The Mouth of the Cave

I've been fascinated with the writing of Samuel Beckett for as long as I can remember and, having studied his work in terms of its silences and gaps, I am now listening to its voices. While many of his plays are driven forcefully by character and visual motif, there comes a point at which the voice takes over and becomes more or less the lone remnant of a present subjectivity, even if it is a subject talking to itself, echoing back and forth in the darkness and the years and caught in a stasis loop of its own creation. 

The 1972 work Not I is perhaps my favourite for the sheer, raw, voracity of the visual image it presents as well as it being one of the most interesting female voices Beckett writes - particularly when read in line with some feminist critiques. 

Theories of the the voice tend to wrestle with the connection to a body, presence or subjectivity. How is the voice twinned and affiliated with meaning? What is a voice without a body? Not I absolutely illustrates such concerns, reducing as it does, the female protagonist to a mouth, suspended in darkness and uninterrupted in the warming and waining of the stage lights. 

But this partial acousmatic of a character also seems keenly relevant to the works of the French poet, philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray who set about re-writing the history of psychoanalysis in order to displace the universally male referent that dominates and to insert a radically 'other' female identity into the mix.

In a chapter from her landmark text Speculum of the Other Woman (1974) entitled 'Dialogues', Irigaray deconstructs Plato's Allegory of the Cave, which describes a set of shackled prisoners whose fixed bodies and heads allow them only to experience shadows and echoes made by puppeteers behind them. To the prisoners who can see nothing else, these spectral machinations are real. 

From this allegory, Plato expounds a theory of enlightenment - a logocentric system where like perfectly reflects like - the sun (god / the father / man) guiding and giving life, direction and knowledge to all.

For Irigaray, it is the perfect dualism of these reflections that troubles; the necessity of silence and absent voices to allow for the deceptive echoes and visions that organise the cave. Where is the female voice in all of this? In other words a voice which may muddy "the silent virginity of the back of the cave" or an identity whose radical difference will not perfectly reflect. 

In attempting to write the female body into psychoanalysis (in line with the idea of an ecriture feminine promoted by fellow theorist Helene Cixous) Irigaray identifies a style (or dance) which is circular as opposed to plainly back a forth; a tendency for muddle and mess; a voice which, frenetic and repetitive, is not easily or cleanly reproduced. 

This is a fitting description of Mouth's narrative in Not I which is riddled with repetitions, is wildly emotive and runs itself into circles in a an attempt uncover some self truth - to "hit on it in the end". 

Further in line with Irigaray's critique of the cave allegory, it is at the summons of a 'sudden flash' - a powerful, unexpected burst of light (that we might identify with the Sun as it appears in Plato) that Mouth is forced into her monologue and routinely compelled to accept the first person pronoun I. What could allow Not I to be read as a feminist text is precisely this refusal to take up a prescribed place in the symbolic order at the behest of the all-powerful light / logos at the centre of the world. 

Beckett writes a rhythmic motif which resounds forcefully whenever Mouth is encouraged to contextualise her narrative within this subjectivity. 

She responds; 


Always at a remove and yet somehow partial to a form of identification which is in itself more radially 'other' and more feminine in its nature that the phallic I

Irigaray would approve too of the visual symbolism at work, which upholds her description of the female body as having two sets of lips (facial / labial) which 'speak together'. The foregrounding of the erotic/manic  action of Mouth, the image of which has been liked to ''a vagina attempting to give birth to itself," reduces the subject to a highly feminised cipher at the most extreme reach of Irigaray's definition. 

In abandoning the rest of the body however it is possible to bring in some ideas contra to Irigaray - namely from Kaja Silverman who, though greatly indebted to the ideas raised in ''Speculum of the Other Woman", takes issue with the insistence on locating a specific female body. Silverman argues that any body, however re appropriated or reclaimed for feminism, will always be codified by the social constructs that are always already in place. Instead she posits the radical and subversive possibilities of the disembodied female voice (particularly as it appears in film) - a thought which further expounds the possible feminist readings of Not I. 

Mouth makes some reference to her age (70) and possible geographical location; some hints to the spaces and experiences that have coloured her past and her present character, but without a body her speech exists independent of any code or easily identifiable subject. As Mladen Dolar discusses in "A Voice and Nothing More" (a key text on the voice) there is a impossibility of placing a voice so firmly in a body - an element which always resists and refuses to fit, as would be the case if the rest of the form suggested by the presence of the mouth were to be revealed.  

There's much more to be said here and I may add more as time goes on - importantly on the fact that this is of course a text written by a man.... 

Billie Whitelaw's seminal performance of the piece from 1973 (shown above) is well worth watching in its entirety; the ubuweb version includes an interview with her in which she describes working with Beckett. Elsewhere are descriptions of the rigours of the staging required to perform the piece, actresses clamped in  neck restraints to keep their heads angled to the single beam of light. 

Sounds eerily familiar.....


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