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Tragic-dialectical-perfectionism: on the ethics of Beckett's Endgame.

This essay explores the ethical dimensions of Samuel Beckett's Endgame, in spite of--indeed, because of--the play's apparent negation of all positive talk of human value and community. In the first part of the paper, I examine Stanley Cavell's suggestion, put forward in his Carus Lectures of 1988, that Beckett's play can be read as a work that embodies and develops the idea of Emersonian moral perfectionism. In part two, I turn the tables somewhat. After demarcating some of the social limits of Cavell's ethical outlook, I then ask what it might mean to rediscover perfectionism in a more politicized form, something that I attempt to do via an exploration of the tragic dimensions of Beckett's play. While retaining some important features of Cavell's "thematics of perfectionism," this approach aims at the same time to move beyond it in order to grasp how Endgame might, in Beckett's own words, provide "an inkling of the terms in which our {human} condition is to be thought again."


Trying to understand Samuel Beckett's Endgame as an ethical work might present itself as a difficult, if not an impossible, task. Where should one begin to look for ethical meaning in a play punctuated by acts of cruelty and violence in which one of the characters--a starving, legless human, confined to a trashcan--famously remarks: "nothing is funnier than unhappiness"? (2006, 101) If ethics is, as the philosopher Bernard Williams claims, always bound up with the Socratic question "how should one live?" (2006, 1), then we might ask, following Theodor Adorno (1991, 244): how is it possible to ascertain ethical significance in a work in which "humankind continues to vegetate, creeping along after events that even the survivors cannot really survive, on a rubbish heap that has made even reflection on one's own damaged state useless"?

In this essay, my aim is to explore the ethical dimensions of Endgame, in spite of--indeed, because of--the play's apparent negation of all positive talk of human value and community. In the first part of the paper, I examine Stanley Cavell's suggestion put forward in his Carus Lectures of 1988 that Beckett's play can be read as a work which embodies and develops the idea of Emersonian moral perfectionism (1990, 3). While this suggestion is never fully substantiated by Cavell himself it is, as I hope to demonstrate here, possible to provide an account of what a perfectionist Endgame might look like by drawing on a range of Cavell's texts, from his early essay on Endgame through to his recent study Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (2004). In the second part of the essay, I turn the tables somewhat. After demarcating some of the social limits of Cavell's ethical outlook, I then ask what it might mean to rediscover perfectionism in a more politicized form--something that I attempt to do via an exploration of the tragic dimensions of Beckett's play. While retaining some important features of Cavell's "thematics of perfectionism", this approach aims at the same time to move beyond it, in order to grasp how Endgame might, in Beckett's own words, provide "an inkling of the terms in which our {human} condition is to be thought again" (Beckett 1995, 278).


In his 1969 essay "Ending the Waiting Game" (an essay that predates his first published thoughts on moral perfectionism by almost two decades), Cavell describes Endgame's "discovery" as "not the failure of meaning (if that means the lack of meaning) but its total, even totalitarian success" (2003, 117). Cavell reads Hamm (the play's main protagonist) as a literary surrogate for the biblical Ham (Noah's son); he interprets the shelter in which the play is set as the ark; and he locates the time of the action as "sometime after the flood" (137). Hamm's strategy, Cavell claims, is "to perform man's last disobedience": to secure fruitlessness and to empty the world of justification and meaning, because "only a life without hope, meaning, justification, waiting, solution ... is free from the curse of God" (140, 149). Cavell's crucial point, however, is that Hamm "can't do"--can't really accomplish--what he intends (149; emphasis added); and one of the reasons for this is that the desire to "undo" entails an immediate paradox. While Hamm clearly longs for an end to the world, to life and to meaning, he cannot, logically speaking, bring these things about without at the same time bringing an end to his own game of ending. In this respect, even though the time for ending has arrived, Hamm refuses to end--refuses, that is, to give up the task of purposely undoing which is his purpose: "Enough, it's time it ended ... and yet I hesitate, I hesitate to ... end. Yes, there it is, it's time it ended and yet I hesitate to--{he yawns}--end" (Beckett 2006, 93). As Nietzsche reminds us in The Genealogy of Morals, the human will "must have a goal," even if that goal is "nothingness" (2008, 71); and what this entails, in Hamm's case, is endlessly acting out the "old endgame" (Beckett 1996, 132)--everyday the same "routine" (107), the same "dialogue" (120). For if one is not acting then, as Cavell puts it, one is "not in control {and} then anything can happen, in particular the most anguishing thing of all, that {one} may change.... But if I change, I am no longer intact; I die to my world. I would rather die" (2003,158).

