This paper shall focus on the treatment of the other as it is explored in Samuel Beckett’s The Expelled and Other Novellas. It shall be argued that the marginalised anti-hero featured in this work, provides a fitting counterpoise to the Levinasian ethical agent. While the latter is positively defined in terms of his relationship with the other, the former experiences alterity as a predominantly negative phenomenon, forcing him to seek out spaces of exclusion, where proximity to the other can not impeach his solitude. Furthermore, it shall be suggested that the impetus which propels this antipathy, can be uncovered through an analysis of the phenomenon of extraneous perception as explored by Beckett in his 1969 brief cinematic debut, Film.
In this paper I shall argue that the marginalised anti-hero featured in Beckett’s The Expelled and Other Novellas, provides a fitting counterpoise to the Levinasian ethical agent. While the latter is positively defined in terms of his relationship with the other, the former experiences alterity as a predominantly negative phenomenon, forcing him to seek out spaces of exclusion where proximity to the other can not impeach his solitude. Furthermore it shall be suggested that the impetus underlying this antipathy, can be uncovered through an analysis of the phenomenon of extraneous perception as explored by Beckett in his 1969 brief cinematic debut, Film.
The philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas is centrally focused on the theme of Alterity where the Otherness in question is that of other selves. Levinas maintains that the other comprises an irreducible alterity with which we are obliged to engage. The encounter with the other is of paramount importance in Levinas’ ethical philosophy, as this encounter becomes not only the ground of ethics, but is also the key to achieving existential authenticity. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas maintains that prior to the realisation that the other invokes our empathy and places us in an ethical relation, man finds himself living at the level of sensibility, concerned only with the self and the gratification of personal needs. As Moran comments:
At the level of sensibility and enjoyment, things are there to be consumed- that is, absorbed or encompassed- by a centripetal, egoistic self. They are reducible to the sameness or homogeneity of a self-concerned individual (Moran, 2002, 512)
Levinas’ discussion of the sensible level is reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s Aesthetic level of existence which comprises the first stage of his existential dialectic. Kierkegaard, like Levinas, contends that such a level of self-preoccupation is essentially negative and must be transcended because of its inherent limitations for the existential subject. Implicit in both accounts is the view that self concern and an inability to move beyond the confines of one’s cogito, result only in anguish and despair. For Levinas, it is the encounter with the other that necessitates the transition beyond the sensible level and our capacity for personal fulfilment or ‘freedom’ becomes contingent upon our ability to respond positively to the challenge that the other presents. Ethics and the Face opens with the claim that the other cannot be enveloped or encompassed like a thing, for the other is an irreducible alterity that cannot be reduced to the homogeneity of a self concerned individual. The face of the other and the image of vulnerability that it presents summon our responsibility and Levinas states that, ‘the face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation, which no interiority permits avoiding’ (Levinas qtd. in Moran & Mooney, 2002, 520). The encounter with the other becomes the ground of ethics, for the requirement to become an ethical agent stems directly from our encounter with the other which presents us with, ‘a fundamental and indeclinable responsibility for the other person that precedes every ontology’ (Levinas qtd. in Moran & Mooney, 2002, 520).
According to Levinas, we have a fundamental and indeclinable responsibility for the other, and it is only by embracing this responsibility, that we can transcend the limitations of our subjective state. The other therefore becomes the means to our salvation, for it is by entering into a relationship with the other and making the subsequent transition from the sensible to the ethical, that we are able to achieve authentic selfhood. While then we can say that the other imposes certain requirements upon us by invoking our responsibility, Levinas views this as a positive opportunity that must be embraced:
In expression the being that imposes itself does not limit but promotes my freedom, by arousing my goodness. The order of responsibility where the gravity of ineluctable being freezes all laughter is also the order where freedom is ineluctably invoked. It is thus the irremissible weight of being that gives rise to my freedom (Levinas qtd. in Moran & Mooney, 2002, 519-20).
When we consider Beckett’s The Expelled and Other Novellas and the plight of the anti-hero contained therein, we find that the other, is not an irreducible Alterity as Levinas maintains, but is ultimately reduced to homogeneity of a self concerned character. Throughout the four novellas, the other is treated predominantly as a means to an end and is begrudgingly tolerated, rather than meaningfully engaged with. In First Love, the central character reluctantly enters into a relationship with a woman named Lulu, whose presence is temporarily permitted as she provides a source of distraction from his endless self-preoccupation:
I did not feel easy when I was with her, but at least free to think of something else than her, of the old trusty things, and so little by little, as down a steps towards a deep of nothing. And I knew that away from her I would forfeit this freedom(Beckett, 1980, 23).
