Timothy Sutton (Managing Editor, JJLS)
‘None So Clear’: Watt’s Postmodern Heterotopia
Despite Samuel Beckett’s ominous imperative, “no symbols where none intended” in the final line of his addenda to his novel Watt, critics have offered various symbolic interpretations of the meaning of Watt’s temporary residence at Mr. Knott’s house. This paper will resist making intricate symbolic associations in order to focus more definitively on the house’s function as a place of safety from what one character calls “the outer world.” Using Michel Foucault’s distinction between the reassuring but ultimately contrived fixity of linguistic meaning in utopias, as compared to the “uneasy” complexity and fluidity of linguistic meaning in heterotopias, which he describes in his “Preface” to The Order of Things, I will contend that Mr. Knott’s house does not merely symbolize but actually functions as a heterotopia for Watt and the other visitors.
Watt, Arsene, and the other temporary workers at Mr. Knott’s house demonstrate various symptoms of aphasia, but their failure to communicate properly in the outside world results not solely from their inability to grasp meaning through language, but rather from their refusal to accept the false utopia of language that “sane” members of society accept without questioning. But in the heterotopia of Mr. Knott’s house, the a priori interpretations of language are no longer taken for granted. Once inside, Watt grows comfortable with the lack of consequences for his resistance to accepting basic signified-signifier relationships, his sometimes apathetic pursuit of communicative understanding, and his outright refusal to attempt to interpret metaphorical or symbolic meanings. When Watt exits Mr. Knott’s house, he ends up in a mental asylum because, as Foucault also concludes, rejecting the a priori meanings of language constitutes madness in “the outer world.”
First published in 1952 but composed between 1942-1944, Watt represents Beckett’s deeper foray into expressing the emptiness and alienation so prevalent in modern human experience; the novel stands on the modern-postmodern divide in European literature, both because of the date it is written and because of its content, which has elements of definite order (modernism) mixed with a sense of moral arbitrariness (postmodernism). It might be conjectured that the world outside Mr. Knott’s house accepts the modernist’s approach to language: it can be ironic and difficult, but progress is possible, and the men and women constantly moving on the tramline represent this drive forward. But the aphasiac characters wander in this false utopia, and only find safety in the fluid heterotopia of Mr. Knott’s house. Yet Beckett does not reveal what initiates movement into or out of Mr. Knott’s home, and only Mr. Knott himself possesses what seems to be the illogical pattern of life required to remain in this safe world. Once outside, Watt is relegated to the asylum, but there is a sense that the walls to Mr. Knott’s house are expanding, as the postmodern psyche infiltrates the “outer world