Although Hamm's desire to secure fruitlessness and undo meaning might be seen, in one sense, as an attempt to avoid the everyday and therefore to deny the burdens and responsibilities of leading a human life, such avoidance and denial are themselves, on Cavell's view, perfectly ordinary. As he remarks in The Claim of Reason: "Nothing could be more human {than} the power of the motive to reject the human" (1999, 207); and in an interview with James Conant, "a certain drive to the inhuman {is} somehow itself the most inescapably human of motivations" (Fleming and Payne 1989, 50). Implicit in this human drive to the inhuman is a sense of "disappointment with the world as it is" (1) and at the same time a "desire for a reform or transfiguration of the world" (Cavell 2004, 2). Towards the end of "Ending the Waiting Game", Cavell describes Hamm's attitude as "hung between": suspended between hope and despair, salvation and damnation, an imagined world and the real one. This acute self-division points, however, to nothing more and nothing less than the fact that Hamm is condemned to a human life "on earth"; and as the play puts it "there's no cure for that" (Beckett 2006, 118, 125).

How, then, might Hamm's desire to undo meaning (and the paradoxes which this effort to undo entails) be construed as ethical? In his 1985 address "Hope Against Hope," Cavell provides a clear if indirect suggestion. In this short text Cavell turns to Kant's 1794 essay "The End of All Things," which explores the implications of the human effort to think the end of the world. In his essay, Kant argues that the notion of an apocalyptic end of the world is theoretically inconceivable because the end of all things implies the end of time; but thinking, which is always about something (even when it is concerned with the world's annihilation), can itself "take place only in time" (Kant 2001, 226, 333). To try to imagine the end of all things is, therefore, for Kant, a failure on the part of reason to understand its own limits. Importantly, however, such thinking is not meaningless: it is, as Kant puts it, "frighteningly sublime" (221; emphasis in original) and indicative of a significant ethical aspiration:

In the moral order of ends, {the end of all things} is at the same time the beginning of a duration of just those same beings as supersensible, and consequently as not standing under conditions of time; thus that duration and its state will be capable of no determination {Bestimmung} of its nature other than a moral one.... The possibility of {moral} contentment ... can {be thought} only by supposing that the. final end will at some time be attained. (Kant 2001, 221, 227-28; emphasis in original)

Elucidating the full ethical implications of Kant's point, Cavell writes:

Our moral and religious natures must aspire to the perfection for which they were created, and they must understand themselves as capable of changing in the direction of perfection and this perfection has in view the goal and end of moral struggle. Moral struggle, however, cannot end within time, in which change is called for; so the human being is bound to conceive in some way or other of an end to change and an end to struggle, and hence in some way of an end to time. But for Kant this moral struggle is an inner one of each soul with itself, in its fallenness, so that any apocalyptic end must be taken as an allegory or figure of that struggle. (Cavell 1990, 131-32)

Bringing the Kant-Cavell analysis back to Endgame, then, we might say that Hamm's desire to undo meaning and arrive at a final "end ... a bang" (Beckett 2006, 130), is centered on a struggle "with the soul," which has as its (perhaps unconscious) ethical goal the "end of moral struggle"--an end which cannot be imagined in time. This is what Hamm appears to be gesturing towards, near the end of the play, when he imagines arriving at a point of perfect silence and stillness: "If I can hold my peace, and sit quiet, it will be all over with sound, and motion, all over and done with" (126). As Kant reminds us, however, the task of un-creating the world, of bringing an end to all things, is one that can only be accomplished by God. In this respect, it would appear that a true ending for Hamm (which would also be a true human ending) would be one that finally ends the desire for ending itself--an ending, that is, which eschews the temptations of false ascent (the desire to become God) and instead embarks upon a real descent back to the self, to one's life with language, and to a sense of one's own real possibilities (Mulhall 1994, 164). For Cavell, it is only via such a mode of turning that one can hope to find within the "actual" everyday the seeds of the "eventual" everyday: "The direction is not up, at any rate not up to one fixed morning star; but down, at any rate along each chain of a day's denial" (1989, 46).


We can begin to situate Endgame as a work that embodies and develops the idea of Emersonian moral perfectionism by foregrounding Hamm's "sense of disappointment with the world," the (possible) ethical impulses behind his desire to "un-create" it, and the ordinariness of what Cavell calls a persistently "divided self" (2005, 2).

Cavell's thoughts on moral perfectionism are given their first and most sustained articulation in his 1988 Carus Lectures, reprinted as Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (1990). Here Cavell argues that perfectionism is to be thought of not as an ethical theory (in competition with other such theories), but rather as "a dimension or tradition of the moral life ... embodied and developed in a set of texts spanning the range of Western culture" (1990, 2, 4). This dimension of the ethical is concerned with "what used to be called the state of one's soul" or self; and it places "tremendous burdens on personal relationships and on the possibility or necessity of the transforming of oneself and of one's society" (2). For Cavell, "there is no closed list of features that constitute perfectionism," only what he calls "an open-ended thematics ... of perfectionism" (4) which might include (but is in no way limited to) the following criteria: (i) a "disgust with or a disdain for the present state of things so complete as to require not merely reform, but a call for a transformation of things, and before all a transformation of the self" (46); (ii) a "search for intelligibility ... in what seems a scene of moral chaos, the scene of the dark place in which one has lost one's way"; and (iii) an openness to the figure of the exemplary other or friend "whose conviction in one's moral intelligibility draws one to discover it, to find words and deeds in which to express it" (xxxii).

