illustrated portrait of Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

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Francis Doherty (essay date autumn 1991)

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SOURCE: Doherty, Francis. “Paf, Hop, Bing and Ping.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 17 (autumn 1991): 23-41.

[In the following essay, Doherty provides a stylistic examination of Ping and traces its revisions to gather further insight into the story.]

Beckett's short prose work, Ping, of 1967 is a complex text which presents the reader with many difficulties. In the first place, the sentences which the reader has to confront are daunting in their tonelessness, their fragmentariness and their apparent randomness. Repetition of over-repeated collocations seems to have the effect of neutral counters endlessly shifted in patterns, without the usual comforting illusion of a voice apparently speaking through language and of some kind of a story being told. We seem to have come into a world of language stripped of significance with a slab of text which refuses the conditions of narrative. Readers have grown used over time to a narrative voice which is their link to a shared humanity, and any story which is read is one which takes place in time, and some kind of teleology will take the reader to an “end”, and, equally, the story will engage with some of the small range of human emotions and with a relatively small number of situations and relationships which might be expected to engage a reader's attention. But Beckett's text, at first encounter, seems to be devoid of a human voice and of any human story, to be instead an aleatory dealing out of chance-delivered collocations.

However, many readers from David Lodge in 1967 on, have felt that, after reading the piece with care, some meaning and some human concerns not only emerge, but, paradoxically, are very powerfully communicated, albeit through what seems to be an inhuman and mechanically articulated text. The early conclusion that this was a literary text much like other literary texts, being “like any literary artefact, a marriage of form and meaning”, and that, after close reading, “the rewards are surprisingly great” might still seem worth confronting and questioning.1

Beckett's short work at first reading seems to discard so much that is necessary for a fiction; it seems to abandon narrator, jettison plot, erase human emotions, limit human actions to their possibly barest minimum, reduce the multiplicity of the created universe to a body in a box in a larger box of a room. All movement (nearly) gone; all colour (nearly) gone; all events (nearly) gone, and nothing left of interest for a reader.

But this is not the outcome of immersing oneself in the repetition of those staccato fragments enclosed between full stops. There is, indeed, something going on within the text which raises important questions about Beckettian narrative and his creative enterprise in short prose works.

In their early bibliographical study of Beckett, Raymond Federman and John Fletcher have an “Appendix II” which gives the texts of Bing and Ping, preceded by the ten variant stages of the French text.2 It may be possible to arrive at some clearer understanding of this puzzling text by making use of those early drafts. However, any attempt to come to a clearer understanding by reading through those successive versions carries its own problems when we can only guess at the changing conceptions of the author, and we have to acknowledge too that a critic cannot simply follow ideas or images from beginning to end if a writer's inner conceptions change en route, though using apparently the same words or formulations. Nonetheless, reading the drafts does yield something, however frailly hesitant the reader might feel about claiming to upgrade Lodge...

(This entire section contains 7608 words.)

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into “Some Ping More Understood”.

As the text is problematical in its relation to common expectations of narrative, I should like to begin with the obvious questions about the “Ping” element and with the analogous words which are used in both the final French Text, Bing, and the drafts which precede it. It is important to be as precise as I can about this, as I believe a good deal depends on the use of this word (and its predecessors and counterparts) in our understanding of what Beckett was concerned to express about the creative act and the meaning of literary texts. A careful reading of the drafts of the short text is helpful and instructive, but especially so when we add to our reading a knowledge of Beckett's themes and artistic concerns, and this should help towards some initial understanding of what this kind of emptied, staccato prose might be accomplishing.

The text is plainly a reductionist text, and is something which at first sight seems to be inhuman and devoid of readerly interest, claiming a territory of pure text for its operation. Still, I would claim, it possesses all the elements of fiction, even all elements of discourse, but stamped down to the smallest compass which the artistic abilities can manage for them (‘All I could manage and more than I could’). The questions about who writes and what is written and the ends for which writing exists are all raised by this text. In it we are shown at work a fastidiousness of manner which seems to forbid not only what must have been deemed an excess, but demonstrates a sensibility which jettisons what would previously in classical fiction have been taken as minimal requirements for both creating and being created. To a great extent, this is what Beckett was making his own especial artistic task, a special kind of minimalist writing which, while aiming at existing purely as a text, a construct, nonetheless could never escape the tragedy of the human plight, could never escape from the long tradition that human suffering has its central significance for the artist.

To begin with a simple observation: we have here an example of the Beckettian parody of Cartesian reductionism. We have a situation where, rather than show an attempt being made to build up the whole system of thought and reality from an irreducible and ultimately self-evident “truth”, “je pense donc je suis”, we see attempt after attempt in later Beckettian prose to find ways of reducing all systems of thought and reality to an irreducible minimum, getting as close to absolute zero as can be contrived, getting as near silence as possible and wishing to stay there or end there—and never again to build up a system. For at least forty years Beckett worked his themes of impotence and ignorance, and pursued his art which turned its back on reality, “the plane of the feasible”, “weary of puny exploits, weary of being able, of doing, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road”, preferring the paradoxical state of

The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, together with the obligation to express.3

The problem, of course, is that such a logic would seem to demand silence, a void—and absolute zero yields absolutely nothing. But just how close can you get to absolute zero, how near to silence can you take your art and still be heard? This seems to be the enterprise, and it is emphatically anti-Cartesian, at least in this sense: Descartes's reductionism concealed a sublime confidence and optimism which allowed the fiction of a ne plus ultra, the fiction of a thinking being conscious of itself thinking, where all the problems associated logically and philosophically with such a formulation in language are both embedded and overcome. Beckett's reductionism is always within a given, a formula which defies logic, and which is, literally, meaningless. An urge to write is a donnée. You cannot write without appearing to say something, without in that sense communicating, given that writing means using structures of language (already given) and words (which usually pre-existed the present user), & c.

What this particular text of Beckett's shows clearly, especially when read in its drafts, is that part of the text's complex procedure is to focus on obligation, and it does this by introducing prompting or urging words at a variety of junctures. The text may be said to give a kind of account of a state or situation rather than being a straightforward narrative of events. The reader is given staccato bursts on “how it is”. These bursts, or “reports”, start their textual life as details accumulatively delivered about the precise (?) state of existence of a creature in a situation which is non-real, a situation which for the literary reader will parody other situations which we either knew from experience or from the experience of reading, say, Dante's created worlds of the Purgatorio and Inferno. The details of the Beckett world are progressively but discontinuously delivered. Standard classical texts are content to give “factual” details about the fictional world being created for the reader and then to pass on, and consequently readers would be very disconcerted to find themselves repeatedly being given (as they are in Beckett's text) expressions which might be held to represent “facts” about the physical features of the fictive universe over and over again. Readers would feel that some kind of contract had been broken, that they were being asked to read something that was not “literature”. Such readers would, I assume, give up and throw away the text as “mad”, not worth the time and effort needed to persevere with it. It is hard to be precise about how Beckett does persuade the reader to continue with the enterprise of reading his text, but I believe that he does.

In the first attempt at the creation of this work, the text is organised so that we are gradually led in Text I from a located situation to the “person” within that situation, and the “person” is then systematically presented, moving from the head, through the limbs, cylindrical trunk, arms, penis, feet. The rudimentary “voice” of the piece which has done its best, it would seem, to exclude emotion or genuine readerly interest from itself, does, however, come through to the reader when there is a strong interest shown in mathematics, in figures, but oddly, with a kind of mad precision. Characteristically, after hearing “Largeur un mètre. Hauteur deux mètres”, we have “Mesures approximatives comme toutes à venir”, a voice which is very like the deranged voice of Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot:

… the dead loss per caput since the death of Bishop Berkeley being to the tune of one inch four ounce per caput approximately by and large more or less to the nearest decimal good measure round figures …4

This version of the text seems to have a rudimentary “voice”, shown through what might seem to be a simple and neutrally “scientific” interest in the penis: “Membre glabre. Brèves demi-érections spontanées”. The neutral term “membre” (for membrum virile) might seem fussy and remote from ordinary humanity, and yet the enjoyed rhythm of “membre glabre” is, in its turn, strangely removed from medical neutrality (where “glabre” might be more commonly encountered in expressions like “visage glabre”—“clean-shaven”). Smuggled in, then, against what seems to be the text's “factual reporting”, is a something more, and that “something more” is what, were it sustained and built on might, make the artful. But this interesting “sign of life”—both in the text and in the object presented—might well have seemed excessive, as it is removed from all succeeding versions of the text. All must be controlled, deadened.

Proceeding with its account of the state of affairs, the text seems, much like the earlier novel, Watt, to delight in spending time and energy in an exhaustive and exhausting enumeration of what seem to be the possibilities of the ways in which the several named physical states which are listed may be combined one with another. These states are, it is said, “Non liées”. So: “Chaleur lumière. Chaleur noir. Froid lumière. Froid noir.” are perfectly acceptable as possible states of affairs in a world like our own, but the text gets more from the list than this limited set of combinations. It asserts the reality of

Chaleur lumière et noir.
Froid lumière et noir.
Lumière chaleur et froid.
Noir chaleur et froid.

It can only have these logically possible (but practically impossible) combinations if the rules which govern the meanings of words (or those laws which govern the state of the universe as we know it) are changed. This is implicitly accepted but at the same time is circumvented. What is said to be a state of affairs with all elements co-existing at the same time, is said to be so, but not so at the same time, because these conditions are subject also to the modifier, “Changements foudroyants”. This last qualification might be calculated to persuade a reader that we can have both “light” and “dark” coexisting by the expedient of having changes in the basic states as “lightning-flash-like”. This, then, is a text which tries to remain both within a world which is a possible world which the reader would feel comfortable with and yet within another one which, though mathematically logical within a system of permutations, is practically impossible. It is at this point that the text is punctuated by its first three encouraging or urging expression, “Paf”. This expression is allowed into the sentence without any signal that it might belong to another level of discourse.

This word, which other more standard texts might well have given an exclamation mark to, and which might be rendered as “Slap!” or “Bang!”, presents the reader with initial problems. It cannot exist at the same level of meaning as its context, and it needs, for a full sense of its meaning in its operation its own context and voice. It is a word which has no dictionary definition other than its being noted as a word which accompanies an act. Its reference is beyond the context of the words as they are presented on the page, and it demands to be understood in its own way. It is an alien, and we could allow it into the text only if we had the necessary conditions for its inclusion made plain to us. But no such conditions are ever going to be made plain, and hence it is one of the many sources of puzzlement for the reader trying to negotiate the text.

Readers of Beckett are, of course, well used to his characters being manipulated by outside forces, the reluctant being forced into speech, “quod erat extorquendum”.5 So, if we try to associate the usage of the “paf” with some violence, some blow, however unemphatically allowed into the text, however unattached to context and shorn of a voice, then we do land ourselves with problems. These problems which are created for the reader partly derive from the elision of levels of discourse in the text, flattening the plane of the “speaker” or “voice” from which we have been taught by the text's procedures so far how to read, how to try and hear the words, and from which we are used to hearing that which may be believed (or that which we allow, having suspended our disbelief, to count as believable) with another plane, that of a (possibly violent) controller who is demanding from the voice something which the voice and only the voice can give. We would then have a kind of dramatic situation being enacted within the text.

We could go on to observe that any tyrannous demands are met with an incompetent instrument. The “controller” has no articulated language, utters no real word, is present only by inference from the “paf” it might be held to make. It has to use the only instrument which exists to have said what it wants to have said, though it has no control in the end over what is said. The only user of language, the instrument, is the text, and this is worn out, beyond interest, incompetent. The almost exact analogy might be Lucky as “thinker” in Waiting for Godot, where “thinking” is one of his noted skills (like his equally worn-out “dancing”) and is offered as one of the entertainments which Pozzo can offer his guests, Vladimir and Estragon. Presumably the audience is to be appalled that this “thinking” represents what has happened to that capacity which has so often been held to mark man from beast (“What a piece of work is man!”), that “thinking” has been so eroded into this farrago. Again, there are many ways in which the Trilogy tries hard to give an account of this process which seems necessary to be ascribed to a controller or torturer. Of course, to attribute purpose and intelligence, even to a tormenter, is to invent the resolution as part of the perceived problem, to give a spurious meaning to the activity of issuing words to that “issueless misery”. If something is perceived as a task, there must be a taskmaster.6

In this text the “Paf”s selem to be there to make further demands on the voice, to stimulate it to further efforts. So, while it is only able to elicit “noir” from “noir” (there seems to be no further intensity of “black” possible, even when the voice seems madly to being urged on to find one), it does manage to stimulate “éblouissement” from “blanc”, and “fournaise et glace” from “chaleur et froid”, but there is no further to be gone than rhetorical exaggeration of what is already elemental, “black, white, hot, cold”. The voice can do no more with what it has got. It might seem that it wanted to escape from the figure, the “character”, to spend some of its energies in the dubious delights of mathematical permutations. But it seems that there is no avoiding the figure and what must be constantly reported about it. And here arises one of the text's central ambiguities. When, driven back to the body and its eyes, the text presents certain details, the reader is unsure of the source of those details. We cannot know whether these details come from a narrator or whether they represent the unspoken voice of the “body”, whether we attribute them to a “creator” or to one we might call the “creature”, or whether it makes no difference which. We might have to come to terms with this truism, that it is a vain question, as all artists can ever really do is to write themselves out of themselves. There is never, according to this view, any real distinction to be drawn between creator and creature. But this is to go too far too quickly. In this text we are presented with this kind of problem when we read the expression, “Brefs murmures de loin en loin”. Does what follows this phrase include something of what the “creature” murmurs; are some of the staccato escapes his? If so, how do we know which ones? Is there a way of knowing?

In standard texts there are ways of declaring voices, of showing differing states of consciousness, of dreaming, of fantasising, of a pre-birth or post-death condition, and so on, and a reader will cope quite happily with a variety of pretended states of existence when the text gives what are perceived as adequate signals, even when such signals are given retrospectively.

There are many instances, of course, but we can think of the fantasy opening of Billy Liar, for instance, and the whole of William Golding's Pincher Martin where we find that we have been reading the contents of a dead man's mind with its fears, hopes, anguishes and terrors. But Beckett's text is dumb.

However, in later versions of the text we do have some help. This is when a decision has been made by the author to use the “Bing” interjection or interruption. We must come to that in its place. But in this first version the possibility is that we do hear some of a voice's murmurs, but murmurs which are endlessy boring for the reporting voice, as boring as the voices of Play: “Toujours les mêmes” … “Ils sont sus.” But one of the possible murmurs which be said to escape could well be the expression

Il manque un échelon.

This would sound very much like a remark of someone trapped who might be searching for a way out, as happens, for instance, in the slightly later text of 1970, Le Dépeupleur (The Lost Ones, 1972), or any of those texts of Beckett which owe much to Dante's Inferno. Looking for a ladder as a means of possible exit has many echoes in Beckett, and yet we know that the possession of a ladder does not carry any entailment that there will be a way out for the ladder to reach. On the whole, human life's evidence would seem to suggest the opposite, adding another part to the generic tragic story of the “vanity of human wishes”. To have a ladder but not to have a way out would be one thing, to judge that you would need a ladder to escape might be another; but not to be able to find any directions, even were you to have a ladder, just because all signs are obliterated, all being reduced to “blanc sur blanc invisible”, so that even were there anything to be found, they could never be found, would be still another. Equally, and very naturally, being human, we can be presented with a total blankness and yet project upon that blankness human needs for shape, balance, symmetry, beauty, order, direction, meaning; and, being human, we will create them where they do not exist. The poet is the maker. But the text here insists that there is “Rien de repérable”, no guidance, nothing from which to take directions. It declares that there is a ladder: “Echelle blanche invisible” … “Dressée contre le mur sous l'une ou “autre niche””. There would be no way of recovering by sight anything which was so described, and it would be no good to anyone knowing that, were he so immobile as he is, and unable to verify even the assertion that there is an invisible ladder there. Standard texts would emphasise pathos or tragedy or irony; we should have some guidance as readers as to how to respond to the situation. To have the human response swamped by a mode of indifferent, even mad, reporting is insupportable. We are given the neutral tones which declare that universal whiteness has absorbed all the colours, aside from the just distinguishable body: “D'un autre blanc le corps à peine”, and in that body a touch of colour left in the eyes: blue, but a blue which is hardly in normal parlance to be allowed as blue at all: “Yeux bleu de glaire”—“blue like the white of an egg”. As only the eyes have remnants of a coloured universe, so only they have the remnants of movement: “Seuls les yeux et encore. Déplacements très soudains et rapides. Tout à coup de nouveau immobile ailleurs.” But there is a final use of “Paf” in the text which damages the apparent indifference and neutrality. It ensures that the eyes are not directed at the presumed controller or prompter. The last “Paf” generates:

A peine les yeux. Paf ailleurs. Vers d'autres traces.

Finally, the eyes are directed “elsewhere” after the blow of “Paf” has fallen, but the voice is reaching its limits of competence, and it cannot give an account of what the eyes are directed towards as completely as it seemed to be able to do earlier in the text. It is failing, and it can only do in fragments what it formerly did more competently (though incompetently enough for the ordinary reader). Beckettian “fatigue and disgust” has set in. However, it is equally possible that the eyes must not be allowed to look at the one who is reporting, must never communicate with the recorder of it all, but must always be directed elsewhere to another reality.

The importance of the interrupting word was increased by Beckett in the second version of the text. Here he crossed out each of the four “Paf's”, replacing them with the stronger “Hop”, at the same time that he was making many other verbal minor changes. I suppose that “Hop” would be seen as a more urging word, encouraging someone jumping, say, to jump quicker or higher.

The third version keeps the basic form of the first two up to the fourth “Hop”; here the eyes are “Hop ailleurs. Vers d'autres traces”. The rest of the text elaborates on the physical states of the elements which compose the scene, insisting on shades of white as the qualities which allow distinctions to be made and discerning to be achieved. But the questions remain: for whom are the “traces” “visibles”? Are the eyes of the body still capable of a minimal discernment; is it a discernment which starts with some kind of distinctness, then, due to its internal inefficiency, witnesses a rapid fading into blankness; or is it the creator who has created such a universe of fadingness, where all is fading into blankness with an inexorability which is the physical lot of the creature. Is this is what is commonly taken to be the state of entropy? Take:

Traces seules inachevées noires jadis pâlies pâlissant gris pâle presque blanc sur blanc ou effacées.

The French allows the “unover” (“inachevées”) traces to be black (once upon a time, having become pale, and then a single blur—presumably represented by the singular form, “pâlissant”—growing paler), then pale grey, then white, or, instead, simply obliterated. What would be the difference? Presumably in the end it would matter nothing; whether a process of degeneration had been managed over time (an unspecified duration) or whether the “traces” had been simply wiped away, the result would be the same. But human stories, conducted over time, are just such events which “leave not a wrack behind”, and it is as though they have never been, and yet memories linger on. Being human, however, all this does mean something to us, and it does make a difference to us. We value history, inherited myths, stories, memories. So, while these “traces” are problematic for the texts, and this version tries to give an account of them, and though this account lasts until the fifth version, they are finally jettisoned, presumably as too resonant, too rich with potential significance, and against the spirit of spareness and desperation which the the text increasingly seems to aim at. But for the moment, we have an evocative image of

Traces éclaboussures larges à peine comme la main humaine lorsqu'un petit œuf s'écrase.

Though these “splashes as big as a human hand and as though a little egg has been smashed” must have seemed too loaded for the text, there is another expansion which continues through the remaining versions and gathers increasing importance, and that is the “murmure”. Here, in Text 3 it starts life as

Bref murmure de loin en loin que peut-être pas seul.

There is no way of knowing whether these “murmurs” are in direct or reported speech, and the elision of the two possible voices is important for the overall exploitation of ambiguity in the text. But the third voice, the voice represented by the interruptive signs of “Paf” and “Hop”, insists on an attempt being made to end the “story” with a more heroic end that simply acquiescing in the existence “amid th'encircling”. “Hop”, “Paf”, “Hop” try to stimulate an ending. The first “Hop” startles the text, which had successfully insisted on immobility and near-stasis, into

l'échelon à la main et paf toute volée mur sol colère sans bruit très bref. Hop de nouveau immobile lâche l'échelon sans bruit qui fuseau roule un instant sans bruit invisible.

This remarkable statement that all of a sudden a hand is on the rung of the ladder and all is gone for a moment, noiselessly (and who or what is “without anger, with a display of anger” is unknown), is again stimulated into its negation by “Hop” as all is still again, with the exception of the telling detail of the noiseless spinning for a moment of the rung of the ladder. In the impossible way of this syntax you have an image which demands both that it be visible in order to be an image, and at the same time to be invisible, and an image which demands time for it to exist, spinning like a spindle, but which is only allowed the barest moment for its existence—and so cannot, by any definition, be held to spin—and an image which demands to be heard, the rung of a ladder rotating in its sockets, but a the same time being inaudible.

The succeeding text, 4, carries on this impossible image of the hand and the rung and its collapse into immobility, but this is the text which first adds “Bing” to the repertoire of interruptive words. It is brought in at the ending of the text where “Paf” amd “Hop” seem to have exhausted their potency. We might therefore see “Bing” as the strongest of the three, and, in a standard discourse might have been said to stand for an exclamatory “smack” or “thwack”. The text brings together the two murmurs which were in the previous text, but puts them earlier in the discourse, with an interval between them, and now reversed:

Bref murmure de loin en loin que peut-être pas seule. Bref murmure de loin en loin que peut-être une issue.

Then we have the new, stronger, interruptive:

Bing murmure. Bing long silence.

The “thwack”, it would seem, can only generate the noun, “murmure”, with no heard content. A further “thwack” yields only silence. Everywhere a law of diminishment operates; stronger and stronger stimulation is needed, but the effects of even the strongest stimulation wear away quickly. You could say, I think, that having heard the escaping murmurs about “perhaps there might be a way out, and perhaps I am now quite alone”, the text is prompted to try and elicit more by increasing the violence which it can use, but unavailingly. But whether it is that the creator can find no more to murmur about, or whether the creature is now beyond torment, it is hard to say. What we can say, unfortunately, is that Beckett certainly would have been able to empathise with those of his friends and acquaintances who had been taken by the Gestapo and tortured for the information which they might have locked within them, so the idea of a series of systematic “thwacks” to generate more murmurs cannot be a comfortable one. The penultimate sentence uses a “Bing” to find a new murmur:

Bing murmure de loin en loin que peut-être une nature.

I suppose that we could find many ways of translating that—“perhaps, after all, there is such a thing as nature”; “perhaps there is a natural world in spite of what I seem to be immersed in”; “maybe not all is artificial”; and so on. But the final sentence leaves the reader with the head where the murmur might be said properly to belong, as a pathetic object in space:

Petite tête boule bien dans l'axe yeux droit devant.

Such is the head which contains the material from which the murmurs are made, and that must always mean the survival of some sort of hope, even when all the evidence directs us to deny the rational possibility of hope. In this case the pathos of the “peut-être” signals what it is to be human. It is human to seek for fellow—creatures (“peut-être pas seul”) when there can be no-one but yourself, to search for a way out of situations which trap or imprison us (“peut-être une issue”), and, finally, when all has faded almost to nothing still to be able to hope that, in spite of all the overwhelming evidence of annihilation, there might still be a system, “nature”, organised by what we choose to think of as its “laws of nature”. That is what it means to be human, it would seem, and it represents another version of Johnson's “Vanity of Human Wishes”, that theme to which Beckett so constantly returned. It is this text's sense of the doomed hope of the lost creature, reduced to the minimum space and almost completely arrested in movement, which leads towards the final horrors of Beckett's tormented presentation of the body reduced to its box, everything nearly obliterated into whiteness, a Shelleyan radiance of eternity where the body's eyes are the last parts of the body for a watcher to observe which have any motion left at all, and yet where this motion and all its resonant possibilities must be denied as nearly as possible. The eyes have to be said to be “hardly”—“à peine”—and their mention usually prompts a “Hop” to make sure that they are directed “ailleurs. Vers d'autres traces.” A taboo exists which must not be broken. So far and no further with empathy with suffering or with humanity. A soured version of the Flaubertian or Joycean artist indifferent to his creation.

The next version, Text 5, takes a step towards further enlarging the content of the “murmures”. The second and third murmurs, “que peut-être pas seul” and “que peut-être une nature”, now have the insertion, “avec bref image”, which is qualified again immediately by “Ça de mémoire de loin en loin”. “Brefs murmures” later brings a “thwack” which is inserted into the text:

Brefs murmures bing de loin en loin seuls inachevés.

And, unusually in the texts, the murmurs all come together, and are then increased by one further murmur—“Peut-être un sens” (later translated as “perhaps a meaning”):

brefs murmures bing de loin en loin seuls inachevés.

avec xxxxxx image. [Que] [p]Peut-être une issue.

[Que] [p]Peut-être une nature avec [brève] image.7

[Que] [p]Peut-être pas seul
[Que] [p]Peut-être un sens.

The “brève” has been taken out, and duration is now given in temporal form, but not in our earth time, but rather stellar time, time presumably measured in “light-seconds”:

Une deux secondes temps sidéral.

Thereafter, in this very much longer and expanded text, there is a working distinction to be drawn between the interruptive set of “Hop's” and the stronger “Bing's”. “Bing” is always associated with the murmurs. The text replaces “temps sidéral” before “murmures” by a “Bing”, so that “thwack” will yield murmurs, as when it prompts the first intimation of an actual image, a situation which will be retained in all the succeeding sequence of texts:

Bing peut-être une nature une seconde deux secondes avec image même temps un peu moins ciel bleu et blanc.

This characteristically gnomic and non-specific flash of something from the memory, stimulated by the “thwack” with its generation of “peut-être une nature”, will be the very most (and the very least) that can be allowed in this minimal world. But the text is not allowed to get carried away into the image and its potential; it is succeeded immediately by the doubly urgent “Hop hop”; and the narrative is restimulated into its task and its apparently endless account of the physical situation and its conditions: “le long des murs seul plan à l'infini sinon que non”. As well as never letting itself dwell on what might be taken as the emotional contents of memory or the remnants of feeling, always being prodded into its drained and flattened account of the final conditions of the final body, the text is never allowed to explore the actual cause or determining conditions of the fixedness of the body. As soon as it tries to assign the fixedness to a time or place, then “hop” generates a kind of denial, “fixe ailleurs”—fixed elsewhere. This makes no sense when the text is absolutely precise about the ways in which the parts of the body are immobile, as though sewn together; but somehow the final cause of the “fixe” must always be located “ailleurs”. This refusal to allow the actual cause to be named is strategic for the text, and an insertion in the text at this point of the voice's attempt to assign fixedness seems very significant:

Fixe là de tout temps là où hop fixe ailleurs sinon su que non.

The text reports the contents of the murmurs and yet is prevented from getting too involved with them, showing that there is a kind of contradiction between the operations of “hop” and “bing”. “Bing” stimulates the murmurs, “hop” stimulates the text to carry on enunciating the physical properties and to chart the vanishing of all into a final eclipse into a total whiteness. In one sense we might say that there seems to be a kind of collusion between an apparently neutral report and the murmuring of the creature in its box. This would seem to be the last vestige of the relationship between the creative artist and his creature, just enough and yet too much. It seems that, try as the text will, there is no escaping human empathy, even as the task seems to be the creation of impersonal and mechanical works.

The “Bing” has a range of success from “silence” to a final image which has appeared so often in Beckett (as in the aural images in Eh Joe of 1967 and Krapp's Last Tape of 1960, for example), that haunting image of the imploring eye. This becomes both the triumph of the work of “Bing”, and would in a more pointedly ironic work become the climax of the piece, and there would be no more that could be said after that. But, given the nature of our text, struggling to undermine the nature of the narrative enterprise, and yet all the time confirming it, we have two occurrences of the climatic image, separated by only a few sentences. The separation is enough to do the trick. Prolonged torments of “Bing”s has produced this final image:

Bing peut-être pas seul une seconde deux secondes avec image même temps un peu moins œil noir et blanc mi-clos cils implorant ça de mémoire de loin en loin.

But the tormentor, “Bing”, can do no more with fading realities than stimulate two further murmurs which are qualified deliberately by the insertion of sans image, until the final sentence when the “final murmur” is stimulated, an ironic image nonetheless, even though the text has prevented it from being a climax and has tried to smother it. The text still manages to present the final image in such a way that it will allow itself to achieve some kind of completion, to be “achevé”, and will allow both the tormentor and tormented to rest in peace. We cannot, as human readers, but be moved by this image, conspicuous among so much dessicated and uncaring presentation of the last conditions of the last creature, and we are left with the unresolved image of human suffering pleading for recognition, for relief, and the painful realisation of the impossibility of any such relief:

Boule blanche unie bien haute dans l'axe yeux fixe devant vieux bing murmure dernier peut-être pas seul une seconde deux secondes avec image même temps un peu moins œil embu noir et blanc mi-clos long [sic] cils importants bing silence hop achevé.

This time, alarmingly, the eye is “embu” and in a process of decline. Its state is “clouded” (though Ping translates it as “unlustrous”), but in this text with its diction being kept normally as distant from emotions as possible, apparently, “embu” has a sudden surge of power which it might never have in a less impoverished context. The word, when used of a painting, would mean “flat or dull” (from emboire, “to smear or coat with grease, with wax”), but eyes could well expect to have a different modifier, embué (from embuer, “to dim, cloud—of a glass, etc.”).8 Then we should have “yeux embués de larmes”, “eyes dimmed with tears”, a much more pathetic image, of course. It is hard not to feel, when reading the text, that there is a tug towards embué in embu, as we import some of the pathos and heightened emotional charge illegally into this image, occurring as it does in a work so apparently emptied of the human, so seemingly unresponsive to suffering, and yet which includes the unemphasised but genuinely present buffets and blows represented by “Paf”, “Hop” and “Bing”. Yet the text has found its ending, and no amount of prompting from “hop” can do other than produce the “completed” of “achevé” (“all over”). Consummatum est, we might say, irreverently, had not Beckett himself been beforehand with the blasphemy by the opening of Endgame with Clov's “Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished”. But here it is as though there had been a point to this narration all along, but what the point would be would not be known until it was stumbled on, but too late to exploit or explore or put better. Just faithfully trying, in weariness and with failing capacities both of mind and language, to chart the final moments of the final creature, yields the unexpected and unplanned final release.

However, this is no comfort, no consoling moment. We have returned to the condition of light, absolute white, utterly unqualified white (Shelley's “white radiance of eternity”, perhaps, without the “stains”, perhaps), that condition of the divinely created first stage in the Genesis post-void creation of the universe. We have not achieved the complete and final reversal; we have not returned to the void:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

In Beckett's text all returns to or goes into the blank uniformity of white light, the created which is now the uncreating, almost as in a parody of creation as uncreation, as in Pope's ending of The Dunciad. There Pope had savagely parodied Genesis in his attempt to signal what he saw as the death of civilization and culture in his time:

Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS, is restor'd;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.

(Book IV, 653 - 6.)


  1. David Lodge, “Some Ping Understood”, in The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971, 172-183.

  2. “Variants in the Works of Samuel Beckett with Special Reference to Bing”, in Samuel Beckett: His Works and His Critics: An Essay in Bibliography, University of California Press, 1970, 325-343.

  3. “Tal Coat”, Proust & 3 Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, London, John Calder, 1965, 103. First published in Transition, '49, no. 5.

  4. “… la perte sèche par tête de pipe depuis la mort de Voltaire étant de l'ordre de deux doigts cent grammes par tête de pipe environ en moyenne à peu près chiffres ronds bon poids …” is the French original.

    We must remember, too, in addition to the many measurements in the Bing drafts, the many instances of computation and approximation in his writing, his fascination with mathematics in general (witnessed by so many of the doodles on his manuscripts, for example), his cultivation of “irrational numbers”, π especially, and the expressed view in Murphy of life as “a matrix of surds”.

  5. A famous instance of this would be Lucky being made to “think” in Waiting for Godot, and we should also think of the reported training sessions with Pim instructing him how to respond to the stimuli inflicted with a tin-opener in How It Is, teaching him the arts of communication by torment:

    with the handle of the opener as with a pestle bang on the right handier than the other from where I lie cry thump on skull silence brief rest jab in arse unintellible murmur bang on kidney signifying louder once for all cry thump on skull silence brief rest

    (How It Is, London, Calder & Boyars, 1964, 75.)

  6. An idea from Schopenhauer, no doubt, but occurring in many places, for instance in Strindberg's memories of his schooldays:

    It was regarded as a preparation for hell and not for life; the teachers seemed to exist in order to torment, not to punish. All life weighed like an oppressive nightmare, in which it was of no avail to have known one's lessons when one left home. Life was a place for punishing crimes committed before one was born, and therefore the child walked about with a permanently bad conscience.

    (Quoted in L. Lind-Af-Hageby, August Strindberg: The Spirit of Revolt: Studies and Impressions, London, Stanley Paul & Co., 1913, 28.)

  7. “Typescript matter in the original is printed here in normal roman characters; manuscript additions are printed in italics. Matter struck through is enclosed within square brackets, and, where this is illegible, a series of x's gives some guidance as to the extent of the erasure.” (Federman and Fletcher, 324.)

  8. This image is perhaps somewhere in the background to Beckett's last, moving poem recorded for The Great Book of Ireland, and written out three weeks before his death in December, 1989:

    Redeem the surrogate goodbyes
    who have no more for the land
    the sheet astream in your hand
    and the glass unmisted above your eyes.


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Samuel Beckett 1906-1989

(Full name Samuel Barclay Beckett) Irish-born French short-story writer, dramatist, novelist, scriptwriter, poet, essayist, and translator.

The following entry provides criticism on Beckett's short fiction from 1991 through 2002. See also Samuel Beckett Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 11, 18.

One of the most celebrated writers in twentieth-century literature, Beckett is known for his significant impact on the development of the short story and novel forms as well as on contemporary drama. His works expound a philosophy of negation through characters who face a meaningless and absurd existence without the comforts of religion, myth, or philosophical absolutes. Often described as fragments rather than stories, his short fiction in particular evidences his use of sparse, economical language and stark images of alienation and absurdity to present truths that are free of rhetorical embellishment.

Biographical Information

Beckett was born on April 13, 1906, and raised in Foxrock, near Dublin, Ireland. In 1927 he received his B.A. in French and Italian from Trinity College in Dublin. Beckett taught French for a short period in Belfast before receiving a fellowship to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. There he met James Joyce, who had a profound influence on Beckett's early writing. Beckett returned to Trinity College in 1930 for his M.A., after which he accepted a position as a French instructor at the college. In 1932 he resigned his post at Trinity to move back to Paris and concentrate on his writing. When World War II began, he worked for the French Resistance and was forced to flee Paris when the Nazis discovered his activities. After the war, Beckett began writing almost exclusively in French and translating his work into English, beginning his most prolific and, according to many commentators, his most artistically complex period. In 1969 Beckett received the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in Paris in 1989.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Beckett published More Pricks than Kicks, his first collection of short stories, in 1934. A series of related episodes describing the adventures of a fictional Irishman named Belacqua Shuah, More Pricks than Kicks derived in part from Beckett's unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992). In the collection, Beckett used an elaborate prose style and language derivative of Joyce. Most of Beckett's subsequent works of short fiction were originally written in French and translated into English by Beckett. Nouvelles et texts pour rien (1955; Stories and Texts for Nothing) consists of three stories and thirteen prose fragments. The three stories feature protagonists whose lives are desolate and at the same time highly comic. The prose fragments are rhetorically formalized vignettes with minimal narrative characterization. Beckett's style reached the extremes of minimalism in the 1960s and 1970s when he abandoned both conventional plot and conventional syntax, stripping his language down to fragmented phrases and one-word expressions to mirror what he considered the difficulty, if not impossibility, of human communication. Imagination morte imaginez (1965; Imagination Dead Imagine) takes place in an abstract rotunda, “all white in the whiteness,” where two bodies reside in a state of minimal existence. Bing (1966; Ping) uses depersonalized, machine-like language to describe a box containing a faceless and nameless figure. In Assez (1966; Enough), Beckett returned to a more traditional prose style. The first person monologue combines romantic and scientific language to describe a lost relationship. Sans (1969; Lessness) is perhaps the most extreme example of Beckett's experimentation with language in his short fiction. Beckett wrote sixty sentences, placed each in one of six groups containing ten sentences, and drew sentences randomly to create a work of art ordered by chance. Le dépeupleur (1970; The Lost Ones) examines the possibility that those who stop struggling against hopelessness will be the most content. Companie (1979; Company) depicts the thoughts of an individual lying in bed alone in the dark.

Critical Reception

Initial response to More Pricks than Kicks was mixed. While the book received positive reviews outside of Ireland, Irish commentators found its ornate style distasteful. Several commentators have investigated the influence of Joyce's Dubliners on the collection. Beckett's later short works fared better with critics as the critical schools of Post-structuralism and Deconstruction complemented his linguistic experimentation. Some commentators have applied the linguistic theory of Jacques Derrida to Beckett's work and have explored the role of theology in his shorter texts. Recent criticism has focused on his short story “First Love” and its significance in Beckett's short fiction oeuvre. While generally not as highly regarded as his novels—particularly the trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies), and L'innommable (1953; The Unnamable), considered his masterpiece—Beckett's short fiction is acclaimed for its verbal experimentation and artistic formalism. Although some commentators have debated the genre of some of his short prose works—classifying them alternatively as dramatic fragments, poetry, or short stories—most recognize the immense value of Beckett's short fiction and view him as a distinctive and innovative short-story writer.

Robert Cochran (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Cochran, Robert. “The Short Fiction.” In Samuel Beckett: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3-20. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Cochran surveys Beckett's early short fiction, including his short story collection More Pricks than Kicks.]


Samuel Beckett was 23, a scholar in the making recently arrived in Paris as lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure, when his first published study appeared in the spring of 1929. An auspicious debut, it was the lead essay in the imposingly titled Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a collection of essays in promotion and defense of what became Finnegans Wake. The young Beckett's work was titled “Dante … Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” and it was soon printed separately in the literary journal transition, along with another effort by the author. This other was no learned article, however, but a short story. Titled “Assumption,” it was brief, running only four pages in print, and riddled with typos. It opened as in retrospect it needed to open, as if art imitated criticism, in brazen contradiction: “He could have shouted and could not.”1 Later, in more famous formulations, this trick will seem a badge of the author's presence, so much so that one instance will be a title, Imagination Dead Imagine, and a sampler of his work will utilize another, I Can't Go On I'll Go On, for its title.

“Assumption” centers its attention on a doomed figure, an adept of silence who is “partly artist” (269) by virtue of his “remarkable faculty of whispering the turmoil down” (268), but who is also, and fatally, partly man by virtue of a “wild rebellious surge that aspired violently toward realization in sound” (269). The most rigorous self-control has been necessary, and a terrible price has been exacted: “He felt he was losing, playing into the hands of the enemy by the very severity of his restrictions” (269-70). Not only will the unruly urge not subside—“He felt its implacable caged resentment, its longing to be released”—he is not even sure he wants it to: “he felt compassion as well as fear; he dreaded lest his prisoner should escape, he longed that it might escape; it tore at his throat and he choked it back in dread and sorrow” (269). Perhaps this incertitude is responsible for his status as less than wholly artist, as if the artist as artist can only exist in a relationship of hostility to the artist as man or woman.

This, then, is the troubled situation at the story's opening, and also at the story's midpoint, for action, here, has taken a definite backseat to description. But action there is, finally, in the classic sense. Even for this Adam there is an Eve, identified here merely as “the Woman,” who intrudes one evening at dusk, speaking: “It was the usual story, vulgarly told: admiration for his genius, sympathy with his suffering, only a woman could understand” (270). The isolato's first reaction is fury, but soon he is “struck in spite of himself by the extraordinary pallor of her lips” (270). Other, similar attractions are described, including “a close-fitting hat of faded green felt” (270). The total ensemble rouses the until recently immured semiartist to something like oxymoron: “he thought he had never seen such charming shabbiness” (270).

The woman stays, and returns on subsequent evenings. Her initial departure is attended by ambivalent reflections that are reported in detail: “When at last she went away he felt that something had gone out from him, something he could not spare, but still less could grudge, something of the desire to live” (270). These losses accumulate, each evening with “this woman” costing him “a part of his essential animality” (270), and thus hastening the day when the “implacable caged resentment” (269) within will overwhelm him.

The end, apparently, for the prose here is at once turgid and oblique, a strange mélange, arrives in two stages. The first seems to be sexual: “Until at last, for the first time, he was unconditioned by the Satanic dimensional Trinity, he was released, achieved [sic] the blue flower, Vega, GOD.” It sounds glorious, but the morning after is a very different matter: “he found himself in his room, spent with ecstasy, torn by the bitter loathing of that which he had condemned to the humanity of silence” (271). This cycle, too, is repeated, so that “each night he died and was God, each night revived and was torn, torn and battered with increasing grievousness” (271).

They could not go on like this, that is clear enough, and stage two of the end arrives in the penultimate paragraph. The woman is looking at “the face that she had overlaid with death” when suddenly “she was swept aside by a great storm of sound,” a “triumphant” cry that shook the house, “climbing in a dizzy, bubbling scale, until, dispersed, it fused into the breath of the forest and the throbbing cry of the sea.” The final paragraph, after all this rattle and purple, caps the story nicely: “They found her caressing his wild dead hair” (271).

Given some experience with Beckett's later, better known work, it is possible to discern recurrent elements here receiving early exercise. An isolated central character divided against himself and devoted to the “imposition of silence” understood as a specifically artistic feat, a figure “partly artist,” partly misogynist, and almost wholly self-absorbed, a deliberately rudimentary “plot” hardly deserving of the word—such features appear again and again in his work. But “Assumption” does not prefigure this later work by any unmistakable sign. It is in every way a young man's story, a young artist's story, a young intellectual's story, brimming with suffering and apotheosis and determinedly transcendent sexuality.


Beckett published two stories and one “prose fragment” in 1932. The latter and one of the former are extracts from the unfinished, never published novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and the other story is an early version of “Dante and the Lobster,” which in 1934 would open his first collection of stories, More Pricks than Kicks. “Dante and the Lobster” was followed there by nine others, connected each to the other in several ways. All share, for example, their central character, one Belacqua Shuah, who gets his surname from the Bible and his cognomen from Dante's Purgatorio, and their physical setting, Dublin and environs. Temporally, they are arranged in sequence, leading from the death of a lobster to the death of the hero, with many deaths in between. Tonally, they are united by a highly self-conscious, allusive style—arch, aggressive, comic.

The stories are mostly comic, in a manner that begins to seem recognizably the author's. “He was telling a funny story about a fiasco” says the narrator of a later story, but the reference to the stories of More Pricks than Kicks is precise.2 They are stories about fiascos—deaths and dismemberments are everywhere in them—and they are very funny. Things begin promptly in “Dante and the Lobster” with the hero, Belacqua, “bogged” in his reading of the opening cantos of the Paradiso.3 Specifically, he cannot follow Beatrice's explanation of moon spots to Dante the pilgrim, and his efforts to do so bear so little fruit that noon, with its call to other duties, comes to him as a relief from this “quodlibet” (a philosophical or theological disputation).

Three obligations organize the remainder of Belacqua's day: “First lunch, then the lobster, then the Italian lesson” (MPTK, [More Pricks than Kicks] 10). Lunch, first in line, is presented as a delicate affair, fraught with perils. Many things can go wrong, and if they do, “he might just as well not eat at all, for the food would turn to bitterness on his palate” (MPTK, 10). In the first place, he must not be disturbed by any “brisk tattler” bearing either “a big idea or a petition” (MPTK, 10); in the second place the bread for his sandwich must be properly toasted, for if there was “one thing he abominated more than another it was to feel his teeth meet in a bathos of pith and dough” (MPTK, 11); and in the third place the cheese for the sandwich, to be called for on the way to the “lowly public where he was expected, in the sense that the entry of his grotesque person would provoke no comment or laughter” (MPTK, 15), must be not just any cheese but “a good green stenching rotten lump of Gorgonzola cheese” (MPTK, 14).

But in the matter of lunch, unlike the matter of Dante's moon spots, Belacqua is successful. He avoids disastrous encounters, with their accompanying “conversational nuisance” (MPTK, 13), and the sandwich, cheese, toast, and appropriate spices, no butter, is perfection itself: “his teeth and jaws had been in heaven, splinters of vanquished toast spraying forth at each gnash. It was like eating glass. His mouth burned and ached with the exploit.” The lunch, obligation number one, is such a success that “it would abide as a standard in his mind” (MPTK, 17). He moves on to obligation number two, the lobster, where other dangers threaten. His “lousy old bitch of an aunt” may not have placed her order in time; the fishmonger may delay him by failing to have the lobster ready. “God damn these tradesmen,” Belacqua thinks, “you can never rely on them” (MPTK, 16).

But here, again, he is pleasantly surprised—“The lobster was ready after all, the man handed it over instanter”—and he proceeds to obligation number three, the Italian lesson, “quite happy, for all had gone swimmingly” (MPTK 17). Of this obligation he has no fears, only eager anticipations. His teacher, Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi, is “so charming and remarkable” that Belacqua has “set her on a pedestal in his mind, apart from other women” (MPTK, 16). He is eager to impress her, to “frame a shining phrase” (MPTK, 16) in Italian for her, to don “an expression of profundity” in responding to her suggestion that he “might do worse than make up Dante's rare movements of compassion in Hell” (MPTK, 19). But these gestures, one begins to notice, are superficial, mere phrases and expressions, far from the heart of the matter, which has to do with “movements of compassion.” For in fact Belacqua responds to the Ottolenghi's suggestion with an incomprehension only exacerbated by his “expression of profundity,” quoting what he calls a “superb pun” from the Inferno's twentieth canto: “qui vive la pieta quando e ben morta” (here pity/piety lives when it is thoroughly/better dead). This gem, of course, has no relation whatever to any of “Dante's rare movements of compassion in hell.” Belacqua, busy with his phrases and expressions, preening in the rigged mirror of his mind, has clearly not heard the Ottolenghi. She has tried to teach him, even to teach him more than Italian, but without success, as her response to his citation makes clear:

She said nothing.

“Is it not a great phrase?” he gushed.

She said nothing.

“Now” he said like a fool “I wonder how you could translate that?”

Still she said nothing.

(MPTK, 19)

But Belacqua, poor student, is not the Ottolenghi's only auditor, fortunately, since her suggestion is preserved in Beckett's story, and, in fact, broaches that story's major theme. Readers, here as so often in fiction, drama, and poetry, have the opportunity to be superior to the hero. In the story's title, Dante shares top billing with a lobster, already introduced as delivered fresh and on time to the happy Belacqua on his way from lunch to lesson. In the story's final episode, Belacqua brings the lobster to his aunt, only to be shocked to learn that it is still alive and that lobsters are customarily so when cooked. “Have sense,” says his no-nonsense aunt, “lobsters are always boiled alive. They must be” (MPTK, 22).

The title now makes sense, and the Ottolenghi's lesson deepens. From Dante's moon spots to the lobster in the pot, from the story's beginning to the story's end, the message is the same. The moon with its spots was Cain, “seared with the first stigma of God's pity, that an outcast might not die quickly” (MPTK, 12). The lobster does not die quickly either. Belacqua, seeing it “exposed cruciform on the oilcloth” in preparation for the boiling water, consoles himself: “Well, … it's a quick death, God help us all.” This easy shuffle, however, equally available to all eager to distance themselves from the suffering of others, is emphatically rejected in the story's last, stark line: “It is not” (MPTK, 22).

A quick death—its desirability is a hoary theme, found in Sophocles. Beckett will make its unavailability a cornerstone of his work. In Waiting for Godot, for example, Estragon appalls fellow tramp Vladimir by judging his own misfortunes as greater than Christ's. Not only did the latter live in a warm, dry climate, but in that climate “they crucified quick.”4 This advantage is not available in “Dante and the Lobster,” not to Cain, not to the lobster, not to the condemned murderer McCabe, the rejection of whose petition for mercy was news that “further spiced” (MPTK, 17) Belacqua's lunch, and not to Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi, either, whose final line in the story is a bitter, deep response to Belacqua's casual question, following an interruption:

“Where were we?” said Belacqua

But Neapolitan patience has its limits.

“Where are we ever?” cried the Ottolenghi “where we were, as we were.”

(MPTK, 20)

Where we are, ever, in this story, and in the world Beckett will establish with increasing authority from here on out, is a purgatory verging on hell, a place of more pricks than kicks. This, then, is the basic situation, the given, a world chock-full of suffering and decline, slow decline. When Belacqua returns home to his aunt, she is busy in the garden, “tending whatever flowers die at that time of year” (MPTK, 21). She embraces him, and “together they went down into the bowels of the earth, into the kitchen in the basement” (MPTK, 21). This is not especially oblique. Even the bread used in preparation of Belacqua's lunch at the beginning of the story is subjected to a slow death. Before toasting, the bread is “spongy and warm, alive.” Knowing that toasting “must not on any account be done too rapidly,” lest “you only charred the outside and left the pith as sodden as before” (MPTK, 11), Belacqua lowers the flame and by his patience produces the desired result, “done to a dead end, black and smoking” (MPTK, 12).

In such a world, and to its denizens, various attitudes are possible. The Ottolenghi, against the grain, counsels compassion, and her student, though he misses the lesson, is provoked to introspection by her despairing cry. On his homeward walk, he ponders her words: “Where we were … Why not pity and piety both, even down below? Why not mercy and Godliness together? A little mercy in the stress of sacrifice, a little mercy to rejoice against judgment” (MPTK, 21). But Belacqua is not ready for such wisdom. Here, as in other stories, he is the receiver of compassion, not the giver, and his aunt is right to scorn his squeamishness. “You make a fuss,” she says, “and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner” (MPTK, 22). No, the “shining phrase” and the “expression of profundity” are the summits of Belacqua's attainment. The shining action, profundity itself, the true phrase that does not shine—these come (when they come) from others, from the Ottolenghi or the aunt, who appears to provide for Belacqua even as she apparently receives poor gratitude from her nephew, or even from the tradesman (whose “little family grocery” [MPTK, 13] supplies Belacqua with his Gorgonzola) who “felt sympathy and pity for this queer customer who always looked ill and dejected” (MPTK, 15).

Other stories follow a similar pattern. In “Fingal,” the second story, Belacqua concludes a country excursion by abandoning his girlfriend of the moment, Winnie Coates, and fleeing to a pub on a stolen bicycle. The story is memorable for the bicycle, since bicycles fascinate many of Beckett's protagonists, for its introduction of the Portrane Lunatic Asylum as part of the landscape (Belacqua, as he points it out, tells Winnie his heart lives there) since asylums and their inmates reappear even more often than bicycles, and perhaps most of all for one moment between Winnie and Belacqua when she extends to him a compassion that, being unearned, must come as a kind of secular grace.

Learning that a rash on his face is in fact impetigo, Winnie is angered that he has nevertheless kissed her. He offers the excuse of passion, recognizing it as lame:

“I forgot” he said. “I get so excited you know.”

She spittled on her handkerchief and wiped her mouth. Belacqua lay humbly beside her, expecting her to get up and leave him. But instead she said:

“What is it anyway? What does it come from?”

“Dirt” said Belacqua, “you see it on slum children.”

A long awkward silence followed these words.

“Don't pick it darling” she said unexpectedly at last, “you'll make it worse.”

This came to Belacqua like a drink of water to drink in a dungeon. Her goodwill must have meant something to him.

(MPTK, 24-25)

It did mean something, perhaps, but not enough to keep him from abandoning Winnie later when the bicycle beckoned.

“Ding-Dong,” the collection's third story, features a first-person narrator who identifies himself as Belacqua's former close friend. Following an opening disquisition on Belacqua's devotion to peripeteia—“He was pleased to think that he could give what he called the Furies the slip by merely setting himself in motion” (MPTK, 36)—the story is told of an evening made memorable by his purchase, while seated in a pub, of four seats in heaven from “a woman of very remarkable presence” (MPTK, 44). This strange event seems consciously to echo The Tempest, whence comes also the title, perhaps, from Ariel's song, with Belacqua as the charmed Ferdinand. Certainly the story's close, in which Belacqua “tarried a little to listen to the music” (MPTK, 46), encourages the parallel. “Ding-Dong” seems a lighter, even a warmer story than its two predecessors, though here, too, there are crucifixions both fast and slow. Among these are the “trituration” (MPTK, 43) of a little girl by a bus and the evening departure of “the blind paralytic who sat all day” (MPTK, 39) in his wheelchair, begging alms with the aid of a “placard announcing his distress” (MPTK, 40). But the story ends with the woman of “remarkable presence,” her countenance “full of light” and bearing “no trace of suffering.” From others she had “met with more rebuffs than pence” (MPTK, 44), but Belacqua for once responds positively. Perhaps it is significant, too, that his self-centeredness, here called “Ego Maximus, little me” (MPTK, 39), is so far moderated that his purchases are on behalf of others—friend, father, mother, mistress—rather than for himself.

“A Wet Night,” next in the collection and one of two salvaged more or less directly from Dream of Fair to Middling Women, is one of the volume's longest (only “What a Misfortune” is comparable). Its central event is a holiday party, “claret cup and intelligentsia,” attended by, among others, Belacqua, late and in sad disrepair, and, arriving earlier, his “current one and only” (MPTK, 51), Alba Perdue. The party gathers under one roof a diverse collection of Dublin's poseurs and failures, and all—except the Alba, queen of this and any likely ball—are treated with the narrator's contempt. The hostess, for example, Caleken Frica, first described as a “throttled gazelle,” possesses a face “beyond appeal, a flagrant seat of injury,” and resembles at last nothing so much as a “martyress in rut” (MPTK, 61). Her party, attended by many in the hope of free eats and drinks, and these are disappointed by the meagre spread, soon degenerates into a “sinister kiss-me-Charley hugger-mugger” that “spread like wildfire throughout the building, till it raged from attic to basement” (MPTK, 76). Alba, however, holds herself apart from all this.

Meanwhile, Belacqua, moving unsteadily from pub to party in a bitter rain, suddenly feels “white and clammy” (MPTK, 70) and leans against a wall. Soon he is accosted by a policeman, only to embarrass himself and anger the lawman by throwing up, “with undemonstrative abundance, all over the boots and trouser-ends of the Guard,” who promptly knocks him down “into the outskirts of his own offal” (MPTK, 71). Beckett, in passages like this, is finding his voice.

