Unclean, Unsaid, Undead: Beckett, Merleau-Ponty, and the Degradation of Body and Language

By Tausif Noor
2013, Vol. 5 No. 09 | pg. 2/3 |

The Body Tortured: Coetzee and Beckett

Comparative analysis of the tortured body in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians with Molloy allows for further insight into the relationship between subjectivity, physical pain, and the phenomenal body. The unnamed magistrate in Coetzee’s novel transitions from position of high rank in an imperial superstructure to the lowly status of the colonized subjects over which he used to exert dominion. His initial position, however, did not grant him a true sense of introspective subjectivity insofar as he lacked a sense of personal ethical responsibility. In the novel’s beginning, the magistrate is aware of his relative position to the barbarian Other, the “strange animals” whose habits are “frank and filthy” and to whom he displays traces of sympathy, but a general indifference.23When the fisherfolk are gathered around the borders of his land, he observes their habits and traces their differences, but remains in his insular world, wishing to sleep. It is not until the cries of a baby cease that he becomes aware of a sense of ethics; the knowledge of violence shames him into feeling guilty.24

Though the magistrate is aging, he is a virile figure of colonial masculinity, deeply attuned to his own body and its capacity for power. His sexual proclivities in the beginning of the novel are a source of his pride, and may constitute more of his sense of subjectivity as a colonial male figure than any other aspect of his being. It is not until his confrontation and subsequent relationship with his barbarian mistress that the reader senses a change within the magistrate, both in terms of his physical body and his subjective state. His mistress is in many ways, all body without subjectivity, and in particular, a defective one. Mutilated by her torturers, the barbarian mistress (like Molloy) suffers from broken, decrepit legs and bears the “traces of a history” that distinguishes her as inscrutably Other.25 Yet, in their sexual conducts, the magistrate always comes close to, but never executes, the act by which he can effectively claim her colonized body. He wonders whether his desire is for her, or for her Otherness, and dismissively states that he cannot remember her before he claimed ownership of her. In their initial interactions, the magistrate and his mistress are distant and else, and he imposes a desire onto her body as sign, recognizing that she is incomplete.26 Understanding that the act of sex is only an exchange of signifiers and referents that are not directly connected to the participating bodies, the bodies function as signs27, and in particular, the body of the mistress is an empty one for the magistrate to fill28. Though their relationship reinvigorates the body of the aging magistrate, it brings him no closer to understanding his ethical position; all around him atrocities are being committed and yet, he retreats to his mistress and his books (and even his old habits of bedding bar maidens).

Tracing the degradation of the magistrate’s body draws many parallels to the plight of Molloy. Like Molloy, the magistrate and his mistress, along with two men from the empire, embark on a journey to return the mistress to her people. The journey is long and arduous, and their bodies enter a state of physical decline that forces them to confront the abject in a manner similar to Molloy. Bereft of adequate food and medicine, the once powerful magisterial body succumbs to diarrhea and feels “keenly the humiliation of the frequent stops.”29The bodily functions of the mistress, the menstruation that further alienates her from the men of the empire, are not only a source of humiliation, but grounds for temporary exile, requiring a ritual of purification.30 This confrontation of the abject is different from Molloy’s; whereas Molloy literally engrosses himself to the point of self-loss, Coetzee’s characters directly reject these elements to constitute their positions as subjects.

It is not until the return of the magistrate to the empire and the adjudication and subsequent imprisonment and torture that the reader realizes the magistrate’s realization of his subjective position. In the foul, abject conditions of the prison, the magistrate’s body becomes putrid and decayed and it is then that he has time to reflect and think about the horrors of imperialism and the construction of the barbarian Other. No longer in position of a body “which can entertain notions of justice so long as it is whole and well31” the magistrate realizes that he has – much like many of the characters in Beckett – an obligation to speak of these horrors. Whereas an external force obligates Beckett’s characters to speak, the magistrate seems to be compelled by a moral obligation – one that could only be revealed once his body was subject to torture that tested the very limits of corporeality.