Importantly, on Cavell's account, moral perfectionism "specifically sets itself against any idea of ultimate perfection": there is, as he puts it, "no question of reaching a final state of the soul" (2004, 3, 13). Rather, this approach involves "endlessly taking the next step to what Emerson calls 'an unattained but attainable self'--a self that is always and never ours--a step that turns us not from bad to good, or wrong to right, but from confusion and constriction toward self-knowledge and sociability" (13). The goal here, then, is not the moral life traditionally conceived--understood as guided by either the principle of duty (Kant) or the principle of utility (Mill)--but rather an ethics of self-transformation and self-realization. This coming to self-knowledge is, according to Cavell, neither an elitist nor an individualist pursuit but rather one concerned with "the imagination of justice" (14), which finds expression in the vision "of a new reality, a realm beyond, the true world, that of the Good" (Cavell 1990, 7).

As will no doubt be clear from this brief outline, some features of the perfectionist narrative are missing from Endgame, (2) There are, for example, no "exemplary" characters in the play who might be said to be "representative of a life the other(s) are attracted to" (Cavell 1990, 6). Also, neither Hamm nor Clov succeeds in completing the journey out of the "dark place" in which the self remains "enchained" and "fixated." Despite this, Endgame clearly embodies Cavell's vision of modernist perfectionism, not only through its dramatization of Hamm's "disappointment with the world" as explored above--a disappointment which presents itself, at different times, as boredom and as an (unarticulated) ethical desire to un-create the universe--but also through its dogged faithfulness to the human form of life that is talking. This, I would argue, plays out on a number of levels. First, whilst Endgame is strewn with fantasies of silence, efforts to defeat meaning, and illustrations of the apparent impossibility of human communication, what is ultimately shown is that there is nowhere else to go beyond ordinary language, however indeterminate or restricted this medium at times appears to be. As Cavell puts it: we "have to talk, whether we have something to say or not; and the less we want to say and hear the more wilfully we talk and are subjected to talk" (2003, 126, 161). That one cannot (to paraphrase Pascal) just remain quietly in a room (Pascal 1995, {section} 136), is a theme that the play returns to time and again: in Hamm and Clov's looped repartee, in Nagg and Nell's nostalgic reflections (Beckett 2006, 99-102), and in Hamm's attachment to his "chronicle"--the biographical narrative which he spends the play composing. "Hamm, the artist," Cavell observes, "still hopes for salvation through his art; hopes to move his audience to gratitude, win their love through telling his story" (2003, 151).

Second, and on a different level, Endgame can also be seen to open up a possible perfectionist transformation in the reader's own relationship with language. Cavell speaks of Emersonian perfectionism as requiring us to "become ashamed in a particular way of ourselves" (1990, 16); and the ethico-linguistic implications of this point are neatly drawn out (independently of Cavell) by Adorno. As the latter remarks: "Just as after an intensive reading of Kafka alert experience thinks it sees situations from his novels everywhere, so Beckett's language {in Endgame} effects a healing disease in the sick person: the person who listens to himself talk starts to worry that he sounds the same way" (Adorno 1991, 262). On Adorno's reading, Endgame thus works by shocking the reader (or viewer) into a wholesale reassessment of the kinds of language games in which he or she participates. (3) The banal chatter and absurd interchanges which make up the play's "dialogue," serve as humiliating reminders that this too is how we on occasion (or, indeed, all too often) speak. It is, then, only by becoming "ashamed in a particular way of ourselves" (Cavell 1990, 16) that we might finally find the courage to change our modes of talk and, more importantly still, the forms of life upon which they are grounded.


Although Cavell's thematics of perfectionism suggests important new ways of approaching the ethics of Endgame, it also runs up against a number of problems. Here I wish to highlight just one of these problems--one which is a central social and political stumbling block for Cavellian perfectionism--as a way of clearing the ground for the approach to the play that I will develop in the second part of this essay.