At last Belacqua reaches the party, where “the Alba thought she had never seen anybody, man or woman, look quite such a sovereign booby” (MPTK, 78). This is saying something, given the present company, but it does not stop her next movement, any more than his impetigo had earlier stopped Winnie's:

In an unsubduable movement of misericord the Alba started out of her chair.

“Nino” she called, without shame or ceremony.

The distant call came to Belacqua like a pint of Perrier to drink in a dungeon.

(MPTK, 78)

“A Wet Night,” as several critics have pointed out, is on one level an obvious parody of Joyce's famous Dubliners story “The Dead,” which it echoes in both structure and detail. But the reference—this is important—is not so much a gesture of homage as a comic declaration of independence. The new man, it says, will be doing things differently. Consider the most obvious instance, the echo of Joyce's famous closing description of the “softly falling” snow that is “general all over Ireland,” falling “faintly through the universe … like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”5 “A Wet Night” features rain instead, and it falls not softly but with “a rather desolate uniformity,” and not upon the whole universe of the quick and dead but “upon the bay, the littoral, the mountains and the plains, and notably upon the Central Bog” (MPTK, 83). What is more, as if the cool, almost meteorological note introduced by “littoral,” “uniformity,” and “notably” did not sufficiently undercut the lyricism of the original, Beckett makes sure to deprive the passage of the dignity conferred by closure. The last word is given, instead, to Belacqua's early morning departure from the Alba's home, a less than dignified exit in which he throws away his boots—years later, in Waiting for Godot, Estragon will also struggle with boots—and is for the second time ordered to move on by a policeman.

“A Wet Night” is notable also for its praise of silence, given as a clinching general question following a relentless savaging, complete with instances of awful conversation, of the Frica's party. “Who shall silence them, at last?” the narrator wants to know; “Who shall circumcise their lips from speaking, at last?” (MPTK, 79). Good question, and Beckett has made it his own, has made it of himself, in a tone hovering exactly between assertion and despair.

“Love and Lethe,” story number five, is built like “Ding-Dong” on a foolish act that ends in music. Belacqua and yet another lady in his life, this one named Ruby Tough (she is mentioned before her time, in violation of all the norms of sequence and without the slightest apology, in “A Wet Night”), agree to a dual suicide and make careful plans. In this purpose, of course, Belacqua is the instigator, and he “cultivated Ruby” as he cultivates the others, as one cultivates a garden for its calories, “for the part she was to play on his behalf” (MPTK, 89). But he is richly supplied with reasons; Belacqua lacks many things but reasons he has aplenty—in this instance “Greek and Roman reasons, Sturm und Drang reasons, reasons metaphysical, aesthetic, erotic, anterotic and chemical, Empedocles of Agrigentum and John of the Cross reasons” (MPTK, 90). All of these are false, but Ruby, “flattened by this torrent of incentive” (MPTK, 90), agrees anyway, secure in her possession of “an incurable disorder” (MPTK, 89) and sensing in Belacqua's silly plan “a chance to end with a fairly beautiful bang” (MPTK, 90).

But the plan goes awry, as plans do, especially plans on these pages. The “swagger sports roadster, chartered at untold gold by the hour” (MPTK, 90), the aged whiskey purchased “on tick” (MPTK, 96), the revolver, ammunition, and poison, all these are squandered to rather more usual ends when “the revolver went off, harmlessly luckily, and the bullet fell in terram nobody knows where” (MPTK, 99). Instead of dying gloriously under the motto “TEMPORARILY SANE” (MPTK, 97) lettered on an old license plate, the would-be self-slaughterers “came together in inevitable nuptial” as the delicate narrator moves “away on tiptoe” (MPTK, 99), ending his story in benediction: “May their night be full of music at all events” (MPTK, 100). This same narrator recurs more frequently than his predecessors to direct asides, if such things are possible, to the reader. Sometimes these provide helpful information: “Reader, a rosiner is a drop of the hard” (MPTK, 86), or, “Reader, a gloria is coffee laced with brandy” (MPTK, 87). Sometimes they urge the adequacy of explanations already tendered to the needs of “even the most captious reader” (MPTK, 89).

Story number six, “Walking Out,” is most memorable for the tramp already extolled, the “real man at last” whose gentle “smile proof against all adversity” (MPTK, 104) so abashes the “wretched bourgeois” (MPTK, 103) Belacqua. But this is mere interlude in a rush of events “One fateful fine Spring evening” (MPTK, 101) that leave that paltry hero beaten and his latest girl Lucy crippled. The beating, a “brutal verberation” (MPTK, 113) richly deserved, is administered by an “infuriated Tanzherr” (MPTK, 112) on behalf of himself and his “pretty little German girl” (MPTK, 109). The walk of the title is at least in part a voyeur's reconnaissance; Belacqua, as Lucy's “horrible diagnosis” (MPTK, 109) has only just this same evening made clear, is a “creepy-crawly” (MPTK, 108), a “trite spite of the vilest description.” The crippling, undeserved, is administered by “a superb silent limousine, a Daimler no doubt, driven by a drunken lord” (MPTK, 110), which runs down Lucy, a devoted equestrienne, and her “magnificent jennet” (MPTK, 104), as she rides, her mind a court for “cruel battledore” (MPTK, 110) between the image of the old Belacqua, loved, and the new, despicable, to the place of their scheduled rendezvous.

Neither arrives, Lucy because of the lord in his Daimler, Belacqua because of the “brutal verberation” of the Tanzherr. But the ending, at least of this story, is all Pippa Passes and Pangloss, since “now he is happily married to Lucy and the question of cicisbei does not arise” (MPTK, 113). The question had arisen earlier only at Belacqua's insistence—he had urged her to infidelity on his behalf, even prior to matrimony, just as he had earlier urged Ruby to share his suicide. He knows no other behalf, it seems. These recondite terms, rare even in dictionaries, culled from Latin, Italian, German, “battledore” (Oriental game, source of badminton), “verberation” (lashing with a rod or stick), “cicisbi” (lovers of a married woman or women) and the like—do not worry, reader, they will soon abate.

“What a Misfortune,” announcing Lucy's death in its first paragraph, speedily introduces another love (the term is used loosely, as is customary), Thelma bboggs. She is the fifth, after Winnie, Alba, Ruby, and Lucy (the Ottolenghi does not count). Thelma and Belacqua also marry; the preparations for this event occupy the greater part of the story. The parents of the bride, Mr. and Mrs. Otto Olaf bboggs, her sister, Una, “for whom an ape had already been set aside in hell: (MPTK, 118), the lover of the bride's mother, Walter Draffin, the groom's best man, Capper Quin, known as Hairy on account of his baldness, the remainder of the groom's entourage, two “deadbeats” (MPTK, 128) named Jimmy the Duck Skyrm, “an aged cretin,” and Hermione Nautzsche, “a powerfully built nymphomaniac” (MPTK, 138)—all these and still more make up the cast of this funniest (and, with “A Wet Night,” the longest) story in this funny collection.

And also it's most horrifying—the gentle humor of “Ding-Dong” and “Love and Lethe” are replaced here with something much more harsh. The “misfortune” of the title refers, among other things, to the story's central event, a wedding. To Belacqua, at the moment of falsehood (he is marrying Thelma for her “promissory wad” [MPTK, 116]), the church itself is a “cruciform cage, the bulldogs of heaven holding the chancel, the procession about to give tongue in the porch, the transepts cul de sac” (MPTK, 138). Except for “Dear Otto Olaf” (MPTK, 123), whose gratitude to Walter Draffin for years of service earns him the narrator's respect and sympathy, the story's major characters come in for scathing contempt. Here, for example, is Una, Thelma's older sister: “Think of holy Juliana of Norwich, to her aspect add a dash of souring, to her tissue half a hundredweight of adipose, abstract the charity and prayers, spray in vain with opopanax and assafoetida, and behold a radiant Una” (MPTK, 121). Disaster reigns, from large event to small. Thelma dies on her honeymoon, and a nameless car park attendant sustains a broken arm attempting to assist Capper Quin with the borrowed honeymoon car. Alba Perdue, not seen since “A Wet Night,” is enlisted as a bridesmaid—an act of deliberate cruelty protested only by Otto Olaf and compounded by her subsequent pairing with Draffin. This is, indeed, a funny, sad story about a fiasco, and this yoking begins to seem increasingly central to Beckett's design. This story, more than the others, begins to resemble the deceptive offering of Prometheus, in Hesiod's Theogony, where bare bones are concealed beneath an alluring surface of choice cuts. Under its lavish and exaggerated language, “What a Misfortune,” in grotesque characters like Skyrm and Nautzsche, for example, begins to offer that scorched and diminished earth later made famous in Godot and Endgame. The title, an allusion to Voltaire, is a phrase much loved by the author—he had used it before, in Italian, in a poem, and would use it later, in French, in Malone Dies.6

The next story, number eight, “The Smeraldina's Billet Doux,” is the volume's least impressive and its briefest. It came, like “A Wet Night,” from Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and before that apparently from a personal letter, the use of which was reportedly resented by the sender's family. (There exists, unfortunately, a biography of Beckett whose author meant the subject no good; she discusses this matter in a shocked, eager tone and in highly speculative detail, asserting, for example, the “verbatim” use of a letter not itself cited.7 But this sort of thing can only increase one's sympathy for the Tanzherr of “Walking Out.” Certainly no one should be encouraged to read the letter—or “The Smeraldina's Billet Doux,” for that matter.) It is, as the title suggests, a letter, addressed to Belacqua and written in a mad misspelled sludge of English and German, rich in exclamation, capitalization, and other excesses. The content is simple: the Smeraldina describes her activities and her loneliness, recommends films, and tells Belacqua repeatedly and insistently that she craves his body. Bad news, this, to the Belacqua who considered the crippled Lucy a perfect mate, but prior to her injury considered her so dangerous that he repeatedly urged her to “establish their married life” on what he called the “solid basis” (MPTK, 103) of cuckoldry. A similar attitude is one of Otto Olaf's wisdoms, too, in “What a Misfortune.” Olaf's horns “sat easily upon him,” and he feels nothing but gratitude to Walter Draffin: “Any man who saved him trouble, as Walter had for so many years, could rely on his esteem” (MPTK, 120). For a man like Belacqua, the Smeraldina is far too robust, and surely he regarded himself fortunate to have her in Germany, where space could serve the present as injury had served the past.

The two final stories, “Yellow” and “Draff,” deal, respectively, with Belacqua's death and burial. The death is by medical misadventure and follows immediately upon the physician's confident self-evaluation, while the burial is by none other than the Smeraldina, now Mrs. Shuah number three, assisted by none other than Capper Quin, the best man of “What a Misfortune,” now reduced to successor, after the manner of Walter Draffin.

“Yellow” is devoted mostly to Belacqua's hospital meditations, his search for mental equipoise in a time of stress. He is in for operations on nape and toe, amputations both, and he is frightened: “At twelve sharp he would be sliced open—zeep!—with a bistoury. This was the idea his mind for the moment was in no fit state to entertain” (MPTK, 159). In his distress, a paradox from Donne, heaven-sent, reminds him at once of Heraclitus and Democritus, and these in turn provide him with two potential aids. “Was it to be laughter or tears?” (MPTK, 163) he asks, and at last he chooses the former, reasoning that the latter would be more open to misinterpretation, ascribed not to a considered philosophical position but “rather to the tumour the size of a brick that he had on the back of his neck” (MPTK, 164).

This choice once made, even undermined as it is by second thoughts, “the idea” can be confronted successfully. When Belacqua, like the lobster of the opening story, has only seconds to live, he is at his best: he “swaggered through the antechamber” and “bounced up on the table like a bridegroom” (MPTK, 174). An ominous simile, this last, in Mr. Beckett's emerging world. We know by now what happens, and soon, to brides and grooms. It is only part, though a vivid part, of a larger lesson on well-laid plans. Plan to die, says “Love and Lethe,” and end up with “inevitable nuptial” (MPTK, 99); plan a nuptial and end up dead.

“Draff” concentrates its attention not on Belacqua, who begins the story laid out with a Bible under his chin and ends it laid in a grave “upholstered” with bracken and fern, “all lush, green and most sweet smelling” (MPTK, 182), but on his widow, the Smeraldina, who has lost all trace of the German accents so pronounced in “The Smeraldina's Billet Doux.” Things end as they began, with references to Dante prominent, though a definite turn for the worse is indicated by their tenor. Where “Dante and the Lobster” opened with Belacqua “stuck in the first of the canti in the moon” (MPTK, 9), that is, however stuck, in Paradise, “Draff” has his corpse first measured and dressed by a Mr. Malacoda and later conveyed to its resting ground by a driver named Scarmiglione.

But here, as in Dante, commedia prevails. The Smeraldina soon has Capper Quin in tow, Belacqua himself is laid to rest in the “loveliest little lap of earth you ever saw” (MPTK, 182), and the cemetery groundskeeper, who gets the book's last scene, is contented: “He sang a little song, he drank his bottle of stout, he dashed away a tear, he made himself comfortable” (MPTK, 191). Even Belacqua's house, which is set ablaze by the gardener during his funeral, turns out to be insured. An obnoxious Parson is abandoned on the road after the burial, evicted from the car by Quin, and the servant Mary Ann is raped by the pyromaniac gardener, but these are small matters, that are given short shrift in the story's economy. “Little remains to be told,” says the narrator, moving to wrap things up: “On their return they found the house in flames, the home to which Belacqua had brought three brides a raging furnace. It transpired that during their absence something had snapped in the brain of the gardener, who had ravished the servant girl and then set the premises on fire” (MPTK, 189).

It is, of course, a part of the story's harsh comedy to undercut such melodrama by so offhanded an introduction, presenting it as the draff of “Draff.” (“Draff” is dregs, slop for hogs, lees, what is left of malt after brewing, garbage.) The reader, shocked by a narrator not so much unreliable, though he is that, as unfeeling, may think back to other matters judged too “little” to be told at all. What happens, for example, to the aunt who provided shelter and dinner in “Dante and the Lobster”? Or to the Ottolenghi? Or to Alba Perdue, perhaps aptly named, who after disappearing with Walter Draffin in “What a Misfortune,” is mentioned briefly as dead “in the natural course of being seen home” (MPTK, 175) at the beginning of “Draff”? This closing story is also notable for the volume's most savage image, a description of the Smeraldina and Quin embracing in shared grief, meeting for the first time after Belacqua's death. They embrace to console, widow and exbest man, but also in self interest, Wife of Bath to Jenkin, and the narrator seems to view this development with extreme distaste: “Capper Quin arrived on tiptire, in a car of his very own. He grappled with the widow, he simply could not help it. She was a sensible girl in some ways, she was not ashamed to let herself go in the arms of a man of her own weight at last. They broke away, carrot plucked from tin of grease” (MPTK, 179-80). Amidst his many bows to Dante, Beckett includes more than one nod to Swift's darker muse.

More Pricks than Kicks, oscillating between such varying shades, from a gentle humor praised in one review as “the profound risolino that does not destroy”8 to the harsher genres characterized in Watt as “modes of ululation,”9 offers two basic challenges to readers. The first is superficial, having to do with the volume's recondite, multilingual vocabulary, the youthful author wearing his learning like a sash of medals, and requires only a bank of dictionaries for its solution. (A branch of this challenge, even less important than the main trunk, has to do with the thick, if not rich, allusiveness of the young man's exuberant prose. If you have read “The Dead,” recognize the Beresina as a Byelorussian river and Dr. Petrie as Flinders, archaeologist and Egyptologist, and/or can boast familiarity with the landmarks of Dublin and environs—you may applaud yourself. If you have not, do not worry. Little is lost, in your reading of these stories, and their teller, finding his own voice, his own world, will soon lighten the allusive and referential load.)

The second challenge, anyway, is more worth one's time, as it gets to the heart of not only these but later, better stories. It has to do with tone, with that tightrope along pain and pleasure, tragedy and comedy, pricks and kicks, which is even here Beckett's special métier. Already present, for instance, at the extreme of distance and frigid authority, is that impersonal voice out of the heavens, speaking in fiat and inquisition, that in the beginning rejects Belacqua's sorry bromide on the lobster's death and in the end gives similar brief shrift to his anticipated posthumous encounter with “the girls, Lucy especially, hallowed and transfigured beyond the veil. What a hope!” sneers the voice, “Death had already cured him of that naivete” (MPTK, 181). Subsequent works will further embody this imperious otherness—it acquires female gender in Eh Joe and even shifts from speaking to listening in Not I.

Slightly more personal but no less authoritative is the voice occasionally heard in direct address to the reader in mockery of storytelling's conventions, as, for example, in the instances already cited from “Love and Lethe,” or this, from “Dante and the Lobster”: “Let us call it Winter, that dusk may fall now and a moon rise” (MPTK, 20). This is also the voice of the mock-helpful, mock-learned footnotes, five in number. Finally, as noted and emphasized here by way of compensation for usual neglect, there is the very occasional voice of open and undisguised affirmation, as in the sketch of the tinker in “Walking Out.”

Hearing these voices, learning to discount them, when and by how much, learning, too, to notice the omitted voice, the discarded character, the unstated conclusion and unspoken judgment—these are the skills to cultivate when exploring Beckett's stories. For the considerable armamentarium deployed so ostentatiously and aggressively in More Pricks than Kicks is radically curtailed in its successors. Before those successors, however, with their very different delights, there is one last early story to consider.


“A Case in a Thousand” appeared in the August 1934 issue of The Bookman and has never been reprinted. Like the earlier “Assumption,” it moves through a series of mostly unhappy events to an obliquely triumphant conclusion. A young doctor named Nye, identified at the beginning as “one of the sad men,” is summoned for consultation by a surgeon colleague named Bor. The patient, after Bor had “operated with the utmost success,” had exhibited “an unfathomable tendency to sink.”10 But here is the complication, a coincidence: the patient, a boy named Bray, is the son of Nye's “old nurse,” a woman “whom as a baby and small boy he had adored” (242). And in this old relationship there was a moment that still lives, the memory of which stirs “shame” in Mrs. Bray and makes Dr. Nye's initial recognition something to be “feared” (242). A later story, “The Expelled,” refers in passing to a similar situation: “He gave me a woman's name that I've forgotten. Perhaps she had dandled me on her knees while I was still in swaddling clothes and there had been some lovey-dovey. Sometimes that suffices” (STN [Stories and Texts for Nothing], 19). But this very likely has little bearing, if any, on Mrs. Bray and Dr. Nye.

The events of the present are no better. Bor will operate again only at Nye's urging, and “from the strictly pathological point of view there was as much to be urged on the one side as there was on the other” (242). Nye, therefore, is “outside the scope of his science” but obliged nonetheless to reach a decision. His procedure in this difficult situation is described at some length: “He took hold of the boy's wrist, stretched himself all along the edge of the bed and entered the kind of therapeutic trance that he reserved for such happily rare dilemmas” (242). His expression at this time, “at once aghast and rapt,” is witnessed by Mrs. Bray and triggers her recollection of their previous intimacy. The “trance” results in a decision to operate again, but young Bray's lung collapses and he dies. The mother, who has watched at her son's bedside (and outside the hospital in the intervals between visiting hours) throughout his illness, offers Dr. Nye her thanks, but despite “great efforts to speak their minds,” they can share only “silence.” Nye then leaves for “a short holiday at the seaside” (242).

He is soon called back, however, by a note from Bor, who tells him Mrs. Bray is back at her stand, maintaining the same vigil she had earlier mounted on behalf of her son. He goes to see her and at last broaches the subject that matters: “There's something I've been wanting to ask you.” She answers, “I wonder would that be the same thing I've been wanting to tell you ever since that time you stretched out on his bed.” (242). It is, of course, and when he replies only by asking if she can “go on,” that bedrock question, she relates “a matter connected with his earliest years, so trivial and intimate that it need not be enlarged on here, but from the elucidation of which Dr. Nye, that sad man, expected great things” (242). Unlike Nye, we do not learn what the matter is, but we do know what we need to know: that Mrs. Bray and Dr. Nye, by their persistence and courage, quite outside the scope of his science or any science, have earned their communion. The patient dies, and the doctor is cured. “Thank you very much” he says when Mrs. Bray finishes, “that was what I was wondering” (242). It is a case in a thousand, take that either way—that it is just one case of a thousand equally compelling, emphasizing its universality, or that it is a rare and unique occurrence, emphasizing its rarity, like what happened to Hamlet or Oedipus. Or take it both ways, as intended, no doubt.

Critics have mostly ignored this story, and such comment as it has elicited has focused on its possible sources in Beckett's relationship with his analyst and/or his mother.11 This is lamentable, since “A Case in a Thousand” presents its muted personae, Dr. Nye and Mrs. Bray, in a style at great remove from the “white voice” (MPTK, 148) and “shining phrase” (MPTK, 16) of Belacqua. Silence, as a voice in Beckett's writing, is ascending its footstool. In his sympathy with such creatures, with their tendency to stasis and vigil, their stammering difficulty in the attempt to “speak their minds” (242), he is finding a way to speak his own mind, or perhaps merely to speak.

In the big world, however, as the 1930s end and the fledgling author gets his first novel published (Murphy, in 1938), a war is coming on. Beckett's life will be spared, but it will be a near miss. Close friends will perish. He will find it necessary to flee his home. All this will affect his work much as the soft bread in “Dante and the Lobster” is changed at Belacqua's hand: “But he would very soon take that plush feel off it, by God but he would very quickly take that fat white look off its face” (MPTK, 11). Beckett's next short fictions, four stories written in 1945 and 1946, are harrowed and muted far beyond anything envisioned in More Pricks than Kicks and give a “fat white look,” indeed, to their prewar predecessors. “A Case in a Thousand” is a step, a modest step, in that direction.


  1. “Assumption,” transition 16-17 (1929): 268; hereafter cited in the text.

  2. “The Calmative,” in Stories and Texts for Nothing (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 29; hereafter cited in the text as STN.

  3. More Pricks than Kicks (New York: Grove Press, 1972), 9; hereafter cited in the text as MPTK.

  4. Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), 34b; hereafter cited in the text as G.

  5. James Joyce, Dubliners (New York: Penguin, 1976), 223.

  6. The poem is “Che Sciagura,” a juvenile effort first published in T.C.D., a Trinity College weekly, in 1929. Malone, in the French original of Malone Dies, says “quel malheur” [what a misfortune] when he loses his stick. The phrase closes the eleventh chapter of Candide, spoken by the Eunuch before the naked Cunegonde. “O che sciagura,” he says, “d'essere senza coglioni!” (What a shame to have no balls!).

  7. Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978), 146.

  8. “An Imaginative Work!” review of The Amaranthers by Jack B. Yeats, Dublin Magazine 11 (1936): 80.

  9. Watt (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 48; hereafter cited in the text as W.

  10. “A Case in a Thousand,” The Bookman 86 (1934): 241; hereafter cited in the text.

  11. See, for example, Bair, Samuel Beckett, where an especially fuzzy sentence opens with the character Dr. Nye in the subject chair but substitutes the author Beckett at an indeterminate middle point to close in psychological rather than literary analysis: “Dr. Nye's fascination with Mrs. Bray as a mother-sweetheart, his longing for his childhood and the curious womblike evocation of the bizarre incident of the bed all seem to be clumsy attempts to integrate his real-life attitudes towards his mother with his fiction” (185).

Principal Works

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More Pricks than Kicks 1934

Nouvelles et textes pour rien [Stories and Texts for Nothing] 1955

Imagination morte imaginez [Imagination Dead Imagine] (drama and prose) 1965

Assez [Enough] (novella) 1966

Bing [Ping] (novella) 1966

No's Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1945-1966 (dramas and short stories) 1967

Sans [Lessness] (novella) 1969

Le dépeupleur [The Lost Ones] (novella) 1970

Premier amour [First Love] (novella) 1970

First Love, and Other Shorts (short stories) 1974

Foirade [Fizzles] 1976

Four Novellas; also published as [The Expelled and Other Novellas] (novellas) 1977

Companie [Company] (novella) 1979

Mal vu mal dit [Ill Seen Ill Said] (novella) 1981

Worstward Ho (short novel) 1983

Stirrings Still (novella) 1989

As the Story Was Told: Uncollected and Late Prose (prose) 1990

Nohow On (novella) 1993

Collected Shorter Prose, 1945-1988 (prose) 1995

Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 (prose) 1995

Whoroscope (poetry) 1930

Proust (essay) 1931

Echo’s Bones, and Other Precipitates (prose) 1935

Murphy (novel) 1938

Malone meurt [Malone Dies] (novel) 1951

Molloy (novel) 1951

En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (drama) 1953

L'innommable [The Unnamable] (novel) 1953

Watt (novel) 1953

All That Fall (radio drama) 1957

Fin de Partie [Endgame] (drama) 1957

Krapp's Last Tape (drama) 1958

Comment c'est [How It Is] (novel) 1961

Happy Days (drama) 1961

Poems in English (poetry) 1961

Comédie [Play] (drama) 1964

Va et vient [Come and Go] (drama) 1966

Eh Joe, and Other Writings (drama and screenplay) 1967

Film (screenplay) 1969

Mercier et Camier [Mercier and Camier] (novel) 1970

Not I (drama) 1971

Breath and Other Shorts (drama) 1972

All Strange Away (prose) 1976

Ends and Odds (drama) 1976

Footfalls (drama) 1976

That Time (drama) 1976

A Piece of Monologue (drama) 1979

Ohio Impromptu (drama) 1981

Rockabye (drama) 1981

Texts for Nothing (drama) 1981

Catastrophe (drama) 1982

Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (criticism, interview, and drama) 1983

The Complete Dramatic Works (dramas) 1986

Dream of Fair to Middling Women (novel) 1992

Eleuthéria (drama) 1995

Collected Poems, 1930-1989 (poetry) 1995

Robert J. Kloss (essay date March 1992)

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SOURCE: Kloss, Robert J. “The Turning Point at Last: Beckett's ‘First Love’ There is a Choice of Images.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 13, nos. 1-2 (March 1992): 21-33.

[In the following essay, Kloss identifies four short stories—“The End,” “The Calmative,” “The Expelled,” and “First Love”—as the turning point in Beckett's artistic career and provides a close reading of “First Love” to gain insight into the images, themes, and characterizations that came to preoccupy Beckett.]

In her biography of Samuel Beckett, Deirdre Bair vividly depicts a vision he had during one of his late-night, non-stop, drunken prowls that finished on the end of a Dublin jetty in the midst of a March snowstorm. Here, apparently in an epiphany, Beckett envisioned in an instant the direction his writing should take, the form it should have; he had come, in his own words, to “the turning point at last.” “All his writing,” Bair declares, “would henceforth begin from within himself, with his memories and dreams, no matter how ugly or painful; … no clearly defined fictional character would be needed to tell these stories, as no distancing is necessary between the teller and the tale.”1

Subsequently, Beckett no longer wrote in his native English but in French and turned from traditional narrative to what has since become a distinctive feature of his style, the anguished dramatic monologue. Immediately following this revelation, during 1945-46, he produced four short stories or nouvelles which stylistically and thematically mark the most distinct transition in his entire career. Although he had already written novels and short stories (e.g., Murphy, Watt,More Pricks than Kicks), the four stories—“The End,” “The Calmative,” “The Expelled,” and “First Love”—introduce characterizations, themes, and motifs that preoccupied their author till his death.2

These tales are narrated by a first person speaker, who is quite forgetful. He is a derelict, a wanderer, often evicted from his lodgings for inexplicable reasons, usually seeking a haven or attempting to reach an unattainable goal. He makes no progress in these attempts, no real gain in any respect, and his life is much the same at the end of his story as at the beginning. From start to finish, the narrator has as his only possessions the words with which he tells his tales. Physically, he is disabled, diseased, afflicted grievously in one way or another; and he is under siege by a nameless “they” who expel him or evict him, persecute him, trouble him continuously. Many, if not all, of the preceding situations are in, for instance, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Endgame, and Waiting for Godot.

Stylistically, other changes at this time are noteworthy. Syntax, for example, remains clear, but coherence becomes problematical. Ruby Cohn has summarized the major differences: “Besides the important shift from English to French, Beckett achieves a tonal shift from the stylistic elegance of Murphy, or the labored exactitude of Watt, to a comic of the colloquial. The Bergsonian comic roster virtually disappears; learned allusion is drastically reduced; misquotation and erudite jargon vanish; so, too, do most of the monotonous repetitions, series, permutations and combinations, of Watt.3

Further, she remarks, there is a greater concern with “the obscene, the physically disgusting,” and “visceral and sexual parts and processes” (109). As Bair observes (118), however, Beckett's fascination with the expression of natural functions in literature had actually begun more than fifteen years earlier, when he read the works of Jules Renard, who wrote freely and bluntly of such matters. Scatological references, as any reader can testify, permeate Beckett's work from 1945-46. Both John Weightman and Sandra Gilbert have made much of Krapp's Last Tape in this regard, the former calling it “an anal work,”4 the latter elaborating more specifically: “Krapp's compulsive hoarding of his tapes is a kind of classically Freudian anal eroticism. … The old man's attachment to his memories, like the artist's attachment to his art—the production of excretion of his mind—is, after all, again in Freudian terms, strikingly similar to the ‘maker's attachment of a child to his stools.” His constipation, Gilbert maintains, “develops in the course of the short work into a physical matter of almost metaphysical importance, a symbol … at once grotesque and serious. …”5

The symbolic force of such scatology operates, too, throughout the nouvelles. The narrator of “The Expelled,” for instance, relates that “I had then the deplorable habit, having pissed in my trousers, or shat there, which I did fairly regularly early in the morning, about ten or half past ten, of persisting in going on and finishing my day as if nothing had happened. The very ideas of changing my trousers, or of confiding in mother, who goodness knows asked nothing better than to help me, was unbearable, I don't know why, and till bedtime I dragged on with burning and stinking between my thighs, or sticking to my bottom, the result of my incontinence.”6 Indeed, it is to this reluctance to change trousers that he attributes his distinctive peculiar gait. His analogue, the narrator of “The End,” having taken refuge in a boat, at least lets down his trousers, but then lies in the waste: “To contrive a little kingdom, in the midst of the universal muck, then shit on it, ah that was me all over. The excrements were me too, I know, I know, but all the same.”7

Thus thirteen years before Krapp, Beckett's monologists, symbolizing their relationship with humanity at large, saw themselves as feces. Indeed, the closer we look at the nouvelles, the more we see them as microcosms of the larger worlds yet to emerge: those of Molley, of Krapp, of Godot. G. C. Barnard has argued that the characters of Beckett's novels and plays are, fundamentally, “schizophrenic, in the accepted clinical sense of the word, or at the least are definitely schizoid types.”8 In substantiation, he cites such symptoms as their withdrawal from the outside world into inner fantasy, emotional poverty, discordant parental relationships, thought and speech disorders, and others typical of the syndrome (5-7). Unfortunately, he omits the nouvelles from his consideration, perhaps because they do not neatly fit the character type of the other works. They do, however, represent another character type clinically definable, the obsessive, and this syndrome, I contend, explains in large part the characters' behavior, fantasies, and preoccupation with bodily functions. Indeed, they act most like those particular obsessives whose behavior reflects derivatives of what Freud called “anal eroticism” in an essay written in 1908.9

The prominent characteristics of anal erotics, their orderliness, stubbornness, and miserliness, Freud inferred to be sublimations of the original sexual aims, derivatives of the conflicts often inherent in toilet training. As well as sublimations, these permanent character traits, he theorized, could alternately be perseverations of the original instincts or reaction-formations against them. Other components of the anal character are rage, defiance alternating with submission, sadomasochistic tendencies, and, because of less adequate defenses available to the child, intense ambivalence—originally expressed toward the mother in the struggle for separation, individuation, and independence.

Obsessive-compulsive behavior, which all the narrators of the nouvelles exhibit, results from a regression from Oedipal conflict to the anal sadistic phase and reliance upon the characteristic defenses of isolation (splitting off the idea or object from the feeling toward it), reaction-formation (turning the feeling into its opposite), and undoing (a two-part act which symbolizes first hostility, then the undoing of its feared effects). Heightened ambivalence toward the mother expresses itself in this undoing but, primarily, in the obsessive's being consumed by doubt. He is perpetually indecisive, seeking some kind of rule or principle as guidance, and, seldom finding one, leaping impulsively to some conclusion in order to gain security. His need to keep his conflicted feelings hidden, even from himself, leads to the defense of isolation and the resulting presentation of himself as a “cold” person, emotionally constricted or, as we sometimes aptly say in recognition of his conflict, “tight-assed.” He is especially eager to avoid warm feelings, which he mistrusts since they originally arose in a context of dependency relations that in his experience led to conflict and fears of rejection. These fears, always imminent, lead him to become depressed frequently.

Interestingly, the obsessive uses words in order not to communicate, either flooding the listener with detail but little substance or employing reaction-formation and remaining defiantly silent. His obsessional ideas are, of course, derivatives of the original anal impulses, conflicts, and fantasies, as are the compulsive acts he feels constrained to perform. Some of the most common of these are washing rituals which replace fears of dirt and walking rituals which replace inhibitions in walking.10 The gait of all the narrators of the nouvelles, is important enough for them to reflect on it. Indeed most of the images and concerns of each are virtually identical so that scrutiny of one can serve as a paradigm for scrutiny of all four.

“First Love,” for example, reveals quite clearly the obsessive character of its narrator, whose adventures can be succinctly recounted. An old, unnamed man tells of his first love. He remembers visiting his father's grave ostensibly to determine the date of his own marriage from the tombstone since the two events are somehow associated in his own mind. After his father's death, he recalls, a mysterious They expell him from his house, throwing him and all his belongings into the street while he is engaged in using the outdoor toilet. He moves on and eventually shares a bench with a woman named Lulu, whom he meets there several times afterward. He goes off to the countryside to think things over, spending some time in a deserted cowshed where he comes to the conclusion that he loves Lulu or rather Anna, as he now begins to call her. He meets her again, she takes him in, and seduces him. He discovers shortly that she is a prostitute and, after some time, that she is pregnant by him. Unable to face the birth, he wanders off, a derelict again at story's end.

In the brief opening paragraph of “First Love,” the narrator presents himself at the outset as a typical obsessive, paralyzed by doubt, measuring human relationships with a calendar or watch rather than intensity or variety of feelings: “I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father, in time. That other links exist, on other planes, between these two affairs, is not impossible. I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know.”11 The prepositional phrase with which the speaker ends the first sentence—already qualified by the interjected adverbs—restricts the meaning of two of the most important events in a man's life to a purely temporal plane, isolating them from the feelings which normally accompany them, respectively joy and sorrow. These feelings, however, still lie just below the surface, as Beckett hints in the next sentence, which, while purporting to affirm, syntactically denies a continuation of the ambivalence manifested in the opening statement. The final sentence then discloses the narrator's doubt and hints at his difficulties which become progressively more evident: both verbal and emotional constipation.

His denial of feeling becomes manifest as he explains his reason for coming to the cemetery—merely, he asserts, to determine the date of his father's death from the tombstone, and then a few days later, to confirm the date of his father's birth. Ostensibly, he needs these two figures to compute his own age at the time of his marriage (twenty-five), although why we need this information we are never to learn, for it plays no integral part in the story. His attraction to his father's grave would thus seem to lie elsewhere, on one of the “other planes” whose possibility he admits. Presently he reveals his preoccupation with excretion and decay as he extolls “the smell of corpses” around him in comparison to “what the living emit, their feet, teeth, armpits, arses, sticky foreskins and frustrated ovules” (11). In this encomium, though, he again betrays the powerful feelings he is defending against when he remarks, “And when my father's remains join in, however modestly, I can almost shed a tear” (11-12). He does not, however, cry. He continues only to speak, for like all other Beckettian narrators from the “turning point” on, he will proclaim that words are all he has.

Indeed he now strolls about to read words, those available on tombstones, invigorated and amused by them. Of his own epitaph, he states, “Mine I composed long since and am still pleased with it, tolerably pleased. My other writings are no sooner dry than they revolt me, but my epitaph still meets with my approval” (12). For the first time we discover he is a writer—perhaps—and we discern as well what appears to be a character trait, a self-deprecatory attitude toward his own productions. He here prefigures Molloy who believes that “you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins. …”12 As innocent as our narrator's words appear, though, they still continue the excretory theme in a highly disguised form. Like an infant who produces feces, usually on demand by the mother, he is at first pleased by his creativity and the product, when they appear to displease the mother who, paradoxically, discards immediately what she had earlier pleaded for, they become revolting.

Beckett's use of language to represent excretion is persuasive. Leo Bersani, who felt such use was leading the author to a dead end, remarked twenty years ago that “I know of no writer who has come closer than Beckett in his novels to translating the rhythm of defecation into sentence structure, or to find a doughy, thick, smirching prose to suggest the monotonous pleasure of a baby playing in his own excretions.” Bersani, too, notes the narrator's anal compulsive traits, especially their miserliness with respect to “their very being, which they try desperately to prevent from escaping into communicable meanings of dramatic self-projection.”13 The narrator of “First Love” is most certainly an ideally anal character, for beyond his obsession with smell and decay, he often speaks of the significant events of his life in suitable anal imagery.

When he is evicted from his father's house, for example, he graphically portrays the scene in terms of expulsion. One day when he returns, fittingly, from the outdoor toilet where he has experienced difficulty, unsure—in his own words—whether he was constipated or diarrheic, he finds himself locked out by the unnamed others. He tries all doors, but none is open to him. “I think if I'd found one open I'd have barricaded myself in the room, they would have had to gas me out. I felt the house crammed as usual, the usual pack, but saw no one. I imagined them in their various rooms, all bolts drawn, every sense on the alert. Then the rush to the window, each holding back a little, hidden by the curtain, at the sound of the street door closing behind me, I should have left it open. Then the doors fly open and out they pour, men, women and children, and the voices, the sighs, the smiles, the hands, the keys, in the hands, the blessed relief, the precautions rehearsed, if this then that, but if that then this, all clear and joy in every heart, come let's eat, the fumigation can wait. All imagination to be sure, I was already on my way, things may have passed quite differently, but who cares how things pass, provided they pass.” (15-16). Clearly this lengthy passage illustrates that prose of which Bersani speaks, and this expressive imagery is that of a man who sees himself as treated literally like shit.

When he moves into Lulu/Anna's small quarters and discovers them densely packed with furniture, he rearranges it to suit himself: “I put it out piece by piece, and even two at a time, and stacked it all up in the corridor, against the outer wall. They were hundreds of pieces, large and small, in the end they blocked the door, making egress impossible, and a fortiori ingress, to and from the corridor. The door could be opened and closed, since it opened inwards, but had become impassable” (29). This externalized attempt at an expulsion which results in a retention is a derivative of compulsive ambivalence. It repeats the narrator's earlier confusion about his constipation and/or diarrhea and foreshadows the end of the tale since it represents as well his emotional constriction, his inability to give, and his stubborn insistence on having things his own way.

For Beckett's narrators, words and feces are intimately related, a relationship that is a commonplace in psychoanalytic theory. Joel Kovel has elaborated on the psychic intertwining of word and feces during the earliest phase of language learning: “What is good in the world is identified with what is good in the person—not his body, but his mind. Thus, within anal symbolism, mental contents come to be considered especially pure and perfect differentiations. Words themselves achieve a magic power, which stems from the infant's magical preoccupation with feces; when the feces are repudiated as filthy, their power to represent the whole universe becomes displaced on the mental product which represents the universe. The mind, good, makes words and thoughts; the body, bad, makes shit and filth. And words are placed in the service of aggression toward the natural world, just as feces had been instruments of aggression toward the mother.”14 In How It Is, Beckett's narrator himself makes this vital connection between words, feces, and his very identity: “… Nothing physical the health is not in jeopardy a word from me and I am again I strain with open mouth so as not to lose a second a fart fraught with meaning issuing through the mouth no sound in the mud.”15

Like all of Beckett's compulsive narrators after his turning point, the narrator of “First Love” is afraid of his emotions and, consequently, of those things that arouse his emotions. Fleeing the external macrocosm, he attempts to create an internal microcosm of words, repeating the process whereby, as an infant, one learns to master anxiety and anger, retreating from the world of immediate experience into a distant world of abstractions. Cohn has observed how all of Beckett's narrators are characteristically prone to erupt at unpredictable points into “irrational rage.”16 Yet even this defensive maneuver of using abstractions such as words instead of feeling is destined to fail, for words themselves quickly become invested with the emotional attitudes one has toward the things to which they refer and must be dealt with accordingly. A careless word, for instance, might precipitate the sadism which has been so carefully warded off. Thus the narrator of “First Love” notes that his writings “revolt” him once, like stool, they are externalized and “dry” (112). What Barbara Shapiro has said of Molloy's self deprecating attitudes about his productions is pre-figured here in this man: “Himself a turd, he produces work which is no better.”17 Here in “First Love” Beckett presents for the first time the fully-realized image of narrator as feces, the waste of the world: if you would, pre-Krapp crap. Alain Bosquet remarks of this character that “this man does not lie in the sewer: that would be too easy; he is the sewer.”18

Beyond the connections Bersani perceived, Beckett's characters also exhibit tendencies to extremes of domination and submission in relation to whatever has symbolic reference to feces. That is, they will try to frustrate the world with their dirt, stubbornness, miserliness, and lack of punctuality (vide Godot!) or, on the other hand, gain its approval by displaying exactly the opposite characteristics. Typically, after being evicted peremptorily from his father's house, the narrator submissively accepts his fate rather than act on the justifiable indignation or rage a normal person would feel in similar circumstances. Fenichel, in elaborating on such passivity, notes that anal eroticism “is always bisexual in nature, the anus being simultaneously an active expelling organ and a hollow organ which may be stimulated by some object entering it. Vacillation between the original masculine attitude, now reinforced and exaggerated by the active-sadistic component of anal eroticism, and the feminine attitude represented by the passive component of anal eroticism forms the most typical conflict in the unconscious of the male compulsion neurotic. The phallic Oedipus attitude is inhibited by the idea that gratification means the loss of the penis. The regression imposes a feminine attitude, yet does not entirely destroy the original masculine one” (277).

The narrator passively accepts, as well, the actions of They, who claim that he has been left a small sum of money, pay him, but refuse to let him see the will. To assert himself against the provider would be to jeopardize his shaky psychic security even further, so he causes no trouble. Later we discover that although a vagrant on the streets, he has done nothing with this inherited money but keep it in his pocket (19). “What money and feces have in common is that they are deindividualized possessions; and deindividualized means necessarily losable. Thus money, in the same way as the feces previously, is estimated and watched over as a possession which is in constant danger of losing its ego quality.”19 As a result of this psychic equation, the narrator, in a typically anal way, has firmly retained that which to him symbolizes feces and is in danger of being lost.

Once evicted, he takes to wandering, and Beckett, as we know, makes much of the way his characters walk or move, whether on foot, crutches, or bicycle. Gilbert Rose, in an exploration of creative function, has concluded that the body is the model on which we construct the world as a whole, a general schema in which we tend to see in outside objects reflections of our own bodies. Of walking he specifically states that “the total movement of one's body bears such an intimate and basic relationship to one's concept of self that it is the key factor in recognizing oneself on movie film when all other cues are blocked out. In now classic experiments, subjects failed to identify their own voices, pictures of their hands, and even their profiles. But they promptly recognized their own gait. This is particularly striking since one seldom sees oneself walk. Apparently the person unerringly identifies him- or herself with the total movement of trunk and limbs.”20 The narrator of “First Love” in his wandering is less concerned with his gait than is the narrator of “The Expelled,” who, as we have already seen, specifically attributed his way of walking to poor toilet habits in childhood. Again we see in the conjunction of gait, feces, and identity, Beckett's intuitive recognition of anal conflict and its consequences in his characters' psychic lives.

The narrator's wandering soon after his eviction takes him to the place he will meet his first love, Lulu, “a bench, on the bank of the canal, one of the canals, for our town boasts two, though I never knew which was which. It was a well situated bench, backed by a mound of solid earth and garbage, so that my rear was covered” (16). Anal references, both overt and covert, continue to multiply. The confusion over the two canals, while reflecting the narrator's obsessive ambivalence, also serves another purpose, that of revealing an infantile cloacal fantasy. A child's ignorance of the female reproductive system leads to an inability to distinguish the excretory from the birth channel, giving rise to fantasies of anal birth. Indeed when Lulu/Anna eventually does become pregnant, the narrator substantiates the existence of this fantasy by suggesting to her, despite the evidence of his own eyes, that “perhaps it's mere wind” (34). Here again he prefigures Molloy, who has great difficulty sorting such matters out, believing that his own mother “brought me into the world, through the hole in her arse if memory serves me correct. First taste of the shit” (16). Later, after he has had intercourse a tergo with Ma Lousse, he is uncertain as to whether he entered her vagina or her rectum and declares indifference yet wonders, “But is it true love, in the rectum?” (57)

The narrator of “First Love” is himself aware that he is beleaguered by doubts. As he strains to listen to Lulu's song at the bench, trying to hear the words, he can't tell whether she has stopped or he is out of hearing range. “To have to harbour such a doubt was something I preferred to avoid, at that period. I lived of course in doubt, but such trivial doubts as this, purely somatic as some say, were best cleared up without delay, they would nag at me like gnats for weeks on end” (25-26). What he calls “trivial” is of course central; obsessives displace onto small details which under analysis turn out to be substitutes for crucial issues.21 By this means the person shifts the threat of emotional intensity to the periphery and deems it inconsequential. This defensive maneuver explains the characteristic of Beckett's work after the turning point which Cohn has termed “events” lacking proportion.”22 Often these displacements result in excessive concern with the physical rather than with the more important emotional states, hence the obsessive's characteristic hypochondriacal complaints and Beckett's characters' fascination with their boils, cysts, headaches, toothaches, bursitis, etc., ad infinitum.

The narrator of “First Love,” for example, when perplexed by the question of love, takes refuge in a deserted cowshed, ruminating on his feelings while poking his finger in “dry and hollow cowclaps” which remind him that his country is completely derelict, “with the sole exception of history's ancient faeces. These are ardently sought after, stuffed and carried in procession. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire” (21). Clearly time and feces are linked in his mind and somehow, both of them connected to love, for he says immediately by way of denial, “I see no connexion between these remarks. But that one exists, and even more than one, I have little doubt, for my part. But what? Which? Yes, I loved her, it's the name I gave, still give alas, to what I was doing then. I had nothing to go by, having never loved before” (21-22). He then finds himself “inscribing the letters of Lulu in an old heifer pat or flat upon my face in the mud … Perhaps I loved her with a platonic love? But somehow I think not. Would I have been tracing her name in old cowshit if my love had been pure and disinterested? And with my devil's finger into the bargain, which I then sucked” (22).

This scene echoes that of the narrator of “The End” taking refuge in a similar shed where “The floor was strewn with excrements, both human and animal, with condoms and vomit. In a cowpad a heart had been traced, pierced by an arrow” (61). There he tries to nourish himself, sucking directly from a cow's teat, but “… without much success. Her udder was covered with dung” (Ibid.). Both scenes reverberate with the equation of food=milk=mother=love, but anal conflicts keep contaminating its purity and creating intense ambivalence in the narrators. The repugnant image of eating feces most likely represents as well a compensatory infantile defense. If a child experiences defecation as a loss of narcissistic integrity, he will engage in coprophagia, “which represents both an undoing of the defecation and an oral-anal pleasure.”23

After scrawling Lulu's name in the cowpat, the narrator suddenly decides to change it to Anna, perhaps because “Lulu” reiterates the common European word for toilet, i.e., loo-loo. Trying to disguise the conflict by rechristening her “Anna” is only partially successful, however, for the new name itself suggests “anal.” After the renaming, he begins to think of her in a particular way, “long long sessions, twenty minutes, twenty-five minutes and even as long as half an hour daily. I obtain these figures by the addition of other, lesser figures. That must have been my way of loving” (23). His concern with numbers immediately after admitting his love for Anna reveals the compulsive's special cognitive style, his attempt to deal with a failure of defenses. He must now magically “undo” what has been done. Having felt, he must now “unfeel” by intellectualization and manipulation of numbers, entities which, unlike his emotions, he can control.24 Fenichel writes, “What was once done with an instinctual intention must be repeated with a superego attitude. The warded-off instinct, however, tends to enter the repetition also; thus the repetition has to be repeated. Usually the number of necessary repetitions quickly increases. ‘Favorite numbers,’ the choice of which may have their separate unconscious meaning, are set up and determine the number of necessary repetitions; eventually the repetitions may be replaced by counting.”25

Molloy, we recall, is involved in at least two remarkable episodes of magical, symmetrical undoing, both of which end in denial. Upon reflecting that his farts are unable to break through the newspaper he keeps in his pants for warmth, and perhaps having become somewhat aware of the symbolic anal hostility, Molloy reveals that he counted 315 farts in 19 hours and by subdivision and averaging concludes that he produces “not even one fart every four minutes. It's unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I never should have mentioned it. Extraordinary how mathematics helps you to know yourself” (30).

Later in the journey, Molloy devotes a lengthy obsessive monologue to his dependency needs as he recounts the famous “sixteen sucking stones to be divided among the four pockets” problem. Having gathered these stones from the seashore and feeling compelled to suck on one constantly, yet at the same time insure that he does not suck the same one again prior to having sucked each of the others in its turn, he systematically rotates them from pocket to pocket and at great length (six textual pages) details the procedure. Ultimately he concludes, “And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed” (74). Thus is an emotional mountain made into an emotional molehill.

The dependency needs of the narrator of “First Love” also are prominent throughout and become especially striking when he moves in with Anna. As he was during their “courtship,” he is yet the passive member of the relationship, acting as if he were an infant taken care of by his mother: “She brought my meals at the appointed hours, looked in now and then to see if all was well and make sure I needed nothing, emptied the stewpan once a day and did out the room once a month” (31). He has been using the stewpan as a bedpan because, as he himself puts it, “To relieve oneself in bed is enjoyable at the time, but soon a source of discomfort” (30). She is the active partner too in intercourse, apparently raping him: “My night was most agitated. I woke next morning quite spent, my clothes in disorder, the blanket likewise, and Anna beside me, naked naturally. One shudders to think of her exertions. I still had the stewpan in my grasp. It had not served. I looked at my member. If only it could have spoken! Enough about that. It was my night of love” (31).

His relationship with her, however, soon becomes “seriously disturbed by other sounds, stifled giggles and groans, which filled the dwelling at certain hours of the night, and even of the day” (32). Though he eventually discovers her to be a prostitute, it is probable that the events described here are manifestations of a primal scene fantasy, in which a child imagines its parents in the act of intercourse, often misinterpreting it because of the actions and noises as an act of hostility or even violence. The narrator has hinted that he imagines sex to be dangerous earlier when first confronted with Anna's nakedness: “Fortunately, she was not the first naked woman to have crossed my path, so I could stay, I knew she would not explode” (28).

Unfortunately for him, though, she does “explode,” eventually giving birth to a child she claims is theirs, but which he refuses to acknowledge, using the anal birth rationalization mentioned earlier, that the pregnancy is “mere wind.” Indeed, the impending birth threatens the narrator's dependency needs so that in anticipating competition from the child, he first attempts to deny it: “From that day forth things went from bad to worse, to worse and worse. Not that she neglected me, she could never neglect me enough” (34); then, when the birth creates an actual rival, he flees rather than face his aggressive impulses toward it and its mother. Significantly, his flight is described in anal imagery. “I crept out over the back of the sofa … and opened the door to the corridor. A mass of junk barred my way, but I scrabbled and barged my way through it in the end, regardless of the clatter” (35). Like all other Beckettian narrators to follow, he “must go on,” exhibiting what David Shapiro has designated the most conspicuous fact about the obsessive's activity—“its sheer quantity and, along with this, its intensity and concentration … a more or less continuous experience of tense deliberateness, a sense of effort, and of trying.”26

The narrator's last words, as he retreats listening to the newborne's cries, are “I could have done with other loves perhaps. But there it is, either you love or you don't” (36). Though the option reflects the ambivalence of the obsessive and neat symmetry of his thought processes, it is not necessarily true—except for obsessives. To love, one must give, not merely take. To love, one must not be afraid of feeling. But the narrator of “First Love” will neither give nor allow himself to feel. When he first reacts to Anna's stroking his ankles on the bench, he gets an erection and is disturbed by his loss of control. “One is no longer oneself, on such occasions, and it is painful to be no longer oneself, even more painful if possible than when one is. For when one is one knows what to do to be less so, whereas when one is not one is any old one irredeemably. What goes by the name of love is banishment …” (18).

Here the narrator reveals what David Shapiro has termed the obsessive's need to be always “aware that he is a ‘this’ or a ‘that,’” that is, to establish firmly a role which becomes a general directive for behavior; otherwise, he is lost.27 Love alienates the narrator by putting him, in his eyes, at the mercy of his feelings. He is right: to love is to lose oneself to some degree in the other. But it is not to lose identity entirely, as he implies; and though the degree to which one is hurt by the loss of love is proportionate to the degree to which one invests in it, this does not always imply banishment or total abandonment. It is only in infancy that one gets such impressions, creates such fantasies, harbors such fears.

The narrator here seems to have done just that—carried oral and anal conflicts into his adult life so that they impair significantly his adult relationships with women, all of whom symbolize mother. On several occasions, for example, as he tries to visualize Anna's face, he finds her image “might have been anything or anyone, an old woman or a little girl” (24-25) and “It looked neither young nor old, the face, as though stranded between the vernal and the sere” (27). She is, it would appear, an imago, an infantile image projected upon reality and reacted to. The narrator of “The Expelled” at one point observes that “Memories are killing. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don't there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little” (9).

In their need to think of certain things, their scatological preoccupations, their verbosity, their passivity exploding into rage—in short, in their obsessive-compulsive behavior, the narrators of the nouvelles become prototypes of the men and women who are to people Beckett's works for the next forty years. These engrossing creations act out their unconscious infantile fantasies before our eyes and in the bizarreness of their speech and behavior literalize internal emotional states. Bersani saw this technique as a dead end for Beckett, declaring that “extreme fixation at least saves Beckett the embarrassment of being ‘representative’ of all humanity” (263).

Raymond Riva, however, has attempted to account for Beckett's popularity by arguing the opposite, that the artist allows us to relive a long repressed life and “see ourselves more as we actually are than we know.”28 As if in response to Bersani, Riva contends that “Not any single character or situation can be taken to depict any single situation in life, but certainly all of these strange creatures—and even the earlier, more normal ones—all combine into one complex and disturbing hieroglyph connoting contemporary man and his condition” (132).

This assertion, not Bersani's, better accounts perhaps for Beckett's endurance as an artist. Up until his recent death in his early eighties, he continued to produce work of note, preoccupied still with many of these same themes. Whatever the source of his revelation on that lonely jetty at his turning point, Samuel Beckett persevered. His work itself endures, fascinating readers and audiences still with his remarkable facility to express the elemental unconscious concerns of humanity, however, infantile, scatological, or repugnant they maybe. He has in this, indeed, found common cause with Freud.


  1. Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (N.Y.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), p. 357. All references are to this edition.

  2. Though all written in French in 1945-46, the order of their composition and the year the author translated them is as follows: “The End” (1954), “The Expelled” (1962), “The Calmative” (1967), and “First Love” (1972). The first three appeared originally in the U.S. in Stories and Texts for Nothing (N.Y.: Grove Press, 1967) and the last in First Love and Other Shorts (N.Y.: Grove Press, 1974). All references are to these editions.

  3. Ruby Cohn, Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1962), p. 105. All references are to this edition.

  4. John Weightman, “Spool, Stool, Drool,” Encounter, 40, No. 4 (1973), 37.

  5. Sandra Gilbert, “All the Dead Voices,” Drama Survey, 6 (1968), 249.

  6. Stories and Texts for Nothing, p. 14.

  7. Ibid., p. 70.

  8. G. C. Barnard, Samuel Beckett: A New Approach (N.Y.: Dodd, Mead, 1970), p. 32.

  9. “Character and Anal Erotism.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and. ed. James Strachey and others (London: The Hogarth Press, 1966-74), 9 (1908), 167-75.

  10. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (N.Y.: Norton, 1945), p. 268. All references are to this edition.

  11. First Love and Other Shorts, p. 11.

  12. Samuel Beckett, Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable (N.Y.: Grove Press, 1965), p. 13.

  13. Leo Bersani, “No Exit for Beckett,” Partisan Review, (Spring, 1966), p. 263. All references are to this article.

  14. Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (N.Y.: Random House, 1970), p. 132.

  15. How It Is (N.Y.: Grove Press, 1964), p. 26. Equations of and confusions between the mouth and the anus are common in Beckett's work. See, for instance Molloy, pp. 117, 151, and 161.

  16. Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), p. 75.

  17. Barbara Shapiro, “Toward a Psychoanalytic Reading of Beckett's Molloy,Literature and Psychology, 19, No. 2 (1969), 80.

  18. Alain Bosquet, “Combat,” Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, eds. Laurence Graves and Raymond Federman (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), pp. 318-19.

  19. Fenichel, p. 281.

  20. Gilbert Rose, The Power of Form: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Aesthetic Form. Psychological Issues. Monograph No. 49 (N.Y.: International Universities Press, 1980), p. 99.

  21. Fenichel, p. 290.

  22. Cohn, Back to Beckett, p. 75.

  23. Fenichel, p. 155.

  24. Fenichel, p. 154.

  25. Fenichel, p. 288.

  26. David Shapiro, Neurotic Styles (N.Y.: Basic Books, 1965), p. 31. All references are to this edition.

  27. Shapiro, Neurotic Styles, p. 38.

  28. Raymond Riva, “Beckett and Freud,” Criticism, 12 (1970), 122.

Nicoletta Pireddu (essay date summer 1992)

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SOURCE: Pireddu, Nicoletta. “Sublime Supplements: Beckett and the ‘Fizzling Out’ of Meaning.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 3 (summer 1992): 303-14.

[In the following essay, Pireddu considers the disjointed and confused nature of the short texts in Fizzles, arguing that these texts “exhibit the idea of aborted endeavor as their constitutive element.”]

“Perhaps there is no whole, before you're dead” (Beckett, Molloy 35), meditates Molloy while lying in the ditch without remembering how he left town. If his name suddenly comes to his mind as in an epiphany, the purpose of his visit to his mother inevitably escapes him: “My reasons? I had forgotten them” (35). For each detail brought to light, other particulars are reabsorbed into forgetfulness. The activity of memory never provides the character with the total picture of his own self. Its discrete nature frustrates the need to continuity; its inability to fill the gaps opened up by oblivion reveals the arbitrariness of any attempt to master reality, and the inconclusiveness of Molloy's writing registers exactly the failure of such an effort.

If in Molloy the protagonist narrates the story of a fiasco, Beckett's Fizzles represent the fiasco of narration itself. Starting from their titles, both the English and the French version of these short texts exhibit the idea of aborted endeavor as their constitutive element. Voices with no faces recite confused monologues in the hopeless attempt to put order into their past lives; third-person accounts on the verge of syntactical disintegration describe endless wanderings not redeemed by any promise of final revelation; physically impaired bodies struggle against a hostile nature, in the awareness of an impending death. The topology of Fizzles is a paradoxical middle ground between defeat and accomplishment. Far from implying total renunciation, the failure announced at the opening of the collection triggers an attempt at depiction that is doomed to incompleteness: to the danger of silence and of annihilation, Beckett's texts oppose a fictional world of traces that hint at wholeness without ever granting to it. Ruins, decaying bodies, and blurred memories materialize the interplay of presence and absence of meaning that the language of Fizzles reproduces with its imminent and yet never-achieved dissolution.

Through their conceptual and structural fragmentation, the Fizzles dismantle exactly what Adorno defines as art's “unfulfilled (and imprescriptible) longing for perfection,” and by articulating the unresolved struggle between destructive forces and self-preservation they meet the “challenge of the irreconcilable” (Adorno 271). Beckett's literary “fiascos” belong, for this reason, to the category of the sublime, the ascendance of which—according to Adorno—coincides with “the need for art to avoid ‘playing down’ its fundamental contradictions but to bring them out instead” (Adorno 282). In Fizzles, the disruption of form and meaning under the effect of such a clash of forces reveals an essential feature of the contemporary sublime, namely, its being latent. If “the traditional concept of the sublime as an infinite presence was animated by the belief that negation could bring about positivity” (Adorno 282), the irreconcilable conflicts of Beckett's texts break this illusion and offer an example of “radical negativity” (Adorno 284). No longer associated with the sense of awe and of subsequent power that defined it in the Kantian version, the sublimity of a literary work like Fizzles derives precisely from its margin of unrepresentability, and from the inadequacy of any attempt to penetrate it. Deprived of the aggrandizement that characterizes the Romantic participation in the source of the sublime, these texts rather involve the agonizing experience of characters suspended between physical destruction and recovery of integrity, between oblivion and memory.

With the frantic activity of recollection recurring and yet failing throughout Fizzles, Adorno's “radical negativity” merges with Lyotard's notion of the unrepresentable as “Forgotten,” as something that remains immemorial and unthought. Beckett's “imperfect” texts express the sublime by calling attention to an excess of meaning and of reality that cannot be recuperated but only evoked through its absence; their words represent precisely

what every presentation misses, what is forgotten there: this “presence” … which persists not so much at the limits but rather at the heart of representation; this unnameable in the secret of names, a forgotten that is not the result of a forgetting of a reality … and which one can only remember as forgotten “before” memory and forgetting, and by repeating it.

(Lyotard, Heidegger 5; my emphasis)


It is exactly the notion of a perceptual reenacting that animates Beckett's Fizzles, in spite of the failure to which these texts are doomed by definition: the repetitive pattern described by Lyotard sustains the collection as a whole and is epitomized in the title of the last Fizzle, “For to end yet again” (Beckett, Fizzles 55).1 Far from granting a stronger mastery of reality and of meaning in the narration, the dynamics of endless repetition that truncates the texts before they attain a logical conclusion or a potential revelation implies exactly an act of re-presentation deprived of presentation and of presence.

The movement suggested at the opening of Fizzle 1 is immediately reduced to a mere act of oscillation that anchors the subject to its initial position: “he is forth again, he'll be back again” (7). However, in spite of this yoke, the subject gropes his way in the dark and starts a quest set in a labyrinthine site that is both material and mental. Proceeding along a zigzag path—that is, not sustained by the teleological linear progression toward a target—and frustrated in his “effort to pierce the gloom” (9), he manages to relive some episodes of his past life but without ever being able to give a global shape to his history. As in Molloy's experience, the unearthing of a detail from oblivion implies the burial of other elements, and reveals simultaneously the inefficacy of the quest and the impossibility of putting an end to it. Similarly, after a series of encounters with Horn and an investigation into the past through his notes, the speaker of the monologue in Fizzle 2 has to acknowledge his failure and, still confused about time and temporal relations, avows the need for a new beginning:

I thought I had made my last journey, the one I must now try once more to elucidate, that it may be a lesson to me, the one from which it were better I had never returned. But the feeling gains on me that I must undertake another.


The paradoxical coexistence of renunciation and undertaking of new endeavors persists in Fizzes 3 and 4, where the first-person speaker “gave up before birth” (25) and declares his impotence by emphasizing his lack of voice and of thought, but still sets himself the task of narrating the story of the “other” consciousness in the piece: “I'll tell the tale, the tale of his death” (31)—a tale and a death that never take place. All these aborted attempts and their reiterated necessity are absorbed in the closing statement of Fizzle 8, which strengthens the process of re-presentation implied by the title and provides no alternative to eternal beginning: “Through it who knows yet another end beneath a cloudless sky same dark it earth and sky of a last end if ever there had to be another absolutely had to be” (61).

The act of writing and the performance of the characters in Beckett's texts are in the service of a mechanism of re-membering which is at the same time a dis-membering. In Fizzles, memory cannot reestablish a peaceful continuity between past and present; no edifice of totality can be reconstructed from the fragments of their topology. It is primarily the additional connotation of the words fizzles and foirade—as well as the status of these texts vis-à-vis Beckett's literary production as a whole—that throws further light upon the role of traces and remains, and consequently upon their relation with Lyotard's treatment of the sublime. Actually, the idea of failure in both the English and the French headings is combined with a reference to excrements and to uncontrolled corporal functions that establish the residual nature of this collection with respect to the body of the author's work. These texts are condemned—by definition—to occupy a marginal place in Beckett's aesthetic project, since they are conceived as excretions that can no longer be integrated within the original source that generated them. Therefore, they constitute an example of “radical fragmentation, pursued to its logical end of dispersion and multiplicity” (Hill 175). Given their shattered structure, the failure of these “fizzles” is extended to their lack of “organic self-coincidence” (Hill 176): they do not merely stand for the expelled remainders of a nonexistent whole, but they are also residual in relation to their own self-containedness.

The title of the collection, in this respect, anticipates the “supplementary” quality of the ruins and traces upon which memory inscribes its project of reconstruction. As in the text of the Freudian unconscious, the fragments that recur throughout Beckett's texts are residual in themselves: far from functioning as synecdoches for a totality that asks to be retrieved, they are “repositories of a meaning which was never present” (Derrida, Writing 211).2 Being “always already” incomplete, these supplements cannot but compensate imperfectly for the lack of plenitude they decree. Like Lyotard's notion of “the jews” (Lyotard, Heidegger xxiii) as those devoid of self-identity and of mythical origin, the residues in Fizzles stimulate and frustrate the desire for a wholeness and a presence that cannot be re-collected, neither through the material assemblage of the fragments, nor through an act of memory. The Forgotten plenitude—the source of the sublime—has to remain forgotten, but it needs memory in order to be remembered as such. It must not be naturalized by representation, nor suppressed and effaced by oblivion, but rather venerated through the aborted efforts to appropriate and represent it. In the agonizing space of Beckett's texts, the condemnation to eternal beginning becomes the only way to maintain this precarious balance of annihilation and preservation. By endlessly reenacting a drama of disintegration that does not culminate with death, Beckett can avoid concluding, since “to terminate”—to put an end to his “fizzles”—would coincide with “to exterminate”—namely, to destroy the “place of remains” (Beckett, Fizzles 55), the locus of the conflictual forces that allow the sublime to come into being. With the extermination of these traces, anamnesis would turn into amnesia. Representation would still belong to the realm of the beautiful; it could still rely on “the solace of good forms” (Lyotard, Postmodern Condition 81), but only through an arbitrary act—through the exclusion of those residual elements whose formlessness evokes exactly the unpresentable, the sublime.

The failed attempt at recollection and the material presence of remainders as supplements for the unpresentable emerge from the opening page of Fizzle 1—where “none of [the character's] memories answer” (7)—and are reinforced in its closing comment—with the surfacing of bones as the “fresh elements” that “contribute to enrich” (15) the impossible reconstruction of the character's past history. Bones are combined with “grit” (27) and “dust” (32) to anticipate the physical consumption of the two voices in Fizzles 3 and 4, but—together with the ruins of the landscape—they simultaneously affirm their material presence as opposed to the total effacement implied by death. Nature joins man in the process of mechanical decay, and—as shown in Fizzle 5—can be remembered only through “dead leaves,” “not rotting” (39)—since this would still reaffirm a form of life, though elementary, and therefore a positive, organic principle of reconstruction—but rather “crumbling into dust” (39). The “place of remains” (55) in Fizzle 8 “where once used to … glimmer a remain” best epitomizes the supplementary nature of these texts by indicating exactly the lack of initial plenitude and presence in a kind of mise en abîme. Equally, through the reference to “the expelled” (56) that is engulfed in dust mingling with the remainders of buildings, Beckett reinstates precisely the idea of detachment from an original totality and the impossible reintegration that define the residual quality of fizzle and foirade.3

This process of inexorable fragmentation is inscribed in the image of the agonizing skull to which Fizzle 8 reduces its protagonist: the mind that in the Romantic sublime should struggle against a prostrating experience and ultimately regain its power and integrity is metonymically translated into its material container, which acts as a memento mori. Death as forgetfulness can only be remembered through a perishable relic; the activity of memory that should re-collect the disjecta membra of Beckett's characters can only be “laughable” (58): the unpresentable—the “Forgotten”—needs remembrance in order to be saved from oblivion, but at the same time it decrees the uselessness of any attempt at representation. If the ritual of turning the light on and off seems to grant the characters the restoration of their past (Rabinovitz 318) and of their sense of selfhood, it actually provides only disconnected flashes of memory: the “electric torch” (19) does not clarify the forgotten details of the past contained in Horn's notebook; the light of the bulb is equally ineffective to unify the “faces, agonies, loves, … moments of life” (44) recalled by the protagonist of Fizzle 6; the glimmering “remains” of subjectivity, of monuments and of the “light of the day” (55), are the metaphors through which memory exhibits its inadequacy to illuminate the shadow surrounding it.


“The understanding”—observes Lyotard—”imposes its rules on to all objects, even aesthetic ones. This requires a time and a space under control” (Heidegger 41). Fizzles shrinks from such kind of naturalization by altering precisely these two parameters: time acquires the value of Heideggerian temporality—thus reducing the character to being-toward-death—and space is threatening in its vastness and monotony.4 Like a parodic double of Ishmael meditating upon the whale's “dumb blankness full of meaning” (Melville 199) the “little body” in Fizzle 8 is also confronted with a “whiteness to decipher” (58), but there is no ultimate revelation of its nature or of its origin: the “distant whiteness sprung from nowhere” (59; my emphasis) takes the shape of two dwarfs who—although possible harbingers of death—are not unmasked in their function, and do not hinder the protagonist's slow but endless fall. He sees them with his eyes, eyes that “the fall has not shut nor yet the dust stopped up” (60); therefore he believes in them. However, the sense of sight is actually entrusted to the mere “gaping sockets” of a “sepulchral skull” (60). The ability to master reality through visual perception is thus affirmed and immediately denied: the protagonist's empty sockets put into question understanding and representability.

Through the physical and mental deterioration of its characters, Fizzles dramatizes the second phase of the Kantian sublime—that is, it describes the annihilation of the subject under the effect of an overwhelming experience. Actually, the Critique of Judgment already presupposes the mind's inadequacy to grasp the source of the sublime (Kant 99): the unattainability of the object decrees precisely the failure of representation. Beckett's texts are founded upon a similar disproportion between the inner and the outer realm, between powerless bodies and minds on the one hand, and uncontrollable destructive forces on the other. The characters face an external reality that is in excess with respect to them: memory is no refuge from dissolution—since it fails to provide a reassuring and organic image of the past—and the present is absorbed by the threat of an imminent extinction. With the depiction of bodies in the ditch, Fizzle 5—which significantly bears the title “Se voir” in the French version (Beckett, Pour finir 51)—almost invokes death through its material ritual of burial, since the actual occurrence of death would at least redeem the purposeless agony of the characters by inserting it in a design. Similarly, the apostrophe at the beginning of Fizzle 6 turns the mythical image of the earth as source of regeneration into a metonymy for decease: “old earth, no more lies … You'll be on me” (43). However, the closing image in the collection frustrates once again this longing for resolution. The “little body” sinking into a wasteland of ruins and dust is “prostrate” and constantly falling “as though pushed from behind by some helping hand” (60), but if there seems to be “no fear of [his] rising again,” the logic of Fizzles—”to end yet again”—does not rescue him from life.

Nevertheless, whereas Kant's treatment of the sublime involves a subsequent reactive phase that reestablishes the balance between the mind and the object, Beckett's texts endlessly expand the moment of ego-loss without allowing any recovery. Fizzles neglects the aggrandizement that in the Critique of Judgment derives from the subject's identification with the transcendent source of the sublime: the sky has been “forsaken of its scavengers” (59) and, all the more reason, it is no longer the locus of the divine as a force granting self-preservation and transcending human limitations. In the place of the leap of faith with which Kantian subjects can be elevated and have a revelation of their own sublimity, Beckett's characters experience a downfall: the unpresentable haunts and prostrates them. Far from providing empowerment through identification, the sublime functions as a term of comparison against which skulls and little bodies can measure their own inadequacy and failure. In this respect, the etchings that Jasper Johns combines with one of the editions of Fizzles are symptomatic. The several images of legs that the painter juxtaposes to Beckett's words reinforce the very idea of powerlessness that characterizes the second stage of the Kantian sublime and that accounts for Fizzles as a whole. Actually, if the violent excitation aroused by the sublime experience can be equaled to sexual orgasm, the phallic aspect of the legs in John's illustrations invalidates precisely such an idea of energy: it rather suggests flabby and inoperative organs, detached from the body and doomed to impotence and to fiascos.5

In the world of Fizzles the “grey cloudless sky” (57) conceals no transcendency; no Oversoul can elevate the self after its loss into a sublime Romantic nature. The unpresentable and the threat of annihilation are therefore far from having a metaphysical origin: in their pathetic condemnation to a perennial purgatorial state, the little bodies and the skulls of Fizzles are rather deferring to disintegration that in postmodern, post-Hiroshima decades can be more easily associated with an atomic catastrophe. They are thus waiting for a Godot that does not possess any phonetic or intrinsic affinity with God: instead of reassembling their mortal remains after their physical death in the resurrection of body and soul, the nuclear destruction that haunts them will dissolve any trace. The distinction made by Burke and Kent between love for the beautiful as something that the subject can dominate and admiration for the sublime because of its crushing impact upon the mind cannot subsist in the nuclear age. The instinct of self-preservation that arouses the resistance to the overwhelming forces of nature fails to master the threat of an irreversible annihilation with no remainders: obviously, the nuclear sublime does not afford the “empowerment of selfhood” (Wilson 236) entailed by natural phenomena in the Romantic aesthetic tradition. What the nuclear sublime lacks is the “safety distance” that allows the ultimate recuperation of mental power. Actually, in line with the impulse of self-preservation, the “delight” that for Burke is produced by the natural sublime derives not so much from the presence of pain and danger as from their removal: if they “press too nearly” (Burke 34)—as in the case of the nuclear sublime—they are merely “terrible.”

Therefore, the dust, bones and ruins that constitute the fictional space of Beckett's texts, as well as the logic of eternal beginning that frustrates closure, assert themselves as a way of resisting the danger involved in an atomic holocaust—namely, that of utter effacement with no remainders and no continuation. The falling fragments of buildings and bodies superimposing layer after layer in the wastelands of these stories create a testamentary palimpsest that—despite the failure inscribed in its texture—strives to dissipate the specter of the tabula rosa resulting from a nuclear devastation. To the amnesia of the nuclear fire—the physical abolition of all that came before and its parallel elimination of all possible “after”—Fizzles opposes anamnesis—the thwarted but always renovated attempts at recollection that the characters make in the stories, and that the author undertakes through his own writing.

In the context of an impending risk of total abolition, Beckett's words are really an example of “writing of survival” (Lyotard, Heidegger 44), of an art that implies not so much a positive, life-affirming image—which would be related to the reassuring category of the beautiful—as an unresolved struggle for life, an effort to withstand hostile forces. Confronted with a negative excess, overwhelmed by a “too much,” Beckett reacts with a “syntax of weakness” (Harvey 249) that articulates this life-and-death conflict. The act of writing—although doomed to create mere “fizzles”—exorcises the failure of imagination by exploiting imagination to depict failure. It is only through words that the reality of the nuclear disintegration can be evoked, and it is simultaneously through their inadequacy that the sublimity of this phenomenon can emerge. As an event that has not yet taken place, the nuclear conflict is “fabulously textual” (Derrida, “No Apocalypse” 23); it is a trope re-presenting a referent that is unfigurable and threatening in its unpresentability.

Through his inexhaustible depiction of prostration in Fizzles, Beckett rhetorically simulates the stage of ego-shattering under the burden of the impending danger of its effacement and puts off the actual experience of general destruction, which is incommensurate to language and thought. Far from attempting to unveil an event whose first occurrence would also be the last (Derrida, “No Apocalypse” 30), Fizzles proclaims that “There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing” (Fizzles 37). The “ditch” that circumscribes the “closed place” (37) of Fizzle 5 also describes cognitive limits: “nothing” (37) lies beyond it, “no more” can be known. To jump over the ditch—namely, to enact the experience of boundary crossing implied by the logic of the sublime—in order to represent a nuclear catastrophe becomes an impossible task: the only condition for its realization is actual experience, but the price for such an irreversible step would be absolute destruction “without apocalypse, without revelation of its own truth” (Derrida, “No Apocalypse” 27), ultimately without knowledge. The “day after”—like the “after Auschwitz” for Lyotard—has to be remembered as “Forgotten”: Fizzles “does not say the unsayable but says that it cannot say it” (Lyotard, Heidegger 47).


Nuclear annihilation extends to a universal level the paradoxical coincidence of meaning and inexpressibility that is inherent in death. With the destruction of the “entire archive” and of “all symbolic capacity” (Derrida, “No Apocalypse” 28) no “writing of survival” could be possible: there would be no relic upon which remembrance could inscribe its mourning. Fizzles emphasizes the sublime nature of death as an inaccessible moment of revelation and as the repository of unattainable meaning, but with its material and linguistic debris it resists precisely the threat of total silence.

In line with the interpretation of the sublime experience in terms of an Oedipal struggle followed by the identification with a father-figure, Kristeva assimilates death to the realm of the paternal symbolic order and defines Beckett's reaction to it as “an ‘unnameable’ interplay of meaning and jouissance” (148). Actually, the fragmented syntax of Fizzles is not merely an example of counter-symbolic writing totally oblivious of the paternal function: it rather re-members the father-figure as the guarantor of meaning in order to reduce it to a dismembered corpse, and mingles the veneration for the vestiges of meaning with the bliss of disruption. With its logic of eternal beginning, Fizzles does not exterminate the father once and for all: rather, it endlessly reiterates his ritual murder. On the other hand, the jubilation over having eliminated this linguistic authority does not imply total freedom. The banishment that is supposed to relieve the character—as well as the author—of the oppressing yoke of paternity and of the threat of death rather leads to the mourning for this lost presence.

However, no surrogate figure can replace this vacancy in the world of Fizzles, especially not the maternal image that in other texts by Beckett “becomes a mirage of serenity, shielded from death” (Kristeva 157). In the disintegrating space of Fizzle 8, the mother is a crumbling “ruin” (Fizzles 58) in the process of pulverization, and the only other reference to this figure deprives it of identity and of any relevant role: “he'll confuse his mother with whores, his father with a road-man named Balfe” (27). With the elimination of these two vertices of the Oedipal triangle, Beckett is left with a “balance of nothingness” (Kristeva 152) suspended between a return to the womb—perhaps evoked through the collapsing “refuge” (Fizzles 56) to which the character does not wish to go back—and the introjection of paternal authority. He therefore partakes of the supplementary nature of “the expelled” as deprived of an origin and of a destination, and shares with him a middle ground “where all the footsteps ever fell can never fare nearer to anywhere nor from anywhere further away” (60)—where neither nostalgia for the beautiful nor euphoria for a new source of self-elevation reigns.

The ritual of deterioration and the logic of the supplement materially embodied in the “remains” of Beckett's Fizzles replace the aggrandizement of the subject in the Romantic sublime with a sense of exhaustion and of belatedness that is typical of post-modernism. Instead of gaining self-empowerment through the identification with a sublime paternal figure, Beckett exhibits his epigonic status as a “son, who never enunciated himself as anything else,” as “a false father who doesn't want to be a father” (Kristeva 150-51). If Wordsworth in Paris is overwhelmed by a French Revolution that possesses all the qualities of the Burkean sublime and that is thus identifiable with an ideology of power and originality, the post-Kantian sublime of Beckett's Fizzles is precisely the negation of such an ideology, and rather works to challenge its pretensions.


  1. If in the English version the idea of endless repetition emphasized in the title of the last text seems to throw light retrospectively upon the development of the collection as a whole—thus still hinting at a possible teleology—the French edition of Fizzles connects these texts in a different order. Significantly, “Pour finir encore”—the French equivalent of Fizzle 8—is located at the opening of the collection: in this way, it anticipates the structural and conceptual inconclusiveness that sustains the work in its entirety. In addition, by collapsing the distinction between the starting and the terminal point, the title reinforces the idea of aborted attempt that defines these texts. Cf. Beckett, Pour finir. It is in the interplay of the two versions that Beckett's problematization of the act of writing and of representation emerges in its most disruptive aspect.

  2. For the notion of ruins as supplements and for their connection with the impossible project of restoration through memory—as shown in Fizzles—see Derrida, Mémoires 68-71.

  3. Because of these connotations, the “expelled” can also be defined in terms of Lyotard's “the jews.”

  4. The lack of control over time and space in Beckett's texts establishes a symptomatic contrast with the power that Marinetti proclaims over reality by taming exactly these two variables: “Human energy centupled by speed will master Time and Space.” By glorifying “the beauty of speed” and the subsequent divine authority it provides, the avant-garde repudiates the weakness and the sense of exhaustion that characterize Beckett's postmodern universe. The “Futurist morality” aims at defending man “from decay caused by slowness [and] by memory,” the specters that 50 years later would haunt the fiction of Fizzles. Cf. Flint 94-95.

  5. The legs separated from the body, as well as all the other corporal fragments in John's etchings, partake of the supplementary aspect of “fizzles” and “foirades”: because of their discrete nature—as revealed from one of the illustrations—they cannot be made to cohere into a whole. They express the lack of self-identity and the residual quality that characterize the traces in Beckett's texts. For the collaboration of Beckett and Johns cf. Prinz 480-510; Shloss 153-68

Further Reading

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Amiran, Eyal. Review of Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, by Samuel Beckett. Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 4 (fall 1997): 523-25.

Laudatory review.

Cathleen Culotta, Andonian, ed. The Critical Response to Samuel Beckett, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 428 p.

Collection of critical essays.

John, Pilling, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 249 p.

Collection of essays on Beckett's work.

Additional coverage of Beckett's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1945-1960; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 61; Contemporary Authors–Obituary, Vol. 130; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18, 29, 57, 59, 83; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 13, 15, 233; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1990; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists,Most-studied Authors, and Novelists; DISCovering Authors; Drama Criticism, Vol. 22; Drama for Students, Vols. 2, 7, 18; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Guide to French Literature, 1789 to the Present; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 15; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 16; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 145; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism.

John Fletcher (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Fletcher, John. “Joyce, Beckett, and the Short Story in Ireland.” In Re: Joyce 'n Beckett, edited by Phyllis Carey and Ed Jewinski, pp. 3-20. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Fletcher finds similarities between Beckett's “Fingal” and James Joyce's “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”]

In freshman classes, I tend to define the short story as a short prose narrative of concentrated effect, complete within its own terms, showing a firm story-line and often an abrupt ending, limited in its temporal and spatial location and in the number of characters deployed, and tending to work through understatement and humor rather than explicit comment.

Joyce's Dubliners is one of the greatest short-story collections ever published. Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks, an early book—one he refused for many years to allow to be reissued—is far from being in the same league. Still, they are worth comparing in the light of the above definition for a number of reasons. The first, and most obvious, is that the young Beckett greatly admired his older compatriot and sought to imitate him. Secondly, they are both set in Dublin and feature Dublin people, as Joyce's title explicitly acknowledges. Thirdly, they both deploy a particular sense of humor—at once intellectual, sardonic, and self-consciously literary—which readers tend to associate with Irish writing in general.

I would like in this essay to look closely at their art of the short story with particular reference to “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” from Dubliners and to the second story, “Fingal,” in More Pricks Than Kicks. I have deliberately chosen, as being more typical of their respective authors, stories that are less frequently discussed than, say, “The Dead” in Joyce's case or than “Dante and the Lobster” in Beckett's collection; because they are not perhaps the “best” story by either writer, they are, arguably, more representative of each collection taken as a whole.

“Ivy Day in the Committee Room” is set, as its full title implies, in an electoral ward committee room in Dublin as dusk falls on October 6 (Ivy Day, the anniversary of the death of Parnell) in a year early in the present century. A motley group of canvassers and election workers enter the room to warm themselves by the fire, to drink stout, and to chat. Warmed by liquor and fellowship, the half-dozen men become a trifle sentimental about their great hero, Parnell, and one of them, Joe Hynes, is prevailed upon to recite a piece of mawkish doggerel verse that he has written, being, in the eyes of his companions, “a clever chap … with the pen” (D 125). In an interesting use of what we now call intertextuality, Joyce gives the poem in extenso, all eleven stanzas of it. Deeply touched, Mr. Hynes's listeners give him a spontaneous round of applause. So moved is the poet himself that he pays no heed to the popping of the cork in his bottle of stout, and another prominent character (prominent in that he is present in the room throughout), Mr. O'Connor, starts to roll himself a cigarette, “the better to hide his emotion” (135). Even Mr. Crofton, who represents the Conservative interest (for the men, although in temporary electoral alliance, do not belong to the same political party), agrees that Hynes's panegyric is “a very fine piece of writing” (135). Joyce's irony is all the sharper for not being spelled out: drink and national sentiment temporarily unite these men who, otherwise, have little in common and who indeed (as their sarcastic remarks behind each other's backs reveal all too plainly) do not even greatly care for one another. They have, in other words, about as much charity as they have literary taste: precious little.

In Beckett's story, “Fingal,” the hero Belacqua takes his girlfriend Winnie on a walk in the countryside near Dublin. Because she is “hot” (MPTK [More Pricks Than Kicks] 23) (a sexist epithet that the author did not permit himself in later years), they take advantage of the fine spring weather to make love a couple of times. When not embracing, they gaze upon the Irish landscape in general and upon the Portrane Lunatic Asylum in particular, where Belacqua declares his heart to reside, and Winnie, a doctor friend of hers; so they agree to make for there. But Belacqua, his immediate sexual needs having now been gratified, abandons Winnie to her friend Dr. Sholto. He infinitely prefers to her company—now that the baser lusts of the flesh have been satisfied—that of a bicycle, which he steals from a farmworker. Much to Winnie's annoyance, he gets clean away on it, and the author leaves him drinking and laughing in a roadside pub. This is the “memorable fit of laughing” (23) referred to in the opening sentence of the story, a fit which, we are told, incapacitated Belacqua from further gallantry for some time.

The style throughout “Fingal”—indeed throughout the entire collection—is marked by elaborate and calculated allusiveness combined with extensively developed verbal irony. At its best this can give rise to suggestively witty prose, as in the coy way the sexual act is referred to: “They had not been very long on the top [of the hill] before [Belacqua] began to feel a very sad animal indeed” (23). This is an erudite allusion to a saying usually attributed to Galen, the most famous physician of ancient Rome, to the effect that every creature suffers depression after intercourse (“omne animal post coitum triste est”); and the bawdy innuendo here is that the first act of love must have been intensely pleasurable for Belacqua since it leaves him feeling particularly sad, whereas the second embrace, on the top of another hill, makes him only plain sad. (What Winnie experiences is not specified, unless we are meant to understand something quite abstruse from the assertion that, after the first occasion, she appears to Belacqua to be in high spirits; following the same logic, the author may be implying that she did not have an orgasm and so escaped Galen's depression. But this may be carrying obscene interpretation further than even this witty author intends.)

At less than its best, this kind of writing is pedantry pure and simple, arrogantly disdaining simple formulations and cloaking a banal idea in an esoteric manner. On the second page of the story, for instance, there is elaborate and rather fatuous play on the name of the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, and on the third, some toying with Latin and Roman history. This is neither funny nor particularly clever, unlike the rather effective joke upon Galen's aphorism.

All the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks are set in Dublin and its environs and are, like Dubliners, permeated with the atmosphere of the Irish capital. In snatches of dialogue that anticipate the elegant Irishisms of Waiting for Godot, we hear the authentic brogue of the people, which Beckett sometimes helpfully translates (“Now would they1 do him the favour to adjourn … ? This meant drink” [31]), and their characteristic accent (“Dean Swift” pronounced “Dane Swift” [33], for instance). Nevertheless, Belacqua is something of an outsider as far as ordinary Irish people are concerned: he is idle, he is educated, and above all, he is a Protestant, a “dirty lowdown Low Church Protestant high-brow” (172). Inevitably, then, one does not find in More Pricks Than Kicks the same intimate familiarity with Dublin life—the sense of belonging to a society that is unique with its particular customs, humor, and myths—as one experiences in Dubliners. The country and its people are contemplated in Beckett's collection from a certain distance, which is perhaps not so surprising in the work of a Protestant Irishman, but, for all that, the feeling of alienation cannot be explained solely in terms of religion and ethnic origin. Belacqua is not only a member of the “Protestant Ascendancy,” which ruled Ireland until independence; he is also the first in a line of Beckettian heroes whose condition of exile becomes gradually more painful. He is, in fact, the natural precursor of Molloy and of the Unnamable.

Physically, indeed, Belacqua appears a bit of a clown, an early version of the Chaplinesque figures in Waiting for Godot. It is easy, for instance, for Dr. Sholto to give a “brief satirical description” (MPTK 34) of his person, which would run on these lines: a pale fat man, nearly bald, bespectacled, shabbily dressed, and always looking ill and dejected (he is suffering from impetigo on his face in “Fingal,” much to the disgust of Winnie, who has been kissed by him). His appearance is in fact grotesque enough to provoke comment and even laughter in all places except where he is well known. He is a total eccentric; we have already noted his habit of preferring bicycles to women. This oddity in his reactions (or, rather, his incapacity for registering the normal reactions expected of him) is coupled with a faculty for acting with insufficient motivation, which his creator maintains is serious enough to make a mental home the place for him (hence his avowal that his heart resides in the Portrane Lunatic Asylum). But, even more than a padded cell, what Belacqua really longs for is to return to the womb, where he fantasizes about lying on his back in the dark forever, free from “night sweats” (i.e., sex). In default of such a refuge, Belacqua enjoys to the full a melancholy indulged in for its own sake: landscapes, such as Fingal, are of interest to him only insofar as they furnish him “with a pretext for a long face” (30).

Beckett uses this oddity—a person not quite at one with his fellow men, often more an onlooker than active participant in what goes on in the stories—for satirical ends. Inspired caricature fixes the less amiable aspects of a person in few words as is the case in “Fingal” with Dr. Sholto, “a pale dark man with a brow” (31) who feels “nothing but rancour” (32) toward Belacqua, evidently because Winnie prefers him to Sholto (which may indicate that what made Belacqua “sad” was pleasurable for her, after all). This is all the more galling to the pompous, prissy doctor in that Belacqua patently prefers his own company, laughing out loud alone in the pub, to getting “sad” with Winnie: his “sadness” falls from him “like a shift” (32) as soon as he finds the bicycle, we are told. Despite an unsightly rash on his face, we are meant to understand that Belacqua is “sexier” than Sholto, even assisted, as the latter is, by the aphrodisiac of a glass of whiskey.

Belacqua's compulsive urge to retreat from the body and its “night sweats” into the wider freedom of the mind springs from a dualistic conviction that he shares with his successor-heroes in the Beckett canon. They, too, are lovers of bicycles; man and machine together form what Hugh Kenner calls, in an arresting phrase, a “Cartesian centaur” (Kenner 132), from Descartes, whose thought deeply influenced the young Beckett who wrote More Pricks Than Kicks. In all his writing, indeed, Beckett advances his own version of Cartesianism, in which the mental part of his heroes seeks continually to escape from the physical part. In this early story, therefore, there is already discernible a theme—not quite drowned by the academic wit and the tiresome allusiveness—which becomes increasingly central in Beckett's fiction: the radical split between body and mind, a disconnection that allows the mind to retreat progressively into itself, into an isolated life of its own. In the later works, the body is left to break down, like a worn-out piece of machinery, while the mind, panic-stricken at the prospect of cessation, chatters on, rehashing continually its never-changing futilities.

Thus the seeds of For to End Yet Again were sown forty years earlier in More Pricks Than Kicks, just as the long road to Finnegan's wake starts out from the committee rooms and parlors of the Dubliners whom Joyce portrays so deftly in “Ivy Day” and the other stories. Just as the bicycle that enables Belacqua to escape from Winnie is the twin of the one that leads Molloy into his disastrous encounter with his mistress, Lousse, so the Liffey, which the friends cross in a ferryboat in the second story of Dubliners, is the same “riverrun,” the same Anna Livia's “hitherandthithering waters of” Finnegans Wake.

Both writers, then, are supremely consistent with themselves: just as both—the senior, a Catholic; the junior, a Protestant—are intensely, politically, Irish. The political dimension is less in evidence in “Fingal,” but it is there, discreetly, in references to Swift and to the potato famine (the tower near which Belacqua and Winnie make love the second time was, they learn, “built for relief in the year of the Famine” [28]). The Fingal landscape stretching out before them is, Belacqua asserts in stoutly patriotic tones, a “magic land” comparable at least to Burgundy and far superior to Wicklow (24).

But Beckett does not—perhaps understandably, given his background—comment upon or even reflect contemporary Irish political concerns: there is no trace in his work of any reference to the Easter Rising or to the civil war; his criticisms are purely social and cultural in nature. Developments like literary censorship or the ban on contraceptives2 he does satirize and debunk, but he eschews party politics and above all the bitter struggles surrounding the birth of the Irish Republic. Joyce, as a member of the majority community, feels no such inhibitions about expressing his feelings in Dubliners. There is telling satire in “The Dead” of the kind of nationalist virago who hurls the insult “West Briton!” at anyone who does not wear his shamrock heart on his sleeve, and in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” as we have seen, mawkish patriotism is ridiculed in Mr. Hynes's ghastly doggerel. At the same time, the men's emotion is genuine enough, even if its expression is inflated and pretentious. The figure of Parnell himself, it is important to note, is not ridiculed; if anything, it emerges enhanced by the extremes of devotion to which his admirers will go, composing and applauding bad verse in homage to their “dead King,” felt so much more truly to be their sovereign lord than Edward VII, who is about to pay a visit to his “wild Irish” subjects (132) and who is derisively referred to as “Eddie” (124) for his pains. Insofar as the views of the implied author can be surmised, they are those of moderate nationalism, unemphatic patriotism, and temperate republicanism. This tolerant, non-extremist position stands in sharp contrast to the intolerance of the harpy in “The Dead” and to the naïve hero-worship of Mr. Hynes in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”

Thus far, for the purposes of comparison, I have been treating “Fingal” and “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” as more or less of equal interest, but, as I made clear at the outset, the two stories are not of equal merit. Joyce's story, even though not the finest story in Dubliners, is markedly superior to “Fingal.” For one thing, Beckett's story is slighter, shorter than Joyce's by about a third, and it deploys fewer and less interesting characters. Belacqua engages our sympathy, no doubt because the author tends to treat him indulgently, but Winnie is not very plausible, and Sholto is no more than sketched. Joyce, by contrast, introduces seven main characters and brings them on like a competent dramatist at different points in the narrative. Old Jack and Mr. O'Connor are present as the story opens and remain in the room throughout; Mr. Hynes the poet enters, leaves, and re-enters later to deliver his composition; Mr. Henchy enters about one-third of the way through; Father Keon puts in a brief, rather sinister appearance at about the half-way mark; and Mr. Crofton and Mr. Lyons walk in shortly afterward and remain to the end. This deployment of characters gives a much tauter feel to the story than Beckett's does. The effect (to return to my simple definition of the genre outlined at the beginning of this essay) is therefore more noticeably concentrated in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” and the story line is appreciably firmer, the end coming precisely when it should, with the emotional responses to Hynes's elegy undercut by the implied author's discreet mockery of the enterprise when he gets Mr. Crofton (normally a political opponent) to concede that it is “a very fine piece of writing.” The manner in which the end of “Fingal” refers back to the beginning (confirming the previously enigmatic allusion to Belacqua's fit of laughing) is competent enough but feels rather contrived in comparison with the ending of “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”

Both stories are sensibly limited in terms of temporal and spatial location, each covering a few hours in real time and a single setting, the committee room in Joyce's case and the vicinity of the Portrane asylum in Beckett's. The closed space of the committee room symbolizes the inward-looking nature of the men's political and social concerns—parochial and mundane—just as Beckett's outing to the country in fine weather is the objective correlative of Belacqua's escaping from convention and flouting of social niceties. And, last but not least, both writers work their effects by understatement and humor rather than explicit comment, although Beckett is, rather curiously, more old-fashioned than Joyce in his occasional, admittedly muted, use of the authorial aside to the reader, a device that the modernist Joyce eschews altogether. Not only that, but the Beckettian asides reveal the writer's unease: he is not really at home in the short-story form, and rhetorical questions like “Who shall silence them, at last?” (26) betray his discomfort. We are, after all, nearly half a century away from the great brief texts Imagination Dead Imagine,Lessness,Still and the others, texts that are Beckett's supreme, unique contribution to the short prose form. The classic short story, on the other hand, the kind that Chekhov, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and Joyce himself developed to such a high pitch of aesthetic perfection and emotional power, was never (to use an apt colloquialism) Beckett's “scene,” any more than the play in several acts was: he wisely abandoned about the same time an attempt to write a stage work in four acts, one act devoted to each of the four years between the widowing and the remarriage of Mrs. Thrale, Dr. Johnson's friend. In the only section actually composed, Act One, Scene One, the tone is already at odds with the realistic, historical material that Beckett was trying manfully to shape into dramatic form. The pauses, repetitions, and formal patterns in the fragment that survives are precisely those which he was to hone later, in Waiting for Godot, into a style that, even as early as 1937, is characteristically Beckettian. But the form available to him in the '30s was not suitable to his purposes, and he abandoned the project (Disjecta 155-66). He did not abandon More Pricks Than Kicks, but he did, as we saw earlier, refuse for many years to have it reissued. In his eyes the book was juvenile stuff, and although that judgment was not fair, he was correct in accepting that, as examples of the short story form, his collection did not begin to match up to those of his great mentor Joyce.

The difference is highlighted by the humor. In both cases, as I said at the outset, this is intellectual, sardonic, self-consciously literary, and characteristically Irish in manner. But in Beckett's case the intellectualism is just too clever by half, the wryness veers disturbingly close to spite, and the literary self-consciousness borders on the arch. The difference between a master of the form and an apprentice who is trying hard to do well can be seen in sharp focus if two characteristic passages of humorous dialogue are compared in detail. In Dubliners Joyce wrote:

The old man watched him attentively and then, taking up the piece of cardboard again, began to fan the fire slowly while his companion smoked.

“Ah, yes,” he said, continuing, “it's hard to know what way to bring up children. Now who'd think he'd turn out like that! I sent him to the Christian Brothers and I done what I could for him, and there he goes boozing about. I tried to make him somewhat decent.” 5

He replaced the cardboard wearily.

“Only I'm an old man now I'd change his tune for him. I'd take the stick to his back and beat him while I could stand over him—as I done many a time before. The mother you know, she cocks him up with this and that. …” 10

“That's what ruins children,” said Mr. O'Connor.

“To be sure it is,” said the old man. “And little thanks you get for it, only impudence. He takes th'upper hand of me whenever he sees I've a sup taken. What's the world coming to when sons speaks that way to their fathers?” 15

“What age is he?” said Mr. O'Connor.

“Nineteen,” said the old man. 20

“Why don't you put him to something?”

“Sure, amn't I never done at the drunken bowsy ever since he left school? ‘I won't keep you,’ I says. ‘You must get a job for yourself.’ But, sure, it's worse whenever he gets a job; he drinks it all.”

Mr. O'Connor shook his head in sympathy, and the old man fell silent, gazing into the fire 25.


Beckett's humor is quite different, as the following passage from More Pricks Than Kicks reveals:

A stout block of an old man in shirt sleeves and slippers was leaning against the wall of the field. Winnie still sees, as vividly as when they met her anxious gaze for the first time, his great purple face and white moustaches. Had he seen a stranger about, a pale fat man in a black leather coat. 5

“No miss” he said.

“Well” said Winnie, settling herself on the wall, to Sholto, “I suppose he's about somewhere.”

A land of sanctuary, he had said, where much had been suffered secretly. Yes, the last ditch. 10

“You stay here” said Sholto, madness and evil in his heart, “and I'll take a look in the church.”

The old man had been showing signs of excitement.

“Is it an escape?” he enquired hopefully.

“No no” said Winnie, “just a friend.” 15

But he was off, he was unsluiced.

“I was born on Lambay” he said, by way of opening to an endless story of a recapture in which he had distinguished himself, “and I've worked here man and boy.”

“In that case” said Winnie “maybe you can tell me what the ruins are.” 20

“That's the church” he said, pointing to the near one, it had just absorbed Sholto, “and that” pointing to the far one, “'s the tower.”

“Yes” said Winnie “but what tower, what was it?” 25

“The best I know” he said “is some Lady Something had it.”

This was news indeed.


Both writers feature characters who speak in Dubin dialect, but Beckett catches it less accurately (lines 17-19, 22-24 and 26) than Joyce does: the syntax in Joyce is exact and plausible, fully characteristic of the Dublin working class (in standard English “only I'm” in line 10 would be “if I were not,” and “while” in line 11 would be “until,” with “I could no longer” replacing “I could”; and “amn't I never done at” in line 22 would be “do I ever stop remonstrating with”). At the lexical level, words like “cocks up” (12-13), “sup” for “drink” (17), and “bowsy” (22) are authentic Irish idioms, non-standard English, as “somewhat” (7) would be “into someone” in standard speech. Grammatically, “done” for “did” (6) and “says” for “say” (23) are examples of dialectal deviations.

What these contrasted examples really show, of course, is not so much that Beckett could not reproduce dialect authentically as that he was not greatly interested in doing so. He was not concerned with realism at all, in fact, as is revealed stylistically by his use of non-realist features like free indirect speech (4-5), self-quotation or self-intertextualization (9-10), and authorial asides (16, 27).

This crucial difference between Beckett's approach and Joyce's affects the nature of their humor. Joyce's is mimetic; Beckett's is self-reflexive. Joyce's is satirical, that is, extroverted, while Beckett's is self-conscious, that is, introverted. Joyce's suits admirably the short-story form; Beckett's does not. Both men are great writers, but Joyce is already working at the peak of his form in Dubliners, whereas for Beckett, the works of his maturity have still to be written when More Pricks Than Kicks is composed. Had Beckett died in the same year as Joyce did, he would now be remembered, if at all, as a mere promising disciple of a great Irish writer. The world is fortunate that he lived, in fact, much longer than Joyce (who died at the age of fifty-eight) and became a great Irish writer in his turn. We, their readers, able to re-Joyce 'n Beckett, are thus doubly blessed.


  1. The phrasing “Now they would do …” is a misprint in the original. The order as printed makes no sense in Anglo-Irish. Also the question mark indicates an interrogative order.

  2. See “Censorship in the Saorstat” (Disjecta 84-88), and Watt for an extended joke about the aphrodisiac Bando which, like the humble condom, “cannot enter our ports, nor cross our northern frontier, [but] is immediately seized, and confiscated, by some gross customs official half crazed with seminal intoxication …” (170).

Works Cited

Kenner, Hugh. “The Cartesian Centaur.” Perspective 11 (Autumn 1959): 132-41.

John P. Harrington (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Harrington, John P. “Beckett, Joyce, and Irish Writing: The Example of Beckett's ‘Dubliners’ Story.” In Re: Joyce'n Beckett, edited by Phyllis Carey and Ed Jewinski, pp. 31-42. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Harrington investigates the influence of James Joyce on Beckett's short fiction, arguing that “A Case in a Thousand” is “the most apparent adoption in Beckett's early fiction of the style of Joyce's own early work.”]

After his work had taken on characteristic form and after he had acquired the public stature usual on winning the Nobel Prize, Samuel Beckett described his younger self of the 1930s as “‘a very young writer with nothing to say and the itch to make’” (Harvey 273). The itch to make without anything much to say is, of course, no specifically Irish phenomenon, but it was a particularly acute and a particularly dismal predicament in Ireland in the 1930s. The predicament was not lack of models, for there was a wide choice of exemplary figures as well as regular public debate over the quest for that fabulous Irish chimera, a unified national aesthetic. Rather, the predicament lay in the embarrassment of conveniently located riches. Writing on this in 1976 when, presumably, that predicament remained a current concern, Denis Donoghue concluded that “the price we pay for Yeats and Joyce is that each in his way gave Irish experience a memorable but narrow definition … the minor writers of the Irish literary revival were not strong enough to counter Yeats's incantatory rhetoric: no writer in Ireland has been strong enough to modify Joyce's sense of Irish experience in fiction” (131). Donoghue's “no writer in Ireland” qualification here may be a deliberate exclusion of Beckett. But most often Beckett is excluded from discussions of Irish writing by unexamined convention. However, Beckett offers the way out of memorable but narrow definitions of Irish experience. He offers no incantatory rhetoric or distinctly negative sense of Irish experience. Rather, Beckett's work offers a view of Irish experience that is not narrow, exclusionist, or otherwise provincial. Yeats and Joyce, of course, are not predominantly provincial, but the subsequent example of Beckett does throw into interesting relief the provincial strain of their work and that of others associated with the Irish literary revival and its aftermath.

The young Beckett seems to have dealt expeditiously with the spell of Yeats's incantatory rhetoric. Nevertheless, Beckett's Irish past is one of the more untidy areas of record. Richard Ellmann's recent revelation in Nayman of Noland (26) that Yeats himself praised and quoted Whoroscope to Beckett in Killiney in 1932 hints at passing literary relations then between Ireland's Nobel past and Nobel future. A fairly recent reminder of that relation's likely complexity was the basis of Beckett's 1976 teleplay “… but the clouds …,” an allusion to Yeats's “The Tower.”

Young Beckett's fancy for cosmopolitanism and newness meant that the cost of being Irish and literary was to be exacted first by Joyce. Though by now Beckett has in many ways matched the stature of Joyce as a figure on the literary landscape, Beckett's first reception often included an almost persecutorial sort of circumstantial association with Joyce. At one time part of that association was rumored identity as “Joyce's secretary”; later that was improved to the now familiar “not Joyce's secretary.” The sense of Beckett as formed by Joyce persisted even after he got as unlike Joyce as possible, even after he chose French over English and drama over fiction, changes as radical as possible but liable to perception as overreaction. Among the early responses to Beckett's first produced plays, for example, was Lionel Abel's commentary in 1959 on Godot and Endgame in an essay called “Joyce the Father, Beckett the Son”: “Joyce is present in Beckett's plays; he is confronted and he is vanquished, though Beckett, whether as Lucky or Clov, is never shown to be victorious” (27).

In early critical apprehension of Beckett as epigone of Joyce and often in critical consensus today, that confrontation and vanquishment were not of Joyce as overbearing personal example, or of Joyce as formulator of Irish experience in fiction, but of Joyce the author of Finnegans Wake. This notion was epitomized in the Shenker “interview” in 1956 when Beckett was characterized as saying “‘The kind of work I do is one in which I'm not master of my material. The more Joyce knew the more he could. He's tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I'm working with impotence, ignorance’” (3). The emphasis on the amount Joyce “knew,” presumably cumulative, and the omnipotence to which Joyce was “tending” imply preoccupation with Joyce's last work. Even Beckett's decision to write in French is phrased and depreciated by Ellmann in terms of Joyce and Finnegans Wake: Beckett's “boldness was almost without precedent. It freed him from literary forefathers. It was a decision only less radical than Joyce's in inventing his extravagant Finnegans Wake-ese” (16). The Shenker portrayal of Beckett's work as mired in a kind of inverse relationship to Joyce's, tending to ignorance while Joyce's tended to omniscience, encouraged perception of Beckett's early work in terms of Joyce, in terms of Finnegans Wake and in terms of Finnegans Wake-ese as a great mistake. Vivian Mercier, an acquaintance of Beckett's and an estimable commentator on Irish letters, reiterated this view in the late 1970s: Beckett's “greatest folly consisted in attempting to imitate James Joyce: not the earlier work, either, but Work in Progress, the drafts of Finnegans Wake” (36).

