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Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 164-187

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Autonomy and Privacy in Wittgenstein and Beckett

Gary Kemp

IN HIS TELLING OF Diana and Actaeon, Ovid describes Actaeon's human soul, lodged in the body of a stag. It is about to be ripped apart by his own hounds, Diana's vengeance for his having seen her naked. Deprived of human tongue, he can express nothing of his human fright, or of his sense of being wronged. In Chapter Two of Le Côté de Guermantes, Proust's narrator is just about, at long last, to kiss Albertine for the first time:

. . . I believed that there was such a thing as knowledge acquired by the lips; I told myself that I was going to know the taste of this fleshly rose, because I had not stopped to think that man, a creature obviously less rudimentary than the sea-urchin or even the whale, nevertheless lacks a certain number of essential organs, and notably possesses none that will serve for kissing. For this absent organ he substitutes his lips, and thereby arrives perhaps at a slightly more satisfying result than if he were reduced to caressing the beloved with a horny tusk. But a pair of lips, designed to convey to the palate the taste of whatever whets their appetite, must be content, without understanding their mistake or admitting their disappointment, with roaming over the surface and with coming to a halt at the barrier of the impenetrable but irresistible cheek. 1[End Page 164]

These images represent what we might call the phenomenological truth, if not the ontological truth, of Cartesian Dualism: not only is it abstractly imaginable for philosophical purposes, there are moments in human life when it really does seem as if our corporeal equipages are inessential to us—that they are possibly exchangeable, as in Actaeon's case, or disconcerting impediments to our real interests, as in trying to kiss our Albertines.

Cartesian Dualism, at least for Wittgenstein and for Beckett, was not simply a theory, an intelligible doctrine that might decisively be refuted, overcome, left in the past alongside alchemy and vitalism. It was a picture, or perhaps jumble of pictures, that is repeated to us time and again, if not precisely by our language, then certainly by our art, religions, folk theories, morals. And if that is so then the picture must, in some sense, be faithful—if not to our actual metaphysical situation, then to ourselves as we seem to ourselves, and thus to our phenomenological situation, to what it is like to be a conscious human being. The picture, as exemplified in all those cultural forms, expresses—perhaps we should say constitutes—our understanding, or at least our image, of ourselves. Whether or not Cartesian Dualism admits of formulation as an articulate theory, it enters into human life substantively not only as such a theory but as a creature of the imagination—and this not merely in the superficial sense in which imagination is an idle pastime, but in something like the Kantian sense of imagination, that which delivers reality as intelligible in the first place. Its evil cannot be exorcised by refutation or even persuasion, but only by something like a shift of aspect, "seeing things aright," as for Wittgenstein, or by discovering new images, new expressions or literary techniques, as for Beckett.

I will try to accomplish two things. First, I will try to explain, from a logical or metaphysical point of view, what Wittgenstein and Beckett saw as being troublesome in the Cartesian conception of the mind. I shall take much for granted: that Beckett and Wittgenstein were, in fact, deeply and unremittingly concerned with the question of what is wrong with that conception of the mind; that the central logical problem with it can be boiled down to a point that I credit to Kant; that either Wittgenstein or Beckett, despite their antipathy to conventional philosophical argument, can fairly be regarded as addressing a theoretical concern of the kind that more conventional philosophers straightforwardly argue about. I shall...


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