We might argue that Cavell's perfectionism is underpinned by a notion of "magical voluntarism" (2005, 7)--the view that one can transform one's outlook, and indeed one's life, through the sheer force of individual will. Throughout the Carus lectures, Cavell makes numerous references to "becoming what one is" (Nietzsche), and having the "courage to be what we are" (Emerson) (Cavell 1990, 16). He also speaks (in a distinctly heroic tone) of individuals leaving behind lives of "quiet desperation" (Thoreau) and "silent melancholy" (Emerson) by choosing to overcome intellectual "imprisonment {and} voicelessness" (1990, xxxi). Whilst this perfectionist discourse has clear intellectual groundings in the nineteenth-century liberal tradition, (4) it also sails strikingly close to a strand of postmodern thought (specifically that of the later Foucault) which asks why everyone's life can't become an authentic work of art (Foucault 1994, 261-62). The answer to such a question is, however, a simple one: the lives of most people are constrained by a lack of access to productive resources; by the demand that they sell their labor power in order to survive; and by the general hollowing-out of everyday social and political life. The problem is not, therefore, as Cavell suggests, that individuals choose to guard themselves against the kinds of intellectual and aesthetic awakenings which perfectionism entails (Cavell 1990, xxx-xxxi), but rather that "(re) claiming one's voice" (xxxvi), "becoming intelligible to oneself" (xxxi), and changing what Foucault calls one's "style of life" (2001, 97) would, for the majority, necessarily entail a wholesale change in political and economic "reality": a transvaluation of the everyday neoliberal values which condemn so many to a life which does not live. (5)


While much more could be said about the political blind spots of Cavellian perfectionism, (6) here I want to move in a different direction. Specifically, I want to examine how the perfectionist account of Endgame can be developed (and Cavell's insights extended), in such a way that hitherto unseen ethico-political aspects of the play can be brought into clearer sight. (7) Three interrelated questions will provide the frame for this approach: how does our ethical and political view of Endgame change when we: (i) shift our focus from Hamm to Clov; (ii) move the center of critical gravity from the textual referent to the relationship between the spectator and the theatrical spectacle; and (iii) view the play as concerned not with any particular character's perfectionist-heroic struggle against the world, but rather with the consequences and possibilities of everyday existence played out in a tragic key.

In arguing for Endgame's relation to a certain kind of tragic thinking, it should of course be noted that Beckett is not--or at least not in anything like the traditional sense--a tragic author. Despite his description of Waiting for Godot as a "tragi-comedy," it is in one sense the very grandeur of tragedy that Beckett's work sets itself against. As Terry Eagleton puts it in his study Sweet Violence: "If tragic heroes meet with a fall, Beckett's figures fail to rise to a height from which a fall would be possible." Instead, such figures "fluff their big moment, fail to rise to their dramatic occasions, cannot quite summon up the rhetoric to ham successfully and are too drained and depleted to engage in colorful theatrical combat. It is not just that epic actions are a thing of the past, but that action itself is over" (2003, 67). And yet, as Ruby Cohn argues, there might still be a way of seeing Beckett's "vision" as tragic--"tragic", that is to say, "in its pain at human suffering, its dismay at life's brevity, in its frustration at absurdity" (1980, n). This view of the tragic fits neatly with Raymond Williams's claim that tragedy can be, as well as the death of princes and the wretched fate of kings, something utterly "ordinary": "a mining disaster, a burned out family, a broken career, a smash on the roads" (1966, 13-14). And alongside these kinds of events are experiences less measurable but no less painful: "the deferment and corrosion of hope and desire ... a widespread loss of the future" (2007, 96).

I would argue that it is here, in the context of what we might call the tragic everyday, that we can begin to probe the ethical dimensions of Endgame. There is no doubt that the play (and Hamm, in particular) repeatedly undercuts the pathos of classical tragedy: "Can there be misery," asks Hamm yawning, "loftier than mine?" (Beckett 2006, 93). Yet, it is the general state of affairs--the fact that, in Dominic Fox's words, the characters remain trapped in a "cold world ... voided of both human warmth and metaphysical comfort" (2009, 4)--that is tragic. "The lives of the poor," writes John Berger, "are mostly grief"; and "from time to time despair enters into {such} lives ... despair fills the space in the soul which was {once} occupied by hope" (2008, 310-11). Berger's words here provide a fitting description of the unlife-world of Clov. Clov is, of course, Hamm's adopted son ("I was a father to you"/ "Yes ... you were that to me" {Beckett 2006, no}), his partner in an always about to end relationship ("You're leaving me all the same" ..."I'm trying" {95}), but also, and most importantly, his slave: a wageless, domestic servant whose inner "light {is} dying" (98) after a lifetime of punishment and ritualistic exploitation. Although Beckett said of Hamm and Clov that they were Godot's "Didi and Gogo at a later date, at the end of their lives" (Gontarski 1985, 42), their relationship is often much closer to that between Pozzo and Lucky, determined as it is almost entirely by structures of power and domination. (8) These relations of power are, however, far from absolute: "Hamm," Beckett comments, "is a king in this chess game," but the game is "lost from the start" (Cohn 1974, 152). One of the central critical questions which the play thus raises is why Clov remains in Hamm's service, given the fragility of the latter's authority. In what ways, we might ask, does power continue to be exercised once its original legitimacy has been "extinguished" (Beckett 2006, 112)?

