"Every man his specialty": Beckett, disability, and dependence.
In Bending Over Backwards Lennard Davis coins the term "dismodernism" to describe the ways that disability challenges ideas of liberal autonomy and able-bodied normalcy that underwrite contemporary identity politics. As a social model, dismodernism shares with theories of postmodernism a skepticism toward grand narratives of Subjecthood and historical teleology, but Davis faults much postmodern theory for maintaining a social constructionist view of identity on the one hand while retaining a politics of multiculturalism and core group identity on the other. Reprising recent scientific discoveries in the field of genetics that disprove the biological basis of race, sexuality or ethnicity, he asks "how does it make sense to say there is a social construction of it." (1) Discourses of race, gender, and sexuality are products of late nineteenth-century medical science--as is disability--but unlike these other areas, disability crosses all such categories and is the one identity position that all of us, if we live long enough, may inhabit. Its pervasiveness and instability permit Davis to see disability as a kind of ur-identity constructed within the technologies of bio-power yet a subject position not bound by specific genetic, economic, or racial markers. The dismodernist ideal "aims to create a new category based on the partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence." (2)
Although Davis conflates a postmodern philosophical stance toward performativity with a historical, post-civil rights cultural politics, he does point to a key limitation of rights claims that presume a healthy, independent (probably white, probably heterosexual, male) ideal to the exclusion of those deemed "defective" or unable to make "rational choices." In this respect he joins a number of recent theorists--Albert Memmi, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Berube, Eva Kittay, and Alasdaire MacIntyre--for whom a consideration of dependency challenges the social contract as it has been conceived from Rousseau and Hume to Rawls and asks whether contractarian ideals can stand the test of differently abled bodies? (3) Stated succinctly by Eva Kittay, dependency critique asserts that the idea of society as an association of equals "masks inequitable dependencies, those of infancy and childhood, old age, illness and disability. While we are dependent, we are not well positioned to enter a competition for the goods of social cooperation on equal terms." (4) Although liberal theories of social justice imply equal access to the public sphere, they do not account for individuals who, because of cognitive impairment or physical disability, cannot cooperate on "equal" and independent terms. Nor are dependent relations validated in the common weal. Citizens who need special accommodations are often stigmatized as narcissists, whiners, and drains on public funds. Their requests for "reasonable accommodations" under the ADA have led to a series of court cases that have been, for the most part, decided against the plaintiffs. The need for interpreters, care-givers, therapists, and social services places persons with disabilities in conflict with liberal ideals of independence and self-reliance. (5) Can a model of independent living--the basis of the disability rights movement--coincide with what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the "virtues of acknowledged dependence" that implicate all of us? (6)
Martha Nussbaum's Frontiers of Justice answers these questions with a resounding "not yet" and in particular charges John Rawls' Theory of Justice with bracketing the rights of persons with disabilities, poor persons, and nonhuman animals as constituencies that cannot be included in Rawls "original position"--those "normal conditions under which human cooperation is both possible and necessary." (7) Against contract models of human rights that stress cooperation for mutual benefit, Nussbaum argues for a rights discourse from the standpoint of what she calls, adapting Amatyra Sen, "capabilities"--"what people are actually able to do and to be in a way informed by an intuitive idea of a life that is worthy of the dignity of the human being." (8) The contractarian model presumes a utilitarian theory of justice based on the nation state and a self-sufficient society of relative equals. (9) Nussbaum's critique of Rawls challenges the equality thesis that underwrites liberal ideals of social justice by pointing to a global economy dominated by unequal relationships of interdependence that benefit dominant nations and consign matters of social justice to charity and debt relief. By deferring social justice to those who either cannot afford access to the public sphere or who find it physically inaccessible, Rawls creates a social contract that is incomplete and partial. It becomes what Walter Lippman, in another context, calls a "phantom public," an ideal of participatory democracy that cannot be realized in practice under current conditions. (10) As Nussbaum says, "all the major social contract thinkers choose to imagine their parties as rationally competent adults who, as Locke says, are, in the state of nature, 'free, equal, and independent'" (11) Not everyone who enters the state of nature is "free, equal, and independent," and although Rawls acknowledges the needs of such persons he withholds consideration of their "special needs" for some future just state. Nussbaum counters by saying that if a theory of justice is to be adequate it cannot be more adequate for some or deferred until the ethical infrastructure is in place.
I want to explore the dialectics of dependency--the interplay between a social contract based on free, equal agents and one that recognizes contingent interrelationshipsby looking at one modernist writer, Samuel Beckett, whose work dismodernizes liberal theories of autonomy and independent agency by creating scenes of what we might call "abject dependency." Beckett's characters often exist in tragi-comic relations of codependence that seem to mock communitarian ideals of charity and mutual aid while laying bare the edifice of liberal individualism as a flawed document. Hamm and Clov, Mercier and Camier, Pozzo and Lucky, Winnie and Willie, Vladimir and Estragon--and if we extend codependence more existentially--Molloy and Moran, Malone and his reader, old Krapp versus younger Krapp--all rely on each other to "go on." Their formulaic routines and dialogues often seem parodic versions of a rational discourse whose content has been evacuated, leaving interlocutors exchanging empty signs. It is less often observed that many of these characters are disabled and form tenuous alliances for mutual aid. In Endgame, to take the obvious example, Hamm is blind and lacks the use of his legs; Clov has a stiff leg and is losing his sight; Nagg and Nell have lost their limbs in a bicycling accident and have been relegated to trashcans. While critics have seen their impairments as metaphors for alienation and solitude in the modern world we might see that alienation as the condition of disability in a world of compulsory able-bodiedness. When disability is the norm--as it is in Beckett's work--the human condition must be revised in terms of nontraditional bodies and sensoria. We might also see their co-dependence as a means of survival, the social contract reduced to its most naked form. (12) That Beckett chooses to represent his human comedy by disabled figures whose bodies have ceased to be "productive" according to modern imperatives of progress and improvement offers a parable about the limits of agency and community in a post-ableist era.
Beckett offers little in the way of Christian solace, preferring a darker wager that he identifies with early church fathers: "Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved; do not presume; one of the thieves was damned." (13) Beckett's often-quoted version of Augustine serves as a caution to those who read Waiting for Godot as a modern parable about the existence of belief in a Godless world. Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) themselves seem aware of the odds ("One of the thieves was saved," Didi says; "It's a reasonable percentage") and occasionally entertain the thought that, as Gogo says, "We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?" (14) The form that this "something" takes is a series of verbal pratfalls and vaudeville routines that, in Godot's absence, fill time and keep them together.
Estragon: That's the idea, let's abuse each other They turn, move apart, turn again and face each other.
Estragon: (with finality). Crritic!
He wilts, vanquished and turns away. (15)
Although such rituals offer an hilarious riposte to the idea of reasonable discourse they point to the pragmatics of communication as a contract among participants to further the language game. They also cement relationships around inter-dependency that, as current vernacular performances (dozens, rap, verbal contests) demonstrate create community and forge alliances. The "Crritic!" whom Gogo invokes to trump Didi, needs to see such routines as socially significant speech acts that "create the illusion that we exist."
Persons with disabilities depend on others in ways that challenge liberal ideals of autonomy and independence, and it is here that Beckett's work offers an important challenge to ideas of embodied normalcy. (16) His novels and plays depict characters who are thrown into a state of nature without ontological supports or metaphysical assurances. They depend on objects (stones, sticks, bicycles) as prostheses for limited mobility and agency, and their personal interrelationships seem based less on love and affection than on contingency and survival. Although their bodies are in states of increasing decay with limbs becoming unusable and memories unreliable, they acknowledge the fact that, as Molloy ruefully says, "To decompose is to live, too." (17) Although we often think of Beckett's characters as solitary Bartlebies, they are more often locked in complicated interrelationships, bound by ties whose necessity has long since turned into routine. Even when characters are alone, they are haunted by specters from the past with whom they commune in paranoid, guilt-ridden monologues. Eh, Joe, Ghost Trio, Krapp's Last Tape, and Ohio Impromptu utilize monologue and mime to converse with an absent interlocutor from whom the character is unable to separate himself. Krapp's futile endeavor to control the tape on which an earlier version of his life is recorded represents an attempt to revise a narrative whose present failures are all too apparent. In Ohio Impromptu, the silent Listener knocks on a table to indicate when his virtually identical Reader may read aloud what appears to be the former's story of lost love and growing isolation. In such plays, the Subject is split in two, permitted to visit himself as Other through a dialogic encounter.
Dependent relationships in Beckett are never symmetrical, and power imbalance between characters is often mediated through parodies of Christian charity, on the one hand, or the master-slave dialectic on the other. Neither scenario-charity or force--is tenable, and characters are left to act out rituals of deference and leadership, support and authority, without knowing why. In Part I of Waiting for Godot, Pozzo and Lucky perform a theatrical parody of master and slave with Pozzo as the pompous landowner/impresario who expects dog-like fidelity from his servant and lackey, Lucky. When the two characters return in part II, Pozzo's authority is diminished, his eyesight lost, his impresario status reduced to helpless appeals for aid. Didi and Gogo, who in Part I, deferred to Pozzo's authority, now imitate it by refusing to help him and by subjecting Lucky to cruel punishment. Not only are dependent relations between master and slave reversed; a reciprocal inversion occurs between disabled and able-bodied characters in the play. Far from reversing the polarities of the master-slave dialectic, Beckett shows its tenacity and adaptability, even when the master's authority has been lost.
