john rocco Beckett and the Politics of Nothing:
I Heroticisms: The Haunting of Robert Emmet
Love me, love my umbrella.
--James Joyce, Giacomo Joyce
Following upon religion, literature is in fact religion's heir. A sacrifice is a novel, a story illustrated in a bloody fashion.
--Georges Bataille Eroticism: Death and Sensuality
In 1934 William Butler Yeats had an operation that was supposed to improve his ability to get erections. His doctor cut into Yeats's vas deferens and removed a piece of it; the theory behind the removal was that it would help produce more testosterone and keep more of it in the body. Today we would call the operation a vasectomy, and it did not help Yeats get more frequent erections (no second coming was at hand). However, the operation seems to have had another great effect upon the poet: he entered his last great period of creativity. He seemed infused with a new kind of energy and he told friends that he had entered his "second puberty" (Ellmann, Four 40). Yeats wrote Dorothy Wellesley to express what he was feeling: "If I write more poetry it will be unlike anything I have done" (Ellmann, Four 40-41). The products of this second puberty were contained within his extraordinary last volume, Last Poems and Two Plays (1939). With the operation, or the idea of the operation, Yeats freed himself to recognize that his poetry was coming to an end and that he had one great last wish: "But O that I were young again/ And held her in my arms" (348).
As Richard Ellmann has described it, Last Poems presents a spectrum of polymorphous sexual possibility (Four 41). One has only to recall the image that ends "News for the Delphi Oracle" to feel this: "Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,/ Belly, shoulder, bum,/ Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs/ Copulate in the foam" (338). But only two poems before this is "Three Marching Songs," and it begins: "Remember all those renowned generations,/ They left their bodies to fatten the wolves" (333). "Three Marching Songs" is a nationalist poem harking back to Yeats's earlier poems on the same subject, and especially to "September 1913;" but, whereas "September 1913" told us that Romantic Irelands dead and gone, "Three Marching Songs" tells us to remember, to bring to life through memory the names that should not be forgotten-- a roll call of heroes that was also used in "September 1913" and "Easter 1916":
Fail and that history turns into rubbish,
All that great past to a trouble of fools;
Those that come after shall mock O'Connell
Mock at the memory of both O'Neills,
Mock Emmet, mock Parnell,
All the renown that fell. (333)
And adding to this injunction not to forget the heroes and the blood sacrifices is that last section of the poem that gives us "Grandfather" meeting the same fate as the rebel Robert Emmet: "[T]he rope gave a jerk there,/ No more say he, for his throat was too small;/ But he kicked before he died,/ he did it out of pride" (335).
I have brought up "New from the Delphic Oracle" and "Three Marching Songs" not to point to the differences between their themes and symbols-- Yeats' poems throughout his career may be similarly divided-- but to read them in the context of Irish nationalism, its links with conceptions of male sexuality, and a side of Samuel Beckett's work that has been consistently overlooked and under appreciated: the political. What I mean here by "political" will become clearer after a discussion of the Irish conception of blood sacrifice and how this shows up in the work of representative moderns like James Joyce and Beckett. And in Beckett's case, this reading will center around that aspect of his work that he pointed to as the prime motivator behind his work, behind the "expression" he wanted to convey: "The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express" (quoted in Knowlson, 336). To express nothing using the medium of nothing is a political statement, or, as we are told in Waiting for Godot: "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, its awful" (28). This reading of the political-- of what Terry Eagleton has called "political modernism" (140)1-- necessitates seeing Beckett in the context of Irish history. Evoking Irish history always raises other ghosts, or, as Christopher Ricks describes it: "Just as Beckett was never able to shake the dust of Ireland off his feet (dust not being shakeable off feet), so he was never able to exorcise the religious convictions which had ceased to convince" (19).2 To read modern Irish writing in the context of Irish history and nationalism is always to invoke the blood sacrifice that, in the words of Malcolm Brown, "recurred in Irish nightmares for three generations" (22): the execution of Robert Emmet (1778-1803).
The description of Emmets execution could have been one of Foucault's examples in Discipline and Punish of the execution as spectacle. All Dublin was there on the day the hero was hanged. Emmet, a member of the United Irishmen who once met Napoleon to ask for help against the British, was hanged for leading a short-lived revolt aimed at seizing Dublin Castle. The executioner let the twenty-five year old rebel hang for an hour before taking his body down to cut his head off. The crowd had to be controlled by armed horsemen as the executioner held aloft the head. The British let his blood flow all over Thomas St., and the neighborhood dogs lapped it up, but as legend has it, Dublin ladies pushed the dogs aside to soak their handkerchiefs in the hero's blood.3
The full wrath of British rule was exercised upon the rebel's body: so much so that the body itself disappeared after the execution. The British did not want Emmet's grave to become a shrine of rebellion, and to this day there is no exact place claimed to hold his remains.4 The work of the state upon the body of Emmet is exactly what Foucault pointed to as the form of punishment as spectacle: "[B]y breaking the law, the offender has touched the very person of the prince; and it is the prince-- or at least those to whom he has delegated his force-- who seizes upon the body of the condemned man and displays it marked, beaten, broken" (49). It is the control displayed over the tortured body that is important here: the body is "marked" and "broken" and shown to the crowd; it is then hidden from the crowd so they cannot control it by giving it meaning (martyrdom, sacrifice, heroism, patriotism). But the obliteration of Emmet's body did not succeed in obliterating him as a figure of martyrdom, and this is because of Emmet's own wish for his grave's obliteration. In what would come under Foucault's category of the "scaffold speech," Emmet's speech in court after he was found guilty of treason is probably the most famous oration ever delivered in the face of death. It ends with directions for his grave:
Let no man write my epitaph: for as no man who knows
my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or
ignorance asperse them. Let them and me repose in
obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed,
until other times, and other men, can do justice to my
character; when my country takes her place among the
nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my
epitaph be written. I have done. (288)
In a certain sense, the British were only complying with his wishes when they did not give him a grave of his own. In an address delivered in New York on the 126th anniversary of Emmet's birth, Yeats made this point evident: "Emmet's enemies seemed to have wished that his dust might mingle with the earth obscurely; that no pilgrimages might come to his tomb and keep living the cause he served. And by so doing they have unwillingly made all Ireland his tomb" ("Emmet" 319).
