Read, Pig!

Once I saw the title, Think, Pig! I had to have Jean-Michel Rabaté’s book, published last year by Fordham University Press. It is subtitled Beckett at the Limit of the Human and its first chapter is called “How to Think Like a Pig”.

The first thing to be said about the book is the rather surprising fact that Rabaté does not give an in-depth examination of Lucky’s speech per se at all, though this description of How It Is might apply:

One soon guesses that this slime is partly made up of anal refuse issuing from the narrator’s mouth or anus. It is his “quaqua”, the remainder of a sickening and damaged discourse hesitating between logorrhea and diarrhea…. which connects Lucky’s “quaquaquaqua” with the word for derisive verbiage in German, “Quatsch quatsch quatsch.”

Rabaté surveys a variety of ways in which Beckett’s writing compares to the ideas of certain philosophers. However, there is no form or flow to the survey. The material is sort of thrown into a trough as a series of chapters that don’t require any particular order. Moreover, they’re not of equal quality, in my opinion. Hence a number of clichés suggest themselves: mixed bag, salmagundi, patchwork…. But one may as well pick up on the author’s own and say he’s thrown it all in a trough. Read, pig!

One can pick and choose, of course. But pigs aren’t picky eaters and now that the meal is consumed, some parts sit and digest better than others. I found Rabaté’s discussions of Descartes and Kant insightful, his statements on Badiou scattered and obscure. When he claims that Beckett’s insight about ignorance/failure “had been slowly prepared all those years of wandering by silently contemplating pictures” I think his argument is weak. Beckett may have immersed himself in meditating on painting as one response to his difficult evolution as a writer, but that doesn’t mean there is a direct connection between observing art and this evolution. As a visual artist who writes I am wary of the pitfalls of drawing practical connections between the arts. Besides, I think the dialogues with Duthuit show an abstract, theoretical, that is to say philosophical way of addressing painting—far from silent contemplation. We should stick to the things we know for sure. For example, we know for a fact that Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist inspired Not I. In another passage Rabaté makes a tenuous connection between Beckett and Klossowski, based on a letter from which Rabaté concludes that Beckett read Klossowski’s book on Sade with “great interest”. Beckett did indeed write that, “There are some very good things” in the book. However, he may have been referring more to Klossowski’s quotations than his original statements. In another letter written only days later he writes that the book, “Reads to me like incomparably woolly rubbish” [The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II, pp 210 and 225]. This bit of sloppiness is too bad, because the idea of a “different writing” that Rabaté develops, comparing Beckett to Sade via Klossowski is compelling.

One bite almost ruined the whole meal for me. Writing about Masson and Bataille, Rabaté states that

their frantic acquiescence to universal destruction undermines itself, and, what is worse, ends up sounding glib.

Now, I have thought all sorts of things about Georges Bataille, but glibness has never been anywhere near the radar screen. This bad bite almost spoiled my taste for the rest of the book. Fortunately, Rabaté made up for it later with a very tasty section on rats (more anon). But this passage on Bataille’s supposed glibness is all the worse in that the arguments that are supposed to spice it make, in my opinion, a poor porridge indeed.

First of all, the Masson and Bataille link is more of a guilt by association construction than it is a logical one. It is suggested that Beckett’s attitude toward the two was similar or somehow associated but the only support Rabaté offers is one of the dialogues with Duthuit which involves Masson but not Bataille, and a less than clear reference to Bataille in a letter to Duthuit which does not reference Masson:

Greatly enjoyed your lack of enjoyment of the all-purpose disaster, à la Bataille. [The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II, p 187]

If background documentation to this reference exists, Rabaté has not shared it. There’s just not enough here to sink one’s teeth into. Moreover, I don’t find the Beckett/Duthuit dialogues themselves to be very nourishing. In short, there’s not enough here—anywhere—to encourage me to accept this line of Rabaté’s thinking. So, Beckett’s possible attitudes to Masson and Bataille aside, there’s still the notion itself of Bataille’s glibness to address.

