Meaning and Significance in Beckett's The Unnamable

Tudor Balinisteanu

In the following paper I shall argue that one may regard Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable as an attempt to acquire meaning from a literary event which is rooted in, and stems from, a negotiation between two different realms, that of the inner being and that of outer contexts, which, although essentially opposed, must converge in order to produce that literary event. The Unnamable is thus the expression of an interaction between the two realms and it is, accordingly, metaphorically and metonymically ordered as discourse. I will be concerned with how the inner being is made present in discourse through the discourse's metaphoric order and with how discourse reflects outer constraints in its metonymic order.

Inevitably, reference will be made to Molloy and Malone Dies, which, together with The Unnamable form what is known as Beckett's trilogy.

AS/SA nº 13, p.168

1. Introduction

I am regarding The Unnamable as discourse, for only in the act of discourse the text, otherwise a dead structure, becomes known through the act of reading ' it is enacted.

Although a harmonious unity between the worlds of writer and reader and the structures of coherence mediating between audience and author, on one level, and nature (irrational, incoherence, dreams) and culture (rational, signs and symbols) on another level seems granted in the presence of discourse, their situation in dichotic relationships must be signaled: irrational/rational, chaotic/coherent, non-meaning/signs and symbols. These relationships are made fluid once they are embedded in discourse, which meaningfully articulates structures of signification.

What Beckett's trilogy prompts us to consider is the inner being contribution to the events enacted in discourse, resulting from the former's associations with structured reality. Thus the voice in The Unnamable can be seen as a literary event in which textual structures are enacted in discourse.

2.Nature and Literary Discourse

In order to investigate nature Beckett exposes in his work the frames within which the two events (of being and of signification and symbolization) are produced.

For Beckett, nature is (dis)placed between intervals when the faculty of reason is asleep, and when it is active. Nature is apprehended differently, at distance from reason (metaphorically) and from within reason (metonymically).

Nature belongs to a realm beyond rationality, and therefore beyond such organization as would coherently establish human identity. Yet we may reasonably assume that the substance nature is made of inheres in what is called the human nature. A fine distinction between nature as a realm of indifferentiation and human nature, which, although partaking in the former, allows the articulation of the I must be made. This articulation acknowledges nature and renders it as matter for formalizing attempts. The forming of nature, recognized as substance through the articulation of the I, into expression ("I") is not controlled by the individual human being (the I).

According to Deirdre Bair, Beckett claimed that: 'I don't know where the writing comes from and I am often quite surprised when I see what I have committed to paper' (Bair in Kennedy: 104, 1989)

The ruling idea behind Beckett's literary works seems to be that the shaping of nature is controlled by what is collectively inherited and shared in cultural tradition as structured rational discourse through an assumption which both creates and undermines humanity. Humanity is thus rendered conceptually at the expense of the I.

AS/SA nº 13, p.169

In his critique of Beckett, Andrew K. Kennedy asserts: 'The feeling of direct immersion, in a wholly verbal universe gone wrong, is "created" in the trilogy, where all experience is filtered through or refracted by the words of the first person narrator's diminishing self.' (Kennedy: 108, 1989)

The "I" of humanity is the "I" of the discourse of reason (and of literary discourse), a double of the I articulating human nature ' and its expression.

These expressions can be grasped in reading as nature can be remembered. Memory, a faculty of reason, is involved in acknowledging the events of nature. Nature itself can only exist in its own present. Memory gives it a place in time, a historical dimension so that it is acknowledged and can be narrated. By virtue of memory, (literary) tradition is summoned to attend upon expression thus shaping literary discourse.

Literary discourse exists because reason works out (human) nature into something which humans acknowledge as (un)familiar shapes. In a sense, the shapes of nature as they are remembered are negotiated between reason and the I, with reason holding the position of authority.

3. Meaning in Beckett's The Unnamable

Nature can be articulated in discourse. Its meaning can be acknowledged through a process which involves a perception of similarity. Narrated forms resemble shapes and phenomena of the reality beyond discourse. The Unnamable is metaphorically ordered in that it re(as)sembles nature by articulating it as a voice. Through its metaphoric order the discourse of The Unnamable is brought closer to the reality of nature which is thus rendered meaningful.

The reality of the I is lived in its own present, is a-historical. The inner being is unique and irreproducible.

Through metaphors structured reality (of the text) is breached, its rational coherence cancelled even though only to be eventually re-produced in a new order. Metaphoric incursions in a realm beyond that of reason make literary discourse share in such space where the I exists, where it encounters the presence of nature. Meaning, as rendered in The Unnamable, is the result of a negotiation between the enacted (staged) "I" and the being I. If we locate being beyond reason, then we must associate it with the unconscious (which is the realm of non- meaning). Being becomes meaningful when it is rendered substance for textual organization in the realm of subjective consciousness. The discourse of The Unnamable is the point of convergence of the two realms, that of the unconscious and of reason — the very threshold, which both separates and unites them. It becomes meaningful when its connections with that space beyond reason, where from intuitive perceptions forming relationships of similarity are projected onto the text, thus discovering its metaphorical order, are apprehended. The I, inherent in the voice of The Unnamable, thus becomes meaningful, distanced from the realm of indifferentiation, aroused and articulated yet impotent and non-signifying. The voiced I substitutes nature by assimilating it without naming it, without establishing its identity and significance.

AS/SA nº 13, p.170

As a literary event The Unnamable renders meaning to the extent to which the "I" withdraws from reason. In denying identity to the "I" we cancel the structures of coherence of reality. We withdraw within the particularity of the event, which we can no longer relate to other events, upon which we can, therefore, no longer confer equivalence and generality. In doing so we also progressively withdraw from history. Pure, uncontaminated meaning exists where we may live the event itself, its core in its eternal presence, aloof from time and history.

This is not to say that meaning exists beyond reason. It rather exists between reason and unreason. Meaning, in order to be apprehended, requires articulation, but does not have to signify. It thus requires a subject in whose presence it is articulated, but not objective relationships and sign systems which would transform it into significance.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in his 'Three Dimensions of Hermeneutics' distinguishes between meaning and significance. According to Hirsch:

'We, not our texts, are the makers of the meanings we understand, a text being only an occasion for meaning, in itself an ambiguous form devoid of the consciousness where meaning abides.' (Hirsch: 246, 1971-2).

It is important to note in this essay's framework that meaning exists only in the presence of discourse, in the realm of subjective consciousness, where it is articulated.

Further on Hirsch states that:

'Meaning-for-an-interpreter can stay the same although the meaningfulness (significance) of that meaning can change with the changing contexts in which that meaning is applied (') Meaning is what an interpreter actualizes from a text; significance is that actual speaking as heard in a chosen and variable context of the interpreter's experiential world.' (Hirsch: 248, 1971-2).

In this essay's interpretation, applied to Beckett's trilogy of novels, Hirsch's distinction is pushed further. Thus, meaning is less than 'the determinate representation of a text for an interpreter'. It is the articulation of that which the text aims to represent, a reality shifted through articulation in the realm of subjective consciousness where it simply renders itself, in the presence of the novel's voice, as subject to be potentially turned into representation.

AS/SA nº 13, p.171

Significance, in the other extreme, is more than meaning applied to variable contexts. It no longer marks the presence of meaning, but its absence, its abstraction into the spectacle of signification (Guy DeBord) which needs references no longer. I believe that signification in The Unnamable is more akin to Baudrillard's speaking of a 'hysteria of signification'. Unlike Baudrillard, however, it seems that Beckett recognizes the presence of a voice other than the mystifying voice of sign systems speaking itself hysterically. The I behind Beckett's voice in The Unnamable belongs to the reality of the space made available through metaphoric disruption of metonymic order. Yet it articulates itself in the metaphoric order, which can be identified only in the presence of discourse (and not beyond it), in the presence of the novel's voice. What this voice speaks is metonymically ordered, from which order an "I" can be inferred. Meaning, non-inherent in the process of signification, makes itself present in discourse through the articulation of an I. Attempts to name it automatically transform it into significance. Thus meaning is always deferred when it is attempted to find it in the process of signification. Différance (Derrida) deconstructs metonymic order, positing that meaning cannot be found in the signification process, in the presence of discourse. Yet meaning can be found in the articulation of discourse, sharing with discourse that which can be discovered in its metaphoric order.

For meaning to become referable, in which reference culture is established, we must employ reason, to however little extent. Yet in order to acquire meaning, situated within culture as we are, we must negotiate it in the literary event.

4. Significance in Beckett's The Unnamable

I shall analyze now the events of signification and symbolization, taking place in the presence and under the reign of reason. The laws governing signification and symbolization belong to the realm of reason. Through them the I is given place in the world, their identity ("I") is established. It is through the laws of reason that humans organize their nature into forms, formal categories, thus establishing general truths. The shaping of nature into forms through reason appears to be deceptively under human control. It is the "I" of literary tradition and of reason which institutes formal structures. Although these are inherited, pre-given, external, the "I" itself is more than a construct. It is a double, a form in whose distorted embrace lives the I. The I is manipulated under contextual constraints to misrecognize itself as an "I".