Yeats's mixture of homage to the blood sacrifices of Irish history and explorations into eroticism is indicative of a larger cultural dynamic surrounding Emmet's execution. Throughout his poetry, Yeats employed the image of Ireland as mythical mother who demands the lives of her sons for the good of the nation.5 Cathleen ni Houlihan grows young and beautiful again on the blood of young men who die for her; in Yeats's poetry,this great love is culminated in the embrace of patriotic death. This aspect of his work is compounded by his erotic poems which push his vision of sacrifice into the realm of carnival. The cult of sacrifice typified by Emmet's execution can almost be described as a will to carnival; and Foucault makes the point that the carnivalesque was often an important part of public executions.6 In Joyces Ulysses, a novel that refers to Emmet no less than sixteen times,7 this will to carnival is explicitly demonstrated and used as the basis of a critique of the cult of sacrifice.
Emmet's execution is played out twice in Ulysses, and both times through the lens of carnival. The first execution appears in the "Cyclops" chapter in the form of one of the long interruptions that separate the quotidian pub world from the fantasy-filled parodies of Irish history and folklore. The focus of the parody, of the recycling of the spectacle complete with the figure of Emmet's great love, Sarah Curran,8 are the crowd and the executioner. This emphasis follows Foucault's analysis of the dynamics of the execution as spectacle: "The monster audience simply rocked with delight" (U 12.650-51); and the executioner is the "worldrenowned headsman" Rumbold (U 12.596). While there is no description of the man who is about to be executed-- and he is referred to only as "the hero martyr" (U 12.609)-- there is a great deal of space given over to a description of Rumbold's implements of torture and death:
On a handsome mahogany table near him were neatly arranged the quartering knife, the various finely tempered disembowelling appliances... a terra cotta saucepan for the reception of the duodenum, colon, blind intestine and appendix etc when successfully extracted and two commodious milkjugs destined to receive the most precious blood of the most precious victim. (U 12. 618-624)
The scene ends before the execution, but the second time the novel plays through the events-- in the phantasmagoria of Circe-- the execution is described in vivid detail:
He gives up the ghost. A violent erection of the hanged sends gouts of sperm spouting through his deathclothes on to the cobblestones. Mrs Bellingham, Mrs Yelverton Barry and the Honorable Mrs Mervyn Talboys rush forward with their handkerchiefs to sop it up. (U 15.4548-552)
The blood in the Emmet story is transformed into sperm and then, to complete the descent into what Bakhtin calls the lower bodily stratum,9 Rumbold "plunges his head into the gaping belly of the hanged and draws out his head again clotted with coiled and smoking entrails" (U 15.4555-57) After the martyr-- he is called the Croppy Boy in this incarnation-- dies he experiences the "little death" (or, in this case, a "big little death"), and then Rumbold bursts his body open. Georges Bataille, in his study of the links between eroticism and death, has defined this reaction as intrinsic to eroticism itself: "Underlying eroticism is the feeling of something bursting, of the violence accompanying an explosion" (93). Sacrifice and male sexuality are made one, linked through the death stroke.10
Joyce's invocation of monstrous ejaculation with death in his portrayal of Emmet's execution is a satirical attack upon the cult of violence that had gripped the Irish imagination since the early days of the Celtic Revival. The cult of violence-- and the equation of poetry with violence-- was cemented under the efforts of the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein during the Revival. (Joyce embodies this movement in the figure of the Citizen in the "Cyclops" chapter: --Sinn Fein! says the citizen. Sinn fein amhain! "The friends we love our by our side and the foes we hate before us" [U 12.523-24].) There was one great component to this myth, what Declan Kiberd has called the "hyper-masculinity" of the Irish hero and patriot.11 Thus the Revival dug up the most violent and masculine of the ancient heroes for canonization in the new temple of violent resistance: Cuchulian. This emphasis on an ultra-masculine hero was a response to a long tradition of denigration of Irish manhood by the British; Declan Kiberd describes Cuchulain as providing "a symbol of masculinity for the Celts, who had been written off as feminine by their masters. A surprising number of militant nationalists accepted this diagnosis and called on the youth of Ireland to purge themselves of their degrading femininity" (Inventing 25).12 This need to build a nation of "men" in response to British rule resulted in an emphasis on Celtic legend and educational reform. From the teaching of Gaelic to the emphasis on Celtic sports like hurling, Irish schools focused on forging new Irishmen to lead the nation out of colonial rule. The motto of St. Endas College-- the Gaelic school Patrick Pearse founded-- was an aphorism of Cuchulians: "I care not if I live but a day and a night, so long as my deeds live after me." (When a student of St. Endas won the annual poetry contest he was not given money or a book, he was given a new rifle.) The mighty Cuchulian embodied sacrifice for the members of the Gaelic League and they made sure every Irish student knew his legend: Cuchulian defended the Gap of the North against an overwhelming number and died when a raven landed on his shoulder and drank the blood from his many wounds. (Yeats' "Cuchulain Comforted" from Last Poems begins with the image of the wounded hero: "A man that had six mortal wounds, a man/ Violent and famous, strode among the dead;/ Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone" .) The Oliver Sheppard statue of Cuchulain in the General Post Office depicts this scene and it is one of the reasons the rebels seized the post office during the Easter Rising. It is also one of the reasons many of them died. In a poem called "Renunciation," Pearse clearly embraced the fate of one following the cult of Cuchulain: "I have turned my face/ To this road before me,/ To the deed that I see/ And the death I shall die" (296).13
Joyce's problems with the program of the Revival began when he took Gaelic lessons from none other than Pearse himself. He gave the lessons up because he did not like Pearse's denigration of English (Ellmann, Joyce 61). An exclusive emphasis on Gaelic, according to Joyce, would lead the Irish into a parochialism that would further separate them from the culture of Europe. However, an even more objectionable aspect of the Revival for Joyce was the movement's reliance on heroic sacrifice. Unlike Yeats, Joyce saw the invocation of blood and violence as a hollow myth. In a letter written to his brother eleven years before the Easter Rising, Joyce made this clear: "I am sure however that the whole structure of heroism is, and always was, a damned lie and that there cannot be any substitute for the individual passion as the motive power of everything-- art and philosophy included" (Letters 54). In an essay that appeared in a Triestine newspaper in 1907, Joyce described the growing nationalism in his homeland as a tension between two forces:
Anyone who studies the history of the Irish revolution during the nineteenth century finds himself faced with a double struggle-- the struggle of the Irish nation against the English government, and the struggle, perhaps no less bitter, between the moderate patriots and the so- called party of physical force. ("Fenianism" 188).
