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University of the Arts, London
Written in 1899 -1903, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy (1903) is among the earlier works written by Russian philosopher Lev Shestov. For possibly the first time in Russian literature, these two great thinkers of the nineteenth century (Dostoevsky and Nietzsche) were brought into a comparative discussion, subjected to a critical analysis and evaluated on a single philosophical level. It is well known that Shestov’s discovery of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work in the 1890s had a stratospheric influence on his thinking (Finkenthal, 2010, p.30). And as Bernard Martin points out in his introduction to the book, it was from Nietzsche that Shestov drew the inspiration for his own lifelong polemic against the power of universal moral rules and the domination of reason (Martin, 1966, VII). For Shestov, like for Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, the focus of philosophy moves from the universal to the individual. In his advance towards a notion of tragic philosophy, he relies on the experiences of these two precursors, adopting the underground man as the spokesman for his critical thought. He develops a philosophical perspective that rests on the absurd, or as he defines it, the ‘ugly reality’ (Shestov, 1969, pp.148-149). (more…)
Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts
Only death and the madness of death can awaken people from life’s nightmare (Shestov, 1993, p.107).
One is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions; one remains young only on condition the soul does not relax, does not long for peace… (Nietzsche, 1990, p.54).
I believe that truth has only one face: that of violent contradiction (Bataille, 198, p.26).
What, then, is The One? It is what makes all things possible (Plotinus, 1964, p.173).
Though the works of the Ukraine-born Russian philosopher Lev Shestov have been translated into several European languages, they are still little-known within the continental tradition. His philosophical versatility as one of the most respected Russian thinkers has not been underestimated, however: V. V. Zenkovsky’s A History of Russian Philosophy (1991) characterizes Shestov as ‘a believing consciousness, rare for its sustained and lucid quality,’ claiming that in his writings the development of twentieth-century Russian thought reached its highest point (p.91, 82). According to Nikolai Berdyaev (1938), another celebrated Russian philosopher and Shestov’s lifelong friend, ‘Shestov philosophised with all his being; for him philosophy was not an academic speculation, but rather a matter of life and death’ (p.44).
In this essay I aim to examine a method of paradoxical thinking adopted by Shestov in All Things Are Possible (1923), where I attempt to unfold the significance of paradoxes and paradoxical principles within the context of his writing. The second aim of my study is to anticipate and elaborate on the concept of despair as a fundamental notion in Shestov’s philosophy.
Lev Issakovich Shestov (1866-1938), born to a Jewish family, studied law and mathematics at the Kiev and Moscow Universities. He married in 1896 and swiftly began his career as an author of essays and articles for a number of publications. His first book, entitled Shakespeare and his Critique Brandes, was published at St. Petersburg in 1898. Tragedy struck Shestov’s life with the commencement of the First World War, when he learned his son, Sergei, had been killed in service of the Russian military. In 1919, soon after the October Revolution, he and his remaining family were forced to flee the country. He spent the rest of his life in exile, living in Paris, where he lectured on Russian literature and established contacts from within the French literary circles—there he befriended some of the most prominent writers of his generation. He died two decades later, on the 19th of November 1938.
Michael Finkenthal (2010) observes that from an early age Shestov ‘lived intellectually under the spell of the Russian and the Western European cultures’ (p.17). Indeed, from the age of thirteen, Shestov immersed himself in the classic authors of Russian literature, such as Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Nekrasov, Belinsky, and Dostoevsky. Though the first foreign authors with which Shestov became familiar were Shakespeare and Goethe, the most radical impact was made when he discovered Nietzsche in the late 1890s, during one of his many visits to Europe. G.L. Lovtzky (2002), his brother-in-law, remembers that Beyond Good and Evil (1909) was the first of Nietzsche’s work explored by Shestov, followed shortly by On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Many years later Shestov would tell his disciple Benjamin Fondane that the reading of this latter text had a stratospheric influence on his imagination and disturbed him to the point of insomnia (Finkenthal, 2010, p.30).
‘Paradox’ is a mid-sixteenth-century noun originating from the Greek paradoxon (para ’distinct from’+ doxa ‘opinion’). A paradox is defined as a seemingly contradictory statement which, when investigated, might be proven to be true. In the history of philosophy paradoxes are known to provide a valuable material for critical thinking; Kierkegaard (1946) deems the paradox ‘the source of the thinker’s passion,’ claiming that ‘the thinker without paradox is like the lover without feeling’ (p.29).
At first glance, it would seem that in All Things Are Possible Shestov emphasises the impossibility of finding satisfactory answers. The book reveals the major notion of his philosophy: the belief in the revelation of a divine being through tragic experience of ‘groundlessness,’ deformity, and faith. For Shestov, truth lives by contradictions, and does not depend upon logic; the reader is invited to embrace the tragic side of existence, confronted by a controversial investigation. Willingly rejecting the concepts of reason, morality and universal truths, distinctive in the rational tradition of thinking, the author concentrates his attention on the subjective experience, i.e. one’s struggle with the self.
Shestov offers his reader an alternative means of perception, an unconventional perspective on life by way of a critical analysis of contemporary Russian and Western philosophical ideas. His original style of writing in this book is characterized by a gradual unfolding of the text, which contains numerous references to the ideas of Eastern and Western European thinkers. This impressive collection of ideas serves as a playground for Shestov’s often provocative, bold, and seemingly careless statements. The book is, on the whole, a collection of brief and deeply paradoxical, almost ironic thoughts.
Shestov (1923) defines doubt and uncertainty as the sustainable creative force of the mind, and an essential motivation when the field of its application is limitless (p.24, 90). Opposing the rationale of Kant and Hegel, he daringly states that philosophy has nothing in common with science, for science relies on logic and therefore ‘cannot know what truth is’ (Ibid., p.228). For Shestov, philosophy is rather an art and aims at breaking stereotypes by unlocking the imagination. The philosopher, then, is an artist of sorts, an artist to whom her work is dearer than anything else in her life, sometimes dearer than life itself (Shestov, 1916, p.115). He emphasises that in order to embrace a liberating, ‘groundless’ experience, one must free the mind of its own bonds and ethical dogmas. Likewise, philosophers must first set themselves free of all constraints in order to learn to doubt everything and ask questions where others do not, even at a risk of making themselves an object of ridicule (Shestov, 1923, p.38, 225).
The business of philosophy is to teach man to live in uncertainty. More briefly, the business of philosophy is not to reassure people, but to upset them (Shestov, 1923, p.24).
Shestov’s vision is conceptually complex. With the help of self-contradictory statements, the philosopher’s thought operates within a paradigm of unique self-negating oppositions, such as doubt/reason, truth/knowledge, experience/science, infinity/finale, distraction/harmony, ugliness/beauty, necessity/empiricism, originality/commonness, hopelessness/hope, immorality/morality, temporality/eternity, genius/talent, sickness/ health, and night/day. Overall, the intention is to rearrange and displace conventional, traditional values and commonly-held truths. By reducing the rational subject to nothingness, Shestov highlights groundlessness and uncertainty as the primary conditions for the start of a radically new irrational experience.
Shestov derives his penchant for contradiction from ancient Greek tradition. In his Metaphysics (1987), Aristotle establishes the principle of contradiction as the fundamental law of logic (pp.65-9). Plato (2000) believes God created the world and is the author of good, but not of all things (p.52). Plotinus (1964, p.79), to whom Shestov often refers in his writing, suggests that ‘the One is every thing and not every thing. It is not every thing because it is the source of every thing’ (p.79). For Socrates, too, death may be the greatest of all human blessings (Russell, 2004, p.93). Following the Greeks, Shestov identifies the subject of death and passing to be the real aim for all philosophers (Shestov, 1923, p.45). Radically reconsidering Greek tragedy, he adduces tragic experience and despair as an example of a paradoxical encounter between the individual and the other (i.e. God). The conflict of Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy will become a fundamental theme in Shestov’s final book, Athens and Jerusalem (1938), in which he returns to the subject of death in Greek tragedy. Thus, referring to Socrates’ tragic death, Shestov (1966) emphasises its paradoxical nature:
It seems that every man, like Socrates, has at his side a demon who, in decisive moments, demands of him judgments and acts whose meaning remains incomprehensible to him and forever hidden (p.30).
Unlike those of his contemporaries (viz. Vasilii Rozanov, Vladimir Solovyev and Dmitri Merezhkovsky), Shestov’s writings do not exuberate poetic lines or mystical whimsicality. By contrast, adopting Nietzsche’s aphoristic style, the author takes his reader on a challenging journey through a multi-layered texture of provocative thoughts, scrupulously uncovering the groundlessness of logic, reason, and common sense in the established tradition.
In the way of Nietzsche, Shestov is compelled to go ‘beyond good and evil.’ In On the Genealogy of Morals (1989) Nietzsche (1989) writes, ‘Whoever has at some time built a “new heaven’’ has found the power to do so only in his own hell’ (p.115). In All Things Are Possible (1923) we see Shestov respond to Nietzsche: ‘Nearly every life can be summed up in a few words: man was shown heaven – and thrown into the mud’ (p.202). In the vein of Plato and Nietzsche, we see him illuminate despair as a place from which philosophy originates. For Shestov, tragedy is the starting point; it is the area where the most obvious things fade and lose their appearance. Everything becomes questionable, and life itself falls under the cloud of uncertainty.
Man only thinks properly when he realises he has nothing to do, his hands are tied. That is why any profound thought must arise from despair (Shestov, 1923, p.138).
Shestov highlights the notion of despair in order to unveil the real face of truth in all the groundlessness and uncertainty of life. The author asserts truth by way of contrast to knowledge, creating a dialogue of polemical ideas. His truth cannot be universal, for it is related to changeable human tastes and desires. Paradoxically, while the horror of death is present in all living beings, the horror of the sensation of groundlessness brings man back to himself (Shestov, 1923, p.75, 31).
Socrates, Plato, and Plotinus place God in subordination to reason and necessity. Shestov, conversely, places God outside of frames, definitions and necessities, seeing despair as a chance for philosophical advancement beyond rational knowledge, and an opportunity to establish a new understanding of consciousness adequate to the mind’s amorphous, infinite, and incomprehensible performance. Curiously, the Eastern Orthodox tradition has always been moderate in recognising inherent contradictions in things, viewing coexistence of good and evil as the only given and acceptable reality (Makrides, Uffelmann, 2003, p.100).