The basic formula for Beckett's treatment of abject dependence can be stated thus: individuals cannot realize themselves as independent agents without first recognizing their dependent and contingent relations with others and with their own animal bodies. In a world that valorizes independence and able-bodied normalcy, dependent relations are regarded as signs of weakness, usually identified with "women's work" or that of ill-paid menials. When individuals find themselves in situations of dependence they act out their ambivalent relations to others and to their frangible bodies through narratives of beset embodiment that mimic social attitudes in the larger "rational" world. As their bodies decline, they become dependent on certain objects as extensions of their atrophied limbs, sight, and hearing. These objects replicate materially the stories they tell that extend their lives aesthetically. Sucking stones and narratives stave off cosmic boredom. Mobility, rather than being a descriptor of agency, becomes a curse. As Malone says, "If I had the use of my body I would throw it out of the window. But perhaps it is the knowledge of impotence that emboldens me to that thought. All hangs together, I am in chains." (18)
The formula I have outlined can be seen in Rough for Theater I, a little known work written in French (Fragment pour theatre) in the 1950s that could serve as a prologue for Endgame. (19) Two old men, A and B, inhabit a deserted corner of a post-apocalypse urban ruin. A is blind and sits on a folding stool, occasionally playing a violin "scratching an old jangle to the four winds." (20) B has lost one of his legs and wheels himself around in a wheelchair that he propels by means of a pole. When B first encounters A, he retreats until he realizes they might "join together, and live together, till death ensue." (21) This recognition scene marks the moment in which dependency is acknowledged as mutually beneficial to both parties rather than being seen as a tragic loss of autonomy. As in other Beckett plays, a character's acquiescence to dependence is figured as a marriage contract, a bond "till death ensue." As B observes, prior to their joining forces, he would "sit there, in my lair, in my chair, in the dark, twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four." (22) Now there seems the possibility for a kind of communion. B performs certain functions for A such as describing the scenery and the quality of light while A pushes B's wheelchair. Soon, however, A fails to accede to B's wishes, and B strikes him with his pole. Feeling guilty over his action, B despairs, "Now I've lost him. He was beginning to like me and I struck him. He'll leave me and I'll never see him again. I'll never see anyone again. We'll never hear the human voice again." (23)
The blind A threatens to leave the crippled B, but finds himself unable to depart without his "things"--the few material objects--his violin and alms bowl--that represent his tentative hold on existence. Such objects, as we know from the rest of Beckett's oeuvre are both prosthetic and aesthetic, extending and articulating an existence whose ontological supports have been forgotten. B plays upon A's ambivalence by reinstating him into regimes of pity and obligation. B asks,
Straighten my rug, I feel the cold air on my foot. [A halts] I'd do it myself, but it would take too long. [Pause] Do that for me, Billy. Then I may go back, settle in the old nook again and say, I have seen man for the last time, I struck him and he succored me. [Pause] Find a few rags of love in my heart and die reconciled, with my species. (24)
In this passage, expressions of forgiveness and pity are revealed as speech acts whose exchange allows characters to live in the illusion of a moral universe. At different points in the play, each character calls the other, "poor wretch," not to validate piety but to reinforce the value of expressing it. Rough for Theatre I is less a parable about the virtues of mutual aid than a comedic display of human intercourse when relations are founded not on independent agency but on dependence. Beckett's post-lapsarian world of itinerant tramps, clowns, and cripples may simply be the bourgeois order's camera obscura on itself and on bodies it can't imagine or contain.
II: "What a curse, mobility!"
A and B's inter-dependence defines a post-human, prosthetic body in which acts and intentions in one individual are completed by the other. (25) Here, disability is not a metaphor for something else (blindness as a sign of weakness, immobility as a sign of castration) but a constitutive feature of the social contract. In an ableist, goal-driven world that treats dependency as hated subservience, noncontingent acts are deemed wasteful or expendable. At one point A extends his hand to B who exclaims, "Wait, you're not going to do me a service for nothing? (Pause.) I mean unconditionally? (Pause.) Good God!" (26) Here the noncontingent act, performed out of empathy or generosity, becomes the anomaly. Beckett's favorite philosophical conundrums usually involve aporias of contingency, his favorite being Bishop Berkeley's esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived). Critics observe that much of Beckett's work could be condensed into this proposition, from Belacqua's solipsism to What Where's dark vision of state surveillance. In Beckett's 1963, Film (for which Berkeley's phrase serves as epigraph) the solitary actor, played by Buster Keaton, spends the entire film evading the camera's scopic gaze. The camera (called "E" for "eye" in Beckett's notes) pursues Keaton ("O" for object) relentlessly, through a ruined street, into a vestibule, up a flight of stairs and into a bare room, but he manages to avoid being seen full face until the very end of the film. People who encounter him on the street inexplicably turn away in horror, but we are never told why. Not only does O evade the camera's gaze, he attempts to efface anything remotely resembling a pair of eyes. He conceals all optical images (a fish in a fishbowl, the eyes of a parrot, two decorative holes in a rocking chair, two circular fasteners on an envelope)--anything that threatens to hold him in their gaze. When he finally turns toward the camera, Keaton's famous dead-pan face is shown with a patch over one eye, as though to indicate that just as the cyclopean eye of the camera reifies its subject, so the subject is sight impaired. The Cyclops is limited by his one eye; Odysseus is but "no man." O refuses to be constituted by the Eye, seeking an autonomy that the camera refuses to grant. And while the film focuses on one individual, its entire production illustrates the dualism of all perceptual acts, or as Winnie says in Happy Days, "because one sees the other the other sees the one." (27)
Disabled people have long recognized the power--and violence--of such scopic regimes and are now seeking to rearticulate their object status through activism and performance. The social model of disability asserts that a physical impairment becomes a disability when one encounters physical obstacles and environmental barriers, and the same holds true for negotiating the stares and gawking of an able-bodied public. One is not born disabled; one becomes disabled through the objectifying gaze of compulsory ablebodiedness. In Beckett's world, however, all characters are disabled, and their acts of looking and being seen tend to foreground the performative features--the theatricality--of such constitutive acts of sight. Their attempts to negotiate a landscape that is inaccessible (whether because of limited mobility or because of an absent God) frame "bare forked man" at his most vulnerable.
