Beckett’s Labyrinth

The Minotaur, not Narcissus, presides over the birth of art
Rosalind Krauss

Robert Morris, Untitled (Pink Felt), 1970, © Robert Morris

Robert Morris, Untitled (Pink Felt), 1970, © Robert Morris

Patrick Bowles records a conversation he had with Samuel Beckett while the two were working on the English translation of Molloy. Bowles had shared a quotation from Blanchot:

Every philosophy of non-meaning rests on a contradiction as soon as it expresses itself. [p 111*]

For Bowles, there was no contradiction involved if one recognized and respected the two separate “levels” of world and language. For Beckett there was only one level: the human being in the world. If a human being is to seek the truth in his relations to language and world, then he cannot represent himself as outside the world. And if the world does not correspond to human categories of meaning, then man “must represent himself as a part of…. this movement of the unmeaningful.” One may characterize this paradox as an act of language which rests on a contradiction.

Looking at it this way, if the contradiction is not embraced, then one is obliged to enter a discourse of infinite regress. Beckett added that this kind of writing can “kill a man”, emphasizing that men have indeed been killed by it. I wish Bowles had asked for examples. But one might take a look at the endless logical loops of Watt to see a related malady of the mind.

A number of other details relating to this matter are worth contemplating. One might say that a possible escape from the contradiction exists—in silence. The contradiction is not bearable itself except with a certain regard to silence. Bowles records that “scientific language has no relation to silence, in this sense, for the reason that scientific language is essentially concerned with meaning something.” [115] The kind of writing that an artist like Beckett engaged in depends on silence. Beckett’s approach can be contrasted with classical notions of order. In their conversation, Beckett had compared Bowles’ idea of two “levels” with the traditional separation of world and language, adding that Renaissance painting was for this reason “a fake”. The word “fake” is very cogent here, since classical painting, even to this day, is considered, on a fundamental level, a representation of reality. If one follows Beckett, no art could be more unreal. If by “reality” we wish to address the truth about the world, then our art must address chaos and everything that represents: contradiction, paradox, meaninglessness, formlessness, ignorance, weakness and failure, addressing it not as one from the outside, but as a being in movement with it. One begins to glimpse the extraordinary difficulty Beckett had in writing his works, always attuned to these ideas of truth, contradiction and silence.

Lawrence E. Harvey’s conversations with Beckett, undertaken six years after Bowles’, are worth considering in this connection. For Beckett, according to Harvey, form (if by “form” one means the strength of order) always militates against the truth of being. He told Harvey that “an ejaculation would perhaps be the most perfect expression of being” [133], a statement that Georges Bataille might have appreciated (more on Bataille below). Beckett did not care for Robbe-Grillet’s novels in this regard, since their primary function was to support a new kind of form and that, Beckett felt, “quickly [became] another convention” (he preferred something like the prose of Celine’s later novels). The word “convention” is significant when we recall that the drama of a play like Waiting for Godot was based on the stripping away of all conventions. And yet Beckett did not simply spew out his works. We know that he labored intensely over them. He did not ejaculate words (Bataille, by contrast, wrote a lot of rather poor poetry, reserving the better part of his labors for philosophy). He wrote such lines as:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

To emphasize his association of form with order and strength, Beckett told Harvey that Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures were far greater than his completed works. The difficulty of Beckett’s task may be glimpsed in his claim to “discover a syntax of weakness” [135]. And here we are reminded of the manner in which he parted ways with James Joyce—Joyce the synthesizer, endeavoring to put all of human culture into his work, and Beckett the analyzer, taking it all out, while searching for a way to address ignorance and failure, for that “syntax of weakness”. Failure, weakness and ignorance were far more fertile fields for Beckett than the strength of form and the architecture of human knowledge. Look at any of his works, from Watt to Krapp.

The phrase “syntax of weakness” reminds me of a phrase of Bataille’s, so it might be of interest to pause on the words of one of those philosophers of “non-meaning”. In The Labyrinth, an early essay from the 1930’s, Bataille wrote:

At the basis of human life there exists a principle of insufficiency…. The sufficiency of each being is endlessly contested by every other. Even the look that expresses love and admiration comes to me as a doubt concerning my reality. A burst of laughter or the expression of repugnance greets each gesture, each sentence or each oversight through which my profound insufficiency is betrayed—just as sobs would be the response to my sudden death, to a total and irremediable omission.

This uneasiness on the part of everyone grows and reverberates, since at each detour, with a kind of nausea, men discover their solitude in empty night.
Visions of Excess, p 172

For some time now it has been our task not to build a cathedral or any kind of monument, but to leave a record of our labors through a labyrinth that others may use to labor through theirs. And for that same amount of time we have been engaged in a far more profound renaissance, a truer one, if you will, that goes back to the ancient caves.

Robert Morris, Philadelphia Labyrinth, 1974, © Robert Morris

Robert Morris, Philadelphia Labyrinth, 1974, © Robert Morris


* Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett, Arcade publishing, New York, 2006

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1 Response to Beckett’s Labyrinth

  1. ManicDdaily says:

    Hope this is true! I have so much unfinished! But not laying claims. Agh. It is all so hard. K.

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