‘Watt’: logic, insanity, aphasia
The shadow of Holderlin hangs over Samuel Beckett’s Watt: the speech of a madman, focus on the Oedipus myth, and direct allusions to the poet. Among the poetry fragments quoted in German in the novel, we find, “von Klippe zu Klippe geworfen/ Endlos in . . . hinab.” This is a slight modification of Hyperion’s “Song of Fate” (Wie Wasser yon Klippe/ Zu Klippe geworfen/ Jahrlang ins Ungewisse hinab: “Like water flung down/ From cliff to cliff,/ Yearlong into uncertainty”). The poem “Dieppe” that Beckett wrote directly in French in 1937 is strongly influenced by “Der Spaziergang.” In addition to its literary appeal, Holderlin’s work may have interested Beckett because of the role that madness played in the work and life of the German poet. Watt is to the domain of logic what Holderlin is to poetry. Imagination and thought serve only to connect us directly to what is beyond madness. Holderlin, a schizophrenic, questions Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, and finds a man on a quest for impossible knowledge. This foreshadows Watt and his obsessive concern with rationalization. Oedipus goes beyond the limits. He penetrates the secret of the Sun God Apollo and is punished. This transgression corresponds to the behavior of a madman. No wonder that he meets with failure in his desire to become a “limitless creature” and that this failure ends in an “infinite separation” (grenzenloses Scheiden). His interpretation of the oracle gives the clue to his excess, and inescapably brings about the change from rationality into irrationality, which Holderlin describes in Empedocles’s case as “the moment when the organic impinges upon me” (“Grund zum Empedokles” , Werke 4: 159).
In terms of his passionate interrogation of truth, Watt resembles that other metaphysician par excellence, Sophocles’s Oedipus. At once investigator and object of investigation, Watt relies on ontological and epistemological knowledge to cross the uncertain ground of his own self-doubt. Despite the scant success of his efforts, his very approach moves us from the one who “knows” (ioda) to the one who has “swollen feet” (oidein), to mention two of the more common etymologies of the name Oedipus. As the investigation continues, his misadventures reveal a state of psychological crisis comparable to that of his Greek predecessor. Among the Addenda of the novel, we find, for example, the phrase “Watt’s Davus complex (morbid dread of sphinxes)” (251). The allusion here is to Davus sum, non Oedipus; in other words “I am not a genius like Oedipus.” In fact, Beckett seems to have been partly inspired by the symbolism and myths associated with the king of Thebes, just as Alain Robbe-Grillet, giving us a Wallas Oedipus in Les Gommes, emphasized the parallel between the first detective and a contemporary inspector.(1)
According to a quite persistent tradition, Oedipus’s blindness is due to the intervention of the Sun God Apollo who thereby punishes the person who has sinned against the light. As it happens, Watt evokes the god on several occasions. In the beginning of the novel, we find an allusion to Daphne’s metamorphosis into a laurel tree (44). This goddess, who is a symbol of truth for the Greeks, and whose sacred tree appeared in oracular rites and Apollonian divinations, finds her rightful place in a novel centered around the quest for knowledge. Besides, the laurel appears again, even more obviously, in the Addenda where Arthur relates that an old man has identified an “extraordinary plant” as a hardy laurel. By way of gloss, he notes in his own journal, “Thanked God for a small mercy. Made merry with the hardy laurel” (252-53). The humor contaminates the myth: a divine metamorphosis of a woman into a tree gives away to a reverse metamorphosis of a tree into a woman, and finally, with the topic of immortality as a pretext, Daphne is superseded by the two uncontested masters of Hollywood vaudeville, Laurel and Hardy.
Apollo avenged himself on Oedipus, Daphne, and the Lycians; these are three known cases of summary punishment. The story goes that Latona wanted to give her children something to drink and that Lycia’s peasants opposed her taking the water from their land. Confronted by the Goddess’s obstinacy, they stirred up slime from the bottom of their pond and polluted their water. Thereupon she cursed them, shouting, “May you live forever in your pond!” As a result the Lycians were changed into frogs that “still tire out their nasty tongues squabbling with one another” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.313-18).
This theme of transformation as punishment underlies metaphysical questioning in Watt. Mr. Knott, for example, is never identical to himself, “for one day Mr. Knott would be tall, fat, pale and dark, the next thin, small, flushed and fair, the next sturdy, middlesized, yellow and ginger, and the next small, fat, pale and fair” (209). He escapes all observations, and this pursuit of continued metamorphosis allows Beckett to turn to account an identity quest where the phenomenon of alloiosis [alteration] underscores obstacles and a series of stages to overcome. The “transformation punishment” formula conjures up the idea of life as a pensum [task] imposed on man by somebody unknown for reasons unclear. It is also difficult not to see Sisyphus in the porter who wheels milk cans up and down the platform, a kind of repetition accomplished in the most total indifference. A parable of the absurd, and we are told at the same time that it is “punishment for disobedience or some neglect of duty” (26). Watt fails to resolve the issue: he follows his Oedipal destiny without recognizing that the “change in continuity” is nothing more or less than a “change into nonsense.”
KNOTT AND THE SPHINX: NON-KNOWLEDGE AND KNOWLEDGE OF KNOTTS
Apollo and Oedipus bring us to the heart of the enigma of knowledge, central to Watt. Oedipus, at least, got the better of the Sphinx, but can we say the same about Watt? No, especially if we bear in mind his “morbid dread.” We wonder, in fact, how he conceives of the Sphinx and why he is so afraid of it. The name’s etymology comes from “the one who enwraps” (Constans 4), and the stem of the word sphaig (to embrace, bond, and knot, “the noose that draws tight and chokes” [Grunberger 299]) makes us understand better why Watt finds himself compressed and suffocating, all the more so as he finds himself serving a certain Mr. Knott or Knot.
