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Thinking Dangerously

Jean-Michel Rabaté interviewed by Richard Marshall.

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Jean-Michel Rabaté (pictured right) has been Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania since 1992, is now the Vartan Gregorian Professor in the Humanities. One of the founders and curators of the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, he is a managing editor of the Journal of Modern Literature. Since 2008, he has been a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is currently the president of the American Samuel Beckett Studies association.

Rabaté has authored or edited more than thirty books on modernism, psychoanalysis, contemporary art, philosophy, and writers like Beckett, Pound and Joyce. Recent books include Lacan Literario, Siglo 21 (2007), 1913: The Cradle of Modernism (2007), The Ethic of the Lie (2008), and Etant donnés: 1) l’art, 2) le crime (2010). The Ghosts of Modernity has been republished in 2010. Currently, he is completing a book on Beckett and editing an anthology on modernism and literary theory, forthcoming in 2012.

3AM: You didn’t always admire Beckett.

JR: I started out studying Joyce. I started out doing a dissertation on Pound, Joyce and Hermann Broch. At that time I was not a fan of Beckett. I’d seen a few performances of Beckett’s plays and I had been often bored. It’s only slowly that I got interested in Beckett, and not through the theatre but through the novels. In my early 20s, I read the novels and the trilogy, and it grew from there. We had a reading group with some friends on Beckett, and then I started doing research on Murphy. I published that in 1984. Beckett was still alive then, so I sent it to him, and Beckett replied very kindly. He made a little joke about the title Beckett avant Beckett, calling it ‘Beckett B.A. BA’, which turned it into a basic book on Beckett! And then for a while I was not a specialist at all. I’d done this little book with friends but nothing much. Then I went to Montreal: there I had two students who were working on Beckett, then more and more of my best students were studying Beckett, not Joyce. I asked myself a simple question: would I have liked meeting Joyce? No. Would I have liked meeting Beckett? Yes. At that time he was still alive, but I am sorry to say that I never met him. A good friend of mine, Michael Beausang, then living in Paris — an Irish writer and scholar — said that Beckett was hiding from fans at that time, and that unless you were Irish, he wouldn’t see you. Through this friend I heard about Beckett, and he always replied to my letters. Now it’s true I’ve become more of a specialist.

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3AM: Bataille also interests you, and his connection with Beckett?

JR: Bataille I liked immediately. I read him as a young man and he made an immediate impression on me. When I was in Dijon I had a little press with a friend, and we never published anything directly by Bataille, but we published a book by Blanchot. With Bataille, it was a personal fascination. I didn’t write about him but I read him systematically. I don’t love everything in Bataille. There’s a sense that he’s a bit like Joyce, a kind of perverted Christian. That aspect of a sacred eroticism as a transgression, I don’t like so much. Well, I’m not Bataillian in my life. Also, I think he’s very funny. For instance, Story of the Eye is very funny — even the killing of the priest is almost funny.

Since coming to the USA, I have taught Bataille a few times. He’s a very useful figure to teach, as when we are doing surrealism. He makes surrealism much more palatable to students because there’s an aspect of chauvinism in the first generation of Surrealists that is offputting, and Bataille has none of that. Visions of Excess, I absolutely love. If one wants to teach theory and literature, Bataille is easier than say Blanchot. I teach Blanchot but Blanchot — the early Blanchot — is difficult to read for students whereas Bataille’s hard, paradoxical thinking is easier to understand than Blanchot.

The later Bataille I use as well — The Accursed Share. I use it as a discussion of Mauss’s The Gift. At first, for me, there was no real connection between Beckett and Bataille. Then I realised that they had met in person and read each other’s works. I thought they were from different worlds. I first saw this when I read Bataille’s letters published ten years ago. One of my French friends is a novelist, he was a a friend of Blanchot, and I urged him to publish the letters sent to him by Blanchot. Through Blanchot, we knew of the fascinating links between with Blanchot and Bataille. Blanchot’s Death Sentence is for me the most perfect novel. It is about absolute love. One character in the novel was Bataille’s former lover. So this looked like a French world, nothing to do with Beckett. But once I realised that Beckett had met Bataille, and that Bataille was one of the first to review Molloy, then I started to wonder about the point of convergence. I began to think about a critique of a certain surrealism and a certain existentialism. Bataille and Beckett had known both. Beckett had translated many surrealist texts. And existentialism was a common butt. Beckett published stories in Les Temps Modernes. Both wanted to keep their distance, although not exactly in the same way; they were both close and critical.

3AM: You have spoken of Beckett’s use of Bataille’s father in Endgame.

JR: Bataille’s father was mad. He had a total dementia. Every time the doctor would come to the house the father would cry out ‘Hey doctor, you’re coming to fuck my wife again’. A terrible farce. And then, in the war, they abandoned him in the house. He was paralytic, impotent, blind when everyone else left, and he died. It’s terrible and Peter Fifield has written a paper about this, drawing attention to this actual story and Ham in Endgame which has convinced me of the link between the figure of Ham and Bataille’s father. I think he’s right. Beckett and Bataille had met, talked, so Beckett had found out about the father’s story and it shocked him.

I don’t know if he read any of Bataille’s scandalous texts. Bataille had a few scandalous texts about his mother, such as the death of his mother and Bataille masturbating on the corpse and so on. Breton considered him too disturbing, an abomination — too sexual, promiscuous, crazy. Bataille was considered far too scandalous, too erotic, going to brothels every night and at the same time a top librarian by day! He was a great scholar. We owe the survival of Benjamin’s Arcades Project to Bataille. Benjamin had been a refugee in Paris and would once in a while go to the meetings of Documents and participate in discussions even if he didn’t totally agree, and when he died he had given Bataille the manuscripts to hide in the Bibliothèque Nationale. What survived was thanks to Bataille. Benjamin was a little critical of the group around Bataille- he found them a little too mystical — but he in turn was considered too mystical by other Marxists.

I was recently in Dublin and that’s where I did some work on the manuscripts. One needs a competence in manuscript reading and finding arcane sources, but it’s not enough just to do that. You also need a particular theoretical take. I try to do both. It was the same with Joyce criticism twenty five years ago. I come from the Joyce school. What has happened, mostly in France, but in Italy and Germany too, is a gathering of scholars who came from high theory — people who had worked with Deleuze and Derrida and so on — moving on to empirical research on manuscripts. This is the French profile, it is definitely very theoretically savvy. It’s never positivistic. The manuscript give you elements that need to be constructed into an interpreted whole, and you need to have the theory as well to do this. You cannot just take the manuscript and say ‘this is the truth’. Many of the manuscripts are hard to assess and hard to interpret.

3AM: So what are you adding to this approach?

JR: What I am doing is to bring a new awareness of Beckett’s relation to philosophy. We have contradictory statements. Beckett will say ‘I am not a philosopher, I’ve never read philosophy’. We know this is not true. He read a lot of philosophy. He knew more philosophy than I do. He was self-taught. He thought he hadn’t been taught enough. He’d been taught very well in languages and so on at Trinity, but not in philosophy. So he set off on a lifelong self-taught course on philosophical awareness and because of this it’s not known exactly what his philosophical stance is. No one knows where to situate Beckett philosophically.

I almost fell into the trap of saying he can be pigeonholed, for instance, close to Wittgenstein or as a Heideggerrian or a Cartesian or a neo-Cartesian or a Spinozist. No, he’s none of these. He plays constantly with philosophy, and he thinks with philosophy, and he thinks against philosophy, which I think is the best way of being a philosopher. Pascal already said that, when he said to be a philosopher you have to have no patience with philosophy. So you think against yourself and against authorities. So what I’m trying to find is a certain logic that will allow me and others to understand this intense engagement Beckett has with philosophy. And this will help show why he is so strong and why he is so seductive for philosophers like Adorno, Badiou, Critchley and Stanley Cavell in the US, people like that.

They see this resilience and strength in the thinking, and at the same time the impossibility of categorizing this. A few of my friends are Derridean and they think this of Derrida. I don’t want to say that Beckett is a Derridean, that too would be too easy. He deconstructs classical philosophers but you can’t pigeonhole him like that. Badiou understands this very well even though he makes some terrible mistakes in reading Beckett, but he gets this right: that Beckett is interested in beauty. The beauty of form. That is why I talk about Kant. And formalism. I discussed Kant but I could have taken many other philosophers: Democritus, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Husserl… And in various letters he reads Husserl and Blanchot in the 1970s. He read everything.

3AM: I am better read in a different library than the one that seems to attract Beckett scholars. But there are clearly philosophers on my reading list that would also be important to Beckett, such as Berkeley.

JR: I think Berkley is right. My work on Beckett forced me to read all of Berkley, who I think is an amazing philosopher. Becket read most of his works. Nevertheless in the works themselves when he quotes Berkeley, it’s a little off hand. Even about film. A friend of mine, Branka Arsic from Belgrade, wrote a beautiful book called The Passive Eye, and she twists Berkley a little to seem a little like Deleuze, which is funny. So when Beckett thinks about Berkeley, he’s not serious. He’s using him for the convenience — he knew the work well — but he’s just playing with him. He knew it in depth, but when he uses Berkeley it was just a game.

3AM: Did Beckett read Derrida?

JR: We don’t know for sure but it is unlikely that Beckett ever read Derrida. Even those who read Beckett via Derrida don’t claim that Beckett read Derrida. You don’t have to know Derrida to deconstruct. Artaud hadn’t read Derrida even though Derrida claimed that he was practicing a version of deconstruction. So what we can say is that in Beckett we have this reflexive language that criticizes itself. Beckett’s main figure is the modifying qualification: when I say something and then add that I was wrong to say this… This happened there, but no there wasn’t anything! There are so many contradictions that we never know where we are in the end. That approach I associate with a certain theory that I situate with Derrida, for good or for worse. A very self-reflexive way of doing philosophy and always steering course between philosophy and literature. That is where Beckett stands. I’m not saying that he has exactly the same position as Derrida — that would be absurd. I’m saying that it is important to know what he thinks and how he thinks, that’s more of a construction.

3AM: Bataille and Artaud are dangerous writers still. Is Beckett?

JR: Undoubtedly. Nietzsche quotes Emerson in Schopenhauer as Educator, one of the Artaud imitations, and Emerson says ‘this is an important philosopher and he didn’t antagonise people?’ Beckett was aware of that and like Adorno was aware of certain things happening in philosophy and in literature — we might say in writing — and he doesn’t want to repeat himself. So many writers love to repeat themselves — they find a formula but Beckett learned this, maybe from Joyce; Joyce never repeated himself. He did something and then he said, this is done and he went to the next step. So he did Finnegans Wake and then he asks what do you do after Finnegans Wake?

I think Beckett is a dangerous thinker/writer because if he’s really read then we shouldn’t read all the garbage at airports and stations, all the biographies that are badly written, recovery memoirs of why I was an addict, and so on. Where are you led to? Maybe nowhere, since all has been done already. If you’re aware that you have behind you Proust and Freud, and they push you in a little corner, what can you do if you’re a responsible writer? What can you do that is really new, addressing a new situation and finding a language that will be adequate to it?

This is what Beckett is doing. You may know that wonderful homage by Pinter. Pinter gets it right. He says: ‘He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden… he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy, he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not, he hasn’t got his hand over his heart… He leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely’. Pinter confirms that Beckett is one of the best sources of inspiration precisely because he won’t tell me what to think, but can also give me true beauty. This is how I see the issue of art today. This is why, with a few friends, we started a gallery in Philadelphia — the Slought Foundation — in which we try and think about art, politics and literature today. We want to think dangerously. This is why we have to think in a historical sense, in a necessarily political sense about what is happening today — about American capitalism, globalisation and all of those issues. Beckett can incite us to work in that sense, and more or less directly, he is an inspiration.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 10th, 2011.