Samuel Beckett Stares at a Wall

[Meditation] is a faith, with the sufficiency of faith, intended by necessity to remain empty but which necessarily evades this void by its repopulation with objects and foreign goals provided by experience, culture, history, language, etc. Through its style of communication and “knowing” it is a rumor—the [Asian] rumor—which is transmitted by hearsay, imitation, specularity and repetition.1

That passage came to mind while reading texts and watching video on the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website.2 Laruelle is talking about philosophy, but the statement works equally well for meditation (and its varieties: contemplation, mindfulness, centering prayer, even yoga, tai chi, and so on). Much of what I read and heard about contemplation on the Center’s website struck me as reasonable enough. A typical example:

Contemplative Practices cultivate a critical, first-person focus, sometimes with direct experience as the object, while at other times concentrating on complex ideas or situations. Incorporated into daily life, they act as a reminder to connect to what we find most meaningful.

That’s reasonable—as an opening. An awful lot of questions would have to be asked about the statement, though. What, for instance, is this “first-person focus” of direct experience? What, for that matter, is “direct experience”? Anyone who has been reading this blog knows how attuned some of us are to the machinations of unacknowledged ideology. For instance, concerning this overlap between first-person accounts and experience, a reader recently wrote to me:

[T]here is a built in petitio principii that makes the viewpoint unfalsifiable. The ideology includes a meta-message regarding the autonomy of (meditative) experience as a veridical source of knowledge. This seems to be what [B. Alan] Wallace is up to with his emphasis on “first-person” experience, arguing from an assumption that such experience is autonomous and not already formed by ideology.

I agree with that assessment. It succinctly identifies the big question for meditation: is it a vessel for ideology or a science of ideology?3 Does the practice, in fact, produce new knowledge, about, say, subjective experience or the intransitive world, or does it merely reinforce the views provided by doctrine? I’m still holding out for the former (barely). So, I’d want to ask the people at the Center why, if they believe that meditation-contemplation holds such natural human promise (as the director says, in effect, on a video), do they incessantly populate it “with objects and foreign goals provided by experience, culture, history, language, etc.”? Why not let the practice do its work, unencumbered by over-determining doctrine? I am not going to offer a critique of the Center’s site here. I am more interested in the wide-spread x-buddhist phenomenon of what Laruelle calls here “re-population.”

“Re-population” is, of course, a somewhat polemical term. It assumes that the objects and goals that constitute the re-population are, in fact, “foreign,” or merely inserted. Such outcomes and goals, then, have the status not of knowledge but of “a rumor.” Re-population is what occurs when a form of thought or practice which is “intended by necessity to remain empty…necessarily evades this void.” That is the question: is meditation-contemplation a practice that to do its work (whatever that may be) must remain empty of, for instance, ideas about the practice? However you might answer that question, you would be hard pressed to find an account of meditation-contemplation that differs from other forms of faith. And, like all self-sufficient faiths, x-buddhist meditation, as it is invariably presented in the West “is transmitted by hearsay, imitation, specularity and repetition.” But is that, as Laruelle insists is the case for philosophy, necessarily so?

When I read sites like the  Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website, I can’t help but wonder if meditation has become irretrievably bound up in the peculiarly North American search for the Great Cure. I have come to expect that kind of utopian rhetoric from the x-buddhist industry, but the Center is, as their mission statement says, “working to transform higher education with contemplative practices and perspectives” (emphasis added). Convincing leaders of higher education will take a great deal of critical sophistication. As far as I can see, no such critical sophistication is on the x-buddhist horizon. So, I have to wonder whether x-buddhism is doomed to go the way of psychoanalysis—from Freud to Dr. Phil.

X-buddhism itself, of course, offers the Great Cure; so, it’s at the very root of the sprawling tree of tradition. The traditional Cure comes in numerous forms: nirvana, cessation of suffering, uprooting of craving, return to pristine consciousness, equanimity, being just this moment, and on and on. Many varieties of the Cure are born of the contact between x-buddhism and its new-found cultural environment. Medieval Japanese samurai culture, for example, required a particular inflection of “no-self” to accommodate its martial needs. And Buddhism was happy to concoct a fitting Cure–in the form of Zen. Can you imagine an American Buddhism that did not fulfill our demands for stress relief, better concentration, lower blood pressure, and all-around general giddy goodness? Part of the success that x-buddhism is enjoying in the West has much to do with its easy grafting onto our insatiable pursuit of health and happiness. X-buddhism seems to have a deeply-rooted need to please.

Non-buddhism aims to de-populate x-buddhist terms of their dharmic static. It aims to transmute the consummate, closed doctrine into conceptual chora, “the chaos of the unorganized transcendental material.”4 Dharmic static constitutes the subjugating vibrato provided by other people’s experience, by the needs of culture, the formations of history, and the demands of language. Again: is that necessarily so?

Neurosurgeon, novelist, poet, activist, and friend of Samuel Beckett, Lawrence Shainberg, wrote a prize-winning account of Samuel Beckett’s quasi-encounter with Zen for The Paris Review.5 The following excerpt in particular offers rich raw material for a re-conceptualization of meditation. I present it here without commentary. If you’d like to write a commentary on the piece in relation to speculative non-buddhism, let me know. I may do so myself in a future post.

