A Different Way of Reading
Samuel Beckett, Melanie Klein, and the Voices of Intuition
One of the first things I did after first buying Samuel Beckett’s so-called Trilogy — which consists of Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953) — was to take a box cutter and slice the spine into three separate novels. I read the first two in New York in 2007, where I lived at the time, and brought the last part with me to Jerusalem in 2008. It sat on my shelf and moved with me to each of the four apartments in which I lived while I was doing my doctorate. And it stayed in Jerusalem when I moved to Belgium for my postdoc. It was still on my shelf when I got back and — seven years after first separating it from the other two books — I sat down to read the novel.
It’s not that I’d never tried before. But something had to have happened, it seems, to make it possible to read the novel — and that something appears to have been a period of depression. The reasons were complex — to repeat someone else’s phrase, a cocktail of circumstances — and I’m not sure that it was reading which helped me find a way out. But it did seem that I emerged from that experience with new sensitivity, which appears to have influenced the way I read. I opened up The Unnamable and unlike during previous attempts — when I’d been unable to focus enough to even get through the first paragraph — I not only made it to the end, but beyond it to the second, then moving onto the third, until soon enough I was reading this book which I had never before been able to read. It was like the consciousness behind the text was broadcasting on a wave that my consciousness could now hear. Because it wasn’t so much the words that made sense. It was the voice.
The voice was one of the first things that I realized was happening in the story — it was the story’s main event — and it was as if I could hear it speaking. And as I became conscious of this aspect of the novel, the text made it explicit: “But instead of saying what I should not have said, and what I shall say no more, if I can, and what I shall say perhaps, if I can, should I not rather say some other thing, even though it be not yet the thing?” The first way I might have read this, the way I might’ve read it earlier, would have been to focus on the content of the statement, on its subject, on what it’s trying to say. I would have read it like this (all emphases added): “instead of saying what I should not have said, and what I shall say no more, if I can, and what I shall say perhaps, if I can, should I not rather say some other thing, even though it be not yet the thing?” What I would’ve understood would have been that the narrative consciousness, of which I was now aware, was struggling with the question of what to say. There’s what it shouldn’t say, which it will try not to say any more if it manages not to speak, and there’s what it might say, if it manages to speak, but the issue is what is the thing it says, and whether it should say something even if it’s not the thing it intends to say. The question, then, is a question of intention — whether we should speak, or not speak, before we might be sure of what we actually want to say.
But now I read it like this: “instead of saying what I should not have said, and what I shall say no more, if I can, and what I shall say perhaps, if I can, should I not rather say some other thing, even though it be not yet the thing?” This was when I heard the voice, and I marked the lines on the side of the page and noted next to them, “voice.” This was when my realization — that the voice was at the center of the reading experience with this book — became conscious. I knew that I was listening to a voice even though there was no voice, only text, and that the only voice I perceived was in my head. The voice was in my head, I realized, and yet it wasn’t my voice. The whole thing, I saw, was about the saying, not what was said. It was about the voice’s need to exist — and its dependence on saying something for that existence. This was not about words. It was about speaking — in order to live.
And then, on the next page, I came across the following line: “This voice that speaks, knowing that it lies, indifferent to what it says . . . it is not mine, I can’t stop it, I can’t prevent it. . . It is not mine, I have none, I have no voice and must speak, this is all I know. . .”
My intuition was confirmed: this wasn’t about what the voice has to say but the circumstance of it having to speak in order to exist. And the question I had of whose voice was speaking in my head — mine or not mine — was apparently the same question that the voice was wondering. Now that was uncanny. I could somehow relate to a voice that was written almost sixty years ago — and we were thinking more or less the same thing. Now, obviously, I was being directed toward thinking this in the lines that came on the page before, the repetition of say, and so it wasn’t so strange for me to be thinking what the voice on the page was saying. Except I knew that, strictly speaking, there was no voice on the page, there was text, and it certainly wasn’t saying anything, I was conjuring up what it was saying in my head — if I really had a head that existed in the world and was capable of doing what I thought it was doing, which was reading.
And I realized that this was reading. It wasn’t reading for the sake of story, or moral, or idea. It was reading for the experience of connecting a reading consciousness with a narrative consciousness — and this other consciousness, which was performed by the author but was not the author, was also having the same quandaries that I was having. “So it is I who speak,” the text read, all alone, since I can’t do otherwise. No, I am speechless. Talking of speaking, what if I went silent. What would happen to me then?” And I realized, too, that not only did this other consciousness need to speak in order to exist, it would cease to exist the minute I stopped hearing its voice in my head by reading.