As a "moderate patriot," Joyce was against the violence in deed and language sponsored by those he calls the "party of physical force." And in the same essay he calls Emmet's rebellion a "foolish uprising" (189). This reaction against the cult of sacrifice focuses on Emmet and later culminates in the wild satires of his execution in Ulysses. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce coins a neologism that displays his insightful reading of the dynamics of the cult of sacrifice in relationship to male sexuality:
Our wholemole millwheeling vicociclometer... autokinatonetically preprovided with a clappercoupling smelting-works exprogressive process... receives through a portal vein the dialytically separated elements of precedent decomposition for the verypetpurpose of subsequent recombination so that the heroticisms, catastrophes and eccentricities transmitted by the ancient legacy of the past... may be there for you. (614-15)
In a wild description of the transmission of the past through Vico's cycles and the revolutions of the earth around the sun-- and the revolutions of nations-- Joyce points to one of the things handed down: heroticisms. The erotic hero "transmitted by the legacy of the past." Unwilling to be seduced by the idea of blood sacrifice, Joyce pointed to its reliance upon an exaggerated machismo in an effort to explode the myth.
Emmet's execution became the modern equivalent of the sacrifice of Cuchulain. The death of Emmet shows up throughout Irish literature of the nineteenth century in the work of popular writers like Thomas Moore and Dion Boucicault. But with the coming of the twentieth-century and full-fledged revolution in Ireland, the myth came under attack by writers such as Sean O'Casey, Frank O'Connor, and Brendan Behan. Following Joyce's deconstruction of the myth in Ulysses, Samuel Beckett is the writer who most disrupts and questions the meaning and power of the cult of sacrifice. This may come as some surprise because Beckett seems not to have written anything-- poem, short story, essay, novel, play-- about Emmet's martyrdom. But, to use a phrase Beckett wrote about Finnegans Wake: "The danger is in the neatness of identifications" ("Dante" 3).
Beckett wrote two plays I take as extensive critiques of the one-eyed nationalism, the blind violence, and the entrenched "phallogocularcentrism" inherent in the cult of violence and the martyrdom of Emmet.14 This attack-I use this aggressive verb because it accurately describes the onslaught Beckett makes upon perception in the novel and on the stage-- is signaled in Beckett's first novel when Mr. Neary comes upon the statue of Cuchulain in the General Post Office: "Neary had bared his head, as though the holy ground meant something to him. Suddenly he flung aside his hat, sprang forward, seized the dying hero by the thighs and began to dash his head against his buttocks, such as they are" (42).
II Between the Eye and the Stage:Esse est percipi
The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges.--Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
Our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance.... We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism.--Michel Foucualt, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
Oliver Sheppard's statue in the General Post Office depicts the moment of Cuchulain's death: the raven on his shoulder, his body in a swoon. It looks a great deal like a crucifixion, or a Virginless pieta, and this brings up the figure behind the legacy of martyrdom that I have been tracing. The image of Christ on the cross provided a powerful background and stimulus for the Irish conception of their heroic past. And, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick has pointed out, the image of Christ on the cross raises the question of the male body and its influence upon conceptions of religion, masculinity, and eroticism:
[T]he images of Jesus... have... a unique position in modern culture as images of the unclothed male body, often in extremis and/or ecstasy, prescriptively meant to be gazed at and adored. The scandal of such a figure within a homophobic economy of the male gaze doesn't seem to abate: efforts to disembody this body... by attenuating, Europeanizing, or feminizing it, only entangle it more compromisingly among various modern figurations of the homosexual. (140)
The fetishization and adoration of the tortured body of Christ brings up the links I have been pointing to between the cult of sacrifice the Irish nationalists worshipped and the complex interaction it has with conceptions of male sexuality.15 What is important for Beckett's role in this Irish lineage of obsession with sacrifice is the dynamic Sedgewick describes between the crucifixion and the worshipper/fetishist: "the unclothable malebody, often in extremis and/or ecstasy, prescriptively meant to be gazed at and adored." Beckett, in his attempt to undermine the equation of violent sacrifice and "masculinity," attacks this dynamism of the gaze. He does this by challenging the way we think about seeing and the way we see thinking.
