Proprioceptive Care in Samuel Beckett’s Nacht und Träume

Swati Joshi explores the concepts of self-care and proprioceptive care via Beckett’s last TV play, a wordless piece featuring only a dreaming man and his dreamed self.

When one thinks of hands, one visualises hands that cook food, sew sweaters, write letters, clear cluttered spaces, build homes, bathe loved ones, bandage wounds, caress cheeks – ever engaged in caring activities. The Roman Goddess of Care, Cura, made the hands of Homo sapiens as instruments to render care for each other.

This sentiment of mutual care and interdependence resonates in the work of Joan Tronto who, in Who Cares? (Tronto 2015), propounds the four phases of care, namely: 1) Caring about; 2) Caring for; 3) Caregiving; and 4) Care-receiving. She describes the first phase as one wherein the caregiver is required to identify the ‘caring needs’ of others (Tronto 2015, 5). The second phase is solely about being responsible and accountable as a caregiver for care-recipients. In the third phase one must “learn to cope with caring in less-than-ideal circumstances”. And while reflecting on the last phase of care, Tronto explains that caregiving and care-receiving are mutual and ongoing processes. Care is a repetitive enterprise (Tronto 2015, 6).

The one who cares for others may not necessarily receive care from their care-recipient/s. These caregivers might need to be dependent on other people or themselves for their own care. The idea of ‘self-care’, since the 1970s, is driven by neoliberal ideology as explained by Chatzidakis et al. (2020), wherein competing with fellow care-recipients for limited resources of care is more important than cooperating with each other. This neoliberal aspect of self-care is incongruous with Tronto’s emphasis on interdependence as a form of care. This discussion necessitates the analysis of the self as divided into the one that demands care (care-recipient) and the other that furnishes care (caregiver), which can be expounded via discussing Beckett’s play Nacht und Träume (Beckett 1986). Regardless of the form of care, hands play a pivotal role in its rendering or exchange: the hands administer medications, offer food, change sheets, pat backs, etc.; a simple act like holding the hands of the care-recipient can also comfort them. Nacht und Träume presents to viewers this very idea of proprioceptive care.

A definition of ‘proprioceptive care’

Proske and Gandevia chart the historical evolution of the word proprioception, describing it as the sixth sense neglected by Aristotle, different from that of touch (Gandevia and Proske 2012). However, Wilkes comes to rescue Aristotle: “…for Aristotle sensory capacities and capacities to move were inseparable, neither fully intelligible without the other (except for some organisms which, he thought, might have just the sense of touch)” (Wilkes 1992, 117). Wilkes combines the sensory and locomotor abilities of organisms under the Aristotelian rubric of psūche, the Greek for word for psyche. Hence, the question for us to confront is: can corporeal touch care for psychological and emotional wounds? This is where the concept of proprioceptive care becomes pivotal.

The etymological origin of the word sheds more clarity on the concept. “The original meaning of proprioception stems from the Latin propius meaning ‘one’s own’, or ‘individual’ and capio meaning ‘to grasp’” (Asada 2018, 168). Teri A. Todd discusses the history of the concept of proprioception via Scaliger’s delineation of the “sense of joint position and movement” in 1557, Charles Bell’s explanation in 1862 of “the relationship between the brain and muscles”, and finally the coinage of the term, proprioception, in 1906 by Charles Scott Sherrington (Todd 2011, 2051). In The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, Sherrington defines the proprioceptive field thus:

“The receptors which lie in the depth of the organism are adapted for excitation consonantly with changes going on in the organism itself, particularly in its muscles and their accessory organs (tendons, joints, blood-vessels, etc.). Since in this field the stimuli to the receptors are given by the organism itself, their field may be called the proprio-ceptive field” (Todd 2011, 131).

Over the years, the definition of proprioception has modified and become capacious enough to accommodate the broad understanding of “the sense of where one is in space” (Sayer and Suetterlin 2014, 313).

The nuanced shades of meaning of ‘proprioception’ contribute as a catalyst, necessitating the alchemy of what I call ‘proprioceptive care’. In the simplest terms, proprioceptive care encompasses the context of self-care, when the caregiver and the care-recipient are the same person and they can record the impact of the experience of proprioceptive movement while being conscious about its function of self-care.

Nacht und Träume as an exploration of proprioceptive care

Albrecht Dürer, Study of Praying Hands, 1508 (public domain)

Samuel Beckett’s play Nacht und Träume presents to viewers this aspect of proprioceptive care (Beckett 1986). Beckett’s play, though published in the late twentieth century, holds much relevance with the present neoliberal times that emphasise self-reliance as self-care.

The English translation of the German title is Night and Dreams. Nacht und Träume is the name of a nineteenth-century lied by Franz Schubert that is played at the very beginning of the play, while an old man, sitting alone at a table in the evening, dreams of his own hand, or possibly some caregiver’s, resting on his hand, comforting him. The play doesn’t divulge many details regarding the location, or the reasons for the old man’s dream, but one implied reason is the absence of other caregivers who could comfort him, and this raises questions regarding the man’s own proprioceptive capabilities. Why does he need to dream about his own hands comforting him? Why doesn’t he place his hand on his head? With such a lack of information, the only thing that is conspicuous is the old man’s attempt at dreaming of self-proprioceptive-care.

