The Writing I
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to speak about the I, about its residence in literature, hence about matters of interest to the human individual, provided that he proceeds with an I or his I or hides behind the I. And a few of these individuals may well be thinking, How could anyone hide behind the I, given that it—I—is as little hidden as anything can be and completely unambiguous? Obviously we could manage this all on our own; we can talk about ourselves straightforwardly, without any pretentious twaddle.
“I am speaking to you”: when I say this to an individual, it seems to be pretty clear which I is doing the talking here and what is meant by the sentence in which this I figures—in other words, pretty clear who is saying what here. But once you are standing alone up here and saying “I am speaking to you” to a crowd of people down there, the “I” suddenly changes; it slips away from the speaker; it becomes formal and rhetorical. The person who is uttering it is no longer at all certain that he can lay claim to the binding character of the “I” that he has taken into his mouth, no longer at all certain that he can vouch for it. For how is he supposed to offer proof of “I” when his mouth is still moving and producing sounds but his supremely banal identity is no longer guaranteed by anyone; when down there nothing is heard but an “I” being read aloud, its reception is already starting to get fuzzy. When, in other words, you down there, a couple of hundred people—individuals, to be sure, in other settings, but right now very much a crowd—are intercepting an “I” that comes from some sky-high distance—and ten meters are already far enough away to count as sky-high, and the distance is even more sky high-esque when the speaker has vanished or become invisible, when, for example, he is speaking on the radio via a microphone. In such a case, nothing is left but a sentence that is being carried to you over a loudspeaker or on a piece of paper, a book, or a stage, a sentence issuing from an I with no warranty.
An I with no warranty! For what is this I; what could it be? A star whose position and course have never been quite worked out and whose nucleus in its precise structure has not been discerned. It could be that: the I is composed of myriads of particles, and at the same time it seems as though I were a Nothing, the hypostasis of a pure form, something like a dreamed-up substance, something that designates a dreamed-up identity, a cipher for something that is harder to decipher than the most top-secret command. But of course there are such people as researchers and poets, who are indefatigable, who try to search out this I, to search into it, to found it and fathom it, and who are constantly driving it out of its mind. They have made the I their experimental bailiwick or made themselves into an experimental bailiwick for this I, and have reflected on all those Is of the living and the dead, on the I of their next-door neighbors and on the I of Caesar and on the I of Hamlet, and all of this amounts to nothing whatsoever, because it is not yet of universal import. Hence one must further reflect on the I of the psychologists, of the analysts, on the I of the philosophers, the I as a monad or in some relational context, as an empirical control center or as a metaphysical quantity. All these experts secure their possession of their I; they shine their torch into all its corners, they palpate it, mutilate it and smash it to bits, appraise it, classify it, cordon it off.
I once saw a small child who was being urged by his mother to admit that he had done something; at first he was uncooperative and perhaps not even aware of what he was expected to do. “Say you did it,” his mother kept ordering him. “Say ‘I did it!’” And suddenly, as if a light had just turned on in his head or he were getting tired of resisting, the child said, “I did it,” and immediately thereafter positively reveled in the sentence or rather its decisive word, “I did it, I, I, I!” He simply didn’t want to stop saying it and screamed it and shrieked it over and over again until, overcome with laughter, he reeled into the woman’s arms like an epileptic. “I, I, did it, I!” This scene was a peculiar one because in it an I, its significance and non-significance, was discovered and at the same time exposed, and the child’s demented delight in the mere discovery of this I was enough to drive him mad, as one is never driven mad by I when one is forced to say it later in life, when the word has long since become a self-evident fact and a threadbare one to boot, a utility word that degrades everything that it is supposed to designate as the necessity arises.
But when one fine day we again find ourselves saying I in an unusual situation, we are more powerfully seized by trepidation, astonishment, horror, doubt, and insecurity than in the earlier setting.