One straightforward answer to the puzzle of why Clov doesn't leave is to point out that his remaining in the shelter is determined by the logic of inaction that the play itself explores. Just as Hamm cannot "end it", so Clov cannot "exit". Both "hesitate"; and hesitation here is not a temporary, subjective state, but rather an ontological condition imposed upon the players by an author who describes his own literary practice as an "exploration" of human "impotence" (Graver and Federman 1979, 148). Clov's inability to leave is also in this respect intimately tied to the (logical) "impossibility ... of the {play} ever coming to an end." In a letter to the director Alan Schneider, Beckett states that he derives his interest in this kind of paradoxical thinking from the pre-Socratics, and, in particular, from Zeno of Elea, whose arguments, according to Beckett, "disprove the reality of movement" (Beckett 1998, 23). Here, however, Beckett appears somewhat confused: the paradox actually referred to by Clov at the beginning and by Hamm at the end of Endgame (Beckett 2006, 93, 126) is not one that deals with the impossibility of movement; rather, it is the "sorites" (or "heap") paradox first formulated by Eubulides of Miletus, which deals with the problem of vagueness. (9) When Beckett says to Schneider that the paradox of the heap is used to "disprove the reality of mass" and that it can be attributed to Protagoras (1998, 23) he is thus mistaken. Despite this philosophical mix up, thinking about the play in relation to the sorites paradox can itself be conceptually intriguing. While traditional sorites paradoxes (how many grains of sand would we need to add to one grain in order to produce a heap?) might be easily (dis) solvable (one merely needs to recognize that predicates such as "is a heap" do not function with strict boundaries), they become much more difficult to fathom when applied to the moral life. It is unclear, for example, at what point the drip, drip of torment and suffering, such as that experienced by Clov, crosses the human threshold and comes to be judged as "enough."

A second way of accounting for Clov's inability to leave the shelter is to shift our attention from logic to the subject of language. Philosophically speaking, one way of situating "the dialogue" in which Clov and Hamm participate is in terms of Heidegger's notion of "idle talk" {Gerede}: a mode of groundless and inauthentic discourse--a discourse of "the they" {das Man}--that "communicates ... by following the route of gossiping or passing the word along" (Heidegger 1962, 212). Idle talk, however, as Paulo Virno has argued using Heidegger's phrase against Heidegger is not simply "vacuous", "not a poor experience ... to be deprecated", but rather a scene of "social production" whose end product is itself. As Virno puts it, idle talk is an informal mode of communicative activity whose "lack of foundation authorizes invention and the experimentation of new discourses.... Instead of reflecting that which exists, {it} itself produces states of things, unedited experiences, new facts" (Virno 2003, 90). Whilst both Clov and Hamm throughout Endgame mobilize the faculty of language and participate in acts of creative linguistic labor, this "virtuosity," to use Virno's term (52), is underpinned by continuing asymmetries of power, and consequently cannot lead to a state of linguistic equality between the speakers. Throughout the play, Clov is subjected to various forms of linguistic violence: he is instructed when to speak (Beckett 2006, 106), his language-use is corrected (108), and, more generally, the only words that he has at his disposal are those which have been "taught" him by Hamm:

CLOV: I use the words you taught me. If they don't mean anything anymore, teach me others. Or let me be silent. (Beckett 2006, 113)

Whilst the limits of Clov's language are very much the limits of his world, he nevertheless engages in acts of linguistic resistance and subversion, employing strategies of literalization (III), repetition (95), and deliberate vagueness in order to explicitly undermine the hidden contextual conventions of ordinary language games:

HAMM: What time is it?

CLOV: The same as usual....

CLOV: Your dogs are here. {He hands the dog to Hamm, who feels it, fondles it.}

HAMM: He's white isn't he?

CLOV: Nearly. (Beckett 2006, 94, III)

What the play as a whole makes clear, however, is how unsuccessful these tactics are in enabling Clov to liberate himself from his subjugated state. As if providing a textbook illustration of the limits of linguistic disobedience without a counter-hegemonic program, we see that even Clov's most forceful protests end up as questions addressed to his blind master: CLOV: "Do this, do that, and I do it. I never refuse. Why? (113); "CLOV: There's one thing I'll never understand. {He gets down.} Why I always obey you. Can you explain that to me?" (129). Perhaps the most explicit example of Clov's inability to escape the prison-house of Hamm's discursive-world is given in the following exchange:

{CLOV stoops, takes Nell's hand, feels her pulse}

NELL: {TO CLOV} Desert!

{CLOV lets go of her hand, pushes her back into the bin, closes the lid}....

HAMM: What was she drivelling about?

CLOV: She told me to go away, into the desert.

HAMM: Damn busybody! Is that all?


HAMM: What else?

