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

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

Merleau-Ponty’s views on language can be best summed up in a short phrase from The Phenomenology of Perception: “…we refute both intellectualism and empiricism by simply saying that the word has a meaning.”42This meaning emerges as a function of the body – through speech. Privileging utterance and the speech act, Merleau-Ponty argues that it is through la parole (roughly translated as the faculty of speech) that meanings, and thought itself, becomes manifest. For Merleau-Ponty, thought does not precede the formulation of an idea and without la parole, thought would be “fragmentary and fleeting.”43 And if, for Merleau-Ponty, la parole provides a continuity for thoughts for a habitual body, then it is through gesture (a “turning toward the word”) that a conceptual meaning that is immanent in speech is formed.44 Thus, we can conclude that for Merleau-Ponty, it is the speech-act – emanating from a body which perceives and interprets, that renders subjectivity possible, and it is the power of words as contained within themselves that is significant to understanding how the body can transcend the subject-object relationship, while still remaining the primary source of being-in-itself. To speak, for Merleau-Ponty, is not to confer meaning to the word, but is the act of meaning itself – “to speak is to signify.”45

The Beckett-Coetzee connection remains fastidiously opposed to such a theory. Although for Coetzee’s magistrate, words may possess a certain power – by testifying it is possible that he could halt the progress of torture within the empire – but they ultimately fail him when he needs them most. The relationship, therefore, between the power of words as self-contained, and the capacity to tell the truth is therefore unclear. Beckett’s prose, however offers a counter to Merleau-Ponty’s commitment to meaning. Through a steady deconstruction of language, both formally and as a constant source of failure, Beckett questions many of Merleau-Ponty’s implicit assumptions regarding language. For one thing, Beckett’s prose shakes the foundations of the grounds that there first exists a meaning to be found; secondly, that meaning is accessible to us; and lastly, that meaning is desirable. If meaning for Merleau-Ponty arises through speech, Beckett’s ultimate desire is an end to speech. This is evident in the Unnamable, who is obligated to utter words that are not his own, that constitute his Being, searching in vain for the word that will end him. The story of the Unnamable will be discussed in the last section because it is an occasion in which subjectivity is emptied out but leaves a residual through the speech-act. This last novel of the trilogy is before the development of the closed space texts and therefore precedes the complete emptying out of even the semblance of subjectivity. However, Beckett’s resistance to finding meaning is clear in his Texts for Nothing, the fourth of which addresses the theme of subjectivity as constituted by stories. Stories, intended to offer solace and diversion in Malone Dies and The Unnamable, are rejected in the fourth Text for Nothing even as they are noted as the logical procession of speech, because their ability to provide meaning is simply too much, and yet, not enough. The unknown narrator of this text states that

There has to be one, it seems, once there is speech, no need of a story, a story is not
compulsory, just a life, that’s the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted
a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough.46

If a life, emptied of bodily form and subjectivity, can exist without a story, it is perhaps because it follows that if subjectivity is not necessary to sustain a life – even if it is tenuous and quivering – then meaning too, is not necessary. Language, then, can exist without these same requirements, but Beckett is not satisfied until he can come as close as possible to a language that undoes itself.

This leads us to What is the Word, an exercise in conscious erasure, an example of what the Unnamable terms “affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered.” 47 In this exploratory work, a prose poem of sorts that undoes its own construction, Beckett comes closest to an evacuation of language. Merleau-Ponty agrees that language is the only form that can refer back to itself, but it is Beckett who truly comes close to erasure. The search, in this poem, is the unfinished task of the Unnamable – to find the words that will end oneself, but all words, all language in its entirety. It’s structure, littered with dashes, suggests a voice that is struggling, or more precisely stammering, in its quest to find the word in question.48

Much like Worstward Ho, with its repetition of the preposition ‘on’, the text of “What is the Word” propels the reader forward. The punctuation of the body seems inconclusive because of the dashes, but the text ends without a period: “what is the word” without any indication that the word has been found.49 Might this indicate that the injunction ‘what is the word’ is connotative of the word itself? The text, Beckett’s final work, comes the closest to his end goal and yet, only moves asymptotically toward the complete eradication of language. The word in question is elusive, characterized by its relative position “afaint afar away over there what –“50 Although it is ultimately obscure and unrevealed, Beckett’s use of prepositional phrases demonstrates a remarkable understanding of how language is reflexive. By using prepositions, which refer to objects (“folly from this –“; “this this here-“), Beckett suggests that there is in fact, a locus for this word, and as readers, we proceed vectorally toward it.51 In the context of the Beckettian oeuvre, however, “What is the Word” is the ultimate reduction. However, there is and never can be a word that truly expresses Nothingness, nor a word uttered that can mean silence, and this is an ultimate failure for Beckett, for whom – unlike Merleau-Ponty- meaning offered no substantive solace to the crisis of being.