I don’t know whether there are inquiries concerning the I and the many Is in literature; I am not aware of any, and although I don’t feel capable of conducting a proper or even exhaustive inquiry myself, I believe that there are many Is and that there is no consensus about I—as if there should be no consensus about human beings but merely one new blueprint after another. The I is an early riser and has been growing ever-more madcap, more fascinating, in the literature of recent decades. It is as if the I has been vouchsafed an official carnival season wherein this I, this nobody and somebody, can show its true colors and play its confidence tricks and metamorphose and expose itself in its motley jester’s costume.
The I is unproblematic for us when a historical figure, a politician, for example, or a statesman or a military officer, turns up with his I in his memoirs. When Churchill or de Gaulle briefs us on something or shares his opinion with us, we demand that he should present us with this I, and we demand that this I should be identical with the author; moreover, this I interests us only in relation to this Winston Churchill who served as prime minister from whenever to whenever. The role of Churchill’s I in his books is that of Churchill the statesman.
The I-role as I have attempted to describe it here is effectual in all literary works of this genre from antiquity to the present, from the noblest and highest-ranking of them down to the lowest-ranking and sleaziest. The critical and discriminating reader accepts this self-assured, continuous I in canonically illustrious memoirs with the same unreservedness with which today’s stultified, disoriented reading public devours sub-pulp memoirs by the hundred and allows itself to be duped by the Is of SS generals, gangsters, and spies. For the I playing the very simplest stock part in the dramatis personae (i.e., that of the participant in history or current affairs) is the most persuasive, the most approachable of Is and has nothing left to prove; it is listened to and believed because the deeds or misdeeds of the author had social consequences.
But this simplest of stock parts cannot be played by the majority of writers, and of course I would like to speak mainly about them, about their I, which seems to us like an unquestionable, self-identical I only when we are very young. At the age of seventeen did we not all encounter in a book or poem an I who was purportedly the author himself and who was virtually identical to ourselves?—for back then I was You and this You was I, for all borders were then blurred beyond visibility by our primal credulity and bewitchment; it never amounted to anything like a reversal of roles because we were unaware of any roles. “I” was simply standing there, and it seemed quite simple. This I presumably hungered, read, thought, felt, and we ourselves did all that as well; it was strong or weak, majestic or pathetic or everything mixed together; and we also managed to be this composite of everything for a couple of hours or a month; and then other books came along and brought other Is with them, and these Is did the same thing: they occupied our own I over and over again. But these invasions did not prevent us from becoming completely different Is and presently taking up arms against the foreign Is of books, regarding them more harshly, distancing ourselves from them. And after the dissolution of this union with the I we experienced something new; we noticed the interferences between author and I, and finally we were aware of every possible I in literature, of the fictitious, disguised I, of the reduced I, the absolute lyrical I, the I as a figure of thought, a figure of plots, of an I that was either immaterial or woven into the material.
Despite this I would like to begin with the simplest and for that very reason also the most striking I, even though in the light of what I have just said it hardly seems possible for an author (insofar as he is not a historical phenomenon) to introduce us to his I when it is fitted out with his own name and all his chronological milestones. As though he were intrinsically credible, as though his unembellished existence would be of interest to us, as though he could carry his own person, his own life, untranslated into a book. We can awestrickenly gape at such an I—i.e., such a rabid, neck-breaking attempt to spare oneself the entire concept of the I—in the books of Henry Miller. And better still in the work of the maverick of French literature, Louis Ferdinand Céline. It is irrelevant, and also tenaciously indeterminable, whether or not Henry Miller’s and Céline’s books are purely autobiographical. The only thing that interests us is their attempt to forgo the invention of this I. It is an attempt that at first blush seems dilettantish, that would positively spell disaster in the case of any less gifted writer, and here and there it proves disastrous even to Céline and Miller, especially Miller.
In Céline’s novel Journey to the End of the Night, certain events, occurrences, and experiences are represented as elements of the author’s life. The writer and slum-doctor Céline describes himself as a slum-doctor, calls himself Ferdinand, has served at the front during the First World War, spent some time in the colonies and in New York, and established a medical practice in a suburban Paris slum. His hero, his I, has the same name and has done all the same things. Céline insists on the factuality of his book and refuses to allow us to draw any distinction between its author and its I. Because Céline the author is identical to Céline the hero of his novel (just as Miller the author is identical to the hero of his own novels), his I is uncontrollable, his material is uncontrollable. The entire plot of the book is haphazard to the point of excess, for however interesting and rich and even significant the life of an individual may sometimes seem to that individual himself or to others, when no selection has been made, when every attempt at organizing the raw material of this “life” has been forgone, it is completely devoid of significance. It strikes the reader as so much empty filler. The only thing that holds Miller’s and Céline’s Is together is their shared possession of a language, an idiom, that tumidly replicates the chaos that it is registering; they talk and talk and talk until their lives are utterly absorbed into language. And Céline kicks up a fuss and polemizes and rages in his slangy idiolect until this torrent of language transforms these sob-stories of his that are otherwise of no concern to anyone into representations of the misery of all impoverished wretches everywhere.
Of course I, too, thought about my future there, but in a sort of delirium, because the whole time I was secretly afraid of being killed in the war and also of snuffing it from hunger in peacetime. I had been given a reprieve by death and was in the mood for love. It was only a nightmare. Not far from us, less than a hundred kilometers away, millions of men, brave, well-armed, and well-trained, were waiting to settle my hash, and the French were also waiting to make short work of my skin if I wasn’t willing to have it torn to bleeding shreds by the guys across the way.
For the poor man there are two royal roads to snuffing it in this world—either via the absolute indifference of your fellow-men during periods of peace or via the homicidal passion of those same fellow-men whenever war has broken out. No sooner have these other people started thinking of you for a change than they’re dreaming of torturing you, and of nothing but that. They’re only interested in us when we’re bleeding—the lousy bastards!
And in another passage:
The things you did to come out on top, things like that, without even realizing they weren’t off-limits! So it wasn’t a mistake! It was one of those things you can do without letting yourself in for a good tongue-lashing. It was even celebrated, doubtlessly encouraged by serious people like such things as playing the lottery, getting engaged to be married, and game-hunting!…nothing to be done about it. In one fell swoop I had just discovered the secret of the entire war. I had been deflowered…what wouldn’t I have given then to be in prison instead of being here, cretin that I was! For example, to have stolen something somewhere, with an eye to the future, while there had still been time to do so. You don’t think about anything! You get out of a prison alive, but you don’t out of the war. All the rest is words.
The book turns into a cry of privation, and privation impels him to write, in the colonies, in America, in the Parisian suburb. Destitution is his watchword, over and over again.
My listlessness was aggravated by the sight of these great lengths of building-facades, this swollen monotony of cobblestones, bricks, and endless bridge-trusses and of shop after shop, this syphilitic ulcer on the world bursting with promissory and pustulous advertisements.
Miller is in a more difficult position with regard to his protagonist, the writer Miller, and always especially and precisely when the author goes out of his way to expose himself as nothing but a nice, muddleheaded autodidact and shares with us his enthusiasm for Benn, Dostoyevsky, or Spengler for pages on end, as he does in his novel Plexus, for example. He enables us to take an interest in his most banal everyday experiences, but he cannot interest us in his intellectual development, in his course of reading, for while it is sometimes permissible to recount superfluous incidents in a book, it is never permissible to express superfluous ideas in one.
Ideas jotted down in a diary are acceptable, but not when a character in a novel is pointlessly saddled with them. For the I of the diarist, of a writer, has a different capacity for bearing burdens and encumbrances. It is an I that, for example in André Gide’s diary, can get away with recording that it was a nuisance to pay somebody a visit, that a trip to some place is in the offing, which books have been read and which books still need to be read. It talks about passing thoughts, headaches, the weather, and at the drop of a hat it can express an idea on the political or literary situation. Even though the I of a diary seems to proceed in an undiscriminating manner, it is by its very nature discriminating. For this I does not figure as, for example, André Gide in his entirety; rather—and I do not mean this in a pejorative sense—it poses as Gide the writer.
The diarist’s I is also peculiar in that this I figure is as little in need of being created from scratch as the letter-writer’s I. After all, it can’t do anything whatsoever but take up residence in the text as I. Moreover, it need not dislodge anything from its place; no interconnections are imposed on it as givens; it moves step by step or by leaps and bounds; it can break off, touch everything and leave everything just as it found it. For this I does not take up residence in the text as a life; it does not settle down there as a three-dimensional entity. This sounds like a contradiction in terms, because the diary is effectively the most subjective, the most immediate, of all literary genres. And yet, despite all its subjectivity, despite all its intimate expressing and confiding, the diarist’s I conceals the person. It calls itself “I,” and nothing but “I,” in every diary, and yet in some inexplicable fashion the author has been spirited away and has found shelter behind the mode, the I-mode, that is required by the genre.
The diary is perforce in I-mode. The novel and the poem are not, and because the novel and the poem have the choice not to be in I-mode, because they have other possibilities, they have many I-possibilities, many I-problems, at their disposal. And it is also only in these two genres that there arises a desire for the destruction or displacement of the I, or for its reconceptualization. I would almost go so far as to maintain that there is no such thing as an I in a novel, an I in a poem, that does not live according to the following dictum: I speak, therefore I am. This dictum is meant to put paid to the question that is so often posed to writers when their text is not in I-mode: Who is actually speaking here? Who knows this and that about the characters; who is in charge of them; who is making them come and go and by what authority, and who is deciding what is to be recounted? An understandable question, a question from which, having been driven into a corner, the thoroughgoing naturalism of a half-century ago exacted even greater, meticulous objectivity, and today a handful of young novelists in France write in a behaviorist prose style, a style that exhausts itself in the description of actions and objects lest it incur the faintest trace of suspicion.
But back to the I. There is a fairly old book that begins with a scene involving some travelers in a train compartment; it is described by an I about whom we learn nothing further—we don’t know whether this I is the author himself or an author-installed I. So this I recounts a conversation on the subject of marriage that these travelers are having, a conversation that suddenly degenerates into a downright indecorous row—thanks to the intervention of a fairly old, gray-haired gentleman.
“I see you have found out who I am!” said the gray-haired man softly, and with apparent calm.
“No, I have not that pleasure.”
“It is no great pleasure. I am that Pozdnyshev in whose life that critical episode occurred to which you alluded; the episode when he killed his wife,” he said, rapidly glancing at each of us. [From Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation of “The ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata”]
And two pages later, when the narrator is alone with the gray-haired man, he continues:
“Well then, I’ll tell you. But do you really want to hear it?”
I repeated that I wished it very much. He paused, rubbed his face with his hands, and began:
The confession that now follows is known to us under the title of “The ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata” by Leo Tolstoy.
I wanted to present the opening of this story to you because it constitutes what has become a classic template for a modern I-narrated tale, namely a twofold I-narrated tale: in the framing episode an I is trotted out to listen to another I-figure, the main one, so that he can make us privy to this main I-figure’s confession.
There is an even more interesting variation on the I-narrated tale: one wherein an I who is an editor is trotted out in order to disguise or distance the decisive I in the book. Dostoyevsky made use of this variation out of fear of the censors. He figures as an I twice in Notes from the House of the Dead. In the character of an editor he pretends he made the acquaintance of a certain Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, who spent ten years as an inmate in a Siberian prison for having killed his wife. He says that after Goryanchikov’s death he found a book containing a description of the inmate’s life in the prison—but of course we know that Dostoyevsky is writing in disguise here, that he himself served a sentence in a Siberian prison, and for different reasons.
As the editor he circumspectly writes in the preface:
It was the narrative—incoherent and fragmentary--of the ten years Alexander Petrovitch had passed in hard labour. This narrative was interrupted, here and there, either by anecdotes, or by strange, terrible recollections thrown in convulsively as if torn from the writer. I read some of these fragments again and
again, and I began to doubt whether they had not been written in moments
of madness; but these memories of the convict prison--"Recollections of
the Dead-House," as he himself called them somewhere in his
manuscript--seemed to me not without interest. They revealed quite a new
world unknown till then; and in the strangeness of his facts, together
with his singular remarks on this fallen people, there was enough to
tempt me to go on. I may perhaps be wrong, but I will publish some
chapters from this narrative, and the public shall judge for itself. [From Marie V. Thilo's Translation]
This maneuver that Dostoyevsky was forced to employ has given birth to a stratagem that remains interesting even if the occasion for it has long since been forgotten. This overt stage-managing, this “I may perhaps be wrong” and “I will publish some
chapters from this narrative”—how often we encounter it in novels down to the present day! It never fails to exert its effect on us, it makes us curious; we enjoy the roaming puzzle of playing hide-and-seek with this I that must remain hidden so that it can better divulge itself.
Italo Svevo’s modus operandi in his novel Zeno Cosini is not very different. A doctor, a psychoanalyst, spitefully publishes the notes of his patient, Zeno Cosini, a businessman from Trieste. The notes exist because the patient, who doesn’t take psychoanalysis seriously and has no inclination to lie on the analyst’s couch, was trying to investigate his own life on his own. But with Italo Svevo we are back in the twentieth century and therefore dealing with an I who doesn’t simply narrate in the hope of attaining catharsis through his narration (as in the Russian storytellers’ earlier confessions) and who actually no longer feels at all comfortable with his I. The book’s Italian title is after all La Conscienza di Zeno—Zeno’s Conscience [the usual title of the novel in English (DR)]. And the dominant question of this is nothing more or other than “Who am I?” To be sure, we apparently pursue nothing but the life-history of a banal individual from his childhood onwards; we learn of his first secret attempts at smoking, of his lackadaisical student days culminating in the death of his father, of his unfortunate love for Ada and his grotesque engagement to her hideous sister, of his infidelity to this woman, which fails to occasion so much as a ripple of disruption to his bourgeois family life, of the founding of a business, of the outbreak of the First World War, which finally gives the weak-willed vegetator Zeno Cosini an opportunity to “do something,” to profiteer. This nullity of an existence, which bears certain Chaplinesque features, the fantastically comic quality of all these inconsequential, undramatic incidents, owes its greatness to the illumination afforded by this I. This hypochondriacal Cosini, who is searching for his illness and failing to find it, who can recount the story of his life in the way he happens to be recounting it, but also in an entirely different way, exclaims:
A confession in writing is always a lie. With our every Tuscan word, we lie! If he [i.e., the psychoanalyst] knew how, by predilection, we recount all the things for which we have the words at hand, and how we avoid those things that would oblige us to tum to the dictionary! This is exactly how we choose, from our life, the episodes to underline. Obviously our life would have an entirely different aspect if it were told in our [i.e., the Triestine] dialect.” [From William Weaver's Translation]
What Italo Svevo’s I discloses, what it touches upon in the realm of the possible, has hitherto scarcely even been conceived. It is an I that has scarcely yet been exploited, an I that walks around in the motley outfit of a Triestine loafer, fecklessly, mendaciously, questing for the truth, extremely forthright, and in the next instant laughing at us because what we take for his face is an idealized face at one time, at another a mask, and then suddenly a genuine face once again. This I is always completely agnostic about its own specific gravity, its own qualities, and of course it is not much later that another writer comes along and explicitly establishes his “man without qualities.” And because Svevo’s tragicomic hero runs from doctor to doctor, swotting his way through one cure after another, and is driven from psychoanalysis, in which he hoodwinks his analyst, into the adventure of reminiscence only to survive it in his own utterly peculiar manner, Svevo’s already famous admirer James Joyce could write that what he found especially interesting about his novel was its way of dealing with time. And Italo Svevo’s I really does make possible a way of dealing with time that ranks among this century’s pioneering literary achievements. As Svevo himself writes:
The present conducts the past in the way that a conductor conducts an orchestra. It wants these particular sounds, or those—and no others. That explains why the past may at times seem very long and at times very short. It thunders forth or murmurs pianissimo. The only part of it that is highlighted is the part that has been summoned up to illuminate, and to distract us from, the present. [from “Corto viaggio sentimentale” (“Short Sentimental Journey”), as translated by Beryl de Zoete and L. Collison-Morley (Bachmann attributes this passage to an afterword to Zeno’s Conscience)]
For this reason, I also believe that between the I of the nineteenth century (or even the I of Goethe’s Werther, which of course is one of the most prominent-ever examples of an I, of an I as a single authoritative presence that illuminates everything that happens in a text), in other words between the old I and the I of a book like Zeno’s Conscience, gape great abysses, and that there are even further abysses separating this I from the I of Samuel Beckett, of whom I shall presently have occasion to speak. The first transformation that the I has experienced consists in the fact that it no longer resides in the story; that rather, latterly, the story resides in the I. In other words: as long as the I remained unquestioned, it could be trusted to know how to go about telling its story; moreover, that story was guaranteed by it and it itself as a person was guaranteed by the story. Since the dissolution of the I, there has no longer been any such thing as an I and its story, an I and its narrative. Neither the reader nor the author Italo Svevo was prepared to stick his hand into the fire for this Zeno Cosini’s I’s sake. And yet this very loss of security proved to be a sudden windfall to the I. The new way of dealing with time, and accordingly the new way of dealing with the “material,” already made possible by Svevo’s I, is merely a prototypical example of the exploitation of this windfall. Its full utilization had to wait for Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. When Proust puts his I on the starting mark and sends this rather un-novelistic I off on its search, and in so doing compels it to carry on its shoulders a novel of gargantuan dimensions, he is entrusting to it the principal role not out of a regard for it as a person or even as a stage-manager, but rather [on account of] this I’s aptitude for reminiscence—on account of this single quality and no others. This I, which attains exemplarity only in its capacity as a witness, is not interrogated, made to speak, in the old way; it is not prevailed upon to deliver a confession; it must speak, rather, because it was present at all the crime-scenes—in Combray, in Balbec, in Paris, and in the Duchess de Guermantes’s house, in the theater, at all the places where everything happened and nothing happened—because, I say, it was present at all the crime scenes and is being compelled by the murderer Time to move forward and to forget, and Time can do nothing but nullify when a smell, a taste, a word, a sound brings back the past—places and people—when it brings back the very thing that was seen, the very thing that was experienced, and the things that the I has been told about. It is a peculiarity of this novel of Proust’s that its I vanishes for long stretches. The entirety of Swann in Love and a few other parts read like freestanding third-person narratives. And yet it is this I that gets things started, that starts the journey into time and conquers hitherto unsounded depths of memory. At the end of the first part of the first volume, the first-person narrator lays the foundations of the ensuing Swann in Love with these words:
It was in such a state that I often remained until morning, dreaming of my Combray period, of my sad, sleepless evenings, and also of a great many days whose image had recently been recalled to me by the taste—what Combrayans would have called the “perfume”—of a cup of tea and, by the association of memories, recalling something that, many years after leaving that little town, I had learned about a love affair that Swann had been involved in before I was born, and recalling it with all the detailed precision that is sometimes easier to obtain about the lives of people who have been dead for centuries than about those of our closest friends, and which seems as impossible as it once seemed impossible to talk to somebody in another city—as long as we are unaware of the distorting means by which this impossibility has been effected. All these strung-together memories now amounted to nothing but a single mass, but it was still not at all difficult to discern among them—between the oldest and the most recent ones, the offspring of a single perfume, and then those that were merely the memories of another person from whom I had acquired them—if not fissures, genuine faults, then at least striations, those variegations in color which, in certain rocks, in certain pieces of marble, reveal differences in origin, in age, in “formation.”
But when this I, this Marcel, comes closest to what we think of as the typical I of a novel, for example in the fifth volume, The Prisoner, which recounts the narrator’s liaison with Albertine, we are never fascinated by his confidentiality, by his confessionalism–for this I is a kind of specialist in transmitting each of his experiences into a collective body of experience and illuminating it with a remarkably steady and equable lamp of insight. Characteristic of this Proustian transmission of an I-pertaining datum, of this dissolution of the subjective in the objective, are such sentences as the following, which concerns the narrator’s infatuation with the Duchess de Guermantes:
And I fell in love with her on the spot, for if we sometimes fall in love with a woman simply because she regards us with contempt (as I had believed that Mlle. Swann regarded me) and we believe that she will never be ours, we sometimes also fall in love with one simply because she casts a generous eye on us, as Mme de Guermantes was then doing, and because we believe that she may indeed someday be ours.
So this “I fell in love with her on the spot” is immediately intercepted in the ensuing we-clauses, in clauses that furnish insight. I am sure you realize that I intend only to give general pointers on I here, but also that there is so much to say about a unique I like Proust’s that it is a shame to have to leave it behind so quickly, to drop this I with its peculiar manner of perceiving things as they really are, as we manage to do in our own everyday experience only very occasionally. Ernst Robert Curtius has written the following about it:
It [i.e., Proust’s manner of perceiving things as they really are] is sited on that border zone where normal waking consciousness passes over into other conscious states. It is congruent with what the psychology of mysticism very circumscriptively terms ‘contemplation’—an attitude that establishes a real and binding connection between the seer and the seen. [From Französischer Geist im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert (The French Intellect in the Twentieth Century)]
Proust’s I is every possible thing, but at all events even this I, as an instrument, is no enigma. It carries itself calmly, confident of its own powers of comprehension. In its search for lost time it assumes the role of an imparter of an insight that unfailingly proves not to be some parochial finding but rather the restitution of our collective experience and consequently amounts to a “summa.”
An enigmatic I, one that does not lead into depths of time, but rather into the labyrinth of existence, into the monstrosities of the soul, has been created in a German novel, River without Banks, by Hans Henny Jahnn. The book’s hero, Gustav Anias Horn, writes solely for himself after having attained the age of 49, never addressing anybody else, suspiciously eyeing this writing I at his fingertips, incessantly despairing of ever being able to track down the truth about his past, about an unexplained crime for which he himself is responsible. What is significant about the work is not its profusion and indeed surplus of plot-elements but rather the situation of its narrator, who is telling his story to nobody apart from himself, all the while shunning both lies and adherence to social convention and making himself into his own judge. But because for Hans Henny Jahnn the I is not a known quantity, because it is an enigma, because it is constantly changing and one can no longer determine what it used to be like and who it used to be, the difficulties faced by this I—an I that is always flowing, always evanescently renewing itself in choppy seas—appear insurmountable. A constant standard by which it might be blamed and judged cannot be found. Its mania for precision is its sole conspicuous trait; this mania becomes so intense that the I ends up getting in touch with people just because they can help it clarify certain moments in its past. This causes the past to spill over into the present, and Horn will seek out and become involved with people who will murder him. Horn is obsessed with this idea: “I am standing in the middle of a courtroom trial; each thing that happens is some legal measure taken by the court, and the object of its enquiry and of the sentence it will pass is my life. There is no escape.”
And the yearning of his I is expressed as follows: “In this undependable world there ought to be something I can depend on—the image of our destiny and behavior ought to be impervious to distortion.”
This I suffers from the fact that it no longer possesses any determinate personality; it is cut off from every binding connection, every binding relation whereby it could be determined as such an entity. It has discovered itself to be merely an instrument of blind happenstance.
I am standing on the weak spot occupied by an individual, a renegade, who is trying to think—who is aware of his independence from the movements and measures of his age, an individual in whose ears resound the words that are being spoken, taught, proclaimed, the words that guide everyone’s conduct, and within which everyone dies—and he no longer believes in them. He no longer believes in power stations, coalmines, oil wells, ore-shafts, blast furnaces, rolling-mills, tar-based products, cinema, and telegraphs—he suspects it is all a mistake.