There is some reason to see Beckett in the 1930s as largely motivated by emulation of and slow progress away from what was then Joyce's Work in Progress. Chronologies of his work, of course, usually begin with publication in 1929 of “Dante … Bruno. Vico … Joyce” both in transition and in a celebratory volume of essays in anticipation and encouragement of Joyce's work. Beckett's first publications in Dublin, in T.C.D.: A College Miscellany, were the fragmentary, anonymous dialogues called “Che Sciagura” (1929) and “The Possessed” (1930). These were seen in Dublin as quite obviously written under the spell of Joyce and the style of Work in Progress: “‘In the Joycean medley,’” T.C.D. later commented on the second of these early works, “‘its anonymous author performs some diverting verbal acrobatics, but in the manner of a number of transition's offspring, is too allusive to be generally comprehensible’” (quoted in Bair 131). Indeed, Beckett cultivated this association with Joyce by appending to his poems for a 1931 anthology called The European Caravan a contributor's note that read in part: “‘Samuel Beckett is the most interesting of the younger Irish writers. … He has a great knowledge of Romance literature, is a friend of Rudmose-Brown and of Joyce, and has adapted the Joyce method to his poetry with original results’” (quoted in Bair 129-30). The Joyce method of greatest interest then was the method of Works in Progress, which began sporadic publication in transition in 1927 as vanguard of its self-proclaimed revolution of the word. In this example of rather Whitmanesque arrogance, Beckett points to Rudmose-Brown, his mentor at Trinity College, as his background and to the Joyce method as his means to originality. The influence of Work in Progress is also clear in the excerpts from Dream of Fair to Middling Women published in 1932 under the titles “Sedendo et Quiescendo” in transition (misprinted as “Quiesciendo”) and “Text” in The New Review. In Dublin, such progress as Beckett had made in freeing himself from Work in Progress as he refashioned material from Dream for More Pricks Than Kicks was seen as only a slight inverse movement through Joyce's works. “‘Mr. Beckett is an extremely clever young man,’” concluded The Dublin Magazine in its review of More Pricks Than Kicks in 1934, “‘and he knows his Ulysses as a Scotch Presbyterian knows his Bible’” (quoted in Bair 179).

However, the tendency to view the young Beckett as devoted exclusively to Joyce's last works oversimplifies Beckett's critique of his predecessor. Though “Dante … Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” was of necessity devoted almost entirely to Work in Progress, Beckett's essay also refers familiarly to The Day of the Rabblement, which was Joyce's own 1901 declaration of independence from Irish literary predecessors. Furthermore, early in this essay Beckett discusses Stephen Dedalus' attitude in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and later in it he quotes part of Stephen's assertions to Lynch on the aesthetic image. David Hayman, in “A Meeting in the Park and a Meeting on the Bridge” (373), has pointed to echoes of Portrait and of Exiles in Beckett's first published short story, “Assumption,” which appeared in transition in 1929 in the same issue as “Dante … Bruno. Vico.. Joyce.” Even “Sedendo et Quiescendo,” which is obviously derived in style from Work in Progress, alludes in “art thou pale with weariness” (13) and in “a pale and ardent generation” (14) to Stephen's poem in Portrait and derivation of it from Shelley's “To the Moon.” In addition, More Pricks Than Kicks, however stridently it demonstrates its author's knowledge of Ulysses, also includes a story, “A Wet Night,” that gives its attention to Dubliners and in particular to “The Dead.” Beckett's story, like “The Dead,” describes a Christmas season party in Dublin hosted and attended by Dubliners who anxiously exude continental sophistication while showing irritability with Gaelic aficionados. At the end of Joyce's Dubliners story, of course, Gabriel Conroy approaches new self-knowledge as he views the snow from the window of his room in the Gresham Hotel: “It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves” (223). In Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks story, it is rain, not snow, that falls, and the character, Belacqua, is oblivious to rather than intent on the rain that “fell upon the bay, the littoral, the mountains and the plains, and notably upon the Central Bog it fell with a rather desolate uniformity” (83). Nevertheless, Beckett's reference to Joyce's story is scarcely devoted imitation. That clear echo of Joyce is followed in Beckett's story by an obviously parodic approach to self-knowledge by Belacqua: “What was that? He shook off his glasses and stooped his head to see. That was his hands. Now who would have thought that!” (83).

More Pricks Than Kicks was published on May 24, 1934. In July it was reviewed in The Bookman by Francis Watson, who, having mentioned Beckett's monograph on Proust and his involvement in the translation into French of portions of Works in Progress, asserted that “The influence of Joyce is indeed patent in More Pricks Than Kicks but Mr. Beckett is no fashionable imitator. Like Joyce he is a Dubliner and an exile, and Dublin has for him that peculiar compulsion which it exercises upon all Irishmen except Bernard Shaw” (219-20). Watson's laudatory review, which praised More Pricks Than Kicks as “one of those rare books to be read more than once” (220), may have provided Beckett with the opportunity to contribute to the “Irish Number” of The Bookman in August of 1934. That issue included single essays by Stephen Gwynn, Lennox Robinson, and Sean O'Faolain. Beckett contributed two pieces to the issue. One was a review essay, now well known and reprinted, called “Recent Irish Poetry.” The other was a short story, not well known and not reprinted, called “A Case in a Thousand.”

“Recent Irish Poetry” unambiguously categorizes Irish poets as the “antiquarians” or the “others.” The antiquarians are those working poets who adhere to “accredited themes” derived from the Irish literary revival's formulation of a national literary identity and sustained by Yeats. The “others,” notably Thomas McGreevy and Denis Devlin, friends of Beckett's and within the brood T.C.D. called “transition's offspring,” pursue instead “awareness of the new thing that has happened, or the old thing that has happened again, namely the breakdown of the object, whether current, historical, mythical or spook” (Disjecta 70). Beckett had already reviewed a collection of McGreevy's poems in the July 1934 issue of The Dublin Magazine, and he would articulate his admiration for Devlin in a review for transition in 1938 (both reviews have been reprinted in Disjecta). In “Recent Irish Poetry,” McGreevy, Devlin, and Brian Coffey are decreed “the nucleus of a living poetic in Ireland” (76). The bulk of the review, though, is given over to evisceration of the “antiquarians,” including less than admiring references to fellow contributors to this special issue of The Bookman. One fellow contributor was Frank O'Connor, the only one other than Beckett with two pieces in the issue. Though no associate of transition, O'Connor was as effective as Beckett in lampooning the forms of antiquarianism in Ireland in the 1930s; his essay describes how nativism and the state revival of Gaelic in combination with censorship of writers like O'Faolain and Liam O'Flaherty had the result of government sponsorship of Gaelic translations of Emily Brontë, Dickens, and Conrad. Like Beckett, O'Connor signed his two contributions differently. O'Connor's story, “The Man That Stopped,” appeared under the pseudonym he would maintain, while his essay, “Two Languages,” appeared under his own name, Michael O'Donovan. Beckett's essay, “Recent Irish Poetry,” appeared under a pseudonym he would never use again, “Andrew Belis,” while his story, “A Case in a Thousand,” appeared under his own name. One imagines that the short story of Samuel Beckett should not be construed as wholly apart from the living poetic in Ireland proclaimed by Andrew Belis.

“A Case in a Thousand” is the most apparent adoption in Beckett's early fiction of the style of Joyce's own early work. It is written with a scrupulous meanness uncharacteristic of Beckett's other early fiction, including precise but understated attention to descriptive details of principal and minor characters. Forms of address, variations in Anglo-Irish dialect, and trivial mannerisms indicate social distinctions among characters. The Dublin setting at a nursing home beside The Grand Canal is established unobtrusively and without the sort of painful and scatological imagery common in Beckett's Dublin poems of this period, such as “Eneug I.” The narrative, in the third person, proceeds without the allusiveness and obfuscation usual in Beckett's “transition's offspring” fiction.

The story concerns a Dr. Nye and his treatment of a tubercular boy who is worsening since surgery by another doctor. Dr. Nye's treatment of the case is complicated by his discovery that the boy's mother, who watches the hospital room window from the bank of the canal outside, is in fact his own former nanny, a Mrs. Bray. Soon Dr. Nye must make a decision on a second operation. He chooses surgery, the boy dies, and Dr. Nye feels compelled to confront Mrs. Bray with his memory of infantile eroticism. Mrs. Bray clarifies the memory for Nye, in a conversation denied the reader, and they part: “Mrs. Bray to go and pack up her things and the dead boy's things, Dr. Nye to carry out Wasserman's [sic] test on an old schoolfellow” (242).

As the title suggests, Beckett's story echoes in important instances Joyce's “A Painful Case” story from Dubliners. Beckett's story opens with great economy and asserts in the opening of the second paragraph that “Dr. Nye belonged to the sad men, but not to the extent of accepting, in the blank way the most of them do, this condition as natural and proper. He looked upon it as a disorder” (241). Joyce's story opens with a more elaborate exposition of setting and scene and asserts in the opening of the second paragraph that “Mr. Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder. A medieval doctor would have called him saturnine” (108). Both characters are troubled by women characters, who threaten the males' assumed roles and assured selves. Mr. Duffy's relationship with Mrs. Sinico begins when “little by little he entangled his thoughts with hers” (110). Beckett's character resists his thoughts and entanglement with Mrs. Bray when “little by little Dr. Nye reintegrated his pathological outlook” (242). The entanglements in both stories are confessional. “With almost maternal solicitude,” Mrs. Sinico encourages Mr. Duffy “to let his nature open to the full; she became his confessor” (110). Mrs. Bray offers to Dr. Nye the opportunity to “disclose the trauma at the root of this attachment” (242). In Joyce's story, the relationship ends on a trivial indelicacy, and years later Mr. Duffy learns in reports about Mrs. Sinico's death that she had become one of “the hobbling wretches whom he had seen carrying cans and bottles to be filled by the barman” (115). In Beckett's story, the relationship ends in Dr. Nye's childhood, and years later he is “troubled to find that of the woman whom as baby and small boy he had adored, nothing remained but the strawberry mottle of the nose and the breath smelling heavily of clove and peppermint” (242). Near the end of “A Painful Case” Mr. Duffy is revolted by “the threadbare phrases, the inane expressions of sympathy, the cautious words of a reporter” (115) used in the newspaper report of Mrs. Sinico's death. At the end of “A Case in a Thousand” such words are elided: Mrs. Bray “related a matter connected with his earliest years, so trivial and intimate that it need not be enlarged on here, but from the elucidation of which Dr. Nye, that sad man, expected great things” (242).

Both stories pivot on moments when the male characters recoil from their women confessors; when, in Beckett's words and in both cases, “he really could not bear another moment of her presence” (242). The consequence of Mr. Duffy's withdrawal is the eventual realization that he has sentenced himself, that his own “life would be lonely too until he, too, died” (116), and so, finally, that “no one wanted him; he was outcast from life's feast” (117). In “A Case in a Thousand” Dr. Nye has a comparable revelation, but at the beginning of the story and without context: “Without warning a proposition sprang up in his mind: Myself I cannot save” (241). Beckett's story most resembles those in Dubliners in the occurrence of such an epiphany, such a sudden perception of limitation. In the Beckett story, however, that epiphany is preliminary, not conclusive, and it is not explicitly connected with the subsequent events in the story. “A Case in a Thousand” demands comparison with “A Painful Case” in title, narrative, and style, but it manipulates the poetics of the Joycean model in a fashion that disrupts representation of oppressive determinacy. Beckett's story is an ironic form of this “Joyce method,” as indeed his earlier use of the “Joyce method” of Work in Progress is ironic, though perhaps insufficiently so if it seems to later commentators a great mistake.

“A Case in a Thousand” is of interest in several respects other than the parallel with “A Painful Case.” Deirdre Bair, for example, finds it most significant because it “seems in many respects to be Beckett's way of using his analysis creatively” and because “the story contains the same equivocal erotic attitudes toward women first introduced with Belacqua in Dream and More Pricks Than Kicks” (185). Eoin O'Brien, in The Beckett Country, identifies the setting of the story as the Portobello Nursing Home. O'Brien discusses that nursing home along with the Merrion Nursing Home, which is only two bridges away on the canal (195-201). At the Merrion Nursing Home Beckett attended his mother's final illness in 1950, and Krapp's Last Tape evokes the experience of watching a hospital room window from outside, like Mrs. Bray's. The setting of “A Case in a Thousand” is an early, more easily identifiable appearance in Beckett's work of the canal on the south side of Dublin, which reappears in many later works—for example, in That Time. Also, in this story Dr. Nye weighs the charms of a meditative life that spares the feet and thinks in bed in the fashion of Malone. Mrs. Bray is introduced into the story with an emphasis on hat and bosom and umbrella suggestive of Winnie in Happy Days.

Biography, autobiography, and portents of later work aside, “A Case in a Thousand” remains of interest for its indication of the kind of influence on Beckett's work of Joyce's work and for its appearance in a special issue on Irish writing. In the same “Irish Number” of The Bookman Norreys Jephson O'Conor, writing on “The Trend of Anglo-Irish Literature,” offered the opinion that “younger [Irish] writers, brought up in the atmosphere of what is euphuistically called the ‘trouble,’ in their search for realism turned towards Russian and other Continental authors—an attitude strengthened by the experimentation and growing reputation of James Joyce” (234). O'Conor was no doubt thinking of Irish writers, such as Frank O'Connor, who advertised their admiration of the Russian short story. But Norreys Jephson O'Conor's observation indicates that Joyce's example could then, in 1934, be one of experimentation, including forms of realism like Dubliners and not only the polyglot allusiveness of Work in Progress. Consideration of “A Case in a Thousand” beside “Sedendo et Quiescendo” indicates the extent to which Joyce's example was less than monolithic, less a limitation than a liberation, and less one of a single experiment than one of the enterprise of experimentation. It is entirely in keeping with such an example that Beckett's “A Case in a Thousand” is less imitation of “A Painful Case” than ironic manipulation of its method. The effect of such use of a well-known model is a story that is a critique—in this case a commentary on the poetics and representation of contingent entrapments central to Joyce's story. “A Case in a Thousand” certainly is not the only critique of a model in Beckett's early fiction, or even the only critique of Joyce's works. But Beckett, as the prescient Francis Watson recognized as early as 1934, was “no fashionable imitator.” “A Case in a Thousand” is an early instance of the project central to Beckett's later work, the play with epistemology—the project that propels the narratives of Molloy, Malone, and the Unnamable and preoccupies the characters waiting on stage for Godot.

The example of Joyce for a writer like Beckett in the 1930s (“nothing to say and the itch to make”) entailed the influence of Joyce's work both in itself and as exemplar of new Irish writing. In the 1930s, when most apparently conscious of Joyce's work, Beckett was also most conscious of being an Irish writer. Soon after writing these two pieces for the “Irish Number” of The Bookman, Beckett wrote “Censorship in the Saorstat,” an essay on the absurdity of the Irish Censorship of Publications Act of 1929. Derision of that piece of legislation was then a favorite pastime of Irish writers both “antiquarian” and “other,” as witness Frank O'Connor's essay for the “Irish Number.” Furthermore, writing on that subject gave Beckett the opportunity to include himself and More Pricks Than Kicks in the group of Irish writers and works, including Joyce and Ulysses, for whom and for which being banned at home was a badge of honor. “Censorship in the Saorstat” was prepared for The Bookman, but the journal ceased publication before that essay could appear.

Joyce could sustain younger writers in many ways, but for Beckett in the 1930s an important part of that sustenance lay in Joyce's example for consciously Irish writers. Irish writers younger than Beckett testify to the liberating effect of the example of Joyce and the connection of that example to Beckett. Thomas Kinsella, casting the influences on Irish writers in the same Yeats/Joyce terms as Denis Donoghue, concludes that “Yeats stands for the Irish tradition as broken; Joyce for it as continuous, as healed—or healing—from its mutilation” (65). The mutilation in question here is precisely the rigidity of conventions, or imitation, termed antiquarianism by Beckett in “Recent Irish Poetry.” Aidan Higgins, in the course of asking “Who follows Beckett, himself following so closely on Joyce?” characterizes those works not following Joyce and Beckett as “linear, traditional, benign, and dull” (60). Just those qualities were circumvented in Beckett's “A Case in a Thousand” because the story followed from, and did not merely imitate, Joyce's “A Painful Case.” In David Hanly's novel In Guilt and in Glory two characters discuss Joyce and then continue, with ambivalent sarcasm, to Beckett: “‘He's a Protestant of English blood,’” says one, “‘educated at Trinity, a cricket player who lived in Paris and writes in French. Of course he's Irish’” (99). These approach definitions of Irish experience that are not narrow.

These examples, like that of “A Case in a Thousand,” point to the interesting dimension of Beckett's work in the context of Irish writing. He is a complicated and enriching addition to the local literary history. In turn, Yeats helped define Ireland as a positivistic literary subject, Joyce offered a scrupulous critique of Ireland, and Beckett adumbrated the luxury of aloofness to Ireland. This last is, too, a liberation. “A Case in a Thousand” is a significant example of the extent to which the young Beckett was most conscious of himself as an Irish writer and, like many others, one most conscious of Joyce's own early work. In extricating himself from inherited cultural and national contexts, Beckett began the critique that extended to literary form and language in his major works. Though close attention to Irish literary precedents is for the most part a feature of Beckett's early work, the examination of inherited premises in “A Case in a Thousand” and other early pieces is compatible with the analysis of Godot or How It Is. Just that continuity and relevance of early work to late is one sense of the words of the narrator of Company, written in English and published in 1980: “Having covered in your day some twenty-five thousand leagues or roughly thrice the girdle. And never once overstepped a radius of one from home. Home!” (60).

Works Cited

Abel, Lionel. “Joyce the Father, Beckett the Son.” The New Leader 14 December 1959: 26-27.

Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Beckett, Samuel. “A Case in a Thousand.” The Bookman 86 (1934): 241-42.

———. “Sedendo et Quiesciendo” [sic]. transition 21 (1932): 13-20.

Donoghue, Denis. “Being Irish Together.” The Sewanee Review 84.1 (1976): 129-33.

Ellmann, Richard. Samuel Beckett: Nayman of Noland. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1986.

Hanly, David. In Guilt and in Glory. New York: Morrow, 1979.

Harvey, Lawrence. Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Hayman, David. “A Meeting in the Park and a Meeting on the Bridge: Joyce and Beckett.” James Joyce Quarterly 8 (Summer 1971): 372-84.

Higgins, Aidan. “Tired Lines, or Tales My Mother Told Me.” A Bash in the Tunnel: James Joyce by the Irish. Ed. John Ryan. Brighton: Clifton, 1970. 55-60.

Irish Number. Special Issue of The Bookman 86 (1934).

Kinsella, Thomas. “The Irish Writer.” Davis, Mangan, Ferguson? Tradition and the Irish Writer. By W. B. Yeats and Thomas Kinsella. Dublin: Dolmen, 1970. 57-66.

Mercier, Vivian. Beckett/Beckett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

O'Brien, Eoin. The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett's Ireland. Monkstown, Co. Dublin: Black Cat Press, 1986.

Shenker, Israel. “Moody Man of Letter.” The New York Times 6 May 1956: sec. 2; 1,3.

Watson, Francis. Review of More Pricks Than Kicks. The Bookman 86 (1934): 219-20.

Michael J. Noble (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Noble, Michael J. “Speaking the Same Language: Samuel Beckett, Jacques Derrida and Vice Versa.” The Journal of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 70 (1993): 81-90.

[In the following essay, Noble underscores the common characteristics of the language in Beckett's short stories and Derrida's language theory, contending that “the texts of Derrida and Beckett speak the same ideological and theoretical language.”]

The title page of an English edition of a work by Samuel Beckett or Jacques Derrida is likely to include a translation credit because these writers originally wrote in French. But French is not the only common characteristic of the language of these two writers; the texts of Derrida and Beckett speak the same ideological and theoretical language.

Derrida, as a reader of his own writings and those of Beckett, describes such a theoretical language when he answers a question posed to him in an interview by Derik Attridge. Attridge asks Derrida why he does not write about Beckett, and Derrida replies that he does not feel enough distance from Beckett to write about him:

This is a writer to whom I feel very close, or to whom I would like to feel myself very close; but also too close. Precisely because of this proximity, it is too hard for me. … I have perhaps avoided him a bit because of this identification. Too hard … because he writes—in my language, in a language which is his up to a point, mine up to a point (for both of us it is a “differently” foreign language)—texts which are both too close to me and too distant for me even to be able to “respond” to them.

(Acts 60)

Derrida recognizes a shared language with Beckett. If “language” may be broadly defined as a means of representation, what Derrida suggests is that his own texts and those of Beckett represent in similar ways. In addition to explaining the close proximity of their systems of representation, Derrida goes on to explain a simultaneous distance, a “differently foreign” language. It is this paradox that makes it impossible for Derrida to “respond” to Beckett; to do so would be, at once, redundant because of the similarity of the two modes of representation and unworkable because of the distance that necessarily divides the two. Derrida cannot escape his own language to comment on Beckett, and because he sees his language as so similar to Beckett's, it is impossible for him to “respond.” What then is this “differently foreign” language? Can we write about such a language without speaking it ourselves?

Translating the “differently foreign” language of Beckett and Derrida reveals a language both foreign in different ways and different from foreign (or the same). It is this language's difference from other modes of representation that allows it to be defined; however, it is not simply the manifestation of difference itself which connects the texts of the two writers. More significantly, these texts represent differently in the same ways. In the interview with Derrida already mentioned, Attridge goes on to suggest why Derrida might find it difficult to write about Beckett. Attridge asks, “Is there a sense in which Beckett's writing is already so ‘deconstructive,’ or ‘self-deconstructive,’ that there is not much left to do?” (Acts 61). Attridge proposes that Beckett's writing already deconstructs, even self-deconstructs. Perhaps, the texts perform on themselves the very operations Derrida's texts might seek to perform. However, if this is true, contrary to Attridge's question, there is “much left to do”; such texts resist closure and by their open nature invite discussion rather than deny it. For example, if Beckett and Derrida both work within similar systems of representation, then traditional boundaries between literature and literary theory are breached—two languages cease to be different and their definitions blur.

Beckett's texts may be read a number of ways as deconstructive or self-deconstructive. In his short story “Dante and the Lobster,” the text not only self-deconstructs but, consequently, deconstructs Dante and traditional cultural values. The text presents the reader with a protagonist who is not a protagonist, ritual which is not ritual, and plot which is not plot. Belacqua, who serves the textual function of the main character in the story, could not be considered its hero in any traditional sense of the word because he possesses none of those qualities that would usually be associated with heroism. He remains the protagonist of the story only because he is the primary source for its action; he is the hero by default. Rather than some noble quest, Belacqua delights in the basest of activities and goes about them in the most ordinary fashion. For example, much of the story highlights a sandwich Belacqua constructs from two cold, burnt pieces of toast and the rottenest piece of cheese imaginable:

The lunch had been a notable success. … Indeed he could not imagine its ever being superseded. And such a pale soapy piece of cheese to prove so strong! He must only conclude that he had been abusing himself all these years in relating the strength of cheese directly to its greenness. … Also his teeth and jaws had been in heaven, splinters of vanquished toast spraying forth at each gnash. It was like eating glass. His mouth burned and ached with the exploit.


Belacqua triumphs through failure; instead of desiring pleasure from his meal, Belacqua desires pain. This passage demonstrates how Beckett's language represents real challenges to traditional values. Belacqua defines the lunch as a success because the cheese was more rotten than he'd thought; he had been “abusing” himself by eating cheese that wasn't as rotten. Though on one level, this text simply replaces a traditional aesthetic with one valuing other ideals, on another level, this reversal subverts established literary conventions. The above passage, for example, serves the textual function of an epiphany in the story, and, yet, the ordinary and banal aspects of the action taking place subvert this function. Is epiphany defined by that which is glorious and inspired, or can it be reduced to that which degrades and pollutes? Who has set such definitions? In Beckett's text, the epiphany and the anti-epiphany become the same thing. The story both is and isn't a short story because in many ways the conventions for short stories exist within the text, and, in other ways, these conventions are violated in irreconcilable ways. What the text represents, therefore, becomes its binary. That which is not literature is literature, etc.

In such a manner does the text deconstruct itself; it climaxes in its anticlimax. At the end of “Dante and the Lobster,” Belacqua becomes physically ill at the thought of eating a lobster that had been boiled alive. The irony of the situation is that throughout the story, Belacqua has demonstrated a marked taste for that which is grotesque. This is the point in the story at which the reader would expect some sort of climax; however, because nothing really significant occurs, the climax might be better labeled an anticlimax. The story undermines itself because the events of the day, though they have seemed significant to the main character, lead to that which ultimately does not satisfy the reader just as Belacqua himself is left unsatisfied. It is not that the story does not signify—it simply signifies in ways which reveal the nature of language itself. “Dante and the Lobster” is a very self-conscious text because it is very aware, even hyper-aware, of its own construction. The narrator of the story says, “Let us call it Winter, that dusk may fall now and a moon rise” (18). At times in the story, another persona enters the narrative, interrupts it, and dispels any pretense or illusion of reality which the reader might be constructing. If the narrator calls it “Winter,” then the reader will supply a dusk and moon. One aspect, therefore, of the language Beckett speaks is that this language speaks about itself.

Through its self-referentiality, “Dante and the Lobster” also deconstructs other texts; in this sense, the text goes beyond its metadiscourse to become metatextual. Beckett's short story does not treat substantively the subject of Dante or his works; rather, the text represents metonymically through allusion rather than allegorically or metaphorically. Beckett counterfeits the names of Dante's characters to represent characters that the reader, because of a familiarity with these names, relates to whatever knowledge he or she may already have of Dante. In other words, the deconstruction of Dante does not occur directly on the page but within the larger contextual margins of the text.

Another aspect of language Beckett shares with Derrida is a defiance of the classification of genre. Critics such as Martin Esslin have placed works by Beckett among those composing the Theatre of the Absurd (24). In the introduction to his book The Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin provides a comprehensive explanation of absurdist theatre in which he classifies this type of theatre as striving “to express its sense of the irrationality of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought” (24). Esslin contrasts this technique of the absurdists with that of the existentialist theatre in which the meaninglessness of existence is presented “in the form of highly lucid and logically constructed reasoning” (24). Esslin has set up these two dramatic traditions in opposition to each other. Beckett's work goes beyond the merely absurd or existential by embracing both. The duality of his texts allows not only for the depiction of the “senselessness of life” which characterizes the absurdists but also for the emergence of a reasoned, logical understanding of the “irrationality of the human condition” which characterizes the work of existential thinkers.

Crucial to Esslin's argument is a dichotomy between the different modes of representation employed by theory and art. In order to keep these two languages different, Esslin chooses to hierarchize the artistic embodiment of existentialist thought in the text to the more theoretical existential argument of Beckett's work. According to Esslin. “The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being—that is, in terms of concrete stage images” (25). Beckett has not “renounced” the argument. Though the play does present the absurdity of life in being and form, the argument over the absurdity of the human condition continues throughout Beckett's work. In Waiting for Godot, for example, an important aspect of the play's premise is that two vagabonds discuss the meaning of existence. Vladimir, one of these tramps, contemplates:

Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon, my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? … Probably, but in all that what truth will there be? … He'll know nothing. … Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. … But habit is a great deadener. … At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. [Pause.] I can't go on! [Pause.] What have I said?


Because Vladimir does reason about his existence, Esslin's argument, that Godot merely represents absurdity through form, is undone. Esslin has hierarchized the form of Beckett's play because of the false dichotomy between theory and art and has, consequently, neglected the strong existential argument of the play. Vladimir challenges his own notions of truth and recognizes its elusive nature. Even distinguishing between life and death becomes difficult because the world created by the text is one in which everything deconstructs. If death is defined as a loss of life and life can be defined only as that which is not yet dead, then they become essentially the same thing. As in “Dante and the Lobster,” Waiting for Godot refuses to fulfill the conventions of its genre in the standard manner. Though Godot does possess the aesthetic form a literary work usually emphasizes, it also treats, through its subject manner, the concerns of theory. In this sense, Godot is bilingual; it speaks both the language of literature and the language of literary theory.

The writings of Derrida demonstrate a system of representation very similar to that of Beckett; Derrida's texts are also bilingual in the sense that they speak both the language of literature and the language of literary theory. Because Derrida's writings are primarily concerned with theoretical issues, the more literary aspects such as form are often ignored. As an example of Derrida's concern with representation through form as well as through argument, this passage about Mallarmé emphasizes the spaces between the words and the significance of the blank space:

One no longer even has the authority to say that “between” is a purely syntactic function. Through the re-marking of its semantic void, it in fact begins to signify. Its semantic void signifies, but it signifies spacing and articulation; it has as its meaning the possibility of syntax; it orders the play of meaning. Neither purely syntactic nor purely semantic, it marks the articulated opening of that opposition.

(Acts 176)

According to Derrida, everything contributes to the meaning ascribed to a particular text. Even the spaces contribute because they serve a function vital to the construction of meaning. The white space to the left of the above quote, for example, signifies that the words to the right are quoted from someone besides the author of the text you are reading. Derrida plays with spaces so that their significance becomes even more important to the meaning of the text. In Glas, for example, the words are organized on the page in unique columns and boxes. The columns do not read like those of a newspaper; rather, different subjects are treated in each column. Some columns are typeset larger than others, and different fonts are used. The spaces help “open” the text to a plurality of readings. Derrida explains:

The white of the spacing has no determinate meaning, it does not simply belong to the plurivalence of all the other whites. … As the page folds in upon itself, one will never be able to decide if white signifies something, or signifies only, or in addition, the spacing of writing itself.

(Acts 115-16)

The spacing of the words on a page can increase the play of a text. Because the exact meaning can never be interpreted, the text is never exhausted, it is never stale, and it can never be completely deciphered. Derrida's text speaks the language of theory as it discusses the use of space; however, once it practices the use of the blank space, it crosses over into the realm usually reserved for literature. Therefore, Derrida's particular process of representation is “foreign” to that used more often by theory. Similarly, Beckett's language is “foreign” to that commonly used by literature. The two languages are “differently foreign” because they would usually be placed on opposite sides of the border between theory and literature; however, since their systems of representation both pull towards this boundary, they could be named the same language.

Another force which helps to deconstruct barriers placed between the language of Derrida and of Beckett is that the theoretical issues dealt with and the forms employed by both authors are strikingly similar. Not only do both tug at the boundaries of genre, but they tug in the same ways. Beckett, for example, shares a concern similar to that of Derrida regarding the significance of absence and the blank space. In his short novel Molloy, Beckett's character debates over the nature of language.

And once again I am I will not say alone, no, that's not like me, but, how shall I say, I don't know, restored to myself, no, I never left myself, free, yes, I don't know what that means but it's the word I mean to use, free to do what, to do nothing, to know, but what, the laws of the mind perhaps, of my mind, that for example water rises in proportion as it drowns you and that you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.

(Three 13)

Molloy recognizes the crucial nature of the space and the value of the absence. Without the spacing, the words lose all of their meaning and are destroyed. The white on the page is as “significant” as the black because if we fill in the spaces in the words, all meaning is lost. There is the potential in the absence for meaning—it defines and gives birth to the active presence. Spacing goes beyond the visual in this passage; the many commas in the text require the reader to pause before continuing; this creates a space in the continuity of the sentence/phrase as well. This focus on absence is very similar to that already discussed in relation to Derrida. Both texts stress the essential nature of absence, and its crucial role in permitting meaning and understanding.

The texts of both Derrida and Beckett represent this idea of space and absence in similar ways. The theoretical concerns of Molloy are as lucid (if I may use that word) and valid as those of works such as Derrida's, which usually remain in the realm of theory. However, the more narrow definition of theory fails to describe works such as Glas which embody the very theoretical principles they espouse. These works combine content and form in much the same way Beckett does. Derrida doesn't simply write about space and absence, he creates it in his texts. Not only do his texts deconstruct through argument, they also deconstruct through form. This passage from Glas, for example, is very open in its theoretical meaning because of its more literary form. This is the last paragraph of the text; it takes us to the beginning of the text just as Beckett's Godot. The end circles around to the beginning:

It is very arid on the endless esplanade, but it (Ça) does nothing but begin, the labor, here, from now on. As soon as it (Ça) begins to write. It (Ça) hardly begins. No more than one piece is missing.

It (Ça) grates. Rolls on the tree trunks lying down (couchés). Pulleys. The greased ropes grow taut, they are all you hear, and the breathing (souffle) of slaves bent double. Good for pulling. Proofs ready for printing. The cracking whip (fouet cinglant) of the foreman. A regaining of bound force. Thing is oblique. It forms an angle, already, with the ground. Slowly bites again (Remord) its shadow, dead sure (death) of (it)self.


Here, Derrida describes the circular nature of the text, but simultaneously creates a text which functions in such a way that it harmonizes with the ideology it expresses. Not only does Derrida write about a text ending in its beginning, his texts embody this idea by beginning again. The question is one of perspective. Readers can see the beginning as just so much end, or vice versa.

Translating texts such as those by Beckett and Derrida requires different operations from those usually performed by literary criticism. Because of the generic labels applied to writers such as Beckett or Derrida, other aspects of the text become subjugated to either theoretical or artistic concerns. By highlighting the difference between the two systems of representation and by using these differences as defining characteristics of a particular text, genres inevitably privilege these defining traits over other aspects of the text; this is the violence of generic labels. They propagate such dichotomies as those between theory and literature. Other criteria for judging these types of works is possible, however. Wayne Booth couples these two writers' works based on ambiguity and openness. He writes that questions of genre and classification are often inappropriate in regards to contemporary literature and theory:

Consider … whatever you see as the most ambiguous or “open” work you know—Beckett's The Unnamable, perhaps, or Derrida's Glas. However indeterminate the work, it will still ask us to rule out certain inappropriate questions. Glas, for example, which is difficult to classify according to any traditional literary or philosophical category, insists that we not ask it to answer the “Three Little Pigs” kind of questions (“Who will do what to whom”). It also insists that we finally reject such questions as “in what traditional literary genre shall I place you?”


In order to avoid doing violence to the text, the groupings and classifications of literary criticism must be fluid enough to allow readers to ask the text different questions. Instead of asking a Derrida text all of the questions a reader would usually ask of a theoretical work, why not ask the questions one might ask of literature? By failing to recognize the “theory” implicit in the literary work, the reader constructs a fallacious hierarchy between theory and art. It is not a simple binary in which one text is consistently valued over the other; rather, the theoretical text is privileged for its ideological content while the art is privileged for whatever aesthetic principles a reader values. If we group Derrida and Beckett together on the basis of how and what they represent, a more equal relationship can be established between the texts.

Ultimately, translating Derrida and Beckett requires the creation of another language or system of representation—one that does not limit the possibilities of a text based on the prejudices of genre. This frees the reader to create her or his own criteria for judging the text. The language of Beckett and of Derrida is one that is very aware of its own existence. Both modes of representation rely on a consciousness of their own operations; both deconstruct and self-deconstruct; both rely on the absence as much as the presence of their language; and both use artistic and theoretical conventions to communicate. Reading the texts of these two writers in the same context underscores the properties of the languages they speak: finally, complete and absolute translation is impossible. The reader/critic cannot write about any particular language without speaking it herself or himself. However, meaning is still created through the text, and the reader does construct a system of representation from the text. The impossibility of complete translation does not cripple the reader or rob the reader of the pleasure of reading: rather, it liberates the reader to read in ways others may not have read and to speak in languages in which others may not have spoken.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. “Waiting for Godot.” The Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber & Faber, 1986. 7-87.

———. Three Novels by Samuel Beckett: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958.

———. “Dante and the Lobster.” I Can't Go On, I'll Go On. Ed. Richard W. Seaver. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1976. 7-20.

Booth, Wayne C. Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derik Attridge. New York: Routledge, 1992.

———. Glas. Trans. John P. Leavy, Jr., and Richard Rand. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.

Esslin, Martin. The Theater of the Absurd. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.

Harry Vandervlist (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Vandervlist, Harry. “Nothing Doing: The Repudiation of Action in Beckett's More Pricks than Kicks.” In Negation, Critical Theory, and Postmodern Textuality, edited by Daniel Fischlin, pp. 145-56. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Vandervlist identifies the repudiation of action as a unifying theme of the stories in More Pricks than Kicks.]

Samuel Beckett's early stories may not appear, at first sight, to share the kind of negative strategies characteristic of the better-known prose works, dating from the trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. Yet his 1934 collection of stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, provides an early example of Beckett's fruitful use of an apparently perverse negative stance: More Pricks Than Kicks repudiates one of fiction's fundamental aspects, the presentation of action. Beckett's early protagonists aim not to act, yet fail to avoid action, and the texts themselves echo this failure, succumbing to something less—but also more—than the simple negation of narration. An impulse to escape the necessity to “do something next” exists from the beginning of Beckett's career and “evasive strategies” similar to those described in Beckett's later prose1 are in fact at work in the 1934 collection, as I will show by way of a reading of the volume's opening story, “Dante and the Lobster,” supplemented by brief references to other stories from the collection.

In Beckett's early work an outwardly conventional fiction tries both to tell and to deny its stories, finally yielding an indeterminacy Wolfgang Iser describes as “a structure bringing forth—at least potentially—infinite possibilities” (707). There are two levels to such a denial: the level of represented action within a narrative, and the level of the action of narrating. More Pricks Than Kicks stresses the first level, while moving toward the second. No doubt, there is something admittedly preposterous about the notion of deliberately avoiding action. In life, real or represented, the most radical way to shun action is never to have been born; in writing, the pragmatic way to shun action is to leave the page blank. Even Beckett's early protagonists such as Belacqua in More Pricks Than Kicks revile themselves for having failed on one or both of these counts. This anxiety begets characters who strive not to act, and a narrative that cancels itself. Readers may be prompted to ask why such texts, in order to be most faithful to their own sense of the futility of action and narration, might not have been best left unwritten. Yet an action or a narrative that “takes itself back” or cancels itself is not the same thing as non-action, or as a narrative that is absent. The apparently perverse stategies of self-cancelled action and narrative give rise to a third thing, which is perhaps the closest fiction can come to evoking negativity, what Iser names “the ceaseless rejection and denial of what has just been said” (707). Through strategies of negation, Beckett's stories privilege possibility over action, and create a space of unfulfilled potential.

Already in More Pricks Than Kicks, then, Beckett explores an impulse to evade the element of mythos—the mimetic representation of human action—and to deny the grounding aspects of figuration, empirical representation, and allusion.2 However, where the later texts fragment and hollow out the surface of the text itself, the earlier work uses its protagonist to enact such a process within a (reluctantly) represented world. In More Pricks Than Kicks we can see the struggle against the presentation of action in Beckett's very choice of a protagonist, for the protagonist of the stories is not invented but chosen, purloined from Dante. We see it also in the narrative shapes of these stories, with their elaborate static structures of undermined allusions, evasive and abortive voyages, missed appointments, broken vows, and illusory endings.

More Pricks Than Kicks enacts the aimless wanderings of the indolent Belacqua, a character improbably lifted from Dante's Purgatorio and dumped in Dublin where he acquires the surname Shuah. To choose Dante's Belacqua as protagonist indicates Beckett's fundamental lack of interest in More Pricks Than Kicks as a portrayal of action. Dante's indolent spokesman for the late-repenting, trapped in the perfectly circumscribed world of the Purgatorio, can accomplish nothing by his own efforts. His existence is reduced to a long waiting:

Brother, what's the use of going up? For God's angel who sits at the gate would not let me pass to the torments. First must the heavens revolve around me outside it, so long as they did during my life, because I delayed good sighs until the end—unless prayer first aid me which rises from a heart that lives in grace. …

(Purgatorio 43)

Dante's Belacqua dramatizes Geworfenheit, the condition of being thrown into being: he is unready for his second “birth” into Purgatory, unprepared by repentance, unsuited to any effective existence there. Belacqua is a type of the ironic character, in Frye's sense of being limited in power and scope (34), useless to all but the most perverse builder of narratives. He does nothing, he has no power to do anything, he does not belong in the world in which he finds himself. He has next to no history. In his life he did almost nothing: in his death he is condemned to do absolutely nothing.

Dante's Belacqua awaits a progression toward an absolute which is merely postponed. He waits, as Walter Strauss puts it, “in eternity, but not eternally” (252). Beckett's Belacqua, though, waits in an absolute absence of the absolute. Beckett, then, has recast a hiatus in Dante's progressive narrative, and turned this static moment into an entire narrative event. Dante's Belacqua provides a provocative opportunity for Beckett: here is a protagonist who can only do nothing for the present lifetime, whose story is to be without a story. He embodies the stasis that Joyce's Stephen Dedalus associates with the response to art. Belacqua offers the writer a perversely inactive protagonist who subverts the whole game from the outset.

The narrative structures of the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks further illuminate Beckett's interest in the possibility of a fiction that negates the necessity of action. “Dante and the Lobster” illustrates the sort of narrative movement typical of these stories. The story's opening image is one of doubled immobility. Belacqua, reading Dante's Purgatorio, is immobile both physically and mentally: “It was morning and Belacqua was stuck in the first of the canti in the moon. He was so bogged that he could move neither backward nor forward” (9). Belacqua is saved from “running his head against this impenetrable passage” (9) by the striking of a clock which signals midday. It becomes clear that the progress of Belacqua's daily itinerary is governed not by accomplishments, but by the cycle of clock time and the enactment of rituals. Noon strikes and Dante is punctually abandoned: the passage of time does not resolve the enigmas of Dante, but it does allow Belacqua to feel he is moving on. Belacqua's attitude to clocks and time is as contradictory as his feeling about movement in space: eventually he “would not tolerate a chronometer of any kind in the house” and for him “the local publication of the hours” becomes “six of the best on the brain every hour” (129). Here, however, the striking clock temporarily permits him to think himself freed from futility and inaction.

Belacqua orders his day according to considerations of “what he had to do next. There was always something one had to do next” (10). His immediate obligation is to have lunch—and this is not merely a matter of locating and ingesting nutriment. Belacqua's lunch is clearly a sacred ceremony, and the description of it is one of the most carefully constructed comic passages in More Pricks Than Kicks. Ritual purity is a condition attached to the act of lunching: there must be no contamination by other action; the world must be held at arm's length:

if he were disturbed now, if some brisk tattler were to come bouncing in now big with a big idea or a petition, he might just as well not eat at all, for the food would turn to bitterness on his palate, or worse again, taste of nothingness.


Belacqua's ritual seeks to avoid this “taste of nothingness.” His sandwich—Gorgonzola, mustard, salt, and cayenne pepper, on burnt toast—is exaggeratedly pungent. But the sandwich is an elaborate avoidance ritual: the food itself is really nothing, the act of preparation everything. And the act of preparation is, above all, not-studying-Dante, not-talking-to-anyone.

Every part of Belacqua's Gorgonzola-and-mustard-on-toast must answer to rigid conditions: the toast must be burnt all the way through, the Gorgonzola must be “rotten.” If all of the conditions can be met, the result will be a comical triumph:

he would devour it with a sense of rapture and victory, it would be like smiting the sledded Polacks on the ice. He would snap at it with closed eyes, he would gnash it into a pulp, he would vanquish it utterly with his fangs.


The language of this passage suggests a satirical metamorphosis in which Belacqua becomes Hamlet's father or Fortinbras, a conqueror, smiter of Polacks. While this may seem to be one case where allusion grounds a particular interpretation, the result could hardly be less defined, as the allusion evokes one of the most notoriously disputed actions in the canon of English literature. What is it to smite sledded Polacks? Or should that be Poleaxe?3 If, through this allusion, Belacqua becomes a man of action as he eats his lunch, then it is a kind of action that trails off into indeterminacy.

Typically, one strategy available to readers confronting such an elaborately presented non-event is the search for these sorts of seemingly helpful allusions, or the search for an entire pattern of imagery that would imply another level of significance. And apparently no toil has been spared in the effort to build up a ludicrously elaborate structure of imagery and allusions around the sandwich and its manufacture. When this structure becomes (hilariously) excessive, however, its parodic nature is made clear. The Christian imagery of the Purgatorio presumably lingers in Belacqua's mind and merges with the current events narrated in the newspaper spread on the table (and the events themselves reflect the hanging episode in Joyce's Ulysses). Even the name of the paper plays into this structure: it is a “Herald” which Belacqua “deploys” on the table. The main story in the newspaper is that of “McCabe the assassin,” whose “petition for mercy” has been rejected. Belacqua learns this as he eats his sandwich in a pub, after hardening himself against any “petitions” that would interrupt the enjoyment of his lunch.

The condemned McCabe and Belacqua's sandwich are identified with one another throughout the passage, and both are linked to the sacrificed Christ. The slices of bread for toast emerge from “prison” and are sawed off “on the face of McCabe” (11). Belacqua says of the bread that “he would very quickly take that fat white look off its face” (11), personifying the bread and allowing it to merge more fully with the murder suspect. The untoasted slices of bread are called “candidates,” an allusion to the Latin candidus, denoting purity and whiteness, and also one elected or chosen (in this case, as a sacrificial victim). The grocer who supplies Belacqua with “a good stenching rotten lump of Gorgonzola cheese, alive” to place between the burnt slices of toast, gives up the cheese with Biblical gestures:

The grocer, instead of simply washing his hands like Pilate, flung out his arms in a wild crucified gesture of supplication.


Finally, the punishment of the murderer and the enjoyment of the sandwich merge as “Belacqua, tearing at the sandwich … pondered on McCabe in his cell” (17).

The lunch episode is the core of the story, occupying seven of its thirteen pages. Although it elaborates a structure of imagery which will extend to link the lobster eaten for dinner, with Dante's sufferers, the murderer McCabe, and the Gorgonzola sandwich, the story narrates only the most mundane dramatic events. It is the pretext for a static fabric of imagery and allusion deployed for their own sakes in a parody of master craftsmanship. What is there in the episode that motivates the weighty commentary it must bear? Belacqua's main action—making lunch—is comically inflated by such means as the allusion to Shakespearian “men of action,” then dwarfed by the significances thrust upon it by way of the narrative's elaborately structured imagery. As in mock epic, the banality of the action undermines the seriousness of the figurative freight, and as the image-structure collapses, its implied significance is cancelled. Here, however, it is not the high seriousness of epic tradition which is undercut. Instead, Beckett mocks the imputation of significance to everyday actions through the kind of literary presentation that makes the ordinary epiphanic, and clothes the mundane in a fabric of borrowed symbolism. Certainly aspects of the story echo the three-part structure of Dante's Commedia: the story does evoke suffering, sacrifice, and the struggle to understand their necessity, as well as the triumph of pity. But it is, nonetheless, primarily a recipe for an exotic and pungent sandwich.

The sandwich, in contrast to Belacqua's deliberations over Dante, is a “notable success” (17). Belacqua's day is redeemed by it, and is going “swimmingly” (17) as he arrives at his Italian lesson after lunch. “Where were we?” he asks of his teacher. “Where are we ever?” she replies, “where we were, as we were” (20). It is a reply he is still pondering as he totes home a lobster for supper:

Where we were, thought Belacqua, as we were … [A]nd poor McCabe, he would get it in the neck at dawn. What was he doing now, how was he feeling? He would relish one more meal, one more night.


Even for those facing execution, “there is always something one has to do next” (10). Relishing a meal, as Belacqua extravagantly does in the story, is one such thing, but behind it is a strong sense of futility, of avoiding something—the passage of time, and, ultimately, death—to which a reply is impossible. Success, for Belacqua and for More Pricks Than Kicks, means filling plot-time and text-space with something approaching non-action, or at least with a kind of self-consuming action described in ways that both assert and retract significance.

That point is reconfirmed in Belacqua's second meal of the story, the lobster. Surprised, he cries out when he unwraps his lobster, “My God … it's alive, what'll we do?” (This is, after all, how Beckett's characters generally react to the unwelcome surprise of their own existence.) Belacqua's aunt does what one does next, hurls the lobster into boiling water: “Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all. It is not” (22).

The story ends with this flat denial from the narrator—“[i]t is not”—made as if “over the head” of Belacqua. Indeed the lobster—“cruciform on the table”—is linked to Christ, as Belacqua's sandwich was linked to McCabe, none of whom, it is suggested, enjoys the mercy of a quick death. Perhaps Belacqua senses that to act, to “relish one more meal,” is to join in this chain of murder which so appalls him. He strives never to move beyond his paralysed question, “It's alive—what'll we do?”

His solution, in “Ding-Dong,” is to avoid doing anything in particular, since he cannot avoid doing. He seeks to balance action and inaction, movement and stasis, in a mutually cancelling fashion. He would enact oxymoron. “Ding-Dong” offers many formulations of Belacqua's self-cancelling evasiveness. For example, Belacqua has a taste for pure movement, which he calls “moving pauses,” or “gress” (38).

Not the least charm of this pure blank movement, this “gress” or “gression,” was its aptness to receive, with or without the approval of the subject, in all their integrity the faint inscriptions of the outer world. Exempt from destination, it had not to shun the unforeseen nor turn aside from the agreeable odds and ends of vaudeville that are liable to crop up. This sensitiveness was not the least charm of this roaming that began by being blank, not the least charm of this pure act the alacrity with which it welcomed defilement. But very nearly the least.


Belacqua sees this “gress” as an equivalent to stasis. On the one hand, Belacqua is “by nature sinfully indolent, bogged in indolence, asking nothing better than to stay put” (37). On the other, “the best thing he had to do was to move constantly from place to place” (36). While he lacks the funds to roam endlessly “[h]ither and thither on land and sea” (36), neither has he “the means to consecrate his life to stasis, even in the meanest bar” (42). In fact Belacqua “had a strong weakness for oxymoron” (38), and he relishes “a double response, like two holes to one burrow” (42). When he attempts to describe all of this to the narrator, he takes pleasure in the failure of his explanations: “All this and much more he laboured to make clear. He seemed to derive considerable satisfaction from his failure to do so” (43). All of the story's formulations of Belacqua's attempts to enact inaction fail. This very failure succeeds in producing another sense of the double movement of the stories: they both present and withdraw, both clarify and obscure.

The exasperated narrator responds to Belacqua, as perhaps we do ourselves, with the judgment:

he wriggled out of everything by pleading that he had been drunk at the time, or that he was an incoherent person and content to remain so, and so on. He was an impossible person in the end. I gave him up in the end because he was not serious.


Like its contradictory protagonist, More Pricks Than Kicks is openly exasperated with its own procedures, yet offers itself to readers nonetheless, as if there were no choice but to present the stories in this unsatisfactory condition. In the end, this is a fiction that tries, like its protagonist, to be nowhere for as long as possible.

The text shares with Belacqua an anxious self-directed dissatisfaction, an incipient rejection of its own form. Beckett's fictional procedures enact a sort of evasive narrative strolling, wriggling out of the tiresome conventions of storytelling, enduring the parodic or otherwise humorous “bits of vaudeville” that come up along the way. The result is a self-rejecting fiction, uncomfortable with the way it must feed upon that which it hopes to afflict—the endless round of human action in the world, and its presentation in fiction. The image of Belacqua's enormous boil, treated with comic affection and horror, is an example of the way this fiction turns its characters into grotesques, and is also an expression of its own bitterly ambivalent self-consciousness.

The arbitrary narrative movement of More Pricks Than Kicks parodies the narrator in Joyce's Dubliners, who purposefully roams Dublin in search of epiphanic episodes. In Beckett's narratives, we encounter apparent purposelessness: for example, in “Fingal,” “Love and Lethe,” and “Walking Out” a walk into the countryside ends in a missed appointment or a broken vow. This pattern figures a narratological inconclusiveness or evasiveness that structures Belacqua's and the reader's experience; Beckett's narrator behaves “impossibly” (38), as the narrator of “Ding-Dong” puts it. The reader of Dubliners is offered an experience of gradual coalescence as the stories accumulate to portray the city. Though Joyce's characters are alienated, isolated, and paralyzed, the life of the city is multiform, and in “The Dead” one senses a general tone of culmination and of charity towards the represented world. The levelling of the living and the dead under the general covering of snow may suggest the frozen, paralyzed life of the city and nation, but it may also imply (positive) continuity between past and present, a sense of community. In any event this ambivalence ought not to be discounted. Either alternative offers a totalizing view of the story which satisfies, as Iser states, “an expectation we all have about the meaning of works of art: that meaning should bring the resolution of all the disturbances and conflicts which the work has brought into being.” Iser points out, however, that “this view of meaning constitutes an historical but by no means normative expectation, and Beckett … is concerned with a very different sort of meaning” (715).

More Pricks Than Kicks struggles to be a different kind of fiction and offers no such coalescence. What Iser writes of Beckett's trilogy applies to More Pricks Than Kicks as well:

in this narrative process we experience an increasing erosion of what we expect from a narration: the unfolding of a story. This expectation is actually encouraged by the many fragments of stories, but these serve only to show up the narrative process as one of continual emptying out.


Fragmentation and hollowing out are embodied in the figure of Belacqua. If More Pricks Than Kicks tolerates any “inscription” on its digressive, evasive “pure blank movement,” it is the inscription of Belacqua's disintegration. Beginning with his identification with the lobster, first “crucified,” then tossed into a pot of boiling water, the stories trace Belacqua's disintegration either directly or, in the later stories in the collection, by proxy in the death or disablement of his spouses. At the hospital he is to undergo a double amputation—of his great toe and of the “baby anthrax” on his neck. He requests that the severed toe be given to the cat, thus paralleling what was almost the lobster's fate. The image of dispersion, of a body-in-pieces, is the state to which Belacqua has ultimately regressed, before a negligent anaesthetist confers upon him his abrupt, arbitrary end. Thus “the perpetual effort to retract what has been stated” (Iser 717) plays itself out physically as well.

We might echo Dante's Belacqua, and ask of such a narrative, “Brother, what use … ?” More Pricks Than Kicks refuses many of the conventional pleasures of narration—a sense of linear direction, the satisfaction of a journey accomplished, the epiphanic “discovery” of coherences. Beckett's stories clearly address readers who are schooled in these pleasures, but who are able to undo their delight and enjoy the irony of a narrative that unexpectedly rejects them. A different kind of pleasure results from the surprise and humour evoked when these “impossible” stories reveal the conventional nature of “possible” and gratifying narratives.

So does More Pricks Than Kicks merely allow us to see that purposeful and complete narratives make something out of nothing, imposing, perhaps, their structures and their completeness? If so “the time and energy spent [reading them] … would be out of all proportion” (Iser 716). Does More Pricks Than Kicks in turn seek to make nothing out of something? Or simply to avoid making something? That isn't the case either, since we have the stories to read and comment upon. By either set of criteria, then, the stories fail. Belacqua's quest to “be nowhere for as long as possible,” to make of his story a blank sheet, is always frustrated by “inscriptions.” What are the implications of this double negative, the desire to evade narrative and the failure of this evasion? The accomplished incompetence of Beckett's protagonists, and of their narratives, develops beyond the point of merely undoing expectation. More Pricks Than Kicks shows, twenty-two years before Beckett gave the idea a clear formulation in Three Dialogues, the struggle to construct the minimal artistic expression. In the collection Beckett outlines the situation of an artist for whom “there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express” (103). Belacqua's relation to action is the same as that of Beckett's relation to expression.