In an ambitious attempt to create a unity of Eastern and Western European thought, Shestov builds his argument on a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Appealing to Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, among others, Shestov identifies Kant and the rationalist thinkers as his main opponents (Finkenthal, 2010, p.33, 41). Shestov praises Dostoevsky’s ‘underground man’ for standing against reason, facing the weaknesses of the mind and descending into the tragic atmosphere of the underworld. Groundlessness and uncertainty surrounding Dostoevsky’s characters in Poor Folk (1845), Humiliated and Insulted (1861), and The Notes from The Underground (1864) give them a chance to redeem themselves, and according to Shestov (1923), ‘In a crisis, a stupid man becomes clever’ (p.157). For many of Dostoevsky’s characters there is no other path to the truth that of penal servitude, the dungeon, or the underground (Shestov, 1969, p.157). In a way similar to Nietzsche, Dostoevsky is destroyed by his personal encounters and the horrors of a tormented existence: the extreme experiences of their own lives bring both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to ‘the philosophy of tragedy’ (ibid., p.241).
Shestov wrote Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche: Philosophy and Preaching in 1900, and like many of the philosopher’s works it is an inquiry as to the relationship between truth and its seeker. Many of the problems stated in this paper refer to Shestov’s later writings, and to All Things Are Possible in particular. Undertaking a deep analysis of Tolstoy’s stories, Shestov (1900) assert that his literary world is dominated by the idea of moral existence motivated by the intention of serving good. Shestov takes the side of the German thinker against Tolstoy’s ‘preaching’ and the conviction that there is no salvation outside the ‘good’:
Tolstoy now tells us that ‘’the good is God’’… He had, it is true, sought the good all his life, but he always had the ability to stretch the good on the Procrustean bed of his own needs (Shestov, 1969, pp.111-112).
As in Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, Tolstoy’s literary creativity is roused by the need to find a solution for the problems that torment the writer. But unlike Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, Tolstoy always presents answers to the questions he poses. Shestov (1969) argues that morality can’t exist without its counterpart – immorality – and consequently the questions ‘whom to blame?’ and ‘whom to reproach?’ inevitably become its essence (p.38, 19). This is why, for Shestov, Tolstoy’s philosophy does not pass beyond the limits of morality.
Significantly, Shestov defines his own philosophy as ‘the great and final struggle’ (Baranoff, 1982); that is, the struggle against the dictatorship of reason, the force of knowledge, the heavy chains of morality and logic. Hence, Shestov brings knowledge, logic, and morality to the centre of his philosophical investigation. He passionately negates abstract formalism and rational truths, rejecting Kant’s notion of a priori and universal laws. As Ramona Fotiade (2001) points out, ‘The fight against rational a priori and moral conventions is located at the level of individual consciousness and individual mind’ (p.26). By paradox, Shestov (1923) asserts that the sublime is but a single step from the ridiculous (p. 45). Ultimately, Kantian philosophy is limited by a categorical imperative; there is no room for doubt: for Kant, just like for Tolstoy, real contradictions cease to exist in the domain of moral life (Shestov, 1969, p.39).
According to V. V. Zenkovsky (2003), Shestov, whilst he was writing All Things Are Possible, was not yet familiar with Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death (1849), where the Danish philosopher ponders the notions of despair (p.783). Shestov read Kierkegaard for the first time in 1929, following his acquaintance with Husserl. Although Husserl and Shestov occupied radically different philosophical positions, the two became friends after meeting at a philosophical symposium in Amsterdam in 1928 (Sinigoj, 2006). Interestingly, Shestov (1923) conceives of despair in a way similar to Kierkegaard: as an absurd negativity and a means to the revelation of truth. Kierkegaard (2008) considers truth both paradoxical and absurd, claiming that ‘despair is itself a negativity, ignorance of it a new negativity. But to arrive at the truth one has to pass through every negativity; it is just as the old story says about breaking a certain magic spell: it won’t be broken unless the piece is played right through backwards’ (p.50). Crucially, for both Kierkegaard and Shestov, liberation from rationalism is the fundamental task of philosophy.
Shestov aims to take our minds outside the constraints of preconceived limitations and judgements. We soon find ourselves descending into the groundlessness of the unknown, an underground space in the mind where all boundaries fade, and darkness prevails. Here we experience a disturbing sensation, confusion and displacement, which all provide an opportunity to despair and doubt everything that we previously believed or trusted to be true. Eventually, this experience would lead us to faith. The intense feeling of despair is metaphorically identified with the darkness of the night. For only in the gloom of the night sky are we able to gaze at the stars above, and even the brightest of the stars are not apparent to the human eye in the daylight. In a sense, Shestov creates a unique and unorthodox link between powerlessness and freedom. Thus, contradicting himself, Shestov (1923) arrives to a surprisingly logical conclusion:
We must make use of everything, even of death, to serve the ends of this life of ours (p.215).
The idiosyncratic style of Shestov’s writing, characterized by a free flow of thought, reflects the author’s daring conviction that reason and knowledge cannot fully comprehend all the absurdity of human nature. The poignant idea of an apology for the insanity of the mind, seeking to be liberated from the chains of rational thinking in search for truth, already belongs to modernity.
But to think-really to think-surely this means a relinquishing of logic. It means living a new life. It means a permanent sacrifice of the dearest habits, tastes, attachments, without even the assurance that the sacrifice will bring any compensation (Shestov, 1923, p.139).
The wealth of ideas put together in All Things Are Possible ensures important developments for the philosopher’s later thought, such as that present in The Theory of Knowledge (1916), Potestas Clavium (1923), and Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy (1936). Written between 1903 and 1905, the book poses major questions regarding religion and faith that the philosopher later explores after leaving Russia for the last time. The problems of truth and knowledge reoccur in Shestov’s writing as central notions within his philosophical inquiry. At a time when the majority of the Russian intelligentsia was under the influence of a materialistic interpretation of life, Apotheosis of Groundlessness (1905) crashes upon Russian literature as a stone upon glass (Lovtzky, 1983, p.71). Possibly predicting the revolutionary changes in his homeland, Shestov (1923) talks about ‘the Russian man,’ describing him as ‘an elementary man waiting for a miracle, craving for the unknown’ (p.90, 163). Published in 1905, just a few months before the first Russian Revolution, the book incites heavy opprobrium (Lovtzky, 1983, p.71).
Due to its compelling discourse with rationalism and an enlightenment of the personal experience, the philosophy of Shestov has been described as existentialist. Nikolai Berdyaev (1938) was among the first to suggest that ‘this type of philosophy presupposes, that the mystery of being is comprehendible only within the human existential condition’ (p.44). Shestov’s provocative and often paradoxical ideas influenced many contemporary authors, among them Gabriel Marcel, Albert Camus, Benjamin Fondane, George Bataille, Czeslaw Milosz, and D. H. Lawrence. By some readers, however, his interest in the question of the revelation of death as the revelation of true life has been deemed absurd. Yet it seems that Shestov (1923) successfully fulfilled the challenge he set himself at the beginning of All Things Are Possible: the challenge of inventing his own truth. Accordingly, Shestov’s thought initiates a radical idea that each man has the right to possess his or her own truth. His philosophy does not provide a system of eternal truths, but attempts to show us how to live in uncertainty (p.71). By accepting the principle of paradoxical thinking, corresponding to the revelation of the incomprehensible mystery of being, Shestov offers a radically new experience for the human consciousness, which is no longer limited by the need to worry about the form or consistency of argumentation. The unconventional execution of thought characteristic of Shestov’s style of writing, provides an opportunity for refreshing ideas, setting the imagination free, and exploring alternative ways of thinking.
Shestov puts an individual’s experience at the centre of his philosophical investigation: where God stands outside the circle of necessity, there is no subordination, no ground; and therefore everything is possible.
University of West Sydney
Part I: Badiou’s Beckett and the Philosophy-Literature Encounter
To pit Simon Critchley’s Samuel Beckett against Alain Badiou’s Beckett is to glimpse the long history of Beckett’s troubled tryst with philosophers and the discipline of philosophy. While Critchley highlights Beckett’s resistance to philosophical interpretation, Badiou’s readings imply an essential value of the Beckett-corpus to what he considers the task of philosophy. Beckett had told Gabriel D’Aubarède on February 16, 1961: ‘I wouldn’t have had any reason to write my novels if I could have expressed their subject in philosophic terms’ (Graver, 2005, p. 240). The phenomenon that essentially differentiates philosophical language from that of literature is a set of two different accentuations regarding the abstract-concrete binary. Philosophy has a much more abstract language than literature and as we will see, Badiou’s Beckett who participates in the thought of the ‘generic’ is also abstractifying the language of literature in the process. In 1961, Beckett had told Tom Driver:
‘When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don’t know, but their language is too philosophical for me. I am not a philosopher’ (ibid. p.242).
In both these statements, Beckett distinguishes his ‘language’ from the ‘philosophic terms,’ implying his reluctance to see his own works as philosophical treatments of philosophical problems. Beckett, as it seems, is not so much opposed to the idea that his work deals with philosophical themes. What he opposes is the idea that he treats the philosophical themes philosophically. In these conversations, he is meticulously sensitive to the discursive gap between philosophy and literature. We will have scope to interrogate and push this discursive gap which also contains the binary of the abstract and the concrete in relation to thought.
Beckett’s fiction undergoes a vast change from the rich referential structures from The Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932), More Pricks than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938) to the echoes in The Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable between 1951 and 1953) and finally to the minimalist register of the short prose texts like ‘Ping,’ ‘Lessness,’ ‘Fizzles’ and the ‘Nohow On’ trilogy. Allusions to specific philosophers and texts dry up in Beckett’s later writing. Does this imply an end of the Beckett-philosophy face-off? Alain Badiou seizes on the Beckett of later prose. He concentrates on later works (How It Is, The Lost Ones, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho) and examines the way Beckett subtracts the ‘demented particulars’ (Beckett, 2006, p.11) to arrive at a ‘writing of the generic’ (Badiou, 2003, p.1). Be it the grid of the ‘generic’ or that of the ‘event,’ Badiou’s reflections on Beckett seem to have important implications for his philosophical system since the ‘generic’ is a quality shared by all truths. In Badiou’s system, philosophy has four conditions, i.e. four truth-procedures [art, science or mathematics, politics and love]. Although Badiou does not spell it out, he implicitly relates Beckettian minimalism with the subtractive function of philosophy. In his article on Worstward Ho (1983), Badiou reads Beckett’s text as a ‘short philosophical treatise, as a treatment in shorthand of the question of being’ (ibid. p.80), implicitly giving Beckett the status of a philosopher. Let us see how this declaration problematizes Badiou’s theorization of the philosophy-literature interface.
