Andre Fulani (Concordia University)
Two’s Company: Wittgenstein and Beckett
Taking into account the numerous affinities of sense and sensibility between the work of Samuel Beckett and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the paper focuses on "Company" to examine how Beckett manipulates the Wittgensteinian critique of Cartesianism, with particular reference to the refutation of solipsism. This serves as a signal illustration of Beckett's profound philosophical accord with the salient doctrines of Wittgenstein, extending from interrelated issues of language and subjectivity to the treatment of mind, silence, doubt, meaning, expectation, causality, and negation.
Despite Samuel Beckett's familiarity with Ludwig Wittgenstein's work and the arresting affinities between them, scholarship in German and French, as well as in English, remains scant on the subject. Yet in the treatment, for example, of language, subjectivity, mind, silence, doubt, meaning, memory, expectation, negation, causality, reading, play, and failure, the two writers, both of whom worked bilingually, reveal an uncanny consonance. I propose to address Beckett's late English prose text "Company" as it responds to and complements Wittgenstein's critique of Cartesian doctrine, particularly with reference to solipsism. Its narrator seeks consolation for his solipsism in language; the language meanwhile defies his solipsism in ways that coincide with Wittgenstein's analysis. The solipsism of the narrator of "Company" involves the evasion of the personal pronoun, precisely as Wittgenstein had characterized the state in his Cambridge lectures in the early 1930s: "Getting into the solipsistic mood means not using the word I in describing a personal experience." The solipsist renders pronominal specificity superfluous. The first person pronoun is thus excluded from the language of "Company":"To murmur, Yes I remember. What an addition to company that would be! A voice in the first person singular. Murmuring now and then, Yes I remember." The mirthlessly comic paradox in finding company in the I is no joke. The I abolishes the very terms of solipsism, the superfluity of pronominal notation. "What the solipsist wants," Wittgenstein told his students, "is not a notation in which the ego has a monopoly, but one in which the ego vanishes." The narrator of "Company" attempts just this erasure. He puts words in his listener's mouth, that is, puts words in his own, only to rescind them immediately, aware that this intervention of a speaking ego is not in conformity with the solipsism which might afford him sanctuary from the pains of engagement and interaction. "You do not murmur is so many words, I know this doomed to fail yet persist. No. For the first person singular and a fortiori plural pronoun had never any place in your vocabulary." The verbal ruse however fails.
Even projected as a fiction, the priority of the third person concocted in "Company" is the guarantee of self, speech, and world. Except in the sense of a routine existential pathos, the you of the text cannot be "as you always were. Alone." The third person, summoned here by a first person masquerading as a second, secures, objectively, company. The pronominal oscillations are syntactic maneuvers within an exclusively linguistic space, but language, as Wittgenstein demonstrates, depends on others, depends indeed on a world prior to the first person. Language does not simply make company possible, it makes company.
For the Cartesian priority of the first person, Wittgenstein substitutes that of the third, and locates this within language itself. Wittgenstein (following Fritz Mauthner, whom Beckett had been reading since the 1930s) characterizes mind as a metaphor, the meaning of which lies in its use in our language. Reference is necessarily public, an agreement not between name and object but between parties on the use of that name. Thus words could not be intelligible were sensations private. And since we can refer to sensations, they cannot be mental events. Self-erasure merely perpetuates the illusion that the authority for the ego’s statements derives from experiences known exclusively to it. The attack on the epistemic criteria afforded by the first person does not eradicate certainty but displaces it onto the third. Just such a displacement and reintegration of the "self" is enacted in "Company," however obtusely his narrator combats it. The narrator's communication of isolation abolishes the condition it denotes. Communication does not merely facilitate but generates encounter. One is never alone, with language. And in challenging the doctrine of the cogito, Wittgenstein and Beckett make startlingly similar and resounding statements of this condition.
The paper will briefly introduce the biographical, literary, and philosophical affinities between Beckett and Wittgenstein before focusing on one or more aspects of the problem sketched above.