CLOV: I didn't understand. (Beckett 2006, 103)

According to Clov, Nell here instructs him to "go away, into the desert"; however, what she actually seems to be urging him to do, as he takes her hand, is to desert (i.e. abandon) the shelter. Either Clov (as he himself suggests) simply cannot understand the meaning of the word "desert" in this particular context; or he can, but the structures of domination are such that he refuses to allow it to register. Both situations are equally catastrophic: an old world is dying, but a new one cannot yet break through, for what this requires is not only new words and new concepts, but also a changed relationship with existing words--an overcoming of what the later Wittgenstein calls "meaning blindness" (1980, {section} 202; 2001, 186).

In reflecting upon Clov's inability to leave Hamm, I wish to suggest a third explanation: one that does not necessarily negate the other two but which moves the center of critical gravity from the textual referent to the relationship between the spectator and the theatrical spectacle. Throughout the play, Hamm strives to present domination and containment as the natural order of things, imposing upon Clov the idea that he (Clov) "can't leave" (Beckett 2006, 110) and that "outside of here it's death" (96). Towards the end of the performance, however, this simple master-slave narrative takes a more complicated and, indeed, a more troubling turn, one that forces us as spectators to interrogate our own complicity in the acts of violence on stage. Such a turn is, I take it, initiated by the following set of stage directions: Hamm "tears the whistle from his neck" (the whistle being the device which he has used throughout the play to summon Clov) and "throws {it} towards {the} auditorium", uttering the words: "With my compliments" (133). This parting gesture is, it would seem, ethically loaded. It is not just that the spectator is in an obvious and trivial sense the very condition for the cruelty onstage--there is, as Ranciere reminds us, no theatre without spectators (2011, 2). (10) Here he or she is explicitly being invited to take over Hamm's role, to actively participate in his regime of domination. Such collaboration between spectator and oppressor has, we might argue, been hinted at throughout. Near the beginning of the performance, following a series of violent and physically exhausting orders from Hamm, Clov turns his telescope on the auditorium and espies "a multitude ... in transports ... of joy" (Beckett 2006, 106). When, shortly afterwards, Clov states that he will "leave" the shelter, Hamm abruptly replies: "You can't leave us" (110; emphasis added).

To read Endgame as affirming a simple connection between oppressor and spectator would, however, be to mistake the bait for the hook: that is, to mistake the very ideas which the play places under scrutiny for those that it endorses. Rather than pointing towards any straightforward alignment between Hamm and the audience, Hamm's offer of the whistle at the end of the play should instead be taken as an ethical provocation, as a reminder of the dangers of imagining that one can take up a position wholly outside the situation of suffering that is right in front of one's eyes. (11) The belief that one can preserve a domain of inner, moral purity by looking at damaged life from sideways on is the belief of Hegel's "beautiful soul" (die schone Seele). (12) For Hegel, such a figure, whilst avowedly moral, "lives in dread of besmirching the splendor of its inner being by action ... and in order to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from contact with the actual world." The beautiful soul, Hegel suggests, is a kind of ethical solipsist: one who 'does not act," but who instead seeks to demonstrate her moral rectitude by cultivating an "inner" beauty and "by uttering fine sentiments" (1977, 400). (13) This unity of high moral sensitivity and resolute inaction, however, becomes a form of indirect participation in the status quo. For what the status quo requires is that "moral self-consciousness" does not find actualization in "agency": one must, in the words of a conservative sounding Adorno, strive to "rise above" "the bestiality of the involved" and keep one's distance as a pure spectator (1990, 363-64). (14)

In this respect, the play can be seen to raise an important ethico-political question: How might a fully engaged spectator respond to Cloves situation? (15) Such a response, I would argue, needs to go beyond seeing Clov as a figure requiring the "fine sentiments" of sympathy or pity, and seeing him instead, to adopt a phrase from Terry Eagleton, as a symbol of "humanity's ... own shitlike negativity"--and thus dialectically as "a negative image of utopia." According to Eagleton, it is not, as Lear warns Cordelia, that "nothing will come of nothing" but precisely the opposite, "that something will come only from nothing": "only less can become more; only humanity at its nadir can be redeemed, since if what is redeemed is not the worst then it would not be a question of redemption. This is why the dispossessed are {a} sign of the future" (Eagleton 2005, 12). Recognizing Clov as a sign of the future, then, involves opening up a new tragic perspective on the world: a perspective which acknowledges that in order to stand any chance of future flourishing, life must first pass through suffering, loss, dispossession, and failure.


