A celebration, a lecture and a warning

At the celebration of 34 years, I heed the words of Shakespeare: I wasted time, and now doth time waste me (“King Richard II” by W. Shakespeare, Act V, Scene V49) or I can listen very carefully the words of  the psalmist: Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart. (Ps. 90:12) Let me put this words in the context of our times.

1. An ancient warning

In “Phaedrus”’s dialogue (sect. 274-275), Plato presents a story about the invention of letters by Thoth. This new skill is a gift, a “pharmakon” (in ancient Greek “pharmakon” have opposite meanings, depending of proportion: “medicament” but also “poison”). The external memory/writing

[…] it “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”[1]

The Plato’s warning was very clear: external memories will take control over man’s mnemonic powers; it will “help” man to become a slave. Undoubtedly, technology is the crisis of humanism; it is a sign of our alienation.

Humanity is nearing a “robotic moment”. We already filter companionship through machines; the next stage […] is to accept machines as companions[2].

2. Krapp as an example of the present human condition

“Krapp’s Last Tape” (1958) is, like “Waiting for Godot” (1949), a philosophical manifest, an excellent model of how postmodern humanity is trying to find itself in an age of alienation.

What seems to be very human (but also his weakness nature: Krapp’s paradoxical oscillation between slow motion and quick rhythm, his impatience when discover some forgotten definition) is covered by his appeal to external memory:

 [Reading from dictionary.] State – or condition – of being – or remaining – a widow – or widower. [Looks up. Puzzled.] Being – or remaining?… [Pause. He peers again at dictionary. Reading.] ‘Deep weeds of viduity.’ … Also of an animal, especially a bird… the vidua or weaver-bird…. Black plumage of male…. [He looks up. With relish.] The vidua-bird![3]

And this alienation is paradoxically exposed by inflation of communication, mediated by machines. Machines are prosthetic organs of memory.

Before Marshall McLuhan there was Krapp: a man whose life is mediated by his own sound recordings. A one-act, one-man dialogue with himself (or his past selves), this play is one of Beckett’s most comic. On his birthday (his last, as the play’s title ominously underlines), the aged Krapp sits with his tape recorder, dictionary, and bananas and listens to his own past as spoken by a younger voice, sometimes with delight, sometimes confusion, irritation, or despair.[4]

Who is Krapp? Krapp is a man at age sixty nine, remembering and evaluating his recordings at thirty nine. Can Krapp be a shadow of Beckett himself? It is very possible. But what does this name mean? “Krapp” is derived from the Dutch words “krappe” and “krappen” and means “to cut off”. If we mention in addition the expression “the last tape”, our mind will think this is the last tape because the death is imminent[5]. In this context, the idea of judgment is expressed by the main character himself:

The grain, now what I wonder do I mean by that, I mean . . . (hesitates) . . . I suppose I mean those things worth having when all the dust has–when all my dust has settled. I close my eyes and try and imagine them.[6]

At the end of his life, Krapp make his own evaluation about how the young Krapp thought and lived his life. The sixty-nine-years-old Krapp is encountering with himself through his tapes. It is a kind of self duplication, an effort to find him through many variations of pleasures and disgusts. We see a fragmented self, a reproduction of self which intersect with shadows of his unconscious. Our hero looks to regain a lost unity, a rehabilitation of the self.

He lives in a complete solitude:

The new light above my table is a great improvement. With all this darkness around me I feel less alone[7].

In the absence of a real interlocutor, Krapp seems to be victim of its own narcissism. He finds himself manifested in his own record voice. And his voice is contemplating about his self, about his selves. It is kind of mirror in a mirror, a self reference, a pluralistic identity, a cluster of selves.

Cartesian identity (body/mind) and even consciousness itself are disseminated into a plurality of personalities. A Romanian performer expressed this idea when addressing to his wife: “My darling, I fell in love with other harem” (Toma Caragiu). The idea of self fragmentation of human subject is the theme of other postmodern novels, “Steppe Wolf” by Herman Hesse being a good example of this.