As it happened, the puppeteer’s wife was a Buddhist, a follower of the path to which Beckett himself paid homage in his early book on Proust when he wrote, “the wisdom of all the sages, from Brahma to Leopardi … consists not in the satisfaction but the ablation of desire.” As a devotee and a Beckett admirer, this woman was understandably anxious to confirm what she, like many people, took to be his sympathies with her religion. In fact, not a few critical opinions had been mustered over the years concerning his debt to Buddhism, Taoism, Zen and the Noh theatre, all of it received — as it was now received from the puppeteer’s wife — with curiosity and appreciation and absolute denial by the man it presumed to explain. “I know nothing about Buddhism,” he said. “If it’s present in the play, it is unbeknownst to me.” Once this had been asserted, however, there remained the possibility of unconscious predilection, innate Buddhism, so to speak. So the woman had another question which had stirred in her mind, she said, since the first time she’d seen the play. “When all is said and done, isn’t this man, having given up hope, finally liberated?” Beckett looked at her with a pained expression. He’d had his share of drink that night, but not enough to make him forget his vision or push him beyond his profound distaste for hurting anyone’s feelings. “Oh, no,” he said quietly. “He’s finished.”

I don’t want to dwell on it, but I had a personal stake in this exchange. For years I’d been studying Zen and its particular form of sitting meditation, and I’d always been struck by the parallels between its practice and Beckett’s work. In fact to me, as to the woman who questioned him that evening, it seemed quite impossible that he didn’t have some explicit knowledge, perhaps even direct experience, of Zen, and I had asked him about it that very first night at his hotel. He answered me as he answered her: he knew nothing of Zen at all. Of course, he said, he’d heard Zen stories and loved them for their “concreteness,” but other than that he was ignorant on the subject. Ignorant, but not uninterested. “What do you do in such places?” he asked. I told him that mostly we looked at the wall. “Oh,” he said, “you don’t have to know anything about Zen to do that. I’ve been doing it for fifty years.” (When Hamm asks Clov what he does in his kitchen, Clov replies: “I look at the wall.” “The wall!” snaps Hamm. “And what do you see on your wall? … naked bodies?” Replies Clov, “I see my light dying.”) For all his experience with wall-gazing, however, Beckett found it extraordinary that people would seek it out of their own free will. Why, he asked, did people do it? Were they seeking tranquility? Solutions? And finally, as with neurosurgery: “Does it hurt?” I answered with growing discomfort. Even though I remained convinced that the concerns of his work were identical with those of Zen, there was something embarrassing about discussing it with him, bringing self-consciousness to bear, I mean, where its absence was the point. This is not the place for a discussion of Zen but since it deals, as Beckett does, with the separation of subject and object (“No direct contact is possible between subject and object,” he wrote in his book on Proust, “because they are automatically separated by the subject’s consciousness of perception. . .”), the problems of Self, of Being and Non-being, of consciousness and perception, all the means by which one is distanced or removed from the present tense, it finds in Beckett’s work a mirror as perfect as any in its own sphere of literature or scripture.

This in itself is no great revelation. It’s not terribly difficult to find Zen in almost any great work of art. The particular problem, however, and what made my questions seem — to me at least — especially absurd, is that such points — like many where Beckett is concerned — lose more than they gain in the course of articulation. To point out the Zen in Beckett is to make him seem didactic or, even worse, therapeutic, and nothing could betray his vision more. For that matter, the converse is also true. Remarking the Beckett in Zen betrays Zen to the same extent and for the same reasons. It is there that their true commonality lies, their mutual devotion to the immediate and the concrete, the Truth which becomes less True if made an object of description, the Being which form excludes. As Beckett once put it in responding to one of the endless interpretations his work has inspired, “My work is a matter of fundamental sounds. Hamm as stated, Clov as stated … That’s all I can manage, more than I could. If people get headaches among the overtones, they’ll have to furnish their own aspirin.”

So I did finally give up the questions, and though he always asked me about Zen when we met —”Are you still looking at the wall?” — I don’t think he held it against me. His last word on the matter came by mail, and maybe it was the best. In a fit of despair I had written him once about what seemed to me an absolute, insoluble conflict between meditation and writing. “What is it about looking at the wall that makes the writing seem obsolete?” Two weeks later, when I’d almost forgotten my question, I received this reply, which I quote in its entirety:

Dear Larry,

When I start looking at walls, I begin to see the writing. From which even my own is a relief.

As ever,


1 François Laruelle. Dictionary of Non-Philosophy. Trans. Taylor Adkins. Paris: Editions Kime, 1998, 57-58.

2 Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website

3 This issue has been addressed in numerous posts and comments on this blog. See, for instance, the earliest instance, “Raw Remarks on Meditation, Ideology, and Nihilism,” and the latest, “The Epistemic Meditator.”

4 Laruelle, in Katerina Kolozova. “Theories of the Immanent Rebellion: Non-Marxism and Non-Christianity.” Laruelle and Non-Philosophy. Eds. John Mullarkey and Anthony Paul Smith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. 214.

5 Lawrence Shainberg, “Exorcising Beckett.” The Paris Review, no. 104, fall 1987.

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