Part II: ‘Alone Together’: Badiou’s Philosophy and Beckett’s Literary Project
In the last chapter of Manifesto for Philosophy, titled ‘Definition of Philosophy,’ Badiou defines philosophy as the ‘locus of thinking’ (Badiou, 1999, p.141) where the sentence ‘there are truths’ is stated. This locus is not a passive container of the four truth-procedures. It organizes what Badiou calls the ‘compossibility’ (ibid. p.141) of these truths. Philosophy brings these four truth-procedures together. It arranges and ‘configurates’ (ibid. p.37) the artistic, mathematical, amorous and political truths, though it is not a truth-procedure in itself. The act of philosophy consists of a seizing of truths. This seizure is what ‘roots out truths from the gangue of sense’ (ibid. p.142). So, philosophy seizes truths ‘out of sense.’ An ‘active void’ (ibid. p.141) within thought is the background against which it performs this act. This void has to do with the way truth always interrupts the circulation of sense. As Badiou says: ‘Philosophy is subtractive in that it makes a hole in sense, for truths to all be said together’ (ibid. p.142). The subtractive function of philosophy is a subtraction of ‘thought from every presupposition of presence’ (ibid. p.143). Since the philosophical operation cuts open a void in thought and it is around this rupture that the event of truth occurs, it subtracts all forms of presence. The act makes truths happen against the order of presence, which is also an order of sense. For Badiou, The act of philosophy is not a hermeneutic act, but rather an act of nomination. It names the different events in the fields of art, science, politics and love. Philosophy gathers together all these eventual names. Nomination is in dichotomy with interpretation and the names of events are ‘additional-names’ (ibid. p.37). They are coined by way of a forcing of the linguistic register or ‘breaking of the mirror’ of linguistic surface. I think, this project of philosophy is anticipated by Beckett in his famous German letter to Axel Kaun in 1937. In that letter, Beckett announces his literary project in terms of the act of boring holes into the ‘terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface’ (Beckett, 2009a, p.518). This act of grilling intends to dissolve the surface and cut open the veil of language ‘until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through’ (ibid.). Does this correspondence not imply an interpenetration of Badiou’s philosophical and Beckett’s literary projects? What Badiou declares to be the central task of philosophy seems to be already seized by Beckett as the foremost literary task.
When Beckett, as Badiou insists, eliminates the inessential particularities to arrive at a subtractive grid of the universal or the ‘generic,’ he also produces an abstractionism in the process. There are no back stories in Beckett. If we ask who Didi and Gogo are, there can be no answer. What is the setting of Endgame or when does its action take place? No answer is possible beyond hermeneutic speculation. Therefore, we can say it is Beckett’s evacuation of almost all that is particular and referential that makes his work so very representative of abstractionism. I think his work allows us to see this significant overlap between abstractionism and universality. Pascale Casanova considers Beckett to be the real inventor of an entirely abstract literary structure. To Casanova, Beckett’s programmatic abstractification of literary language does not lend itself to philosophizing but rather to ‘autonomous form, self-generated by the mathematical matrix and attaining a kind of abstractive purity’ (Casanova, 2006, p.102). I think it is this abstractification that makes Beckett’s work akin to the philosophical discourse. Beckett’s abstractionism enables him to appropriate what philosophy would want to claim as its exclusive privilege i.e. thinking the thought of thought without recourse to a concrete image.
Part III: Badiou’s Project of De-Suturing Philosophy: Where Does Beckett Exist?
In Badiou’s system, philosophy is what makes truths available to thought. Philosophy, in his words, pronounces ‘the thinkable conjunction of truths’ (Badiou, 1999, p.38). This is how it makes truths ‘compossible.’ The four truth-procedures are the four ‘conditions’ of philosophy (ibid. p.141) and they are ‘transversal’ (ibid. p.33) in nature. This transversality means that ‘philosophy requires there to be truths within each of the orders in which they may be invoked’ (ibid. p.35). Badiou defines the crucial term ‘suture’ here. It is a state where instead of configurating all four truth-procedures, philosophy ‘delegates its functions to one or other of its conditions, handing over the whole of thought to one generic procedure’ (ibid. p.61). Suture blocks the free play of intellectual circulations among the truth-procedures. In such a situation, philosophy sutures itself either to art or to science, either to politics or to love. When it sutures itself to any one of the four conditions, philosophy itself is ‘placed in suspension’ (ibid.). For Badiou, Marxism breaks with the nineteenth century ‘scientistic’ (ibid. p.62) suture of philosophy but then again, it also becomes philosophy’s most comprehensive political suture. Badiou locates the artistic suture of philosophy in the twentieth century, especially in the work of Heidegger. He also declares that his own aim is the ‘de-suturation’ (ibid. p.67) of philosophy. If philosophy sutures itself to one type of truth at the cost of others, the suture ‘completes and therefore destroys the categorical void without which philosophy cannot be the site of thought’ (Badiou, 2009, p.83). If Badiou aims to de-suture philosophy from literature, this project problematizes his claim regarding Beckett’s status as a philosopher. The tricky question is whether to see Beckett’s work as part of Badiou’s post-Hegelian ‘age of poets,’ where poets like Paul Celan ‘constitute, from within their art, that general space of reception for thought and the generic procedures that philosophy, sutured as it was, could no longer establish’ (ibid. p.69). Badiou does not mention Beckett here and he maintains that the ‘age of poets’ is completed but Beckett’s relation to this age remains ambivalent. He considers the central task of these poets to be the ‘destitution of the subject-object couple’ or what he calls the process of ‘disobjectivation’ (ibid. p.76). Badiou also talks about the need to go beyond the ‘age of poets’ in de-suturing philosophy from art and one does not need to evoke the poem or the ‘poetic metaphor’ (ibid. p.74) to talk about the disorientation of the object. As he says, it is time to ‘conceptualize’ (ibid. p.74) this disorientation.
As early as the review article ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ published in 1934, under the pseudonym Andrew Belis, Beckett talks about the ‘breakdown of the object’ (Beckett, 1984, p.70) as ‘the new thing that has happened, or the old thing that has happened again’ (ibid. p.70). This breakdown, as Beckett notes, is related to the ‘breakdown of the subject’ and both these breakdowns tantamount to a ‘rupture of the lines of communication’ (ibid.). ‘Disobjectivation’ is on Beckett’s agenda, long before Badiou’s. In Badiou, the process of disobjectivation contributes to the realization of thought as subject. From Worstward Ho and many of the later Beckett-texts, what Badiou extracts is a conceptual reading where the subject-object disorientation can be conceptualized. No wonder his piece on Worstward Ho is titled ‘Being, Existence, Thought: Prose and Concept.’ What philosophy could not do, being sutured to science and politics, was done by literature in a compensatory manner in the ‘age of poets.’ Is Beckett one of those artists who write in the wake of the historical failure of philosophy or is his oeuvre a site where such a failure can be conceptualized by philosophy? Does he not conceptualize this breakdown on his own, thereby leaving no room for the philosopher to do the same?
Part IV: ‘So Much Shared’: The Beckett-Space and Badiou’s Locus Philosophicus
A spatial consciousness governs the majority of Beckett’s late-writings, be it the ‘rotunda’ of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ and ‘All Strange Away,’ the ‘flatness endless’ (Beckett, 1995, p.199) of ‘Lessness,’ the white loci of ‘Ping’ and ‘Ceiling,’ the cylinder in The Lost Ones , the cabin in Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) or the dim void of Worstward Ho. ‘The Cliff’ and ‘The Way’ are organized around the conception of a site. Taking the cue from Casanova, we can say that this space which is ‘pure by virtue of being mathematical’ is also the ‘motor of abstractification’ (Casanova, 2006, p.102). Beckett uses multiple geometrical images (e.g. How It Is and ‘All Strange Away’ where there is a separate section called ‘Diagram’) to designate what is an impeccable site. The organizing force of the text is a numeric and geometrical configuration of its locus, the most obvious visual example being the constitution of the ‘danger zone’ by the proliferating figures of Quad. Our question is whether we can relate this Beckettian task of spatial constitution to the way Badiou defines philosophy as a site of thought. Can Beckett be seen to perform the philosopher’s task by configuring an abstract locus of thought which arranges the truth-procedures?
Badiou considers all the truth procedures to engage in their respective fields of thought. So, the conception of the literary text as an artistic locus of thought does not really clash with his system. What distinguishes the art as a locus of thought from philosophy is Badiou’s conceptualization of philosophy as the thought of thought or thought qua thought. In the locus of philosophy, we are concerned with the reflexivity of thought. Here thought establishes itself as a subject. Badiou says, while discussing the work of Sylvian Lazarus:
The whole problem is to think thought as thought and not as object; or again, to think that which is thought in thought, and not ‘that which’ (the object) thought thinks (Badiou, 2005, p.27)
This thought of what is thought in thought relates to Lazarus’s ‘anthropology of the name’ and naming or presentation is the central philosophical task, according to Badiou. The crucial question is to enquire if the Beckettian locus of thought is reflexive. Does Beckett think what thinks thought in thought?
If we see the Beckett-locus as the space of philosophy, it does not contradict what Badiou defines as ‘inaesthetics’:
By ‘ineasthetics,’ I understand a relation of philosophy to art that, maintaining that art is itself a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy. Against aesthetic speculation, inaesthetics describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art (Badiou, 2005, the blank page prior to p.1).
If a work of art can produce ‘intraphilosophical effects,’ it has to implicate philosophy. The word ‘intraphilosophical’ has connotations of art having philosophical effects, immanent to the artistic domain. Thus the effect produced is not called ‘interphilosophical.’ The word also suggests the seizure of artistic effect within philosophical space. The issue of art’s interiority or exteriority in relation to the philosophical locus remains suspect.
According to Badiou, philosophy remains in the dark regarding its specific effect on its four conditions:
‘The effects of philosophy outside of itself, its effects in reality, remain entirely opaque for philosophy itself…The impossible of thought proper to philosophy, which is thus its real, lies in the effect that it produces on its conditions (qtd. in Hallward, p.244).
So the effects of philosophy on science, art, politics and love are located in the order of the Lacanian real, a point that formalizes thought in its most generic and universal form and yet remains unthinkable in itself. It is this Lacanian notion of the real that informs Badiou’s concept of truth, boring holes in knowledge through the power of its unknowability. I think Beckett’s work incorporates both the artistic happening of truth and its constitution and conceptualization within a subtractive, generic and reflexive locus of thought and it almost leaves nothing for the philosopher. The Beckett-locus houses the universal space of philosophy within the literary text. Does this comprise Beckett’s artistic resistance to the philosophical appropriation of literature or is it a suture from the other end, i.e. art being sutured to philosophy instead of philosophy being sutured to art? This question marks Beckett’s paradoxical relation to the philosophy-literature encounter. The gift of Beckett’s abstractionism lies in its ability to appropriate philosophy within literature.