Remnants and Residua

After language and subjectivity have been emptied out in Beckett, what persists and why does it persist? In his 1937 letter to Axel Kaun, Beckett wrote that writers ought to aspire to “bore one hole after another in it [language], until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through.”52 Similar to the process of eidetic reduction championed by Husserl to describe phenomena, Beckett’s reductionist process raises the question of whether there is a something or nothing, and whether this extant substance possesses any importance.

To examine this question, it is necessary to look backward to Beckett’s shorter prose, and in particular Ping. Beckett once again returns to the theme of the body in its most reduced and radical state: “a bare white body fixed white on white invisible.”53 It is not insignificant that even in its highly reduced formal elements – a long paragraph without commas, only fixed sentences with periods – Beckett returns to a body as the primary focus. However, it is not a regression into a body capable of lived subjective experiences, but a body inscrutable from its surroundings. Though in possession of hands and feet and toes, the body of “ping fixed elsewhere” is immobile and bereft all but a flickering sign of life, the light blue eyes.

Ping focuses intensely on the visible, akin to the image- word of Merleau-Ponty, where color, surface, and the body – are one and the same. This is an instance where Beckett comes closest to addressing the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Influenced heavily by Gestalt psychology, Merleau-Ponty argues that the basis for perception rests in an experience of a figure within a background, in which everything that is subject to the senses is perceived “against a differentiating feel and in virtue of that field.”54 In the context of Ping, “all white all known white planes white only color” dominates the entire space, with the only contrast being the “eyes hole light blue”; references to rose and grey colors are also made, though they are all “almost white only colour alone unover,”55 The perceived experience is contingent on a background (for Merleau-Ponty, this parallels the body as the source of experience in-the-world), but in the context of Ping, this background nearly assimilates the body of Ping in itself, eradicating the subject-object relationship in its spatiality. Within the confines of a blinding white box that houses it, the self has “collapsed in on itself like the white dwarf star” but what remains are the perceived sounds that offer recourse in a vacuum of existence.56

What do the tenuous presence of these residua imply about the nature of subjectivity and the body? Though in Ping, a body exists, trapped in its immobile and austere upright position, it is subject to reduction to the point of inscrutability, to the point where “even the traces of the third person seem merged in the pervasive whiteness, so much so that it might be a mistake to speak of third person narration”57Stripped of all material that could be subject to interpretation or invoke meaning, what remains is a residuum of consciousness that cannot perceive in its own right, emptied of any ability to be-for-itself. The phenomenological grounds, on which any Beckettian figures, or even their semblances, rest, are therefore shaky at best because they are oft-without commitment to a physical, and eventually even mental, underpinnings.

Conclusion: “Dematerialize or Bust”

In tracing the myriad ways in which Beckett explores the limits of the body and the consciousness that we take for granted is housed within it, Beckett also tests the limits of prose and language itself. The body is perpetually placed under moments of immense stress and unbearable pain and is forced to confront the abject realities of its own form. It is, for Beckett, a hindrance – a shaky structure to be broken down, bit by bit, to reveal a shaky primeval interior no less exposed to, if more cognizant of, the very pain of living itself. For the moment one is born, one begins the process of degeneration and the textual evidence of the Beckettian canon suggests that to be born is to always-already suffer. The body is presented to the reader as an “inadequate machine which will ultimately break down,”58 and the arc of Beckett’s oeuvre is a concerted effort to strip the corporeal down to whatever might remain.