Esse est percipi is from Berkeley: to be is to be perceived. Beckett uses this aphorism as the epigraph to his examination of the relationship between vision, subjectivity, and film in Film. Film was Beckett's only product for the cinema and it takes vision as its subject-- the original title was The Eye (Schneider 64)-- and throughout the film there are images of eyes and constructions of the process of seeing. This concern with vision and its impact upon consciousness and language is important throughout Beckett's oeuvre. As Donald McMillan has noted, this concern can be seen in Beckett's fascination with painting.16 But, whereas McMillan sees this fascination showing up and working itself out most in the fiction, I take Beckett's work for the stage as his strongest, most prolonged, and most successful series of critiques of Western conceptions of vision and cognition. Beckett's work for the stage is a direct challenge to the dominance of vision over thinking that has held sway over Western thought since the Greeks. Critics and philosophers concerned with this overwhelming force have called it ocularcentrism, and they trace its influence throughout the arts and sciences.17 Beckett's plays have a provocative slant on challenging ocularcentrism because they raise interesting questions on an exchange in French poststructuralist circles: the "difference" between Foucault and Debord over the dominating form of visual culture and its effect on society.
The epigraph from Foucault at the head of this section seems to be a direct reply to Debords 1967 The Society of the Spectacle: "Our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance" (217). The importance of the difference between how Foucault and Debord think about the visual implications of modern society lies not in their differing opinions, but the very foundation of their "exchange." The spectacle and the panopticon emerge as controlling metaphors because, since Henri Bergson, modern culture has been talked about as obsessed with the visual.18 Debord proposed turning the spectacle back upon itself through détournement, while Foucault attempted to describe the panoptic force behind modern discourse. This difference is important for a consideration of Beckett not because he took a side in it, but because he did not choose sides at all: he stood directly in the middle of it.
In 1953 Foucault experienced a spectacle he later called an epiphany: "I belong to that generation who, as students, had before their eyes, and were limited by, a horizon consisting of Marxism, phenomenology, and existentialism. For me the break was first Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a breathtaking performance" (quoted in Miller 65). It is important here that Foucault uses the metaphor "had before their eyes" because the "break" Beckett provides directly changes thinking about what is before our eyes. This "break" helped Foucault distance himself from older ideologies, older philosophies. Waiting for Godot brought back for him the war years, the years of occupation, isolation, and oppressive surveillance. Beckett himself experienced the searching eye of the Nazi's as an operative in the French Underground; and, as Hugh Kenner has noted, Beckett's membership in a Resistance cell is "easily connected with one of his obsessive situations, the man talking in the presence of shadowy inquisitors who will only relent when he finally says the right thing" (290). The man under investigation is the man in the panoptic machine. The man in the panoptic machine is the subject of Film: the main character flees from the eye that places him in "an agony of perceivedness" (165). But Beckett conveys this society of panopticism through the spectacle of theater. Content meets form (Beckett on Finnegans Wake: "Here form is content, content is form" ["Dante" 14]), Debord and Foucault are forced to look at each other, and Beckett devises a theater that challenges the hegemony of vision. There are obvious political implications in Debord and Foucault's challenges to ocularcentrism. Beckett's challenge to ocularcentrism-- a challenge embracing both descriptions of the power of the eye-- also has a politics, and this takes us back to that day in 1803 when the executioner cut off Emmet's head.
Before the head is again chopped from its neck, I must address the most sticky of all questions concerning Beckett: politics. My title points to the crux of the problem. Beckett's plays seem to be about nothing, so how can they have a politics? In a famous critique of Kafka, Georg Lukács linked Beckett with the ahistorical, bourgeois modernists that he felt denied literature its social purpose. But, as numerous critics have intimated and thousands of spectators have felt, there is a great deal more to Beckett's plays than simple depictions of "withdrawn consciousness" (Sontag 99), blatant attacks upon stage protocol, or what Lukács refers to as Beckett's attempt to empty "everyday life of meaning" (45). Theodor Adorno felt there was something more to the plays, and he took Beckett's work as a statement about meaning itself after Auschwitz:
Beckett's oeuvre seems to presuppose the experience of meaninglessness as if it were a completely routine phenomenon. It does more than just abstractly negate meaning, though. What it does is carry the empirical process of the disappearance of meaning into the traditional categories of art, negating them concretely and extrapolating new categories from nothingness.... Beckett's plays are absurd not for their absence of meaning-- if they had no meaning they would be irrelevant rather than absurd-- but because they put meaning on the agenda, tracing its history. His work is dominated by the obsession with positive nothingness and by an equally obsessive concern with meaninglessness in its historical genesis. (220)
Beckett pointed out this emphasis on "positive nothingness" by consistently referring to his favorite quote from Democritus: "Nothing is more real than nothing."19 This concentration on "nothing" leads to the "new categories" of meaning Adorno saw Beckett establishing, and these new forms are tied directly into his challenge to ocularcentrism. This reading of two of Beckett's late plays-- Not I and That Time-- relies upon Fredric Jameson's injunction in The Political Unconscious that "there is nothing that is not social and historical-- indeed, that everything is 'in the last analysis' political "(20). And this reading-- this digging up of what Jameson would call the "ideological subtext"-- begins with Beckett standing in front of Caravaggio's The Decollation of St. John [16xx].
III Not I, That Time, and Nothing About Wilde
Right in we went, with soul intent
On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
Went shuffling through the gloom:
And I trembled as I groped my way
Into my numbered tomb.
--Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Beckett saw Carravaggio's dark depiction of the beheading of St. John in Malta in 1971 (figure 1). As Deirdre Bair describes it, he was deeply affected by what he called the painting's evocation of a voice crying in the wilderness (622). This image of decapitation seemed to haunt him, and it formed an impression that combined with a spectacle he witnessed in Morocco soon after he saw the painting. He was sitting in a sidewalk cafe when he noticed an Arab woman wearing a jellaba seated at the edge of the sidewalk. Beckett described her as crouched in an attitude of intense waiting (Bair 622). The woman peered into the distance and flapped her hands with anxiety. Finally, a school bus arrived and the woman met the child she had been waiting for with such uneasiness. As Bair describes it, Beckett connected this vision with the painting: Beckett combined the darkness and drama of the Caravaggio painting with the Arab woman's intensity of waiting and created a mouth, a vivid red gash, the only visible object at the center of an altogether dark stage (622).20
This combination of images produced Not I, a fifteen-minute onslaught of language from a pair of lips hovering eight feet above the stage. Mouth is what is left of a body after it has been cut away, after it has finished experiencing the physical world: "whole body like gone... just a mouth" (221). Mouth tells the life story (or stories) of a poor Irish woman in a rush-- "stream of words... cant stop the scream" (220)-- that is often incomprehensible during performance. Fighting against her subjectivity-- Beckett describes it as a vehement refusal to relinquish third person (215)-- Mouth refuses to speak of herself in the first person: "... something she--... something she had to--... what?... who?.. no!.. she!" (221). She tells her story to the dark figure shrouded in a "loose black djellaba" whose "sex [is] undeterminable" (216). Auditor stands to one side and makes four movements throughout the stream of words to display what Beckett described as "helpless compassion" (215). Mouth's steady stream of words is a representation of what Beckett thought of as an old Irish woman crying in the wilderness:
I knew that woman in Ireland... I knew who she was--not she specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, beside the hedgerows. Ireland is full of them. And I heard her saying what I wrote in Not I. (quoted in Bair 622)
What Beckett heard was the voice he associated with the vision of the Caravaggio painting: the cry in the wilderness of the beheaded prophet becomes that of an old, anonymous Irish woman. Decapitated Emmet becomes the milk woman from Ulysses: "A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer" (U 1.4-5). This gender switch is significant when considering the reaction to the legacy of male sacrifice I have been tracing in the modern Irish writers-- a legacy founded upon phallocentric stereotypes and the cult of violence. Instead of Emmet's heroic dock speech, Mouth gives us her life of suffering. I would not go as far as to say that Beckett gives voice to a subaltern subject here-- this touches on abstruse arguments over the nature of modernist language21-- but he does provide a challenge to the "hypermasculinity" surrounding the conception of Irish sacrifice. But the switch in the sacrificial figures gender is only the most obvious of the play's import for Beckett's critique of ocularcentrism.
When Jessica Tandy played Mouth, Beckett told her: "I am not unduly concerned with intelligibility. I hope the piece may work on the nerves of the audience, not on its intellect" (quoted in Bair 625). Not I is a play primarily concerned with the visual impact of the play upon the audience, and its title puns upon this: Not Eye. The equation between identity and vision-- Eye=I-- has a long history in Western discourse on consciousness.22 Mouth's denial of her subjectivity is also a denial of vision: after all, she has no eyes (Not I=Not Aye, or No). In a discussion of the nature of ritual, Kenneth Burke describes this kind of denial or change as linked with ideas about vision: "Often one will find the change of identity symbolized by references to blindness, or at least by an intensified reference to phenomena of vision.... We used to grasp ideas, but tend more and more to 'see' them" (211). Mouth has no eyes, but we do; as Enoch Brater notes, Not I is structured around a gaze: "Mouth speaks, Auditor hears, and audience sees" (19). It is the spectacle, the visual impact upon the audience that is the most important part of the play. Brater points out that the staging of the play "resembles a surrealist painting come to life" (24).23 Not I is Debord's spectacle within Foucault's panoptic machine. This has always been the essence of theater, but Beckett highlights and critiques it. Through this play with vision, Beckett questions the power of sight as he relies upon it.
That Time, a play written two years after Not I, was also inspired by what Beckett saw in Malta and Morocco. Beckett called That Time a member of the "Not I family" (quoted in Bair 636). The gender of the sacrificial male is switched back to male. As Brater describes it, the stage in the play is closer to the Caravaggio painting: "The curtain rises on stage darkness which slowly fades up to unveil the immaculate clarity of a modernist's John the Baptist, a head without a body" (38). The head is suspended ten feet from the stage and is called Listener; he is bombarded from three sides by three voices from his past telling stories Beckett describes as "taking place at different levels of time" (quoted in Brater 40). The voices relate three different periods in Listener's life in what appears to be Listener's own voice: a memory of visiting ruins as a boy a la Wordswoth ("that time you went back to look was the ruin still there where you hid as a child" ); a sweet memory of a tryst ("on the stone together in the sun on the stone at the edge of the little wood and as far as the eye could see the wheat turning yellow" ); and the memory of being alone in the Portrait Gallery ("there alone with the portraits of the dead black with dirt and antiquity and the dates on the frames in case you might get the century wrong" ). The memories follow one another in a scattered pattern and throughout Listener keeps his eyes closed as if in pain or in an effort to remember (or forget). He opens his eyes only after there is a pause in the rush of memory. That Time is a bodiless Krapps Last Tape with the tape recorder out of control and everywhere. When the German actor Klaus Herm took on the role of Listener, he felt as if That Time
isn't a play. It's not classifiable. It moves, in a manner of speaking, beyond legality. Thus, for the most part there are no possibilities of play; it's mind work. You stand on stage, only your head is visible, and you listen to your own voice--which presents a crazy problem: sometimes you hear only your own mistakes! That's how I imagine purgatory!! (quoted in Kalb 202)
As with Not I, That Time plays with the process of vision: when Listener closes his eyes, the thoughts come; when the audience opens its eyes (sees the play) the thoughts come.
