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Beckett’s Deconstruction of the Machine in The Lost Ones David Porush T HE POWER OF THE MACHINE IN LITERATURE lies in its ability to focus attention on one of our deeply-rooted beliefs. The machine is a universal symbol of our culture’s blind devotion to logical method, and has remained constant in this symbology through two-and-one-half centuries of literature. Even though the complexity of the machines that have inspired our metaphors have grown—from blocks of wood inscribed with letters and turned by cranks in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to the hyper-evolved computer of John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy—the tenor, the argument of these metaphors has remained the same. The machine is an invitation and a warning. It is simultaneously fas­ cinating and threatening. It is somehow both superior to and inferior to the punier humans who build, operate and sometimes are subjugated by it. Machines are tangible proof of the success of our scientific tech­ niques; as William Barrett suggests, they are “ embodied decision pro­ cedures.” At the same time, they testify to what is sadly diminished and insufficient in our blind faith that our techniques of discovery, our calculus and physics and biochemistry and cybernetics, will tell the whole story. While we may be ennobled by our grandiose fiction that the universe is a clockwork mechanism, there is also something inherently depressing about the vision of our spirits acting as mere cogs in that mechanism. To some behaviorists, logical positivists, artificial intelligence theo­ rists and sheer rationalists, the ghost in the machine is a delusion we’ve conjured to comfort ourselves with a superiority that cannot be proven. In their view, the human mind is just a brain, and its processes, though extraordinarily complex, will eventually be elucidated as surely as the atomic weights of different elements in the periodic table. But to others —some quantum physicists, artists, writers and phenomenologists, especially—there is room for doubt. The periodic table is a convenient model, but not a description, of the elusive mechanics of the atom, which has been subdivided into quarks and a host of even more intangible parVOL . XXVI, No. 4 87 L ’E s pr it C r éa te u r tides which wink in and out of existence depending upon your point of view. Artists have a special stake in drawing a line around some portion of the soul and proscribing its analysis: they naturally want to believe that the products of their labor manifest a freedom and uniqueness which lie above or below the level of mechanical description. And for writers who are alert to these phenomenological notions abroad in the culture, language is the fulcrum on which the argument see-saws. The periodic table, the cybernetic metaphor that the brain is a machine, etc., are metaphors. Yet, writers are the first to acknowledge the power of metaphors. Whatever its status as truth, a metaphor is “ a thrust at truth or a lie,” again “ depending upon your point of view,” as Thomas Pynchon remarks. And these machine metaphors in particular have taken root to such depth that they have become invisible.1They are resurrected only by fear—What is the machine doing to us?, or by a counter-metaphor—We are not-machines! Both tactics present an invitation to fiction, often in tandem, which many contemporary American authors have found irresistible, among them John Barth in Giles Goat-Boy, Donald Barthelme in several short stories, William Burroughs through his mythology, but especially in The Soft Machine and The Nova Express, Joseph McElroy in PLUS, the noted science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, especially in “ Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” 2 What these postmodernists have in common is that they view litera­ ture as engaged in a battle, and effectively so, against the imperialism of the machine. They have several weapons in their armory: selfconsciousness , irony, a tacit distrust of language as an effective means of expression, and metaphors. They combine these weapons with a peculiar but singularly effective strategy: all the texts in this class are disguised as machines or the products o f machines. For instance, John Barth’s Giles Goat...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 87-98
Launched on MUSE
2017-07-05
Open Access
No
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