Back II Beckett: naming the unnamable

by Sam Kriss

There’s a novel. Oh not a novel exactly, not exactly, you couldn’t quite call it that, it doesn’t have any of the usual features, no plot, for instance, and precious little in the way of setting, but I’ll call it a novel, for the sake of, for the sake of what exactly? No matter, no matter, it is what it is. I’ll start with what I can see, it’s a good enough place to start as any, or at least I think so. There’s a voice, or several voices, it doesn’t matter, they’re all the same, or they’re all different, or they’re all the same precisely because they’re different, it’s not important, things like difference and similarity and identity don’t have any meaning any more. It doesn’t make any sense to talk about who the voice is, what the I of the novel is, the novel obliterates all is-ness, all ontology falls away in the vague mist, it doesn’t make sense to talk about what the novel is about, there is no room for about-ness either, no space for intentionality, or rather, there’s all the room in the world, an infinite space, but it’s empty, all void. I said I’d talk about what I can see. A voice, then. Or several voices. In a grey mist. It talks about itself. Or sometimes it talks about other people, or it talks about itself on the command of others, except the others are also itself. All it knows is that it must go on, it has to talk about something, except there’s nothing to say, but if it can say the right thing, if it can arrive at some truth it can be silent, but there can be no truth, so it must go on. Every attempt to talk about anything in particular is thwarted, it’s impossible, there can be no signification, there can be no significance. There are flashes of figure and background, a torso in a jar, a family in a cage, a Worm, but they melt away, they were only imagined, or rather, they were only real, the phenomenal world is only a matter of conjecture after all, especially in a novel, where nothing is real in the first place. It asks questions but gives no answers. What is the self, what is fiction, why do artists create, why do we speak, what is meaning, what is existence, meaningless, all meaningless. How am I to even start talking about this book? I could talk about other works, I could talk about Dante, I could talk about Joyce, I won’t do that, it wouldn’t help. I could be Lacan and say that the novel is about the horror of the Real, about subjects without subjectivity, about the unconscious structured like a language and the reality that lies outside language, I could be Deleuze and say that the novel is about difference and repetition, about eternal recurrence, about the multiplicity of the individual, about a subjectivity trying to refer to itself as an Oedipal whole and continually failing, always bursting out into multiple personalities, deterritorialising itself into Mahood and Worm and the others, the them, reterritorialising back into the arborescent structure of the self, insisting that it must say something about itself before it can be at peace, failing because there is no self, or I could be Schopenhauer, and say that the novel is about the Will, always reaching out for something, something it can never quite reach, speaking as willing, futilely willing the end of the Will, or I’m sure if I put my mind to it, if I used all my cunning, I could be Marx, I could talk about the subject alienated from himself, but it wouldn’t help, none of it would get me anywhere, I’d get lost in the words, they’d devour me. The novel is the death of criticism. Criticism is the attempt to draw meaning from a text, the novel has no meaning, its meaning isn’t even that there is no meaning, it points to nothing, the critics stumble over themselves trying to work out what any particular thing means, they’ve made a category error, the novel isn’t for them. It’s written in an emotionless tone but its effect is an emotional one, it is written in abstractions but it’s incredibly visceral, it’s for the reader not the critic, in writing this I’m making the same mistake, I shouldn’t have written anything, except maybe ‘read The Unnamable‘ in big letters, no matter, I’m like the Unnamable myself, I must go on, I must keep on speaking. The emotional effect. It’s like being shaken by the shoulders and slapped around the head, it’s like being a child again, being lost, but the most terrifying thing of all is the ending, I didn’t expect it, the formlessness of the novel is frightening at first, but I get used to it, I settle into its flow, I lose all hope of conclusion, I don’t expect any teleology, everything will go on exactly as it has been before, a wandering that can never end. But it does end, something catastrophic happens, something eschatonic, and the catastrophe at the end is more shocking than everything that has gone on before, at first I am plunged into a novel about nothing, without a distinct narrative voice, one in which the unity of the subject is not assured, but then there’s a door, not a door looking out onto some vague sea, a resolutely symbolic door, it’s not that there’s nothing, that would be too concrete, too definite, there is something, it’s always out of reach, there is hope, there is redemption, it’s not for us, or not yet at least. Meaninglessness is easy enough to accept, after a while, it’s everywhere, we all secretly know it, to be confronted with some vast and distant and transcendent truth is what really scares us, I face it, I cringe from its glare, it is out of reach, the novel is over, I go on.