I got scared. I said to myself: this literary consciousness depends on me to exist. If I stop reading — it dies.
And soon I found a passage that convinced me of the fact that the consciousness and I shared this anxiety. “I for my part have no longer the least desire to leave this world . . . without some kind of assurance that I was really there . . . the nature of the attention is of little importance, provided I cannot be suspected of being its author.” As I read this, I made a note in the margin: abandonment. And then, three pages later, I came to this: “The stories of Manhood have ended. He has realized they could not be about me, he has abandoned, it is I who win, who tried so hard to lose, in order to please him, and be left in peace.” He, it seemed to me, was the author, who was trying to use the voice to tell stories of manhood, but who had abandoned the voice, finally, even though the voice tried to serve the author while insisting on not being mistaken for him. The author abandoned his voice — I, the reader, could certainly not do the same.
So, I continued reading. I read and I read and I read. And, increasingly, I marked up the book as I read. Not just underlining — circling, making notes in the margins, drawing lines connecting words across pages. It was not a deconstruction of the text. It was a dissection. And at some point, yes, I also saw that it had something to do with psychoanalysis. Not as an idea. As an approach.
During my postdoc research, I had undertaken a project involving the study of psychoanalysis, especially the work of Melanie Klein, together with Plato and Dostoevsky. I dug deep into Freud and Klein, into their connections and differences, and developed my own approach to literature as an adaptation of the Kleinian method — which, as I came to understand it, involved a kind of acute listening not only to words but also to structures, not only to content but also to form, not only to concepts but also their interrelation. Klein didn’t just think conceptually, she thought dynamically, in the sense that it’s meant in physics. Dynamics, generally speaking, deals with forces and motion, but, more specifically, “material objects in relation to the physical factors that affect them.” Replace the words material and physical with the words mental and psychical and you have a sentence that could have been written by a Kleinian theorist: Dynamics deals with mental objects in relation to the psychical factors that affect them. And this is the sense in which Klein is different from Freud — who might be said to have thought more in terms of energetics, which tends to deal with the flow and transformation of energy. Energetics and dynamics are both parts of the same field, they both involve investigation into certain aspects of how things work, but they have different emphases, and they express different aspects of the world. This is the sense in which Freud and Klein are both related and different — and this is the sense in which my own investigation into literature was shaped by an interest closer to dynamics than energetics.I had trained myself, it seems, to read for how different things come together, or split apart, how they affect each other, and how these effects are expressed. It was this focus, too, that made me suddenly see psychoanalysis in Beckett’s novel in one specific sentence.
It said: “How all becomes clear and simple when one opens an eye on the within, having of course previously exposed it to the without, in order to benefit by the contrast.”
I put down the book, I remember, and immediately picked up my phone to search online: Beckett Psychoanalysis Klein. And what I discovered — which was, in a way, no big discovery – was that he had indeed undergone a two-year period of psychoanalysis at the Tavistock Clinic in 1934-1935 with Wilfred Bion, who would himself, a decade later, undergo training analysis with Melanie Klein. The connection was there. The question was what it meant.
Books and articles have been written exploring the topic — and I’m not going to go into the question here. In a sense, this connection didn’t mean anything, other than the fact that there was actually an energetic flow (à la Freud) between Beckett and Bion, and that they, somehow, influenced each other (à la Klein). I then put down my phone and went over to my bookcase, taking off the shelf another Beckett book I’d read, First Love, and read the copy on the back cover. It quoted Beckett: “I’m working with impotence, ignorance. . . . I don’t think impotence has been exploited in the past.” And, having read Klein, I understood what it was all about. Beckett had turned his acceptance of the fact that he did not control the world into an artistic method. He focused his entire literary consciousness on the experience of powerlessness. Which was, incidentally, one of the aspects of depression – so that he had essentially turned depression into a source of power. I went back and reread the second half of the sentence about the voice. “This voice that speaks . . . knowing itself useless and its uselessness in vain. . .” Not only was his voice useless and impotent, its uselessness and impotence had no purpose, no meaning. What did have purpose and meaning, though, was his ability to invoke this feeling in others through writing. This was power.
I never finished The Unnamable. I met the woman whom I would later marry and our life together, which involved moving from Jerusalem back to New York for two years, took me away from the couch where I’d sat and read Beckett every night. I translated and edited, I researched and wrote, and I knew I still had a long road to take with Beckett. I got about two-thirds through the book – and am waiting for the time when I go back and read the final third. I had my moment with Beckett — and I will have my moment again. But what I learned from him, I took with me to everything else I did, and that was a different way of reading.
David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem.