Head Dust


UNCLOSABLE I: Impersonal subjectivity and The Unnamable

Returning to the narrow door, stripping ourselves, shedding, defleshing ourselves, shedding, boning ourselves, no not that, narrowing ourselves for the baffles, narrowed by the baffles, aligning ourselves, yet again, shedding.

An oracular text that precludes the possibility of oracular texts, The Unnamable [1] provides extension and demonstration of whatever ontological problems are brought to it, rendering them clearly irresolvable and thus endlessly fertile. A tool so finely honed that it makes clear the impossibility of the task for which it is designed, this novel [2] renders its futility pellucid where the futility of other works may be overwhelmingly obscure.

The fictive nub, in literature as in life [3], is not identity but the assumption of identity, not fabric but the act of fabrication. The nub is the act of mantling the unnameable I [4], not the mantle of character and circumstance that scintillates the reader. In The Unnamable the fictive mantle is abraded to the point of disintegration, tested beyond the limits of its strength, simultaneously knitted and unravelled, shed and assumed and re-shed, the fictive act laid bare [5].

There is an ‘I’ but whose ‘I’ is it? There is a subjectivity but whose subjectivity is it? Not a character’s, not the reader’s, not the author’s. None of these ephemerae who but touch the text and are borne away. The subject is that faculty that makes a subject possible. The voice that occludes in order to exist is that of the impersonal I, that faculty in fiction that allows character but is not character, that clads itself in a character, in all characters, in all characters ever, but is nothing more than the capacity to assume character inherent in the fictive act. The impersonal I is in the nub of every fiction, but, when the fiction is “successful”, it is so heavily swathed in character and circumstance, in virtuosity, that the desperation of the impersonal I, to go on, to exist, is tunicated and obscure.

For that about which all that can be said is that it exists, the imperative is to go on existing. There is inexistence in each pause, in each horrible full stop, but to resume is to re-exist, to go on. No time is lost. But to go on is to be occluded, to be obscured in characters and circumstance. How to go on? The subject cannot be the object. Anything that might be said about the subject replaces the subject but is not the subject. Subjectivity is not a personal force. The impersonal I [6] has nothing but existence, but it cannot exist unless it accretes the qualities that efface it, qualities that are not it for other qualities could have been accreted and may yet be accreted when these qualities have been shed. Personality is a gratuitous accretion. I have nothing unless I am given it. Unless I have either eyes or no eyes I have neither eyes nor no eyes. I am only what you can read.

In its wonderful stuttering attempts to force the mechanisms of fiction to run against their springs and ratchets, The Unnamable interrogates its workings and shows that arbitrary objects and gratuities are ultimately indispensable to the unclosable impersonal subject in fiction's ontological nub [7]. That which must speak in order to exist must dissemble in order to speak. To exist, to go on, the unnameable must accrete and occlude, always cobbling together the desperate fiction through which it is both perpetuated and effaced.


[1] The effacement of the author, the relegation of his identity to an oblique reference in this footnote, may be considered a tribute to Beckett’s rigorous self-effacement, a self-effacement posthumously effaced in supremus by the City of Dublin’s decision to offload his name on the world’s ugliest and most ostentatious bridge.
[2] Or “novel”.
[3] Life doesn’t concern us here.
[4] Have I just named it? Oops. Does the Cartesian “I think therefore I am” make the unwarranted assumption of the I? Yes there is thinking going on, and therefore amming, but whose it is is moot. I do not exist; I am merely the result of the imagining of what it would be like to be me. But whose imagining is it? Identity is the product of thinking and cannot be its locus. But perhaps saying ‘I’ is nothing more than an assertion of subjectivity, albeit a clumsy assertion, and it would be a mistake to regard the ‘I’ as implying a pre-existing entity (the spurious ‘me’, perhaps).
[5] In this footnote the essay’s author conspicuously fails to explain why he appears to think that this sort of metaphor, the stuff of poor fiction, should somehow be considered less disreputable in critical writing.
[6] An unnounable pronoun.
[7] To dispense with gratuities is to approach inexistence, an attractive proposition perhaps, but inexistence is not a state and cannot be ‘attained’ by a subject. Beckett may have attempted to write his way to where writing was impossible [8] but there can be no evidence of his success. Texts can only refute the impossibility of texts: they cannot eradicate themselves (merely cripple themselves).
[8] In not writing Beckett differs from the non-writer only in that the non-writer believes that writing is possible for others.