Beached

What a curse, mobility!

  • Winnie, from “Happy Days: A Play in Two Acts” by Samuel Beckett
  • I had read about this modern classic decades ago – the idea of it chilled me as it was, so I only got around to reading it this week. Wikipedia provides a good synopsis, so I’ll copy enough from it here to give my readers some context:

    Winnie, a woman no longer young, is embedded up to her “big bosom” in a mound of earth, “the Mother Earth symbol to end all other mother earth symbols”. She lives in a deluge of never-ending light from which there is no escape: even the parasol she unfolds at one point ignites, leaving her without protection. We learn that she has not always been buried in this way but we never discover how she came to be trapped so.

    She speaks compulsively throughout the play, trying to keep up a cheerful outlook despite her bizarre and tragic predicament. The only person to speak to is her husband, Willie, who (until the end) is always hidden behind and rarely answers her.

    We can associate this scenario with another concept in Lacanian psychology, the interpassive subject. In this article, Zizek discusses numerous ways in which we speak or act through others (Interactivity,) freeing us to feel (“enjoy”) or believe — and ways in which we get others to enjoy or believe for us (Interpassivity,) freeing us to act. He describes how these substitutions can give rise to a “false activity” somewhat like the strategy of an obsessional neurotic:

    [H]e or she is frantically active in order to prevent the real thing from happening (in a group situation in which some tension threatens to explode, the obsessional talks all the time, tells jokes, etc., in order to prevent the awkward moment of silence that would make the participants aware of the underlying tension)

    He goes on to analyze the “masculine” and “feminine” principles through these concepts:

    What if the “original” subjective gesture, the gesture constitutive of subjectivity, is not that of autonomously “doing something”, but rather that of the primordial substitution, of withdrawing and letting another do it for me, in my place? Women, much more than men, are able to enjoy by proxy, to find deep satisfaction in the awareness that their beloved partner enjoys (or succeeds or in any other way has attained his or her goal). In this precise sense, the Hegelian “cunning of reason” bears witness to the resolutely feminine nature of what Hegel calls “Reason”: “Look for the hidden Reason (which realizes itself in the apparent confusion of egotistic direct motifs and acts)!” is Hegel’s version of the notorious Cherchez la femme! This, then, is how reference to interpassivity allows us to complicate the standard opposition of man versus woman as active versus passive, for sexual difference is inscribed in the very core of the relationship of substitution-woman can remain passive while being active through her Other, man can be active while suffering through his Other

    But there is a dark side of this relationship:

    The object that gives body to … surplus-enjoyment fascinates the subject, reduces him or her to a passive gaze impotently gaping at the object; this relationship, of course, is experienced by the subject as something shameful, unworthy. Being directly transfixed by the object, passively submitting to its power of fascination, is ultimately unbearable: the open display of the passive attitude of “enjoying it” somehow deprives the subject of his or her dignity. Interpassivity is therefore to be conceived as the primordial form of the subject’s defense against jouissance: I defer jouissance to the Other, who passively endures it (laughs, suffers, enjoys) on my behalf…in interpassivity, I am decentered in a much more radical way than in interactivity, since interpassivity deprives me of the very kernel of my substantial identity.

    This dark side is perhaps the heart of patriarchy, which is still wreaking havoc throughout the world, and, according to the NRDC and UNIFEM will darken further with the warming climate.

    One line of Winnie’s produces an especially uncanny effect on me in light of all this: “The earth is very tight today, can it be I have put on flesh, I trust not…The great heat possibly.”

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