As the tale evolves, we see that his interest in her is defined chiefly in terms of how she can accommodate his needs and while it remains possible for him to reduce her to a fragment of his subjective universe he remains with her. The relationship quickly diminishes however when Lulu refuses to be ignored and endeavours to invite him into a meaningful relationship with her. When she presents him with her pregnant profile, in order to assure him that she will in fact bear a child, he responds with the chilling remark; ‘Perhaps it’s just wind. I said, by way of consolation’ (Beckett, 1980, 28). The relationship declines steadily as the demands that she places upon him increase, culminating in his less than heroic departure through a window as she gives birth to their child. Rather than occasion his empathy by responding positively to his responsibility towards another individual, we witness his complete inability to move beyond his own sphere of self-preoccupation, culminating in his apathetic defence, when he comments ‘what finished me was the birth. It woke me’ (Beckett, 1980, 29, emphasis added).
Such is his antipathy towards other individuals that he finds himself in sympathy with the deceased rather than the rest of humanity. He favours the odour of the dead to the ‘stink’ of the living. He says that, ‘The living wash in vain, perfume themselves in vain, they stink’ (Beckett, 1980, 9/10). We learn too that in opposition to Levinas, the face of the other does not serve to invoke his responsibility but merely increases his general distain for humanity. It is in relation to the face of the other that he comments:
I had seen faces in photographs I might have found beautiful had I known vaguely in what beauty was supposed to consist. And my father’s face on his death-bolster had seemed to hint at some form of Aesthetics relevant to man. But the faces of the living, all grimace and flush, can they be described as objects? (Beckett, 1980, 22/3)
Whereas the face of the other for Levinas is the occasion by which we are compelled to act ethically towards our fellow man by placing their needs before our own, for the Beckettian anti-hero the face of the other serves to confirm his sense of alienation and his feeling of separation from the other, resulting in antipathy rather than empathy. Other selves are regarded either as a means to an end, or as objects within his subjective universe and every encounter with the other that he undergoes, rather than alleviating his suffering, contributes to it. Unable to respond positively to the challenge that the other presents, he remains trapped within the sphere of his own subjectivity. Hell for him, to invoke the Sartrean maxim, truly is other people.
While we might be tempted to sympathise with the plight of Beckett’s protagonist, arguing that his antipathy is perhaps the result of cruelty and mistreatment, such a view is difficult to justify when we consider that at every juncture, the protagonist actively turns away from humanity and adopts a form of self imposed exile. The isolation from the other which he experiences is not externally imposed upon him and he effectively becomes the architect of his own alienation by deliberately undertaking a form of self-imposed social exclusion. Throughout the Novellas, the protagonist’s preferred environment, feature locations that are typically depopulated and on the fringes of society. In First Love we find the protagonist taking refuge in a graveyard, commenting that ‘I take the air there willingly’, and that he finds the accompanying odour of decomposition, ‘infinitely preferable’ to the smell that the living emit (Beckett, 1980, 9). In The End he takes refuge in a basement, where but for the intrusion of a few rats; he is left alone to enjoy his solitude. Furthermore we learn that, ‘[i]t is easy for a man, a proper man, to live in a cave, far away from everybody’ (Beckett, 1980, 82). When this solitude is interrupted by the intrusion of the other, the character is once again ill at ease, once again forced to ‘bestir’ himself and remove himself to a location where others are not.
For Levinas, as we have seen, the other becomes the occasion by which we are called upon to become ethical agents and achieve our freedom. In the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, we find an ethical philosophy that recalls that of Levinas for here too the relationship with the other is of central importance as it becomes the condition by which man overcomes the confines of his ego-centric predicament. As such this encounter becomes the means to man’s salvation. Sartre comments that:
I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself. Under these conditions, the intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine, and which cannot think or will without doing so either for or against me. Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of ‘inter-subjectivity’. It is in this world in which man has to decide what he is and what others are. (Sartre, 1970, 45)
Authenticity for Sartre is made possible by the fact that we share the world with other people, who place us in an ethical relation that transforms our life for the better. For Sartre as for the Levinas the encounter with the other is both positive and transformative, for through this encounter we are afforded the opportunity to live authentically, by embracing the challenge that the other presents.
Furthermore, we have every reason to believe that Beckett’s work was deeply influenced by the existential tradition. Living in Paris during the 1940’s, Beckett was familiar with the work of the French existentialists, and was familiar with the work of both Sartre and Camus. In 1946 in a letter to a colleague, Beckett notes that he had read Camus’ influential Estranger as he believed it to be an extremely important work (Knowlson, 1997, 358). The affinity between Beckett’s concerns and those of the French writers is further highlighted by Knowlson who comments that it is in his portrayal of the character Lucian, in the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, that Beckett ‘prefigures the existential concern with the viscosity of being that was found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, published four years later’ (Knowlson, 1997, 153). While Beckett’s work is replete with the same themes that characterise the French existentialist movement, the same preoccupation with the nature of existence and with man’s search for meaning when confronted by his mortality, he would seem to be at odds with them in terms of one central point. While Sartre and Camus believe that human existence is not meaningless and that life is worth loving, the presentation of the nature of human condition in The Novellas, would seen to yield a less optimistic conclusion.