These etymological associations reinforce the images and the puns relative to the cords, knots, and string in Watt. The suffocating knot deriving from the Sphinx is omnipresent at the beginning of the novel when Watt appears like “a roll of tarpaulin wrapped up in dark paper and tied about the middle with a cord” (16). This apparition, a pastiche of the embryo entangled in the umbilical cord, follows the discussion concerning “the night that Larry was born” (12) and “what it feels like to have the string cut” (14). In order to emphasize still further “the mortal squeezing” of the knot, Beckett introduces parodically the old American folk song “The Night that Larry Was Stretched”: a coinciden- tia oppositorum by which the author’s irony leads the reader into misinterpreting the text. A little later, the Lynch family takes over from the Nixons, moving us from the hanging regime to that of lynching, without our losing the thread of the story. Then comes the piano of Mr. Knott the strings of which “are in tatters” (72) and which is replaced by the second picture of Erskine showing a man trying to achieve “C Major in its second inversion” (250). Beckett’s English version, richer in puns, describes this man in terms of “Chord,” “chords,” and “Accord.” On the point of delivering (a tough stool), the pianist nonetheless manages to produce “the dying accord” (251), which in an ironical way sends us back to Gall and Leafy. To the pianist’s tuning of chords one can add the “net” in which Mr. Knott imprisons his “rare and wanton strand of hair” (200) and the secret pocket, sewn on to the front of Sunshine’s shorts (127), possibly patterned after the Shakespearean model (The Tempest 2.1), in order to summarize the impenetrability (“closed mouth”) of Knott’s universe.
Erskine’s secret pocket quickly gives way to the expression “as Lachesis would have it” (127). It is necessity that always takes precedence, taking the form of a lethal connection [raccordement: restringing or returning]. Lachesis and the two other daughters of Ananke (cf. Plato, Republic 10) are in charge of the thread of life and decide everyone’s destiny, whether it be in the form of the umbilical cord or the hangman’s noose. She merits a place in Watt because of the debate between freedom and necessity that follows. It seems logical to place Erskine by her side, insofar as his name evokes the myth of Er from Plato’s Republic. Watt gives us a radically transformed Er, a ghost who comes to testify from the beyond, but who has presumably turned over a new leaf (Er and Skin). The man who wanders through the maze of universal history gets lost in a labyrinth of explanations despite the thread proffered by a guide-narrator. The ineffectual wisdom offered by the latter only results in slightly less foolish acts “like Theseus kissing Ariadne, or Ariadne Theseus, towards the end, on the seashore” (63).
LYNCH AND LEIBNIZ
“There are two famous labyrinths where our reason wanders,” writes Leibniz, “one concerns the major question of the free and the necessary, especially in the production and origin of evil: the other consists of the discussion concerning continuity and those indivisible components that appear to be its elements and which oblige us to take stock of the infinite” (Theodicy, Preface). Watt, a Candide as Logician, gives us the impression of believing in the best of all possible worlds. He undoubtedly agrees from the beginning with the Leibnizian conception of the world; it only remains for him to enumerate all things together – “the remainder and the entire collection of all” – in order to make them exist. We can, therefore, imagine his disappointment when he begins to draw up the inventory of the possible. In spite of his intellectual faith and his thirst for the absolute, he is unable to totalize a “world,” and each new attempt ends in bitter failure.
In between the “series of things” and the “series of beings,” “this long chain of consistence, a chain stretching from those long dead to the far unborn” (134), Leibniz indicates to Watt a method to follow, “the conception of things in the order according to which they explain one another.” Moreover, Watt implicitly seems to know that, in probability theory, beings and things are equivalent. That which is serial corresponds to the linear and is characterized by transmission. Thus, A. A. Cournot, talking about probabilism maintains that
an accurate idea of the meeting and the intersection of such links may be gained through the analogy with human genealogy. Each individual has two sets of ancestors, one through his mother, the other through his father; and in the ascending order, the paternal and maternal lines branch off at each question. In turn, each person becomes the stock or the common root of many lines of descendants. (32)
This process of generation is consistent with the ubiquity of chance and necessity in Watt: the Ananke of The Republic, the tragedy of Oedipus, Leibniz’s thesis on the “free” and the “necessary,” the logical and familial chains, and the population statistics intersect and become inextricably linked. In themselves, Watt’s predictions about the Lynch family illustrate the calculation of probability as Laplace practiced it in setting up his “tables of mortality, of average lifespans, of weddings, and diverse or random associations” and in stressing a scientific determinism leading to exact numbers. To predict is to play the oracle, to reinvent the whole Oedipus story so as to finally include all of humanity. But to understand this, we have to go back to the origin, or origins, as Watt does using the Leibnizian principle of sufficient reason. At a disadvantage from the beginning because of the scourge of hemophilia (cf. Haemon, from Haimon, “bloodstained,” a nephew of Jocasta strangled by the Sphinx), the Lynch family renews the Oedipal theme, with the two aspects of “transmission” and “punishment” that seem to summarize for Beckett the meaning of life.