In Beckett’s later prose, space is foregrounded so much that the text becomes equivalent with it. This space is the centre around which thought organizes itself and there is an obsessive drive of configurating this space topologically, geometrically and numerically. This act of spatial configuration is the central textual action. Beckettian minimalism takes away all specificities and we are left with a disobjectivated locus where absence prevails over presence. This is implied by the narrator of Worstward Ho: ‘A place. Where none’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.81). The locus in the text is given a telling name: ‘void.’ This locus of lack or the lacking locus is a subtracted order. Shades still continue to infest this void dimly. These are the shades of thought that remain when the object is subtracted. They subjectively think what is thought in thought, sans the object.
Beckett’s textual drive aims at controlling the space. The couple in ‘Enough’ engages in geodesic measurement of topography in their journey through infinity. The cylinder in The Lost Ones and the rotunda of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ are meticulously controlled in terms of regulating light and heat. In ‘All Strange Away,’ the narrator is obsessed with a numerical and geometrical constitution of the rotunda. The task of imagination, required to declare its own death, is a spatial constitution: ‘Imagination dead imagine. A place, that again. Never another question’ (Beckett, 1995, p.169). The Beckett-locus is grounded in its necessary relation to a point of the unknown and the impossible, which is extimate [both inside and outside] (Lacan, 1992, p.139) to the locus. The way out of the cylinder in The Lost Ones, the enigmatic ‘ping fixed elsewhere’ (ibid.) in ‘Ping’ and the unknown and unsaid arena in ‘Fizzle 5’ are examples of such spaces where knowledge is suspended. These impossible points are the real of thought around which the locus is built. The centres of the Beckett-loci are thus internally excluded zones of extimacy, where the real reigns. In ‘Fizzle 5,’ the ‘closed space’ where ‘all needed for say is known’ (ibid. p.236) is the ditch and the unknowable arena beyond is its interdicted centre. What goes on in the arena is neither known nor said. It is this unspeakable space of the real that breaks with the closed space of knowledge. The ‘all known’ (ibid. p.193) locus of ‘Ping’ has a similar relation with the unknown ‘elsewhere’ where the real of ping is located.
Part V: Thought qua Thought and the Real in the Beckett-Locus
While discussing Sylvain Lazarus’s book The Anthropology of the Name in the essay ‘Politics as Thought: The Work of Sylvain Lazarus,’ Badiou deals with the concept of objectless thought or thinking of thought in thought. His conception establishes thought as a rapport with its real: ‘Thought is not a relation to the object, it is an internal relation of its Real […]’ (Badiou, 2005c, p.28). The task of thought here is to name what is thought in thought. This naming of truth as the rapport of thought and the real is also the quintessential task of philosophy in Badiou. Disobjectivated subjective thought invokes the real which inexists for language. This subjective thought is informed by the psychoanalytic critique of the unitary and conscious subject of reflection. If we go by Jacques Lacan’s point that the ‘ergo’ or ‘therefore’ of Descartes’s ‘Cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think therefore I am’ is a break which splits the cogito, then the subject that thinks is not exactly the subject that is. Lacan thus subverts the Cartesian maxim: ‘I am not, where I am the plaything of my thought; I think about what I am where I do not think I am thinking’ (Lacan, 2006, p.430). I would argue that the Beckett-locus houses subjective thought where its object is withered away and we encounter thought in its bare bones. The subject of this thought is not merely the Cartesian cogito of the one, but the split subject of the unconscious, which activates the real of thought. The impossible of thought is integral to philosophy. In his essay ‘Dante… Bruno… Vico… Joyce,’ Beckett refers to Joyce’s writing not being a writing about something but being ‘that something itself’ (Beckett, 2006, p.503). This absolute self-referentiality, anticipates the Badiouian thought of thought where the something which thinks thought is not turned into its object (‘about’) but maintained as its real through the grid of nomination.
Part VI: Real as the Impossible Womb-Tomb of Thought and a Hole in Knowledge
‘Ping’ describes a white world of the fixed body where the narrator tries to come up with exact figures of the space but there is always that ‘one square yard never seen’ (Beckett, 1995, p.193). The space described is shorn of all particulars and approached purely through its genericity. It is ‘all known all white’ (ibid.) and the white body on the white surface is almost invisible. Be it a murmur or any other sound or any-thing for that matter, ‘ping’ is immediately located in another space: ‘[…] fixed ping fixed elsewhere’ (ibid.). The ‘brief murmurs’ which keep happening in this white space are ‘almost never all known.’ There are ‘traces’ and ‘blurs’ but no meaning. So, this locus, from a Badiouian perspective is the locus where meaning is subtracted and the truth which subtracts it is ‘ping.’ Ping is a strictly meaningless word. It is a name. If ping is a murmur, it also leads one to a possible way out of the body’s white world: ‘Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a way out’ (ibid. p.194). Ping is also a trace through which meaning still tempts in this subtracted world. It is full of the seductions of ‘meaning,’ ‘nature’ and ‘image,’ but it is a threshold where thought reaches the point of its own impossibility. Thus the ‘elsewhere’ of ping always remains unknown. It bores a hole in knowledge itself: ‘Ping elsewhere always there but that known not’ (ibid.). In this white space where planes meet, there always remains one ‘shining’ and ‘infinite’ plane which is ‘known not’ (ibid.). Ping itself is ‘white over’ and white i, the colour of the generic after the dispensation of all particular colours. It is thus called the ‘last colour’ (ibid. p.195) for ping. Ping is something very ‘old’ and ‘never seen’ (ibid.). The movement of thought in Beckett’s text is a quest for ping which is like an impossible beyond of thought. The eyes continue their effort to catch a glimpse of ping but it remains eternally static in its own locus, never to be seen. The locus of thought in ‘Ping’ is not only reflexive but it tries to think itself as a subject, establishing itself as a relation of the real through the grid of the name. The one locus of thought divides into the two [the white world and the elsewhere] of ping where the missed encounter with ping is inscribed. In the final reckoning, ping is characterized with a silence, which is the real punctuation of thought.
In ‘Imagination Dead Imagine,’ there is again the same image of white on white: ‘[…] all white in the whiteness the rotunda’ (Beckett, 1995, p.182) and the narrator again takes the trouble of measuring it meticulously. The ‘black dark’ which is at its coldest gradually and systematically turns into a ‘great whiteness’ which is its most heated condition as well. The locus thus swings in an impeccably regulated way between white heat and dark cold with reversing pauses at the two extreme points. The sources linking light and heat and dark and cold remain unknown. In this white rotunda, two white bodies lie on the ground, ‘each in its semicircle’ (ibid.). Beckett describes the exact angles of their positions through precise geometrical formations of ACB and BDA. When they open their eyes, their gazes never overlap except once when the beginning of the one overlaps with the other’s end for ten seconds. The narrator simply leaves them there at the end; in quest of an ‘elsewhere’ which he himself denies immediately (ibid. p.185). The two bodies become tinier and get lost as white specks in whiteness when the thought of the narrator distanciates itself from the locus. The Beckett-locus maintains its relation with the real in its liminal and impossible nature. Thought thinks its own limit here.
The rotunda returns in the text significantly titled ‘All Strange Away.’ The generic writing of truth does away with all that is strange to reach its minimal degree. This locus appears to be a cube to begin with. It is then subjected to a rigorous numerical and geometric measurement which reveals it to be a rotunda instead. The locus is full of inscriptions and all these are names: ‘[…] tattered syntaxes of Jolly and Draeger Praeger Draeger, all right’ (Beckett, 1995, p.169). Naming the locus and its inhabitants is the diagrammatic drive of the text and the precisely configured fixing of the body in the rotunda leaves one hemicycle vacant. In these whitened bodies, there is only the flesh of thought after the exhaustion of all possible objects: ‘[…] when all gone from mind and all mind gone that then none ever been but only silent flesh […]’ (ibid. p.176). This locus of thought opens up the void by arranging all its bodily shapes in one part and preserving the lack in the other.
The Beckett-locus operates as a yardstick of thought’s economy, marking the limits of thinkability. One is reminded of the ending of Worstward Ho where the shades of the old man and the child, the woman and the skull within the skull all turn ‘least.’ They turn into ‘three pins’ which arrange themselves in ‘one pinhole’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.103). This minimalist configuration is where thought reaches its absolute limit beyond which one cannot go:
In dimmest dim. Vasts apart. At bounds of boundless void. Whence no farther. Best worse no farther (ibid.).
It is here that thought discovers the limits, which were thus far inexistent for it. This is where thought is punctuated by the liminal Beckett-locus. It has to turn back upon itself from this limit. It is here that it is made to think its own thought.
The two topological signs (8 and ∞) which are placed before the two paragraphs of ‘The Way’ point to the centrality of the spatial matrix. The two interlocked one-way ways are like approaches to eternity and the site eludes figural calculation. It is a locus of subtracted knowledge, with exact height and depth remaining unknown. In this world of mist and half-light, the ‘loose sand underfoot’ does not preserve footsteps. Thus emerges the thought: ‘So no sign of remains no sign that none before’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.125). In the second and final paragraph, the loose sand changes into ‘bedrock’ and thus the thought: ‘So no sign of remains a sign that none before’ (ibid. p.126). This is the negation that characterizes truth. It emerges through the negation of no signs and its contents are also negative in the sense that it points to the lack of anyone ever having come to the locus. This is a liminal locus, exposed to infinity and it can only be reached after the necessary subtraction of the embellishing particulars. When the lack of signs in the sand could not confirm the absence of someone before, the concluding thought is: ‘No one ever before so −’ (ibid. p.125). When the lack of signs on the bedrock confirms that no one had come before, the conclusion is reconfirmed. So, what was undecidable and yet concluded before the evental emergence of truth [the bedrock replacing the sand] is fixed in decision by the event. This is a thought that thinks the absence of its own trace [footsteps], facing its enclosure within infinity.
