David Pattie : “‘At me too someone is looking’; Hidden Coercion in Beckett’s Theatre”

On 22nd March, Professor David Pattie presented a paper in UCC on systems of coercion in the work of Samuel Beckett, with a particular focus on the ethical response to this coercion. For Pattie, Godot‘s tramps experience the world they inhabit as one that’s coercive. Near the end of the play, Vladimir claims that “At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on” (84-85). Yet this implied onlooker, holding Vladimir and Estragon in place with their ghostly gaze, is never identified, and exists beyond both the text and the playing area. By appealing to this unknown, indeed, unknowable, outside force, Vladimir positions himself in the middle of a chain of coercion and control, and Pattie takes this absent onlooker as paradigmatic of systems of coercion which recur throughout Beckett’s work.

Though Beckett’s characters resist the normalisation of coercive systems, Pattie makes a distinction between how this functions in his prose and his theatrical work. In his prose, Beckett posits testimony as a way of dealing with an inimical world, emphasising the space between seeing and saying. His prose speakers are compelled to speak, and yet cannot capture their world truthfully. Instead they find themselves capturing an image of the world that disappears in the moment of capturing. This process is driven by stories that will themselves into existence; internal voices that tell these stories through the narrator, subsuming them. Pattie offers the continuation of the story in Malone Dies after Malone’s death as an example of such a moment, where Beckett’s prose storyteller is dissolved into the story, and suggests that this is a kind of internal coercion.

Pattie points to Anna McMullen’s Performing Embodiment in Beckett’s Theatre as a work that has helped shape his thought, particularly McMullen’s linking of the inscription of authority on another’s body in Catastrophe with the harrow of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. In Kafka’s story, man and machine die together, and Pattie extends this comparison to places in Beckett’s work that show the exhaustion of both the tortured and the mechanisms of torture, and links this to Beckett’s systems of coercion by positing the process as a wearing down of both the coercer and the coerced. Pattie suggests Rockaby as one such place, where the entropy of such motions are exposed as they seem to come to an end.

Beckett on Film - Rockaby trim
Rockaby, Richard Eyre, 2002

Pattie also points to Trish McTighe’s “HAPTIC INTERFACES: The Live and the Recorded Body in Beckett’s Eh Joe on Stage and Screen” as an influence on his work. Interestingly, McTighe’s essay is also concerned with the relationship between body and machine in Beckett’s work, and, like McMullen, also suggests Kafka’s Penal Colony as text which might help us understand this. She notes that “[Walter Benjamin’s] destruction of the aura, described in deeply tactile terms, is the mark of a society intimately intertwined with technology and its products. One can perceive a similar intertwining, or a chiasm, between machine and body in Beckett’s Eh Joe” (464). In the play, “Voice is intimately allied with technology and acts as an instrument of torture and punishment. Like Kafka’s harrow in the short story In the Penal Colony, Voice attempts, through knowledge, memory and imagination, to inscribe guilt on Joe’s body. The ‘cut’ is also the act of cutting a story into the image, onto Joe’s listening face. In the televised version the camera is trained upon this confluence of technology, flesh and knowledge; the staged version sees this confluence writ large upon the screen.” (465). It is this use of voice as an interrogative instrument, one which pokes and prods the body, that interests Pattie.

Here, Pattie introduced what he calls the “negative immanence” of Beckett’s theatre, based on Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza, which posits one nature for all bodies and individuals, and nature as an infinite number of variations of these bodies. This concept of negative immanence is slightly opaque in its construction, so I’d like to expand on it. Generally, immanence is defined, if not strictly in opposition to, at least in relation to transcendence. If a system based on transcendence is structured by that which is outside of it, then one on based on immanence is structured by the internal relationship of parts. In Spinoza, this takes the form of monism, which denies any distinction between the divine and material worlds. We can take this concept and apply it to a moment in Beckett’s theatre such as the end of Endgame – here we would explain Clov’s inability to leave as a denial of the possibility of transcendence; his world consists purely of the social relationship he has with Hamm. He cannot leave, because there is no outside, no other which would delimit the space they inhabit. There is no there, only hereTherefore, all that Clov can do is to perform leaving, dressing himself up and announcing his intent: “this is what we call making an exit” (132). Yet he remains suspended on the threshold, subject to what Pattie calls “coercive space”. According to Kenneth Surin, “for Spinoza, there are two primary kinds of forces which diminish life – hatred, which is turned towards the other; and the bad conscience, which is turned inwards” (261-262), and this distinction can be easily applied to much of Beckett’s work. In this light, we can read Pattie’s negative immanence as a system of inexhaustible torture, grounded in social and psychological relations.

While both sides of the coercive equation are weakened and eventually destroyed by negative immanence, unlike Kafka’s harrow the systems themselves remain intact because, as with Didi’s unseen observer, or the unheard prompting voice in Not I, they are based on an external authority, never seen but undeniably there. Pattie takes the example the player of Act Without Words I rebounding from an invisible wall as an example of just such an authority, both present and absent. For Pattie, these coercive mechanisms can never be exhausted in Beckett’s theatre because they persist in a space beyond the stage, the scope and limits of which, we cannot begin to imagine.

