it, but since you and Susan are on a sort of Beckett wave right now I wanted to jump on too since he’s my favorite writer.

  4. Susan Scheid says:

    I wish so much I were able to move more quickly–not without depth, but more quickly than I seem to be able to, for on reading the first pages of The Unnamable in preparing my Mahler-Berio post, I was reminded yet again of all you’ve written about Beckett and how much more I would like to read and understand. I stopped what I was doing today after reading this post, pulled out your e-mail of recommendations about Beckett I’ve saved for reference, and watched and listened to some of Rockaby. The music, but more than that, this looking into the depths and finding words that fit. I can see his genius and I want to know more. It will take time, for me, though I take small steps here and there, as I can. it’s interesting to think of the synergies here–Angela’s post, mine, and yours. I’ve requisitioned from the library Beckett on Proust and received notice today that it is ready to be picked up. Your accompanying drawings are stunning in the way, among other things, they speak so specifically to the text.

    Why do I sense echoes do Ashbery when I read your post? (Rhetorical, of course. For me to unravel, if II can.) Speaking of Ashbery, I received notice from Filreis of a new addition to PennSound: I listened to it this morning. He articulates far more about his process, among other things, than I’ve heard elsewhere.

    BTW, did you see Angela’s link on the Berio (or perhaps you’re the one who spotted it first?) Anyway, it’s a gold mine of information about the piece and the Beckett text.

    • Thanks for both links, esp the Ashbery one, which I’ll savor. ‘Flow Chart’ is a dream book to me and ‘Hotel Lautreamont’ is my favorite Ashbery book.

      I have to wonder if JSTOR’s decision to make articles like this available to regular folks like me has something to do with the public relations nightmare that Aaron Swartz’ death has caused. Sorry – had to get that in.

      I think I need to read Beckett’s ‘Proust’! Bear in mind, it’s the only “criticism” he ever wrote (and he wrote it in his 20’s); he didn’t have a taste for it.

      On the drawings: these are just a few of many drawings and sketches I’ve done that reference eyes. None of them were made in direct response to Beckett (except, for all I know, on a subconscious level). ‘Mahood’s Tears’ got its title after the drawing was done (Mahood being one of the “characters” in ‘The Unnamable’). I did do a drawing once called ‘The Unnamable’, which I thought of as Beckettian, in a wordless way, if that even makes sense. Happily I sold the drawing. Unhappily I never photographed it.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Mark: Glad to see my comment came through. No sorry needed about Jstor/Swartz, I think you’re right, and it occurred to me as well. Jstor has a way to go in coping with the modern age, but I would say that its approach stands in stark contrast to that of MIT. As for Beckett’s Proust, my library request has come through and it’s here. Looking forward to that, though I appreciate your comment and will read with that in mind. Re the drawings: so I take it we must scour the holdings of private collectors to find your work!

    • angela says:

      Oh my, we are quite the group, this circle (cycle) of information. Beckett had never even been on my radar til last summer, now, he seems to haunt my every thought. Mark’s mentioning that “Proust” was written early perhaps explains why when I read Beckett’s closing thoughts on Proust’s style, I cannot help but feel he is writing about his own works
      “In a sense Proust is a positivist, but his positivism has nothing to do with his relativism, which is as pessimistic and as negative as that of France, and employed as an element of comedy.” (“Proust” p. 85)

      Susan beat me to the link, Mark, for I visited Jacket2 as well and thought of you – I know your affinity for Hotel L…

      JSTOR announced before the tragedy. I think it was more in response to the recent greed in academia regarding content and access. It is still BETA, perhaps only a third of content for free… That said, I just looked up Beckett – did you know that there was a journal devoted to Beckett? Intrigued by
      having not read the book yet but you two have me very much hoping to soon!
      I do hope you both continue to post your thoughts on Beckett and whatnot.

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