Torture is inflicted upon the magistrate to reduce him to an object. He is made to run around at the whim of his captors, skip rope, and in a scene of extreme climactic energy, hung from a tree and brought to the limit of pain. It is in these moments where the paradox of needing to express and yet, being unable to express manifest themselves. The magistrate unleashes a “mournful dry bellow” that is interpreted as incomprehensible barbarian language by an observer.32Earlier, before he was subjected to torture and witnessed the whippings of the barbarian captives, he is only able to utter small phrases (“No!,” “Look!,” “You!”), unable to capture the true horror to which he is witness. It is “easier to be beaten and made a martyr” than to testify using language, which fails him.33

The attenuation of body and language is evident in Coetzee’s work through the character of the magistrate because the physical torture that he undergoes instills in him a desire to bear witness. According to Agamben, witnesses are by definition survivors to instances of horror, but survivors are not the true witnesses. The true witnesses are those who cannot bear witness because they reflect the nature of testimony – the impossibility of bearing witness.34 Were the magistrate able to testify to the atrocities of imperialism, it is questionable whether he would have attained his subjectivity; it is disconnection between the tortured body and its capacity for expression that elucidate the nature of horror. The attainment of subjectivity in Coetzee’s work is contingent upon an internalization of that subjectivity that results from physical torture. While Beckett and Coetzee inflict such torture upon the bodies of their characters to get closer to dematerialization, Coetzee does so in order to reveal a subjective essence. Beckett rejects this possibility and empties subjectivity, but both authors hint at the necessary reduction of language to reveal hidden truths.

Language and Its Disintegration

This section of my paper will address the development of the minimalist aesthetic of Beckett’s later works as they relate to both Molloy and the phenomenal body that drives Merleau-Ponty’s later works. Within the text of Molloy, and more evidently across the collection of Beckett’s later, shorter prose, language becomes increasingly pared down. Molloy admits that he has a tendency to “always say either too much or too little, which is a terrible thing for a man with a passion for truth like mine.”35Knowing that “truly it matters little what I say” that by saying, “you invent nothing,” Molloy is made to “stammer out” his lesson, the “remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten.”36 Stripped to an infantile physical form in the ditch, Molloy is once again obligated to tell his story, this time in the form of writing. The transmittance of the uttered word to its written form reflects a dislocation, a différance that establishes the entirety of Molloy’s account as one to be taken with caution. The unreliability of Molloy as a narrator stems from the impossibility of distinguishing him from Moran as in the forest, their diminished bodies are removed of subjectivity and asymptotically approach – but never reach – one another.

The language of How It Is comes closer to Beckett’s desire to not only empty out the pure knowing subject, but the structure of language that has conceived it. Its form, comprised of thoughts arranged without punctuation, comes closer to expressing its content: memories imposed by external force without true connection to the body that “experiences” them. However, it is with the later prose of Worstward Ho and What is the Word that Beckett comes closest to emptying out language by using it, encountering a “language that would illustrate the reality, or Nothingness, of existence, and encapsulate the failure of both life and words simultaneously.”37

Worstward Ho is a “representation of decay in every sense, as in it we witness the degeneration of language coupled with the deterioration of man’s existence” and thus functions to comprise form and meaning (or meaninglessness) within its confines.38 If the degeneration of the body must be described rather than witnessed in Beckett’s texts –with language as its intermediary – then this text along with What is the Word is an event of undoing, a momentous and self-contained occasion where language might succeed rather than fail. The connection to the body, here is significant to this discussion’s insistence on a process of degeneration. The imperative phrases in the beginning of the text insist the reader to “Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into.”39 To say a body implies that a body must be uttered into existence by an already present language structure. Yet, the phrases negate one another – to say a body and empty it out is to create that which does not exist but must exist to contain the language structure that erases it. This negation answers the question of which comes first. The body or the space it occupies? The answer is neither, because both are determined by the always-already existing language structure. In this sense, language precedes form, but implicitly in this case, also thought.

Merleau-Ponty ruminates on the position of language relative to the body in a section of The Phenomenology of Perception. He concludes that language possesses an internal content but this is not a “self-subsistent and self conscious thought,” nor does it express thoughts. Rather, language is the instance by which the subject occupies a position in “the world of his meanings.”40For Merleau-Ponty, meaning is crucial to the structure of language and the return of this fugitive, prodigal essence is, along with the description of speech, is a way to escape the dichotomy of subject and object.41

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