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Beckett’s Unnamable: Not I, not Mad.

The Letter, Issue 1, Summer 1994, Pages 82 - 94


Beckett’s Unnamable: Not I, not Mad.

Olga Cox


To cede the initiative to words is the task of the artist according to Mallarmé. In a more sinister context this dictum could also be said to describe the obscure directive which immobilizes the psychotic. In the last part of his great trilogy 'Molloy', 'Malone Dies', 'The Unnamable', Samuel Beckett has managed to subsume this second terrible imperative within the first, artistic one, and in doing so has created a novel which is one of the most extraordinary achievements of our time.

It is always an act of temerity for psychoanalysis to engage with a work of art, and it was Lacan's opinion that even Freud himself did not do so without mishap. Nonetheless, following Freud who was quick to point out that the artist invariably precedes the analyst onto his chosen terrain, I would like to suggest that Beckett's unsettling masterpiece throws into relief the extremities of a subjective position which ordinarily is either veiled by the screens of normality or sealed in the slabs of psychotic delusion. Indeed it is precisely because it is a work of art that it offers us privileged access to this position, which is neither mad nor sane but impossibly and precariously precedes such differentiation. By uncompromisingly eschewing the lures of both reason and madness, the speaker in Beckett's Unnamable lays bare the latent discourse which subtends all human existence, and which erupts startlingly and incomprehensibfy to tyrannise the psychotic. This discourse in The Unnamable however, although striated and infiltrated by madness, is not mad. The mocking echo which madness offers to reason, audible in the speculative systems of great paranoiacs, makes itself heard here in the domain of language itself, and in the extraordinarily sophisticated and self-reflexive gesture by which a fictional work, in paralysing all fictional movement, exposes not the silent depths but the ragged clamour at the heart of human subjectivity.


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