The crucial question to ask now is whether to place this thought within or without the locus. According to Badiou, Beckett asks this question in Worstward Ho and his hesitations in locating the skull, the figure for thought, in relation to the locus points to that. The kneeling shade of the woman is counted as one and the twain of the old man and the child is counted as two with the skull being the third. Badiou observes: ‘If the head counts for three, it must itself be in the dim’ (Badiou, 2003, p.86). Thought supplements the two as the third and once it is operationalized, it must not be made into another place. Though Badiou does not quote the operative Beckett- lines, he is correct in pointing out Beckett’s hesitation: ‘Where if not there it [the head] too?’ (Beckett:, 2009b, p.87) and ‘Where it too if not there too?’ (ibid.). Badiou takes up the problem of thinking the thought of the skull-thought since the skull-thought is exposed to being and participates in being: ‘If thought as such co-belongs with being, where is the thought of this co-belonging’ (Badiou, 2003, p.88). To think this thought of thought, he would then need another head or a ‘meta-head’ (ibid.). Badiou resolves this potential problem of infinite regress by drawing on the Cartesian thread in Beckett’s work. What closes this infinite regress is the cogito: ‘[…] it is necessary to admit that the head is counted by the head, or that the head sees itself as head’ (ibid.). It is here that I would like to take my departure. In the text of Worstward Ho, whenever Beckett talks about the head, it is always an internally divided head or a head within the head: ‘There in the sunken head the sunken head’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.87) or ‘that head in that head’ (ibid. p.89). This is not a meta-head but one head which divides into two. So, the skull-thought of the three is located in itself as well as in the dim locus of the two [the kneeling woman and the twain]. This is once again an extimate positioning of thought in relation to the locus. In this extimacy lies the ‘ek-sistence’ (Lacan, 1973-4, X-10) of the real. In the Lacanian schema, the ‘thirded’ (Lacan, 1973-4, X-10) one (one which pushes the two as the third from a state of internal exclusion) is always the real.
Part VII: Conclusion: Beckett, Badiou and the Problematic of Abstractionism
To sum up, I have explored the function of the locus qua thinking in Badiou’s system and Beckett’s corpus. There are many shared features like the evental dimension of truth, subtraction, genericity or universal singularity, inexistence and the configurating function. All these commonalities point to an interpenetration of the locus of philosophy and that of literature. This interpenetration problematizes the Badiouian vision of the literature-philosophy interface. Beckett not only organizes a locus of thinking in his texts but also configurates the locus. If his works deal with the act of thinking the thought of thought in terms of a generic politics of emancipation, it employs various kinds of mathematical writing and also deals with the encounter of love. How It Is  is one work, where the locus impinges on all the truth procedures of Badiou. Beckett’s generic approach lays bare the conceptual structures of fiction where fiction ceases to be itself and approaches its own conceptualization, exhausting the philosophical task of conceptual dissemination. If Beckett’s literature thinks, it thinks the limit of thought or the point at which thought has to punctuate itself, encountering its own real. Beckett grounds the locus philosophicus, implicating it in the artistic domain. His work maintains a paradoxical relationship with philosophy. On the one hand, he thinks thought qua thought, which is the essence of philosophy; on the other, he also shows us the closure of thought. Beckett paradoxically implies that thought can think its own thought only at its real point of closure. This is the efficacy of Beckett’s abstractionism. The quintessential Beckett-locus is inescapable. It is a locus which necessitates both stasis and mobility. The narrator of Worstward Ho says: ‘No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still.’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.81) The expression ‘on in’ is replete with the paradoxical co-belonging of stasis and mobility. This is the nature of the Beckett-locus. It is full of internally excluded zones, but it is always a one and single place: ‘No place but the one. None but the one where none’ (ibid. p.83). It is ‘thenceless,’ ‘thitherless’ and ‘beyondless’ (ibid. p.83). Since this locus reaches out to its real, it is always in its place. In Lacan, the very idea of space is determined by the real. As Lacan says in ‘The Seminar on The Purloined Letter’:
For the real, whatever upheaval we subject it to, is always and in every case in its place; it carries its place stuck to the sole of its shoe, there being nothing that can exile it from it (Lacan, 2006, p.17).
This figuration of space comes close to the Beckett-locus. In this unification of many loci in the form of a unitary site [unifying and excluding at the same time], Beckett formalizes his locus at the level of the real, which leaves philosophy to say very little, almost nothing about it.
To come back and end on the issue of abstraction, I have claimed that Beckett’s abstractionism is grounded in the subtraction of all particulars and the spatial appropriation of the locus philosophicus of thought, tending towards the abstraction integral to philosophy. Having said that, Beckett also seizes the concrete as a trace or remainder which is the ‘unnullable least’ (Beckett, 2009b, p.95) of Worstward Ho. He acknowledges that the process of abstractification can never be absolute and completely self-referential. This is why, by way of a literary [and not philosophical] transformation, the abstract ‘void’ of Worstward Ho yields a graveyard and the shades on the dim void finally reveal themselves as the stooping gravestones:
[…] Stooped as loving memory some old gravestones stoop. In that old graveyard. Names gone and when to when. Stoop mute over the graves of none (ibid. p.102).
In an ontological treatise, which Badiou claims this text to be, one may find the dim void of being but the philosophical text does not necessarily transform that into an old graveyard. It needs something from the discipline of literature: a trope of poeticization and an affective intervention to do so. This is how a concrete trace of literary image or metaphor remains as a residue in the process of abstractification. Instead of collapsing one into the other, Beckett’s anti-totalistic abstractionism approaches the intermediate space where philosophy and literature tie a disjunctive knot.
Badiou, Alain, Manifesto for Philosophy, ed. and trans. Norman Madarasz (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999).
–, On Beckett, ed. Alberto Toscano and Nina Power (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2003).
–, Handbook of Inaesthetics, trans. Alberto Toscano (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2005a).
–, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy, ed. and trans. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (London: Continuum, 2005b).
–, Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker (New York: Verso, 2005c).
–, Pocket Pantheon: Figures of Postwar Philosophy, trans. David Macey (New York: Verso, 2009).
Beckett, Samuel, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn (New York: Grove, 1984).
–, The Complete Shorter Prose: 1929-1989, ed. Stanley Gontarski (New York: Grove, 1995).
–, The Grove Centenary Edition, 4 vols. (New York: Grove, 2006).
–, The Letters of Samuel Beckett Volume I: 1929-1940, ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Lois More Overbeck, George Craig and Dan Gunn (New York: Cambridge UP, 2009a).
–, Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, Stirrings Still, ed. Dirk Van Hulle (London: Faber, 2009b).
–, How It Is, ed. Édouard Magessa O’ Reilly (London: Faber, 2009c).
Critchley, Simon, Very Little…Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature (New York: Routledge, 2004).
Graver, Lawrence and Raymond Federman (ed.) Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage. (New York: Routledge, 2005).
Hallward, Peter, Badiou: A Subject to Truth. (London: University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis, 2003).
Lacan, Jacques, Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, Héloise Fink and Russell Grigg (New York: Norton, 2006).
–, The Seminar Of Jacques Lacan: Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis: 1959-1960, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller and trans. Denis Porter (New York: Routledge, 1992).
–, ‘The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XXI; The Names of the Father, 1973-74,’ trans. Cormac Gallagher from unedited French Manuscripts (unpublished).
University of West Sydney
The way questions of gender and sexuality play out in Rabindranath Tagore’s texts has long been on the radar. His oeuvre is regarded proto-feminist at times, while on other occasions Tagore is seen as a writer who stops on the threshold of actualizing the final breakthrough of his own subversive gender discourse. Santosh Chakraborti, in his book Studies in Tagore: Critical Essays, compares him to Thomas Hardy in this regard. Both Tagore and Hardy, according to Chakraborti, are marked by an ‘uneven feminism’ (Chakrabarti, S. (2004); p.6) wavering from one text to another. Sexual politics in Tagore’s work is an integral part of the larger socio-political backdrop of the early twentieth century. Niharranjan Ray, in his Rabindrashahityer Bhumika, suggests Tagore was influenced by the Western discourses regarding women’s struggle for social justice; Santosh Chakraborti makes the point that this feminism is informed by the twentieth-century ideals of individualism.
This article seeks to handle a neglected aspect of Tagore’s presentation of women and examine whether it can become a site for negotiating the complexities of his attitude towards them. Ranjana Ash, in the article ‘Introducing Tagore in Multicultural Education in Britain,’ passingly refers to this strand; ‘Nashtanirh’ [‘The Broken Nest’], serialized at the same time as Chokher Bali, embodies another quality of Tagore’s women characters: their determination to develop their creative gifts’ (Ash, R. (1989); p.151).
I would underline the trajectory of writing in this path of creative gifts; my point of departure being Ranjana Ash’s comment on Charu in ‘Nashtanirh’: ‘Literary talent is neither comfort nor compensation in such a situation’ (Ibid.). In the trajectory of feminine writing in Tagore, there is something more at stake than the ‘literary.’ This writing is not only literary but also a fundamental expression of feminine desire; and as an expression of feminine desire through language, this writing creates an opening into an order, potentially outside of patriarchy. This is where the expression may be both ‘comfort’ and ‘compensation.’ In her article ‘A Sentimental Education: Love and Marriage in The Home and The World,’ Supriya Chaudhuri makes a significant comment on Bimala: ‘Her desire for a lost unity or integrity of being which she associates with the past, with her mother’s life’ (Chaudhuri, S. (2003); p.50). She further observes that inasmuch as Bimala’s ‘emotional history … is predicated upon this sense of lack, it may be read as a history of desire’ (Ibid.; p.51). According to Supriya Chaudhuri, Bimala’s desire returns upon itself instead of being ‘directed towards husband or lover’ (Ibid.). If we generalize and expand this view we can propose that feminine desire tends to fall back on itself instead of being sustained by specific external objects—like the husband or the lover, each of whom are implicated in the patriarchal structure of relational positions. In my view the self-enclosed nature of feminine desire triggers a movement beyond the patriarchal arrangement. The writing, which expresses this desire, is unmistakably feminine and I would argue that it goes as far as to the liminal point of patriarchy. In this reading I will see both the self-enclosure and the opening of feminine desire in writing as it makes an effort to open itself to its sexual Other—namely the man.
In this article I will examine the figure of the writing woman and by extension the sphere of feminine writing as expressed in three of Tagore’s short stories: ‘Khata’ [‘The Exercise Book’], ‘Nashtanirh’ [‘The Broken Nest’] and ‘Streer Patra’ [‘The Letter from the Wife’]. In all three stories we encounter a number of women writers, and their writing is placed right against the sphere of male writing. This sphere of writing, in these stories, becomes a trope for exploring the man-woman relationship and involves an asymptotic dialogue of two absolutely different kinds of writing. The overlap of the textual and the sexual is extended from the thematic to a larger tropological level where parts of the text or even the whole text (as in ‘Streer Patra’) functions as an alternative feminine discourse of subversion.