By adding up the different ages of the family members, Watt tries to calculate the number of years still left to the Lynches to reach one thousand years of service. He comes to a total of 980 years, which is somewhat inexact in that the real number is of the order of 978. This inexactitude elicits from the narrator the following commentary: “The figures given here are incorrect. The consequent calculations are therefore doubly erroneous” (104).(2) If we look closely at the text, we can note that Liz, Sam’s wife, pregnant at the age of 38 on page 102, dies a few months and three pages later after “forty goodlooking years” (105). Are these the two missing years? Or is it a punishment meted out to the reader, who is doomed through force of circumstances, like Watt, to a grotesque remembrance of things past?
NOMINALISM AND CATEGORICAL INSANITY
When Leibniz talks about pre-established harmony, he uses the example of two clocks carefully set which would always strike the same hour at a given moment. The other, less well-known analogy for concomitance consists of “various bands of musicians or choirs, playing separately their parts, and placed in such a way that they do not see or hear one another, but who nonetheless merge perfectly by following their notes, each one his own . . . so that anyone who listens to them all discovers a marvelous harmony” (Letters, no. 154). The choir of frogs seems to parody this exalted vision of Leibnizian parallelism, while inciting us to verify the philosopher’s judgment according to which musica est exercitum arithmeticae occultum nescientis se numerare animi [Music is the secret exercise of arithmetic by a mind that does not know how to count] (Piat 213).
In addition, the concert has the peculiarity of illustrating a musical return to the starting point after 360 intervals, a peculiarity that suggests the 360 degrees of the circle, as well as the movements of the Sun God, Mr. Knott, who moves one minute every night in the course of his annual revolution (207). The end point of the concert is reached when the notation of sounds, by units of eight, suggests the octave; and if we glance at the plan, we observe on the one hand the repetition of the motifs diagonally, and on the other a reverse symmetry representing the whole in a mirrored image that foreshadows the meeting of Sam with Watt and the narcissistic tied score resulting from their game.
Universals and Aristotelian logic carry Leibnizian monadology into Watt and uphold the formal frame of the novel. The strategic use of rubrics, engenderings, and linking elements does not so privilege probability (even if Aristotle can be counted among the inventors of the logic of probability), but rather the desire to define the ways by which subject and predicate are linked in a relationship. This procedure does not, for all that, allow us to leave the problematic of Oedipal knowledge. Thus, in his Isagoge, Porphyry affirms that “genus” indicates a collection of individuals acting in a certain way among themselves and in relation to one being only. As in the case of Father or Fatherland, Genus corresponds to “the starting point of each thing’s generation” (13). Genus “engenders,” so to speak, in the same way that Oedipus himself is placed at the start of a generation and transmits to us the family discourse of the series.
Nominalism and realism, genus and species are all terms that worry and interest Watt because they express all the anxiety he experiences with respect to his own existence. Watt, like Oedipus Rex, deals with a profound identity crisis. The major axis of the inquiry conducted by Watt is in Porphyry’s tree, which is superimposed on Mr. Knott’s multistoried house and implies the hierarchical interrogation of Being in order to elucidate the relationship between supreme genus and the individual.
From the beginning, we witness a Scholastic juxtaposition of Hackett (Hacceitas) and Watt (Quidditas), a juxtaposition that leads to the following commentary by Nixon to Hackett: “When I see him [Watt], or think of him, I think of you, and . . . each time I see you, I think of him. I have no idea why it is so” (19). “Quiddity” is essence insofar as it is distinguished from existence, and “haecceity” (a term often associated with the philosophy of Duns Scotus) designates that individuating difference which is added to quiddity, not as another “thing,” “but as an intrinsic determination which confers singularity upon it” (Gilson 464). The co-presence of Hackett and Watt reminds us of a shadow theater. Thus, Nixon is not really able to describe Watt in spite of the fact that he lent the latter money. “But,” says Mr. Hackett, “you must know something. One does not part with five shillings to a shadow. Nationality, family, birthplace, confession, occupation, means of existence, distinctive signs, you cannot be ignorant of all this” (20). In other words, Watt, in his specificity, does not exist. He is quite obliged, as far as the plot is concerned, to pay a visit to Knott sooner or later, but once he is there his “What?” can only elicit a “Not” (Nichts) as an answer from the master. Finally, if Watt refers to Hackett, Nixon seems to foretell Knott. Composed of Nix, or Nichts in German, and Nox (“night”), Nixon, whose initial name was Goff (“fog” spelled backwards), probably has affinities with a “Knott” formed by “Not” and Nott (“night” in Italian). As for Watt, after a long series of failures, he is obliged to note the validity of Nixon’s remark: “I tell you nothing is known” (21).
The approach to substance (Mr. Knott) includes for Watt an attempt to define the relations between species and individual. He willingly devotes himself to it although he can no longer say of himself with conviction, “Watt is a man, all the same, Watt is a man” (82). On the contrary, he becomes more and more convinced of what he calls “his loss of species” (85). From which he concludes that “as for himself, though he could no longer call it a man, . . . he could not imagine what else to call it, if not a man” (83).
In spite of his slight success, Watt continues to pursue his inquiry with diligence. The post hoc, propter hoc argument appears to him devoid of sense; so he rejects it, using seven times in a row on the same page the expression “because,” all this in order to better understand the succession of Knott’s servants and the essence of their individuality. “But why Tom? Because Harry and Tom? Because Tom and Dick?” (135). No, “[f]or it was not the Tomness of Tom, the Dickness of Dick, the Harryness of Harry . . . but their then-Tomness, then-Dickness, then-Harryness” (136).