The voice of The Unnamable speaks in this way:

'All these Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me. They have made me waste my time, suffer for nothing, speak of them, when, in order to stop speaking, I should have spoken of me and of me alone.' (Beckett: 19, 1958)

AS/SA nº 13, p.172

The passage illustrates Beckett's distinction between the "I" enacted in discourse (spoken of) and the being I. The 'Murphys, Molloys and Malones' are various incarnations of the I by which the I is staged in discourse. The voice of The Unnamable is aware that itself it is something else. Yet in order to discover what it is, it must seek reference, for only in reference identity is established. It must speak itself as another "I" (the "I" of The Unnamable), in order to find its Iness beyond discourse, 'in order to stop speaking'. The Murphys, Molloys and Malones are but signs imposing themselves with the authority of a tradition which legitimates their existence as literary characters. They are expressions, names by which the I is given identity and place in the ordered discourse as an "I". The voice in The Unnamable however cannot be deceived. By stating it ('All these ("I"'s) do not fool me') it recognizes an I able to meaningfully acknowledge itself yet only able to signify to the extent to which it becomes named in discourse.

The voice of The Unnamable negotiates its being between an I and an "I".

It is I to the extent of refusing to be named, while being present. In order to be acknowledged as an I it appeals to its incarnations from Molloy and Malone Dies with which it establishes relationships of similarity, yet it requires a leap of faith on the part of the reader to trust it is not an "I" while refusing to be anything else under a name. It is through this leap of faith that we recognize the meaning of I (as disembodied "I") in the metaphoric order of the text without attributing it significance, without integrating it metonymically (which would transform I into an "I").

Like Derrida's pharmakos, the I, in order to be led out of the city (discourse walled in by contexts) and distilled into purified I, must have already been the "I" within the city. The voice in The Unnamable doubles for and supplements the I. It adds an "I" to it in the attempt to make its presence full and complete yet it only always presents fully but its own yearning presence. To paraphrase Derrida, the voice in The Unnamable cannot be assigned a fixed spot; sly, slippery, masked, an intriguer, the voice is neither of I nor of "I", but rather a sort of joker, a floating signifier signifying nothing (by partaking in the discourse's metonymic order) but articulating itself (by partaking in the discourse's metaphoric order). Neither a representative nor an imitator it merely mimes itself thus putting into play the either/or between I and "I", endlessly re-producing difference.

The voice in The Unnamable is an "I", to the extent to which it pronounces itself in discourse, thus allowing itself contained within structures of contiguity, by which we recognize its presence, be that only as 'the unnamable'.

By lending itself to discourse yet refusing to be named the voice in Beckett's discourse partakes in a process which demands a finality which can never be reached since naming by what requires a reference which is denied would subvert the very dialectic of that process. Thus the purpose of that process (naming in discourse) is in fact already defeated which defeats dialectic in order to lay bare but its mechanisms. We are thus allowed a glimpse at the I, distorted in the process of signification into "I". The voice in The Unnamable is neither unnamed nor named, it is unnamable, its self (I) trapped in the either/or of 'I can't go on, I'll go on'.

AS/SA nº 13, p.173

The quote ending Beckett's trilogy spawns a set of binary opposites: impotence/potency to discourse. The "I" seems aware of distortedly embracing an I, while signifying nothing but its presence as a voice, in which the "I" is metonymically encoded, but which also metaphorically encodes the I. It can't go on attempting to recover the meaning of "I" in a process (of metonymic organization) which cannot reveal it but of which it is a part, therefore it must go on, submitting to the rules which guarantee its existence. The "I" either extinguishes itself in order to recover the I, but this would erase the very awareness of an I, by erasing the textual marks of its presence, or it keeps re-asserting its impotence in order to allow the potential metaphoric disruption of "I" and the sign system of which it is part so that the articulation of the I may be revealed, the meaningful I although not its self (the unnamable I, although not the unnamed inner self).

Signs (as would be the varieties of "I"'s) in themselves are empty, arbitrary forms yet they allude to a realm beyond reason whose substance they organize. Their existence is only justified as long as they relate content to expression. Only as long as they relate meaning to human culture thus establishing relationships of significance.

Why do signs and symbols exist? One might say this is because nature is anthropomorphically perceived as being worked into forms, thus being appropriated, made familiar.

The Unnamable reveals that signs and symbols are instruments which humans use to narrate nature, thus literally (re)-producing culture, through a process, which involves a perception of contiguity. An attribute or adjunct of nature is abstracted from it thus constituting a sign or a symbol. In the discourse of The Unnamable, inevitably sharing in the realm of reason ' as communication needs a shared set of conventions, a code — a metonymic order can be found. This reveals the discourse's referentiality, by which significance is conveyed.

