Tuesday, April 28, 2009

empty signifiers

Nothing to be done.

-- Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Once again the Irish tragicomedy is on the stage in New York, with two of the age’s greatest clowns, Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane, in the leads. You might think Vivian Mercer was dissing when he called the work “a play in which nothing happens, twice” (Irish Times, Feb. 18, 1956). But Mercer was an admirer.

“Nothing” is an oppressed word, always discounted in favor of “Something.” “It’s nothing,” we say, “nothing at all,” when we don’t want a thing noticed. What did you mean by that? says the out-of-sorts companion or too-trenchant therapist. Nothing, I say, nothing at all. But of course I’m not going to get away with that. It’s out. Someone witnessed it. It’s something now, and I’ll have to figure out what it is.

In therapy, art and prayer, we learn about retrospective causation. The present won’t let the past alone. Memory is a tagger, marking the long wall of experience so that now you’ll know your way back. Every time you return to the site you leave a new graffito. “I was here, today, when . . .” And so the meaning of the event, its relevance and significance, accumulate like a scholar’s apparatus.

When I threw the pebble, or knocked over the glass of wine, or called the lady by another’s name, I didn’t mean anything. There was nothing in my mind. My accident was, as the semiologists say, an empty sign. The substance is yet to come. As the pebble skips, as the wine spreads on the tablecloth, as the puzzled companion returns my gaze, signification lies waiting in the future. Signifiers don’t remain empty. Meaning aggregates like coral on a wreck. Those are pearls that were his eyes. And so, eventually, there are no accidents. Everything happens for a reason, if we can wait long enough.

Mercer was Beckett’s advocate: “He has achieved a theoretical impossibility.” This empty signifier, this failure to move, this sequence of symptoms, this Nothing was To Be Done. And it was done. It takes an hour to do this Nothing. This Nothing, like Pozzo, passes the time. And then there is a second act, and Nothing is Done a second time. Tell me about the play, someone asks you later; what happened in the play? Nothing happened, you say. They did Nothing. It took about an hour. Then they did it again. It held the stage. It passed the time.

Now here’s the scandal, in art and in real life. Our act, this shabby clown-show of one ancient trick after another, still awaits its meaning, as Didi and Gogo wait for Godot. It is not nihilism to say this, for there is meaning, and we shall all be changed; but we must wait for it. The change is a kind of thing that occupies the future. It exists as long as we have a future to preserve it in. We must hold the stage, we must pass the time, waiting. We think the real show – at last! – would begin if Godot would only keep his promise, but if he did, the show would be over. In his mercy, he continues to betray us.

Art and prayer, therapy and love, are ways of waiting: all are faulted if the payoff comes too soon. The incompetent lover, the duplicitous petitioner, the meretricious artist, the unfaithful counselor, try to grab their pleasures now. They have not learned to defer. We always want to have done Something, but there is always something better to be had, if we can keep Something in the future, Nothing before us. It’s what we call subtext, or mystery, or desire, or spirit. Not mine but thy will be done.

Some of the deepest gratitude comes from clients and families whom I am sure that I have failed. Why are they thanking me? I say; I did nothing for them. From them I learn how my impatience skews me. I know I cannot save or rescue and yet, after years of reflection and case study I still want to fix, to alter, to leave a mark, and when I can’t I’m anxious. I can’t outgrow it. It’s mortal. I can only name it. And stand in the face of it.

It’s not supposed to be about me. My anxiety is not the point: I am not there to satisfy it. Perhaps I am best when most unhappy. But what then would be my happiness?

When I can’t do anything, there’s nothing to be done. I need to get busy.

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1 comment:

Alan Woods said...

nicely done. As is the case with Beckett, your presence is all -- you're there, you listen, you hear. I suspect what you say is ultimately not all that important, but the act of hearing, of being present, of testifying that those to whom you minister have value. Thanks.