Parallel to the elaboration of a philosophy inspired by Scholastic sources and in which chronology and ontology are on a par, Beckett deals with Aristotelian categories in the biological context of evolution. The description of the two kinds of servants at Knott’s disposition, for example, leads us directly from a consideration of genera and species to the related topic of types. There are “two types of men, and two only, on the one hand, the big bony shabby seedy haggard knockkneed type, with the decayed teeth and a big red nose, and, on the other the short fat shabby and seedy oily bandylegged type, with the fat little bottom and protruding little belly sticking out in opposite directions” who watch over Mr. Knott (61). Here, the categories, or rather the types, concern the transformations of substance considered as the stuff of humanity – biological material to be fashioned and suggesting a kind of comic anthropogenesis prepared on the basis of Mendelian laws of heredity. But at the same time, this parody of the regime of dominant and recessive traits (another well-known expression of the laws of probability) works as a variant of Oedipus’s story and the question of hemophilia transmission in the Lynch family. This also indicates the reappearance of determinism and chance, those twin factors whose mysterious operations hide the real face of matter from Watt.
For want of substance, only forms and words are left to man, and as soon as Watt empties his concepts of their meaning, as soon as he notes the incommensurability between “naming” and “being,” the narrator, in turn, is inclined to ridicule the categories themselves. So, in the episode with the fishwife who attends the frogs’ concert, the narrator tells us that Watt was not a “woman’s man” nor the fishwife “a man’s woman” (138), and that he did not know, on the other hand, whether she was “a woman’s woman” or whether Watt was “a man’s man.” In the same way, the narrator wonders if “a dog is the same thing as the dog?” (96), and, similarly, considers the possibility of “some other Erskine” or “some other Watt” (98). Nevertheless, we also have to emphasize that the parody of categories is accompanied from the beginning by the ridicule of substance. For example, the classical theme of the universal flow of beings and divine knowledge (de fluxu entis) provides the occasion for an ironic series with four terms: ordure, excrement, turd, and cat’s flux (46-47), dysenterical evacuation of substance which, in the theophanical context, follows hard on A Spiritual Syringe for the Costive in Devotion, proposed by the neo-Thomist, Mr. Spiro (Durn spiro, spero [As I breathe, I hope]) when he talks about the Host and problems of post-transubstantiation (27-28).
Transubstantiation fits into this substance-form dialectic for various reasons. It immediately poses the question of the “Real Presence” which is equally pertinent to Watt the man, and to Jesus Christ in the Host. On the other hand, many philosophical and theological disputes of the seventeenth century only take on their full meaning in relation to an old debate concerning individuation by form (Duns Scotus) or by substance. For some neo-Thomists (and perhaps Mr. Spiro may be included in their number) Descartes had tried, through his writings on the Eucharist, to sabotage the Thomist doctrine of personality and individuation. The results of this debate matter here only to the extent that they connect with the logic of Port Royal and with a theory of representation, even as they serve to illustrate Watt’s ontological disarray. “The same thing,” write the authors of The Port-Royal Logic [Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole], “susceptible of being at once thing and sign, may hide, as thing what it uncovers as sign” (IV, 1st part). This is the entire drama of Watt, who “found himself in the midst of things which, if they consented to be named, did so . . . only with reluctance” (81). In this way, one can say that the “Host” of Port Royal (“hiding Jesus Christ’s body as a thing and discovering it as a symbol” [Louis Marin]) has become in Beckett’s novel Mr. Knott’s pot (which is not exactly a pot even if it looks like one).
To seem does not mean to appear: what is true for the pot holds also for Watt. But, in spite of his experience, negative with respect to matter, the related questions of substantial individuation and of representation, not posed in terms of “Watteity,” but generically, in terms of prehistory and the transubstantiation of the race, are discussed again during the meeting of a committee of professors just before the end of the novel. The key passages feature a satirical exploitation of Ernest Haeckel’s formula “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” which will also be used in How It Is. Concerning this universal principle, Haeckel noted, “[t]his is Ariadne’s thread; it is only by its means that we will be able to clear a path through the complicated Labyrinth of forms” (9). Author of Weltratsel (“The Riddle of the Universe”), Haeckel is closely connected to Watt by his imperative need to understand and to explain everything. Even if his ideas are more and more contested now (Gould), we find his name at the center of all the controversies that took place at the beginning of the century concerning the alleged links between the genius characteristic of the emergent race and the innate gifts of adult “savages.” In order to justify at the same time his use of university funds and his doctoral thesis about the “mathematical intuitions of the Visicelts,” Mr. Ernest Louit, whose name suggests “Low wit,”(3) drags in front of the members of the collegial committee Watt a 64-year-old peasant named Thomas Nackyball (“cannibal”), who knows neither how to read nor write but who, in spite of his backward and repulsive aspect, can elicit the cube root of a six-digit number (188). As soon as the committee gets lost in digressions, and as soon as the narrator permutates the glances of its members, the hereditary mathematical and even racial aptitudes of Nackyball become secondary. But the theme itself reemerges towards the end of the meeting in a recapitulation of the theory of evolution: “Go on from where you left off . . . not from where you began,” requests Mr. Magershon, “or are you like Darwin’s caterpillar?” (194).
DARWIN’S CATERPILLAR: METAMORPHOSIS IN REVERSE
Darwin’s caterpillar is found in chapter 8 of The Origin of Species. To be more precise; it is not Darwin’s caterpillar so much as that of a certain P. Huber, cited by Darwin. Huber had observed that a caterpillar, which has built its cocoon up to the sixth layer, and which is then placed in a cocoon built up to the third layer, will redo the last three stages in the new cocoon. If, on the other hand, it is placed in a cocoon built to the sixth layer, it appears to feel embarrassed, and far from taking advantage of the work done, it shows itself anxious to start again at the third stage, that is, where it had left off in its initial work. It gives the impression of wanting to complete, at any cost, a task already accomplished.
