There is a tipping point one crosses when the time at the bar ceases to be about getting tight and the mission is to simply reach the absolute zero. In physical chemistry absolute zero is the point at which everything stops. Matter and energy cancel each other out. There is no longer kinesis or potential. Sitting at the bar he orders more whisky and more beer. He can tell he isn’t there yet, at zero. He can still hear voices of disapproval and shame. Those are the final test. The other voices go away pretty fast. These last two take a lot of work to quiet down. Whisky comes from the Gaelic word for “water of life.” It should be the water of quiet. He remembers a time when he was not considered mad. Before the ogres came with their reasons and programs. He can remember the time before the ogres arrived and insisted on programs of reformation and progress. That time is gone. He sits at the bar and drinks the whisky saving the beer to soften the burn. He remembers the beginning. There was no beginning. It has always been this way. He cannot remember anything anymore.
Like light at nightfall. Stands there facing east. Blank pinpocked surface once white in shadow. Could once name them all. There was father. That grey void. There mother. That other. There together. Smiling. Wedding day. There all three. That grey blot. There alone. He alone. So on. Not now. Forgotten. All gone so long. Gone. (Beckett. “A Piece of Monologue.” From Collected Works 454).
Is it loss or memory? What is the difference? Does not memory by definition denote loss? Loss of what? There was a father and a mother. There was also a third. The relationships are marked by the absence of color: white and grey. These are thrown into shadows of memory and loss. I wonder how much of the shadow is the shadow of memory and how much the memory of shadows. The father and the mother are only dimly in the life of the third. There is also the paradox of the first sentence which consists of a half-formed simile: “Like light at nightfall.” Like light that becomes brighter or more pronounced because of the contrast of night and light. The passage indicates a movement of sorts in that the speaker must be in the process of coming to this moment as either a physical act of looking at a photograph or the action of consciously remembering. It is all definitely in the past tense. Nothing is before the speaker’s eyes.
There is the white of a blank page and the white of a wedding day. On the surface of a blank paper the speaker fills emptiness with the image of a wedding and smiling. Then: “That grey blot.” Interrupting the happiness with the dull wash of sameness. The images cannot be fully erased form the page, but they can be smudged into an indiscernible grey. The happiness behind the smile becomes neither sadness nor joy, but no feeling at all.
He has forgotten the figures. He could once name them all, but no more. The names have faded into the white and grey of an occluded memory. What could cause such memory loss, memory loss that compels one to lose the names of a father and a mother and see the figure of the self as a distant and unknown “third?” He is an appendage more than he is a person. Father, Mother, It.
The punctuation is not even grammatically correct. It marks the white spaces between the words rather than the grammatical content and flow of the sentences. “All gone so long. Gone” confuse the meanings between “so long” and “gone.” Are the people in this memory long gone or gone so long to have disappeared from memory? Are they simply far away or are they dead? The white and grey of the passage comes through the words themselves. The meaning of the passage becomes a description of the passage itself, such that the content becomes effaced by the words intended to denote that very content. As the words unfold, they grind out the meaning as the meanings of the words seek to retrieve a meaning—a physical memory—that has itself been ground out.
Why this pull from attachment and meaning? The attachments are clearly familial and they hold no emotional force for the speaker. That Beckett seems to erase the meaning of the words with the words themselves dramatizes the ephemeral quality of the attachments. Like the narrators of his novels, the speaker here exists in a state of radical alienation. What comes of emotional attachments, even those of family, when they begin in a tenuous place at best and then drift to utter alienation and exist only in the form of meaningless artifacts?
There is a starting point for us all and since none of us remember it, this starting point is really just the story of a starting point we cannot know. There are a number of variations on the starting point but nearly all of them begin in blood and end in ashes and dirt. Blood is the main metaphor. The blood metaphor is mis-recognized as something more than a metaphor. Blood is real. Blood is the tie that links the body and the soul to other bodies and souls. It is blood that marks the ultimate sacrifice and it is blood that drives men to kill. Blood—the color of filiation and the missing force in Beckett’s quotation. Blank, grey, and white—the absence of blood and life. The blood is the life, explains Renfield. Blood brings Dracula back to life and brings babies into the world.
The grey blot that is the father or that brings to mind the father marks another story of the beginning. For some, the beginning is only the tale. There is no blood. These are bastards. The babies that go unclaimed. Many become heroes. Some are just the demons of the faith in the blood. There is a deep mistrust of the ones who exist as the third figure in a distant memory of a faint image effaced and made grey by ill-formed ties. Pinocchio needs the Blue Fairy to suture him to life. He has no blood. He is adorable in Disney but a terrifying presence if you were to meet him. He is a wooden puppet who speaks like a man and walks like a man and sounds like he is made of wood.
The old fairy folk-lore told of changelings. The evil fairies, the Shee, would steal the blood born baby and replace it with a baby that was made of wood. Against all parental instincts, a mother would need to throw the wooden changeling into a fire, no matter the resemblance to her actual child, and burn the screaming infant. Then the Shee would return the child.
Birth was the death of him. Again. Words are few. Dying too. Birth was the death of him. Ghastly grinning ever since. Up at the lid to come. In cradle and crib. At suck first fiasco. With the first totters. From mammy to nanny and back. All the way. Bandied back and forth. So ghastly grinning on. From funeral to funeral. To now. This night. Two and a half billion seconds. Again. Two and a half billion seconds. Hard to believe so few. From funeral to funeral. Funerals of… he all but said of loved ones. (453)
Loved ones, indeed. Loved ones is a term used out of habit. It is a place-marker for those figures who occupy a position in a structure of kinship. Marked by death, the structures of kinship operate numerically. Their significance is determined by the degree to which a living being occupies their position in the structure. Prop them up at holidays with the headphones stuck in their ears and you have grampa-gramma- mommy-daddy. Take your place as the third. Remember that one’s numerical place is always relative to another figure. One is third to the extent that we count from a specific number. The rules that determine which number we count from are generated from the structures of kinship. From ‘the first totters,” to “two and a half billion seconds” that go by in such a short span, the numbers just tally up. They do help sort out all the confusion, though.
“Birth was the death of him.” He died the second he was born and off he went. Went away to a place unknown and unremembered, recreated from scant pieces of information pulled together over the course of a life time that never congealed into one thing because birth was the death of him. Who was he, one wonders? He was dropped into the structures of kinship in the only way the drop can occur: through the hole in mamma’s ass. But things went wrong after that. Afterward he went “(f)rom mammy to nanny and back.” But he never actually made it all the way back. No, he went from mammy to mammy and then he lost track of what a mammy actually is. There were people who made it clear to him which direction to look and how to address the proper individuals. He has been ghastly grinning ever since. He grins through his detachment. He grins through the disjunctive synthesis. Like a turd being sliced off at the sphincter, he grins at the muscular tissue that just made him a spot in the flows of stomach, intestine, and asshole. Now he knows where he belongs and who he belongs to.
We can mark the figures by their places at important moments in life. We remember who was there the day we broke a bone, won a race, graduated from high school. We can mark the figures by the importance they are assigned at their death. Each death and funeral performance names another figure in the dramatis personae of a life that is elsewhere. As a spectator on the life that is one’s own, we learn the names and relations of the key figures in the structures of kinship as we gather around the casket. Eating ham sandwiches and smoking cigarettes with the other hand, everything gets explained. Some of these personages were in “the War.” Others are only whispered about due to wrongs that date back to black and white photography. He remembers, in the dim grey that spills off into white—looking at the dim grey that spills off into white—living “(f)rom funeral to funeral. Funerals of… he all but said of loved ones.” It is difficult to not use the language of real boys. Pinocchio mimics the language he learned from Gepetto, but he cannot forget that he is a puppet made of wood and “loved ones” are attachments given to real boys, not puppets, even puppets who tell the truth and never lie. He went to all the funerals and even put on the bow tie his maternal function picked out for him.
An event is captured in language. Once the event occurs, the language is a failure because any and all knowledge of the event now exists in the ephemera of words. Words have power but they have no power over the event they are deployed to capture. But a life is an event that continues to unfold. The language that captures that life both fails and succeeds insofar as that language participates in a sentence without a period. A sentence… We are sentenced to life. Life is sentence that terminates in death. Life is a death sentence. Life is a dead sentence. The key is that the life and the language begin at the same point. All lives necessarily begin in the already moving flow of language, but what do we make of a life begun in one particular constellation of language games then, dead from birth, re-situated in a completely different constellation of language games that were not intended for that specific life? For the latter, “birth was the death of him.” An event not captured in language is not event. The bitter paradox of the linguistic capture is that, for all of its powerlessness, without this impotent capture the event does not exist. A life enunciated into the language games that is then cut short is dead. A life born dead that is subsequently re-distributed into another set of language games is a revenant: a ghost. This is a post-death life, which is to be distinguished from after-life. Here “(w)ords are few. Dying too.” These words are finite because this life already had a period affixed to its end.
Thus he begin the process of being bandied back and forth. It does not take long and one really does not need to remember it. All memory is grey and eventually fades back to the white page. Memory is filled up with stories. All memory actually consists of is stories. Even most of the evidence of the events exists in stories. Memory is, in the final analysis, a big, fluid metaphor.
Literal death is not the issue. This is not melodrama. The white space between the words becomes the white space between life and the desire to be in life. Being a disembodied soul and mind, floating through the world with indeterminate impact and unknown signification. One always looks for the story to be told. Life is indeed a tale told by an idiot. And there is too much sound and fury and damn little on the page. “There alone. He alone.” All alone but not alone. But alone. Make your life a work of art. Paint your life on canvas, or write your life on a page and soon the paint will crack and the words will smudge. And he will be all alone. Alone is to be distinguished from loneliness. Loneliness is a different condition altogether.
His gaze upon the image and the fragmentary rendering of fragmentary images and fragmentary language gives rise to a unique set of consequences. The passage of the figures, the father and the mother, are marked not by memories of life-events but by the movement “(f)rom funeral to funeral.” Now they are “(a)ll gone so long. Gone.” But there is no mourning and there is no evidence of its psychoanalytic alternative: melancholia. For mourning to occur there must be a full psychic recognition and acceptance of the loss. The lost object must finally be given up for dead and some notional aspect of the object is introjected into the ego of the subject who experiences the loss. In the case of melancholia the psychic attachment is the feature of libidinal investment. The subject is invested in the loss itself and not the lost object. In this way the subject never fully experiences the loss of the lost object. All psychic energies that had been invested in the lost object remain fully operational and a never ending process of grief ensues. For the speaker in these passages there does not seem to be any attachments at all. No real psychological investment and no real loss. Just the idea of loss. And lost objects are grey blots and blank spaces.
He does not mourn nor is he gripped by the melancholic fixation. He is in a place of remove that preceded the loss, if in fact there is a loss. He does not seem to know loss. What he experiences in these passages is little more than a recognition. All are gone. He is not subject to any of this Lacanian shit. He has no real attachments. Why? Is he not capable? What is he missing? How could a son be so heartless as to not have a significant attachment to his mother and father such that losing them is little more than a grey blot on a faded photograph? It is possible, though unlikely to most people, that he has no heart. It is not that he is a sociopath or evil. He just does not feel properly. The processes of feeling, sympathy, and empathy were not properly imparted on him. As the object attachments failed so did the feelings associated with object attachments. The language games are interdependent. He missed it all and he stares at the images before him and he wants nothing more than to conjure the memories of who they really were, what they meant, and, most of all, he wants to miss them.
So he stares at the images and looks back. All he can think of is the strange twists and turns of fate that brought him where he is now. It is the line and not the points on the line. The markers of the missing scenes rather than the scenes themselves. He is a grammarian of the sentence. He approaches his life as a collection of discreet textual events and, like Pinocchio, he returns to his own Venice, the Venice of his mind.
He cannot be certain of his date of death. He is certain that he has been a ghost for a long time. That others see him is not sufficient proof that his he is alive. Others see him only when he is physically present. He bears no trace in the minds of others. The moment he is out of sight, he becomes a grey blot and fades to white, then completely invisible. There is no black dot on the page to mark the fact that there is a page. Just a flood of emptiness and then nothing at all. He can remember things. Vague things. Perhaps the whole of this is a matter of insufficiently thinking through verb tenses. Rather than the past, the present– certainly no future– he should reach for an irregular verb construction, one which will stretch the bounds of being somewhere. In French there is the future anterieur. In this he can consider, and possibly exist, in what he will have been after what is to come. In this way he will be the revenant, the ghost of what will have been in some uncertain (and un-promised) future, and still remain in a past tense which has not happened.
Mike Templeton is an independent scholar and writer living in Ohio—the bullseye of America. He writes essays and prose poems, often from that perspective of mixed skepticism and wonder that seems to characterize the American Midwest. He works as a freelance writer and lives with his wife who is a talented photographer. Mike has published essays and creative non-fiction on art, contemporary culture, and punk rock. Besides writing, Mike participates in open poetry readings at Cincinnati Word of Mouth. He also is the lead guitar player in the punk band the Pistol Mystics.