The emphasis on the body in this paper draws connections between the Beckettian oeuvre and the phenomenological work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and then catalogs this interaction through evidence in Beckett’s texts and comparative analysis with J.M. Coetzee, a novelist greatly influenced by Beckett. Though they together comprise a more nuanced understanding to the ontological nuances of Beckett’s text, these connections distance the men and their respective philosophies. Beckett is concerned with the emptying out of subjectivity as well as the degeneration of the form that encapsulates it and attenuates his language accordingly to strip the structure down to its bare, quivering residua. In doing so, Beckett grapples with the phenomenological assertions made by Merleau-Ponty – that of a body, which is the seat of all experiences, that of a world that this body must necessarily, occupy. Ultimately, Beckett’s degeneration of the corporeal is a prelude to his radical deconstruction of language to its forms, but even then the residua of what could constitute metaphysical presence still remains.


Ackerley, C.J. and S.E. Gontarski, The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett: A Reader’s Guide to his Works, Life, and Thought. New York: Grove Press, 2004.

Agamben, Giorgio. “The Witness,” in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen pp. 33-34. Accessed 20 May 2013. Retrieved from http://staff.akbild.ac.at/freudmann/geschichtspolitik/reading-group/Agamben-Remnants-of-Auschwitz.pdf

Beckett, Samuel. Molloy. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.

----------------------. Company/ Ill Seen, Ill Said/ Worstward Ho/ Stirrings Still. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.

----------------------. How It Is, trans. Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove Press, 1964.

----------------------. Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989. ed. S.E. Gontarski. New York: Grove Press, 1995.

----------------------. Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn. New York: Grove Press, 1983.

Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Flynn, Bernard. "Maurice Merleau-Ponty",The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta(ed.)

Hass, Lawrence. Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Kristeva, Julia. “Approaching Abjection,” from Powers of Horror (1980) in The Portable Kristeva, ed. Kelly Oliver (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Lewis, Phillip. “Merleau-Ponty and the Phenomenology of Language.” Yale French Studies No. 36/37, Structuralism (1966), pp. 19-40.

Maude, Ulrika. “The Body of Memory: Beckett and Merleau-Ponty” in Beckett and Philosophy, ed. Richard Lane. London: Palgrave Publishers, 2002.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith. New York: Humanities Press, 1962

Mood, John M. “Silence Within: A Study of the ‘Residua’ of Samuel Beckett,” Studies in Short Fiction, 7:3 (1970: Summer) 385-401.

Moran, Dermot.“Beckett and Philosophy” in Samuel Beckett: 100 Years, ed. C. Murray. (Dublin: New Island, 2006.

“Samuel Beckett’s last poem,” Extrageographic. Retrieved from http://www.extrageographic.org/samuel-becketts-last-poem. Accessed 2 June 2013.

Shields, Paul. “Beckett and Philosophy (review)” in MFS: Modern Fiction Studies. 50.3 (2004), 780-82. Accessed 28 May 2013. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mfs/summary/v050/50.3shields.html

White, Kathryn. Beckett and Decay (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

Zizek, Slavoj. Abercrombie and Fitch Back to School Catalog 2003 Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/1736589/Zizek_Ambercrombie_and_Fitch Accessed 19 May 2013.

1.) Beckett’s translation of Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera’s poem from Anthology of Mexican Poetry, which he titled, “To Be.” See Ricks, Christopher. Beckett’s Dying Words. (New York: Oxford University press, 1993) 92-3.

2.) Dermot Moran, “Beckett and Philosophy” in Samuel Beckett: 100 Years, ed. C. Murray. (Dublin: New Island, 2006) 93-110.

3.) Moran, Dermot. “Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Phenomenology of Perception,” in Introduction to Phenomenology (London: Routledge, 2000) 402.

4.) Ibid, 418.

5.) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York: Humanities Press, 1962) 70.

6.) Flynn, Bernard, "Maurice Merleau-Ponty",The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta(ed.)

7.) Shields, Paul. “Beckett and Philosophy (review)” in MFS: Modern Fiction Studies. 50.3 (2004), 780-82. Accessed 28 May 2013.

8.) Kathryn White, Beckett and Decay (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009) 15.

9.) Samuel Beckett, Molloy (London: Faber and Faber, 2009) 34.

10.) White, 16

11.) Molloy, 46

12.) Molloy, 47

13.) Molloy, 56

14.) Molloy, 56

15.) Molloy, 57

16.) Julia Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection,” from Powers of Horror (1980) in The Portable Kristeva, ed. Kelly Oliver (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003) 230.