Here we are presented with the prospect that authenticity is an impossible aspiration for the individual. Furthermore existence itself is presented as a state of undulating and protracted suffering. The protagonist featured in The Expelled is not interested in achieving authenticity, but in release from existence and it is as though he strives towards a state of non-being in order to bring about a cessation of his suffering.
I’m too frightened this evening to listen to myself rot, waiting for the great red lapses of the heart, the tearings at the caecal walls, and for the slow killing to finish in my skull (Beckett, 1980, 51)
Beckett’s view of the human condition can be categorised as a ministry of overt pessimism, Sartre’s vision, on the other hand is offered as a positive existentialist manifesto. In Existentialism and Humanism, in a bid to answer his critics, he says that ‘no doctrine is more optimistic’ than the one that he advances, for ‘the destiny of man is placed within himself’ (Sartre, 1970, 44). According to Sartre, life is meaningful, for man contains within himself the power to shape his destiny and become something of value. By contrast, Beckett’s vision is one of complete despair, prescribing for a form of post-existentialism, which precludes the possibility of any form of meaning or authenticity. We can see this most clearly when we consider Lucky’s monologue in the second act ofWaiting for Godot, where we are told, that despite our most fervent efforts, man’s fate is cashed out in resoundingly negative terms, for ultimately we are destined to ‘waste and pine’, to ‘shrink and dwindle’ (Beckett, 1965, 43). It is almost with a consolatory air, that towards the conclusion of the play, Vladimir announces, ‘In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!’ (Beckett, 1965, 81). While Sartre advocates ‘an ethic of action’, the Beckettian anti-hero is defined chiefly in terms of his impotence and his general inability to become an agent (Sartre, 1970, 44). We see this most notably in the characters of Vladimir and Estragon, who decide to do nothing,as it is safer, and wait for the prospect of some external salvation, in the form of Godot, that will never come.
The Beckettian protagonist is then, the very antithesis of both the Sartrean as well as the Levinasian ethical agent, who recognises the primacy of the other, over and above the existence of the self and whose encounter with the other becomes the means to his salvation. As Sartre comments, ‘[t]he man who discovers himself directly in the cogito also discovers all the others, and discovers them as the condition of his own existence’ (Sartre, 1970, 45). In opposition to this, the Beckettian anti-hero when confronted with the other, finds not solace but anguish, and clings tenuously to the primacy of the cogito and the belief that ‘the mistake one makes is to speak to people’ (Beckett, 1980, 15). As such, he spends his time in the cultivation of his ‘dispeopled kingdom’, never experiencing the need to transcend or overcome the confines of his egocentric predicament, building a fortress around the self that must at all costs be protected.
Having considered the nature of the antipathy towards the other that the Beckettian anti-hero exhibits, we might wonder why this is the case. What are the reasons for this antipathy and why does the other present as it were, such a threat to the central character? Is the impetus behind his antipathy a simple matter of distain on behalf of an antisocial character or is it the case that there is some existential significance that underwrites his actions which motivate him to continually avoid or subjugate the other?
The reasons for this antipathy, can I believe, be uncovered if we consider the phenomenon of extraneous perception, as outlined by Beckett in his 1969 cinematic work Film. Here Beckett begins by invoking the Berkeleian esse est percipi principle (to be is to be perceived) and traces the plight of his quasi-comical character, as he spends his time in flight from the gaze of the other, in mortal dread of being perceived. Beckett exploits the Berkeleian principle to his own ends, giving it an existential rather than its intended epistemological significance, in order to demonstrate the fundamental relationship that exists between our awareness of our own existence and the phenomenon of being perceived by the other. The phenomenon of extraneous perception or ‘the gaze of the other’ confronts us, as it were, with a mirror in which we are ineluctably presented with the fact of our own existence. Now given that existence itself is tantamount to suffering, that which thrusts this fact upon his is at all costs to be avoided and as such the other cannot be allowed to perpetuate our suffering by holding us captive with their gaze. When the character O enters percipi or is perceived by another, he experiences what is described as ‘the anguish of perceivedness’ (Beckett, 1972, 11). O exists within ‘an angle of immunity’, whereby he is free from the gaze of the other, once however this angle is exceeded, the character is no longer ‘preserved from perceivedness’, and is forced to flee (Beckett, 1972, 11). In the final sequence ofFilm, the character who has retreated to the safety of a private room, removes the cat, covers the bird cage and removes a mirror from the wall. It is not only the gaze of the other that must be avoided but all forms of extraneous perception equally threaten his solipsistic universe.
When we consider instances of extraneous perception in the Expelled and Other Novellas, we see that the gaze of the other proposes precisely such a threat to the central character. When the protagonist takes refuge in a stable, he experiences a threatening encounter with a horse who he says ‘didn’t take its eyes off me’, compelling his hasty departure through an open window (Beckett, 1980, 47). The dishevelled anti-hero is once again forced out into the cold, in order that he may extricate himself from the excruciating reminder that he is not yet dead. The cruel irony is however, that no matter how the character endeavours to escape from being perceived, ultimately we are told that the ‘search of non-being in flight from extraneous perception’, breaks down in the ‘inescapability of self-perception’, so that while it may be possible for him to flee from the gaze of the other, he cannot ultimately flee from self-perception (Beckett, 1972, 11). And so is that in The Calmative, that the character voices the nature of his existential predicament:
It is to me this evening that something has to happen, to my body as in myth and metamorphosis, this old body to which nothing ever happened, or so little, which never met with anything, loved anything, wished for anything, in its tarnished universe, except for the mirrors to shatter, the plane, the curved, the magnifying, the minifying, and to vanish in the havoc of its images. (Beckett, 1980, 53)
The very fact that he exists is something that he wishes to avoid, and we might say that there is a sense in which the protagonist wishes to cultivate a sense of non-being, or simply cease to exist. In Waiting for Godot, we find that the central characters experience similar states of existential disenchantment; they are presented as the shadowy figures of a ghostly half-life, residing outside of time, neither genuinely living nor fully dead. The brief interchange that occurs in act two between Estragon and the boy, serves to emphasise the link between perception and existence that Beckett explores more fully in Film. When Estragon instructs the boy to inform Godot that he had seen them, he hastily issues the urgent plea, ‘You did see us, didn’t you? ‘(Beckett, 1965, 52). Here again it is implied that man’s existence, if not conditioned by the other, is confirmed by the presence of the other, and given that existence is tantamount only to suffering, the gaze of the other, is something that the existential solipsist typically wishes to avoid. As Knowlson rightly comments, Beckett’s characters are indeed ‘martyrs to existence’ (Knowlson, 1997, 363). Beckett is to be contrasted with Levinas most strongly in terms of his treatment of the other, for while the latter is assured that the other becomes the means to our salvation, the former sees the other as something to be avoided and as a threat to his subjective world. For Sartre as for Levinas the encounter with the other is an opportunity that we must embrace, and it is the precisely the inversion of this relation that the Beckettian protagonist of The Expelled legislates for:
What mattered to me in my dispeopled kingdom, that in regard to which the disposition of my carcass was the merest and most futile of accidents, was supineness in the mind, the dulling of the self and of that residue of execrable frippery known as the non-self (Beckett, 1980, 15).
The dilemma that the character faces is that he can achieve no resolution; no catharsis is forthcoming, because he remains trapped within the sphere of his own subjectivity, viewing the other as a threat that must be avoided, rather than as the means to his salvation. As such, it becomes the lot of the existential anti-hero to persist in a meaningless void, and to endure his life until such time as he can be granted release. InFirst Love, the protagonist betrays his desire to perish, to escape his suffering, while recalling his dead father, he muses that, ‘[i]n his great disembodied wisdom…he saw further than his son whose corpse was not yet quite up to scratch’. (Beckett, 1980, 13). The protagonist’s only aspiration is that his existence should end and when he considers the dead, by whose gravesides he lingers, he comments that ‘I turned aside to vomit, I envied them’ (Beckett, 1980, 11).
In documenting the plight of his anti-hero, Beckett’s The Expelled and Other Novellascan be viewed as a cautionary tale; by refusing to respond positively to the challenge which the other presents he becomes unable to transcend the limitations of his egocentric state and thereby precludes the possibility of achieving authenticity.
Beckett, prescribes for a post-existential world in which the only the truth that man must grasp is that he is alone, enduring an existence that is ultimately without purpose, in terms of which the outcome is one of complete despair. Furthermore we may deduce, that by abandoning our responsibility towards the other that we are doomed and forfeit the prospect of authentic self-hood, for this is the unfortunate fate of the protagonist who, having spent his time in the cultivation of his ‘dispeopled kingdom’, can achieve no resolution. He becomes the embodiment of anti-Levinasian man, one who is completely incapable of responding to his obligation towards the other. In so doing he lacks either the courage to end his suffering or the strength to go on. We may therefore conclude by considering the words of Beckett himself, whose ministry of pessimism finds its most poignant expression in Company, where his views on the nature of the human condition are neatly encapsulated in the following epigram: ‘How better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you always were. Alone’ (Beckett qtd. in Knowlson, 1997, 89)
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