Reflecting on La Bête

My son just finished starring in La Bête here at AU.  He was terrific; the whole cast was great.  –The play revels in language and is a sustained meditation on language.  The two central characters, Valere and Elomire, represent two radically different ways of using and inhabiting language.  Elomire is a kind of Karl Kraus–without the humor:  he is deeply concerned for “moral discourse”, for language properly used.  Valere uses langauge–in a way that is beyond, or at least careless of, usage and abusage.  At the heart of the play is this contrast and the contrast between the two men.

It is easy, I think, to see the play as championing Elomire’s side, but that would be a mistake.  Part of the reason the mistake is easy is that Valere is a reductio (if I may put it this way) on himself.  He shows himself ridiculous in all that he says.  Elomire is no reductio on himself.  Even more, Elomire is championed by a young woman in the play, Dorine.  She is a teenager who has a disturbed relationship with language.  During the play, she refuses to speak except in monosyllabic words rhyming with “do”.  But at one crucial moment, when Elomire is pleading unsuccessfully for understanding from his acting troup, she is the only one who seems to understand.  She marks her understanding with a violation of her own rule.  When Elomire asks, in effect, “Does anyone understand?”, Dorine says, “I do.” (The constative/performative ambiguity in this line is worth reflection.)  –Her willingness to take his side, his relative lack of ridiculousness compared to Valere, these can together make it seem that Elomire is in the right.  But after wondering about that for a while, I realized that the young woman is the reductio of Elomire’s view.  To see how, consider her in relation to Cratylus, the titular character in one of Plato’s dialogues.  The tradition has it that Cratylus was convinced by Heraclitus, but that Cratylus thought Heraclitus had not sufficiently radicalized his own doctrine.  So Cratylus emended “We cannot step into the same river twice” to “We cannot step into the same river once”.  Eventually, his embrace of Heraclitean principles led Cratylus away from words altogether; he spends his last years foregoing speech and simply wiggling a finger (fluxily).  While Elomire is no Heraclitean, he does so raise the stakes in speaking and writing that it can come to seem impossible properly to use language.  And I think Dorine is the victim of his view.  Her desire to speak in a properly moral discourse has robbed her of words.

Valere inhabits a language without rules.  All that matters is what he can press it into doing for him.   He rules language. (And he is largely the sort of clueless despot you would expect.)  Elomire inhabits a language with more rules than Calvin’s Geneva.  Doing anything in it requires a sensitivity and skill that seem to exceed human capacities.  It strikes me that the beast of the title is not so much Valere, although he is referred to in that way by Elomire; no, the beast is language itself, wild and tame, uncontrollable and compelling, infinitely jesting and deadly serious.

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