It is here in a roundabout way that we return to Cavell; not, however, to his Emersonian perfectionism, which imagines the soul on a journey upwards, but rather to a tragic and re-politicized re-visioning of perfectionism, which takes impotence and dispossession as its inevitable starting point. (16) In his list of "the good books" which embody the perfectionist outlook (Cavell 1990, 4), Cavell places alongside Endgame Karl Marx's "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction." Whilst Cavell distances himself politically from Marx, and uses this work only to suggest the need for inner change (1990, 110-13), he does cite the following important passage:

Where, then, is the positive possibility of German emancipation? Our answer: is the formation of a class with radical chains, a class in society that is not of civil society, an estate that is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere of society having a universal character because of its universal suffering and claiming no particular right because no particular wrong but unqualified wrong is perpetrated on it; a sphere that can claim no historical title but only a human title; a sphere that does not stand partially opposed to the consequences, but totally opposed to the premises of the German political system; a sphere, finally, that cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all the other spheres of society, thereby emancipating them; a sphere, in short, that is the complete loss of humanity and can only redeem itself through the total redemption of humanity. (Marx 1994, 69)

Here Marx's politically perfectionist point is, as Raymond Williams notes, "inescapably tragic" (1966, 77): the struggle for emancipation must go by way of the negative. Only those who have been made "nothing," who have suffered a "complete loss of humanity," can one day become "everything" and redeem themselves "by a total redemption of humanity" (Marx 1994, 67, 69).

This connection between dissolution and re-birth is one that is also registered by Beckett. In 1945, the latter volunteered to help the Irish Red Cross establish a hospital in the Normandy town of St-Lo, which had been devastated during the D-Day invasions. On arrival Beckett found, as he put it to his friend Thomas McGreevy, "just a heap of rubble.... and a sea of mud" (Knowlson 1996, 345). Writing about his experiences in a short piece for radio written in 1946, "The Capital of the Ruins," Beckett spoke of a "vision of humanity in ruins" but at the same time alluded to "an inkling of the terms in which our {human} condition is to be thought again" (1995, 278). Here then, for Beckett, the total devastation of humanity opens up a dialectical space in which the future of humanity can be imagined otherwise.

Endgame, we might argue, presents us with a similar case. The play depicts what Adorno calls "the dismantling of the subject" (1992, 90), humanity in its "death throes" (1991, 275). However, precisely because of its unsentimental "depiction of {human} regression" (1991, 248)--because of its refusal to provide anything beyond a mimesis of what Beckett calls "the mess" (Graver and Federman 1979, 218-19)--it simultaneously holds out the promise of "happiness" to come (Adorno 1992, 90). This, of course, is no empty promise. Once the wheels of Endgame have passed over us, there is no longer any chance of being at peace with the world, and it is this "deep disquietude" (to use a phrase from the later Wittgenstein) which constitutes the first step towards a transformed ethical and political outlook (Wittgenstein 2001, {section} III). The problem here, however, is that any move towards the scene of politics proper, any pursuit of radically emancipatory change, will, as Williams reminds us, always entail its own kinds of tragic experience: not only the risks of new forms of disagreement, disorder, and alienation, but also "the discovery in ourselves, and in our relations with others, that we have been more effectively incorporated into the deepest structures of this now dying order than it was ever ... our habit to think or even suspect" (Williams 2007, 98). With this comes the realization that there is no ontological guarantee that the future we imagine will ever come to light and thus the temptation arises to stay put with a "familiar world, however inadequate" (Williams 1966, 77). We are back once again with Clov.

Here I do not mean to advocate a relinquishing of all attachments to hope and optimism--the "contempt for futurity" encouraged by T. J. Clark (2012, 54). Rather my point is simply that (political) perfectionism of the kind I have touched upon here will need to begin with an acceptance of the unavoidable connection between emancipation and tragedy, liberation and loss. Alongside this, it requires an acknowledgement of the fact that any idea of the collective "next self' (to redeploy Cavell's phrase) can be but a "wager" (Goldmann 1964, 300-02) based on an unverifiable faith in a redeemed future. That glimpses of such a future are possible for those whose humanity has been systematically worn down--and, indeed, because it has been worn down--is, I take it, what a dialectically perfectionist Endgame might show. When, half way through the play, the central characters decide to "pray to God", Hamm becomes quickly frustrated at what he takes to be a lack of response: "Sweet damn all! ... The bastard! He doesn't exist!" Clov's reply, by contrast, is as simple as it is difficult to comprehend, ambiguously poised between theological disappointment and utopian anticipation: "Not yet," he says (Beckett 2006, 119). The phrase is left to hang in the air. Can the empty space to which Clov's remark alludes be occupied by the dispossessed? In the words of the narrator of the Unnamable: "While there's life there's hope" (Beckett 1979, 306).

BEN WARE is Research Fellow in the Department of English, American Studies, and Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. His monograph Dialectic of the Ladder: Wittgenstein, the "Tractatus," and Modernism is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2015. He is currently working on a second monograph entitled Modernism and the Ethical Turn.


I would like to thank Jay Bernstein, Dani Caselli, Tony Crowley, Terry Eagleton, and Warwick Gould for their comments on earlier versions of this paper.

(1) In the introduction to Cities of Words, Cavell writes: "The sense of disappointment I find in the origin of the moral calling of philosophy is something that I have derived principally from my reading of Wittgenstein, most particularly his Philosophical Investigations" (2004, 4).