More Pricks Than Kicks is an early manifestation of Beckett's attempts to reduce fiction to the paradoxical presentation of no one, nothing, nowhere, a negative complement to the vision of everyone, everything, everywhere, evoked in Joyce's Finnegans Wake. If Finnegans Wake gains its encyclopedic scope by multiplying the possibilities it affirms in each of its sentences, words, or syllables, then Beckett's characters and narratives demonstrate an inverse procedure. For Belacqua, and later Murphy and others, not to act is a way of keeping all possible alternatives intact, in the realm of pure potential. To preserve the idea of potentially infinite possibilities Beckett's protagonists refrain from acting.

Beckett “constantly takes language at its word, and as words always mean more than they say, all statements must be qualified or even cancelled” (Iser 715). Beckett's narratives cancel themselves to avoid saying more than they mean, and thus open up the enormous indeterminate possibilities of meaning. In employing these strategies, More Pricks Than Kicks activates the “play of negativity” Iser sees in the later prose, in which “finiteness explodes into productivity” (718). We must be careful, however, not to mistake this productivity for action: it is an endless production of discourse, and an endless production of the self by the negative strategy of stating, cancelling, and then further cancelling the seemingly positive act of correcting an error. All of these strategies issue from a source who, like Dante's Belacqua, is going nowhere. Georg Lukács, in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, castigated Beckett for presenting an endless abstract potential that is never realisable, that goes nowhere and does nothing (66). Beckett's fiction implies that if we think we are going somewhere or doing something, it is always in fiction, within those necessary fictions that allow us to act. In the unspeakable space outside these necessary fictions, however, we remain like Belacqua, “where we were, as we were.”

A text like More Pricks Than Kicks ultimately demands an inversion of the hierarchy that sees action as more interesting and more meaningful than inaction. Beckett's early novels, in their radical skepticism about action and meaning, in their flight from the rewards and the necessary illusions of a masterful competence, ruthlessly present us with an emptiness where we are conditioned to find the utopia of artistic coherence and wholeness. This fiction exposes the involuntary nature of our attempts to see this utopia as merely deferred, but still recoverable, so that our helpless insistence that “this must mean” becomes comically repetitive. In the end, Beckett places his readers in the same position as his protagonists, and we become the victims rather than the masters of meaning. More Pricks Than Kicks anticipates the motif of the inescapable and thus compulsory meaning which the text seeks hopelessly to elude, through the protagonist's similarly hopeless evasion of action. Beckett's later works will refine their focus upon the compulsory aspect of meaning, and place it at the level of the act of narration itself. Belacqua, an actor rather than a narrator, struggles to avoid “doing something next,” yet can only cancel or repudiate the actions he cannot help but perform. Molloy, Malone, and others will struggle to end their narration, and succeed only in producing more narrative, more words that “mean to mean,” in spite of the qualifications, cancellations, and repudiations attempted by those who speak them.


  1. Two of these strategies, the denial of figuration and evasion of allusion, have already been described in the later work by Wolfgang Iser and Shira Wolosky.

  2. Frye uses mythos to refer to a work's narrative element, the representation of action as opposed to dianoia, the representation of thought (52-53).

  3. See, for instance, Harold Jenkins' two page note on this “much-disputed phrase” in his edition of Hamlet (425-27).

Works Cited

Aligheri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio. Tr. Charles S. Singleton. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.

Beckett, Samuel. More Pricks Than Kicks. N.Y.: Grove Press, 1972.

———. Proust. Three Dialogues. London: John Calder, 1965.

Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Pattern of Negativity in Beckett's Prose.” The Georgia Review 29 (Fall 1975): 706-19.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. N.Y.: Viking, 1969.

———. Finnegans Wake. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

Lukács, Georg. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism. London: Merlin Press, 1963.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1982.

Strauss, Walter. “Dante's Belacqua and Beckett's Tramps.” Comparative Literature 11. 3 (Summer 1959): 250-61.

Wolosky, Shira. “Samuel Beckett's Figural Evasions.” Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory. Eds. Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser. N.Y.: Columbia UP, 1989: 165-89.

S. E. Gontarski (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Gontarski, S. E. “From Unabandoned Works Samuel Beckett's Short Prose.” In Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, edited by S. E. Gontarski, pp. xi-xxxii. New York: Grove Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Gontarski assesses Beckett's achievements as a short fiction writer.]

While short fiction was a major creative outlet for Samuel Beckett, it has heretofore attracted only a minor readership. Such neglect is difficult to account for, given that Beckett wrote short fiction for the entirety of his creative life and his literary achievement and innovation are as apparent in the short works as in his more famous novels and plays, if succinctly so. Christopher Ricks, for one, has suggested that the 1946 short story “The End” is “the best possible introduction to Beckett's fiction,”1 and writing in the Irish Times (11 March 1995), literary editor John Banville has called “First Love” “the most nearly perfect short story ever written.” Yet few anthologists of short fiction, and in particular of the Irish short story, include Beckett's work. Beckett's stories have instead often been treated as anomalous or aberrant, a species so alien to the tradition of short fiction that critics are still struggling to assess not only what they mean—if indeed they “mean” at all—but what they are: stories or novels, prose or poetry, rejected fragments or completed tales. William Trevor has justified his exclusion of Beckett from The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories (1989) by asserting that, like his countrymen Shaw and O'Casey, Beckett “conveyed [his] ideas more skillfully in another medium” (p. xvi). But to see Beckett as fundamentally a dramatist who wrote some narratives is seriously to distort his literary achievement. Beckett himself considered his prose fiction “the important writing.”2 The omission is all the more curious given that Beckett's short pieces exemplify Trevor's characterization of the genre as “the distillation of an essence.” Beckett distilled essences for some sixty years, and through that process novels were often reduced to stories, stories pared to fragments, first abandoned then unabandoned and “completed” through the act of publication. When that master of the Irish short story Frank O'Connor noted that “there is something in the short story at its most characteristic[—]something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness,”3 he could have been writing directly about Beckett's short prose. As Beckett periodically confronted first the difficulties then the impossibility of sustaining and shaping longer works, as his aesthetic preoccupations grew more contractive than expansive, short prose became his principal narrative form—the distillate of longer fiction as well as the testing ground for occasional longer works—and the theme of “human loneliness” pervades it.

Beckett's own creative roots, furthermore, were set deep in the tradition of Irish storytelling that Trevor valorizes, “the immediacy of the spoken word,” particularly that of the Irish seanchaí. Although self-consciously experimental, self-referential, and often mannered, Beckett's short fiction is never wholly divorced from the culturally pervasive traditions of Irish storytelling. Even when his subject is the absence of subject, the story the impossibility of stories, its form the disintegration of form, Beckett's short prose can span the gulf between the more fabulist strains of Irish storytelling and the aestheticized experimental narratives of European modernism, of which Beckett was a late, if formative, part. Self-conscious and aesthetic as they often are, Beckett's stories gain immeasurably from oral presentation, performance, and so they have attracted theater artists who, like Joseph Chaikin, have adapted the stories to the stage or who, like Billie Whitelaw and Barry McGovern, have simply read them in public performance.

Much of Beckett's short prose inhabits the margins between prose and poetry, between narrative and drama, and finally between completion and incompletion. The short work “neither” has routinely been published with line breaks suggestive of poetry, but when British publisher John Calder was about to gather “neither” in the Collected Poems, Beckett resisted because he considered it a prose work, a short story. Calder relates the incident in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement (24-30 August 1990): He had “originally intended to put [“neither”] in the Collected Poems. We did not do so, because Beckett at the last moment said that it was not a poem and should not be there” (p. 895). The work is here printed for the first time corrected (q.v. “A Note on the Texts”) and without line breaks, the latter to reinforce the fact that at least Beckett considered “neither” a prose work.

“From an Abandoned Work,” furthermore, was initially published as a theater piece by the British publisher Faber and Faber after it was performed on the BBC Third Programme on 14 December 1957 by Patrick Magee. Although “From an Abandoned Work” is now generally anthologized with Beckett's short fiction, Faber collected it among four theater works in Breath and Other Shorts (1971). That grouping, of course, punctuated its debut as a piece for performance.4 It might be argued, then, that “From an Abandoned Work” could as well be anthologized with Beckett's theater writings. It is no less “dramatic,” after all, than “A Piece of Monologue,” with which it shares a titular admission of fragmentation. Even as Beckett expanded the boundaries of short fiction, often by contracting the form, his stories retained that oral, performative quality of their Irish roots. Many an actor has discovered that even Beckett's most intractable fictions, like Texts for Nothing,Enough, or Stirrings Still, share ground with theater and so maintain an immediacy in performance that makes them accessible to a broad audience.

With the exception, then, of More Pricks Than Kicks, which with its single, unifying character, Belacqua Shuah, is as much a novel as a collection of stories,5 and the 1933 coda to that collection, “Echo's Bones,” which Beckett wrote as the novel's tailpiece but which was rejected first by the publisher, Chatto and Windus, then by Beckett himself for subsequent editions, and most recently by the Beckett Estate for this collection, this anthology gathers the entire output of Beckett's short fiction from his first published story, “Assumption,” which appeared in transition magazine in 1929 when he was twenty-three years old, to his last, which were produced nearly sixty years later, shortly before his death. In failing health and stirring little from his Paris flat, Beckett demonstrated that there were creative stirrings still, the title he gave three related short tales dedicated to his friend and longtime American publisher, Barney Rosset. In between, Beckett used short fiction to rescue what was in 1932 a failed and abandoned novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, salvaging two discrete segments of that unfinished and only recently published (1992) work as short fiction, adding eight fresh, if fairly conventional, tales (or chapters) to fill out More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), a work whose title alone, although biblical in origin, ensured its scandalous reception and eventual banning in Ireland. In 1945-46 Beckett turned to short fiction to launch “the French venture,” producing four nouvelles: “Premier Amour” (“First Love”), “L'Expulsé” (“The Expelled”), “Le Calmant” (“The Calmative”), and “La Fin” or “Suite” (“The End”). These stories, “the very first writing in French,”6 seemed to have tapped a creative reservoir, for a burst of writing followed: two full-length plays, Eleuthéria and En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), and a “trilogy” of novels, Molloy, Malone meurt (Malone Dies), L'Innommable (The Unnamable). When the frenetic creativity of that period began to flag, Beckett turned afresh to short fiction in his struggle to “go on,” producing thirteen brief tales grouped under a title adapted from the phrase conductors use for that ghost measure which sets the orchestra's tempo. The conductor calls his silent gesture a “measure for nothing”; Beckett called his prose stutterings Texts for Nothing. For Beckett these tales “express the failure to implement the last words of L'Innommable: ‘il faut continuer, je vais continuer’”7 [“I can't go on, I'll go on”].

By the 1940s Beckett had apparently abandoned the literary use of his native tongue. Writing to George Reavey about “a book of short stories,” Beckett noted on 15 December 1946, “I do not think I shall write very much in English in the future.”8 But early in 1954 Beckett's American publisher, Barney Rosset, suggested that he return to English: “I have been wondering if you would not get almost the freshness of turning to doing something in English which you must have gotten when you first seriously took to writing in French.”9 Shortly thereafter, Beckett began a new English novel, which he first abandoned then published in 1958 as “From an Abandoned Work.” In a transcription of the story, a fair copy made as a gift for a friend, Beckett appended a note on its provenance: “This text was written 1954 or 1955. It was the first text written directly in English since Watt (1945).”10 Almost a decade intervened between “From an Abandoned Work” and Beckett's next major impasse, a novel tentatively entitled Fancy Dying, portions of which, in French and English (with German translations of both), were published as “Faux Départs” to launch a new German literary journal, Karsbuch in 1965.11 That abandoned novel (q.v. Appendix II) developed into “All Strange Away” (where although “Fancy is her only hope,” “Fancy dead”) and its sibling, Imagination Dead Imagine, but was the impetus for several other Residua as well. Although these works were apparently distillations of a longer work, Beckett's British publisher treated the 1,500-word Imagination Dead Imagine as a completed novel, issuing it separately in 1965 with the following gloss: “The present work was conceived as a novel, and in spite of its brevity, remains a novel, a work of fiction from which the author has removed all but the essentials, having first imagined them and created them. It is possibly the shortest novel ever published.”

In between Beckett completed an impressive array of theater work, including Fin de partie (Endgame) (1957), Krapp's Last Tape (1958), Happy Days (1961), and Play (1964), and another extended prose work, Comment c'est (How It Is), itself first abandoned, then “unabandoned” in 1960. A fragment was published separately as “L'Image” in the journal X in December 1959. The English version, “The Image,” is here published for the first time in a new translation by Edith Fournier (q.v. “Notes on the Texts”). Another segment of How It Is was published as “From an Unabandoned Work” in Evergreen Review in 1960.12 For the next three decades, the post-How It Is period, Beckett would write, in French and English, denuded tales in the manner of “All Strange Away,” stories that focused on a single, often static image “ill seen” and consequently “ill said,” Residua that resulted from the continued impossibility of long fiction. As the titles of two of Beckett's late stories suggest, these are tales “Heard in the Dark,” stories that were themselves early versions of the novel Company. And in a note accompanying the French manuscript of Bing, translated into English first as “Pfft” but quickly revised to the equally onomatopoetic Ping, Beckett noted: “Bing may be regarded as the result or miniaturization of Le Dépeupleur abandoned because of its intractable complexities.” Abandoned in 1966, Le Dépeupleur was also unabandoned, “completed” in 1970, and translated as The Lost Ones in 1971. Throughout this period Beckett managed to turn apparent limitations, impasses, rejections into aesthetic triumphs. Adapting the aesthetics of two architects, Mies van der Rohe's “less is more” and Adolf Loos's “ornament is a crime,” Beckett set out to expunge “ornament,” to write “less,” to remove “all but the essentials” from his art, to distill his essences and so develop his own astringent, desiccated, monochromatic minimalism, miniaturizations, the “minima” he alluded to in the “fizzle” called “He is barehead.” As Beckett's fiction developed from the pronominal unity of the four nouvelles through the disembodied voices of the Texts for Nothing toward the voiceless bodies of “All Strange Away” and its evolutionary descendant Imagination Dead Imagine, he continued his ontological exploration of being in narrative and finally being as narrative, producing in the body of the text the text as body. If the Texts for Nothing suggest the dispersal of character and the subsequent writing beyond the body, “All Strange Away” signaled a refiguration, the body's return, its textualization, the body as voiceless, static object, or the object of text, unnamed except for a series of geometric signifiers, being as mathematical formulae. The subject of these late tales is less the secret recesses of the repressed subconscious or the imagination valorized by Romantic poets and painters than the dispersed, post-Freudian ego, voice as alien other. As the narrator of “Fizzle 2,” “Horn came always,” suggests, “It is in the outer space, not to be confused with the other [inner space or the Other?], that such images develop.”

Despite such dehumanized immobility, these figures (one hesitates to call them characters) and their chronologically earlier disembodied voices retain a direct and fundamental dramatic quality of which Beckett was fully aware. Despite occasional protestations to the contrary, Beckett encouraged directors eager to stage his prose and developed several thematically revealing stage adaptations of his short narratives. When the American director Joseph Chaikin wrote for permission to stage Stories and Texts for Nothing, for example, Beckett encouraged him in a letter of 26 April 1980 to mount a single Text, for which he proposed a simple, precise staging: a single figure, “[s]eated. Head in hands. Nothing else. Face invisible. Dim spot. Speech hesitant. Mike for audibility.” Beckett wrote again on 1 August 1980 developing his adaptation:

Curtain up on speechless author (A) still or moving or alternately. Silence broken by recorded voice (V) speaking opening of text. A takes over. Breaks down. V again. A again. So on. Till text completed piecemeal. Then spoken through, more or less hesitantly, by A alone.

Prompt not always successful, i.e., not regular alternation VAVA. Sometimes: Silence, V, silence, V again, A. Or even three prompts before A can speak.

A does not repeat, but takes over where V leaves off.

V: not necessarily A's voice. Nor necessarily the same throughout. Different voices, 3 or 4, male and female, might be used for V. Perhaps coming to A from different quarters.

Length of prompt (V) and take over (A) as irregular as you like.

V may stop, A break down, at any point of sentence.

Chaikin ultimately rejected Beckett's staging, preferring his own vision of a medley of texts, and Beckett conceded in a letter of 5 September 1980, “The method I suggest is only valid for a single text. The idea was to caricature the labour of composition. If you prefer extracts from a number of texts you will need a different approach.” Chaikin finally chose another, more “theatrical” approach, but Beckett's adaptation of his story remains astonishing, a dramatic foregrounding of the mysterious voices, external to the perceiving part of self. What is caricatured in Beckett's adaptation is at least the Romantic notion of creativity, the artist's agonized communion with his own pure, uncorrupted, inner being, consciousness, or imagination. In Beckett's vision the author figure “A” has at least an unnamed collaborator, an external Other. “A” is as much audience to the emerging artwork as its instigator, as he folds the voices of Others, origins unknown, into his own.

Shivaun O'Casey, daughter of dramatist Sean O'Casey, worked with Beckett to dramatize From an Abandoned Work, and Beckett likewise detailed a staging for her. O'Casey's initial impulse was to mount the work on the analogy of Play, but Beckett resisted. “I think the spotlight face presentation would be wrong here.” He went on to offer an alternative that separated speaker from spoken: “The face is irrelevant. I feel also that no form of monologue technique will work for this text and that it should somehow be presented as a document for which the speaker is not responsible.” Beckett's outline is as follows:

Moonlight. Ashcan a little left of centre. Enter man left, limping, with stick, shadowing in paint general lighting along [sic]. Advances to can, raises lid, pushes about inside with crook of stick, inspects and rejects (puts back in can) an unidentifiable refuse, fishes out finally tattered ms. or copy of FAAW, reads aloud standing “Up bright and early that day, I was young then, feeling awful and out—” and a little further in silence, lowers text, stands motionless, finally closes ashcan, sits down on it, hooks stick round neck, and reads text through from beginning, i.e., including what he had read standing. Finishes, sits a moment motionless, gets up, replaces text in ashcan and limps off right. Breathes with maximum authenticity, only effect to be sought in [sic] slight hesitation now and then in places where most effective, due to strangeness of text and imperfect light and state of ms.13

In such an adaptation the narrative offered to the audience is, as Beckett says, separated from the stage character, who is then only an accidental protagonist in the drama, more messenger, say, than character. It was a form of staging that Beckett preferred for most of his prose, a compromise between an unadorned stage reading and a full, theatrical adaptation where characters and not just the text are represented on the stage. When the American theatrical group Mabou Mines requested permission through Jean Reavey to stage The Lost Ones, Beckett approved at first only a “straight reading.” In rehearsals, however, the work developed into a complex, environmental adaptation with a naked actor “demonstrating” the text with a host of miniature figures. Beckett's comment on the adaptation was finally, “Sounds like a crooked straight reading to me.”14 With O'Casey, Beckett resisted the resurrection of a dramatic structure he himself had by then rejected, the monologue, a form he developed in prose with the four nouvelles in 1947 and adapted to the stage with Krapp's Last Tape in 1958. The monologue form embraced an ideology of concrete presence, a single coherent being (or a unified ego or, in literary terms, a unified character), an idea with which Beckett was increasingly uncomfortable (witness the tapes themselves in Krapp's Last Tape) and all pretense to which was finally abandoned in the “trilogy” and the subsequent Texts for Nothing. In the theater Beckett gave full voice to that disintegration of character and the fragmentation of monologue in Not I and with the incorporeal, ghostly figure of May in Footfalls. When consulted about stagings of his prose, Beckett invariably rejected, as he did with Shivaun O'Casey, adaptations that posited a unity of character and narrative that the monologue form suggests. When I prepared with him stagings of first his novella Company and then the story “First Love,” he offered possibilities almost identical to those for Chaikin and O'Casey respectively.15 The central question to Beckett's dramatization of “First Love,” for instance, was how to break up an unrelieved reading of the text, again discovered in a rubbish heap:

The reading can be piecemealed by all kinds of business—such as returning it to bin (on which he sits to read)—exiting and returning to read to the end—looking feverishly for a flea or other vermin—chewing a crust—getting up to piss in a corner with back modestly to audience—etc. etc. making the poor best of a hopeless job.16

Actors, then, have intuited what literary critics have too often failed to articulate, that even Beckett's most philosophical and experimental short fictions have an immediacy and emotional power, “the immediacy of the spoken voice,” which makes them accessible to a broad audience and places them firmly within a tradition of Irish storytelling.

Beckett's first short stories, “Assumption,” “A Case in a Thousand,” “Text,” and “Sedendo et Quiescendo,”17 however, retain the rhetorical ornament and psychological probing characteristic of much high modernism. These stories, the latter two fragments of a then-abandoned novel, are finally uncharacteristic of the narrative diaspora Beckett would eventually develop, but they are central to understanding its creative genesis. Beckett's first two stories, for instance, were written as if he were still preoccupied with literary models. In the first case Beckett seems to have been reading too many of Baudelaire's translations of Poe; in the second, too much Sigmund Freud. But it was with such derivative short fiction that Beckett launched a literary career in 1929, less than a year after having arrived in Paris, in Eugene Jolas's journal of experimental writing, transition. Jolas was in the midst of championing James Joyce's Finnegans Wake by publishing not only excerpts from the Work in Progress but essays about it as well. Beckett had impressed Joyce enough that he was offered the opportunity to write an essay comparing Joyce to three of Joyce's favorite Italian writers, Dante, Bruno, and Vico, for a volume of essays defining and defending the Work in Progress. Jolas (and evidently Joyce himself, for the essay would not have appeared without Joyce's approval) thought enough of the essay to reprint it in transition. Along with the essay, Jolas accepted a short story from Beckett, “Assumption,” which opens with the sort of paradox that would eventually become Beckett's literary signature, “He could have shouted and could not.”

The story details the fate of a young, anguished “artist” who struggles to retain and restrain “that wild rebellious surge that aspired violently towards realization in sound.” The silent, unnamed protagonist, however, commands a “remarkable faculty of whispering the turmoil down.” He can silence “the most fiercely oblivious combatant” with a gesture, with “all but imperceptible twitches of impatience.” He develops as well an aesthetic that separates Beauty from Prettiness. The latter merely proceeds “comfortably up the staircase of sensation, and sit[s] down mildly on the topmost stair to digest our gratification.” More powerful are sensations generated when “[w]e are taken up bodily and pitched breathless on the peak of a sheer crag: which is the pain of Beauty.” The remainder of “Assumption” develops just such an aesthetic of pain, which echoes the German Romanticism Beckett never quite purged from his art. As the artist struggles to restrain the animal voice that “tore at his throat as he choked it back in dread and sorrow,” an unnamed Woman enters. She flatters and finally seduces the artist manqué, and “SO [sic] each evening in contemplation and absorption of this woman, he lost part of his essential animality.” After he is seduced, “spent with extasy [sic],” the dammed “stream of whispers” explodes in “a great storm of sound.” The story ends with the sort of epiphany that Beckett would recycle in the final line of “Dante and the Lobster”: “They found her caressing his wild dead hair.” “Assumption” works through (and finally against) the image of a Promethean artist: “Thus each night he died and was God [the Assumption of the title?], each night revived and was torn, torn and battered with increasing grievousness. …” But whether the artist transcends the worldly through this experience to unite with something like the Idea, or pure essence, transcends Schopenhauer's world of representation to achieve the pure will, or whether the title refers simply to the arrogance of such desire may be the crux of the story. The protagonist's romantic agony (in both senses of that phrase) may simply describe postcoital depression, and so travesty the belabored agonies of a would-be artist.

When Beckett came to publish another story in transition in March 1932, he selected an excerpt from the stalled novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which he called “Sedendo et Quiescendo” (but which appeared as “Sedendo et Quiesciendo”). The story includes a sonnet from the protagonist, Belacqua Shuah, to his lover, the Smeraldina, which developed the same sort of yearning for transcendence and union with the “Eternally, irrevocably one” evident in “Assumption.” The means to this end was to “be consumed and fused in the white heat / Of her sad finite essence. …” In the sonnet the speaker claims that he “cannot be whole … unless I be consumed,” which consumption provides the climax to “Assumption.” The parallels between story and sonnet extend to the recycling of imagery and phrasing: “One with the birdless, cloudless, colourless skies” (untitled sonnet to the Smeraldina); “he hungered to be irretrievably engulfed in the light of eternity, one with the birdless cloudless colourless skies” (“Assumption”). Even the image of the “blue flower” reappears: “Belacqua … inscribed to his darling blue flower some of the finest Night of May hiccupsobs that ever left a fox's paw sneering and rotting in a snaptrap” (“Sedendo et Quiescendo”); “He was released, achieved [sic], the blue flower, Vega, GOD …” (“Assumption”).

Beckett's fourth published story, “A Case in a Thousand,” appeared in Bookman in August 1934 along with his critical article “Recent Irish Poetry,” the latter, however, signed with the pseudonym Andrew Belis. “A Case in a Thousand” features one Dr. Nye, who “belonged to the sad men.” Physician though he is, Dr. Nye “cannot save” himself. He is called in on a case of surgeon Bor who had operated on the tubercular glands of a boy named Bray, who had then taken a turn for the worse. “Dr. Nye found a rightsided empyema,” and then another on the left. He discovered as well that the boy's mother, who has been barred from the hospital excepting an hour's visit in the morning and another in the evening but who maintains a day-long vigil on the hospital grounds until her appointed visiting hour, is actually Nye's “old nurse,” who on their meeting reminds him that he was “‘always in a great hurry so you could grow up and marry me.’” Mrs. Bray, however, “did not disclose the trauma at the root of this attachment.” There are then at least two patients in this story, the Bray boy and Dr. Nye. As the boy's condition worsens and a decision about another operation must be made, the doctor regresses, “took hold of the boy's wrist, stretched himself all along the edge of the bed and entered the kind of therapeutic trance that he reserved for such happily rare dilemmas.” At that moment Mrs. Bray “saw him as she could remember him,” that is, as the boy she had nursed. The young Bray does not survive the operation, but after the funeral the mother resumes her vigil outside the hospital as if her child were still alive—as in a sense he is. When Nye appears, “she related a matter connected with his earliest years, so trivial and intimate that it need not be enlarged on here, but from the elucidation of which Dr. Nye, that sad man, expected great things.” The undisclosed incident, at once a “trauma at the root of this attachment” and an incident so “trivial and intimate that it need not be enlarged on here,” is at the root of the story as well. The matter is certainly sexual, particularly Oedipal, and at least one critic, J. D. O'Hara, has surmised that the “trivial and intimate” incident involves the young Nye's curiosity about female anatomy, in particular whether or not women have penises. Dr. Nye's nurse may have answered the question by anatomical demonstration, and the unexpected disclosure may have left the young Nye impotent, which condition would help explain why as an adult Nye was “one of the sad men.” The “Case in a Thousand,” then, is not (or not only) the young boy's empyema but Nye's disorder, impotence perhaps, as well.

Thereafter, Beckett returned to his stalled and incomplete novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women. Having published two excerpts as separate stories, “Text” and “Sedendo et Quiescendo,” he now cannibalized two of its more detachable pieces, “A Wet Night” and “The Smeraldina's Billet-Doux,” retaining the protagonist, Belacqua Shuah, to develop an episodic novel, More Pricks Than Kicks, whose lead story, “Dante and the Lobster,” was published separately in This Quarter in December 1932. (The story “Yellow” was also published separately in New World Writing but not until November 1956, twenty-two years after the publication of the novel.)

Beckett's subsequent venture into short fiction began just after the second World War, after the writing of Watt, when he produced four stories in his adopted language. Originally, all four of the French stories were scheduled for publication by Beckett's first French publisher, Bordas, which had published his translation of Murphy. But Bordas dropped plans to issue Mercier et Camier and Quatre Nouvelles when sales of the French Murphy proved disastrous. Subsequently, Beckett suppressed for a time the French novel and one of the stories. The remaining three nouvelles of 1946 were finally published in France by Les Editions de Minuit (1955) and in the U.S. by Grove Press (1967) in combination with thirteen Texts for Nothing (“First Love” being published separately only in 1970). Although conjoined, the two sets of stories remained very separate in Beckett's mind, as he explained to Joseph Chaikin. Beckett resisted Chaikin's theatrical mixing of the stories, noting that Stories and Texts for Nothing are two very different matters, the former the beginning of the French venture, the latter in the doldrums that followed the ‘trilogy.’” When Chaikin persisted, arguing that Stories and Texts for Nothing could all be read as tales for “nothing,” Beckett corrected him by return post: “Have only now realized ambiguity of title. What I meant to say was Stories. Followed by Texts for Nothing.”

The four stories, “First Love,” “The Expelled,” “The Calmative,” and “The End,” written before, almost in anticipation of, the “trilogy” of novels, and the thirteen Texts for Nothing form the bookends to Beckett's great creative period, which has memorably been dubbed the “siege in the room” and which in some regards was anticipated by the final two paragraphs of “Assumption.” The “trilogy” seems almost embedded within the Stories and Texts for Nothing, as Beckett's first two full-length plays, Eleuthéria and En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), are embedded within the novels, the plays written, as Beckett confessed, “in search of respite from the wasteland of prose” he had been writing in 1948-49. In fact, the unnamed narrator of this four-story sequence, almost always suddenly and inexplicably expelled from the security of a shelter, an ejection that mimics the birth trauma, anticipates the eponymous Molloy, even in the postmortem story “The Calmative,” and remains a theme through Fizzles, where in “For to end yet again,” “the expelled falls headlong down.” In these four stories what has been and continued to be one of Beckett's central preoccupations developed in its full complexity: the psychological, ontological, narratological bewilderment at the inconsistency, the duality of the human predicament, the experience of existence. On the one side is the post-Medieval tradition of humanism, which develops through the Renaissance into the rationality of the Enlightenment. Its ideology buttresses the capacity of humanity to know and adapt to the mechanism of the universe and understand humanity's place in the scheme. This is the world of the schoolroom and laboratory, the world of mathematics and proportion, the world of Classical symmetry, of the pensum. For Beckett's narrators, the punctum, the lived, sentient experience of existence, the being in the world, punctures and deflates that humanistic tradition, the empiricism of the classroom, although the latter never loses its appeal and is potentially a source of comfort (although it apparently destroys Watt). The opening of “The Expelled,” for instance, focuses not on the trauma of rejection and forcible ejection but on the difficulty of counting the stairs down which the narrator has, presumably, already been dispatched. There is little resentment here at the injustice of having been ejected from some place like a home. The focus of injustice in Beckett is almost never local, civil, or social, but cosmic, the injustice of having been born, after which one finds one's consolations where one may—in mathematics, say. As the protagonist of “Heard in the Dark 2” (and Company) suggests, “Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble. A haven. … Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort.” The experience of living is dark, mysterious, inexplicable, chthonic, in many respects Medieval but without the absolution of a benign deity. Such a dissociation had preoccupied Beckett in his earlier work, chiefly in Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Murphy, Watt, and the long poem “Whoroscope,” through the philosophical meditations of the seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, that is, in terms of the conflict between mind (pensum) and body (punctum), although Schopenhauer's division of the world in terms of the will and its representations is never very far from the foreground. Here the hormonal surges in even a spastic body like Murphy's conspire against the idealism and serenity of mind (or soul or spirit). But in the four Stories [Stories and Texts for Nothing] Beckett went beyond Descartes and descended further into the inchoate subconscious of existence, rationality, and civilization, beyond even the Freudian Eros and the Schopenhauerian Will into the more Jungian Collective Unconscious of the race, and the four separate narrators (or the single collective narrator called “I”) of these Stories confront those primeval depths with little sense of horror, shame, or judgment. The stories retain an unabashedly Swiftian misanthropy: “The living wash in vain, in vain perfume themselves, they stink” (“First Love”). In “The Expelled” grotesqueries acquire comic effect even as they disclose psychoanalytic enigmas: “They never lynch children, babies, no matter what they do they are whitewashed in advance. I personally would lynch them with the utmost pleasure.” The theme will resurface in the 1957 radio play All that Fall when Dan Rooney asks wife Maddy, “Did you ever wish to kill a child. … Nip some young doom in the bud.” This is depersonalized humanity sunk in on itself: “It is not my wish to labour these antinomies, for we are, needless to say, in a skull, but I have no choice but to add the following few remarks. All the mortals I saw were alone and as if sunk in themselves” (“The Calmative”). It is a descent, most often into an emblematic skull, from which Beckett's fiction, long or short, will never emerge. The image anticipates not only the skullscapes of the “trilogy,” but the dehumanized, dystopic tale The Lost Ones, and what is generally called the post-How It Is prose. Such a creative descent into “inner space,” into the unconscious, had been contemplated by Beckett at least since the earliest stages of Watt. In the notebook and subsequent typescript versions of the novel, Beckett noted, “the unconscious mind! What a subject for a short story.” “The Expelled” seems a fulfillment of that wish to plumb “perhaps deep down in those palaeozoic profounds, midst mammoth Old Red Sandstone phalli and Carboniferous pudenda … into the pre-uterine … the agar-agar … impossible to describe.”18

But while character names may shift in the four stories (Lulu, for instance, becomes Anna in “First Love”) the narrating consciousness, the “I” of these stories, remains more or less cogent, intact, coherent, psychologically and narratologically whole, and at least pronominally namable. And something like representable external reality still exists, even as it is folded in on itself and therefore inseparable from the consciousness perceiving it. Writing subsequently three interrelated and sequential novels dubbed the “trilogy,” Beckett continued to probe the “pre-uterine.” It is a period during which Beckett pushed beyond recognizable external reality and discrete literary characters, replacing them with something like naked consciousness or pure being (living or dead is not always clear) and a plethora of voices.

The Texts for Nothing are then, as Beckett tried to explain to Chaikin, a major leap beyond the four Stories. To use the current historical markers, they represent a leap from Modernism to Post-Modernism, from interior voices to exterior voices, from internality to externality. Beckett's fragments are in fact no longer “completed” stories but shards, aperçus of a continuous unfolding narrative, glimpses at a never to be complete being (narrative). The Texts for Nothing would redefine at least Beckett's short fiction, if not the possibilities of the short story itself, as narrative per se was finally discarded (as it was for the most part in the “trilogy” of novels), replaced by attempts of consciousness to perceive, comprehend, or create first a life, then a more or less stable, static image, an essence, failing at the latter no less often than at the former. “No need of a story,” says one of the voices, “a story is not compulsory, just a life, that's the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough” (Text IV). The struggle of the protean narrators of the four Stories and the three novels was to create a narrative to capture or reflect, to represent at least a segment of a life in a work of art—that struggle has been abandoned with the Texts for Nothing. If “life,” and so story, assumes character, the voice has made yet another mistake, for the coherent entity that in literature we call “character” is itself disbursed amid a plurality of disembodied voices and echoes whose distinctions are unclear and whose sources are unknowable. The disembodied voice captivated Beckett from his earliest creative years when he took the image of Echo as the literary emblem for his first collection of poems, Echo's Bones. Echo, an Oread or mountain nymph, pined away for the love of Narcissus until all that remained of her was her voice. Texts for Nothing could as easily be called Echo's Bones as well, and from there on Beckett would never again create anything like literary characters save for an unnamed (even unnamable) narrator straining to see images and hear sounds, almost always echoes—bodiless voices or later voiceless bodies, origins unknown. In Beckett's tribute to painter and friend Bram van Velde, the témoignage “La Falaise” (“The Cliff,” published here in a translation by Edith Fournier), the window through which the observing “you” views the cliff both separates him from and joins him to the cliff in a process that blends perception and imagination. In these late works the artist figures inhabit a no-man's-land, “an unspeakable [because unnamable?] home” in “neither,” which is neither wholly self nor wholly other. In theatrical adaptations of his prose, Beckett retained such paradoxes of self by insisting on the separation of character and narrative, and such separation was evident in almost every stage adaptation of his prose works that he himself had a hand in. These, then, are the limitations, the necessary incoherence and fragmentation within which the writer is obliged to work in the post-Auschwitz era in order to convey the punctum, the experience of living in the world: “I'm here, that's all I know, and that it's still not me, it's of that the best has to be made” (Text III). Because of such an impasse, narrative (at least as we've known and expected it, even amid the more experimental Modernists) “can't go on,” and yet somehow is obliged to “go on.” How it goes on is in fits, sputters, and not so much starts as re-starts, in imaginative ventures doomed to failure. As it had been in The Unnamable, all pretense to artistic completion was abandoned even in the titles of these later works to suggest not only that the individual works are themselves incomplete, unfinished, but that completion is beyond human experience. The thirteen Texts for Nothing are merely numbered, for instance, and Beckett went on to write stories with titles like Lessness, “From an Abandoned Work,” Fizzles (foirades in French), and Residua. But these tales are no more unfinished works of art than those paintings by Matisse that retain raw, unpainted canvas.

What one is left with after the Texts for Nothing is “nothing,” incorporeal consciousness perhaps, into which Beckett plunged afresh in English in the early 1950s to produce a tale rich in imagery but short on external coherence. “From an Abandoned Work” deals with three days in the life of the unnamed narrator, an old man recalling his childhood. That childhood was as uneventful as it was loveless, except, perhaps, for words, which “have been my only loves, not many.”19 The father died when the narrator was young, and he lived with his mother until she died. The narrator's life is ordered by the daily journey and return: “in the morning out from home and in the evening back home again.” He had taken long walks with his father, and those have continued even after the father's death. His motion, however, is directionless, “I have never in my life been on my way anywhere, but simply on my way.” In contrast to his own patterned motion, he retains, “Great love in [his] heart for all things still and rooted.” There is, however, a great deal of hostility in the parental relationship: “ah my father and mother, to think they are probably in paradise, they were so good. Let me go to hell, that's all I ask, and go on cursing them there, and them looking down and hear me, that might take some shine off their bliss.” In fact, his admission that he may have killed his father, “as well as [his] mother,” suggests a consciousness permeated with guilt. The events of the days grow more bizarre. There is “the white horse and white mother in the window.” Another day, “I was set on and pursued by a family or tribe of stoats.” The narrator, moreover, experiences inexplicable periods of rage: “The next thing I was up in the bracken lashing out with my stick making the drops fly and cursing, filthy language, the same over and over, I hope nobody heard me.” The most comprehensive reading of this enigmatic text is one offered by J. D. O'Hara in which he sees the word “work” of the title as referring not to a work of art, the story itself, but to a session of psychotherapy. Freud often spoke of his therapy sessions, for instance, as working through psychological problems. What is abandoned for O'Hara, then, is not a narrative or story, which is in this reading complete, but the therapy, which is never completed and so abandoned. The emotional tensions are never resolved, the anxiety never relieved, the personality never integrated. For O'Hara:

the protagonist has divided his feelings for his parents into love and hatred, has expressed that hatred to us while concealing it from the world, and has repressed his love and displaced it into a love of words, of animals, of this earth, etc. In all this he has expressed his love of self while expressing his hatred of that self by youthful punishment in the walks, by future punishment in hell, and by present punishment among the rocks, isolated from all humans.

It took almost a decade for Beckett to put such psychological strangeness away. When he returned to short fiction in the early 1960s it was to reshape the remains of aborted longer fiction yet again, a work tentatively entitled Fancy Dead, a short excerpt of which, in French and English, was published in 1965 as “Faux Départs.” The work suggests, however, less a false start than a major aesthetic shift, a rejection of the journey motif and structure (incipient in Murphy and Watt and fully developed in “First Love” and the fiction through “From an Abandoned Work”), a return to which might have signaled the death of creative imagination: “Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again.” Instead, Beckett (or the narrator) announced a new literary preoccupation, “A closed space five foot square by six high, try for him there” in which he would conduct exercises in human origami, all with a rechristened pronoun through which to tell his story, “last person.” For the opening of “All Strange Away” Beckett would delete the first three words of the sentence above, but “A closed space” (“Closed place” opens “Fizzle 5”) would come close to describing the creative terrain that Beckett's short fiction would thereafter explore. And if an impasse were reached in such imaginative spelunking, the light (of imagination?) go out, “no matter, start again, another place, someone in it. …”

The British novelist David Lodge's analysis of one of Beckett's “closed space” tales, Ping (Bing in French), originally a segment of Le Dépeupleur (The Lost Ones), is a cogent reading of this cryptic tale, and so of much of Beckett's late prose: “I suggest that Ping is the rendering of the consciousness of a person confined in a small, bare, white room, a person who is evidently under extreme duress, and probably at the last gasp of life.”20 Such is what passes for plot in Beckett's late prose, and Lodge goes on to suggest that:

Ping seems to record the struggles of an expiring consciousness to find some meaning in a situation which offers no purchase to the mind or to sensation. The consciousness makes repeated, feeble efforts to assert the possibility of colour, movement, sound, memory, another person's presence, only to fall back hopelessly into the recognition of colourlessness, paralysis, silence, oblivion, solitude.

Lodge struggles to situate Ping within a more or less traditional, realistic frame: an expiring consciousness in search of meaning. The questions that Lodge defers, however, are the narratological ones: Who is the figure to whom all is “known”? By whom is the image described “never seen”?; to whom is it repeatedly “invisible”? Certainly not the reader, to whom even these white-on-white images are strikingly visible, for the reader, like the narrator, sees them clearly if fleetingly in his mind's eye through the imaginative construct we call literature, fiction. The figure described, the narrator hints, is “perhaps not alone,” and so the possibility exists of others, whose perceptions fail as well. Although the story lines of the late tales are fairly simple, as Lodge suggests, narratologically they are more complex. The reader's focus is not only on a figure in a closed space, but on another figure and a narrator imagining them. We have, then, not just the psychologically complex but narratologically transparent image of a self imagining itself, but a self imagining itself imagining itself, often suspecting that it is being imagined itself.

In these late tales the mysterious narrator is often recorded in the midst of the fiction-making process. Beckett's subject here is, therefore, less the objects perceived and recorded, a process, of necessity, “ill seen” and so “ill said,” but the human imagination. In his seminal study, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, critic Frank Kermode quotes Hans Vaihinger on the human impulse of fiction making; fictions are “mental structures. The psyche weaves this or that thought out of itself; for the mind is invention; under the compulsion of necessity [in Beckett, the “obligation to express”], stimulated by the outer world, it discovers the store of contrivances hidden within itself.”21 Beckett's late short fiction, the post-How It Is prose, constitutes a record of those discoveries, and so the late work may have more in common with that of American poet Wallace Stevens than with any of the writers of short fiction.

Such then is the rarefied world of Beckett's late short fiction, from “All Strange Away” to Stirrings Still, short tales that in fundamental ways are almost indistinguishable from the late novels—as the late prose is almost indistinguishable from the late theater. Despite his early insistence on keeping “our genres more or less distinct,”22 Beckett seemed in this later phase of his work to have stretched beyond such limitations, beyond generic boundaries to examine the diaphanous membrane separating inside from outside, perception from imagination, self from others, narrative from experience, “neither” wholly the one nor wholly the other. Despite such psychological and philosophical flux, an almost frustrating thematic irresolution, the literary oscillation between waves and particles, these stories retain a direct dramatic and poetic simplicity as if they had been spoken into a tape recorder. Taken together, Beckett's short prose pieces not only outline his development as an artist, but suggest as well Beckett's own view of his art, that it is all part of a continuous process, a series. Writing to George Reavey on 8 July 1948, for instance, Beckett noted, “I am now retyping, for rejection by the publishers, Malone Meurt [Malone Dies], the last I hope of the series Murphy, Watt, Mercier & Camier, Molloy, not to mention the 4 Nouvelles & Eleuthéria.”23 That series did not, of course, end with Malone Meurt. It continued for another forty years to Stirrings Still. The post-How It Is stories were just the latest in a series whose end was only Beckett's own. In these generically androgynous stories Beckett produced a series of literary hermaphrodites that echo one another (and the earlier work as well) like reverberations in a skull. Taken together the stories suggest the intertextual weave of a collaboration between Rorschach and Escher.


  1. “Mr. Artesian,” The Listener (3 August 1967): 148-49. Reprinted in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, ed. by Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), 286-291.

  2. No Symbols Where None Intended: A Catalogue of Books, Manuscripts, and Other Material Relating to Samuel Beckett in the Collection of the Humanities Research Center, Selected and described by Carlton Lake (Austin, TX: Humanities Research Center, 1984), 133.

  3. The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (New York: Harper & Row [Harper Colophon Books], 1985), 19.

  4. The work finally seems to have wound up anthologized with Beckett's prose via an exchange between publishers. The dramaticule “Come and Go” was originally published in the U.K. by John Calder, to whom the work is dedicated. Faber has subsequently published “Come and Go” in anthologies of Beckett's drama, and Calder published “From an Abandoned Work” in anthologies of Beckett's prose.

    Beckett's short story “Lessness” was also performed on the BBC, on 25 February 1971 with Donal Donnelly, Leonard Fenton, Denys Hawthorne, Patrick Magee, and Harold Pinter.

  5. Even Beckett's earliest critics like Dylan Thomas referred to More Pricks Than Kicks as a novel; see New English Weekly (17 March 1938): 454-55.

  6. Letter to American publisher Barney Rosset dated 11 February 1954.

  7. Ibid.

  8. No Symbols Where None Intended, 81.

  9. Rosset letter to Samuel Beckett, 5 February 1954.

  10. No Symbols Where None Intended, 90.

  11. A reference to this abandoned work appears in “Why Actors Are Fascinated by Beckett's Theater,” The Times (27 January 1965): 14: “Mr. Beckett is at present finishing a novel called Fancy Dying, and also writing a play”—the latter presumably Play. The source of the information is apparently Jack MacGowran, who was not only playing in Endgame at the time but also preparing a one-man performance of Beckett's prose writings, which became Beginning to End.

  12. “From an Unabandoned Work,” Evergreen Review 4.14 (September-October 1960): 58-65.

  13. Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978) 578.

  14. No Symbols Where None Intended, 140.

  15. For further discussion of adaptation of Beckett's prose to the stage see my “Company for Company: Androgyny and Theatricality in Samuel Beckett's Prose,” Beckett's Later Fiction and Drama: Texts for Company, ed. James Acheson and Kateryna Arthur (London: Macmillan Press, 1987), 193-202.

  16. Samuel Beckett letter to the editor dated 12 September 1986.

  17. The title alludes to Dante's Purgatorio, “Sedendo et quiescendo anima efficitur prudens” (roughly, sitting quietly the soul acquires wisdom).

  18. Cited by Chris Ackerley, “Fatigue and Disgust: The Addenda to Watt,” Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui: Beckett in the 1990s II: 179.

  19. Some twenty-two years later, directing his play Footfalls in Germany, Beckett returned to this theme as he told the actress playing May, “Words are as food for this poor girl. … They are her best friends” (Walter D. Asmus, “Rehearsal Notes for the German Premiere of Samuel Beckett's That Time and Footfalls,” On Beckett: Essays and Criticism, ed. by S. E. Gontarski [New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1986], 339).

  20. “Some Ping Understood,” Encounter (February 1968): 85-89. Reprinted in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, 291-301. The original publication of the essay, however, contains line numberings to the original publication of “Ping” in Encounter 28.2 (February 1967): 25-26.

  21. Hans Vaihinger from The Philosophy of As If, cited in Kermode (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 40.

  22. This oft-quoted letter to Barney Rosset of 27 August 1957 objects to a staging of All that Fall. Beckett's full wording is: “If we can't keep our genres more or less distinct, or extricate them from the confusion that has them where they are, we might as well go home and lie down.” Beckett subsequently authorized several stage versions of All that Fall.

  23. No Symbols Where None Intended, 53.

Robert Scholes (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Scholes, Robert. “Playing with the Cries.” Samuel Beckett Today 7 (1998): 379-90.

[In the following essay, Scholes approaches “First Love” as a hypertext and recommends that the reader explore links found in the story.]

There is a page on the World Wide Web called “Play It Again, Sam”. If you should visit that page, you will find a sold black background, with the words “I Can't Go On” written there. If you click on those underlined words, you will find yourself on another black page, on which the words “I Must Go On” appear. A click there and you are back to the black page with “I Can't Go On” inscribed thereon. You can continue this as long as you wish. Play it again, Sam, indeed.

I mention these pages because they afford some insight into the way that Beckett appears in the modern cultural text—and because, like the words of any durable writer—they speak for us as well as to us. In my case, they speak for me. I have read this text, Beckett's “First Love”, many times, and I have nothing to say about it. And yet I must. I am back in school, a place I never really cared for, and the class is waiting for my book report. I am stalling, of course, trying not to begin, but I must begin. I have undertaken to write about “First Love”, and to write “semiotically”, if possible, so here I am, about to begin, which I shall certainly do—in a moment or two.

Actually, I would rather write about my own first love, and would certainly do so if I were sure which one it was. I think it must have been Carrie, who worked for my parents, was beautiful, I believe, and made wonderful cookies—of that I am certain. Yes, Carrie and her cookies would be a much pleasanter subject than Beckett and his “First Love”, but, come to think of it, Carrie left me—I must have been eight years old at the time—for a man. She married, had a child, and that was that. As Beckett says at the end of “First Love”, “either you love or you don't”.

I seem to have begun speaking of Beckett and his story (though perhaps not “semiotically”), but not because I promised do so. No, it is rather because Beckett is insisting. His words, as he almost said himself, can be applied to our situations. Yes, despite everything, these disgusting and somewhat boring post-Kafkaesque narratives of despair and degradation have something to say to us about our ordinary lives. And what's more, they are often funny—yes, amusing. You have to like a man who can say, “I have no bone to pick with graveyards”. What, then, is Beckett saying to us in “First Love”? How should we read this text?

We can take what we might call the pigeon's-eye view, flying high over this story, noting its broad outlines, and dropping our little messages upon the text, as pigeons do with monuments, thereby obscuring some of its words and meanings. Or we can take the worm's-eye view, grubbing around in the mouldering text, chewing on this or that bit to see if there is anything in it that can nourish us, but never seeing the whole picture. Let us not, however, get too caught up in our own grubby metaphors. Let us be eclectic—a little flying and dropping, with a little grubbing and chewing. From up above, we can see that this text has just seven paragraphs. Let me, like a good semiotician, list them, in order, with their size noted, and their opening phrases:

1. (four lines) I associate, rightly or wrongly, marriage with the death. […]

2. (fifteen lines) I visited, not so long ago, my father's grave, […]

3. (a page and a half) Personally, I have no bone to pick with graveyards […]

4. (almost two pages) But to pass on to less melancholy matters, […]

5. (over nine pages) But to pass on to less melancholy matters, […]

6. (almost three pages) There were in fact two rooms, […]

7. (about three pages) Gradually, I settled down, in this house.

Very irregular paragraphing, notes our pigeon: Splat! In fact, the fifth paragraph is just about as long as all the others combined? Splat! A semiotician might find these matters interesting and revealing—but not this semiotician, at this moment. Our pigeon's flight over the text has not been in vain, however, for it has called our attention to the fact that the two central paragraphs in this text begin with exactly the same phrase: “But to pass on to less melancholy matters.” Given what is recounted in these paragraphs, it is clear that we are in a universe divided between more and less melancholy matters, like that Hegelian night in which all cows lose their colours. This repetition is also a clue, however, as to how we should be reading this text. It suggests that we should attend to repetition—of which, it turns out, there is a lot in these few pages. Let us return, then, by this commodious vicus of recirculation, to the beginning.

The first words of the text, after the title, are: “I associate.” Stop right there, please. Hold that phrase. (The semiotician, as Roland Barthes told us too long ago, breaks up the text! And where is our Roland? Where is the author of “A Lover's Discourse” and other lovelorn, melancholy texts? Where is the great apologist for écriture? He sleeps with kings and counsellors and other scriveners, including our Sam, whose corpse, if I may borrow some words from our narrator at the end of paragraph 4, has finally come “up to scratch”. Am I being macabre? Am I being impious to our great dead writers? I am being nothing that Samuel Beckett has not taught me to be, and my point is that these lessons are useful. Sam carried his heavy burden lightly, which is why he could indeed play it again and again.) But back to those first words: “I associate”—indeed you do, Sam, indeed you do—and so, then, must we, your readers, in our own attempts to come up to scratch. The first paragraph, I am suggesting, is, among other things, telling us how to read this text and others: by associating, by finding links. Even, as the text suggests, “other links on other levels”.

Finding links! How hypertextual! Like other postmodernist writers, Beckett seems to have been writing for hypertext avant l'ordinateur. Let us try to come up to scratch ourselves, however, and attend to our own itches. This text offers us—nay, insists upon—two orders of association, which semioticians once liked to call the metaphorical and the metonymical. Unhappy with the confusions evoked by those two terms, I shall refer to these two orders of association as simply the semantic and the syntactic. The semantic is based upon words, as they lie quietly in dictionaries and thesauruses—words, that is, referring to one another by similarity or opposition of meaning, like live and quick (semantic, based on similarity), or quick and dead (semantic, based upon opposition). The syntactic order, on the other hand, is based upon linkages established outside the dictionary, in the world and its texts, like death and the grave, the grave and the tombstone. I would say, “Let us get back to Beckett”, but death and graves and tombstones have already brought us back. Let us, in any case, look more closely at the words of “First Love”.

The first paragraph begins not with narration, as the seventh paragraph does (“Gradually, I settled down”), nor with description, as the sixth paragraph does (“There were, in fact, two rooms, separated by a kitchen”), but with a meta-discursive statement (that is, a statement about the discourse itself): “I associate.” The one who is recounting this narrative (the author? the speaker? the narrator?) is telling us how his mind and, by extension, his text, work. And what does this “I” associate? He—let us call him “he”, for various reasons—He associates marriage with death. Marriage and death—not your standard pairing of concepts—or mine either. This unusual combination, because of its oddity, offers us food for thought. The text, as early as the next paragraph, clarifies this odd association by supplying a middle term: birth. The entire narrative has in fact been organized as a working out of variations on the themes of death, marriage, and birth, in their various combinations and permutations—and Beckett, as a reading of Watt will remind us, is a virtuoso of the combinatoire. He takes pleasure—perhaps gives it, too, to readers who share his own combinatorial perversion—in expressing all the possible combinations of a few simple elements—often playing them over, again and again. At the beginning of “First Love”, however, Beckett's narrator poses for us the problem of what death and marriage may have to do with one another, and, in particular, what his father's death may have to do with his own marriage. Our reading thus becomes motivated by the desire for answers to these questions—which the text will indeed supply.

