Natalie Sheehan (University of Cambridge, UK)
Thresholds and Intermediaries: Beckett and the Scapegoat
Theories of the scapegoat have not been widely discussed in criticism of Beckett’s work, although critics have referred extensively to related notions such as liminality, expulsion, identity, the body and violence. Yet the scapegoat is of broad significance in Beckett’s theatre and prose. (One very obvious scapegoat figure is the character of Lucky in En attendant Godot, whose memorable dance is referred to, in Beckett’s translation, as ‘The Scapegoat’s Agony’.) In this paper I wish to explore the relevance of several twentieth-century theoretical treatments of scapegoat figures in the context of reading Beckett’s literature, and the implications this may have for the theories themselves. I will focus primarily on Molloy, with passing reference to the other Trilogy novels and the Nouvelles.
For literary and cultural theorist, René Girard, society is inherently violent, all humans being driven by a mimetic, triangular desire that leads to rivalry for the object of that desire. This overlap of desire inevitably leads to crisis, and the need for a scapegoat. By violently punishing the scapegoat for the crimes for which he has been declared responsible, society can retain its cohesion through this collective violence. Unlike the biblical scapegoat ritual, the process examined in Le Bouc émissaire (1982) is neither conscious nor deliberate.
The ‘undecidability’ of the sacred means that it is seen at once as a source of sin and guilt, and also as the means of redemption, of purging society’s violence. This view of the sacred parallels in some ways the (liminal) position presented by Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer (1998). Sacred life, for Agamben, is the bearer of the link between sovereign power and bare life; it inhabits a ‘zone of indistinction’.
This paper will explore the nature and implications of the threshold existence of Beckett’s characters, juxtaposing these theories of the scapegoat figure that draw together the notions of liminality, expulsion, identity, violence and the act of writing itself that have been dealt with at length by Beckett critics in other contexts. I shall now examine these issues in the context of the Girardian idea of society as a superficially stable space, only kept this way by the existence of marginal figures or scapegoats who belong both inside and outside. Like the zone of indistinction inhabited by Agamben’s homo sacer, the space in which Beckett’s characters reside is unlocalizable, marked by constantly moving thresholds from which they cannot escape.
This liminality is what draws Beckett’s characters towards the centre of these theories, which converge on the idea of the intermediary in terms both of physical bodies that inhabit a liminal, ambivalent space, and of the transmission of the myths veiling these bodies. If the theorists would seem to agree that the acknowledgement of the former seems to be fundamental to understanding modern (and postmodern) society, and that the artifice, inadequacy and illusory power of the latter need to be highlighted and exposed, this paper will ascertain to what extent it can be said that fiction (and that of Beckett in particular) is particularly effective at conveying this, and explore the implications for the reader.