Or "bare forked" woman. The drama of Happy Days reinforces precisely this constitutive aspect of sight as Winnie, buried up to her waist in act one and her neck in act two, seeks to maintain the illusion that she is still being seen--and thus that she still exists: "Strange feeling that someone is looking at me. I am clear, then dim, then gone, then dim again, then clear again, and so on, back and forth, in and out of someone's eye." (28) Her chipper response to each "happy day" belies her restricted condition, and she alleviates her tedium by pattern and routine. She is awakened by a bell; she says a brief prayer; she unloads objects from her "capacious black bag, shopping variety"; she muses upon each item before returning it to its place in the bag; she repeats formulaic phrases to her husband who is half hidden behind her; she sings a song at twilight. Willie's terse responses to her various questions satirize bourgeois domestic bliss, but they sustain Winnie's view that the two of them are maintaining some illusion of normal relations. Despite the absurdity of her situation, her reduced mobility is never an issue, and a good deal of the play's humor is linked to her buoyant refusal of what would seem to be an intolerable situation. The more Winnie seeks verification that someone is watching, the more we realize that we are sustaining the illusion that she takes for reality.
Winnie is a virtuoso performer in her ability to fill time with an endlessly improvised script (and reticent interlocutor). She "performs" normalcy, insofar as her lines are often based on cliche'd phrases that are the staples of social parlance. On another level, and despite her bourgeois trappings, Winnie is surprisingly well read, quoting fragments from Shakespeare, Milton, Gray, Yeats, Keats and Browning, often prefaced by the query, "what is that wonderful [or immortal] line?" These "classic" lines establish continuity with tradition--what she calls the "old style"--that like the objects in her reticule keeps her afloat. They signal her commitment to affirmative culture, yet their decontextualized usage often effaces the darker themes--madness, chaos, suicide--that these passages often signal (at one point, in looking for her glasses, she quotes Ophelia's lines from Hamlet, "woe woe is me--to see what I see." (29)
As Beckett's fullest treatment of a female character, the gendered implications of Winnie's performance must also be acknowledged. She performs a specifically feminine version of embodied normalcy which Berkeley could hardly have anticipated. The objects in her purse--mirror, comb, toothbrush--reinforce her performance as a woman--a performance that she must maintain despite her restricted movement. Stephen Connor notes that "Winnie allows the dramatization of the gaze as both violation and necessity ... Here, the female spectacle looks at itself, and watches the audience look at it." (30) Like Clov in Endgame, who, at several points, gestures towards the audience, Winnie is acutely aware of being watched, and when, in act two, she is no longer able to turn around and see Willie, her monologue expresses her desperation at being cut off from this last vestige of human contact. Not only is she being sucked down into that "great extinguisher" the earth, she is facing the horror that she might ultimately have to do it alone. To the extent that Winnie's anxiety relates to her disability can be seen by a moment, late in the play when she recounts a memory of an encounter with a "Mr. and Mrs. 'Shower' or 'Cooker" who look at her in her hill of sand and ask, "What does it mean? ... what's it meant to mean?" (31) Curiosity leads to prurience:
Does she feel her legs? he says. (Pause) Is there any life in her legs? he says (Pause) Has she anything on underneath? he says. (Pause) Ask her, he says, I'm shy. (Pause) Ask her what? she says. (Pause) Is there any life in her legs. (32)
Instead of helping her out of her predicament, the couple speculate on her disabled condition and in doing so participate in a common form of able-bodied voyeurism that sees the impairment for the whole person. Gendered and embodied otherness come together in Mr. Cooker's sexualized gaze.
It might be possible to see Happy Days as a comedy of modern solipsism, focused on woman as consumer, "buried" in the world and forced to recreate herself as spectacle. But if we were to see her immobile condition as an allegory of disability we might see the play as being more about dependence and vulnerability and the rhetorical strategies with which we negotiate between the two. There are two levels on which dependence is figured. The first involves Winnie's deictic construction of herself vis a vis an absent interlocutor, and the second includes her frustrated conversations with Willie. Both cases rely on Winnie's presumption that someone is hearing her speak, that she is "not merely talking to [her]self." In the absence of any confirmed listener, Winnie has recourse to a rhetorical surrogate, an imagined interlocutor who replaces Willie. In the following monologue, Winnie muses on the meaning of an advertising phrase on her toothbrush:
Hog's setae. (Puzzled expression.) What exactly is a hog? (Pause. Do.) A sow of course I know, but a hog ... (Puzzled expression off.) Oh well what does it matter, that is what I always say, it will come back, that is what I find so wonderful, all comes back. (Pause.) All? (Pause.) No, not all. (Smile.) No no. (Smile off.) Not quite. (Pause.) A part. (Pause) Floats up, one fine day, out of the blue. (Pause.) That is what I find so wonderful. (33)
Monologues such as this imagine an other whose response is anticipated but never fulfilled. In one sense her phrases are empty of content, their function to keep the dialogue moving. Her constant question, "What is that unforgettable line?" mocks its own answer, yet its pragmatic function in securing and sustaining her intersubjective fantasy gives form to an unimaginable situation.
As for Willie he is an inadequate care-giver by any standard, spending most of his time reading his newspaper or else napping in his burrow behind Winnie's hill of sand. Throughout the play, he serves as a foil for Winnie's musings and a parody of husbandly detachment. Winnie strives to get him to respond, and her labors of beset communication produce much of the play's grim humor:
Winnie: What would you say, Willie? [Pause. Turning a little further.) What
would you say, Willie, speaking of the hair on your head, them or it?