(Dear old Roland, in the heady days of early structuralism, when narratologists were scrambling around, pasting labels on every narrative device or code, offered us a name for this kind of motivation—but I have forgotten it. Does this mean that Barthes and other laboured in vain? No more than we all do, no more than we all do. The codes offered to us in S/Z could never be the last word in the study of narrative. Like other rhetorical and critical terms, they serve to call our attention, as readers, to certain aspects of texts that might otherwise escape us. Breaking up the text, as Barthes did in that justly famous reading of Balzac's Sarassine, also serves a great interpretative purpose, in that it forces us to awaken from our narrative slumbers, induced by the teleological charms of realistic narration. By breaking up the text arbitrarily we experience the kind of alienation or estrangement that enables us to stop, for a moment, reading, and start, for a while, thinking. A late (or post-) modernist writer like Beckett, however, is likely to alienate us himself, needing no critic to break up his text. Beckett, needless to say, is very good at this. Having broken up my own text, which was never seductive enough to lull the critical faculties of its audience, though perhaps capable of lulling in a more somatic sense, I must now find my way back to Beckett's. Ah, yes, we were talking about the way that the opening conundrum of “First Love”—that association of marriage and death—works to rouse a curiosity that only the text could supply.)

These supplements begin in the second paragraph, in which the narrator recounts his visits to the graveyard, to read a tombstone and thus obtain the dates of his father's death and birth. He does so, apparently, by way of research for the account he is offering us, in order to ascertain his own age (about twenty-five) at the time of his marriage. Knowing that he married shortly after his father's death, he will be able to calculate his age by subtracting his birth date from his father's death date. But he can look at no tombstone to find the date of his own birth. Where, then, does that date repose? It is, he tells us, “graven on my memory”. You will forgive the semiotical “aha” which caused me to emphasize that word “graven”. To engrave is to scratch, to dig, and, of course, to write in a durable way, to produce writing that cannot be easily erased, like the words scratched upon tombstones. If you look for me tomorrow, says the dying Mercutio to Romeo, you will find me a grave man. Well, this is a grave man who is writing our story here, a man who believes that, if his dead Papa could see him, he would find his “corpse not yet quite up to scratch”.

To “come up to scratch” is a term from the old days of bare knuckle boxing. It referred to a line scratched in the earth, to which a fighter who had been knocked down had to return or lose the fight. In English idiom now, it signifies, loosely, being ready, measuring up. In Beckett's text, the dead father, “in his great disembodied wisdom”, may see “further than his son, whose corpse was not yet quite up to scratch”. The living son is, paradoxically, a corpse, but not yet a finished one, not yet perfected, not yet ready to be disembodied, to cross the line graven between life and death—“not yet quite up to scratch”. “Scratch”, then, signifies, at this textual moment, a line between being bodied and being disembodied, corpsed and decorpsed. One thinks of Yeats and his soul, “sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal”—that is the line of thought embodied or engraved in Beckett's prose, here. To be alive, in this textual universe, is to be a corpse, dragging the flesh around, whereas to be dead is to be disembodied, freed from the drag of the flesh, which prevents one from “seeing”. And the drag of the flesh is very much what this story is about. It is also, of course, about scratching, engraving, in a word: writing.

(Semioticians are always finding out that texts are about writing, about how they were written. How boring! How stultifying! And yet—Look! I have nothing up my sleeve. The references to writing are in Beckett's text. He put them there. And this is important. If I were bringing these meanings to the text all by myself, the whole process would be trivial and silly. Why bother? Interpretation is a game in which both the writer and the reader are players. “No symbols where none intended”, says Beckett at the end of Watt, knowing full well that intention is a slippery notion, extending, as it does, from conscious purpose to unconscious revelation. In the third paragraph our narrator concentrates on graveyards, telling us he prefers the scents of the dead to the odours of the living, but we mustn't let the shock of this revelation distract us from the attention paid to writing in this paragraph. For it is here that we discover our narrator to be a writer. He enjoys, he tells us, wandering among the slabs, “culling inscriptions”. He never wearies of these, since he always finds a few that are so amusing, “of such drollery”, he says, that he has “to hold on to the cross, or the stele, or the angel, so as not to fall”. More important for our interpretative purposes, however, is the revelation that the narrator has composed his own epitaph, which he inscribes not on stone but in our text, and that he has written other things that he finds revolting as soon as they are “dry”. This is a curious moment, for the narrator's life, as revealed in the subsequent paragraphs, seems to be that of a homeless person, expelled from his father's house after his father's death, briefly taken in by a woman, driven out again at the moment of his own dubious paternity by the cries of his new-born of his child. There seems to be no place in this life for pen, ink, and paper—for “writing” in the physical sense suggested by that expression: “My other writings are no sooner dry than they revolt me.”

I am inclined to read this curious allusion to “other writings” as a kind of break in the text, in which the author's voice is inscribed over that of the narrating character. If we attend to what I have called the “circumstantial” evidence about this text, we can note that Beckett did not like it very much when he wrote it in French, nor, again, when he translated it into English. This story, “First Love”, is, no doubt, one of the “other writings”, that our narrator/author finds revolting. Of this paring, author/narrator, it is the author, Sam, who writes on paper. Our narrator, who tells us that he should have made a note “on paper” of Lulu's proper name, did not in fact do so, though, in the throes of first love, he finds himself “inscribing the letters Lulu in an old heifer pat”, or, as he also puts it, “tracing her name in old cowshit” (paragraph 5). When our narrator writes (inscribes, traces—how many words he has for writing!), he writes on dung. But who has written this story—and on what? There are other moments, as well, when what we might call the register of this account shifts from the abjection of a dispossessed vagabond, to a different level, where the abjection and dispossession are on a grander scale, seeming to mirror, in however distorted a manner, the life of a citizen of modern Europe, who is, in fact, an exiled (self-exiled, like Joyce, no doubt) Irish writer, who has wandered through Europe, writing, in a foreign language, texts he finds revolting.

Our narrator is not the only one whose words are writ in cowshit, and cowshit is not the only kind of shit in this text. It seems that history also excretes. In one of the few passages that serve to locate these events in a specific place, the narrator speaks of his native land in this way:

What constitutes the charm of our country, apart of course from its scant population, and this without the help of the meanest contraceptive, is that all is derelict, with the sole exception of history's ancient faeces. These are ardently sought after, stuffed and carried in procession. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffling it up on all fours, their faces on fire.

(“First Love,” 33-34)

Many a nation, not excluding my own, has had its moments of worship for the droppings of history. But that scant population, achieved without birth control, seems to point to Ireland more clearly than to anyplace else. (The text's most specific geographical reference, of course, is to the Ohlsdorf graveyard, in Hamburg, which is present by association, as the complete opposite of the graveyard visited by our narrator. Beckett, of course, did indeed spend some time in Hamburg early in his career.) The mask of this character/narrator is being worn loosely by the author, whose voice repeatedly makes itself heard, though the story is clearly too absurd, too beautiful, too neat—to be literally his. History's “ancient faeces”, of course, are themselves signs, already traces, inscriptions—which is why they are worshipped. By positioning them within his account of inscribing the word Lulu on cow pats, the author/narrator compares his own behaviour, when crazed by “first love” to the behaviour of his crazed compatriots, sniffling up the droppings of history: “Would I have been tracing her name in old cowshit if my love had been pure and disinterested? And with my devil's finger into the bargain, which I then sucked? Come now!” He sucks his sticky finger, the devil's finger, too, like the patriots, sniffling up the faeces of history with their faces on fire.

A pretty pass, to which our narrator was led by the events that took place on a bench by one of the town's two canals. These events, narrated in paragraph 5 (the second devoted to “less melancholy matters”) may be said to reach a climax when he stretches out, with her “fat thighs” under his “miserable calves”. Let us follow the event in his own deadly prose. (I will need to quote at some length, here.)

She began stroking my ankles. I considered kicking her in the cunt. You begin to speak to people about stretching out and they immediately see a body at full length. What mattered to me in my dispeopled kingdom, that in regard to which the disposition of my carcass was the merest and most futile of accidents, was supineness in the mind, the dulling of the self and of that residue of execrable frippery known as the non-self and even the world, for short. But man is still today, at the age of twenty-five, at the mercy of an erection, physically too, from time to time, it's the common lot, even I was not immune, if that may be called an erection. It did not escape her naturally, women smell a rigid phallus ten miles away and wonder, How on earth did he spot me from there? One is no longer oneself on such occasions, and it is painful to be no longer oneself, even more painful if possible than when one is. For when one is one knows what to do to be less so, whereas when one is not one is any old one irredeemably. What goes by the name of love is banishment, with now and then a postcard from the homeland, such is my considered opinion, this evening. When she had finished and my self been resumed, mine own, the mitigable, with the help of a brief torpor, it was alone.

(“FL” [“First Love”], 31)

One may pause to note the misogyny of this text. Our narrator, like many male modernists and postmodernists, wants to associate the female with the body and the male with the mind or soul. Unfortunately for him, however, he has a phallus, which ties him to woman, reminds him that he has a body, that he shares “the common lot”. “Even”, he says, “even I was not immune”. Of course, this narrator and his world being what they are, his erection is nothing to brag about—“if that may be called an erection”. But this is a strangely philosophical passage, is it not. The actual physical act, to which the title of the story may refer, seems to have taken place here, somewhere in or behind this paragraph, between the erection and the torpor, while the narrator was philosophising about the self and the nonself in his enervated existentialist jargon. “What goes by the name of love is banishment”, says this Irish exile. And he says it at the present moment, “this evening”. And which evening is that? We may well ask. Is it the evening of this first act of “love”? Probably not. That would be “then”. This is now, this evening. But the text also situates this moment as “today, at the age of twenty-five”, the age, that is, which the narrator was then. Uh-oh! Beware, interpreters! Traps and snares are being set for you. Is it the evening of the act of narrating? Perhaps. Is it also the evening of the writing? Possibly. Or of the translating? Maybe. Or is it no actual evening at all, but just the word “evening”, a signifier, with a signified, but no referent? Almost certainly. And yet, to read is to assign not only signification but reference to words, even if to read fiction is to assign fictional reference.

It is possible that this particular reference to “today, at the age of twenty-five” is intended only to describe how men in general, at the age of twenty-five, even in the present era still behave. But “today” and “this evening”, in association, reinforce one another in their apparent reference to a present time. This is a text that both invites and undoes the assignment of specific reference to its significations. But let us look more closely at certain other features of this paragraph. “She began stroking my ankles. I considered kicking her in the cunt. You begin to speak to people about stretching out and they immediately see a body at full length.” Notice first the pronouns: She, I, You, they. Two sentences of narration, referring to the two characters in this little drama, followed by two clauses of generalization, in which “you” and “they” have replaced “I” and “she”. This late modernist narrator generalizes almost as much as Balzac or George Eliot. But these generalizations do not reach us with the same ethical authority, because the narrator is neither steady nor reliable, and the author has been contaminated by the narrator—or vice versa.

That “stretching out” should lead visions of “a body at full length”, should come as no surprise to any late modernist with T. S. Eliot's “The evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” always hovering in the intertextual background. Which ought to remind us that another major intertext for Beckett's story is “The Waste Land”.

While I was fishing in the dull canal,
Musing upon the king my brother's wreck
And on the king my father's death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground. […]

(ll. 189-192)

In Eliot's world, however, one doesn't consider kicking one's neighbour in the cunt. Such are the advances of late modernism over its predecessor. The narrator of “First Love”, in his own “dispeopled kingdom”, is not fishing in the canal near which he is positioned. He becomes, rather, to his own disgust, one of the “white bodies”, though neither naked nor on the ground. Unlike Eliot's mythical Fisher King with his sterilizing wound that will not heal, our narrator's wound is precisely his unsterility—that is, both his erection and his potency, his ability to engender. Or, perhaps better, his inability not to engender, his inability to terminate the absurd dance of corporeality so as to avoid passing it on to the next generation. His corpse, unable to come up to the scratch of decomposition, must continue to itch with the fever of procreation—and of composition. He must, in short, fuck and write.

He, that is his consciousness, cannot remain in the realm of pure thought but is “banished” by love to the badlands of the body, where his active corpse continues the gross joke of human existence. This is why the birth of his child is the final, unendurable indignity. Before that dreadful event, things had begun to get better for our narrator: “Already my love was waning […] Yes, already I felt better, soon I'd be up to the slow descents again, the long submersions, so long denied me through her fault.” At this time he also began to hear his voice uttering unintended sentiments: “I was so unused to speech that my mouth would sometimes open, of its own accord, and vent some phrase or phrases, grammatically unexceptionable but entirely devoid if not of meaning, for on close inspection they would reveal one, and even several, at least of foundation […].” He does not say what his words are devoid of. Which makes this particular utterance, written not spoken, grammatically exceptionable. But here again, where there is no narrative need for a discussion of expression and interpretation, the text finds it necessary to introduce the topic—and to leave it very much up in the air. The utterances of this speaker are alien to him, they may be full of meanings but they are (a) not really his, and (b) only “foundational”—whatever that may mean. I take it to mean that interpretation, working on these “foundational” meanings may indeed rise to others, but that these other meanings will be doubly detached from the author of the words being interpreted. Another warning from the author. Not only, no symbols where none intended, but also a guarantee that the utterances are cut off from any intention whatsoever. They will be the interpreter's responsibility. We must respect that thought, I believe, and take responsibility for our interpretations of this text and others—but we must also try to pin them on the author as a blindfolded child tries to pin a cardboard tail on a cardboard donkey—which means that we may pin out interpretative tails to the author's ear, or his haunch, or completely off the authorial image, but the goal is clearly to pin the tail to the author's ass, where it belongs.

Coming back from this metadiscursive excursion into the larger topic of interpretation, I want to pick up the interpretative thread of the birth/death connection. After Lulu/Anna begins speaking about “our” child in her womb, the narrator tells us that, “From that day things went from bad to worse, to worse and worse”. And then, the worst happened—not something like the death of mother and child that gives a modern novel like Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms its pathetic ending, but a perfectly normal live birth: “But I did not know yet, at that time, how tender the earth can be for those who have only her and how many graves in her giving for the living. What finished me was the birth. It woke me up.” He leaves a house for the second time in this narrative, driven out of his first home by the death of his father, and out of the second by the birth of his child. From this second house, however, he takes something with him—or rather something accompanies him. He is pursued by the cries of the new-born. He looks to the stars for orientation, if not for consolation, but he cannot even find the one he used to remember out of the many that his own father had shown him. He discovers that he cannot hear the cries when he is walking. His footsteps drown them out. But, whenever he stops he hears them. Then, he tells us, he “began playing with the cries”—playing a kind of fort-da game, “on, back, on, back, if that may be called playing”. The cries became fainter as he distanced himself in space and time from the dreadful event of the birth, but, like the beating of the telltale heart in Poe's gothic tale, they never stopped altogether. And what, he asks, does it matter, that they grew fainter: “cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease. For years I thought they would cease. Now I don't think so any more. I could have done with other loves perhaps. But there it is, either you love or you don't”.

With these final words the narrator brings us up to the present again, and the author's voice once again seems to be heard. “Playing with the cries” is an apt description of everything this author has written, text after text, in which we are allowed to hear the cries of corpses who have not yet come up to scratch. All of which would be unbearable for us as readers, if it were not for the fact that Beckett is indeed playing, that the texts are full of jokes and other verbal gifts, and that this author does not stand aside and sneer at his characters, nor blame the cosmos for its structure, but recognizes his own implication in his texts and allows us to see and share it, too. For this kind of playing with the cries of human existence, however, imperfect, however, in Beckett's own word, “revolting”, we must simply be grateful. There is much more to be said about a rich text such as this one. There are scenes and episodes I have left unconsidered, and I have not said nearly enough about “the dread name of love”. But limits are limits, and I must now abandon my own text, which I assure you, revolts me as much as Beckett's revolted him.

Carolyn Jursa Ayers (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Ayers, Carolyn Jursa. “An Interpretive Dialogue: Beckett's ‘First Love’ and Bakhtin's Categories of Meaning.” Samuel Beckett Today 7 (1998): 391-405.

[In the following essay, Ayers applies Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of dialogue to “First Love.”]

Discussing Beckett and Bakhtin together presents a challenge, to say the least; it seems remarkable that two men who led somewhat parallel lives could come to such diametrically opposed conceptions of man's place in the world. They were, after all, rough historical contemporaries (Bakhtin's dates are 1895-1975, Beckett's are 1906-1989), and lived through some of the same experiences of the twentieth century. Both survived in precarious conditions during the Second World War, and although neither was inclined toward political activity, both occasionally found themselves objects of political suspicion. Furthermore, they both endured painful and debilitating illness over the course of many years. Both men were highly educated, very much at home in the Western literary tradition, and widely read. And they were, I think, both acutely aware of the collapse of coherent meaning systems in the twentieth century. They experienced the tension of the thinking individual whose relationship with the world is insecure and fragile. And yet the conclusions they drew from all this point in entirely different directions: Beckett's textual world is profoundly pessimistic, while Bakhtin's displays all the optimism inherent in the idea of open-endedness.

All the more interesting, then, to bring these two strong voices into dialogue with each other. Beckett's story cannot be “explicated” by applying Bakhtinian terms or concepts. Yet the two voices, one artistic and imaginative, the other philosophical and scholarly, can be brought together so that they enrich each other. Reading Beckett with the help of Bakhtin should, in Bakhtin's words, “renew” the literary event of the Beckett story. I would like, then, to propose an interpretation of “First Love” that is “many-sided”. I will use Bakhtin's categories of genre, chronotope, and dialogue, and his words about them, to explore the story from various perspectives, at least some of which should shed some light on Beckett's dark narrative.

According to Bakhtin, much of the meaning that adheres to a literary work is contained in its genre. Every literary work has roots which extend backwards into time. Formal principles of organization, when they exist together in certain relationships with typical topics and devices, carry echoes of meaning from the distant past; these represent some of the semantic possibilities that the artist has at his disposal to exploit.1 On the other hand, “semantic phenomena can exist in concealed form, potentially, and be revealed only in semantic cultural contexts of subsequent epochs that are favourable for such disclosure”.2 Thus, different elements of any generic complex might be dominant at different historical moments.

Among the generic categories Bakhtin describes, the one that seems to resonate most in “First Love” is the menippea. Menippean satire originated in the third century BC, an era which witnessed the decline of the tragic and epic, an era which, as Bakhtin says, ceased to recognize “the wholeness of a man and his fate”.3 In the tradition of the menippea, the follies of men are related in a mixture of prose and verse, often interlaced with a high degree of the comic. Free from the limitations of memoir and history, the menippea allows extraordinary range for invention. Beckett's narrator enjoys just this sort of freedom. In fact, he insists on it; he constantly reminds the reader that he is relating events only as he imagines them. His family's relief at his departure from the house, for instance, “may have passed quite differently” than the scene he describes. It is clear, however, that the narrator is deliberate in his imagination and conscious of his narrative control. Later in the story, he muses, “But I have always spoken, no doubt always shall, of things that have never existed, or that existed if you insist, no doubt always will, but not with the existence I ascribe to them.”

Why should the narrator wish to ascribe an existence to things which might never have happened, or to ascribe a different existence to them than that which they actually had? The historical characteristics of the menippea offer some possibilities. In the menippea (as Bakhtin describes it), extraordinary situations often serve as tests for philosophical truths or ideas. “The genre contains the capacity to contemplate the world on the broadest possible scale. […] everywhere one meets the stripped-down pro et contra of life's ultimate questions” (Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 115-16). Certainly the narrator of “First Love” does confront the basic mysteries of life; his story concerns precisely death, birth, love, and existence.

Yet the circumstances in which the narrator, and, ultimately, Beckett, consider these questions are, to say the least, strange. Graveyards conventionally provoke contemplation of the transience of life, but a bench with garbage strewn around it? A deserted cowshed? A prostitute's room? These are not the circumstances under which we would normally expect to confront life's ultimate mysteries. Yet, Bakhtin continues, “a very important characteristic of the menippea is the organic combination within it of the free fantastic, the symbolic, at times even a mystical-religious element with an extreme and (from our point of view) crude slum naturalism [italics Bakhtin's]. […] the adventures of truth on earth take place on the high road, in brothels, in the dens of thieves, […]. The idea here fears no slum, is not afraid of any of life's filth” (Problems, 115). Thus when the narrator withdraws to contemplate his situation in a deserted cowshed in a field of mud and nettles, even though he could by his own account afford other lodgings, he is living out the conditions of the menippea. Or, to be more accurate, he is writing of his experience in the terms of the menippea, for, as he says, things may in fact have passed quite differently.

The narrator, then, seems drawn to the menippea as a form potentially able to accommodate the expression of both his ideas and his mental state. Bakhtin says, “In the menippea there appears for the first time what might be called moral-psychological experimentation: a representation of the unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states of man—insanity of all sorts […], split personality, unrestrained daydreaming, unusual dreams, passions bordering on madness, suicides, and so forth. These phenomena do not function narrowly in the menippea as mere themes, but have a formal generic significance” (Problems, 116). The function of these altered mental states is to reveal the possibilities of another person within the character. The character loses his finalized quality and ceases to mean only one thing; he ceases to coincide with himself. What Bakhtin describes in theoretical terms is realized vividly by the narrator of “First Love”, for example, in his account of his sexual experience with Lulu on the bench (“One is no longer oneself on such occasions, and it is painful to be no longer oneself”). Indeed, the propensity the narrator displays throughout the story for contradicting himself may be interpreted as an act of resistance to finalization that borders on the insane. Scandal scenes, eccentric behaviour, inappropriate speeches and performances, however, are all typical of the menippea, and not in spite of their incongruence with philosophical speculation, but because of it. In the framework of the menippea, there is no contradiction between the mental instability of the narrator and the extraordinary philosophical range of his thinking.

Also characteristic of the menippea are unexpected juxtapositions and contrasts. These are indeed realized at every level of Beckett's narrative, from the association the narrator draws in his mind between his marriage and the death of his father, to the abrupt shifts in stylistic conventions that pop up in his speech. “I am thus in a position to affirm that I must have been about twenty-five at the time of my marriage”, he asserts in legalese, only to lapse a short while later into the lyrical mode, recalling that the woman's voice “breathed of a soul too soon wearied ever to conclude.” The dynamic of the narrative, in fact, seems to consist of a continual jarring shifting among stylistic levels, from the crudest slang, to the cleverest wordplay, to scholarly pedantry. This is heteroglossia both compressed and underscored.

I think it would be highly speculative, and probably wrong, to suggest that Beckett consciously adopts the framework of the menippea for his story of first love. Nevertheless, it is useful to know that Beckett's modernist prose (abrupt shifts in stylistic levels, unexpected juxtapositions, and so forth, are, after all, hallmarks of modernism as well as of the menippea) has relevant parallels in literary history. These parallels suggest that some of the oddities of Beckett's prose may be strategic.

Our next question, as we probe deeper into “First Love”, must be: to what end are the strategic possibilities of the narrative employed? What are these “ultimate philosophical positions”, as it were, that are being tested? The narrator, it seems to me, is unusually concerned with defining his own position in terms of space and time. He forgets things, he remembers, he lies down flat, he wanders. He keeps alive the memory of his father, but is compelled to actually visit the graveyard in person to fix the date of his death. And all the time he struggles to fix his own position: he jots down dates, and he specifies thoughts and impulses as belonging to “that period” or “this juncture.” He negotiates with the woman over how often exactly she is to look for him. It seems clear that the narrator's extreme difficulty in connecting with other people is part and parcel of his own ontological uncertainty. He vacillates (a temperamental tendency which has already been remarked in the other interpretations in this collection) among various ways of configuring, or ordering, his experience in space and time.

This, of course, brings us to Bakhtin's formulation for the literary expression of the interconnection of space and time, namely the chronotope. In his essay “Forms of Time and the Chronotope”, Bakhtin identifies eight basic chronotopes, each of which expresses a particular historical experience of time in spatial terms. The delimitation of eight, however, in no way precludes the possibility of more. It is important to realize that for Bakhtin none of the chronotopes is a closed or self-fulfilled system; they can overlap, coexist, and contain any number of minor chronotopes. Furthermore, as literary history evolves, they “find themselves in ever more complex interrelationships” (“Forms of Time”, 252).

In “First Love”, the narrator seems to be engaged in a conscious effort to unravel the “complex interrelationship” of space and time surrounding his experience of life. He himself can recognize many such connections (“that other links exist, on other levels […] is not impossible”), but he is not satisfied with any of them. Indeed, he seems unsettled by the conflicting value systems that different attitudes toward space and time represent. He gives us clues to the rejected possibilities, however. For example, in labelling the field of mud and nettles in which he takes refuge after his encounter with Lulu the “Elysium of the roofless”, the narrator ironically evokes the chronotope of the idyll.

Bakhtin describes the idyllic chronotope (in its pure form) as a nostalgic representation folkloric, or unified time. In this chronotope, literature represents temporal unity (the coherence of life's events) through unity of place. Unity of place “weakens and renders less distinct all the temporal boundaries between individual lives and between various phases of one and the same life. The unity of place brings together and even fuses the cradle and the grave … and brings together as well childhood and old age … the life of the various generations who had also lived in that same place (“Forms of Time”, 224). According to Bakhtin, the idyll is “limited to only a few of life's basic realities. Love, birth, death, marriage, labour, food and drink, stages of growth […]” (224). Human life is joined with the life of nature. Sexuality and other details of everyday life, on the other hand, appear softened and to a certain extent sublimated in the idyllic chronotope.

The stable, organic environment of the idyll has been realized differently throughout literary history. It has served as the basis for endowing everyday life with significance (in the provincial novel); it has been invoked to criticize society (by, for example, Rousseau); it has been contrasted with its destruction by the forces of the capitalist world. In the domestic novel, it has been represented by the (family) house. The essential problem the idyll raises is: what is the status of idyllic time/place conditions in relation to life as it is presently experienced?

For our narrator, the idyll seems to represent some desired level of comfortable stasis. But he takes the experience of stasis to the extreme. His taste for graveyards, for instance, is indicative of his wish to unify life and death, but under the conditions of the latter. Thus he prefers to take his refreshment “sitting on a tomb”, and he associates his marriage with the death of his father. Likewise, he wants to stay in the family house, not so as to be in a community with his family, but so he can lie flat on his back, immobile. I think the narrator takes his desire for stasis to these extremes because he recognizes that an unchanging, stable environment is basically a self-deception. Hence also his sarcastic reference to the Irish obsession with local history, another manifestation of the desire for idyllic time: “[…] history's ancient faeces […] are ardently sought after, stuffed, and carried in procession. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.”

The impossibility of realizing the idyllic chronotope becomes immediately obvious when the narrator has to leave his room to go to stool. This physical necessity results in his being ejected from his “Garden of Eden”, and confronts him with elements of a different, opposing chronotope: that of the Rabelaisian world. This chronotope, which Bakhtin identifies with the work of the sixteenth-century writer and humanist François Rabelais, involves a productive and generative “folk” time, one based on the whole man, body and soul. With its roots in the preclass agricultural stage of human societies, when the means of production, ritual, and everyday life had not yet differentiated into the private and public spheres, it represents a reaction to the Medieval rejection of vulgar, crude physical licentiousness (“Forms of Time”, 171). For Rabelais, the world is structured around the human body; the world is a zone of physical contact with the body, but infinitely wide. Only scattered remnants of the Rabelaisian chronotope survive in modern times, according to Bakhtin; they are often rendered as carnivalesque episodes, or the grotesque.

The narrator of “First Love” displays a decidedly ambivalent attitude toward the physical side of life. He feels it to be real, at times he revels in it (pissing on gravestones is almost a textbook example of a realization of carnivalesque humor), but he is at the same time repulsed. He resists defecation, but later traces the Lulu's name in cowshit. Some of the qualities of the Rabelaisian chronotope appear in his consciousness apparently for the first time during this episode of “First Love”. On the night he meets Lulu, for instance, she sings folk songs under her breath, “without the words fortunately […] and so disjointedly, skipping from one to another and finishing none […] The voice, though out of tune, was not unpleasant […]” Yet he is dismayed that “you speak to people about stretching out and they immediately see a body at full length”. The way he describes Lulu's body borders on the grotesque; he singles out her fat thighs, her squint, and eventually “the side view of her belly”. Likewise, he is ambivalent about the cycle of the seasons, another intrinsic part of the Rabelaisian chronotope. His first instinct is to protect himself against the elements, to save his money for the onset of cold weather. Finally, however, he recognizes that “one should not dread the winter, it too has its bounties […]”.

Beckett may have had a natural affinity for a “medieval” configuration of man's relationship to the world. We know that he understood it, at least; he knew Provençal poetry well and was expert in Medieval French poetics. Some of the very qualities of Beckett's writing that have been associated with modernism—a circularity defying logic and linearity, a negation of the individual personality, a vision of man as insignificant in the universe, the juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane—have been remarked to have medieval associations as well (see Kern). Likewise, Ann Beer remarks on Beckett's “almost medieval quality of fatalism and austere compassion” (Beer, 165), and his “almost medieval world-view” (169). Again, what interests us is not the possibility of proving direct sources, but the insight we can gain, the potential meanings we can draw out through the process of dialogue.

Yet the Rabelaisian chronotope, like the idyllic one, has been evoked only to be denigrated. The narrator of “First Love” expresses both worldviews, as it were, in a voice laced with irony. This voice of the narrator's, in fact, resists material embodiment in any overarching, pre-existing framework of meaning. Indeed, he is a slippery character, resorting to all the means at his disposal to keep us, the readers, at a distance. One device that he adopts to this end is the figure or mask of the clown. The clown figure, of course, is a familiar one in Beckett's writings, with perhaps the most memorable examples in the characters of Waiting for Godot. Crucial as well in Bakhtin's theory, the clown (or rogue, or fool) is capable of performing a number of functions. Most importantly for our purposes, he resists the principle of material embodiment, and represents instead its direct opposite in the notion of potential.4 The clown does not have his own fixed place; he passes through several. Thus his own personality is never finalized, but always open to future development.

One important quality of the clown is his right not to understand. Because the clown figure is not subject to the conventions which govern proper behaviour, because he does not have a serious role in society, he is not constrained from expressing natural and instinctive reactions. The narrator of “First Love” exploits this stance, and represents himself (somewhat disingenuously, perhaps) as completely passive throughout his amorous encounter. He allows himself to be approached, he seems not to know at first what the woman does for a living, and claims astonishment when he finally accepts the news that she is pregnant. This assumed naivety allows him to question each of these circumstances, and to avoid conventional ways of verbalizing and dealing with them. In this way, the clown figure is able to lay bare conventions: notunderstanding is a great “organizing factor” (device) in exposing vulgar conventionality. We see this, for example, in the narrator's reaction to the song the woman sings. Very likely this song about orange trees is from Goethe's Romantic Wilhelm Meister, a very “high romantic” representation of love. The narrator pretends not to recognize it; nonetheless he testifies to its effect.

The passive figure of the clown, however much it suits his purpose, is evidently a conscious strategy for our narrator, part of his resistance to embodiment. Throughout the story, it is clear that he is driven ultimately not by his naivety, but rather by acute self-consciousness. The narrator is well aware that any position he takes is false. But his use of various fictional devices—and his continual pointing to them—are attempts to bring his false situation under his own control. He is extremely—even morbidly—sensitive to the fact that he is not completely autonomous in the world. The worst possibility, to him, is that others may “complete him” or, in his view, appropriate him, in a way which he is unable to control or dictate. Yet this sort of completion, according to Bakhtin, is exactly the essence of life; this is Bakhtin's principle of dialogue.

The narrator's relationships, interestingly enough from a Bakhtinian point of view, are described in terms of voices. As he says more than once, he is surrounded by voices, living and dead. His profound discomfort with being in this position provokes in him two reactions: On the one hand, he resists dialogue, and attempts to stay within his own world of signification. At the same time, he acknowledges the dialogic position in which he finds himself, but reacts by trying to control the dialogue. His response to the threat of the Other's voice alternates rather compulsively between withdrawal and attack.

The Other whose voice the narrator resists, we must realize, exists on many levels and is ultimately abstract—this is reflected in the entire plan of the work. The hero has a family, but the individual (living) members of it are obscure; the only real Other represented in the hero's perception is his father, who is dead. Lulu too, of course, is a genuine Other, but the narrator is astonishingly reluctant to acknowledge her as such. “Shapeless, ageless, almost lifeless, it might have been anything or anyone, an old woman or a little girl”, he says, and here he is describing his “First Love!” The most disturbing Other for him, of course, is the one who is literally abstract: the reader. The narrator's antagonistic one-sided dialogue with the reader recalls the attitude of a notorious literary ancestor, who also happened to be familiar to Bakhtin. I am referring to Dostoevsky's Underground Man, who shares a number of personality traits with Beckett's narrator.5 For each of these disturbed characters, the voice of the Other is not discrete; in Bakhtin's words; “A real-life other voice inevitably fuses with the other voice already ringing in the hero's ears” (Problems, 253).

Beginning, as it were, with the idea the “I am alone, and they are everyone else”, the narrator of “First Love” must nevertheless contend with a few voices individually. The first voice mentioned in the text is that of the narrator's father, whom he overhears saying “leave him alone”.6 This voice seems to comfort him, but perhaps this has to do with the fact that he is no longer compelled to respond to it, and he is (now) able to control the context in which the voice speaks. Later, he hears Lulu's singing, later still the sounds of the men who come to her, and finally the cries of the woman in childbirth and presumably those of the baby. As the story unfolds, the narrator becomes more and more resistant to all these voices; when he finally leaves Lulu in childbirth, he can no longer even find the Wains that his father had pointed out to him. At the same time, he is forced through his own narrative process to recognize these voices. More importantly, he gradually acknowledges the inevitability of his own position in life's dialogue.

Lulu surprises him from the first, putting him, as he sees it, in a position of vulnerability: “[…] the risk of surprise was small. And yet she surprised me.” He tries to gauge the distance at which he must stand in order not to hear her. Unsuccessful at eliminating her voice outright, his next move is to try to anticipate her response to him, while simultaneously trying to flout any possible expectations she might have. “[…] I asked her to sing me a song. I thought at first she was going to refuse, I mean simply not sing, but no, after a moment she began to sing […]” And later, “I thought she would say she had nothing to say, it would have been like her, and so was agreeably surprised when she said she had a room, most agreeably surprised, though I suspected as much”. When he arrives at Lulu's rooms, “I began putting out the furniture […] She asked me what I was doing. She can't have expected an answer”.

The narrator may have been surprised at first by Lulu's voice speaking and singing to him, but one way to turn the situation around is precisely by narrating it as part of his experience. Throughout the story, he tries to appropriate her speech by reporting it very much in his own language, with his own commentary (in fact, much as he had appropriated the literary expressions of the idyll and the Rabelaisian world). “So you don't want me to come anymore, she said. It's incredible the way they repeat what you've just said to them, as if they risked faggot and fire in believing their ears.” He mocks her: “I don't need the lid, I said. You don't need the lid? She said. If I had needed the lid she would have said, You need the lid?” Meanwhile, he himself returns her words to her: “You have no current? I said. No, she said, but I have running water and gas. Ha, I said, you have gas. She began to undress. When at their wit's end they undress, no doubt the wisest course.”

Like his literary predecessor the Underground Man, Beckett's narrator chooses to enter a relationship with a prostitute. The strategy seems obvious: this ought to be a dialogue he is able to control. Each hero tries to assert his dominance in this relationship according to the historical and philosophical possibilities of his own era. In the nineteenth century, then, the Underground Man performs an act of charity and compassion. His complacent assumption that the woman he rescues will be grateful, subservient, and dependent on him doesn't work because he unintentionally exposes himself (his insecurities, his desperate pride), and becomes instead the object of her compassion. Beckett's twentieth-century hero, in contrast, has no qualms about accepting and even abusing the generosity of “such a creature”. Instead, he tries to dominate verbally. He insults her, calling attention to her fat legs and her squint—which, incidentally, he suddenly notices only when she begins to undress. He seems to be in danger of losing control of the situation here, and is casting about for a point on which to defend himself from an assault on his self.

The narrator claims the greatest power over Lulu when, exercising his authorial privileges, he renames her. The name by which he introduces his “First Love”, Lulu, is the one by which she has introduced herself to him. (In fact he is reluctant to take even this utterance of hers at face value: “So at least she assured me and I can't see what interest she could have had in lying to me, on this score. Of course, one can never tell. She also disclosed her family name, but I've forgotten it.”) Yet at another crucial point in the story, just when he acknowledges that what he feels for her is love, just when he begins to feel her power over him, he suddenly imposes his own choice of a name: “Anyhow I'm sick and tired of the name Lulu, I'll give her another, more like her, Anna for example, it's not more like her but no matter.” Whether it is like her or not really doesn't matter to the narrator; what matters is that he chooses it for her.

Despite all his efforts to forestall the woman's autonomous voice, however, the “plot” of the story depends very much on her voice intruding. She is the first to say “Shove up”, and she is the one to say she has rooms, setting the scene for their “night of love.” In his hyperconscious mental state, the narrator recognizes very well that not only his control over the Other, but his control over his own voice is at peril in this encounter: “I seemed not to grasp the meaning of these words, nor even hear the brief sound they made, till some seconds after having uttered them … Never had my voice taken so long to reach me as on this occasion.” Lulu seems to foil all the narrator's moves to appropriate her, even at one point bettering him in wits: “So you live by prostitution, I said. We live by prostitution, she said.”

If the narrator is more or less able to block out the disturbing voices of the woman's clients, it is because these voices (like his father's instructions to his siblings) are overheard and demand from him no direct response. Eventually, however, Lulu comes to him with an utterance that absolutely requires an answer: “One day she had the impudence to announce she was with child.” At this point he actually does make an attempt, of sorts. “I summoned up my remaining strength and said, Abort, abort […]” When he cannot impose his version of “how things are passing” on the obvious physical reality of her advancing pregnancy, things go “from bad to worse, to worse and worse.” Finally, he is utterly overwhelmed by the sound of her cries when she is giving birth. He flees the house, driven again from his self-styled idyllic stasis by the intrusion of the physical.

Yet having once entered into this dialogue, he cannot escape the other's voice. The cries pursue him out into the street and even down through the years. Silence, he acknowledges, will not come. The only possible way for him to appropriate this voice is to incorporate it into his written monologue; indeed, we might now guess that this is his principle motivation for writing.

Even in writing, however, the narrator must confront an Other in the person of his reader. And here he is at his most confrontational, perhaps because he perceives here the greatest threat to his autonomy. Like the Underground Man, he attempts throughout the narrative to anticipate what the reader will think, and then pre-empt the reader's response. He responds in turn to the reader's imagined objections, often trying to shock or insult. We see him justify himself over plot details: “were you to inquire, as undoubtedly you itch, what I had done with the money my father had left me […]” Later, he hints that he is withholding information: “for other reasons better not wasted on cunts like you.” This sudden spasm of narrative authority is apparently provoked by his too-open “confession” of leaving the bench. Still later in the story, he tries to distance himself even from his own written record: “Are we to infer from this I loved her with that intellectual love which drew from me such drivel, in another place? Somehow I think not.”

The narrator is so defensive, perhaps, because here as in the rest of his narrative he is fighting a losing battle. The more he tries to resist dialogue, the deeper into it he is drawn. His very ability to identify what he experiences as love, the very basis for his narrative, is, he realizes, already determined largely by the voices of others. He himself calls upon these voices to establish his credentials in the eyes of the reader (“[…] of course [I] had heard of the thing, at home, in school, in brothel and at church, had read romances, in prose and verse, under the guidance of my tutor, in six or seven languages, both dead and living, in which it was handled at length”), to prove that he is educated and sophisticated. Yet in the next breath he denies the authority of these voices over his own experience.

Why is the narrator compelled to assert the autonomy of his voice? Clearly, he is deeply concerned with the integrity of his selfhood. His effort to define his essential self involves stripping away, excluding everything that comes from other subjects, and then “barring the door” against all “intrusions.” We find literal enactments of this in the text: rooms, the bench “protected” on three sides, the removal of all furniture from the room and blocking the entryway, turning the sofa around. The crisis point is reached at the birth of the baby, because reproduction is the ultimate expression of connectedness, of surrender of autonomy to a greater organic whole, which the narrator resists with all his strength: “[…] if it's lepping, then it's not mine.” His whole impulse is to identify and then deny everything that is not part of him, just as he rejects all previous definitions of love.

But somewhere in the course of asserting his own autonomy, the narrator comes to realize that he cannot silence the voices of the Other, whether the Other takes the shape of his father, on whose directions he relies in order to map the stars, the woman (whether she is Lulu, Anna, or simply Woman), or his reader. Looking back on the events recounted in “First Love”, the narrator recognizes that his efforts to remove himself from the organic wholeness of humanity are doomed to fail. As Bakhtin maintained, the self is made only through dialogue with the world around him. And while the physical movement of the story, the plot, involves an increasing withdrawal and flight from the voices surrounding the protagonist, his consciousness of the inevitability of dialogue grows. If he begins by attempting to write the final word about himself—his epitaph, and next asserts that he has “found the winning system at last”, one which will carry him at any rate until the “curtain drops” on his life, he acknowledges by the time he hears the woman's song about the orange trees that

of all the other songs I have ever heard in my life, and I have heard plenty, it being apparently impossible, physically impossible short of being deaf, to get through this world, even my way, without hearing singing, I have retained nothing, not a word, not a note, or so few words, so few notes, that, that what, that nothing, this sentence has gone on long enough.

(“FL” [“First Love”], 37)

By the close of the story, he admits in a rather melancholy tone that the voice of one Other, at least, remains with him and has become part of him, “but there it is, either you love or you don't.”

Yet the voice of this strange narrator remains with us as well. A voice emerging out of an obviously impoverished life experience, yet richly resonant nonetheless. To end this interpretation I would like to invoke one last category of meaning from Bakhtin: that of laughter. Laughter, as Bakhtin sees it, is a positive life force, one that functions to destroy “false verbal and ideological shells” (“Forms of Time”, 237).

We have in mind here laughter not as a biological or psycho-physiological act, but rather laughter conceived as an objectivized, sociohistorical phenomenon, which is most often present in verbal expression […] Alongside the poetic use of a word ‘not in its primary sense’, that is, alongside tropes, there exists in addition a multiplicity of forms for the various indirect linguistic expression of laughter: irony, parody, humour, the joke, various types of the comic, and so forth. […]

(Bakhtin, “Forms of Time”, 237)

We have mentioned already Beckett's mastery of all these, and we seem to agree that these are some of the most rewarding moments in the text. Yet Beckett's laughter seems to be directed exactly counter to what Bakhtin had in mind, which was a sort of organic, subversive force rising out of the depths of humanity. I think Henk Hillenaar7 is on to something with his suggestion that with Beckett, the laughter seems to be going in the other direction, from the verbal realm to the existential, physical one. If the narrator of “First Love” has any integrity, it is the integrity of his wit, his use of language.8 He is able to employ his narrative strategically to expose the weaknesses of all sorts of conventional thoughts, and while the systems fall away, his wit never deserts him. We ought to end our interpretative dialogue, I think, by granting Beckett the last laugh, if never the last word.


  1. I use the masculine pronoun throughout my paraphrasing of Bakhtin's ideas not simply for grammatical simplicity, but also to foreground—in an admittedly underhanded way—Bakhtin's notorious exclusion of any mention whatsoever of female artists. While deploring this “oversight”, I think we have little choice but to take Bakhtin at his word that his system represents only the rudiments of a philosophy, and that in principle the open-endedness of the “human sciences” extends to female voices as well as male. Here Beckett's narrative has it over Bakhtin, as we shall see.

  2. “Response to a Question from the Novy Mir Editorial Staff”, in Speech Genres, 5.

  3. Bakhtin lists the characteristics of the menippea in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 114-121.

  4. In their study Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson discuss embodiment and potential as two apparently conflicting value systems: “Alongside of this principle of direct material embodiment (and as if on the same plane), Bakhtin introduces the idea of potential […] Embodiment makes a body and its size all, whereas potential makes it not all, and not what it appears to be” (436). Thus the figures of the clown, the rogue, and the fool avoid embodiment; they can move in and out of various chronotopes, and “the body we see at any given time and space is not wholly representative of a personality […]” (436).

  5. Thanks to Barend van Heusden for suggesting the resemblance.

  6. The position of the “third” in a dialogue is an important one for Bakhtin, but it would be digressive to pursue that topic here.

  7. In his psychoanalytical interpretation of “First Love”, elsewhere in this volume.

  8. This despite the two languages of the text, evidence of what Beer calls Beckett's “ancestry of doubleness” (164)

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M., “Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel”, in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981).

———, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984).

———, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin: U of Texas P, 1986).

Beer, Ann, “‘No-Man's-Land’: Beckett's Billingualism as Autobiography”, in James Noonan, ed., Biography and Autobiography: Essays on Irish and Canadian History and Literature (Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1993), 163-78.

Kern, Edith, “Beckett's Modernity and Medieval Affinities”, in Morris Beja, S.E.

Gontarski, Pierre Astier (eds) Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives, (Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 1983).

Morson, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990).

Willie van Peer (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: van Peer, Willie. “Beckett's ‘First Love’ and Cynical Philosophy.” Samuel Beckett Today 7 (1998): 407-17.

[In the following essay, van Peer places “First Love” within the philosophical tradition of cynicism.]

My interpretation of “First Love” forms part of a larger argument, that sees all interpretation, contrary to present-day fashionable theories, as a quest for truth, guided by specific methodological rules. There is no space to expound on this matter here, so let me restrict the issue with a reference to an article where I have developed this matter in more detail; see Van Peer (1998). As a brief illustration, however, I would like to point out one of the specific methodological rules we employ when we interpret a work. I am sure that we all follow some of these rules, and that if we didn't, our colleagues would not take our work seriously. This creates a strange schizophrenia in current literary studies: theoretically the existence of rules is vehemently denied, but when it comes to practice, nearly all scholars scrupulously stick to very traditional rules. One of these is quite evident in the materials to which we have access surrounding the story at hand. These contain the editorial history of Beckett's story, including an account of the different extant versions. We learn in Notes on the Texts, for instance, that the phrase “to put it wildly” in the first English and American editions of “First Love” contained an error, which was later corrected to “to put it mildly”. Why should we take these materials into account? Why shouldn't we be free to use any edition of the text whatsoever? Or why shouldn't we remain comfortably in the dark about these different textual variants? We should look at these materials, I surmise, because we adhere to an important rule of interpretation, the rule namely that one has to base one's interpretation on a full and non-deficient token of the text. I cannot make sense of this enterprise other than that.

Julie Bates Dock and her co-authors in PMLA have recently documented a nice illustration of the kind of biased interpretations that get produced when this methodological rule is ignored or violated. They convincingly show how many feminist interpretations of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story “The Yellow Wallpaper” are based on editions that deviate from the author's own intended text—and of earlier editions. For instance, after declaring that there is ‘something queer’ about the house in which the newly married couple have arrived, the female character remarks, “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage”. The text editions that follow Lane's, which reproduces the 1933 Golden Book version of the story print the following: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that.” As Julie Bates Dock and her co-authors point out: “Omitting ‘in marriage’ radically transforms the line. […] More important, these two changes distort the author's focus: Gilman is bashing marriage in particular, not men in general” (Dock et al. 1996, 55). The conclusion from Bates Dock's exercise will be clear, I hope. In spite of all assertions to the contrary, the community of literary scholars is still dedicated to certain rules of conduct in interpreting literary texts. If it were not, there would be no point in arguing about interpretation at all.

But back now to Beckett's text. What can or should one say about it? At a first level, one observes two characters, one (the male) internally focalized, the other (the female) only externally characterized, interacting with each other. Their behaviour is somewhat unusual and may cause surprise, if not aversion in the reader. But what does the story mean? My proposal is to situate the text within a specific literary or philosophical tradition, and to work out its Sitz im Leben from this general analysis. Although superficially the work narrates a somewhat bizarre concatenation of non-events, at a deeper level I see the text as taking its place in the Western tradition of cynicism. I am using the term ‘cynicism’ here in its philosophical meaning, indicating the movement or the way of life named after Diogenes of Sinope (second half of the fourth century BCE), more specifically after his nickname, Kuon, the dog.1 To the cynics, in the opposition between “nomos versus physis (‘custom’ or ‘convention’ versus ‘nature’)”, preference was to be given to physis, to nature (Höistad 1973, 629). The aim of human life is happiness, and this is achieved by becoming self-sufficient: to live in accordance with nature, exemplified in the numerous (mostly apocryphal) stories about Diogenes, such as the one in which, when Alexander the Great promised to grant him whatever favour he requested, Diogenes replied: “Stand out of my light.” My interpretation of Beckett's text boils down to the hypothesis that the characters, their behaviour, their motives, and their emotions are a direct heir to the cynics' worldview. But there is more to it: the hypothesis also asserts that Beckett's texts in general, and “First Love” specifically, aim to express and pass on the cynical philosophy.

This interpretation of Beckett's work can also be related to the personality of the author. This is not to revive the debate over authorial intention,2 but I believe that in interpreting literary works we should take the author's intentions into account—which is not the same as accepting them as a verdict. It seems to me that Samuel Beckett, the man, comes close to being a twentieth-century cynic, and the recent biographies by Anthony Cronin, Lois Gordon, and James Knowlson provide ample support for this view. He did not cling to money, success, or outward appearance, or to fine etiquette, “balls” being a favourite Beckett word. Such a man need not, by the way, be unattractive: Susan Sontag called him the sexiest man she had ever met. He did not seek status or prestige, and cared little for his reputation. He was fearless (and joined the Resistance during the war), yet pessimistic and misanthropic. One is reminded also of his preference for the things in his mind over the disturbances of what he called “this bitch of a world”. He saw his fame as a curse, the 1969 Nobel Prize award a “catastrophe” (in Suzanne's, his wife's, words): he anonymously gave away the money it earned him. He had little respect for institutions, and all favours by him were given solely on the basis of individual friendship. Yet he was not a traditional saint. The numerous love affairs, and Cronin's account that he preferred masturbation to ‘the real thing’, show his cynic attitude also in this.

Now compare all this with the method singled out by the cynic in classical antiquity, “actively to dissociate himself from any influence, external or internal, whose ties, responsibilities or distractions might fetter his individual freedom” (Urmson & Rée 1991, 67). Material prosperity is approached with downright hostility, property is seen as the source of all evil. Life should be lived at the level of the bare minimum necessary for existence, stripped of all conventional values of status, power, class, influence, or reputation. The cynic had to be ready to face insult to keep his emotional resistance against conventional culture fit. Diogenes Laertius relates of Diogenes: “He once begged alms of a statue, and, when asked why he did so, replied, “To get practice in being refused” (VI, 49; 51).

It is clear, then, that in real life Beckett the man displayed many characteristics of the cynical sage. That in itself does not suffice to interpret his texts, but it does help us to figure out the relation between author and work at a deeper level.

Indeed, Beckett's works, including “First Love”, also testify to the cynic attitude. According to the cynics, precepts of virtue came from the personal example of the cynic's life and from “illustrations of the uninhibited behaviour of animals and the example of Heracles of virtue in endurance. But Cynics were principally characterized by a fearless, shameless freedom of speech in criticism, a mordant wit and repartee”, (Urmson & Rée, 68) as the cynic “was something akin to a god, and something akin to a beast” (ibid.). That seems most applicable to the protagonist of “First Love”: human existence shrivels until it attains dog-like qualities. Eating is like swallowing down whatever you can find to feed yourself. Beverages are uninteresting unless alcoholic. All characters are homeless, or if they have a home it is nothing but a den, a mere shelter against the enemy that nature can be. Clothing is unimportant, looks are irrelevant, excretion a natural and simple part of life, nothing to be ashamed of, sometimes even something to revel in. And in this list, love, too is reduced to canine proportions. It is stripped of all idealism and romanticism; it is virulently anti-platonic, anti-petrarchan. It is love, as dogs love each other: transient, though intense; free and fast, obscene only for the non-dogs.

Here I would like to briefly comment on an aspect of Beckett's work that I think deserves some attention. One may recall that some scholars have advanced a ‘Christian’ interpretation of Beckett's work. Especially after the first performances of Waiting for Godot, some critics saw Christ-like figures in the characters. Maybe this is no longer a fashionable interpretation of Beckett's works, but there is a sense in which such interpretations are less far-fetched than it may seem nowadays. Research by New Testament scholars has revealed the extent to which the sayings of Jesus stand in relation to the philosophical traditions of his time. They have also been able to reconstruct the sayings of the historical Jesus, allowing the reconstruction of the Book of Q,3 a hypothetical, but highly reliable collection of the sayings of Jesus that must have circulated prior to the writing of the gospels. Over the past decades, it has become apparent that the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth form part of the movement of the Cynics. Let me quote from Burton Mack's recent study of the Book of Q:

The crisp sayings of Jesus in Q1 [one of the variants of the Book of Q] show that his followers thought of him as a Cynic-like sage. Cynics were known for begging, voluntary poverty, renunciation of needs, severance of family ties, fearless and carefree attitudes, and troublesome public behaviour. Standard themes in Cynic discourse included a critique of riches, pretension, and hypocrisy, just as in Q1. The Cynic style of speech was distinctly aphoristic, as is that in Q1. And Cynics were schooled in such topics as handling reproach, nonretaliation, and authenticity in following their vocation, matters at the forefront of Jesus' instructions in Q1.

(Mack 1993, 115)4

Hence it must be clear that those critics favouring a Christian interpretation were not altogether off the track: Beckett's texts are indeed similar to the original kernel of cynic philosophy in the early Jesus movement; the interpretation runs into difficulties when Christianity is applied wholesale to them—then discrepancies do appear. But to say that Beckett's work evokes a Christian spirituality—insofar as this is qualified as the views and methods of the cynic sages—is, I would argue, a good approximation of truth.

Perhaps readers find this interpretation rather general or somewhat vague, and still underdetermined by textual evidence. Those readers are right. Let me therefore come down now to some more concrete textual evidence corroborating my interpretation. I will enumerate these under the heading of some four different themes (using the term in a rather loose sense).

