Steven Barfield (University of Westminster)
Being ‘Nothing’ : Beckett and “Self Erasure” in Westward Ho
In John Montague's appreciation and obituary of Beckett in The Guardian of Dec 27th 1989 he relates the following anecdote:
“Contemplating the cheerful grimness of his work and days, I once asked him if he had ever thought of ending it. 'Out of the question,' he said brusquely, 'but I have thought about disappearance.' His best plan, he elaborated, was a boat with a hole in the bottom, to be dredged up by the divers. Then a sigh. 'That's legally impossible too. The widow wouldn't inherit for seven years’. ”
In this paper I want to take something of this half-joking desire for disappearance (as opposed to suicide), quite literally and to suggest it exists in Beckett’s work as a movement and desire for textual “self-erasure” .
In order to do this I will be creating a short dialogue between certain aspects of Lacanian psychoanalysis and philosophical thinking about nihilism and then examining how this functions in Worstward Ho.
1. Heidegger in An Introduction to Metaphysics (1953) argues that thinking through 'nothingness' is the way into being and since Simon Critchley's Very Little ... Almost Nothing (1997) there has been an increasing interest in the possibilities of reading Beckett's work in the context of nihilism. Such reading however, see nihilism as something that involves an abnegation of the meanings that customarily enframe events in the world, and this curiously enough, recuperates the vestigial subject as a type of literal remainder, a tenuous autographic trace in writing.
In contrast, I will argue that in fact Becektt's texts exemplify a drive towards negation at the level of even this most tenuous of traces attempting to grapple with the possibilities and impossibilities of nihilism at the level of the subject's / person's own sense of subjecthood: a desire for "textual self-erasure" that nonetheless parallel Heidegger’s famous thought-experiment regarding the imagining of nothing, albeit in a different way.
2. Secondly, I want to consider how this translates into psychoanalytic thinking and to suggest that rather than simply embodying the processes of the death drive and a return to the absence of self hood as classical Freudian theory would suggest or a retreat to the position of being in the womb and subject-less ( Klein); any such translation requires a thinking through of what it means to not just decenter the subject, but to contemplate and strive for its erasure in terms of becoming closer to the 'Real' ( Lacan). The difference between Lacan’s and other modes of psychoanalysis, at least theoretically if not therapeutically, lies in the fact it refuses the positivity implicit in much psychoanalytic thinking and recognizes the value of suffering in a non-recuperative fashion. (I hesitate to use the medicalised terminology ‘depression’). While one cannot avoid the fact that in psychoanalytic terms, any such move still hovers on the border of what would be called psychosis, it nonetheless offers a possible alternative to the problem of being (and therefore being unhappy) in the world, that is nonetheless impossible to achieve except in death.
3. I will then trace how and why despite the drive towards the self-erasure, it nonetheless shows the repeated and varied failures to achieve this type of being nothing and that such circulations around the possibility/ impossibility of self-erasure become the fabric and determining trope of the text itself.