If O’Meldon, the professor addressed by Mr. Magershon in Watt, repeats himself, this is even truer of Watt himself: Huber’s caterpillar is only that natural complement of self-reference in logic, or of circular reasoning. However we talk about a phenomenon and regardless of the method used, we tend to come back to the starting point. According to Douglas Hofstadter, each time that a proposition refers to itself within a system, we find ourselves faced with a dialectical knot: the circle completes itself, the system closes itself again (Hofstadter; and see Brown).
This experience, which proves rather positive in the domain of arts and mathematics (one thinks of the formal beauty of Godel’s theorems, Escher’s painting, and Bach’s music, where recurrence, circularity and closed system are the rule), turns out to be, however, catastrophic for Watt, who singlehandedly demonstrates the extent to which Western thinkers become prisoners of their own logical constructions. The recapitulation motif almost always functions in Beckett as an expression that disguises tautology. Thus, we are tempted to suppose the existence of a very close connection between Huber’s caterpillar, reverse metamorphosis, and narcissistic or autoparodic construction in the novel. Figuratively, we can represent this relationship by an analogy between the amphisbaena, the two-headed reptile which eats its own tail, and the chiral repetition of the mirror: through those two examples, one dynamic, the other static, Beckett achieves one and the same effect, that of a dead end. This reverse metamorphosis, from which we have the right to expect at least the pleasure of change, does not bring us any such thing. It only helps to reinforce Proust’s lesson: we either rely on habit or fall back into a universe of deja vu. That is what Arsene sums up for Watt: “This I am happy to inform you is reversed [sic] metamorphosis. The Laurel into Daphne. The old thing where it always was, back again” (44). Watt contains a number of examples of the same kind. The astonishing Mr. Ash who, after having knotted his scarf and flung aside his clothing, announces that it is seventeen minutes past five at the moment when Big Ben starts striking six o’clock, “recovered in a series of converse operations his original form” (45-46).(4) Later in the novel, all of existence is rethought musically to allow this idea to figure in a more rational and metaphysical frame: “Not the ordaining of a being to come by a being past, of a being past by a being to come . . . as in a musical composition bar a hundred say by say bar ten and bar say ten by bar a hundred say” (136).
The principle of reverse metamorphosis gives rise to an equality between before and after, so that genetic priority loses all validity. Henceforth, where can Oedipus go to seek his origins? Where to begin? Perhaps this is why the Addenda section evokes the condition of “never being properly born” (248) and it is why the voice in The Unnamable, an unthinkable ancestor, can state, “I alone am immortal, what can you expect, I can’t get born” (383). Generally speaking, the paradox is that the Beckettian metamorphosis is a metamorphosis in appearance only; in practice, it is nothing more nor less than a flashback.(5) The result is that we wonder whether everyday life is not, like Watt’s logic, an auto-referential system ruled by repetition.
Beckett does not hide his game. From the beginning, he informs us that Watt talks about nothing but that he has to talk about it and that “the only way one can speak of nothing is to speak of it as though it were something, just as the only way one can speak of God is to speak of him as though he were a man” (77). This metamorphosis of nothings into things is logically followed in Watt by that other reverse metamorphosis of things into nothing. Everything runs its course to be consigned sooner or later to nothingness.
This process of constant reversal is balanced by the effects of nullification accomplished within the framework of the one and the many. In the end, everything comes down to the same thing: “one is sometimes tempted to wonder, with reference to two or three incidents related by Watt . . ., if they are not in reality one and the same incident, variously interpreted” (78). Two examples come to mind. When Watt comes on stage, “Tetty was not sure whether it was a man or a woman,” and Mr. Hackett “was not sure that it was not a parcel” (16). By the end of the fourth part of the book, the same kind of incident occurs again when Watt distinguishes a figure “human apparently, advancing along the crown” of the highway. Like Tetty, Watt “was unable to say whether this figure was that of a man, or that of a woman or that of a priest, or that of a nun” (225). Now, let us go back to consider more closely the Oedipal motif of the feet and the gait. Many commentators have remarked on the extraordinary mode of walking that characterizes Watt: “Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible toward the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible toward the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg towards the north and so on” (30). He progresses, like a “headlong tardigrade,” in a straight line. But there are at least two other characters who match him in this respect. Just after Watt is scolded by the porter, “[c]an’t you look where you’re going” (24), a news agent is described in such a way as to anticipate the grotesque gait of Watt himself: “He was short and limped dreadfully. When he got started, he moved rapidly, in a burst of aborted genuflexions” (26). All of Beckett’s comic wit is visible in this sentence which is worth a bit of commenting. Etymologically, moving the genou [knee] leads back to geniculum (the body articulations), to genitalis to gens and to generatio and constitutes the basis of an entire program of action: to wag and “to unleash” (instead of connecting) generation by means of abortion. In short, what a “passage”! We are also told that Watt’s “knees, on these occasions, did not bend” (30). Lest the protagonist be accused, however, of male insufficiencies, the narrator glosses the sentence as follows: “No knees could better bend than Watt’s, when they chose, there was nothing the matter with Watt’s knees, as will perhaps become clear. But when out walking they did not bend, for some obscure reason” (30). The apparition that approaches Watt at the end of the novel also recalls Watt’s “funambulistic stagger” (31): “The feet, following each other in rapid and impetuous succession, were flung, the right foot to the right, the left foot to the left. . . . This gave to the gait a kind of shackled smartness, most painful to witness” (226). Self-parody at the linguistic level and the effects of doubling (especially during the mirror meeting between Watt and Sam) can hardly go further.