Winnie: (turning back front, joyful). Ooh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day! (34)
Willie's parsimonious response nevertheless excites Winnie to further conversation, just as his vulnerability under the blazing sun occasions her solicitous regard for his exposed skin. At times, Willie's perfunctory remarks seem to allude to his own restricted condition as Winnie's helpmate. Despite the inadequacy of Willie's conversation, at the end of the play he quite literally "comes around," leaving his perch behind her hill of sand and moving, stage front, to climb the hill--with great physical exertion--and stare into Winnie's eyes and pronounce the first syllable of her name, "Win." Since she is now buried up to her neck, she is obviously not "win-ning" the battle against decline. Nor is she able to turn her head, and Willie's act permits her to verify that not only does he exist but she also exists in his mirror. It is an ambiguous gesture. We are not sure whether he has come to court Winnie one last time (he is dressed in formal wear) or to pick up the gun that lies at her side and facilitate the suicide she is no longer able to perform. Winnie interprets his gesture as a romantic one, but her remark contains the darker possibility that without his look, nothing of her remains:"That's right, Willie, look at me. (Pause) Feast your old eyes, Willie. (Pause) Does anything remain?" (35)
At one point in Malone Dies the titular narrator cries, "I wonder why I speak of all this. Ah yes, to relieve the tedium." (36) And later, "the search for myself is ended. I am buried in the world." (37) This would seem to summarize Winnie's situation as well. She relieves the "tedium" of being-toward-death by talking-toward-being; she has stopped searching for a self beyond the world and acknowledges her immersion in it. Her most radical acknowledgment of this fact occurs toward the end of Act I as she tries to instruct Willie on how to enter his burrow: "The hands and knees, love, try the hands and knees. (Pause.) The knees! The Knees! (Pause) What a curse mobility!" (38)
Far from despairing of her disabled condition, Winnie disparages the limits of compulsory able-bodiedness if its primary goal is, as in Willie's case, to return to a womb-like solitude. Willie may be more mobile, but his intellectual range is limited to monosyllabic grunts and "titbits from Reynolds News." (39) Winnie depends on Willie's presence but is not defined by it. Their shared twin initials hint at their interdependent natures, as though one is the complement of the other. If Willie is Winnie's on-stage audience, we become Willie, to some extent, by our triangulated relationship to Winnie's need to be seen. Hence the curse of Willie's mobility becomes our own; the cure of Winnie's solitude is the presence, imagined or literal, of the other.
III: "no more nature"
The recent power sharing agreement in Northern Ireland between the Protestant Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein caps a century of struggle over Irish governance and national autonomy. Whatever success the new agreement may bring, the legacy of "the Troubles" will continue to haunt future relations between Britain and Northern Ireland. The endurance of residual social and historical conditions in emergent formations makes it difficult to impose a binary, master/slave model on works of Irish literature with characters like Pozzo or Hamm serving as thinly disguised representatives of Great Britain against their subaltern Irish vassals, Lucky and Clov. Speaking of Endgame Nels Pearson points out that the play dramatizes
the lingering co-dependency between two leftover participants from an imperial/colonial (or at the very least ruler/subject) historical situation that no longer exists. The important thing is that Hamm and Clov maintain the respective roles of ruler and ruled as well as the assumption that there is no alternative to these roles, long after the external causes of specific historical circumstances of those roles have deteriorated. (40)
One might argue that the imperial/colonial situation has by no means gone away in Northern Ireland, but Pearson is right to observe that a strictly top down model of colonial authority does not account for forms of reciprocal dependence. The co-dependency of Hamm and Clov marks Endgame's reprise of The Tempest with Clov playing Caliban to Hamm's Prospero, but as Albert Memmi argues, with regard to post-colonial societies, it would be wrong to assume that this form of dependency is the same as subjection. There are reciprocal dependencies between colony and colonizer in which each sees itself through the mirror of the other. In Endgame Hamm holds the combination to the cupboard that feeds Clov. Clov can still walk and see, thus serving as Hamm's legs and eyes. Each resents the other's advantage, yet each recognizes the other's role in constituting himself.
Although other Beckett plays--Not I, All That Fall, or Happy Days--also deal with the interplay of disability and dependence, Endgame is the most operatic elaboration of the theme. At its center is a post-apocalypse world in which all life has been destroyed--or perhaps more accurately, in which biological reproduction no longer organizes futurity. At the play's center is a relationship between two disabled characters, one who imitates a fallen King and one who imitates his son and servant. Hamm and Clov ritually interrogate the reasons for their interdependence. "What is there to keep me here?" asks Clov; "The dialogue," replies Hamm. (41) Elsewhere Clov asks, "There's one thing I'll never understand. Why I always obey you. Can you explain that to me?" to which Hamm responds, "No ... perhaps it's compassion [Pause]. A kind of great compassion." (42) Hamm knows how to manipulate his subaltern by providing moral justifications for living under oppression. At one point Hamm curses Clov's lack of compassion and compares it to his disability:
One day you'll be blind, like me. You'll be sitting there, a speck in the void, in the dark, forever, like me.... Infinite emptiness will be all around you, all the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn't fill it, and there you'll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe. (Pause) Yes, one day you'll know what it is, you'll be like me, except that you won't have anyone with you, because you won't have had pity on anyone and because there won't be anyone left to have pity on. (43)
Such rhetoric offers a variation on an all-too-familiar version of charity that maintains Hamm's control and validates Clov's continued subservience. It is also a warped variation on filial piety that visits the disability of the father on the vulnerability of the son. As Nagg heaps abuse on his disrespectful son, so Hamm complains about Clov's inattentiveness. As Stanley Cavell observes, "Like his father, powerless to walk, needing to tell stories, [Hamm] masks his dependence with bullying...." (44)
Although Hamm postures and pontificates, he and Clov often acknowledge their impairments as a kind of reciprocity. Having pushed his legless father back into the ashbin, Hamm urges Clov to "Sit on him!" to which Clov responds, "I can't sit."