Technological determinism affects human perception. Krapp projects meanings to machines: he talks to the machine, and, in some way, the machine answers him, rating stories to him. He become as much as possible one with the machine. Through his recordings, Krapp can access his purified memories, mixing memory and desire, trying to revive and smother the past play:

The death of Krapp’s mother and the love episode on the river are presented as if “out of time” and beyond interaction. Encounters are distilled into still points (“moments”); persons are transmuted into presences. The female would-be characters pass through the potential events recorded on the tape as images, “figures,” and eyes.[8]

We live in a “device paradigm”[9], a paradigm which accelerates and enhances social and cultural processes. Like Krapp, we are authors-performers-selectors. We can discover every day, especially on social networks like “Facebook”, a terrifying fear of loneliness, isolation and misunderstanding in an age of communication and socialization; whose antidote, some of us think, is socializing with anyone, anyhow and at any time. But others are not machines, easy to manipulate.

Krapp, in replaying his tape, is both producing his authentic portrait, the Artist as a Young Man, and acting like the common man of the technological age with his pushbutton distraction. […] Yet the tapes are disposable; Krapp as typical do-it-yourself home entertainer holds them cheap, at one point violently throwing all but one tape on the floor to join the accumulated debris of discarded bottles and banana skins. In short, Krapp’s monopoly over the tapes has the symptoms of monomania: the search for essential moments of living from the past — “separating the grain from the husks” — eliminates everything that does not minister to the needs of the self’s present moment. [10]

3. Final remarks or about waiting for abandonment hope

“A late evening in the future”[11]. Krapp’s story is our story, Krapp’s condition is our condition! It is about a story of a man who has been exhausted by his own history, trapped in his body, facing an uncertain future. When regrets for past are too strong, the futures becomes problematic.

Mimesis regrets, epidemic fears (and maybe real failures) are required to be compensating with the gratuity of virtual Cupid or virtual happiness owners. In this respect, virtual communication is endowed with messianic meanings, illusory and harmful. Contemporary actors of virtual communication or gadget’s slaves are like poor Krapp but less than that; their disappointments are either reinvested society with new expectations, but even more frustrating in the end, or they assume the nihilistic appetence. In Krapps words:

Now the day is over, / Night is drawing nigh-igh, / Shadows — of the evening / Steal across the sky.[12]

In “Krapp’s Last Tape” Beckett shows compassion for the miseries of suffering mankind but also abandonment of the hopes of history. Nostalgic memories, impatience and obvious lack of sympathy, multiple personality, narcissism and depression, all of these belongs not only Beckett’s character (Krapp), but also every one of us, individuals who live in an age of oscillation, uncertainty and unfulfilled goals. Like Krapp, who is “present at his own absence”, we are prisoners of our memories, we reduce our life to regrets. When God dies (Fr. Nietzsche), the man dies (as M. Foucault said once: “we are abandoned on the sand of the absurd”). Or, in Becket’s language, when God(ot) is not coming, poor Knapp is listening the last tape. As Pink Floyd said in “The Wall” album, our present condition is not to find answers, but to ask questions:

Is there anybody out there?

Is there anybody in there?

[1] Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Boston: Forgotten Books & Indy Publish, 2008. 69.

[2] Behr, Rafael. “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle”. The Observer, 30 January 2011, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/30/alone-together-sherry-turkle-review?INTCMP=SRCH>.

[3] Beckett, Samuel. “Krapp’s Last Tape”, Elements of Literature. Scholes, Robert, Comley, Nancy R., Klaus, Carl H., Staines, David (Editors). 4th Canadian Edition. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2009. 1145.

[4] Conley, Tim. Ruch, Allen B. “Beckett – Works: Long Dramas for the Stage”. TheModernWorld.Com, 4 February 2004. <http://www.themodernword.com/beckett/beckett_works_drama.html>.

[5] Campbell, Julie. “The Semantic Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape”. Samuel Beckett: Crossroads and Borderlines,  Ed. Buning, Marius, Engelberts, Matthijs, and Houppermans, Sjef (Eds.) Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi B.V.Editions, 1997. 63.

[6] Beckett, Samuel. op. cit.. 1143.

[7] Ibid. 1143.

[8] Kennedy, Andrew. “Krapp’s Dialogue of Selves.” Beckett at 80/Beckett in Context. Ed. Enoch Brater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. 105.

[9] Borgmann, Albert. Technology and the character of contemporary life: a philosophical inquiry, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984. 39-48.

[10] Kennedy, Andrew. Op. cit..104.

[11] Beckett, Samuel. op. cit.. 1142.

[12] ibid. 1147.

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