Just as he uses musical bars to confuse the question of origins by proclaiming the simultaneity of the past and future, Beckett turns to the color spectrum in order to postulate a unity of the undifferentiated. By hiding distinctions and destinations, he achieves the same end as within reverse metamorphosis and the “tie game” of the mirror.
To begin with, this is a small essay on the comparative: “As the comparative is something. Whether more than its positive or less. Whether less than its superlative or more. Red, bluer, yellowest, that old dream was ended, half ended. Again” (148). Then, an abridged vestimentary description of Watt: “Watt wore a greatcoat, still green here and there” (217). “Watt wore, on his head, a block hat, of a pepper colour. . . . Then mustard, now it was pepper in colour,” and, “It was to be observed that the colours, on the one hand of this coat, and on the other of this hat, drew closer and closer the one to the other” and, “once met, they would . . . continue to age, until the hat was green and the coat yellow” (218). Finally, the deserted sky of Watt in the Addenda represents the ideal melting pot toward which this work of color exchange and indifferentiation tends, and which only postulates the comparative in order to make it disappear in the joy of a chromatic tabula rasa:
the sky and the waste were of the same dark colour. . . . Watt also was very naturally of the same dark colour. This dark colour was so dark that the colour could not be identified with certainty. Sometimes it seemed a dark absence of colour, a dark mixture of all colours, a dark white. Watt did not like the words dark white, so he continued to call his darkness a dark colour plain and simple, which strictly speaking it was not, seeing that the colour was so dark as to defy identification as such. (249)
REPRESENTATION: FROM SUBSTANCE TO TRANSPARENCY
Stressing ambivalence and ambiguity by the use of musical and chromatic analogies brings a richness of tonality and of notation to the psychological confusion of Watt, more and more perturbed by the uncertainties that await him at Mr. Knott’s. It expresses at the same time an anguish typical of Western thought vis-a-vis substance and efforts to escape from tautology and self-referential systems. In other words, Watt’s uncertainties, lived out in the form of “psychological confusion” and “metaphysical obsession,” indicate a crisis of representation, already noted above, that culminates in a transparent image of the dead end, that is, the mirror encounter.
From the standpoint of philosophy, Watt has, by the end of the novel, exchanged rationality for folly, and the logic of substances and forms for a phenomenology of surfaces (“For Watt’s concern, deep as it appeared, was not after all with what the figure was, in reality, but with what the figure appeared to be, in reality. For since when were Watt’s concerns with what things were, in reality? But he was forever falling into this old error, this error of the old days when, lacerated with curiosity, in the midst of substance shadowy he stumbled” ).
Yet the mirror meeting of Sam and Watt could also conceivably resolve the problem of representation, especially if we were to adopt the logic of Port Royal, in which “the strength of the sign in the mirror is the immediate presence of the represented” (Marin, Etudes 162). But, who then is really present? Does Watt see Sam or himself?. The pathological context of representation is never put aside and we cannot say if it is a real meeting or a heautoscopical hallucination (Hecaen and Ajuriaguerra 310). As Nicole puts it, “[w]hat would you say of a man who, seeing his reflection in a mirror every day, and looking at himself unceasingly, would never recognize himself and would never say: here I am? Would he not be accused of stupidity not unlike insanity?” (qtd. in Marin, Critique 228). Be that as it may, the mirror episode, which invites comparison with the “butterfly kiss” of Murphy, seems closely linked to Watt’s linguistic deviations and to a certain pathology of representation. In practice, every theory of representation finds a raison d’etre in a system of connections that controls the subjective perception of reality. Yet, we know that narcissistic patients deny vehemently the attraction of the object, and that narcissistic troubles result in what P. C. R. camier calls “a singular struggle with the real” (54).
Mirror symmetry constitutes an aspect of this struggle insofar as Watt’s being there no longer depends on anything more than a surface. At the same time, his language, on its way to losing its referential validity, is imprisoned in a closed order where permutations and combinations of words and sentences strive in vain to become systems of adequate communication. We are reminded, in this respect, of the notion of aphasia, developed by Jean Charcot, for whom the term includes all those varied and subtle modifications that can be presented by man’s faculty to express his thought by signs operating pathologically (Hecaen and Angelerguee 6).
The different styles of Watt produce a mirror effect, another kind of idem et alter, associated with pleasure. Moreover, Sam, the narrator of the last section of the book, even has the impression of finding himself “in front of a great mirror” at the moment Watt says: “Not it is, yes. . . . Wonder I. . . . panky-hanky me lend you could, blood away wipe” (159-60). All the different ways of enunciating the changes used by Watt are, in this way, marked by such inversion and correspond thus to variants on the central idea of a mirror language. At the same time, they formally refer to reverse metamorphosis and to the technique of a textual narcissism which ensures that, in the guise of self-parody, many, if not all, the characters, incidents, and descriptions at the beginning of the novel reappear slightly changed just before the end. In the eight exercises de style, the inversion affects, through permutations and combinations, word order, the order of letters in words, of sentences in the periodic development, and of words in sentences. But the only constant in the eight cases remains, as we just said, inversion. And as if to reinforce this impression and to accentuate the affinities between linguistic inversion and reverse metamorphosis, the narrator acknowledges that Watt “talked back to front” (164).