Referral or signification means categorization, abstraction of facts of present into generalizations which are assumed universally valid, constitution of references and therefore of history. The truths signified are general and re-producible. The process of signification organizes reality into categories and types, establishes coherence and reinforces order. Significance is the expression of reason, in which realm it is grounded.

It seems that the discourse of The Unnamable negotiates the presence of meaning in daylight, into the human world. Signification, like meaning, as a cultural event, is also the result of a negotiation between the "I" of discourse and the being I. If we locate signs and symbols within the realm of reason then we must associate them with consciousness. The Unnamable is the point of convergence of two realms, that of consciousness and that beyond it, of the other, a threshold both separating and uniting them. The discourse of The Unnamable is able to signify to the extent to which the I surrenders to conventions of significance, thus limiting the "I"'s competence to uncover essential meaning by reference which always defers it.

AS/SA nº 13, p.174

The Unnamable signifies to the extent to which the "I" withdraws from nature. In doing so the "I" establishes structures of coherence of reality. Recognizing the "I" as subject of a narrated event we withdraw within the generality of the event, which we relate to other events thus conferring it equivalence and generality. In doing so we build an event's historicity. Significance is total where we can perceive an abstraction of the event itself, its absence. The event becomes the very structural sign relationships, its discourse, which coherently relate it to syntagm and history. Thus, The Unnamable seems overloaded with forms in its urge to signify, yet content, as reference, in the metonymic order of discourse, is absent. Content can only be revealed in the metaphoric order of discourse.

For the literary event, which The Unnamable is, to achieve its significance, indeed for it to become culturally meaningful, we must relate it to that substance beyond reason which is being rationally organized — to however little extent the latter's presence is manifested. The Unnamable negotiates itself as a signifying literary event in the presence of its voice.


I conclude by saying that in any literary event, as discourse, inheres both meaning, which is intuitively apprehended in the realm of the inner being but in its essence cannot be named, and significance, which attempts to foreground meaning into the presence of discourse by naming it, yet is only ever able to defer it.

A cultural event in the discourse of culture is the product of a negotiation between the realm of reason and that beyond it, the unconscious. The event's text is the interface which both unites and separates the two realms, the interface between nature (non-human) and culture (human) constituted through a process of substitutions (metaphors) and combinations (metonyms) in the realm of subjective consciousness, the realm where the I is articulated and uttered forth as "I". The I articulates meaning in the metaphoric order of discourse while the "I" establishes signification in its metonymic order. Metaphorically and metonymically ordered, discourse negotiates a voice ' it becomes uttered forth.

AS/SA nº 13, p.175

In Beckett's The Unnamable the "I" of writing attempts to import self (the I) into discourse, where it can only live distorted within a design imposed by a tradition legitimating logocentrism and reason. Thus, Beckett's technique is based on the idea of rendering the distorted I within unfamiliar narrative shapes as are those not fully coherent, impotent as to rendering meaning, always deferring it. Significance, attempting to explain nature refines it out of existence, but it is exactly nature that Beckett tries to uncover by attempting to negotiate the I out of the authoritarian contexts of tradition.

The voice in The Unnamable wills itself out of writing, in order to recover its self yet it is bound to remain in the realm of subjective consciousness as, in Gadamer's words, 'consciousness (') in potential possession of its history', that is, of the tradition by which it can present itself as voice in discourse.

In 'Language as Determination of the Hermeneutic Object' Gadamer suggests:

Writing involves self-alienation. Its overcoming, the reading of the text, is thus the highest task of understanding. [T]he process of understanding moves entirely in the sphere of a meaning mediated by the linguistic tradition. (Gadamer: 105, 1988).

In The Unnamable Beckett seeks to recover "mere textual"(italics mine) fragments left over from the life of the past' in order to expose that '[w]riting involves self-alienation' which cannot be overcome as meaning remains unnamable in linguistic discourse. Linguistic discourse can only signify, at the best articulate meaning.

The self remains a site of negotiations between nature and tradition by which it lends itself as subject of an event of culture in literary discourse.


Beckett, Samuel (1938). Murphy, Routledge, London.

____________ (1957). Malone Dies, Calder, London.

____________ (1958). The Unnamable, Calder, London.

____________ (1959). Molloy, Calder, London.

Derrida, Jacques (1982) Dissemination (Johnson, Barbara, trans.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1988) 'Language as Determination of the Hermeneutic Object' in Twentieth-Century Literary Theory (Newton, K. M., ed.), The Macmillan Press, London.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (1971-2) 'Three Dimensions of Hermeneutics' in New Literary History 3.

Kennedy, Andrew K. (1989) Samuel Beckett, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kristeva, Julia (1973) 'The System and the Speaking Subject' in Times Literary Supplement, 12 October.


E-mail to the editors
Pour écrire à la rédaction

© 2003, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée