- Zen and the Art of Self-Negation in Samuel Beckett's Not I
and the brain...raving away on its own...trying to make sense of it...or make it stop...or in the past...dragging up the past...flashes from all over...—Samuel Beckett, Not I
Set aside all involvements and let the myriad things rest...Be mindful of the passing of time, and engage yourself in zazen as though you are saving your head from fire.—Eihei Dogen
Samuel Beckett's late plays stage minimal images of body and mind: a woman sits in an autonomously-moving rocking chair listening to her recorded voice (Rockaby); a disembodied head breathes audibly while three recordings of his voice play (That Time); a mouth suspended in the dark speaks a rapid outpouring of disjointed phrases (Not I). As the actor Donald Davis put it, Not I's visual and aural minimalism (like many of Beckett's plays from the 1970s and 80s) makes Waiting for Godot look "like an MGM musical."1 Devoid of whole characters and dynamic action, these brief pieces stage streams of thought and physically restrained human figures surrounded by dark voids.
Critics have framed these pieces' baffling simplicity and suffering within European literary and philosophical paradigms ranging from the "psychographic landscapes" of Dante Alighieri's Inferno and Purgatorio, to the psychoanalytic thinking of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jacques Lacan, to Gilles Deleuze's notions of the "exhausted" in language and image.2 Some of these paradigms touch on the ways Beckett pushes to the limits of subjectivity and discursive thought itself, but they tend to do so from within conceptual and metaphysical frameworks. [End Page 283]
As an alternative lens through which to read these late plays, Japanese Zen Buddhism also suggests the limits of subjectivity and discursive thought but offers a far more concrete paradigm for contextualizing these plays within a tradition of mental and physical practice.3 Several scholars have noted deep affinities between Beckett's writing and Zen philosophy, from Buddhism's influence on Arthur Schopenhauer, whose philosophical pessimism influenced Beckett, to the formal similarities between Beckett's theater and Japanese Noh plays.4 Paul Foster's Beckett and Zen suggests that Beckett's novels distill the dilemma of existence that Buddhism recognizes as a fundamental human condition but that Beckett fails to find a way out.5 Combining the enigmatic illogic of Zen with chaos theory, John Kundert-Gibbs's No-Thing is Left to Tell reads Beckett's plays as visual and conceptual riddles that, like koans, baffle the dualistic mind, defeating discursive thought from within.6
Extending this work beyond Zen ideas to Zen practice, the enigmatic figures who sparsely populate Beckett's late stages appear not as symbolic tropes in the representational and metaphysical traditions of European art, but instead look like ritual enactments of the mind's basic nature. Instead of Dante's damned half-buried in ice, the immobilized figures of That Time and Rockaby begin to look like the meditator in zazen (seated meditation), observing thoughts and perceptions arise in the present moment through restrained bodies. Instead of a spirit condemned forever to pace her own level of Hell, or Jung's example of a woman with the feeling of never having been born, May's prescribed and tightly choreographed pacing in Footfalls begins to resemble a monk in kinhin (walking meditation), repeating slow steps around a cyclical path as deliberate practice. Mouth's refusal to articulate a first-person subject position in Not I, as I will posit here, may even suggest a liberating rather than pathological negation of self.
Beneath these surface affinities lies a deeper connection between Beckett's gestures of self-negation and their embodied thought. Beckett's 1973 play Not I in particular, this essay suggests, fleshes out the mental suffering that Buddhism cites as being caused by grasping thoughts or sensations and clinging to the delusion of a persistent self.7 Beyond that, this play in performance, like the Zen practitioner in zazen, establishes a distinctively embodied empty space through which the very notion of a subject is radically emptied of intrinsic value. [End Page 284]