The “language mirror,” if we may use the expression, leaves traces at even the level of letters, because to speak about “the dislike for battology” as one of Watt’s traits seems excessive to us (165). He stutters constantly (“P-pppardon”) and his repetitions correspond to a series of mirror images extending to infinity. The automatic repetition (echolalia) of the words (“beg pardon”) pronounced by the interlocutor (cf. “psittacism” in The Unnamable) and the paraphonias (confusion of words phonetically close) underscore the properly pathological side of this game of resemblances insofar as it reveals Watt’s incapacity to master representation and communication.
WATT, GALL, AND THE REGISTER OF APHASIA
An exercise in desertion and renunciation, Watt’s logical path ends in pure loss. Instead of a totality of knowledge, he reaches total non-knowledge. And how better to summarize the sense of this path than by resorting to the word aphasia? It is not a question of reducing Watt’s itinerary to the inventory of his symptoms, nor of confusing arbitrarily the language of schizophrenia with the language of aphasia (even though such comparisons exist in scientific literature), but one of putting forth the idea that, for Beckett, to evoke aphasia (philosophically and psychologically) constitutes the best way to assume silence, the universal state towards which every kind of writing tends.
Furthermore, in this context of aphasia, the co-presence of two characters called Watt and Gall is enough to make us suspicious. Franz Joseph Gall, father of phrenology, was the first (in approximately 1813) to insist on the localization of the higher mental functions. In particular, he observed the linguistic behavior of patients whose speech deteriorated greatly, as a result of traumatic lesions of the anterior lobes of the brain. Therefore, we can consider that Gall’s entry at Knott’s place announces Watt’s subsequent logical and stylistic difficulties. Even Watt himself may be intended to remind us of that other Watt, the famous psychologist who with Marbe, Ach, Messer, Buhler, and Selz, formed the Wurzburg school. The latter Watt specialized in experimental research on aphasiacs and was particularly interested in the localization (Einstellung) of patients in order to obtain a differentiated reaction in the area of a general orientation of attention. While we are on the subject, a quite striking analogy exists between the phenomenon of the flashback illustrated by Darwin’s caterpillar and the psychologist’s conclusions:
An important fact brought to light by Watt is that the localization requires a certain delay and if the subject has not completed preparations at that particular moment, for example at the beginning of a series, or if he is surprised in the middle of the series, by the inductor, the test ordinarily suffers. In particular, the insufficiency of the process will be revealed by perseverance in the preceding focusing, from which inadequate reactions to fresh directions will appear, though answering to previous instruction.
It is also possible that the game of colors in Watt was inspired by Goldstein’s experiments with aphasiac/amnesiac patients who had difficulties distinguishing colors, except when they had the possibility to compare them in relation to combinations of clothing. If this is true, the influence would demonstrate a certain continuity between Murphy and Watt, because Goldstein was working on the gestaltist conception of aphasias, and Murphy develops the theme of figure and ground dear to Koffka and Kohler. To this, we can add that the gestaltist updating, as an isomorphism, of the old notion of “parallelism” (Descartes, Leibniz, and Malebranche) could have interested Beckett, as well as the attempts to bring together psychology and physiology, language and evolution. Be that as it may, it is the relationship between aphasia and that other mode of loss, amnesia, that concerns us here. In fact, every effort at categorization or classification accomplished by Watt is misleading because it is a nonfunctional taxonomic operation. Figure and ground do not clearly stand out from each other (see the hallucination of form which surprises Watt [226-27]), and as for evolution, it occurs in reverse, as a general rule. In other words, the quest motif, which suggests mediocre progress, dissimulates a deconstruction visible in inversion and reversal, in fragmentation of language and aphasia, and demonstrates the affinity between Watt and the novels of the Molloy trilogy, where the process of loss and abandonment seems even more pronounced.
From beginning to end, Watt forges on with a limp. As an Oedipus of language and style, he corresponds perfectly to the description of Hughlings Jackson, who says of patients deprived of language that they “limp in their thinking.”(6) This limitation influences communication and exacerbates the problems set for Watt by Erskine’s bell, a bell which recalls Charcot’s famous bell, a scheme depicting links between the different centers for object images and the use of words. The overall effect is crisis, nervous breakdown, psychological and intellectual collapse, and total alienation: Watt ends by becoming the perfect incarnation of aphasia, in the sense that Paul Broca understood it, the “state of a man with no arguments left and who has nothing to say in reply” (272).
By virtue of the propositional dysfunction involved, psychological aphasia brings to light a disintegration of logic in the patient. And even if aphasia is not in itself insanity, the asylum context in which Watt finds himself confirms the impression of a man affected in his reasoning who is nothing more than the shadow of the rational man that he thought he was at the moment of his arrival at Knott’s. Clearly, Watt is living the end of a dream. In the beginning, the Nihil est sine rationis [nothing is without reason] and the Omne ens habet rationem [every thing has a cause] of Leibniz; at the end, incoherence and stuttering, an ironic inversion of the German philosopher’s Figura veritatis triumphantis, Pyrrhonismo sublato [the figure of Truth is triumphant, Pyrrhonism lies crushed below].