Christopher Ricks's remark that, like dust on his feet, Beckett was unable to shake off elements of his Irish heritage proves to extend, in this analysis, to his late plays, or late dramaticules.24 As Keir Elam has demonstrated, Beckett's late plays continually bring up the image of the disembodied head. Elam takes this as an extended rewriting, or evocation of a scene from Dante's Inferno, where, in Elam's words, "Dante encounters the talking heads of the traitors emerging from the frozen lake of Cocytus, their bodies invisible beneath the ice" (152). Dante was always a strong influence on Beckett-- from More Pricks Than Kicks to the dramaticules-- but, as Cheryl Herr has demonstrated, Irish culture itself has a strong strain of what she calls the "head cult" (14). The ancient Celts took the head as "the source of spiritual potency" and they erected stone godheads across Ireland to keep their protective "eyes on the terrain" (14-15). Irish art historian Anne Crookshank described these ancient heads in a personal context that illustrates their symbolic power:
To those of us with an Irish childhood, accustomed from our earliest days to picnics beneath high crosses, by ruined abbeys, or at ancient sites, the idea of the head image is an ingrained part of our visual memory. Like round towers and bogs, it comes as a surprise not to find them everywhere. These grey stone faces look solemnly down at us, the sole inhabitants now of isolated, grass covered places once the centre of religious ceremonies. (quoted in Herr, 15)
The heads watch over the land: they are panoptic machines powered by Celtic magic. As Herr points out, the head cult lives on in contemporary Irish art in the work of Louis le Brocquy, a painter obsessed with the image of the head. Herr points out that this obsession is with the "masculine face, the masculine look" (15), and le Brocquy has painted heads of Yeats, Joyce, Beckett (figure 2), Irish martyrs like Wolfe Tone and, of course, Robert Emmet.25
This concentration on the Irish male head leads to an observation by an unlikely source, an Irish descended Londoner: John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols:
Ireland is not my kind of place to be. It's all right if you want to get drunk. You wake up and there's nothing to do.... It's no accident that the Irish invented stream-of-consciousness literature. It was out of absolute necessity. Poverty and the deprivation of their own language made this very important. (Lydon's emphasis, 9)
This concentration on the goings on inside the skull has obvious connections with Joyce's development of stream of consciousness and Beckett's presentation of mental struggle in plays like That Time, Not I, Eh Joe, and Rockaby. And there is another Irish writer who was fascinated and influenced by the story and image of John the Baptist's beheading: Oscar Wilde.29 Wilde's Salomé, while playing off of his French predecessors (Flaubert, Mallarmé, LaForge), takes up what I have been describing as the Irish legacy of martyrdom and explicitly foregrounds it in a sexual context. Salomé is also a fascinating prism to look through when examining Wilde's career, and what I want to point to as his contribution to the modern challenge to ocularcentrism. In many ways, Wilde started the critique of the cult of sacrifice that was taken up by Joyce and Beckett.
As Richard Ellmann describes it in his biography of the playwright, Wilde was obsessed with the figure of Salomé and her desire for the prophet's head. During the beginning of his composition of the play, Wilde endlessly spoke about Salomé and delved deeply into representations of her in painting, sculpture, and literature.26 Ellmann goes on to note that Wilde "seemed to want to obsess himself with his idea," and when errors in his thinking about Salomé were pointed out to him, he indignantly replied: "I prefer the other truth, my own, which is that of the dream. Between the two truths, the falser is the truer" (343-43).27 This is a typical Wildean formulation, and it is reminiscent of the famous line in "The Critic as Artist": "The highest Criticism, then, is more creative than creation, and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not" (1030). This is an important formulation because it explicitly links Wilde to a tradition in English letters that challenged what I have been describing as ocularcentrism. Wilde's formulation is in direct response to Matthew Arnold's famous definition in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time":
Of the literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect of Europe in general, the main effort... has been a critical effort; the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is. (237).
This is the kind of definition of thinking that reveals its debt to the ocularcentric tradition: seeing is believing, seeing equals truth. In a famous amendment to Arnold, Walter Pater, Wilde's teacher at Oxford, challenged Arnold's reliance upon the primacy of sight: [I]n aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing the object as it really is, is to know one's own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realize it distinctly" (71). This movement toward feeling, a movement asking the question "What effect does it really produce on me?" impressed Wilde, and this colors his reaction to thinking about seeing. Seeing is not to be believed, it is to be felt.28
As with Beckett's challenge to ocularcentrism, Wilde's challenge takes the form of a spectacle: a play. Wilde talked about Salomé as spectacle: he originally wanted Salomé to perform the dance of the seven veils naked, and he wanted the most infamous actress of the day, Sarah Bernhardt, to play the lead (Ellmann, Wilde 342). Throughout the play, vision is emphasized as an enigmatic force from the spectacle of the dance of the seven veils within the larger spectacle of the play, to the display of power in the gaze of the characters (Salomé gazing at the prophet, Herod gazing at Salomé). The prophet's eyes are the first things that attract Salomé to him: "It is his eyes above all that are terrible" (558). Jokanaan feels this gaze, this interaction with his image, and, in the middle of his "shout in the wilderness" he asks: "Who is this woman who is looking at me?" (558). Salomé's gaze then carries her from repulsion to desire as she looks from the prophet's eyes to his body "Jokanaan, I am amorous of thy body! Thy body is white like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed" (558); then to his hair "Thy body is hideous.... Thy hair is like the cedars of Lebanon" ); and then finally to his mouth "It is thy mouth that I desire, Jokannan.... There is nothing in the world so red as they mouth.... Let me kiss thy mouth" 559). Salomé vows to kiss his mouth, and, in response, the prophet retreats into his cistern exclaiming: "I do not wish to look at thee" (560). It is his mouth that remains as her object of desire; it is his mouth she focuses on when she is given his head at the end of the play:
Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Jokannan. I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on my lips. Was it the taste of blood....? But perchance it is the taste of love.... They say that love hath a bitter taste. (575)
She cannot tell the difference between the taste of love and the taste of death; eroticism and death meet in the death stroke at the end of the play: "The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields SALOME, daughter of HERODIAS, Princess of Judaea" (575).