(2) Cavell notes, however, that within the works he cites (Endgame included) "only a fragment ... may be pertinent to the issue of perfectionism" (1990, 5).

(3) On Adorno's account of Endgame, see Bernstein (1990); Critchley (2004); Cunningham (2010).

(4) For an insightful discussion of this historical connection, see Miller (2008).

(5) On the neoliberal "ethic" see, for example, Dardot and Laval (2013) and Mirowski (2013). The kind of transvaluation invoked here, it seems clear, would involve going beyond the mere criticism of "democracy from within," which for Cavell is the political horizon of Emersonian perfectionism. The aim of such a transformation, one might venture, would be in the first instance to restore that which "liberal" democracy in its ideal as well as its actualized forms relegates to the intellectual, ethical, and political margins; namely, collective ideas of the good life.

(6) Some of these blind spots can be stated as questions. For example: Doesn't the failure to specify any concrete political content leave open the possibility that perfectionism can (quite easily) take a negative (reactionary) as well as a positive (progressive) turn? Isn't it the case that Cavell's "romantic" vision results in an aestheticization of the political at a time when what is required is precisely a re-emphasis on the primacy of the political? To what extent are the social, historical and ideological underpinnings of Cavell's Nietzschean-liberalism obscured by Cavell's implicit suggestion that perfectionism (of the kind he describes) is, in essence, a timeless ethico-philosophical struggle?

(7) I take it that Cavell's open-ended thematics of perfectionism does not in any way rule out the version of perfectionism that I am putting forward here. Cavell speaks, for example, of "other perfectionisms" (Cavell 1990, 59).

(8) Lionel Abel suggests that the Hamm-Clov relationship "is an analogue of the relationship between the young Beckett and the old, blind, Joyce" (Easthope 1969, 62).

(9) See, for example, Williamson (1994). "Soros" is a Greek word for "heap". The paradox might be outlined as follows: (1) One starts out with a heap of sand (100,000 grains, for example, assuming that the grains are suitably piled up rather than spread out); (2) one then removes one grain (leaving 99,999); (3) what remains is still a heap; (4) one takes away another grain (leaving 99,998); (5) still one has a heap; (6) however, if one continues counting down the numbers, one ends up with the result that one grain of sand (or even zero grains) is a heap; (7) this is patently absurd; (8) at what point did the heap cease to exist? The argument also works from the point of view of addition. (1) One grain of sand is not a heap; (2) two grains of sand is not a heap; (3).... a million grains of sand is not a heap ... a trillion grains of sand is not a heap; (4) (assuming the grains are suitably piled up) this is patently absurd, so at what point did the heap materialize? The argument works for a variety of predicates, including "bald", "adult", "rich", "red" and so on.

(10) Ranciere calls this the "paradox of the spectator", but he criticizes the negative views of the spectator that it traditionally entails; namely, that being a spectator is bad because it "is to be separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act" (2011, 2).

(11) It is the search for such an "external" perspective in one's thinking about both language and ethics that, I take it, Wittgenstein is criticizing in both his early and later work. On this point see Ware 2013, 187-206.

(12) On the history of the beautiful soul, see Norton (1998). On the importance of this figure to the literary imagination (especially that of Goethe), see Gillian Rose (1992).

(13) For an insightful discussion of Beckett and the beautiful soul, see Milne (2002, 63-82).

(14) A scathing, ironic critique of the beautiful soul (or "aesthetic individual") is offered by Kierkegaard (1992, 243-376).

(15) The kind of theoretical response I outline here, could, of course, go hand in hand with other kinds of practical response that aim at short circuiting the very logic of Hamm's "game". As an example of actively engaged reception, one might consider Lois Weaver's description of what took place when she attended a performance of David Hare's The Secret Rapture with Peggy Shaw:

Then, near the end in act 2, scene 3 the heroine's obsessed and rejected lover manages to get into her flat. He produces a gun. We, the collective viewer, know something bad is going to happen. We, the over-sensitized and theatrically jaded feminist theatre-makers, know that He is going to rape Her or kill Her or both. He puts the gun on the table near where she is standing and steps back. The gun is easily within Her reach and yet we all know She's the one who will die. At this point Peggy shouts, literally raises her voice above the sea of the well behaved, and shouts, "pick up the gun and shoot the bastard!" There is a collective but silent intake of breath; nothing moves except the hairs on the backs of necks. (Weaver 2009, x)

(16) This is not, of course, to suggest that Cavell's perfectionism isn't political. Beginning in part as a response to Rawls (1971), and touching on authors such as Mill and Arnold, it clearly is. However, what I am suggesting here is a politically reloaded perfectionism that moves beyond Cavell's heroic individualism. This kind of perfectionism might be seen as seeking out the kind of "egalitarianism" advocated by Rawls; yet it recognizes that true egalitarianism cannot be achieved within the existing political and economic framework.


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