The first, and most evident, theme that speaks for the cynical interpretation, is the theme of vanitas: the idea that life is vain, and that our actions are irrelevant. The cynic wants to confront his audience with the futility of our aspirations and the emptiness of human strife. In “First Love”, this theme opens the story, with the comparison between the living and the dead. The latter are said to be in a much better position: “The living wash in vain, in vain perfume themselves, they stink.” The dead are to be envied, their company sought, we are told by the protagonist: “My sandwich, my banana, taste sweeter when I'm sitting on a tomb.” The theme also resonates in the protagonist's own epitaph, where it says that he “hourly died”. In all this, the protagonist takes on a detached viewpoint from which he surveys human vanity, and declares: “their little gimmick with the dust is charming.” Human action is largely irrelevant to the cynic, of course. The protagonist makes no secret of his position: “Lie down, all seems to say, lie down and stay down.” And he adds: “The mistake one makes is to speak to people.” When it really comes to speaking, however, the usual patterns of communication break down, heard in the protagonist's ruminations that it is “incredible the way they repeat what you've just said”, concluding: “that's what you get for opening your mouth.”

A second theme that presents itself is that of the outsider: the cynic is conscious of being a misanthrope, and wants to be one. I hope it will be clear without further elucidation that this theme pervades the whole story. The protagonist does not belong to any group; he is expelled from his family home. Initially, he had a wish to stay. “But they refused”, the story says twice. And that was that: “One day, on my return from stool, I found my room locked and my belongings in a heap before the door.” Those belongings aren't much, presumably, though at this point I must confess that there is at least one thing in the text that is problematic for my interpretation. That concerns the money the protagonist inherits after his father's death. It seems not really to fit the general scheme of a cynic to just keep the money for old age, as he states. The money certainly is a detail that is difficult to incorporate in my view that the story evokes a cynic's world view, perhaps not even so much the fact that the character still has the money, as his motivation for keeping it: we do not expect cynic philosophers to plan their old age and retirement.

To come back to the theme of the outsider: the female protagonist has no relatives or friends either; she is visited regularly, but apparently because she works as a clandestine prostitute. In short, both protagonists in the story are outcasts, as indeed most of Beckett's characters are. We may see in this theme a correlation to the semantic field of detachment, as it has been described by Fokkema and Ibsch in their study of European Modernism (Fokkema & Ibsch, 1988). This detachment is certainly applicable to the male protagonist, who overtly refuses to attach himself to any other being (except perhaps for the memory of his father), and is incapable of remembering even the most basic facts about other humans. He even does not know his love's name: “She also disclosed her family name, but I've forgotten it”. And since he does not like her first name, Lulu, he simply changes it into Anna. Can one be more detached?

Another theme often associated with cynicism is that of scatology and intentional obscenity: remember the story of Diogenes publicly masturbating in a square in Athens. There is no lack of this in Beckett's story: explicit descriptions of the protagonist defecating, the exuberant love invocations in the cow-shed among the nettles and the cow shit, in which the protagonist inscribes his beloved's name with his finger, the description of how it feels to relieve oneself in bed, and more sexually tainted, his confession of being “at the mercy of an erection”, or the double entendre: “it is with the heart one loves, is it not, or am I confusing it with something else?”

One could interpret this preoccupation with scatological themes from a psycho-analytic perspective, describing it as a form of regression. That certainly is an option, and there can be little doubt as to the protagonist's profound regression taking place in the story. Such an interpretation, however, may add little if it is not simultaneously able to explain why the character regresses in the first place. The interpretation I have advanced, by contrast, is in a position to do so, and therefore is more parsimonious than a psychoanalytic approach. The reason why the story contains so much regressive material lies, I propose, in the intimate relation cynicism entertains with regression. Regression seems to be an integral part of cynical philosophy from ancient time onwards.

A very powerful theme in this story is that of demystification of love, or of anything deemed of high value in our culture at large. What are the first words that the beloved utters? “Shove up!” But then the male lover is not very gallant either: “I asked her if she was resolved to disturb me every evening.” This sounds more as the kind of thing that gets said in fights between partners who have been together for some years, than the kind of interchange one expects between new lovers. She is also the opposite of most fictional loves: she is reported to have “fat thighs”, has a squint, sings out of tune, and prostitutes herself. The male's emotions are far removed from those associated with courtly love too, for instance when he assures us: “I considered kicking her in the cunt.” The protagonist pronounces his own verdict on love when he asserts: “What goes by the name of love is banishment, with now and then a postcard from the homeland, such is my considered opinion.” The musings of the male protagonist regularly take the form of explicit misogyny, as when he says of women: “When at their wit's end, they undress.”

At this point it is worth mentioning an intertextual relationship that Beckett's story entertains, and which may further clarify the extent to which his is an effort at demystification. Beckett's text forms the antipode of Petrarch and Dante, especially of the latter's Vita Nuova. Remember that Beckett studied French and Italian, and that the works of Dante were a source of inspiration to him all his life. In the Vita Nuova, the central topic is that of the first encounter with the beloved. The differences with Beckett are very deep, of course: while the whole episode lasts only a couple of months in Beckett's case, Dante's first meeting with Beatrice will be the beginning of a life-long dedication to love, tenderness, and poetry. In both texts, the lovers' meetings are iterative, and the protagonists hear ‘voices’ in their head (Dante, 59, 79); “I heard the word fibrome, or brone …”. In Dante, memory is an important vehicle to communicate to the reader what he has gone through; in Beckett, on the contrary, the reader faces dramatic forms of amnesia. In Beckett, there is a strong predelection of the protagonist for the dead. But such an affinity is also recorded in the Vita Nuova: “Dolcissima Morte, vieni a me e non m'essere villana; però che tu dei essere gentile, in tal parte se' stata!” (Dante, 101).5 Death, in Dante's work, is the deepest relationship to the (mortal) love one can have. Compare, for instance, the first encounter of the protagonists in this work:

ne l'ultimo di questi die avenne che questa mirabile donna apparve a me, vestita di colore bianchissimo, in mezzo di due gentili donne, le quali erano di più lunga etade; e passando per una via, volse li occhi verso quello parte ov'io era molto pauroso, e per la sua ineffabile cortesia […] mi salutò molto virtuosamente; tanto che me parve allora vedere tutti li termini de la beatitudine. […] e però che quella fu la prima volta che le sue parole si mossero per venire a li miei orecchi, presi tanta dolcezza che, come inebriato, mi partio da le genti […]

(Dante, 26-28)6

Here we have all the ingredients of courtly love, inscribed in the description of the first meeting of the two lovers. The retreat from his surroundings will now be the occasion to record the incident and further write about Beatrice. Compare this to Beckett's scene:

Is it on my account you came? I said. She managed yes to that. Well here I am, I said. And I? Had I not come on hers? Here we are, I said. I sat down beside her, but sprang up again immediately as though scalded. I longed to be gone, to know if it was over.

(“FL” [“First Love”], 21)

The retreat from her follows here too, as in Dante, but her name will now be written, remember, in cowshit. The contrast can hardly be more dramatic. Sure, this is not the first time that courtly love has been debunked. Already Francesco Berni (1497-1535) did so, and so did Cervantes when he had Don Quijote finally meet his Dulcinea (after his descent into the cave of Montesinos), only to have her ask him to lend her some money. But Beckett's demystification takes place in a serious context, not in a comic one. Or does it?

There certainly is a level at which the text can be seen as undermining the credibility of our everyday categories, and as such it resembles comedy: since human toil is ridiculed as irrelevant and megalomaniac, it acts as a mirror comically distorting our self-image. In this sense, Beckett is essentially a comic writer. (I can testify that I burst out laughing on several occasions when reading “First Love”.) This may be the source of the sympathy that readers develop for Beckett's characters, in spite of their repugnant behaviour or their alienating ideas. In Beckett's work, entrenched categories and established views are attacked straight between the eyes, and are given a proper shake-up. For me, personally, reading the story as a comedy is one of the easiest ways to render it meaningful and accessible. But the odd thing is that there usually is not much to interpret in comic texts: they are perhaps the purest cases where we can dispense with post hoc interpretation altogether. Comic texts allow us to follow Susan Sontag's maxim—to erotically enjoy rather than to interpret unproblematically: one surrenders to the body, and enjoys.

What I have proposed here is that to read Beckett properly is to read him in the tradition of cynic philosophy.7 This may not be a very systematic philosophy, and it certainly has its limits, but in Beckett's hands it exploits the major stratagems for making us see the world in a new way. What are the roots of cynicism? According to Schischkoff (775) these are a sense of failure of life, a certain self-styled arrogance, and an invincible resentment against life as it is lived by the majority of us. It seems to me that much of this applies to Beckett's oeuvre, thus being a rich resource for the cynic way of life. Beckett's characters are full-grown, often also old, dogs. The reader is a young dog, sniffing and following the old dogs' trails. The result is: comic relief.8


  1. For further information on cynicical philosophy, see Branham & Goulet-Cazé, Largier, Navia.

  2. But see Barnes, Iseminger, and Stecker for reappraisals of authorial intention.

  3. Q, from the German Quelle, ‘source.’

  4. For further references asserting the interrelationship between collections of Cynic sayings and the collections of traditions about Jesus, see Bracht Branham & Goulet-Cazé (229), and the literature mentioned there.

  5. “Sweet Death, come to me and do not fret—you have to be gentle like the place you come from.” (All translations are mine.)

  6. “On the last of these days it happened that this fair lady appeared to me, dressed in the purest white and walking between two distinguished ladies older than she; and striding through the street she turned her eyes to the side where I watched shyly, and in her ineffable eminence […] saluted me so sweetly, that it then appeared as if my gaze had reached all limits of beatitude. […] and since this was the first time that her words moved to come to my ears, I tasted such ecstasy that, intoxicated, I turned away from people […].”

  7. A similar interpretation may be found in Rosen.

  8. I would like to thank the organizers of the Groningen workshop for their kind invitation to exchange ideas on this topic. I am especially grateful to Henk Hillenaar, Hanneke Hoekstra and Robert Scholes for critical remarks on my paper.

Works Cited

Barnes, Annette, On Interpretation (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988).

Branham, R. Bracht, and Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé (eds), The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy (Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1996).

Cronin, Anthony, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).

Dante, Alighieri, La Vita Nova, ed. and trans. H. W. J. M. Keuls (Den Haag: Bert Bakker, 1964).

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, trans. and ed. R. D. Hicks, vol. II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991. (Loeb edition; first edition 1925).

Dock, Julie Bates et al., “‘But One Expects That’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the Shifting Light of Scholarship”, in PMLA 111, no. 1 (1996), 52-65.

Fokkema, D. W. & E. Ibsch, Modernist Conjectures. A Mainstream in European Literature 1910-1940 (New York: St. Martin's P, 1988).

Gonkarski, S. E. (ed.), Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose 1929-1989 (New York: Grove P, 1995).

Gordon, Lois, The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946 (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1996).

Höistad, Ragnar, “Cynicism”, in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. Philip P. Wiener (New York: Charles Scribner's & Sons, 1973), vol. I, 627-634.

Iseminger, Gary (ed.), Intention and Interpretation (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992).

Knowlson, James, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

Largier, Niklaus, “Diognes der Kyniker”, in Exempel, Erzählung, Geschichte im Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit. Mit einem Essay zur Figur des Diogenes zwischen Kynismus, Narrentum und postmoderner Kritik (Max Niemeyer, 1997).

Mack, Burton L., The Lost Gospel. The Book of Q & Christian Origins (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1993).

Navia, Luis E., Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study (Greenwood P, 1997).

Peer, Willie van, “Truth Matters. A Critical Exercise in Revisionism”, in New Literary History (1998; in press).

Rosen, Steven J., Samuel Becket and the Pessimistic Tradition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1976).

Schischkoff, Georgi (ed.), Philosophisches Wörterbuch (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1978).

Stecker, Robert, Artworks: Definition, Meaning, Value (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State UP, 1997).

Urmson, J. O. & Jonathan Rée, The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers (London: Routledge, 1989).

Henk Hillenaar (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Hillenaar, Henk. “A Psychoanalytical Approach to Beckett's ‘First Love’.” Samuel Beckett Today 7 (1998): 419-37.

[In the following essay, Hillenaar provides a psychoanalytical reading of “First Love.”]

“First Love” is the first soliloquy that Beckett wrote, just after World War II. It has the characteristic features that we find in all his novels, plays or short stories. Especially striking is the combination of a strongly structured, and often comical language, which presents the thinking of a very “adult” person, on one side, with descriptions of very elementary sensations and feelings—those of an earlier life—supporting and feeding this adult thought on the other. In this story, a highly intelligent person is looking back to a highly regressive world, his own inner world, where he behaves again as a child, a baby, now and then even as a foetus.

Such behaviour reminds us very strongly of what happens in the consulting room of a psychoanalyst. Certainly, when the writer is talking about the way to interpret feelings of love, about “money”, “the bench” or even “sessions”, the reader he is addressing seems to resemble a psychoanalyst. The slightly or openly aggressive tone he likes to adopt towards the reader—“Come now!”—confirms the latter in this feeling. And we know the author didn't like psychoanalysts very much. Still, it seems rather clear that he is using psychoanalytic experience when he writes about the difficulties his character has in coping with life and love. The very first words of the text: “I associate” can be considered as referring not only to one of the main literary figures in “First Love”, but also to the most important skill in the psychoanalytical praxis. From the very beginning until the end of this short story we realize that the philosophy that underlies it has been fed by psychoanalytical concepts. Curiously enough, this fact might not facilitate an interpretation that is thinking in those same terms.

Beckett's story is built around two fantasies, which are also the two fundamental fantasies recurring in most psychoanalytical treatments: the father and the mother. The first is actually called “my father”. The second is not called “my mother”, but she is presented as the “first love”, and as the woman who feeds him and takes care for him in so many ways, she is a very motherly figure. We recognise in her the mother who is going to be also one of the main figures in Beckett's Molloy, two years later. There she will be constantly referred to as “my mother”, because she actually is the real “first love”, the real mother. Here, as so often in a psychoanalytical context, “mother” refers to someone who assumes the role of a mother towards the main figure.

Speaking about a story in which the father and mother figures play such an outstanding part, we are inclined to refer to Freud's well known “family romance”, to the urge we all experience, first as children, later also as adults, to give ourselves in our imagination different parents, a nicer father, a lovelier mother, in order to make our whole life more acceptable. Literature must have one of its main sources in this universal phenomenon. The family romance may be cast into many different moulds—including negatively inspired moulds, as it is certainly the case in this Beckett story. Not only the very regressive form of the text, where the mother invades all the space, contributes to that effect, but even more significantly that the father and mother are never represented or even mentioned together. The only link between the two characters is made in the very first sentence of the story, which is also the author's good-natured scoffing at the Oedipus complex: “I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father.”

The family romance has in fact everything to do with our attitude towards both parents. In the eyes of Freud it is an “Oedipal” adventure, but with Beckett we are definitely in a pre-Oedipal setting. The conditions for a family romance seem to be present, but remain unrealized. However, there is an attempt. The whole text seems to focus on the going to and fro between the father and the mother. Its starts with the fantasies around the father figure, then jumps without much transition—“but to pass on to less melancholic matters”—to the story round the mother figure. At the end, if we may call it so, we attend another departure into the world of the father. We seem to be caught in a circle.

Even though father and mother are treated separately, their stories have much in common. Firstly in structure: both stories bring us from outdoors—a cemetery and a bench in the park—to a room indoors. In both episodes, but for different reasons, this room is again abandoned for another life outside. The two scenes also share the contrast made by the narrator between an upright position and lying down on a bed, a bench, a sofa. Anal images and associations, referring to the pleasures and displeasures of the first activities in life, are, also in various ways, very abundant in this pre-oedipal universe. The author maintains throughout the same mixture of involvement and irony that is so typical of his style.


Let us first turn to the fantasies regarding the father, which take approximately a fourth of the text. The narrator's father is only a happy memory, some remains in a graveyard that he likes to visit and even to smell, but for the rest this beloved man is no longer available. The narrator uses actually two adjectives to describe him: he is called “a strange man”, and “a poor father”—even “poor Papa”. Strange, because loving this father doesn't end up in pain as it does with Lulu. He likes “to feel (his son) under his roof”, understands his needs, and says to those in the house that share the same heritage: “Leave him alone.” He and his son are the only ones in the household “to understand tomatoes”. Still he is also a “poor father”, because like his son, he is the victim of his family: “Yes, he was properly had, my poor father, if his purpose was really to go on protecting me from beyond the tomb.”

This father was actually a rather motherly figure who had taken over more than one of the tasks of his absent wife. He fed his son, protected him, and kept him in his neighbourhood. But on the whole he seems also to have accomplished his task as a father. As we will hear at the end of the story, he has shown the world to his son, who is longing to see the lighthouses and lightships and even the Wains in the sky, which his “father had named” for him. He has taught him also how to behave with his siblings, at least how to be generous with them, if they leave him alone, and even to be ready to do the “odd maintenance jobs every dwelling requires”.

In the house of his father his anal difficulties are also reduced to constipation, whereas, dreaming of the love of his mother he will be playing with faeces and remember how enjoyable it can be “to relieve oneself in bed”. But life is cruel and precisely this grown-up constipation makes him linger too much while excreting, allowing “the others”—“those hearts that had loved me […] those hands that had played with mine”—to close his room and throw him out of the house. It is also in the company of his father—his dead father—that we see the narrator in the upright position befitting an adult, developing even some activity, while in his mother's company he will nearly always lie down or try to do so, remaining most of the time completely passive. This upright position allows him to wear a hat, symbol of fatherly authority, and also of the identification of the narrator with his father: “I have always had my own hat, the one my father gave me, and I have never had any other than that hat.”

This leads us to what the narrator considers certainly as the main activity he pursues in his father's company: writing, which is also a way of excreting. Whereas, in that most important field of human language, the mother will mainly appear to the narrator as a voice that sings and cries, his father's company, albeit that of a dead body in his grave, makes him write, and write with pleasure. He composes his own epitaph, with which he is “tolerably pleased”. It is one of the happiest moments of his story. Therefore he “hastens to record it for the reader”:

Hereunder lies the above who up below
So hourly died that he lived on till now.

(“FL” [“First Love”], 26)

This little poem whose second line, according to its creator, “limps a little perhaps” includes more than one paradox that we will have to explain. However, the biggest paradox is certainly that the desire for language which pervades the whole text—the mother representing the original sound created by the voice, the father the elaborate, spoken and written language—should originate in a graveyard, in the proximity of the dead body of the father. The father figure who normally contributes to the moulding, in his son's mind, of a conscience, making him aware of values, giving him a sense of responsibility in life, is doing here something like the contrary. Values and responsibility are rather absent indeed in the mind of the narrator. In his regressive mood he is longing for what he calls “slow descents and long submersions”. Such behaviour brings us to notions like the Freudian “death instinct”, or to the “principle of an active Nothing” that Wilfred Bion—Beckett's psychoanalyst—often referred to. Perhaps there is also Beckett's flirtation with Gnostic heresy, when he speaks of the “great disembodied wisdom” of his father.

Later in the text, the narrator becomes even clearer about this choice for such a backward moving life, when he evokes his preference in aesthetics:

[…] my father's face, on his death-bolster, had seemed to hint at some form of aesthetics relevant for man. But the faces of the living, all grimace and flush, can they be described as objects?

(“FL,” 38)

This kind of consideration explains the long scene in the graveyard where the narrator also objects to the living. Therefore he enjoys the smell of the death, “infinitely preferable to what the living emit”, his meal and his watering on the graves, the old biblical sayings he hears about the dust to which we all return, and the show of the widow, the “odd relict […], trying to throw herself into the pit”. Would this after all be an appearance of the mother in the proximity of the father? We don't know, but it's true that after this moment the narrator feels afraid to die, vomits and envies the dead.

Be that as it may, in this story the world of the father is not like the ones encountered in most other stories we read. Since the father has himself returned to the motherly earth, he is no longer able to point out to his son the way out of the world of the mother, at least not to what we call an adult world of values, shared lives, shared responsibility. In spite of himself, he makes the narrator play the game of the mother. However, from his grave he teaches him to write, and this writing will help him to survive, albeit in the world of a child, of birth and death, of care and protection, to which he seems to be sending him back. It is extremely difficult not to long for that world but also, once you have reached it, not to feel the opposite longing, to detach yourself from it. This seems to be his fate: as long as the narrator is not himself part of the graveyard, as long as he continues to speak, he has to move; he will desire his mother while at the same time he will always want to leave her.


Let us see now what the second volet of this diptych is telling us. As we might expect, the regressive mood inspired in the narrator by his father's dead body becomes now even more serious. He describes his “first love” with no rival present. Lulu or, as he wants to call her, Anna, lives alone. We already saw how a father alone can behave in a very motherly way, in the same way a mother alone can adopt the initiatives or activities of the father. But with her, things are more threatening. At the end mothers are inclined to devour the children who cannot part from them.

The author of “First Love” seems to be very aware of all this, and doesn't stop playing games with the contrast between the world of the father and that of the mother. All the important themes he deals with—time and space, sexuality, love and language—are affected by this contrast. When, for instance, the narrator speaks about time, the reader is struck by the struggle with dates and numbers on the first page, where we learn with more or less accuracy how to discover somebody's age. Fathers participate and make their children participate in society and its chronology, whereas in the case of the mother we leave this domain of certainty. We no longer know about age; Lulu is without age, and we have to be satisfied with “the odd time” that causes so much embarrassment to both protagonists. Only at the end of the story when the work of the father is again mentioned, the narrator tells us about the nine months of pregnancy, ending in the birth that “finishes” him.

The same contrast can be found, even more clearly, in the writer's arrangement of the spaces where he imagines the encounters with the father and the mother. The father is found in an open space by daylight. The narrator is walking around or sitting on a tomb, having a rather good time, and even laughing at the drollery of the inscriptions. Later in the text he will dream about the open adventurous space his father once showed him and that he is longing for from the sofa of his first love. The first meeting with Lulu is also outdoors, but the bench where this big event takes place is described as a shelter; a rather primitive one, it is true, made of dead trees and garbage, but a real shelter:

It was a well situated bench, backed by a mound of solid earth and garbage, so that my rear was covered. My flanks too, partially, thanks to a pair of venerable trees, more than venerable, dead, at either end of the bench.

(“FL,” 30)

In his craving for regression, the narrator must be happy with such a setting, “empty” as a cradle or perhaps the womb of a pregnant woman. Later, when the bench has been replaced by a sofa in a real room, which happens to be a parlour crammed with “hundreds of pieces” of furniture, the narrator suddenly reacts hyperactively: he throws out all these things as if such products of civilisation were an illness. That is at least what he makes us understand, for, as he is taking them down, he hears the word “fibrome, or brone”, which actually refers to a benign growth in the womb. This is one more confirmation that the writer of this very elaborate story is taking us back to experiences of a time when nothing in our inner and outer life was at all complex.

Even the lullaby isn't lacking. Lulu sings and her voice is what most attracts and seduces the narrator. He is like one of Beckett's most famous characters, Belacqua, in More Pricks than Kicks, “waiting for a voice that sounds”. As we have already said, for Beckett, the voice is the essential prerogative of the mother, language coming from a distance being that of the father. He most probably owes these ideas to his psychoanalyst, Bion, whose contribution to analytical theory is primarily concerned with ideas regarding the support of the mother, her eyes, voice and “reverie” creating thought and mental health for her child. A mother who doesn't offer sufficient support may cause considerable emotional damage, and we feel such danger in a series of nearly tragic remarks of the narrator concerning the eyes, such as: “What could she see in me?” or “I might as well never have laid eyes on her before.” Besides, it is difficult to see “because of the dark”. No wonder he concludes that she has “crooked eyes”; one is looking at him, the other at some one or something else, here for instance at a hyacinth. The voice seems less problematic. For Beckett, it is the “voice that gives you life” (Comment c'est). The narrator likes her singing; it seduces him: “The voice, though out of tune, was not unpleasant […] I asked her to sing me a song […] I did not know the song […] It had something to do with lemon trees or orange trees.” Only when, at the end of “First Love”, the same voice starts crying and crying, because Anna is giving birth, he leaves the house, and this seems to be the end of the affair.

Between the narrator and Lulu/Anna a true love affair has taken place. A strange affair, sure enough, but a real one, although the narrator is inclined to consider human sexuality as a bad fate or an accident, whereas what he regards as more essential always happens in the mind. Sexuality only occurs really in the room next to his, where Anna is selling her body to her giggling and groaning clients. As far he himself is concerned, he gets excited, but never really or never completely. First, on the bench, he allows her, in spite of himself, to masturbate him. Later he gets excited by her naked body, but avoids every reaction or activity. Finally, during his “night of love”, it is Anna who takes advantage of his body, while he is sleeping. In answer to this amorphous or polymorphous sexuality—that of children—Beckett pursues another aim, mysteriously called “supineness”, which should permit him to have access to a subtle regressive state of the mind, where his “carcass” wouldn't even count any more:

What mattered to me in my dispeopled kingdom, that in regard to which the disposition of my carcass was the merest and most futile of accidents, was supineness in the mind, the dulling of the self and of that residue of execrable frippery known as the non-self and even the world, for short.

(“FL,” 31)

This original but rather upsetting mysticism doesn't prevent the narrator from really loving the woman he meets in the park. She disturbs him at first, but what would he do with himself if he were not disturbed? Even though he doesn't understand women, her “disturbances” help him to think of his pains, that is, of himself. Such a way of thinking reminds us again of the basic ideas of Bion, which the author seems to represent in this scene in a rather original way, telling us also that he is “not all pain and nothing else”. As for the pleasures he relates, they too are those of the beginning, when, strangely enough, love and faeces had still much to do with each other.

Yes, I loved her, it's the name I have given, still give alas, to what I was doing then […] Would I have been tracing her name in old cowshit if my love had been pure and disinterested? And with my devil's finger into the bargain, which I then sucked. Come now! My thoughts were all of Lulu, if that doesn't give you some idea nothing will.

(“FL,” 34)

Listening to her voice, the narrator had already noticed, in the same anal register, that this sound was coming from “perhaps the least arse-aching soul of all”. However, this very physical love, totally different from the more distant love that the narrator pursues, is far from simple. “Love brings out the worst in a man”, he concludes, referring to his strange behaviour. Love also brings many practical problems, like the emptying of the room, his struggle against the light, and so on. However, the biggest problem with which he sees himself confronted is not only practical or sentimental, but also philosophical. This once more reminds us of Bion's theories. This is probably the most complex issue that preoccupies the mind of the narrator and, in my view, one of the keys to the whole text. The narrator experiences this difficulty on several levels, which is also a sign of its central importance. First in the sphere of his feelings: the reader is struck how they change every time the narrator moves: When he is away from Lulu/Anna, he strongly longs for her, but as soon as they are together, he wants to leave, having no feeling for her any more, except one, to escape.

After the first performance of Waiting for Godot, the French playwriter Jean Anouilh said that what he had seen were the Pensées of Pascal played by a couple of clowns. If he was right—and I think he was—then “First Love” must be a (rather unorthodox) comment on Pascal's famous “thought” about man's unhappiness caused by his restlessness or, as Pascal writes, by the fact that “he is not able to stay at rest in his room”: “Tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre” (Pensées, 168). This “thought” of Pascal could be seen as a device in “First Love”. Therefore, when he settles in her house, one of his first questions is “Try and put me out now”. This paradoxical situation occurs at every meeting:

Here we are, I said. I sat down beside her but sprang up immediately as though scalded. I longed to be gone, to know if it was over.

(“FL,” 36)

Already my love was waning and that was all that mattered. Yes already I felt better, soon I'd be up to the slow descents again, the long submersions, so long denied me through her fault.

(Ibid., 41)

He doesn't seem to be able to find a good distance in his love life, to control the situation. He even needs a second name for her: in addition to “Lulu”, which sounds like a pet name she has given to herself, he invents “Anna”. The two names could account for the difference that lies between too much presence and a secure distance. It seems scarcely possible that the writer did not think here of the two opera figures bearing these names: Lulu, the prostitute who is killed in Alban Berg's opera, and Anna, the victim of Mozart's hero Don Giovanni.

However, these rather problematic feelings of the narrator wouldn't be interesting for his creator if they didn't have their philosophical extension. For feeling and thinking are never separated in this text. Consequently, when the narrator gets the idea of moving in with Anna during a conversation “at last worthy of that name”, he comes to the following considerations, which are striking indeed:

I did not feel easy when I was with her, but at least free to think of something else than her, of the old trusty things, and so little by little, as down steps toward a deep, of nothing. And I knew that away from her I would forfeit this freedom.

(“FL,” 39)

What Beckett is telling us in these sentences (which, in my view, are among the most important of the text), should be easy to follow for those acquainted with psychoanalytical theory. He is speaking of the two fundamental tendencies or aspirations that govern our psychic life: first our longing for physical presence and love, everything we experienced and learned in the beginning with our mother or the one(s) that took her place. Second, our desire to turn to the outside world, away from her. There the “father” should have taught us how to keep the best distance from all those things the mother has first told us to love or to hate, to accept or to reject. That is what thinking is all about, and science, art and religion. They all belong to the realm of the symbolic father.

In our daily lives, all of us are continuously engaged in this double movement: back to the mother—to food, care, presence, love (or their contraries)—and at the same time, following the frustrating but also gratifying lessons of the father. Psychoanalytical literature has even invented names for these two ideals we must accommodate in our inner life. In the realm of the mother, that of our egocentric, narcissistic self we speak of “ideal ego”. In the realm of the father, where we are submitted to the laws of his and later our conscience, it is called just the reverse (at least in English): “ego ideal.” However, terminology is not so relevant here. What matters is that, thanks to the long training called childhood, most of us are able to combine, many times even rather easily, these two very complicated movements. Thus we are able to accomplish that difficult thing we call life.

It may be clear by now that the narrator of this story doesn't belong to that happy crowd. He is apparently not able to live, not able to combine the teachings of the mother with those of the father. His feelings as well as his thinking are continually disturbed, lurching from one side to the other. He seems unable to take another road, or something like the middle of the road, where father and mother, ideal ego and ego ideal would find the compromise that life seems to be all about.

Writing this story, Beckett indicates what we all experience at times, when life is quite intense, and when we want to get everything or nothing out of it. In that sense, the narrator must be recognisable for many of us. The text of “First Love”, however, seems to point also in another direction. What the voice of the mother sings and speaks of with her child are the things she cares for, and those things are everything she shares with the father. Symbolically speaking, the father in childhood represents that what the mother desires. Also for that reason, a dead father presents an insurmountable problem for the child: the desire of the mother, which is transmitted to him by her voice, might be reduced to “nothing”. That is precisely what the text I just quoted was telling us: the narrator felt finally free “to think […] of the old trusty things, and so little by little, as down steps toward a deep, of nothing”.

The text represents this in a beautiful image as well. While the singing voice desires lemon trees or orange trees, he appropriates one of her more modest wishes: a hyacinth. After having given birth to new flowers, it dies and becomes something like a little graveyard in the narrator's room. As such it remains for him a source of desire: desire of death, the wish he was already cultivating in the first half of the story and which we understand to have been also the wish of the mother. Here, and at many places in the text, the “ideal ego” seems to have no other choice left than the “nothing” his father has become. “I who had learnt to think of nothing, nothing, except my pains.” Hadn't he noted, in a very melancholy mood, in his father's graveyard, that his own “corpse was not yet quite up to scratch?”

However, all this brings us back to the mother, much more than to the father. It is her lack of desire—or inner life, or real contact—that must make things difficult. A mother without the desire of another being, usually the father, somewhere at the horizon or in her mind at least, cannot be a good enough mother. It is as if this story, consciously or unconsciously, tells us, and not only tells but also shows us precisely that. We see this in two of the story's more enigmatic episodes, initially difficult to understand. First, the narrator's preoccupation with the voice of the singing mother: does he still hear it or not?

I heard her singing […] fainter and fainter the further I went, then no more, either because she had come to an end or because I was gone too far to hear her. […] So I retraced my steps a little way and stopped. At first I heard nothing, then the voice again, but only just […].

(“FL,” 37)

Later, at the very end of the story, it is Anna, crying while giving birth, who allows him to repeat the same “game”: “I began playing with the cries, a little in the same way as I had played with the song, on, back, on, back, if that may be called playing.” This is yet another, more symbolic way to present the same issue: how to go away from the mother while staying attached to her? All in all the writer makes us understand, representing things as he does, that his story is indeed a philosophical tale, but with this difference: that the ideas he tries to reshape into a scenario are not philosophical ideas, as in the case of, for instance, Voltaire, Sartre or Bataille, but the psychoanalytical insights of Freud and his successors. As we have seen, among the latter, Wilfred Bion might well be playing the biggest part.

It may be clear that this story about “First Love”—a title that, as far as psychoanalysis is concerned, can only refer to the mother—doesn't intend to illustrate the Oedipal complex. The rather evocative first sentence doesn't correspond to the real issue of the text, although we know that Oedipus is also trying to find his way between his parents. The difference is that in the old tragedy the parents are a couple, both being involved for instance in the initial banishment of the child, whereas in Beckett's much more regressive story, the father is absent, and the mother to whom the narrator goes, “on, back, on, back”, turns out to be a prostitute. Still there is an analogy, the inner conflict around a first love being central in both “stories”, Sophocles' and Beckett's.

Freud, in one of his later publications, in the second chapter of Jenzeits des Lustprinzips, from 1920, tells us a story that has become very popular since, about what we somewhat paradoxically might call, a “pre-Oedipal Oedipus complex”. It is about one of his grandchildren, whom he watches playing with a reel of yarn that his mother uses for her needlework. The child throws the reel still attached to the thread over the edge of his bed that is hanging from the ceiling, to make it disappear in the bed. Doing this he utters a very long o-o-o-o in which Freud recognises the German “Fort”, meaning “away”. After that he pulls the thread and the reel at its end towards himself, out of the bed, and when it comes into sight again, he emits a joyful “Da”: there it is! Then he repeats his game, again and again, as children do.

Freud's interpretation of his grandson's behaviour will probably not surprise the reader of Beckett's story. The two episodes actually have much in common. Freud recognises in this game an enjoyable way to get through and master a painful situation that the child is daily confronted with and that at first sight he seems to accept without too much difficulty: his mother's leaving for her work every day. The inner conflict of Freud's grandson was easier to resolve than that of the young child whose presence we perceive at the horizon of Beckett's feelings and fantasies. This child didn't find his reel of yarn, but did manage to create a whole thought system to master his misery. Mastery, however, doesn't give other feelings. In this story nothing really changes. The narrator is only busy repeating the same experiences. But he succeeds in writing them down and, we may suppose, in living with them. “Man is only a reed”, says Pascal, “but a reed that can think”. And write, we might add. Writing allows the narrator to master the inner conflict he is caught in, this “to and fro, “away and back”, all of us are caught in, one way or another. That is what he is doing here: describing, very playfully, this “articulation”, this movement, between presence and absence, retention and expulsion, singing and crying, that life seems to be all about: As long as we keep moving—there is no other movement than this—and speaking—there is no other story than this—we keep living.

The last key to his thought is also in the last sentence: “either you love, or you don't”. You love her, your first love, when she is away, and you don't when you are with her. For the narrator, there is no alternative, no escape to the father, for there has been not enough of a father in his mother's mind.

I would like to suggest that the “ideal ego” of the beginning has two components: the child wants the mother, but he also wants the things he notices she herself wanting. That is how a child learns to cope with the two sides of existence: with her, the mother, and with the other she loves, the father. But the writer creates a narrator whose father is in the graveyard. It is true that there are some memories of him, a lighthouse and even the Wains in the sky, but that isn't enough to keep the narrator going in that direction. Like the mother, he does not want the Unknown, he wants “Nothing”: Nothingness, graveyards and tombs may also become a source of pleasure, of wit. Masochism, even nice, funny masochism is never absent in these pages. For there is no father, only a limping to or from the mother: “either you love or you don't.”

Limping: isn't that also what the epitaph tells us, giving to our inner motions their most radical expression, between life and death:

Hereunder lies the above who up below
So hourly died that he lived on till now.

The original French version of this epitaph is rather different, and speaks in a slightly more ironic way of “escaping” life:

Ci-gît qui y échappa tant
Qu'il n'en échappe que maintenant

We might wonder if Beckett's coming and going between his two languages, English and French, is not also a way to perform the same movement. French was for him the language of distance, of mental abstraction. English evoked much more the memory of the motherly voice. Now and then, the reader notices the difference. He writes in French, for instance: “les dérangements, les arrangements, bientôt on n'en parlera plus, ni d'elle ni des autres, ni de merde, ni de ciel.” His English version seems to be more forceful: “No more tattle about that, all that, her and the others, the shitball and heaven's high halls.”

Be that as it may, both his little epitaphs limp, as does in its turn the hyacinth in the story, first putting forth some blooms and ending up as “a limp stem with limp leaves”. That is what their creator wants: that they limp a tiny bit like Oedipus did. He is after all, since the beginning, at the horizon of the text. And although death seems to be more present in it than birth, the story ends with a birth, that, although the narrator tries to escape it, should be understood as the beginning of a new movement in the narrator's endless story: “either you love or you don't …”

There is a last question that, if we are pursuing a psychoanalytical approach, we cannot evade: are we, the interpreters, able to indicate or to at least suggest some unconscious elements in the text? The answer is not easy, the author himself being so obviously involved in psychoanalysis. But there are two or three suggestions possible. First, the fact that the writer keeps the father and mother figures separated in his text, avoiding every kind of physical or other contact between them—something that occurs equally in other Beckett stories—might be an obsessional pattern in his mind explaining much about his uneasiness, problems and negative choices. Without a more Oedipal “family romance”, the writer's fantasies assume very unreal, regressive colours. He gets into the “you love or you love not” dilemma, a movement which doesn't allow any escape. My second observation could be more to the point, and concerns the fact that Beckett uses his feelings to build up a system of thought. However, in narrative literature feelings are generally used to tell a story. The story may have one or several meanings, but it remains a story, not philosophy. In “First Love”, the reader gradually realizes that this story serves mainly as an illustration of the psychoanalytical thought behind it. And even psychoanalysis used as a literary formula can become a way to resist certain feelings. In this case, knowing of Beckett's refusal of so many aspects of the father's realm, we are inclined to believe this. Most writers use literary form to evade or to obscure their regressive feelings. In the case of Beckett the contrary could be true. If he is avoiding or hiding something in his text, then it must be the non-regressive, adult side of his feelings. The only thing he wants to reveal us is what the Germans sometimes call our Ursuppe (the “primal soup” from which we are born). This one-sidedness makes the reader feel uneasy indeed, but that, fortunately, is not all. For the rational and logical part of our being has its glorious, sublimated comeback in all the humour Beckett provides in his story. But even his laughter may seem suspect here. Whereas others hide behind the literary form of a joke to speak of regressive and forbidden feelings—especially sex and violence—the opposite occurs in Beckett's story: he seems to use laughter above all to hide the absence of what we call adult feelings, or to make this absence more acceptable.

Insofar as Beckett is also hiding regressive feelings, we should probably consider the lack of violence in the text. Violence remains an unexplored area in this and other stories, although the inner conflicts of the narrator can only originate from all the violence that his psyche must have undergone. The main blind spot, however, in this text, seems to be the lack of “ego ideal” of the narrator. That explains the absence of more positive values or sense of responsibility, which he avoids thanks to a system of thought, only focused on (even caught in) regressive feelings, in “Nothing”. This fixation is also noticeable in the style of the narrator, particularly in his use of literary imagery. In literature, the metaphor has always been the sign and realisation of a writer's relationship with the unknown, and therefore of his inner freedom. Looking at Beckett's story, we must conclude that the metaphor has a rather secondary place in the text. There are actually some very beautiful metaphors—for example, love is called “banishment with now and then a postcard from the homeland”, and still water “athirst”, “reaching up to that of the sky”—but the main images are all symbols—fixed images—and symbols of a more metonymical order: bench, graveyard, mountain, epitaph. Nearly all of them lead us back to one of the parental figures. What the reader feels about this story of Beckett is that here the language that sets him free is not a free language. It is a marvellous language, but it doesn't really have the freedom of Joyce's or Proust's prose. Its main function is to help the author to survive, thanks to an exercise of what we could call sublime—or sublimated—masochism.


As far as my interpretation of the text is concerned, I still owe you some explanation of my approach, my way of using psychoanalysis in literature. How does one arrive at such interpretation? For a start, I must remind you, perhaps unnecessarily, of two tendencies we have to avoid: first, we can not take the author as our subject. Beckett is not the subject, and he is certainly not on the couch. However, that does not mean that we should behave, rather hypocritically, as if we didn't know anything about him. We are aware that for several years Beckett underwent psychoanalysis, even with one of the most famous analysts of his time, Wilfred Bion. He does not seem to have been very satisfied about what happened between him and Bion, but—and this is important for us—Beckett knew very well what psychoanalysis was, even to such an extent that, writing this story about a man on a bench and later on a sofa, the association with the couch must have been present in his mind. However, all this does not mean that we want to take the place Bion had. Beckett is dead. He will not answer our questions. We should speak about the text, not about the writer.

A second inclination that we must avoid is to treat this story as a case study, as the description of a mental disturbance—a neurosis, or even a psychosis that an unfortunate childhood with unfortunate parents can provoke. Such an approach would be another way to subordinate the text to non-literary considerations; not to the writer's life experience, but to our interest in a particular case-study. Yet such an interest could be justified, for Beckett himself told critics that he was the child of a religious and rather cold mother and of a nice father whose death, when his son was 27, affected him profoundly. Both parents seem to play a part in the fantasies that inspired “First Love”, but all this should not make us forget that literature is something different from clinical language. Literature is language in freedom, its structure and style are suited to tell us more about ourselves, our world and how we experience it, than scientific or common language can ever do. The mastery Beckett shows when he plays with the author's distance, going from tragic involvement in his fantasies to uproarious laughter about them, is the best proof of this kind of freedom. Therefore, we don't aim for biographical discoveries or case-studies. In our view, the only objective we should pursue while working in a psychoanalytical perspective is to clarify the text, with the help of psychoanalytical theory and its concepts. Above all, it is not psychoanalysis but the text itself that, at every stage of our research, should remain our central preoccupation.

Our method, then, takes three different points of departure: First, it is useful to understand and formulate the reaction(s) the text provokes in us, the readers. Such reactions, which will change after each reading of the text, are important, for they determine to a large extent how the rest of the research will be pursued. This involves the Freudian concepts of transference and counter-transference. Knowing that writers and readers are inclined to repeat, consciously and unconsciously, former experiences in life, by projecting them or finding them back in what we write or read, we should always be aware of this mechanism of the mind, for it might also mislead us. Psychoanalysis can teach us what in our fantasies about a work of art originates only in our own inner world, and what we really share with the creator of this work.

What were my reactions when I read “First Love”? Initially, melancholy, for sure. It is not a very happy family romance that inspires Beckett in “First Love”: lack and emptiness are everywhere. It seems preferable for the man who is speaking in this soliloquy to exist with a dead father than with a living mother, although he loves both. But more than melancholy, I felt uneasiness being confronted with experiences that are so regressive that I could and can not pretend to understand them all. What I also continually experience is the decision of the writer to tell us all of his feelings, in his case, all his regressive feelings, those that psychoanalysts are so fond of, because they seem to reach the foundations of our psychic life. But, like so many great writers, he dominates what we call regression, he plays with it, in language, not as a victim but as a winner, or at least as an exorcist. It is possible that his success in this respect is due partly to his psychoanalysis. Beckett owes a lot to Freud and his successors, without whom he probably wouldn't have done with language what he has done here. But he uses psychoanalytical concepts above all in a meta-psychological way, the feelings of the man who is telling his story appearing as much as anthropological ideas as they are psychological descriptions. What remains, when we read this and many other texts of Beckett, is, rather paradoxically, above all, an immense admiration for the artist who writes such French and English, equally intense, equally rhythmic and rhetorical, exploring with unequalled mastery the deepest layers of our psychic reality. Here literature can be seen to be teaching a lesson to psychoanalysis. Literary texts should be able to open theory as much as theory can open texts.

A second step in approaching the text is the reading and rereading of it with “suspended attention” (“gleichschebende Aufmerksamkeit”), with no other purpose than to catch the creative, frequently hidden, dimensions of the text. Together with transference an intimately linked to it, suspended attention has always been considered as the main and most productive attitude for the psychoanalyst. Thanks to this “free listening”, a story or a play may reveal its secrets, instantaneously or gradually. Suspended attention is an effort to reach the primary process of the making of the text, before it assumes its elaborate—secondary—form: the fantasies that underlie the text, the obsessive themes and repetitions that leave their marks on it, the incongruities or details that, despite their apparent insignificance, might reveal themselves as essential for the origins of the text.

Therefore I have tried to answer this question: What does our “suspended attention” perceive, when we try to listen to the voice speaking here? What fantasies, obsessions, or even “voices” have contributed to the creation of this story? What do we see, what do we hear, when we let this story invade us, our mind and our body? What struck me at the first or the second reading were the following items, randomly, which I later put into the ideas expressed earlier in these pages: the separation of the two parents, all the regression, the movement and its different levels, “to and fro”, “away and back”, the two forms of anal obsession (expulsion and retention), the absence of violence, the epitaph as symbol of the writing process, the limping, the importance of the voice. What I first didn't understand was the game with the voice, singing and then crying. I wondered what Ohlsdorf was (apparently it was Germany's most famous cemetery near Hamburg), and who Reinhold was (a German philosopher who studied human consciousness, 1758-1823), and so on.

A third approach, after the questions about transference and the necessarily chaotic results of the “suspended attention”, is a more systematical one. It uses all these and tries to put them together in a structure, studying what may be called the “narrative quality” of the text: should this text be characterized as mainly Oedipal, or do its content and style point to a more pre-Oedipal background? Both categories are inevitably present in any text, as we are always engaged, in literature as well as in real life, in swaying between two poles: pleasure and reality, a motherly world and a fatherly world. Of this “articulation” inside us, Beckett's story offers an example that is perhaps too obvious, because it even turns out to be its main theme. But in any literary text we can find it back, on different levels and often as a surprise: in the way the different characters of the story have been chosen, or time and space are presented, in its atmosphere, in the use of description and narration, in the presence or absence of other voices and opinions—is “the other as other” really taken into account?—in the sexual interest of the narrator—is he describing an adult sexual life or more the polymorphous sexuality of a child?—in the use of images—metaphors and metonyms—or of other style figures.

These are the kind of questions raised by a psychoanalytical approach in literature. I hope to have demonstrated that such an approach can open and clarify Beckett's story in a gratifying way.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel, Premier Amour (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1970).

Bion, Wilfred, Learning from Experience (London: Basic Books, 1962).

Sigmund Freud, Jenseits des Lustprinzips, in Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 6 (Frankfurt am Main: S. Verlag, 1964), 191ff.

Gontarski, S. E., Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose 1929-1989 (New York: Grove P, 1995), 25-45.

Pascal, Blaise, Pensées. Editions Classiques Garnier (Paris: Bordas, 1991).

Peter Boxall (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Boxall, Peter. “‘The Existence I Ascribe’: Memory, Invention, and Autobiography in Beckett's Fiction.” The Yearbook of English Studies 30 (2000): 137-52.

[In the following essay, Boxall maintains that “First Love” signals a turning point in Beckett's writing style with his employment of the monologue form as well as his “oscillation between remembrance and invention as a form of storytelling.”]


This essay takes as its starting point what I suggest is a seminal moment in Beckett's fiction. In his 1946 novella, “First Love,” the narrator draws attention for the first time to an opposition between two categories of thingness which persists as a foundational structural distinction for the remaining four decades of Beckett's prose writing career. Talking of the objects, people, and places that from the subject matter of his stories, the narrator claims: ‘I have always spoken, no doubt always shall, of things that never existed, or that existed, if you insist, no doubt always will, but not with the existence I ascribe to them.’1 From this point on, the movement of Beckett's writing is structured around this reluctantly conceded distinction. His narrators repeatedly claim absolute imaginative control over the non-existent world that they invent, whilst equally repeatedly, if unwillingly, allowing that the things of their stories share their existence with objects that are located in a remembered world beyond them. It is this vacillation that becomes one of the most characteristic features of Beckett's fiction. The prose is caught, from “First Love” onwards, in a ceaseless oscillation between remembrance and invention as a form of storytelling, and this oscillation controls the peculiar mode of reference that Beckett develops throughout his mid and late work. As the narrators vacillate between memory and invention, they seek both to refer to a remembered landscape, and to invent a new landscape that owes nothing to a reality that precedes it or constrains it. The things of the stories are both identical with the ‘existing’ things to which they partly refer, and different from them, as the narrators declare their simultaneous belonging to and freedom from the world of which they write.

This adoption, in “First Love,” of a mode of reference which is to become a major characteristic of Beckett's fiction coincides with another sea change in his writing: the adoption of the monologue form in which almost all his remaining prose is written. These departures in Beckett's writing are finely interwoven, and are related in turn to the tenacious but subtle autobiographical register that stretches throughout his fiction. The narrator's claim that he invents the things of his stories, his insistence that he is able to drag the objects on the storyscape to a new literary geography where they are freed from the reality that they share with things that exist, is complicated by the monologue form. As the narrator himself acts as an object upon the storyscape, his tendency to deny his own existence as character threatens to undermine the very reality effect upon which the primacy of his narrating voice is based. The freedom of the narrator's vacillating movement between memory and invention as a mode of storytelling is compromised and limited in important ways by his own presence as character upon the storyscape whose mimetic status he seeks to manipulate. This freedom is further compromised by the relationship between the writing of memory as a formal strategy, and its characteristic autobiographical connection with the geography of Beckett's own memory. The autobiographical status of Beckett's fiction, at least from Watt onwards, is always subject to narrative uncertainty, but that the remembered selves and objects that people the majority of his landscapes have some autobiographical content is beyond serious doubt. This essay seeks to address the political implications and possibilities of the relationship between memory, invention, and autobiography as it plays itself out in Beckett's fiction. If the things of his stories both share their existence with a political reality, and negate political referents in a statement of the narrator's imaginative freedom to invent a non-existent world, what is the political value of this dialectical movement between statement and denial? If Beckett's prose moves from reference to an autobiographical self to a form of aesthetic self invention, to what extent can this writing of identity be understood to be politically motivated? Can we read the “First Love” narrator's promise to ascribe his own existence as contributing anything to the ongoing attempt to understand the promise and limits of the literary in re-imagining the post-colonial consciousness?

The semi-autobiographical mode of self-invention that Beckett appears to adopt in the stories of the Novellas [Four Novellas] is not, of course, unique to him. The difficulties and possibilities of a modernist aesthetic of autobiographical self-creation are well marked out by the major modernists before him. Proust's monumental exploration of the relation between remembrance and aesthetics, Yeats's preoccupation with the contradiction between worldly self and mystical, poetic anti-self, and Joyce's partial self-portrait in Stephen Dedalus, exemplify a form of writing which is dedicated to an exposition of the relationship between non-fictional autobiography and fictional self-creation. This writing is driven by irreconcilable but irreducible certainties: the certainty that one is bound to the political world, and the certainty that one is free from it. The modernist autobiographical aesthetic is both formed by the contradiction between these certainties, and, in the form that results, gestures towards a resolution of the contradictions that generate its becoming. A politics of modernist literary representation can thus be found in the movement of the writing between the poles of non-fictional reference and fictional self-invention. The shift in register between autobiography and fiction controls the movement of the writing from the faithful representation of existing relations of production to the invention of a literary space which resists cultural inscription. The contradiction between memory and invention functions as a struggle between an existing false consciousness, and a creative imagination that remains beyond the reach of ideological inauthenticity, and it is partly in this struggle that the political value of modernist self-fashioning is to be found.2

The relation of Beckett's work, however, to the politics of modernist autobiography is ambiguous. To draw a politics of representation from the relation between memory and invention in Beckett's writing presents the critic with difficulties that may be different from those posed by the work of Joyce or Proust, and that seem to be related in some degree to the uncertain location of Beckett's writing in the distinction which is in any case uncertain between modernism and postmodernism. Where the relationship between memory and invention in Joyce's semi-autobiographical work displays a contradictory tension typical, for some critics, of a modernist aesthetic that is partly generated by the dialectic between binary oppositions,3 in Beckett's writing the two modes of representation do not seem so ready to engage in a dialogue that could yield a political content. Whilst the work of modernists such as Joyce, Proust, Yeats, Stein, and Woolf has conventionally been read as being engaged with a set of political concerns, even if that engagement is regarded by some as critical or dismissive of certain political practices,4 Beckett's work has been widely received as denouncing the political altogether. This perceived resignation from any form of commitment to or interest in the cultural politics that fuelled the work of his major influences has contributed to the characterization of Beckett as a nascent postmodernist who is a central figure in the drift away from modernist literary production. A symptom and a cause of this renunciation of the political, it could be argued, is the failure of the opposition between memory and invention to engage in a generative dialogue. The pairing of memory and invention in Beckett's work is perhaps characteristic, in Frederic Jameson's terminology, more of the postmodern antinomy than of the contradiction that is the driving force in modernist literature.5 For Jameson, contradiction is distinct from antinomy in that the former names an opposition whose antithetical halves are held in place by a tension which has the potential to lead towards resolution, whereas the latter consists of two statements whose opposition is so complete and fundamental as to defy any attempt to find even a notional common ground or covert compatibility. Consequently, ‘contradictions are supposed, in the long run, to be productive; whereas antinomies—take Kant's classic one: the world has a beginning, the world has no beginning—offer nothing in the way of a handle, no matter how diligently you turn them around and around’ (p. 2). Joyce's work, at least up to Ulysses, can be seen to be driven by what Jameson regards as modernist contradictions: his writing has one foot planted in the intricately described autobiographical geography of Dublin, and another foot in a geography of pure literary invention. The writing pulls hard in these contradictory directions, but this antagonism is organized around the push towards a new place where the antagonists can come together. In Beckett's writing, however, this opposition arguably loses such dialectical tension; the writing of memory and the writing of invention fall into antinomial halves whose difference from each other is such that it is inconceivable that they should move towards resolution. It is indeed difficult to imagine a Beckett narrator promising to forge any form of racial authenticity in the luke-warm smithy of his soul. The narrator moves between recounting past lives and denying their reality with an abandon which may suggest a loss of faith in the transformative power of art to bridge the distance between the creative mind and the political world. Memory and invention as oppositional modes of writing seem to drift from the moorings that, in Joyce's work, hold them both apart and together. Just as the narrator's memories seem not to plant him firmly in a space which has reference to a specific non-fictional geography, so the shift of register to the writing of pure invention seems not to introduce any oppositional tension into Beckett's writing. Rather, memory and invention can appear as empty categories that are drained of their political energy, and merely mark the failure of a residual autobiographical aesthetic to offer any potential release from the problem of the self's simultaneous belonging to and freedom from the world of which s/he writes.