In Tagore’s short stories the female characters often produce disturbing silences when they encounter the articulations of masculine desire. In ‘Postmaster,’ Ratan remains silent when the postmaster tells her that he will never return to Ulapur. Tagore fuses this moment of silence with the image of a leak on the thatched roof of the postmaster’s house. The image makes the lack in their relation explicit. I would claim that the silence of Tagore’s women is not submissive: it bores holes in man’s understanding. This silence is not a pristine outside to language but rather a break in discourse, itself gradually mutating into a discourse. Tagore contrasts man’s theoretical inclination with a woman’s non-theoretical bent of mind by juxtaposing the theorizations of the postmaster while leaving on boat with Ratan’s obsessive circulation around the postmaster’s house. When the man is busy philosophizing, a woman responds through her wordless affective action. The narrator comments on this action—’Kintu Rataner mone kono tatyer uday hoilo na’ [‘But no such theory emerged in Ratan’s mind’] (Tagore, R. (2002); p.17). The non-theoretical realm is like a blank page on which the postmaster can only try and force an explanation—‘Bodh kari tahar mone khin asha jagitechhilo, dadababu jadi phiriya ashe’ [‘Perhaps there was still a faint hope in her mind that dadababu might come back’] (Ibid.). This is a forced interpretation, projected from the male position. Encountering his own incomprehension of feminine desire, man tries to supplement the lack by supposing an interpretation. The interpretation in this particular story bases itself on feminine dependence and an idea of ‘sympathy’ that makes a victim of her.
In the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s teachings, the most crucial difference between man and woman is that while the former is wholly cut by the Symbolic, i.e. language, the woman is partially cut by the signifier. Though both men and women are, for Lacan, divided subjects qua language, the division is never a whole in the case of the woman, and as a result there is more of the Real, or that which resists linguistic symbolization, in her. This makes the ‘the woman’ somewhat problematic, and Lacan marks her non-generalizable singularity with the expression ‘not all’ or ‘not whole’ [‘pas tout’]. This is the discourse which culminates in the famous Lacanian maxim—‘There is no such thing as Woman; Woman with a capital W indicating the universal’ (Lacan, J. (1998); p.72). As Lacan would say there are women but no Woman: in his 20th seminar in 1972-73, On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, while talking about the function of the written, Lacan says:
A man is nothing but a signifier. A woman seeks out a man qua signifier. A man seeks out a woman qua – and this will strike you as odd – that which can only be situated through discourse, since, if what I claim is true – namely, that woman is not-whole – there is always something in her that escapes discourse (Ibid.; p.33).
Although there is more of the Real in a woman than there is in the man, the only way she can try and reach out to the man is through the signifier. This is what activates the field of feminine writing in its relation to the loved one. If there is female silence as dissidence in Tagore, there is a counter-discourse of female writing as well. Chandara’s enigmatic last word ‘maran’ [‘death’] before her capital punishment in the story ‘Shasti’ [‘Punishment’] is an instance of a supplementary woman-speak. When asked whether she wants to see her husband Chhidam, one last time before being put to death, Chandara’s articulation of the signifier ‘death’ collapses the idiomatic valence of this word as a rustic expression of disgust. The idiom is de-idiomatized and made literal. And it is this literality of the word ‘maran’ that escapes patriarchal comprehension. Uma in ‘Khata,’ Mrinal in ‘Streer Patra’ and Charulata in ‘Nashtanirh’ are all writers in their own right and it is their writing that contests patriarchal literary authority.
The first line of ‘Khata’ declares that little Uma, learning how to write, creates ‘upodrob’ [‘tremendous trouble’] (Tagore, R. (2002); p.163) for one and all in the family. She writes on the walls of the house—‘Jal pare, pata Nare’ [‘Rain patters, leaves flutter,’ in William Radice’s translation] (Ibid.). Finding a copy of The Secret Adventures of Haridas under the pillow of her brother’s wife, she writes ‘Kalo Jal, lal phul’ [‘Black water, red flower’] (Ibid.) on multiple pages of the book. On her father’s notebook of daily expenses, she inscribes—‘Lekhapara kare jei, garighora chare shei’ [‘He who learns to write/Drives a horse and cart,’ in Radice’s translation] (Ibid.). With the exception of the first of these examples, where Uma writes on a surface which is blank, albeit non-writable, in all the other cases, her writing is a supplement added to a pre-existing text, be it The Secret Adventures of Haridas or the ‘daily expense’ notebook of her father. This marks her writing straightaway with a rhetoric of intervention. Her scribbles on all the almanacs in the house almost end up obliterating the pre-existing text which has an intrinsically providential character. The other crucial detail about her childish writing is her use of non-sense verses which again opens up the non-theoretical realm. Her lines on her father’s notebook are counterpointed with his numerical figures and the materialist thesis of education proposed in these lines (‘He who learns to write/Drives a horse and cart’) may well be seen as a banter of his financial meticulousness. The girl-child’s deprivation of higher education adds yet another ironic dimension to these lines. The Secret Adventures of Haridas is a sensational if not scandalous book written by Bhubonchandra Mukhopadhyay in 1903, representing life at Sonagachhi, one of the oldest red-light districts in Kolkata. Uma’s lines, referring to beautifully red flowers on slimy water, thus become an empathizing symbolic commentary on the condition of these public women.
This writing process climaxes when Uma scribbles on elder brother Gobindolal’s scientific article. Gobindolal’s writing here is the contrastive frame of male writing, strictly located within the rational sphere of discursive public writing. The narrator undercuts Gobindolal’s thinking by commenting that his article attacks the Western scientific precepts, not so much on the basis of logic, but merely by the means of a ‘romanchokar bhasha’ [‘exuberance of his language’ in Radice] (Ibid.). She writes in a big font on top of this piece—‘Gopal boro bhalo chhele, tahake ja deoa jay she tahai khay’ [‘So well-behaved is young Gopal/Whatever you give he eats it well,’ in Radice] (Ibid.). This line, alluding to Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar, is yet another of Uma’s ironic laughs directed at the male culture of writing. All these lines evoke an ideology of feminine inscription which subverts the male stress on scientific rationality with poetic interventionism. The apparent senselessness of Uma’s scribbles contests the male tradition of argumentative writing. This is not nonsense but non-sense. This writing maximizes the symbolic repertoires of the Symbolic order of language but this maximization of symbolism in this case delves into non-sense and obfuscates integral transmission. It is in this hyper-symbolic unreadability that this writing breaks with patriarchal reason.
Gobindolal trounces Uma for writing on his article and confiscates her pen as well. We should note here that it is none other than Gobindolal who eventually returns her exercise book to her, after being moved to repentance. So, the exercise book is re-circulated from within patriarchy; it is seen as the compromise of a consolation prize, inscribed within the patriarchal field. Uma’s poetic etchings continue as she appropriates the exercise book—‘Pakhi shab kare rab, rati pohailo’ [‘Birds are singing, Night is ending,’ in Radice’s rendering] (Ibid.). Her first expression of love is ‘Yashike ami khub bhalobashi’ [‘I love Yashi very much’] (Ibid.; p.164), written once again as an additament to the ‘Story of the Tiger and the Crane’ in Kathamala, copied again in her exercise book. This first expression, significantly, is not about some young boy, but their old maid. The word ‘love’ applied outside the family for the first time, refers to a woman and when the second proper name in relation to love appears in the ‘khata,’ it is ‘Hari.’ Tagore’s narrator promptly points out that it is not ‘Haricharan’ but ‘Haridashi,’ her school-friend. It is once again the name of a woman and not that of a man. After one year, when Uma is married off to Pyarimohon, the assistant-writer of Gobindolal, the note of patriarchal prohibition is clear in Gobindolal’s words—‘… Pyarimohoner kono lekhar upore khabardar kalam chalash ne’ [‘… And make sure you do not scrawl on any of Pyarimohon’s writings,’ in Radice] (Ibid.).
It is Yashi who takes her exercise book to her in-laws’ abode. The exercise book by this time has become an object of nostalgia—something that reminds Uma of her origin. It has become ‘pitamatar ankosthalir ekti shankhipto itihash’ [‘a brief record of parental affection,’ in Radice] for her (Ibid.). At her in-laws’ house the exercise book becomes the sole witness to her fundamental desire for returning to her mother. It becomes an intensely personal space outside social gaze where she can inscribe her purest desires in singular expressions. But finally her scribbling falls prey to the eyes of her sisters-in-law—Tilakmanjari, Kanakmanjari and Anangamanjari, names emerging straight from fairy tales. When this news reaches Pyarimohon, his reaction echoes the typical patriarchal dialectic between the aesthetic and public functions of writing a novel or a play and the domestic sphere wherein the supposedly real function of the woman lies. That the writing itself can inhabit a deeply domestic space in a gendered and existential sense, goes well beyond him. He mocks Uma by evoking the idea of a working woman going to the office with her pen. As against the simple non-theoretical bent of Uma’s writing, Tagore builds up an idiosyncratic theoretical register of male thought. He refers to Pyarimohon’s peculiar theory that if a woman becomes educated and starts to work, she virtually becomes a man and two men can never constitute a proper domestic structure. What is crucial about this theory is its pseudo-liberal and hegemonic nature. It pretends to argue against the defeminization of women and seems to maintain that an all-male domination is unhealthy for the domestic space. And yet this theory remains subtly regressive by continuing to limit women to a domestic space, from which writing, conceived as the public discourse of male prestige, is banished forever. Tagore’s women may not join an uprising against the sexist hierarchy of the private and public spaces qua the practice of writing, but they nevertheless appropriate that delimited space and make their presence felt through their signifiers.
The climax arrives when Uma is tremendously moved by the ‘agomonir gan’ or ‘the homecoming-song’ of Uma-Parvati, sung by a beggar-woman, one autumn morning. It is her act of copying this song in her ‘khata’ that spells doom for her. She has to part with her ‘khata’ and the text in it provokes great laughter in her sisters-in-law. In this last occurrence, Tagore uses the myth of Uma, one of the aspects of the great Indian Goddess, lord Shiva’s wife and someone who can be the gentle Parvati as well as the fiercely destructive Kali. It is the polymorphous nature of this mythical figure that contests the patriarchal strategy of feminine stereotyping. The mythical is used here as a counterpoint to the masculinist rhetoric of linear rationality. This mythification of Uma is rendered exclusively at the level of writing and the source of it is a typically feminine speech-act of the beggar-woman. The beggar-woman here can be seen as Julia’s Kristeva’s figure of the ‘abject’ (Kristeva, J. (1982) ; p.521), operating outside the domain of the masculinist social hierarchy of language. Pyarimohon’s response to his, reading the lyrics of the song from Uma’s exercise book, is not recorded in the story. This crucial omission in Tagore’s text tears an enigmatic hole in the established repository of masculine knowledge. Pyarimohon cannot unpack the truth in Uma’s circuit of desire. It hides beneath a garb of inconsequentiality, embedded in the mythic symbolism of the ‘agomonir gan.’ As Tagore’s narrator clarifies in the last sentence of the story, even Pyarimohon has an exercise book but it is completely different from Uma’s. It is the domain of his subtle theories of the world and there are no sensible persons around who would take it from him or destroy it.