Salomé was never performed in Great Britain during Wilde's lifetime. The play was banned by the censor on the grounds that the depiction of Biblical characters on stage was forbidden in an old law-- an excuse that barely covered the censors real objections over Wilde's public persona and the play's overt sexuality. Wilde was indignant:
If the Censor refuses Salomé, I shall leave England to settle in France where I shall take out letters of naturalization. I will not consent to call myself a citizen of a country that shows such narrowness in artistic judgement. I am not English. I am Irish which is quite another thing. (quoted in Ellmann, Wilde 372)
This was no empty threat because Wilde had once before exiled himself over a woman he had loved: when Florence Balcombe left him for Bram Stoker, Wilde vowed to leave Ireland for good. When Salomé was finally produced in France, Wilde was not living there: he was living in Reading Gaol.
In his famous letter from prison, De Profundis, prisoner C. 3. 3. described the great lesson he learned from his punishment by referring to it in his work:
Of course all of this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my art. Some of it is in "The Happy Prince": some of it in "The Young King", notably in the passage where the Bishop says to the kneeling boy, "Is not He who made misery wiser than thou art?" a phrase which when I wrote it seemed to me little more than a phrase: a great deal of it is hidden away in the note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray.... [I]t is one of the refrains whose recurring motifs make Salomé so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad.... At every single moment in one's life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been. Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol. (922)
Man is a symbol. Wilde is a symbol. Joyce read this symbol: he looked back on Wilde's career and downfall and saw a tragic hero from Irish legend: "His name symbolizes him: Oscar, nephew of King Fingal and the only son of Ossian in the amorphous Celtic Odyssey, who was treacherously killed by the hand of his host as he sat at table" ("Oscar" 201). Joyce goes on to point out that one of Wilde's middle names, O'Flahertie, belongs to a savage Irish tribe whose destiny it was to assail the gates of medieval cities ("Oscar" 201). This writer with the highly-charged symbolic name belonged, in Joyce's view, to a line of Irish artists catering to an English audience, a court jester to the English ("Oscar" 202). This need to perform for the English stems from what Kiberd describes as the "liberating effect" of Wilde's participation in the world of English letters because "it equipped him with a mask behind which he was able to compose the lineaments of his Irish face" ("Wilde" 15). However, in Salomé, Joyce discerned a slipping of the mask: he called the play "a polyphonic variation on the rapport of art and nature, but at the same time a revelation of his own psyche" ("Oscar" 205). This kind of revelation-- the fall of the mask-- is at the core of De Profundis, and this is displayed in Wilde's acceptance of suffering and his willingness to take the stage one last time:
I remember as I was sitting in the dock on the occasion of my last trail listening to Lookwood's appalling denunciation of me-- like something out of Tacitus, like a passage in Dante, like one of Savonarola's indictments of the Popes of Rome-- and being sickened with horror at what I heard. Suddenly it occurred to me, How splendid it would be, if I was saying all this about myself! (Wilde's emphasis, 947)
To the last, Wilde wanted the stage. To the last, he said things about himself and the country he came from in his work.
Joyce's reaction to Salomé and to Wilde's fall is colored by his reading of Wilde in an Irish context that explicitly emphasizes the background of Irish martyrdom (King Fingal) and the cult of Irish violence (O'Flahertie). (Joyce refers to Wilde and his work no less than twenty times in Ulysses; one of the earliest references occurs in the first chapter when Stephen paraphrases Wilde's famous formulation in "The Decay of Lying": It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant" [U 1.146].) The revelation of his own psyche is tied up in Wilde's rewriting of the Emmet myth under the figure of Salomé's obsession-- a rewriting grounded in Wilde's position in two worlds: "I am not English. I am Irish which is quite another thing." Out of this position came Wilde's obsession with Salomé's obsession; and this position is fueled by two backgrounds: Wilde's interest in challenging conventional forms of representation and ideas about vision, and his fascination with sacrifice. Joyce points to Wilde's relationship to Irish cultural forms-- the cult of violence, the myth of sacrifice-- while Beckett points to nothing about Wilde.
Not I and That Time have nothing to do with Wilde's Salomé. And yet, as Ellmann has pointed out, although Beckett and Wilde seem to be very different artists, they have interesting similarities. Wilde's "insouciant boulevardier" is the inverse of Beckett's "anxious alleycrawlers": they share the same interest in doing nothing (Four 106).30 Wilde's play of decay and sacrifice has the same inspiration that fueled Beckett's dramaticules: the symbolic representation of the beheading of John the Baptist. This common inspiration-- an inspiration that conjures up Emmet's execution-- provides common imagery in the plays. The floating head of Listener in That Time has an obvious connection with Salomé, especially when Aubrey Beardsley's drawings for the play are considered. One of Beardsley's final drawings is particularly provocative: a floating Salomé holding aloft the prophet's head while the background is weighed down in turgid sensuality (The Climax, 1894, figure 3). The head in That Time hovers above the stage as if it were being held by an invisible Salomé (or an invisible executioner).31 Not I is reminiscent of Salomé's fixation with Jokannan's mouth, which is "redder than the feet of those who tread the wine in the wine press" (559). Jokanaan's lips speak of the connection between death and sexuality: "They say that love hath a bitter taste.... But what of that? What of that? I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan" (559). When the BBC produced Not I, Beckett was pleasantly surprised to notice that the red lips of Mouth-- while speaking about desolation, decay, suffering, and the inevitability of death-- looked like a vagina.
Beckett's late dramaticules have nothing to do with Wilde. Nothing in the sense of Adorno's reading of Beckett: a nothing bringing on the negation of meaning that strives toward "new categories". These "new categories" come out of Beckett's critique of ocularcentrism, a critique grounded in his play with the Emmet myth in plays like Not I and That Time. And these plays of a floating, disembodied mouth and a hovering head bombarded by its own memories play off of Wilde's play with the Emmet myth in Salomé. Beckett and Wilde reverberate with the Irish myth of sacrifice in their challenges to the hegemony of vision. The easy equation between truth and the visible is undermined: seeing is not believing. The "hypermasculinity" of the Emmet myth is debunked, is shown as a construction wrapped up in cultural and political considerations. Adorno's reading of nothing, of meaninglessness in Beckett has an important litmus test: "The crucial difference is whether the negation of meaning in art works is meaningful or whether it represents an adaptation to the status quo; whether the crisis of meaning is reflected by the work or whether it is immediate and bypasses the subject." (221) The difference is that Beckett's work foregrounds the crisis of meaning as it is represented in his challenge to that entrenched truth-teller of the status quo: ocularcentrism. Instead of butting his head against the statue of Cuchulain, Beckett pokes the hero's eyes out.