Michel Foucault’s understanding of self-care is germane to the present train of thought. In The Hermeneutics of the Subject he expounds the notion of self-care, highlighting the significance of the relation of the self with the self, for caregiving is a “relationship of sensations” (Foucault 2005, 86). He explicates that care is a lifelong practice wherein the individual is obligated to care for the self to sustain their self. This clearly means that one need not depend solely on others for the care of the self. In the absence of caregivers, one must be responsible for one’s own care. While elaborating the concept of self-care, Foucault introduces the phrase therapeuein heauton, which could mean “to give medical care to oneself, to be one’s own servant, and to devote oneself to oneself” (Foucault 2005, 98). The Foucauldian interpretation of self-care leads to discussion of the politics of care wherein the care-recipient feels they are disciplined and supervised by their caregiver, who enjoys a superior position in the care-relationship. These lines get blurred in self-care since the self is the caregiver and the care-recipient (Ward 2015, 47). In Beckett’s play, the solitary old man seems obliged to dream of providing proprioceptive care to himself and that demonstrates his commitment and affection for himself. Moreover, apart from resting his hand on his head in the dream, the old man also dreams of his hand bringing a cup to his lips and then wiping his brow.

Ritualistic hand movements as acts of care

In his seminal article on Beckett’s play, Herren says: “The appeal to ritual and the desire for the Mother represent dual avenues toward (re)unification for Beckett’s isolated protagonist” (Herren 2000, 183). Herren takes inspiration from Knowlson’s analysis of the role of hands in the play – “The ‘helping hand’ is an image of consolation. Hands had always fascinated Beckett in painting” – and particularly Knowlson’s comment regarding the ritualistic movements of the hand: “The play could have been sentimental, even maudlin. The mysterious quality of the action, the beauty of the singing of Schubert’s Lied and the specificity of the repeated, almost ritualistic patterns avoid this” (Knowlson 2014, Ch. 25). The play’s religious allusions are evident but there has been no discussion regarding the ritualistic movements of hands as the repetitive movements of proprioceptive care. Interestingly, discussion of comfort and healing with reference to this play employs a religious lens. Herren highlights that “…the ‘laying on of hands’ suggests priestly administration of comfort and healing” (Herren 2000, 184). The play showcases the desire for care, maybe not explicitly the care of the mother, even if it is often associated with Veronica who cared for Jesus Christ by giving him a cloth to wipe his brow as he carried the cross to Golgotha.

Nevertheless, the discussion of care and healing cannot be circumscribed only to the religious context: I want to consider Alfred Behrens and Michael Kuball’s offer to Beckett to adapt his writing for a film exploring the concept of proprioceptive care in the clinical context. Knowlson’s biography of Beckett sheds light on this incident: “In April 1982, Beckett wrote to Dr Müller-Freienfels at the SDR television studio in Stuttgart that Alfred Behrens and Michael Kuball wanted to make a film of his novel, Murphy. Müller-Freienfels was unenthusiastic about this idea, but repeated his hope that Beckett might soon write something else new for them” (Knowlson 2014, Ch. 25). Though Nacht und Träume has no explicit connection with Murphy (Beckett 1938), and Beckett never made any comment about the relation between Murphy and Nacht und Träume, its impact is evident.

Murphy’s eponymous protagonist works as a nurse at Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, wherein the patients are administered medicines and food for cure and sustenance. But they seem to be left to their own devices to design modes of self-care. However, when Murphy gets emotionally attached to one of his patients, he holds the patient’s face in his hands, looking for recognition of the care that he has provided. This demonstrates the ability of the clinical caregiver to provide proprioceptive care wherein the care-recipient is conscious of the intentions and aims of the movement of their body. Murphy’s holding of his patient’s face, in my opinion, seems to have translated to an even more isolated clinical setting, more like the one in Malone Dies (Beckett 1951), in Nacht und Träume, wherein the patient is expected to care for himself. It seems the absence of caregiver predominant in Murphy influenced the making of Nacht und Träume. Moreover, Beckett’s wife, Suzanne, was unwell at the time of writing and Beckett had decided to stay by her side instead of going to his French country retreat. This shows Beckett’s keen understanding regarding the role of caregiver in the patient’s life.

Tracing back into the discussion of ritualistic movements of hands that symbolise aspects of repetition and interdependence in care, I would like to initiate a conversation regarding the emergence of proprioceptive care amidst the imposition of self-care in clinical and non-clinical settings. Beckett’s play enacts the politics of proprioceptive care wherein the caregiver and the care-recipient are the same and therefore, the act of caring is dependent on how far an individual is motivated to care for their self.


About the author

Swati Joshi is pursuing her doctoral studies in the medical humanities at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar. Her research has been published in Synapsis: A Health Humanities Journal, Sanglap, Victoriographies and Medical Humanities | BMJ.



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