17.) Molloy, 56

18.) C.J. Ackerley and S.E. Gontarski, The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett: A Reader’s Guide to his Works, Life, and Thought. (New York: Grove Press, 2004) 401.

19.) Ackerley and Gontarski, 260

20.) “Flat on my belly, using my crutches like grapnels, I plunged them ahead of me into the undergrowth, and when I felt they had a hold, I pulled myself forward, with an effort of the wrists. For my wrists were still quite strong, fortunately, in spite of my decrepitude…he who movesin this way, crawling on his belly, like a reptile, no sooner comes to rest than he begins to rest.” (Molloy, 91) The body and its position in Beckett is a topic of concern for Gilles Deleuze, who argues that a distinction between tiredness and exhaustion can be understood in the body’s relative position across Beckett’s works.

21.) Samuel Beckett, How It Is, trans. Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Press, 1964) 19.

22.) Ulrika Maude, “The Body of Memory: Beckett and Merleau-Ponty” in Beckett and Philosophy, ed. Richard Lane (London: Palgrave Publishers, 2002) 114.

23.) J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians. (New York: Penguin Books, 2010) 20-21.

24.) Coetzee, 23.

25.) Coetzee, 73.

26.) Coetzee, 48.

27.) Slavoj Zizek, Abercrombie and Fitch Back to School Catalog 2003

28.) “While I have not ceased to see her as a body maimed, scarred, harmed, she has perhaps by now grown into and become that new deficient body, feeling now more deformed than a cat feels deformed for having claws instead of fingers.” (Coetzee, 64)

29.) Coetzee, 68.

30.) Coetzee, 79.

31.) Coetzee, 132

32.) Coetzee, 139

33.) Coetzee, 124

34.) Agamben, Giorgio. “The Witness,” in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen pp. 33-34.

35.) Molloy, 32.

36.) Molloy, 29.

37.) White, 109

38.) Whte, 140

39.) Samuel Beckett, “Worstward Ho” in Company/Ill Seen Ill Said/ Worstward Ho/Stirrings Still. (London: Faber and Faber, 2009) 180.

40.) Merleau-Ponty, 193.

41.) Philip Lewis, “Merleau-Ponty and the Phenomenology of Language.” Yale French Studies No. 36/37, Structuralism (1966), pp. 20.

42.) Merleau-Ponty, 177.

43.) Lewis, 23.

44.) Ibid.

45.) Lewis, 26

46.) Samuel Beckett, “Text for Nothing 4” in Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989. ed. S.E. Gontarski. (New York: Grove Press, 1995) 116.

47.) Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (London: Faber and Faber, 2010) 1.

48.) The poem is dedicated to Joe Chaikin, a director who worked with Beckett on many of his plays, and this dedication bears an interesting connection to Merleau-Ponty. Chaikin suffered from partial aphasia due to a stroke and thus his ability to form words was impaired. Merleau-Ponty describes aphasia as the dissociation of the word from the ability to conceptualize – to confer meaning. For Merleau-Ponty, meaning reigned supreme and language is seen as conditioned by thought and inability to form such thoughts was a topic to which he returned time and again. See Merleau-Ponty, 176 and “Samuel Beckett’s last poem,” Extrageographic. Retrieved from http://www.extrageographic.org/samuel-becketts-last-poem. Accessed 2 June 2013.

49.) Samuel Beckett, “What is the Word,” in Company/ Ill Seen Ill Said/ Worstward Ho/ Stirrings Still (London: Faber and Faber, 2010) 135.

50.) “What is the Word,” 134.

51.) “What is the Word,” 133, italics my own

52.) Samuel Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn. (New York: Grove Press, 1983) 172.

53.) Samuel Beckett, “Ping,” in Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989. ed. S.E. Gontarski. (New York: Grove Press, 1995) 194..

54.) Lawrence Hass, “The Sensation Fallacy,” in Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008) 29.

55.) Ping, 194-5.

56.) John M. Mood, “Silence Within: A Study of the ‘Residua’ of Samuel Beckett,” Studies in Short Fiction, 7:3 (1970: Summer), 385.

57.) Mood, 385.

58.) White, 3.

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