Beckett on Film - Act Without Words I trim
Act Without Words, Karel Reisz, 2002

As a brief amendment to Pattie’s reading of the inexhaustibility of Beckett’s coercive systems, I think that here we might also consider the Nietzschean eternal return in relation to the inherent repetition of performative art. Deleuze’s distinction is that what recurs for Nietzsche is not sameness but difference, each repetition varying from what has come before. In a fairly obvious sense, this repetition of difference can be broadly applied to theatre, where performance is repeated by different actors, in front of different audiences, in different places, and at different times, resulting in countless minor and major variations. But more specifically in Beckett’s work, performers are restricted in physical performance (Nell and Nagg’s dustbins, Winnie’s mound of earth, the urns of Play) and vocal performance (the tape recordings of Krapp, Breath, and What Where, the mechanical monotone of Voice in Eh Joe), thereby diminishing major variation and centring focus on the minor, and thus emphasising the inertia which coercive systems impose on the body of the individual.

Works Cited:

Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works. Faber and Faber. 2006.

McTighe, Trish. “HAPTIC INTERFACES: The Live and the Recorded Body in Beckett’s Eh Joe on Stage and Screen”. Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui. Vol. 22, Samuel Beckett: Debts and Legacies (2010), pp. 463-475.

Pattie, David. “‘At me too someone is looking’; Hidden Coercion in Beckett’s Theatre”. University College Cork. 22/3/17.

Surin, Kenneth. “Spinoza, Baruch (1632-77)”. The Deleuze Dictionary ed. Adrian Parr. Columbia UP. 2005. pp. 260-262.


A Pleasant Way: On Wilde’s “The Doer of Good”

Note: This month I’m juggling travel and assignments, so this blog might be looking a little neglected. To make up for it, here’s a short piece I wrote on Wilde’s prose-poem “The Doer of Good”. I’ll be back in the New Year with lots of great things lined up, so happy holidays everyone! -Cian

According to Declan Kiberd, “the Wildean moment is that at which all opposites are transcended” (Inventing Ireland 41), and, in the prose-poem “The Doer of Good”, this collapse of antitheses is revealed as fundamental to Wilde’s critique of Victorian social norms. Wilde’s critique is grounded in an understanding that Victorian selfhood is founded on differentiation between self and other, and, as Kiberd argues, that this “manic Victorian urge to antithesis, an antithesis not only between all things English and Irish but also between male and female, master and servant, good and evil, and so on” (Inventing Ireland 38) belies the fact that “the Victorian Englishman continued to attribute to the Irish all those emotions and impulses that his strict code had led him to deny himself” (“London Exiles” 374). As per Wilde’s claim that Victorian rule over Ireland was characterised by “a stupidity that is aggravated by good intentions” (Inventing Ireland 37), “The Doer of Good” casts the sanctimonious Victorian as a would-be Christ figure confounded by the realisation that his “healing” of the afflicted has led them not down the straight and narrow path of his design, but rather to a bacchanalian celebration of their newfound life. This carnivalesque public undermines the sanctified “myth of an unspoilt peasantry”, which, as Kiberd points out, was “a convenient means of emotional absolution from guilt in a society for which natural instinct was often tantamount to a vice” (Inventing Ireland 43).

Wilde, up to no good presumably

In the same fashion, the figure of the virtuous female, with “the fair face of an idol”, reclaims her sexual autonomy through her assertion that, if sins can be forgiven, then hedonistic pursuit of pleasure is the natural path to choose. The virgin’s lust equals that of he who lusts after her, and this revelation dissolves strict behavioural divisions between the sexes imposed by Victorian society, an unnatural separation which Wilde viewed with “profound scorn” (Inventing Ireland 39). And while the poem is clearly couched in explicitly Christian terms, Wilde’s critique does not simply address a divide between Protestantism and Catholicism, but rather the broader notion of “the elect and the damned”, an affront to Wilde’s “radical autonomy of the self” which had taken equal hold in secular Freudian and Marxist lines of thought (Inventing Ireland 40).

Instead, through “the art of elegant inversion” (Inventing Ireland 35), damnation for Wilde consists of a society which can only exist through a perpetual denial of its natural selfhood, where, like the Christ of “The Doer of Good”, “the only real fool is the conventionally ‘sincere’ man who fails to see that he, too, is wearing a mask, the mask of sincerity” (Inventing Ireland 38).

Works Cited

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. Harvard UP, 1995.

— “The London Exiles: Wilde and Shaw”. The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vol. 2, edited by Seamus Deane, Field Day Publications, 1990, pp. 372-76.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Doer of Good”. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, HarperCollins, 2003, pp. 900-01.