Hamm: True. And I can't stand.
Clov: So it is.
Hamm: Every man his specialty. (45)
This brief interchange summarizes what Albert Memmi calls "reciprocal dependency" where "each partner counts on the other for survival or comfort, in which each is simultaneously the dependent of and provider for the other." (46) Although Hamm wields control over Clov's actions, his overblown rhetoric and grandiose theatrics show him to be less a tragic figure than, as his name implies, a ham actor with little power over his realm. The question of why Clov stays with Hamm--the subject of many of their dialogues--can be explained as the colonial acquiescence before subjection in the absence of alternative possibilities. Clov has become comfortable in his subjecthood, and because he knows the roles and rules, performs them faithfully, despite his underlying ressentiment.
Reading Endgame in postcolonial terms has helped to historicize the play's theatricalization of power, however it does not specify the function of disability in maintaining those relations of power. Within a postcolonial reading, Hamm is a parody of imperial authority, barking commands and feigning sympathy for his colonial subject. Clov must throw off his false consciousness and expose Hamm's autocratic role. Read through a disability optic, however, Hamm and Clov function within an ableist ideology that views dependent relations as weakness. In a world where the blind man in a wheelchair is interpellated as doubly handicapped, his dependence on an assistant is regarded as tragically emasculating. Within the chess metaphor that organizes the play, Hamm is vulnerable to his opponent's pawns. And in a world where the caregiver becomes socially and culturally disabled in the act of serving, reliance on the "patient" is no less disparaged. "We're not beginning to ... to ... mean something?" Hamm queries, to which Clov laughs: "Mean something! You and I, mean something! [Brief laugh.] Ah that's a good one!" (47) The great fear is that the formulaic routines and rituals that maintain their relations of interdependence might be evaporating is almost more than they can imagine. Hamm asks "Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn't he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough. (Voice of rational being) Ah, good, now I see what it is, yes, now I understand what they're at!" (48) Adorno paraphrases these lines as saying, "Not meaning anything becomes the only meaning," but this imposes a kind of negative theology on these lines, seemingly in violation of Adorno's critique of existentialist readings of the play. (49) I see these lines as showing Hamm's comedic response to the absurdity of his dependent relationship with Clov by ventriloquizing the voice of rationality and exposing it as a voice of power.
As in Happy Days, Endgame deploys the metaphor of the theater to reinforce the idea that dependent relations between patient and care-giver follow the pattern of dramatic role-playing. Endgame is full of theatrical references-audiences and performances, stage action and memorized lines. As a ham actor, Hamm veers from pathos to music hall comedy, and seems perpetually caught in a vaudeville routine. Hamm and Clov, often allude to their empty rituals as performances. At one point, Clov is looking out the window with a telescope. He turns it toward the audience, and Hamm asks him what he sees: "I see ... a multitude ... in transports ... of joy" to which he adds, "That's what I call a magnifier." (50) Hamm repeats Prospero's lines from The Tempest, "Our revels now are ended" as a marker of his kinglike status but also as the creator of the play in which he is both author and actor. (51) Hamm, like Prospero, has given Clov language which his Caliban-like subordinate now uses to challenge parental authority: "I use the words you taught me. If they don't mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent." (52) Hamm and Clov may resent their interdependence, but they construct their "revels" within recognizable theatrical roles.
Although in Endgame Beckett shows the abject character of dependency, he understands its function as a condition underwritten by attitudes about gender and class. Care-givers, as Kittay and Nussbaum demonstrate, are invariably women, responsible both for child-rearing and care for the aged and infirm. Moreover, care-giving is unrewarded, if within the family, and when a component of work, ill remunerated. Beckett builds Hamm and Clov's relationship upon such unequal, gendered divisions of labor with Hamm as a pitiful version of the breadwinner who sparingly doles out biscuits to his small fiefdom while Clov is relegated to the domestic kitchen to stare at the walls. We tend to think of Clov as Hamm's surrogate son, but we forget that he also occupies the position of wife and helpmate. If, as Eva Kittay says, dependency work is "labor that enhances the power and activity of another," then Clov is certainly a dependency worker, dispensing pain killers and moving wheelchairs but never given credit for his labors. (53) The seeming symmetry of his dependency upon Hamm for survival reinforces the grim dialectic of unremunerated domestic service. I am not saying Clov is female but that by participating in dependency work, he occupies the subject position often occupied by women as nurses, mothers, midwives, and care-givers.