If ‘Khata’ is interspersed with the poetic etchings of Uma, the entire text of ‘Streer Patra’ is a feminine discourse in an epistolary form. Though at the level of this form, it is a personal communication, Mrinalini’s discourse, unlike Uma’s, is an appropriation of the rational, argumentative and supposedly male discourse. Right at the outset, Mrinal clarifies that her need to write a letter to the husband is triggered by the ‘phank’ (Ibid.) or gap between the two of them. In the story, the epistle or the letter functions in this gap between the man and a woman, much like the man-woman relationship in Lacan, which can only be addressed through the edifice of the signifier in its localized structure, i.e. the letter. Mrinal is on a pilgrimage to Puri while her husband is back in Kolkata, doing his office work. She also states that this is not a letter from their ‘mejobou’ but from a woman who has an independent relation with the world and its creator. As she maintains, death will not take her away because it only takes away those who have some value and being a woman she is hardly considered valuable. The letter thus, is also a declaration of her deathlessness. The thesis of deathlessness is ironically juxtaposed with her death wish. Mrinal’s letter also declares suicide. It is her first, last, and only letter to her husband.
Mrinal’s beauty has its takers in the house of the in-laws but no real appreciation; they are most resentful towards her intellect. She secretly writes poems but nobody knows that she is a poet. Her poetic writings constitute a singular subjective space where her feminine identity flourishes outside the paradigms of patriarchy—‘… shekhane tomader andarmahaler panchil otheni. Sheikhanei amar mukti; sheikhanei ami ami’ [‘… at least there the boundary wall of the inner compound could not stop me. There lay my freedom, there I could be myself,’ in Prasenjit Gupta’s translation] (Ibid.; p.522). Mrinal appropriates the theoretical register of male discourse when she philosophizes about neglect. She observes that it is better for a woman to be neglected than to be cared for. Since the arrangement of patriarchy is always directed towards female suffering, the passing phases of care only increase the sorrows of suffering.
The real event, founding Mrinal’s subjectivity, is the arrival of Bindu [meaning a ‘tiny speck’ in Bengali], a fourteen-year-old girl, exploited by her brothers, in her maternal house. She is the sister of Mrinal’s eldest sister-in-law. Mrinal fosters this ordinary girl, who quickly becomes an eyesore for the whole family, including her own elder sister. Everyone is keen to humiliate her out of the house. Be it some red spots on her skin, immediately judged as chicken-pox or the allegation during the Swadeshi movement that she is a police-spy, everyone in the family, except Mrinal, is in constant attempt to banish or excuse her. Mrinal uses the expression ‘o je Bindu’ [‘After all, it was Bindu’] (Ibid.; p.525) repeatedly to indicate that her (wo)manhandling is premised on her singular identity as a gendered subject. The absolute singularity of her subjectivity is marked by the proper name ‘Bindu’ which hovers towards the common noun where the word signifies a tiny little speck in the horizons of sight. Patriarchy’s problem with a woman lies exactly where she is named in a singular way as the Real woman, where Bindu is the Real Bindu.
The Mrinal-Bindu relationship in ‘Streer Patra’ is an identificatory relation which is inscribed entirely on the feminine axis and I suggest it can be seen as a compensation for Mrinal’s failed motherhood. It is part of the entire field of woman-identified experiences Adrienne Rich calls the ‘lesbian continuum’ in her 1980 essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.’ This is how Rich defines the ‘lesbian continuum’:
I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range–through each woman’s life and throughout history–of woman-identified experience; not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman (Rich, A. (2010); online).
In her letter, Mrinal gives an analogy of heterosexual love for their relation, at least from Bindu’s side—‘Bhalobashar erakam murti sangshare to konodin dekhini. Boiete porechhi bote, sheo meyepurusher modhye’ [‘I have never seen such an embodiment of love in real life; I’ve read of it in books, of this kind of intense attachment, and, there too, between men and women’] (Tagore, R. (2002); p.525). Marriage finally becomes the strategy of displacing Bindu within the household. Bindu does not want to leave Mrinal but Mrinal knows that in her absence there would be no one to take care of her. On the other hand, the exploitations that this ‘ugly’ girl may have to face in her in-laws’ house rankles her greatly.
Bindu gets married finally but it transpires that her husband is ‘mad’ and it is her mother-in-law who forced this marriage against the wish of her father-in-law, who himself has left on a pilgrimage to Kashi. Although the figure of the mad husband is left like a narrative tangent, the idea of madness signifies a social otherness analogous to the Othering of women in the patriarchal arrangement. After an eventful passage of time, when Mrinal plans an escape for Bindu with the help of her younger brother Sharat, he returns only to communicate the news of her suicide. As Sharat reports, Bindu has burnt herself to death—a so-called ‘fashionable’ way of dying. Incidentally, Bindu had also written a letter to Mrinal but it was destroyed by her in-laws. Mrinal’s letter, which forms the entire text of this short story is, as it were, a reinforcement of Bindu’s missing letter.
Towards the end of the story Mrinal contemplates death in general and her own death in particular. She sees it in the offing as she stands at the Puri Beach, looking out into the vast expanse of sea. This writing on death becomes a transgressive political strategy of feminine emancipation. Death in its universality far surpasses the social terrain of patriarchy. It is that which goes beyond all cultural specificities and gives a generic feminine identity to a woman—‘Mrityu tomader cheye boro…shekhane Bindu kebol khurtuto bhaier bon noy, kebol aparichito pagol shamir prabanchito stri noy. Shekhane she anonto’ [‘Death was stronger. In her death Bindu has become great; she’s not a mere Bengali girl anymore, no more just a female cousin of her father’s nephews, no longer only a lunatic stranger’s deceived wife. Now she is without limits, without end’] (Ibid.; p.530). The movement from Bindu, a tiny speck, to the vast occean has an expansive semantic trajectory present within it. Death is the point of intersection between the finite speck and the infinite space of eternity. Let us also note how death crystalizes the unlimited and endless enigma of a woman which is consistent with Lacan’s point in Seminar XX that there exists a distinct feminine jouissance (a masochistic enjoyment, combining pain with pleasure, which orders the movement of desire) which is ‘supplementary’ in relation to the masculine one. This death, in Mrinal’s eyes, is only a celebration of life—‘Oi to mrityur hate jiboner joypataka urchhe’ [‘… but the proud standard of life flies from the hand of death!’] (Ibid.); it is death that binds Mrinal and Bindu in the final run. The reference to Mirabai’s song further extends the ‘lesbian continuum’ of all female identification. As the song demonstrates, when the father, the mother, and everyone else departs, there is always one thing (Mira herself in this case) that persists. Mrinal is in the process of removing everything in her embracing of death and yet something still remains after it, like an enduring urn of ashes. The letter to the husband suffices this remainder when everything else is stripped away. That is what matters. The letter, thus, ends with a triumphant assertion of death which has become life—‘Amio banchbo. Ami Banchlum’ [‘I too will be saved. I am saved’] (Ibid.; p.531). The incommunicable experience of death which resists linguistic codification is on the side of the Lacanian Real while the epistolary bridge of communication in a written form of desire, reinforces the Symbolic. In this joint of the Real and the Symbolic, we encounter the Lacanian impossibility of communicating with the Other sex without the meaning effect of the signifier.
Death, importantly enough, is the point where all writing has to stop. There can only be a writing on death or a writing which prefaces death. There can never be a writing of death. Therefore, Mrinal’s meditation on death is also a meditation on the limits of her own writing or in other words, on the limits of what can be written insofar as death is the unwritable per excellence. It is this beyond of the writable, the speakable and the thinkable that stumps patriarchy. Insofar as Mrinal’s letter embodies her death drive, like the supplementary feminine jouissance, it can only be experienced and cannot be interpreted. Patriarchy, like all other forms of totalitarian ideology, is built on a fantasmatic notion of the whole and I would claim that the point where death (of a woman) interrupts and even haunts this discourse is where this fantasy of the whole collapses. The death-point is a discourse in lack and it is impossible to totalize this point. It is in this sense that Lacan’s tragic heroine Antigone, in all her ‘splendour’ remains a complete enigma to the phallic law of Creon’s patriarchal city state. What is at stake in Sophocles’ play as well as Tagore’s story is a transgressive feminine jouissance driving the movement of a (s)heroic tragic desire.
‘Nashtanirh’ develops the paradigm of writing both thematically and tropologically in its view of the man-woman relationship. The trio of Bhupati, his young wife, Charulata and brother-in-law Amal is engaged in a circuit of desire that corresponds with the circuit of textuality, woven around them. Tagore contrasts the private sphere of feminine writing with the public sphere of male writing and questions the inherent sexism of this binary opposition. At the outset, we are told that Bhupati’s decision to edit an English newspaper is only driven by his ‘shakh’ or his whim (Ibid.; p.347). He does not need to write. It is the rhetorical lure of a public discourse that he cannot let go. Tagore reflects that the bar that alienates Charu from Bhupati is a ‘kagajer abaran’ [‘paper cover’] (Ibid.; p.348), which is another way of saying that the discursive space of writing surface produces an interval between the man and a woman instead of conjoining the two. We can translate this into Lacan’s (in)famous claim in Seminar XX that there is no such thing as a sexual relation because the phallic signifier incarnates the unbridgable gap between the two sexes and introduces a third element in speech instead of building a rapport of the two. Bhupati is always busy with his newspaper and does not have time for his wife and hence it is the writable surface of a page that stands between them. Charu has a taste for reading and that is how she spends her solitary time. Amal becomes Charu’s sole companion in her hours of solitude and they become great friends. It is their plan to make a garden out of the waste land in the interior of the house that opens up the tropes of private writing. Charu insists that Amal should write a story about all the planned details of this prospective garden and that story, once written, will only make sense to them—‘… amra dujone chhara keu bujhte parto na, besh maja hoto’ [‘… no one apart from just the two of us would have understood it; it would have been great fun’ in my translation] (Ibid.; p.351). Amal had started to scribble little pieces in his ‘khata’ long before. He soon shows Charu one of his scribbles. Importantly, this first piece is addressed to the virgin surface of a blank page, awaiting inscription.
When this piece, dedicated to the the exercise book, is published in a popular Bengali magazine ‘Shororuho,’ the private space of writing between Charu and Amal is invaded by the public one. This displeases Charu and more importantly, Amal cannot understand this displeasure—‘Amaler lekha Amal ar Charu dujoner shampatti. Amal lekhak ar Charu pathak. Tahar goponatai tahar pradhan rash. Shei lekha shakale poribe ebong anekei proshongsha koribe, ihate Charuke je keno etota pirha ditechhilo taha she bhalo koriya bujhilo na’ [‘Amal’s writing is the joint property of Amal and Charu. Amal is the writer and Charu the reader. Its secrecy is its primary quality. That writing will be read by all and even appreciated by quite a few—this thought was making Charu suffer. And why did this cause suffering, Amal could not even understand properly,’ in my translation] (Ibid.; p.353). Fan-mail begins to arriving and Charu soon loses her role as the singular motivator and reader of Amal’s writing.