Watt’s aphasia, which can be linked to the “divine aphasia” of Lucky in Waiting for Godot, puts him among the skeptics, especially the Pyrrhonists, those enemies of rational truth in the name of which Leibniz thought he had won a dazzling victory. Watt feels uncomfortable with truth and its avatars: “Erskine might have answered, Yes! when the true answer was, No!” (123). Or again: “It is so easy to accept, so easy to refuse . . . a call so faint as to mock acceptance, mock refusal?” (152). Even this quest for a meaning in an indifference towards meaning is useful only as an indication of Watt’s approach to the state of felicity characterized by the narrator in Molloy: “For to know nothing, is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, to know you are beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters in, to the soul of the incurious seeker. It is then the true division begins, of twenty-two by seven for example, and the pages fill with true ciphers at last” (64). The “incurious seeker” of Molloy and the “indifferent seeker” of Watt come from the same family – that of Pyrrho, whose disciples were the zetetics (because they kept looking for the truth), the skeptics (because they kept looking without finding it), the ephetics (because they kept suspending judgment), and the aporetics (because they perpetually remained in uncertainty) (Brochard 56).
This search goes on in Watt especially and in The Unnamable, but it is at the beginning of the second section of Molloy that Beckett mocks most ferociously a certain naive conception of the truth; his narrator writes, “[i]t is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows” (92), only to conclude further on: “It was not midnight. It was not raining” (176). By rejecting the law of the excluded third according to which a proposition is either true or false, Molloy underscores the ambivalence that is associated with “the paradox of the liar” and that, in a psychoanalytic context, describes “that disposition of the mind of the schizophrenic to realize simultaneously opposed psychic states” (Favez-Boutonier 12). But, Leibniz asked himself, if “things have to exist, . . . why do they have to exist this way and not another?” – a proposition in which determinism and causality mutually support each other. For Pyrrho, on the other hand, “a thing is not this rather than that, and each thing is no more than it is not” (Couche 54).
Furthermore, Pyrrho claimed that “reasons of equal strength can be invoked for and against every opinion and so that it is best not to stand for anything, and to confess that we don’t know . . . neither yes nor no” (Couche 55). Or what amounts to the same thing, to do as the narrator of the second section of Molloy, that is, to assert and deny at the same time, and with the miracle of an angulation of two possibilities, to realize the injunction of Pyrrho, according to which “we must not assert any more than we deny.” In this way, we accede by an epoche and common sense to aphasia and ataraxy. These two moods color the preparatory work of closure in Watt where the protagonist “suffered neither from the presence of Mr. Knott, nor from his absence. When he was with him, he was content to be with him, and when he was away from him, he was content to be away from him” (207). “This ataraxy,” the narrator continues, “covers the entire house” (208).
Clearly Watt is not as sui generis as we might have thought. It lies halfway between the exacerbated narcissism of Murphy and the ontologically dispossessive strategy of the trilogy where everything is composed and decomposed in line with the reverberations of words issuing from the depths of nonbeing. Where Murphy explores the outer limits where narcissism rubs shoulders with schizophrenia and destructive mysticism, Watt introduces pure madness, making of logic a springboard for a comedy of tautology and repetition in which the protagonist, exasperated, becomes the victim of his own analytical excesses. The Unnamable avoids more or less successfully the trap of categories, but imposes on us, on the other hand, a succession of voices that speak from now. here about nonbeing. Nevertheless, all Beckett’s novels reflect, through their diverse techniques and the diverse knowledge to which they appeal, the aesthetic and philosophical theory Beckett elaborated in his conversations with Georges Duthuit. It is the devaluation of the world, allied to the feeling of ontological and artistic impotence. All this puts us back in the universe of Gorgias of Leontini, where the reduction of everything to speech validates the latter, but on condition that man accepts the possibility of transcending it by choosing silence.
What can we talk about in fact? In the final analysis, it is Joyce, and not Beckett, who is Leibnizian and who, willing to say everything (“Tell me all”), authoritatively carries on with the Nihil est sine ratione of Leibniz. What can we say? The problem, for Beckett, is that of talking about something where there is nothing, and nothing to say about it. The solution he introduces in Watt is to sabotage the Leibnizian plenum by means of a methodology, that of logic which, in fact, allows only an overview of the void. The old conception of a sacred link between logic and ontology is thus destroyed, and words themselves do not stick; they break away from the real so that aphasia settles in among the ruins of language. This aphasia is nothing other than “nondiscourse, the fact of not speaking being, or, of saying what is, and of saying the nothingness of what we say” (Couche 62). By remaining mute, man disputes through irony and absence; and perhaps does so too in order to summon life – in reverse.
1 Bruce Morrissette in this connection notes that “[o]nly Samuel Beckett, according to Robbe-Grillet, noticed that Les Gommes was based on the Oedipus theme” (311).
2 Note in passing the similarity with Berkeley’s ironic observation to Newton about the latter’s fluxions theory: “by virtue of a double mistake, you do not attain to science, even though you reach the truth” (The Analyst).
3 The name Ernest itself suggests both Ernst Haeckel and Oscar Wilde. Louit’s homosexuality, as well as the loss of a manuscript at a station, recall the author and plot of The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde, like Beckett, attended Portora and Trinity College.
4 We note that by the end of the novel, Mr. Gorman informs us that the 5:55 is going to arrive in 37 minutes (239). So, it must be 5:18 a.m. But can we still trust him after having heard Mr. Ash?
5 The principle of reverse metamorphosis could certainly explain the order in which Watt tells his story: “two, one, four, three” (224). Dissimulation, or negation of an origin or inconceivability of an end.
6 We note that according to Jackson, “diseases of the nervous system have to be considered as reverse mutations in evolution, that is, as dissolutions” (Ombredane 177).
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