Finally, there is the question of life after Hamm. The play's ending hinges on whether one believes that Clov will leave Hamm and eke out an independent life or remain perpetually bound to his master's service. This is a version of the more philosophical question of whether the play "means" anything beyond its own meaninglessness--whether it dramatizes a universal human essence or, as Lukacs complains, mirrors the chaos of modern life without taking a position on it. The play leaves the question unanswered, not because Beckett wants to question Clov's willpower or Hamm's authority (or art's pedagogical potential) but because there is no post-deluvian life beyond dependence. The end-game is not resolved by perpetuating another variant of Oedipal transgression, the son triumphing over the father by becoming independent of his Law. Rather the condition involves recognizing that independence and equality are bound to others, that, as Eva Kittay says, "interdependence begins with dependence. (54) The boy that Clov spies through his telescope offers a glimmer of hope for life outside the box, yet there is the equal possibility that Clov will reestablish on this newcomer the regime of dominance he has learned from Hamm. Their final dialogue reinforces this promise of repetition, now figured through the theatrical mise-en-scene:
Clov: This is what we call making an exit.
Hamm: I'm obliged to you, Clov. For your services.
Clov: (turning sharply): Ah, pardon, it's I am obliged to you.
Hamm: It's we are obliged to each other. (55)
Whether this is simply a set of empty ritual remarks made upon parting or a redemptive summary of their relationship in general, Beckett leaves the door (quite literally) open without showing Clov leaving the stage. The mutual obligation--what I have been calling reciprocal dependency--is the social contract viewed not as an alliance of separate individuals for a common good but a recognition of the labor such alliances entail. If Beckett presents a dystopic version of dependency, it is because the labor of love has yet to find an adequate narrative.
IV: Dependent Rational Animals
"There is no more nature"--whose corollary, as Adorno has observed, is that there is nothing left that is not made by man. The catastrophe that Endgame survives could be an atomic holocaust with the play's characters depicting "the bombed out consciousness [that] no longer has any position from which it could reflect on that fact." (56) Although it is always dangerous to pin a specific historical allegory on Beckett's works, it is worth thinking of how plays like Endgame try to imagine a future when the grand narratives of Self, Soul, and Society no longer seem to hold. Rather than being a form of "writing after Auschwitz" which implies that something "good" survives, Endgame could be seen as articulating what conditions still remain, what elements of the Enlightenment narrative of improvement and Darwinian survival still organize the way we understand bio-futurity. Nagg and Nell in their trashcans are the sad evidence of social attitudes about the aged and infirm that see human life, once past its prime, as disposable. That, as Adorno says, "is the true gerontology." (57) Expanded to my concern with disability, we might say that in Beckett's plays, the old, the animal, the infirm, and the poor coincide, not as signs of what nature can't contain but of what society cannot afford to exclude.
And this returns me to Martha Nussbaum's critique of John Rawls' original position. A theory of social justice forged on equal access to "resources" rather than "capabilities" provides a constricted definition of participation in the social contract and limits human potential largely to economic considerations: "The main idea," Rawls claims, " is that when a number of persons engage in a mutually advantageous cooperative venture according to rules, and thus restrict their liberty in ways necessary to yield advantages for all, those who have submitted to these restrictions have a right to a similar acquiescence on the part of those who have benefitted from their submission." (58) This sounds good, Nussbaum says, if all individuals are independent actors, but when one of those persons is in a wheelchair or is engaged in dependent care for a child who is mentally ill, that "mutually advantageous" cooperation no longer applies. What does it mean for someone to "submit to restrictions" in a society that refuses to recognize her as fully human? Nussbaum argues for treating individuals not in terms of abstract personhood but in terms of what they are capable of, what anyone needs to live with dignity. And this includes taking into consideration physical and cognitive variability. Thinking about differently abled persons also means taking into account their varying levels of care, whether this is delivered by a family member or a paid employee. Finally, it means incorporating the care-giver into the dependent relationship as a full participant.
Beckett was obviously not thinking specifically of the claims of disability on social justice, but by making his characters disabled and co-dependent, he counters the tendency to think of such conditions as belonging to "them" and not to "us." The human condition in Beckett's plays is living with disability and dependence, however abject their portrayal may be. In a liberal society, bent on liberating the healthy, independent individual, dependency must be bracketed (as it is in Rawls) or else subjected to various forms of paternalism. "Pity would be no more/If we did not make somebody poor," Beckett's favorite poet, William Blake, observes in "The Human Abstract." (59) The disability rights movement and its challenge to celebrity telethon versions of pathetic impairment has gone a long way toward retrieving the disabled person from such patronizing myths but in doing so has often recourse to the same individualist or triumphalist ethos that it deplores in able-bodied society. Beckett's writings display the limits of liberal individualism as the telos, the endgame, of civilization. At the end of Endgame, Clov halts at the threshold of the room. He and Hamm stage their last dialogue, one that they have been repeating since the beginning of time. We never know whether Clov can extricate himself from this play--or this room--but we do see the drama of their dependent relations as the "game" that keeps him and Hamm alive. A society that brackets such relations from the social contract fatally ignores, as Alisdair MacIntyre says, the "virtues that we need, if we are to confront and respond to vulnerability and disability both in ourselves and in others...." (60)
Michael Davidson, University of California at San Diageo
(1) Lennard Davis, Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism and Other Difficult Positions (New York: New York U Press, 2002), p.18.
(2) Ibid., p. 30.
(3) See Albert Memmi, Dependence (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984);Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 2006); Michael Berube, Life as We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child (New York: Random House, 1996); Eva Kittay, Love's Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency (New York: New York U Press, 1999); Alasdaire MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 2006).