Manda, Charu’s sister-in-law, is Amal’s other reader in the house and the more Amal wants to read his writings to Manda, the more it irritates Charu. It is to distinguish herself from Manda that she starts writing. Initially the literary spectre of Amal looms large on her and her piece on rain-clouds turns out to be an echo of Amal’s piece on the moon. She decides to change her subject to get rid of Amal’s influence and writes a piece called ‘Kalitala,’ drawing on her childhood memories of a place long lost in time. From the moon to the dark and mysterious temple of the goddess of destruction, Kali, the shift of subject suggests subversion. Amal reads the piece and decides to send it to a magazine for publication. After a lot of hesitation, Charu yields but soon tables the proposal of a hand-written magazine where only she and Amal would write. Her condition is that Amal cannot write in any other magazine. Charu proposes to come up with only two copies of every issue—one for each. This is yet another of Charu’s formulations of a closed and personal textual circuit where the two of text overlaps with the two of love. Amal does agree but deep within, he has lost his interest in secrecy a long time back. We encounter a dialectical tension here between a feminine desire for a private world of shared textual spaces and the masculine desire for a rhetorical accomplishment of writing in the public sphere where the wider field of the Other beyond the amorous couple is addressed and activated.
When Amal secretly sends Charu’s pieces, preserved for their secret hand-written magazine, to ‘Shororuho’ and they get published there, she gets upset with Amal. It is like the freedom of one’s beloved pet birds. It brings both liberty and pain with it. Not only does Charu’s writing come out in ‘Shororuho,’ in another magazine, ‘Bishwobandhu,’ a critical review of contemporary Bengali writing genuinely appreciates Charulata’s style of writing. The critic slams Manmatha Dutta and Amal’s artificial and ideational style and praises Charu for the unabashed simplicity, pastoral melody and imagistic qualities of her writing. This review once again draws our attention to the contrast between discursive male writing and the non-discursive and affective essence of the feminine inscription. But this appreciation accompanying flack for Amal does not please him and to make Charu jealous, he starts reading his pieces to Manda once again.
In the meantime it is Bhupati who wants to give attention to his neglected wife by listening to her writing. The entry into the circuit of desire once again necessitates an entry into the textual circuit. However, Charu does not yield on the first occasion. On the other hand, Charu returns to Amal’s style of writing to impress him afresh—‘Charu etuku bujhiyachhe je, tahar shadhin dhancher lekha Amal pachhanda kare na’ [‘Charu has understood this much that Amal does not like her own independent way of writing,’ in my translation] (Ibid.; p.368). When Bhupati is hurt by the betrayal of his dear Umapada and wants Charu to nurse his wounds, she is busy writing her piece to reconcile with Amal. She hides her writing once again from Bhupati. He is left alone, because he is outside the circuit of textuality. Amal however realizes Bhupati’s loneliness and feels guilty of attracting all of Charu’s attention. At this point in the story, Tagore uses the image of a deep dark hole, into which a traveller is just about to fall. But he is saved as the fog lifts at the very last moment and he encounters the chasm. This chasm is read on the surface of Bhupati’s face or if I may say, it is misread on Bhupati’s face. Throughout the story, Tagore uses the face as a textual metaphor where lines are read, left unread or misread. Amal reads the lines right but gets the source wrong. He withdraws himself from Charu.
Shortly thereafter Bhupati finds a bride for Amal with the prospects of a foreign settlement if the marriage happens. Amal readily accepts the proposal because it gives him the opportunity for a much-needed distance from Charu. Amal keeps ignoring her before departing and tells her to take care of Bhupati in tough times. As Amal goes abroad, Bhupati’s life also changes after doing away with his newspaper due to finance problems. He regrets having not taken enough care of his wife; as a result of which now it seems so difficult for him to resume a dialogue with her. After quite a few futile attempts, he chooses an entry point through the textual circuit. Bhupati starts reading Tennyson, Byron and Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s works and tries to impress his wife by reading from Tennyson, but it falls woefully wide of the mark. Charulata seeks refuge in the deepest and darkest chasm of her mind with an acute pain of separation from Amal, at the same time, wondering at the intensity of the pain.
As Charu slowly gets over the crisis of Amal’s lack and starts to take care of her husband, Bhupati wants Charu to start writing again. He himself starts to write in order to inspire his wife. He writes something in imitation of Charu and says it is the writing of a friend. Charu understands the lie but does not express herself. That her husband has to resort to the textual to get her attention makes her feel uncomfortable. She still praises the piece and the inspiration from his wife soon translates into pages of writing in Bhupati’s exercise book. It is another textual circuit, this time an epistolary one, that disturbs the stabilizing domestic space of Bhupati and Charu. Amal writes his first letter from overseas but hardly mentions Charu in it. Charu gets tremendously upset over this neglectful omission. Time passes and Amal tells them that his exam is on the cards and he would not able to write for a while. Charu becomes anxious as Amal’s last letter slowly becomes an event of remote past. She secretly sends Amal an expensive telegram abroad by mortgaging her jewellery. Amal’s reply reaches Bhupati’s hands and a deep doubt sets in. Bhupati burns his writings in rage and disgust at the betrayal of both public and private worlds. This may be seen to mark the failure of male writing when it tries to operate inside the private sphere. Not only does Bhupati throw his own writings into the kitchen fire, but he also throws Charu’s writings into it.
From this point onwards, Bhupati becomes extremely anxious about the crevices of Charu’s desire. There is an opening into a different order of desire but Bhupati cannot find the key to that order. The anxiety passes on to an interpretive desire and he considers Charu’s maneuvers false and deceptive. This ascription of falsehood and deception on that which is beyond understanding is Bhupati’s sad case of patriarchal forcing. He feels sorry for Charu’s laboured deception and her suffering in trying to put on the mask. The patriarchal assignation of feminine masquerade is turned on its head and now it is the mask which gives pain to Bhupati. But what he considers Charu’s mask is a different order of authenticity, the Real of her ‘face’ which remains inaccessible to him. There is genuine appreciation of Charu’s stolidity in Bhupati but if not consciously, in the unconscious at least, it all goes back to the ascription of a victim-like status of the woman.
Bhupati gets the job as an editor of a new newspaper in Moishur and decides to leave without Charulata. As Bhupati is on the verge of leaving, Charu asks him to take her along—‘Amake shange niye jao. Amake ekhane phele jeo na’ [‘Take me along with you. Do not leave me here,’ in my translation] (Ibid; p.383). The parting hands and the distancing posture say it all. He misreads Charu’s desire to be a desire to leave a mansion that reminds her too much of Amal. Bhupati replies that he cannot take Charu with him. It is the clarion call of an other textual circuit (this time, a public one fortunately) at Moishur that awaits him. But this time it is a return to the loveless textuality of Bhupati’s earlier newspaper. Tagore’s narrator uses the last crucial textual metaphor here while commenting on Charu’s facial expression in reaction to Bhupati’s ‘no’ or his denial to take her with him. The narrator compares her face with a dry and blank page—‘Muhurter modhye shomosto rakta namiya giya Charur mukh kagajer moto shushko shada hoiya gelo,…’ [‘In a moment all the blood trickled down and Charu’s face became like a dry and pale paper,’ in my translation] (Ibid.). The metaphor rounds off the textual motif of ‘Nashtanirh’ as it returns to Amal’s initial image of the white virgin page, depicted in his first piece. Bhupati is stricken by the opaque quality of Charu’s face, which makes him apprehensive about his reading. He reverses his decision and says he would take Charu to Moishur. But this time, it is Charu who says ‘no’ and the story comes to an end.
Charu’s ‘no’ of resistance is the culmination of her discourse in ‘Nashtanirh.’ Her face is a surface where little ciphers of desire appear, disappear and reappear against which the patriarchal game of misreading continues. The final similitude between her face and the blank page establishes a post-textual void. This is not a virgin page. It is a page on which letters have been erased. After the erasure, there remains a spectral trace of ciphers on this page and it is this enigmatic trace of feminine desire that remains a closed self-sufficient circuit, unreadable to patriarchal hermeneutics. Bhupati can never understand the real significance of this final ‘no.’ Tagore’s decision to end the story at this point, thereby excluding Bhupati’s reaction (much like the exclusion of Pyarimohon’s reaction at the end of ‘Khata), reinforces the point.
In Seminar XX Lacan defines the supplementary nature of feminine jouissance thus:
There is a jouissance that is hers (à elle), that belongs to the ‘she’ (elle) that does not exist and doesn’t signify anything. There is a jouissance that is hers about which she herself perhaps knows nothing if not that she experiences it – that much she knows. She knows it, of course, when it comes (arrive).
The fact that this jouissance can be experienced and can not be explained recalls Charulata’s opaque face, Uma’s senseless etchings and even the appropriated male discourse of Mrinal which is hauntingly punctuated by the Real of death. As we have seen above in these three short stories, Tagore mobilizes the writing of women to interrogate the private-public binary, prevalent in the male-dominated practices of writing. I have argued that his female figures, motivated by a transgressive jouissance of supplementation, subvert man’s phallic jouissance. The order of the indecipherable is crucial in this context and Tagore’s women remain faithful to the Lacanian Real of the Other jouissance by re-marking their unreadability vis-à-vis the patriarchal drive for phallic interpretation.
Santosh Chakrabarti, Studies in Tagore: Critical Essays (New Delhi: Atlantic, 2004)
Ranjana Ash, ‘Introducing Tagore in Multicultural Education in Britain’ in Rabindranath Tagore: Perspectives in Time (London: The Macmillan Press, 1989)
Supriya Chaudhuri, ‘A Sentimental Education: Love and Marriage in The Home and The World’ in Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘The Home and The World’: A Critical Companion (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003)
Rabindranath Tagore, Galpoguchho: Akhanda (Kolkata: Shatyanarayan Prakashani, 2002)
Jacques Lacan, Book XX: Encore 1972-73; On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge (London: Norton, 1998)
Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)
Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’
http://www.terry.uga.edu/~dawndba/4500compulsoryhet.htm (accessed July 25, 2010)
Lacan, Book XX, 74.
NOTE – this is a re-print:
Shifting Identities: Constructions and Re-constructions of the Feminine in Indian Literatures, ed. Prof. Sutapa Chaudhuri, Books Way: Kolkata, 2011.