This poking out of Cuchulain's eyes is a part of Beckett's reading of Wilde's Salomé and Wilde's fall. This is a reading taking in the sacrifice haunting their work, and the sacrifice haunting their ideas about the country they came from. As Yeats pointed out on more than one occasion, Robert Emmet was representative of the Irish Protestant strain of Irish rebellion and martyrdom. This ties into the solid middle-class upbringing of Wilde and Beckett. Both writers had their own nationalist ties to sever: Wilde had to distance himself from the aggressive nationalism of his mother, and Beckett had to move away from what he called the "antiquaranism" of Irish letters after Yeats and Joyce ("Recent" 235). This acknowledgment of the Irish roots-- the Irish dust they could not shake off their feet-- in Wilde and Beckett reveals a great deal about their work, their challenges to ocularcentrism, and their careers. However, there is a larger critical issue at hand here: the transformation of the modern male Irish writer into hero/martyr.
Richard Ellmann's 1988 biography of Wilde established him as a kind of martyr to the modern, a hero who tried to bring the modernist impulse into literature, but whose effort-- and life-- was denounced by the late Victorian public.32 Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett are taken as emblematic of the modern Irish writers heroic struggle to achieve art in the face of cultural chaos and economic instability. Joyce is the prime example of this kind of hagiography. In a recent pamphlet in the Irish Heritage Series (the series profiles only on other writer-- Swift-- and other topics include "Irish Trees", "The Siege of Derry", and "Guinness") David Norris, Joycean and Senator of the Republic, sums up this perception: "The name of James Joyce is linked as inevitably with Dublin in the popular imagination as that of Christopher Columbus is with America" (1). This is a statement that would have not been made fifty years ago.33 The point I wish to make here is how easily the modern male Irish writer fits into this heroic mold; a testament to this is the title Lois Gordon gives the introduction to her recent book on Becketts early life: "Beckett as Hero" (1). This is an unquestioned critical trend. Foucault pointed to this tendency to supplant older archetypal heroes for writers in a famous essay pointing out "how the author was individualized in a culture such as ours, the status we have given the author... the systems of valorization in which he is included; or the moment when the stories of heroes gave way to an authors biography" (115). In "What is an Author?" Foucault points again to the writer who provoked him into moving away from established thinking: Beckett in Texts for Nothing: What matter who's speaking, someone said, what matter who's speaking" (16). This question leads Foucault into thinking about the relationship of the modern writer to the text, a relationship Foucault points to in Beckett as an "ongoing practice" (116), as écriture. Beckett's question in a collection of texts explicitly about and for "nothing" leads Foucault to the realization of the writer's death via his text, a sacrifice of writing:
Writing is now linked to sacrifice and to the sacrifice of life itself; it is a voluntary obliteration of the self that does not require representation in books because it takes place in the everyday existence of the writer. Where a work had the duty of creating immortality, it now attains the right to kill, to become the murderer of its author.... In addition, we find the link between writing and death manifested in the total effacement of the individual characteristics of the writer.... If we wish to know the writer in our day, it will be through the singularity of his absence and in his link to death, which has transformed him into a victim of his writing. (117)
To "know" Beckett is to "know" his link with death, and to read his link with the Irish cult of sacrifice. Beckett's link with sacrificial death-- with the death in/of Irish martyrdom-- reveals his artistic and political commitment to challenging one-eyed nationalism, and the power of "pure" vision. Beckett had nothing to do with Emmet ("No symbols where none intended"), or Wilde, or the explosion of carnival death in Joyce, or politics. Nothing is the point. This is a nothing Foucault saw in Waiting for Godot, and a nothing Beckett saw in what he described as an epiphany he had in 1946. He described it in an early version of Krapp's Last Tape:
Intellectually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of the pier, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The turning point at last.... What I saw was that the assumption I had been going on all my life, namely... clear to me at last that the dark I have been fighting off all this time is in reality my most... unshatterable association till my dying day of story and night with the light of understanding. (quoted in Bair, 351)
The "dark" is the stuff of his art that he will embrace until his "dying day." The dark is nothing, and death, and the courage to question what and how we see. The dark is the other side of vision, and the other side of what we see and believe, the other side of the "light of understanding." The dark is the other side of Emmet's execution, a dark side Beckett and Joyce responded to by becoming sacrificial victims to their own texts. Their critique of the myth of heroic sacrifice does not mean that they abandoned any desire to see Ireland free from English rule. On the contrary, if we take into account Edward Said's thinking about the rise of modernism and the end of imperialism, then Beckett and Joyce actually contribute to the sense of Ireland as a independent nation; as Said formulates it, many modernists were responding to the collapse of the system of imperialism in their aesthetics: "When you can no longer assume that Britannia will rule the waves forever, you have to reconcieve reality as something that can be held together by you the artist, in history rather than geography" (189-190). Beckett and Joyce went back to the history of the cult of sacrifice and they began their rewriting of it with that day in 1803 when Emmet's head was lopped off and held toward the sun. In a strange haunting, Emmet's final words are fulfilled:
[T]he man dies, but his memory lives....When my spirit shall be wafted to a more friendly port; when my shade shall have joined the bands of those martyred heroes who have shed heir blood on the scaffold and in the field, in defense of their country and of virtue, this is my hope: I wish that my memory and my name shall animate those who survive me.
to the editor