(4) Kittay, Love's Labor, p. xi.
(5) I don't mean to imply that all persons with a disability are dependent or that they share an equal relationship to care-giving. A person in a wheel chair is only dependent when she encounters a building without ramps or elevators; a deaf person is not dependent when signing ASL among deaf family members but becomes so when encountering a hearing teacher without an interpreter. Disability rights advocates have been critical of seeing themselves as dependent, based on their long and troubled history with the medical and rehabilitation model. Yet the absence of any discourse about dependency has reinforced a supercrip mentality that does not acknowledge the various forms dependence takes within disability.
(6) MacIntyre, p. 8.
(7) Quoted in Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice, p 27.
(8) Ibid., p. 70.
(9) From a disability standpoint, we could see the grimmer application of this model in global development where resources are distributed based on the productivity of able-bodied persons or when healthcare is restricted to clinics that only preach abstinence but do not mention abortion.
(10) The phrase "phantom public" was used by Walter Lippman in 1925 to describe (and decry) the large number of citizens who choose not to participate in political life. The phrase has been appropriated by Bruce Robbins to describe the various debates within the Left about the loss of the public intellectual or the decline of participatory democracy. Robbins' anthology, The Phantom Public Sphere (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1993), attempts to define those "counter publics" left out of much public sphere discourse, from Lippman to Habermas. Not surprisingly, the book does not mention persons with disabilities.
(11) Nussbaum, p.104.
(12) On "compulsory able-bodiedness," see the Introduction to Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York U Press, 2006), pp.1-32.
(13) According to Beckett scholars, this parable does not appear in this exact form anywhere in Augustine, although it seems to resemble a remark from his letters. Beckett quotes it in a statement to Harold Hobson in 1956:
I take no sides. I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine....' Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.' That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters (qtd Michael Worton, "Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theatre as Text", in The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, ed. John Pilling (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2005), p. 75.
(14) Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1982), p. 44.
(15) Ibid., p. 48.
(16) As Nussbaum and Eva Kittay point out, dependency is often gendered. Those who deliver care or who are presumed to be responsible for dependent children and aged and infirm are invariably women who are either not compensated, because part of the family structure, or poorly compensated, because components of the care-giving industry.
(17) Samuel Beckett, Molloy Three Novels of Samuel Beckett: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p.25.
(18) Ibid., p. 218.
(19) Samuel Beckett, Rough for Theatre I. The Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett, (New York: Grove Press, 1984), pp. 65-73. All of the plays discussed in this paper are now available on a recently completed CD set, Beckett on Film produced by Blue Angel Films for Radio Telefis Eireann and Channel 4. Rough for Theatre I appears in The Collected Shorter Plays.
(20) Ibid., p. 68.
(21) Ibid., p.67.
(22) Ibid., p.68.
(23) Ibid., p.70.
(24) Ibid., p. 71.
(25) In this sense, the prosthetic body differs from Yoshiki Tajiri's use of the phrase to describe "the body that harbours the inorganic other within it" (Yoshiki Tajiri, Samuel Beckett and the Prosthetic Body: The Organs and Senses in Modernism (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 5. Tajiri is interested in those aspects of Beckett's characters in which parts of the body are felt to be alien or whose body and organs are experienced as a "broken machine" (5). Dependency theory, at least in my understanding of it, treats the other's body as a prosthesis for one's own.
(26) Beckett, Rough for Theatre, p. 71.
(27) Beckett, Happy Days, p. 28.
(28) Ibid., p.40.
(29) Ibid., p. 10.
(30) Steven Connor, Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text (London: Basil Blackwell, 1988), pp. 183-184.
(31) Beckett , Happy Days, p. 56.
(32) Ibid., p. 58.
(33) Ibid., p. 20.
(34) Ibid., p. 23.
(35) Ibid. , p. 62.
(36) Beckett, Malone Dies, p. 195.
(37) Ibid., p. 199.
(38) Beckett, Happy Days, p. 46.
(39) Ibid., p. 62.
(40) Nels Pearson, "'Outside of here it's death': Co-dependency and the Ghosts of Decolonization in Beckett's Endgame," ELH, 68. 1 (2001), pp. 215-16.
(41) Samuel Beckett, Endgame (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p. 58.
(42) Ibid., p. 76.
(43) Ibid., p. 36.
(44) Stanley Cavell, "Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett's Endgame." Samuel Beckett's Endgame, ed. Harold Bloom, (New York: Chelsea House, 1988), p. 61.
(45) Beckett, Endgame, p. 10.
(46) Memmi, Dependence, p. 24.
(47) Beckett, Endgame, pp. 32-33.
(48) Ibid., p. 33.
(49) Theodor W. Adorno, "Trying to Understand Endgame", in Samuel Beckett's Endgame, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), p.27.
(50) Beckett, Endgame, p. 29.
(51) Ibid., p. 56.
(52) Ibid., p. 44.
(53) Kittay, Love's Labor, p. 38.
(54) Ibid., p. xii.
(55) Beckett, Endgame, p. 81.
(56) Adorno, "Trying to Understand Endgame," p. 13.
(57) Ibid., p. 32.
(58) Quoted in Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice, p. 59.
(59) William Blake, "Songs of Experience," The Poems of William Blake, W. H. Stevenson, (New York: Longman Group, Ltd. and Norton, 1972), p. 216.
(60) MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, p.5.
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|Publication:||Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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