This I seeks, finds, and is guided by pure Nothing; it no longer understands its tragedy in terms of “fate”. But it is still aware of something that Jahnn calls “destiny.” Nothing of that sort matters any longer for the last I about which I would like to speak, the I of Samuel Beckett. In his recent novel The Unnamable, it carries on a beginningless, endless monologue in despairing search of itself. This I, Mahood, no longer experiences anything, no longer remembers any stories; it is an entity that now consists of nothing but a head, a torso, an arm, and a leg, that lives in flower-tub; it is trying to concentrate itself, to think, to do nothing but think from now on in order to ask something—but what? That in itself is a question and indeed the question—in other words, to stay alive by interrogating itself. Not only have its personality and even its identity, its constants and standards, its history, environment, and past slipped away from it, but also its desire to fall silent threatens to extinguish it, to annihilate it completely.
Its confidence in language is so completely shattered that the usual interrogations of the I and the world are useless. A bit earlier I said that the I initially resided in its surrounding story; later on, in Svevo, in Proust, the stories reside in the I; so at some point there was a change of residence. In Beckett one reaches a point where the contents of the I are completely liquidated.
And man, the lectures they gave me on men, before they even began trying to assimilate me to him! What I speak of, what I speak with, all comes from them. It’s all the same to me, but it’s no good, there’s no end to it. It’s of me now I must speak, even if I have to do it with their language, it will be a start, a step towards silence and the end of madness, the madness of having to speak and not being able to, except of things that don’t concern me, that don’t count, that I don’t believe, that they have crammed me full of to prevent me from saying who I am, where I am, and from doing what I have to do in the only way that can put an end to it, from doing what I have to do. How they must hate me! Ah a nice state they have me in, but still I’m not their creature, not quite, not yet. To testify to them, until I die, as if there was any dying with that tomfoolery, that’s what they’ve sworn they’ll bring me to. Not to be able to open my mouth without proclaiming them, and our fellowship, that’s what they imagine they’ll have me reduced to. It’s a poor trick that consists in ramming a set of words down your gullet on the principle that you can’t bring them up without being branded as belonging to their breed. But I’ll fix their gibberish for them. I never understand a word of it in any case, not a word of the stories it spews, like gobbets in a vomit. My inability to absorb, my genius for forgetting, are more than they reckoned with. Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself, in the end. And I’ll be myself at last, as a starveling belches his odourless wind, before the bliss of coma.
Beckett’s I loses itself in mutterings, and yet it is suspicious of its mutterings; nevertheless the needfulness of talking is still present—resignation, impossible. Even if it has withdrawn from the world because it was violated, debased, and robbed of all its contents by that world, it cannot withdraw from itself, and in its meagerness and beggarliness it is still always a hero, the hero I with its immemorial heroism, that fortitude that remains invisible on its surface and is its greatest attribute. [Mahood’s last words are:]
…I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on [, I can’t go on (the passage as quoted in German translation by Bachmann omits these words [DR])], I’ll go on.
As far as we know, these are the final depressing pronouncements of the I in literature, even as each and every day we mulishly and with utter conviction say I, sneered at all the while by “it” and “one,” by the anonymous entities that fail to hear our I as if its words were being uttered by Nobody. But despite its indeterminable magnitude, its indeterminable position, will not the I be called forth by literature time and again in a manner commensurate with a new position, with a hold on a new word? For there are no final pronouncements. It is the miracle of the I that whenever it speaks it lives; it cannot die—not even if it is defeated or in doubt, bereft of credibility and mutilated—this I with no warranty! And if nobody believes it, and if it does not believe itself, one must believe it, it must believe itself, as soon as it gets started, as soon as it begins to speak, breaks away from the uniform choir, from the closemouthed congregation, whoever it may be, whatever it may be. And it will enjoy its triumph, today as ever before and henceforth—as a placeholder of the human voice.
Translation Copyright © 2017 by Douglas Robertson, who thanks flowerville for introducing him to Bachmann’s wonderful lectures.
Source: Ingeborg Bachmann, Frankfurter Vorlesungen. Probleme zeitgenössischer Dichtung [Frankfurt Lectures. Problems in Contemporary Literature], Munich and Berlin: Piper, 2016. Bachmann delivered this lecture as part of a five-lecture series at Goethe University Frankfurt during the 1959-1960 winter semester and recorded it for Bavarian Radio in April 1960.