Strangely, there’s plenty on Bataille in the rest of Rabaté’s book to offset the notion, but nowhere more effectively than this quote, which Rabaté took from Bataille’s The Practice of Joy Before Death:

Before the terrestrial world whose summer and winter order the agony of all living things, before the universe composed of innumerable turning stars, limitlessly losing and consuming themselves, I can only perceive a succession of cruel splendors whose very movement requires that I die: this death is only the exploding consumption of all that was, the joy of existence of all that comes into the world; even my own life demands that everything that exists, everywhere, ceaselessly give itself and be annihilated. [Visions of Excess, p 239]

As to Bataille’s relationship in general to all things filthy, horrifying, dying or disastrous, it is undeniable that he tended to ignore the fact (which he was well aware of) that there exist other avenues to the sacred—for example poetry and love. His insistence in this regard on filth and horror or the disaster can be exasperating and even insufferable. But it is not glib. “Glib” is a strong word that connotes insincerity and thoughtlessness, two attributes that are absent in all my reading of Bataille’s work but the opposites of which I find in abundance. Bataille did not need readymade or “all-purpose” disasters. His life was full of disaster, from earliest childhood. During the period of writing Guilty, Bataille’s first real book apart from Story of the Eye, the author’s lover had died, all of his intellectual projects had come to naught, the Nazis had invaded France, and if that weren’t disastrous enough, he had contracted tuberculosis and was forced to leave his job. Such a series of disasters would have ruined many a person. In fact, I would surmise that they’re even too much to hold in the imagination. Only when one has suffered a disaster in one’s own life does reading the list become less abstract, and one can begin to have some empathy, even if understanding is still lacking, for Bataille’s strange obsessions. So, yes, Bataille may have been insufferable constantly shoving that Chinese torture picture in readers’ faces. But glib? No. Never.

A stronger comparison can be made in that the series of disasters Bataille suffered launched a series of books among the most remarkable written in the 20th century. Bataille and Beckett both were champions of a form of writing born out of loss that can help anyone deal with their own relationship to failures of all kinds. The older one gets the more valuable these two writers become, because one becomes more and more intimate with failure and death. One of the things I like about Rabaté’s book is his perception that Beckett’s writing incorporates philosophical thinking while maintaining poetry as its basis and heart. I would contrast this with the perception that in Bataille’s writing the terms are reversed: he wrote philosophy infused with poetry.

I have never taken the time to tackle Beckett’s obscure and difficult early poem Whoroscope. Reading Think, Pig! enabled me to finally get a grip on the poem. In preparing to write this review I came across a passage in one of Bataille’s early writings that I think corresponds with what I learned about the poem, and in addition connects with the primary theme of Rabaté’s book:

when man seeks to represent himself, no longer as a moment of a homogenous process…. but as a new laceration within a lacerated nature, it is no longer the leveling phraseology coming to him from the understanding that can help him: he can no longer recognize himself in the degrading chains of logic, but he recognizes himself, instead…. in the virulence of his own phantasms. [“The Pineal Eye”, Visions of Excess, p 80]

Whoroscope and Bataille’s The Pineal Eye were both written in 1930.

For me the tastiest portion of Think, Pig! is by far the section entitled “Watt’s Rats”. Rabaté begins the discussion by recounting Beckett’s fascination for Sade, whose 120 Days of Sodom Beckett compared to Dante, perhaps the writer he most admired. Rabaté writes,

Reason, contaminated by obscenity, leads to its undoing, which coincides with an exploration of the limits of ethics.

“All the characteristics of Sadian mischief are on display,” Rabaté explains, in the passage on rats in Beckett’s Watt. When taken alongside the “semantic vertigo” of Watt’s logical exercises, this “logical exhaustion leads to a hollowing out of meaning.” Rabaté compares this shutting off of Watt’s mind to Lucky being forced to think on command. After this, a periodic deployment of lacunae occurs in the novel, “signal[ing] a deviant textuality”. The rat, Rabaté says, “functions as a red thread in these complex devices” the result of which illustrates a failure to define “man” according to any classical understanding based on rational order. Watt, we are told, only finds bliss when he is utterly exhausted by these efforts, when all is lost and there is nothing else to do. And then Rabaté writes what is for me the heart of his book:

These metaphysical rats traverse all the layers of pseudohumanity, moving from a voracious greed for godlike transcendence to animal panic facing death throes. In that sense, rats are more human than men.


Books cited:

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume II, Cambridge University Press

Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess, University of Minnesota Press

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