A sign that the relation between memory and invention in Beckett's writing may indeed exemplify antinomy rather than contradiction is the tendency of thesis and antithesis to collapse into each other. For Jameson, antinomy names a relationship between concepts that are so extremely and abstractly opposed that, in their opposition, they betray a sameness which brings any dialogue to a standstill. Jameson's example is that between identity and difference, the ‘grandest and most empty of all abstractions’ (p. 7): when these concepts have been released from any specific content and thought to their abstract limits, absolute sameness becomes indistinguishable from absolute difference, just as the concept of continual change collapses into the absolute stasis that is its direct opposite. As Estragon wryly observes of the geography of Waiting For Godot, where space tends towards abstraction in its denial of contingency or content, ‘everything oozes [but] it's never the same pus from one second to the next’: the constantly changing meets, as it reaches the limits of its constancy, the constantly the same.6 This dizzying movement between implacable opposition and sudden conflation characterizes the relation between memory and invention as it is developed in Beckett's fiction. The distinction represents an absolute opposition that forms the structural framework upon which several of the fictions are based, but the coherence that the distinction offers is repeatedly undermined as the poles both move too far apart to sustain any form of narrative tension, and collapse into each other as they reveal their identity. The “First Love” narrator's distinction between two categories of thingness, things as they ‘exist’ and things as they are ‘ascribed’ by the narrator, persists as a structural device from the Novellas to the short fictions collected in the Nohow On trilogy. The device is set up partly to allow the narrator as creating unself to free himself from narrator as remembered self. But as Beckett's fiction forces the writing of invention further and further apart from the writing of memory, as the halves of the distinction are pushed to the limit of their difference from each other, each insists upon folding back into the other as memory becomes invention, and invention becomes memory. The narrator of Molloy, for example, seeks to separate memory from invention by writing a novel whose circular structure closes around a remembered landscape, and seals it off to allow the creating unself to sever the bonds that hold him to the partly autobiographical self. The second section of the novel, in which the quasi-detective Moran sets out to track down his quarry Molloy, opens with the first words of Moran's ‘report’ on the progress of his search: ‘It is midnight. The rain is beating on the widows.’7 At the end of the novel, as Moran comes to the close of his report, he finishes his narrative with a description of his coming to write the beginning of his report: ‘I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining’ (p. 162). This hijacking of the reality effect upon which the truth value of the entire narrative is based has two consequences. It serves, in one register, to allow the narrative voice that has been speaking as Moran throughout the report to close his narrative with a flourish that dispatches Moran, Molloy, the country that they share, and even the report itself to the realm of falsehood, leaving the unnamed voice that reveals the fictionality of Moran's report to emerge as the only survivor of the novel's wreckage. The report, which by its very nature is a faithful, journalistic record of events, closes upon itself to free the inventing ‘I’ from the yoke that had chained it to reportage. In another register, however, the narrator's attempt to separate report from invention clearly has the effect rather of collapsing altogether the distinction between the two forms of writing that provides the structural basis of the novel. As the unnamed narrating ‘I’ moves beyond the reach of the ‘I’ in whose name he narrates, it simultaneously transgresses and undermines the limit that sustains the distinction in the first place. The narrative device by which inventing consciousness appears in extreme opposition to remembered self leads equally to the loss of narrative energy by which invention is able to fling itself clear of memory.

As the novels of the trilogy progress, this insistent separation and conflation of remembered self and invented self becomes increasingly exposed, and increasingly compressed. In the last pages of The Unnamable, the narrator struggles inexorably towards the deadlock in which the contradictions that fuel a modernist aesthetic of self creation appear finally to freeze over. The narrator is driven to impasse by his frantic and impossible attempt to invent in his writing the place in which he writes. The moment he allows himself to speak by conceding the reality of the place and the body which contain him, he seeks to deny the reality of place and body as contingent to his freely creating consciousness. He allows that he is writing in a ‘place’, but immediately undoes his placedness, insisting that ‘I'll make [the place] all the same, I'll make it in my head, I'll draw it out of my memory, I'll gather it about me, I'll make myself a head, I'll make myself a memory’.8 The narrator's desperate push to cleanse his inventive powers of the contingency of memory leads to a blatant deadlock between I and not-I, where negation is so complete as to appear virtually indistinguishable from affirmation. The movement between statement and denial has become so stark and unproductive as to lead to the eventual, unbridgeable antinomy that closes the trilogy, and brings Beckett's prose writing to a virtual half for over a decade: ‘I can't go on, I'll go on’ (p. 382). It is perhaps at this point in Beckett's œuvre that the relation between memory and invention seems furthest from yielding any sort of politics. The gulf between things as they exist and things as the narrator invents them seems both too wide and too narrow to offer any movement away from an unbearable status quo, the representation of which many critics consider the sole purpose of Beckett's writing.

It is the central argument of this paper, however, that Beckett's dramatization of the struggle between memory and invention does not at any point constitute an abandonment of a political aesthetic. It is clear that the dialogue between created and remembered self in Beckett's fiction, as a residue of the more robust modernist self-fashioning of Joyce and Proust, nears the point of collapse. But to infer from this near breakdown of negotiations that Beckett's writing resigns and limits itself to an expression of a fundamental and unsolvable difference between self and world would be to consign it prematurely to a form of political redundancy. When reading Beckett as a pioneer of an apolitical postmodern aesthetic, his representation of the relation between memory and invention appears as an antinomial relation between empty categories. The struggle between I and not-I, drained of all contingency and content, exemplifies the ‘free play of masks and roles without content or substance’ that Jameson identifies as ‘postmodernity itself’ (p. 18). I suggest, however, that even at the barest and emptiest moments of the relation between self and unself, even during the last pages of The Unnamable, memory and invention are not in free play. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a less appropriate term to describe the frantic final throes of the unnamed narrator. The movement between worldly ‘I’ and invented ‘not-I’ is not entirely emptied out in a final ghastly parody of modernist self-invention, but remains held in place by a residual autobiographical vein that runs through Beckett's writing. The persistence of autobiography both energizes and constrains the relation between memory and invention, and provides the tension that keeps the unnamable narrator screaming. It is partly in this tense and difficult relation between memory and invention, as it is organized around a tenacious autobiographical referentiality, that I suggest the political promise of Beckett's work may be found. I do not argue that this relation leads to any form or promise of sublation or reconciliation in the fiction: on the contrary, it is necessary to understand the process by which progression by contradiction becomes unlikely in the Beckettian universe. But it seems equally important to understand how and why the inventing ‘I’ does not entirely succeed in abstracting itself from the autobiographical register which chains it to a non-fictional, culturally specific moment. The oscillation between affirmation and negation refrains from becoming a purely formal strategy, and negation maintains political potency in Beckett's writing, because the texts remain bound, however tenuously, to a political reality beyond them which prevents memory and invention from turning into each others' opposites.


In order to suggest ways that this relation between memory, invention, and autobiography in Beckett's writing may offer a handle on the political dynamic in his work, I will return to the Novellas. All four stories are organized around the narrator's depiction of his banishment and expulsion. They all start with a forcible expulsion of the narrator as character from his family home on the death of his father, and the main focus of the four ‘plots’ is the wandering of the homeless narrator across the geography of what he describes as the ‘city of my childhood’ in the search for a new shelter. But this exile takes two forms: the banishment of the narrator as character from his home within the geography of the story, and the banishment of the narrator/character from the narrator as narrator across the geography of the text itself. It is in the precisely choreographed economy of this four-way banishment, and in the nature of the relationship between the city of the narrator's childhood and the non-fictional city of Dublin, that the stories' engagement with a political landscape can be found.

The divide between the narrator and the narrator/character is structured around the relationship between memory and invention. The banishment from self that the narrator suffers upon the writing of the stories is banishment across the distinction between things as they exist beyond the narrator's reference to them, and things as they exist with the existence that he ascribes. In her essay on “First Love,” Julia Kristeva refers to this banishment in terms that are helpful, but which I think need to be adjusted. For Kristeva, the narrator's writing of the story is an ‘attempt at separating oneself from the august and placid expanses where the father's sublime Death, and thus Meaning, merges with the son's self’.9 In this schema, the narrator inhabits a geography of pure invention, which he shares with the unsullied spirit of his dead father. It is a post-mortem place, located beyond life and beyond contact with the story's grubby urban landscape. The moment of writing, however, is a moment of banishment from this space of serene selfhood to a material geography that tears the narrator away from his disembodied peace. Writing, for Kristeva, condemns the narrator to a ‘banishment robbing this sensible but always already dead, filial self of its silence on the threshold of a rimy minerality, where the only opportunity is to become anyone at all’ (p. 150). I agree that this expulsion of the writing and inventing narrator, from his primary location in a sublime literary geography beyond the horizons of the text to a secondary material storyscape in which he appears as character, is one of the directions in which the banishment between narrating ‘I’ and narrated ‘I’ takes place. The narrator of “The Calmative,” for example, refers rather proudly to this inaugurative moment of banishment when he announces, at the opening of his story, ‘I'll tell myself a story, I'll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself, and it's there I feel I'll be old’ (N [Four Novellas], p. 51). But, in “The Calmative” as in the other stories of the Novellas, the narrator's prioritization of writing self over self as character is shadowed and undermined by moments in the text when the banishment appears to be operating the other way around. Kristeva's emphasis on the movement by which the writing son is banished from a sublime negative geography into the ‘rimy’ world of the story makes light of the opposite movement in which the narrator as character casts himself forward, from the geography of the story, towards the space from which the narrator as narrator writes. Kristeva's suggestion, borrowed from the narrator of “First Love” himself, that the character to which the narrator is banished should be thought of as ‘anyone at all’, obscures one of the central difficulties of the novella: that the character with whose voice the narrator speaks is, by virtue of the monologue form adopted by the narrator, his own. The narrator is not banished, as he claims, to act as ‘any old one irredeemably’ (N, p. 15), but rather the monologue form condemns him to act, very specifically, as himself. Because in all the Novellas both narrator and character share the same pronoun, the narrator cannot comfortably sustain the primacy of his location in a negative geography of pure invention beyond the text. He has not, as Kristeva claims, always been already dead. Rather he is both the same as the character in whose name he speaks, and different from him; the character who wanders across the storyscape is both the narrator as he remembers himself at a former time, and an imaginary character that the narrator invents from the geography of his calm negativity. As a result of sharing the pronoun that designates them, the narrator as character and the narrator as narrator are mutually dependent: they are joined by the text which divides them. The narrator creates the story that he tells (without his narrative voice, the text would not come into being at all) but he is also created by it. Without the text and the pronoun that contain him, the narrator would be robbed of his means of speech. The act of writing may, as Kristeva suggests, banish him from the negative geography of his ‘paternal country’, his ‘dispeopled kingdom’. But he is equally banished to his magisterial position beyond the text from the rimy geography of the story that he shares with the ‘I’ of his creature.

It is in the separation and convergence of these two mutually dependent and hostile ‘I's, that the storyscape comes into being. The details and objects that make up the story are all caught in the ripples caused in the reality effect by the narrator's attempt simultaneously to create the story and to be created by it. The story is told both as a memory and as a fable, and the ground of the story is caught in the mercurial shifting of the narrator between remembrance and fabulation. As the narrator seeks to ground the reality of his speaking voice in the story of which he speaks, whilst dismissing the story as a product of his own creative whim, the space of the story rhythmically hardens to a reality to which the narrator must make an accurate reference, and dissolves to a random figment of the narrator's restless imagination. So the ground upon which the “First Love” narrator first falls in love with Lulu/Anna fluctuates in this dizzying movement between memory and invention. The narrator/character and Lulu/Anna meet for the first time on a bench by a canal, and the geography of their meeting point is described in detail:

I met her on a bench, on the bank of the canal, one of the canals, for our town boasts two, though I never knew which was which. It was a well situated bench, backed by a mound of solid earth and garbage, so that my rear was covered. My flanks too, partially, thanks to a pair of venerable trees, more than venerable, dead, at either end of the bench.

(N, pp. 13-14)

This meticulously described landscape provides the stage for the drama of the narrator's loving. It is to this ‘beastly circumstantial’10 landscape that the narrator as character is banished upon his falling in love with Lulu/Anna. The narrator complains that, before falling in love, he had been able to indulge freely in the solipsism of which Murphy before him was so fond. Before meeting Lulu/Anna, the narrator claims:

What mattered to me in my dispeopled kingdom, that in regard to which the disposition of my carcass was the merest and most futile of accidents, was supineness in the mind, the dulling of the self and of that residue of execrable frippery known as the non-self and even the world, for short.

(N, p. 15)

On falling in love with Lulu/Anna, however, the narrator/character is robbed of his ability to spurn the world of bodies and things, and he ‘who had learnt to think of nothing’ is forced to think of her (N, p. 19). Thinking of Lulu/Anna means returning repeatedly to this bench by the canal, where he is trapped in a world of material surfaces that will not be blunted or dulled. The narrator's accurate reference to this material space to which the reluctant lover is banished, however, is repeatedly undermined by the slippage in his mode of reference from memory to invention. As the narrator/character drags himself to the bench for the ‘fourth or fifth time’ in pursuit of his loved one, the narrator as narrator writes ‘Let us say it was raining, nothing like a change, if only of weather’ (N, p. 22). At moments such as these, which recur throughout the text, the narrator as narrator can be felt, from the other side of the text, picking at the reality effect that holds it in place, reminding us that the bench, the canal, the love, the narrator/character's banishment, are all pure figment. The bench which holds the narrator/character unwillingly to his love suddenly wobbles and flickers as the narrator kicks out one of the props that hold it in place. As if to make up for this mischievous waywardness, the rain that the narrator adds as an afterthought is quickly absorbed into the register that casts the story as a remembered event. Three lines later, the narrator asserts, back in chaste reportage mode, ‘the bench was soaking wet’ (N, p. 22), and the effects of this invented rain falling over the landscape of the narrator's love crop up sporadically throughout the remainder of the story. Three pages and several hours later, as the narrator/character settles into his new residence with Lulu/Anna, he complains that ‘my hat was still wringing’ (N, p. 25).

Perhaps the most striking of these moments in “First Love,” in which a constraining material reality is made to carry within it the negation of its own constraint, occurs with the narrator's reference to the prostitute herself, for love of whom the narrator as character forsakes the peace of his solipsistic ‘dispeopled kingdom’. The woman herself that draws the narrator towards thingness is caught, like all the other objects in the story, in the shifting of register between memory and invention. This movement can be seen most precisely as the narrator first feels the yearnings of love. He realizes that he has fallen in love, he recognizes the symptoms most definitively, when he finds himself ‘inscribing’ the letters of her name in an ‘old heifer pat’ (N, p. 18):

Perhaps I loved her with a platonic love? But somehow I think not. Would I have been tracing her name in old cowshit if my love had been pure and disinterested? And with my devil's finger into the bargain, which I then sucked. Come now! My thoughts were all of Lulu, if that doesn't give you some idea nothing will. Anyhow I'm sick and tired of this name Lulu, I'll give her another, more like her. Anna for example, it's not more like her but no matter. I thought of Anna, then, I who had learnt to think of nothing.

(N, p. 19)

This outrageous manoeuvre cuts across the reality effect of the story in a number of ways, and strikes at the heart of the text's ongoing concern with the relationship between writing and space, between existence and ascription. The correspondence between Lulu/Anna's name, and the bodily person to whom the name refers, is strung here across the economy of banishment that holds the story in place. The letters that make up her name appear both in the text, and as objects upon the storyscape, engraved in the shitty, miry ground of the geography to which the loving narrator is banished. As the narrator shifts register, these letters traced in the cowpat, and the printed letters that designate the prostitute in the text itself, metamorphose from Lulu to Anna, in a move that threatens to bring the space of the novella tumbling. The narrator's sudden decision to change the name works partly as his declaration of freedom from his memory, from the story, and from the text that contains and constrains him. His freedom to do so, the implied lack of a demand that he must refer accurately to a preexisting reality, points towards a collapse of the tension between remembered and invented selves that provides the foundation of the story. It is the truth value of the text that condemns the inventing narrator to share his pronoun with his earth-bound character. As the demands of accurate reference give way to narrative whim, in which it would be impossible for reference to fail, the narrator seeks to free himself to his prior space beyond the storyscape and beyond the text, where he is untroubled by shitty fields and inky letters. But even as the inventing ‘I’ declares his freedom from the text that he invents, he is forced to retract this freedom. The lurch towards pure invention promises to free the inventing ‘I’ altogether from remembered ‘I’, but it also threatens to collapse the reality effect that sustains them in different geographies. Even as the narrator chooses imperiously to change Lulu's name to Anna, in a display of his ability to make this story whatever he wants it to be,11 he blends this demonstration of his inventive freedom with a concession to the demands of referential accuracy: the narrator changes Lulu's name to Anna, because he says it is more like her. The moment that he empties the text of reference to a remembered geography, he claims that his textual sleight of hand is geared towards an approximation of a reality to which the text is struggling to remain faithful. Of course, as soon as the narrator has made this concession to narrative fidelity, he seeks to undermine it with the disclaimer ‘it's not more like her, but no matter’, but the extent to which it matters whether the words of the text are involved in a referential relationship with an existence beyond them has already become clear. Despite the narrator's disingenuous reversals, he knows that it both matters and does not matter, as his freedom to deny is caught inexorably in the demand that he must affirm.

It is this comic but excruciating movement between affirmation and denial, between sustaining and undermining mimetic security, that leads eventually to the aporia that grinds the narrative of The Unnamable to a halt. The narrator of “First Love” already anticipates the unnamable narrator who starts his novel with the promise that ‘I will proceed by aporia pure and simple […]. Or by affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered […] I say aporia without knowing what it means’ (p. 267). In “First Love,” the convergence and separation of inventing and remembered ‘I's has the effect of pulling apart the text that joins and divides them, consistently threatening to stall the narrative which continues, sometimes, only by virtue of pure momentum. Each statement that the narrator utters to explain or to describe or further to consolidate a narrative situation or moment is undermined by his desire to negate the text that holds him, to undo its demands and its constraints. His anxious attempts to make his story accurate and clear are shadowed by his equal insistence that he has no reason to care whether they are accurate or not. He sweats to ensure that his story is proof against inaccuracy or unbelievability, whilst demanding always that ‘there is nothing I wish to prove’ (N, p. 16). The possibility of remembered and inventing ‘I's, in a text such as this, engaging in any kind of dialogue that could generate a solution to the problem of their simultaneous difference and sameness, seems remote. The geography of the text seems to form and to dissolve in the space of a banishment between self and unself whose mutual difference is so extreme as to appear both unbridgeable and on the point of collapse. The narrator's resolute refusal to concede the purity of his inventing consciousness to the griminess of the text is countered by the narrator/character's demand that he must, and the fluctuating, unstable, consistently collapsing storyscape as I have described it is the result of these irreconcilable demands. In this absolute stand-off between memory and invention, Stephen Dedalus's youthful faith in the power of the artist to ‘forg[e] anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being’ seems a long way off indeed.12 Memory and invention, as contradictory or antinomial modes of representation, consistently fail to enter into any form of progressive dialectic in this text that can sometimes appear above all to be a symptom of their absolute, incompatible hostility.

However, to draw from this apparent failure the conclusion that Beckett's writing abandons struggle in favour of resignation to undecidability and indifference, as many have, is, in terms of this argument, to privilege one economy of banishment over another.13 The storyscape may be formed in the space of the banishment between narrator as narrator and narrator as character, but the space of the story itself is a geography upon which the narrator as character suffers a different form of banishment. As the narrator/character is expelled from his father's house in “First Love,” to the bedsit that he shares with Lulu/Anna, the roofless wandering to which he is condemned takes him across a partly autobiographical landscape that is pitted throughout with details that make it poignantly recognizable as a Dublinesque geography of Beckett's memory. The site itself where the bench on which the lovers meet is situated, and which is subject to the forms of narrative uncertainty that I have described, is a space which has resonances as a Dublin space in Beckett's prose. The narrator says that he met Lulu/Anna ‘on a bench, on the bank of the canal, one of the canals, for our town boasts two, though I never knew which was which’ (N, pp. 13-14). Dublin has two canals running through the town, the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal, and these canals appear in several other of Beckett's works, such as Mercier and Camier, and Molloy, where they are made to designate a ‘Dublinness’ in storyscapes whose geographical location is otherwise uncertain.14 As the narrator makes his way from the bench to Lulu/Anna's flat, these Beckettian/Dublinesque features gain weight and resonance, until the moment at which she reveals to him that she is pregnant with their child, whereupon these autobiographical locating details burst in an extraordinary Proustian moment of remembrance. Lulu/Anna, in order to prove to the doubting, misogynistic narrator that she is indeed pregnant as she claims, stands in the light of the window, and the narrator in exile gazes past the pregnant woman whose physicality has deprived him of his solipsistic ease, at a Dublinesque landscape that is figured, throughout Beckett's writing, as home:

She had drawn back the curtain for a clear view of all her rotundities. I saw the mountain, impassible, cavernous, secret, where from morning to night I'd hear nothing but the wind, the curlews, the clink like distant silver of the stone-cutter's hammers. I'd come out in the daytime to the heather and the gorse, all warmth and scent, and watch at night the distant city lights, if I chose, and the other lights, the lighthouses and lightships that my father had named for me, when I was small, and whose names I could find again, in my memory, if I chose, that I knew.

(N, pp. 28-29)

To a reader familiar with Beckett's prose, and with the unnamed autobiographical Dublinesque landscape that grows in poignant resonance from text to text, this passage comes as a wave of yearning for homeland, for the end of exile. The music of the stone-cutter's hammers, which refers partly to the sound of stone-cutters working in the Glencullen granite quarries that Beckett could hear from his Foxrock home as a child, drifts from text to text, from Watt to Malone Dies and How It Is, carrying with it Proustian memories of childhood and home.15 The Dublinesque mountains studded with burning gorse, and the lighthouses and lightships given names and significance by the narrator's absent father, throw their shadows and their light in virtually every work of fiction Beckett has written.16 The narrator/character's exile to and from this evocative geography is controlled by the relationship that stretches across the story between his spiritual love for his dead father, and his sexual love for Lulu/Anna, whose physicality is connected at several points in the story with the father's corpse. The narrator loses his father's protection, upon his death, and as the paternal guiding spirit is withdrawn, he is condemned to wander across an unheimlich landscape that has become, as a result, both familiar and alien. It is in this landscape that the love for his father is written: the burning mountains and the clinking hammers are containers of the narrator's cherished identity that he shares with his father, that he was given and taught by his father. But as a gap opens up at the beginning of the story between the father's ‘great disembodied wisdom’ (N, p. 13) and his putrefying corpse, the landscape that presents such comfort and self-knowledge becomes simultaneously alien and threatening. As David Lloyd has convincingly and eloquently argued, this condition of alienation and inauthenticity is ‘equally the perpetual condition of the colonized: dominated, interpreted, mediated by another’.17 As the narrator as character is banished from his father's house to the arms of a woman who holds him to her and his own materiality, and to the materiality of the text, the landscape and storyscape across which he is banished is a political geography, whose features are both absolutely his, and absolutely not his.

It is in the story's manipulation of the layered relation between this banishment and the banishment that operates between inventing and remembered narrators, that the political meaning and potential of Novellas can be found. The two forms of banishment modify and inform each other, and prevent the agonizing relation between memory and invention, statement and denial, from drifting into indifferentiation and generality. The landscape is never designated by name as an Irish landscape, and the solidity of this space that is made to carry the weight of Beckett's remembrance of an autobiographical, Dublinesque geography of childhood, is caught in the fluctuation between the narrator who refers and the narrator who invents. The narrator's stretching and tearing at the limits of his imaginative control over the world he describes is organized around an impossible attempt to refer to a political geography, to absorb a loved country and a loved life into the space of his writing, whilst detaching it from that which the world dictates it should mean. A piece of verbal ingenuity in “The Calmative” economically and brilliantly captures the engagement of the narrator's tortuous movement between affirmation and negation with a nonfictional landscape that informs it and locates it. As the narrator as character approaches the city of his childhood, upon which his search for calm is to take place, his description of the familiar Dublin landscape is inhabited by the peculiar mixture of memory and invention that is so characteristic of Beckett's writing:

I was no sooner free of the wood at last, having crossed unminding the ditch that girdles it, than thoughts came to me of cruelty, the kind that smiles. A lush pasture lay before me, nonsuch perhaps, who cares, drenched in evening dew or recent rain.

(N, p. 53)

In this passage, the narrator refers to a remembered, partly autobiographical detail, with the very noun that dismisses the detail and negates its evocative power. The description here of the country that surrounds the Dublinesque city comes up time and time again in Beckett's fiction, most notably in Molloy, and the description of the pasture of nonsuch corresponds to the nonfictional geography that the narrator is partly describing and remembering: nonsuch is an Irish dialect term for a form of trefoil that is found abundantly on the grassy plains near the sea coasts of Wicklow and Dublin. But of course, the term nonsuch also suggests, as it names the damp, lush field through which the narrator as character prepares to walk, that there is no such field; it works, as so often, to remind us that the scene the narrator as narrator is describing is pure invention—hence the ‘who cares’. As also happens so often in these stories, the field of nonsuch re-emerges later in the story, stripped of some of its mimetic ambiguity. As the distressed narrator/character is stranded in the unfamiliar familiar urban landscape to which he has turned for solace, he admits that ‘I longed for the tender nonsuch, I would have trodden it gently, with my boots in my hand, and for the shade of my wood, far from this terrible light’ (N, p. 63).18

It is this engagement of the negativity of Beckett's prose with a characteristically evoked autobiographical political geography that has so far been largely overlooked by Beckett's critics. The political in Beckett's work remains situated, as Leslie Hill has recently commented, in a commitment debate derived from that between Lukács and Adorno: between a critique that accuses it of or congratulates it for complacent apoliticism, and one that sees it, in its resolute denial of a stable or recognizable political agenda, as bearing mute witness to ‘the deficient and tawdry emptiness of post-historical, post-political, even post-modern capitalist Europe’.19 David Lloyd's elegant and compelling essay on “First Love” exemplifies the persistence of these parameters, in that his reading does not progress beyond a certain parallelism that tends towards a universalization of the colonial situation and of Beckett's representation of it. Lloyd defines Beckett's writing as an ‘aesthetic [which] writes out the inauthenticity enforced upon the colonial subject’ by developing a ‘narrative mode which refuses any single model of integration’ (p. 55). This is indeed one of the powerful drives in Beckett's writing, but the potency and the poignancy of this rejection is found partly in its fundamental co-existence with an opposite drive towards integration and belonging. To free Beckett's writing from the terms of the commitment debate that has contained it for so long, I suggest that we need a politics of reading that can elucidate the process by which Beckett's aesthetic strains to release itself from memory whilst writing memory. Beckett develops a mode of reference that struggles to give expression both to the lure and to the constraint of an autobiographical, political geography, whilst allowing a voice to speak from a utopian space beyond the nation, the culture, and the text that produced it. A critical language that can cast light on this writing will contribute much to our understanding of the possibilities and limits of the contemporary aesthetic in re-remembering and rewriting the nation space.


  1. First Love, in Samuel Beckett, The Four Novellas (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), p. 19. Further references are given after quotations in the text, preceded by the abbreviation N.

  2. For a sustained analysis of the capacity for works of art to give expression to a utopian ‘ideological surplus’ that ‘allows for a so-called true consciousness to form itself in the mere false consciousness of ideology’, see Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, trans. by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), p. 36.

  3. For a representative example of a dialectical reading of modernity and modernism, see Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982; repr. London: Verso, 1983).

  4. Joyce's work, for example, has been widely read as being hostile to Irish nationalism in its championing of cultural pluralism, but has nevertheless been regarded as being concerned with the politics of Irish colonialism and postcolonialism. For a critical reading of the interpretative tradition that has (mistakenly) stressed Joyce's antipathy to Irish nationalism, see Emer Nolan's recent work, James Joyce and Nationalism (London: Routledge, 1995).

  5. Jameson, rather dangerously, anchors his fragile distinction between contradiction and antinomy in the equally fragile distinction between modernism and postmodernism: ‘Contradiction stand[s] for the modernist option perhaps, while antinomy offers a more postmodern one’ (The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 4).

  6. Waiting for Godot, in Samuel Beckett, Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber, 1986), p. 55.

  7. Molloy, in Samuel Beckett, The Beckett Trilogy (1950; repr. London: Picador, 1979), p. 84.

  8. The Unnamable, in Samuel Beckett, The Beckett Trilogy, pp. 378-79.

  9. ‘The Father, Love and Banishment’, in Julia Kristeva, Desire In Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. by Leon S. Roudiez, trans. by Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), p. 149.

  10. See Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938; repr. London: Picador, 1973), p. 12.

  11. See Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies (1956; repr. London: Picador, 1979), where Malone, in a richly comic moment, asserts his imaginative control over the geography of his room, and concedes such control, in the same sentence: ‘After all, this window is whatever I want it to be, up to a point, that's right, don't compromise yourself’ (p. 217).

  12. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916; repr. London: Paladin, 1988), p. 173.

  13. The best study of Beckett's indifference is Leslie Hill, Beckett's Fiction: In Different Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

  14. For example: ‘The canal goes through the town, I know I know, there are even two’ (Molloy, p. 26).

  15. Beckett himself, in letters to Eion O'Brien among others, has located the stone-cutters as referring to workers at the Glencullen quarry. See, for example, Eion O'Brien, The Beckett Country (Dublin: Black Cat Press, 1986), p. 59.

  16. For an example of these features coming together at another moment of intense autobiographical remembrance, see Malone Dies: ‘Lemeul watches the mountains rising behind the steeples beyond the harbour, no they are more / No, they are more than hills, they rise themselves, gently faintly blue, out of the confused plain. It was there somewhere he was born, in a fine house, of loving parents. Their slopes are covered with ling and furze, its hot yellow bells, better known as gorse. The hammers of the stone-cutters ring all day like bells’ (p. 262).

  17. Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993), p. 54.

  18. The geography of this passage is given an extra resonance by the reference here to the wood in which Dante the pilgrim finds himself at the beginning of Inferno, contributing to a network of references to the Divine Comedy strung throughout The Calmative.

  19. Leslie Hill, “Up the Republic!”: Beckett, Writing, Politics’, in MLN, 112 (1997), p. 909.

Birgitta Johansson (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Johansson, Birgitta. “Beckett and the Apophatic in Selected Shorter Texts.” Samuel Beckett Today 9 (2000): 55-66.

[In the following essay, Johansson explores Beckett's utilization of the apophatic approach, which is the theory that God is unknowable, in his short texts.]

Samuel Beckett's rambling discourses play with boundaries between the sacred and the secular. His protagonists can represent voices that pray, although they may not always be conscious of this. At least, praying does not appear to be their main objective in life, if one can speak of objectives or volition in their case. As Lawrence E. Harvey puts it, “renunciation of personal will” in Watt, for example, “is couched in religious language that suggests the ascetic preliminaries to mystic experience” (Harvey 1970, 364). This is an initial implication of a bond between Beckett and theology.

Scholarly studies such as Laura Barge's, God, the Quest, the Hero: Thematic Structures in Beckett's Fiction (1988), Jean van der Hoden's, Samuel Beckett et la question de Dieu (1997), and Mary Bryden's, Samuel Beckett and the Idea of God (1998) analyse Beckett's tragi-comic vision of circumstances and of the relationship between human beings and the conceptualisation of God. There are, however, also studies that stress Beckett's idiosyncratic approach to theology. Thus, Gabriel Vahanian attacks Beckett for flaunting his atheism, and for ironising the Christian faith. For him, Beckett's Waiting for Godot represents the notion that God is dead and the corollary to this premise is that here faith is ridiculed. The play is “constructed around the irrelevance of Christian concepts and especially around the nonsensical or quixotic quality of Christian existence”, he states (Vahanian 1957; 1967, 120). In addition, there are scholars, such as T. R. Wright, who present the complex juxtaposition of scepticism and spirituality in Beckett. On the one hand, Wright notices “spiritual cravings and the unaccommodating world” in this play, which deals with “the desperate but unfulfilled desire to be saved” and with the longing for redemption. Beckett's tramps “call out to be saved, to be heard and comforted by an omnipotent and benevolent Father”, he adds. On the other hand, he reveals that Beckett's plays are “pervaded by irreverent, even blasphemous references to biblical myths, in particular that of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ (Wright 1988; 1989, 188, 189, 193, and 197). Wright's stance illuminates the oscillation in Beckett's work between what we, for want of better terms, call “the sacred” and “the secular”.

It is true that Beckett's œuvre shows that human expectations are often thwarted and that our intellectual lives are permeated by vain expectations, but this does not single out a certain group of people and has little to do with Christian ethics. Hence, it would be naive to think that Waiting for Godot, which is symptomatic of his œuvre as a whole, can be classified as a devout text. Beckett rather deals with how human consciousness fails, but is obliged, to handle issues involving the existence of God and the meaning of existence. He shows how earthly trivialities invade the human mind, whereas fragments of thoughts provide it with ontological insights. Similarly, his prose works extend the modernist literary project by experimenting with fragmented narrative techniques or arrangements and by focusing on the workings of the mind. My paper will discuss this Beckettian approach to life in the light of apophaticism or negative theology.

Earlier studies on Beckett and negative theology have stressed the connection between Beckett's texts, negative theology, and the use of silence or of language. Thus, Hélène L. Baldwin studies the concept of silence in Samuel Beckett's Real Silence (1981) and Shira Wolosky examines Beckett's “defense of language as the medium in which, against and through all negation, we go on” in Language Mysticism: The Negative Way of Language in Eliot, Beckett, and Celan (1995) (Wolosky, 134). Such readings ignore the creative aspect of Beckett's negative theology. My paper will argue that his way of employing the apophatic approach adds a new dimension to mysticism in that it acknowledges and accepts the limitations and restrictions of the human mind, but that it also enables the reader to identify with those Beckettian speakers who are searching for the mystical Other in an endless vicious circle. Here, the discourse hinges on the search and the wait per se, which characterises the limbo in which Beckett's protagonists are usually placed. They employ the methods of negative theology when articulating a never-ending desire for clarity and meaning in life. It is true that they constantly fail and are compelled to start anew, but these failures provide them with certain opportunities, such as accepting their own limitations, receiving fragmented truths about the unnameable Other, and pointing to a dimension beyond the circumscription of language.

The concept of apophaticism, the notion that God is unknowable, indescribable, and unnameable, can be traced back to early theology and the Church Fathers. For example, in The Life of Moses (?early 390s), Gregory of Nyssa sees Moses entering “the very darkness itself and […] the invisible things” and perceiving “the Invisible” (Gregory 1978, 43). Similarly, in his treatise “The Mystical Theology”, Pseudo-Dionysius (sixth century AD) analyses how Moses plunged into “the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing” (Pseudo-Dionysius 1987, 137). That is to say, the concept of God is beyond comprehension. It represents the mystical Other, whose existence we cannot define or grasp, but if the aim of all knowledge is to classify that which is, then the aim of belief is to accept the concept of God, which is “the infinity beyond being”, preferably by way of unknowing. It is true that for Dionysius both the cataphatic and the apophatic are necessary approaches for an optimal theology, but he advocates the latter approach, since it best alludes to the essence of God, as he puts it in his “The Divine Names”, “The Celestial Hierarchy”, and in letters to the monk Gaius (Pseudo-Dionysius 1987, 49-50, 108-09, 130 and 150). In addition, St. Thomas Aquinas (?1225-1274) reduces the via remotionis or the via negativa and via positiva to one method of knowing God in his Summa Theologica, Summa contra Gentiles, and Compendium Theologiae. Thomist apophaticism involves removing concepts about God in verbal terms; here, negative theology becomes a corrective to affirmative theology. One cannot form concepts about God. It is not possible for “us to know God”, Aquinas maintains, for “we have no way of knowing what remains unknown to us at the peak of our knowledge”. Furthermore, the greatness of God is unfathomable, and words are therefore inadequate to describe such a Being. On the other hand, he suggests, human beings can know aspects of God, since otherwise they will not be able to appreciate or believe in the divine. The cataphatic or the via affirmativa, which conceptualises God, therefore complements the apophatic or the via negativa in Thomist theology, as it does in Dionysian theology (Aquinas 1987, 19-23).

Beckett's rhetorical style articulates the realisation that everything in the end leads to a state of nothingness and unknowing. What is more important, he deals with how this process develops in the minds of human beings. His approach is ambiguous in that it both sympathises with the human predicament and speaks ironically of the limitations of the mind. It would therefore be incorrect to say that Beckett explores the concept of God per se. As mentioned, he rather deals with the way in which the human mind wrestles with, among other concepts, the concept of God. In other words, he articulates and deconstructs the intellectual circumstances surrounding the human condition.

One prominent aspect of this articulation of the condition of being-in-the-world deals with frustration or failure. That is to say, in his works Beckett maps the way in which human beings search for, but fail to find, a further dimension. He thus examines aspects that often have been neglected in literature so far: the attitudes of those who are searching, but whose search does not come into fruition. Beckett's protagonists lead their spiritual lives in a limbo or a no-man's-land, where an unheroic quest for insight continues, but where there is no final answer to be had. They probably demand too much of their senses or it can also be that their scepticism hampers their search. In any case, the result is that they are plunged into depression. Julia Kristeva's notion of “the speech of the depressed [as] repetitive and monotonous” is enlightening in relation to Beckett's texts (Kristeva 1987; 1989, 33). Her diagnosis about the behaviour of the depressed that follows reminds the reader of many a frustrated Beckettian character.

Faced with the impossibility of concatenating, they utter sentences that are interrupted, exhausted, come to a standstill. Even phrases they cannot formulate. A repetitive rhythm, a monotonous melody emerge and dominate the broken logical sequences, changing them into recurring, obsessive litanies. Finally, when that frugal musicality becomes exhausted in its turn, or simply does not succeed in becoming established on account of the pressure of silence, the melancholy person appears to stop cognizing as well as uttering, sinking into the blankness of asymbolia or the excess of an unorderable cognitive chaos.

(Kristeva 1987; 1989, 33)

The opening lines of “Texts for Nothing” (1958)—one of the more extensive pieces in Beckett's selection of shorter prose with its thirteen monologues—provide an example of this type of discourse. Here, the depressive speaker makes numerous efforts to express his dejection and despondency, and he succeeds to articulate a sense of failure by producing those incomplete or unutterable sentences, interruptions, repetitions, and monotonous melodies that Kristeva discusses in her diagnosis:

Suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn't any more, I couldn't go on. Someone said, You can't stay here. I couldn't stay there and I couldn't go on. I'll describe the place, that's unimportant. The top, very flat, of a mountain, no, a hill, but so wild, so wild, enough. […] How can I go on, I shouldn't have begun, no, I had to begin. Someone said, perhaps the same, What possessed you to come? I could have stayed in my den, snug and dry, I couldn't. My den, I'll describe it, no, I can't. It's simple, I can do nothing any more, that's what you think.

(Beckett 1984, 71)

Beckett's protagonists are often, as in this case, entrapped by temporal and spatial confinement. They lead their lives as if they had died and then been resurrected in the textual space which they now inhabit. Here, they ramble on about their existential circumstances and their corporeal and spiritual suffering. This passage plays with contrasts by juxtaposing active and passive expressions interspersed with curbing negations, such as “suddenly”, “no,” “couldn't go on”, “I shouldn't have begun, no, I had to begin.” The sentences in this passage represent, what Kristeva in a psychoanalytic context calls, “recurring, obsessive litanies.” Such an allusion to a series of petitions usually recited by the clergy and responded to in a recurring formula by the congregation in churches or processions is apt in this context, since a liturgical register permeates Beckettian language. His ruptured register may thwart any smooth transitions from the nameable to the unnameable, but it is precisely in this limbo of despair and nothingness that Beckett's protagonists belong. In the eyes of the reader, their way of clutching at illusions or mirages is tragi-comical and moving, but unmistakably human. Striving for coherence and meaning in life, these speakers are reduced to trying, failing, and beginning afresh on a never-ending continuum.

If Beckett's protagonists suffer severe depressions in their Sisyphean predicament, however, they invariably find ways of using their negative stance in constructive ways. For example, negative ways of thinking in Beckett agrees with apophatic notions of God as indefinable, but there is also the idea that negativity and depression contain comic aspects. In my opinion John Calder misses this point, when he concentrates on Beckett's serious approach to “the horrors of human existence [sic]”, since his texts are equally poised between the tragic and the comic. The oscillation between these perspectives produces an alternative rhetorical model when describing existential possibilities and predicaments. The reader may laugh at the unfortunate Malone, but at the same time he or she recognises or, rather, realises truths about the human condition in Malone's monologic discourse. As Martin Esslin puts it, the difference between the classical heroes and Beckett's anti-heroes is that the former are aware of the extent of their crisis or dilemma, whereas the latter “are mostly unaware of the depth of their predicament” (Calder 1986, 12 and 17). Beckett's favourite rhetorical images, the mind and the mouth, are thus tools for expressing the anxieties of our time. His protagonists are figures of thought, which represent mental conditions or perspectives. They are Cartesian in their individualism, since thinking equals being in Beckett, but also in their constant inquiring into their circumstances.

Lance St. John Butler discusses this ontological condition in his Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being (1984). He employs philosophical approaches developed by Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Hegel on Beckett's works. In the course of his Heideggerian analysis, he mentions Beckett's preoccupation with the concept of “nothingness”. Butler argues that his

fiction in particular abounds with characters terrified of “nothing”, depending on “nothing”, needing “nothing” in a way that makes it quite plain that this nothing is not just a “not something”. And the state of mind of the Beckettian narrator is rarely specific fear of things within-the-world, but it is not comfort and freedom from everything like fear either; it is Angst.

(Butler 1984, 47)

Butler devotes five pages of his book to discussing this aspect of Beckett's work. He refers to nothingness in Murphy (1938), to the character Mr. Knott [italics added] in Watt (1953), to Texts for Nothing (1958), and to “a scatter of references to nothingness in most of the work” (Butler 1984, 49). This Heideggerian approach to Angst and Nichts is apt, and may be developed in various ways. Bryden, for example, touches on the “desert experience” of Beckett's speakers in her book on Beckett and the idea of God (Bryden 1998, 164). She emphasises the atmosphere of calm suffering that these speakers experience in their sparse circumstances (Bryden 1998, 163-88).

In my opinion, Beckett's recurring preoccupation or obsession with the concept of nothingness can also be a secularised and tentative search for the concept of God. His speakers' cry for nothingness may appear desperate and dry in the light of modern agnosticism and atheism, but it is a powerful articulation of hope, and strikes me as one of the most moving and provocative of prayers. The remainder of my paper will examine Beckett's concentration on nothingness in selected shorter texts to see if it overlaps with questions about the negative theological concept of apophaticism and of the absence of God.

As mentioned, “Texts for Nothing” involves a series of monologues.1 Here, the presence of life and the absence of God converge in certain eternal questions. Beckett frequently articulates these questions by way of negations. There are negative analyses of the concept of being as in the eighth text: “I'm a mere ventriloquist's dummy, I feel nothing, say nothing, he holds me in his arms and moves my lips with a string, with a fish-hook, no, no need of lips, all is dark, there is no one.” Furthermore, there are reflections on prayer and belief as in the ninth text: “If I said, there's a way out there, there's a way out somewhere, the rest would come. What am I waiting for then, to say it? To believe it? And what does that mean, the rest? Shall I answer, try and answer, or go on as though I had asked nothing?” Beckett also expresses the notion that human beings can never rule out the possibility of living by, through, and for a Deity in the eleventh text: “What am I saying, scattered, isn't that just what I'm not, I was wandering, my mind was wandering, just the very thing I'm not. And it's still the same old road I'm trudging, up yes and down no, towards one yet to be named, so that he may leave me in peace, be no more, have never been” (Beckett 1984, 97, 100, and 107). The unknowable and unnameable figure in this passage can represent the concept of God. He has “never been”, that is to say, he represents Nothingness, and yet the speaker is constantly searching for this elusive figure.

“Texts for Nothing” articulates the idea that although human beings live in a lonely void, they are constantly reaching out for someone or something that is Other. Further down in the eleventh text, for example, Beckett's speaker talks about the loss of contact and the urge to communicate: “I don't speak to him any more, I don't speak to me any more, I have no one left to speak to, and I speak, a voice speaks that can be none but mine, since there is none but me” (Beckett 1984, 109). This inevitable urge to communicate in Beckett can represent a conscious or unconscious urge to pray. Such an urge includes the constant but vain search of the ultimate expression for the meaning of existence. As the speaker puts it:

No, something better must be found, a better reason, for this to stop, another word, a better idea, to put in the negative, a new no, to cancel all the others, all the old noes that buried me down here, deep in this place which is not one, which is merely a moment for the time being eternal, which is called here, and in this being which is called me and is not one, and in this impossible voice, all the old noes dangling in the dark and swaying like a ladder of smoke, yes, a new no, that none says twice, whose drop will fall and let me down, shadow and babble, to an absence less vain than inexistence.

(Beckett 1984, 109-10)

Nothingness and absence are thus two concepts that express the inexpressible in Beckett. Human language, with its possibilities and its limitations, demands explanations, but Beckett's apophaticism tells the reader that the inability and the refusal to explain and to depict can provide a more truthful picture than any description. If we accept that notions of “Being” or of “God” can best be expressed by silence, for example, then this admission provides us with further insights about these elusive concepts.

The apophatic or negative approach will enable us “to make possible a deeper birth, a deeper death, or resurrection in and out of this murmur of memory and dream”, to quote the speaker in the twelfth text of “Texts for Nothing”. It will help us see the invisible, or as the thirteenth text in this collection puts it: “there's a voice without a mouth, and somewhere a kind of hearing, something compelled to hear, and somewhere a hand, or if not a hand something somewhere that can leave a trace, of what is made, of what is said, you can't do with less, no, that's romancing, more romancing, there's nothing but a voice murmuring a trace” (Beckett 1984, 111 and 113). This is probably an apophatic assessment of the Divine in our age. Here, Beckett articulates the Heideggerian or Romantic contention that today we can merely see traces of the Deity. There are allusions to, and echoes of, biblical notions in contemporary Western culture, for example, but the idea of God as the centre is now largely deconstructed and dispersed. In our Derridean age, we are reduced to analysing the remaining trace itself. Beckett's texts often allude to the detrimental effects of such a circumscription.

Furthermore, Beckett's shorter texts “The Lost Ones”, “Afar a Bird”, and “Closed Space” (1984) extend his references to the apophatic.2 “The Lost Ones” focuses on the way in which human beings are constantly searching for another indefinable dimension. The first sentence articulates this sense of loss: “Abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one” (Beckett 1984, 159). It talks about searching eyes and about souls entrapped in enclosed spaces. In brief, it discusses the ubiquitous concept of longing and waiting in society. Beckett's clinical analysis of the human condition in “The Lost Ones” may not literally revolve around the spiritual poverty or search, but by concentrating on the practical or prosaic qualities of life, he makes it abundantly clear that there is an existential dimension missing here.

“Afar a Bird” includes the enigmatic words: “something divines me, divines us” (Beckett 1984, 195). The ambiguity of these words lies in the way in which the verb “to divine” means “to discover” and “to bless”. Still, Beckett's statement converges in evoking the notion that we may not be alone, after all, and that there may be a force that affects our lives. This presumptive link between humankind and an invisible, unnameable source is, I find, the crucial centre around which Beckett's œuvre revolves. The human search may appear banal and worldly, as in Winnie's self-comforting monologue about the trivialities of life in Happy Days, but it reaches out to an invisible “ear” and “hand”. Beckett employs the deluded voice of Winnie to represent the extensive degree of deception in wordly existence. In addition, however, Winnie's monologue points to our compulsion or urge to communicate and to be seen. This aspect of the Beckettian discourse can remind us of the secular need for communication and intimacy, but it can also remind us of our need for prayer and divine intervention.

To return to Beckett's short story “Afar a Bird”, the expression “something divines me, divines us” is a cataphatic admission that there is an active intelligence beyond ours. Further on in the same sentence, the speaker reveals that “I can see him in my mind, there divining us, hands and head a little heap, the hours pass, he is still, he seeks a voice for me, it's impossible I should have a voice and I have none, he'll find one for me”. Moreover, the reader here learns that the face of the one who divines the world is hidden, which refers to the apophatic notion of the invisibility of God. Additional allusions, this time to an interaction between a Christlike figure, who takes on the sins of the world, and a suffering human being appear in the passage that follows: “he is fled, I'm inside, he'll do himself to death, because of me, I'll live it with him. I'll live his death, the end of his life and then his death, step by step” (Beckett 1984, 195-96). This passage alludes to how the Passion of Christ epitomises the failures and the weaknesses of humankind, but that it also provides meaning to such shortcomings. Christ's sufferings remind us of our own predicaments, but they also comfort us, as Beckett's passage shows. There may be no God on earth, since “he is fled”, but the myth of Christ lives on. The statement “I'll live it with him” suggests that human suffering is inevitable and inextricably linked with the Passion, but that it becomes bearable through this notion of sharing the pain with fellow sufferers.

Stirrings Still and “What is the Word” make up parts four and five in As the Story Was Told: Uncollected and Late Prose (1990). In these his last two texts, the preoccupation with limitations in this worldly existence, with repetition, with longing, with searching, with waiting comes to a head. As I see it, the concepts of absence and of nothingness are the underlying essential concepts behind all these various activities. The fact that the speaker here addresses, denies or curses an absent force, which cannot be expected to appear and which is nothing, but which never ceases to be the object of desire and longing, suggests a concern with the apophatic.

Stirrings Still is atypical of Beckett in that it deals with a human being, whose spirit moves to a point “high above the earth” (Beckett 1984, 113-14). It is typical of Beckett, however, in that it concentrates on the interaction between a human being and the quest for a further dimension. As the speaker informs us, it “was […] in the guise of a more or less reasonable being that he emerged at last he knew not how into the outer world” (Beckett 1990, 121). Stirrings Still also alludes to how a search for further spiritual dimensions can be made visible by using negatives, such as dwelling on the concepts of “darkness”, “death,” “decay”, and “despair”. For example, references to the “fleeting dark of night” here reminds the reader of the dark night of the Spanish Carmelite St. John of the Cross (1542-1591). The latter dark night is a metaphor for the darkness of the soul, which the Christian has to experience, before he or she can enter the condition of divine light in a spiritual sense. As in the apophatic tradition, human language fails to define the human condition in Beckett's shorter texts, but the protagonists may approach its meaning by acknowledging aspects of “limitation”, “negation” and “renunciation”, which are inevitably part of the human condition. The mystery of this search can thus be experienced as the “dark night of the soul”, in John of the Cross, or as absence, as in Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396). Human life becomes a long wait for deus absconditus, and this tallies with the fact that the concept of “waiting” is the warp and woof of Beckett's œuvre.

The last shorter text that Beckett published, “What is the Word,” reminds the reader of a modernist poem and articulates the way in which existence, perception, and inspiration peter out and leave a void in the twilight zone of old age. The last few lines read as follows:

seem to glimpse—
need to seem to glimpse—
afaint afar away over there what—
folly for to need to seem to glimpse
                              afaint afar away over there what—
what is the word—
what is the word [.]

(Beckett 1990, 134)

From a theological point of view, this passage exemplifies how some of Beckett's final words play with the dichotomy between the apophatic and the cataphatic. Our need for verbalising and visualising an absent Other, which attracts us, but which, we think, constantly eludes and evades us and the futility of these attempts crystallise in the fragments “need to seem to glimpse” and “folly for to need to seem to glimpse”. This stanza-like text again stresses the way in which human beings cannot but pose questions, which never lead to any conclusive answers, about the characteristics and the whereabouts of, say, God.

The recurring term in this prose poem, “the word”, is ambiguous. It alludes both to the Johannean metaphor “the Word” as Christ—one aspect of a triune God—and to the secular meaning of language and the notion of the creative word. The sacred aspect of the question “what is the word” involves the idea that God is absent, unknown, and unnameable from a human perspective. As my paper has shown, these adjectives “absent”, “unknown”, and “unnameable”, constantly recur in the writings of Beckett. The apophatic approach therefore throws light on the mechanics behind the Beckettian discourse.


  1. Samuel Beckett's “Texts for Nothing” were originally published in French in Nouvelles et textes pour rien (1958). They were then published in the USA in an edition which also included “The Expelled”, “The Calmative”, and “The End”, entitled Stories and Texts for Nothing (1967).

  2. Samuel Beckett's “The Lost Ones” and “Afar a Bird” were originally published in French as Le Dépeupleur (1970) and Au loin un oiseau (1973), and “Closed Space” was included in Pour finir encore et autres foirades (1976). These texts were subsequently published in English by John Calder in Beckett's Collected Shorter Prose 1945-80 (1984).

Works Cited

Aquinas, St. Thomas, Faith, Reason and Theology: Questions I-IV of his Commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius [Expositio super librum Boethii De trinitate] trans. with intro and notes by Armand Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1987).

Baldwin, Hélène L., Samuel Beckett's Real Silence (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1981).

Barge, Laura, God, the Quest, the Hero: Thematic Structures in Beckett's Fiction (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in Romance Languages and Literatures, 1988).

Beckett, Samuel, Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980 (London: John Calder, 1984).

———, As the Story Was Told: Uncollected and Late Prose (London: John Calder, 1990).

Bryden, Mary, Samuel Beckett and the Idea of God (London: Macmillan, 1998).

Butler, Lance St. John, Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being: A Study in Ontological Parable (London: Macmillan, 1984).

Calder, John (ed.), As No Other Dare Fail: For Samuel Beckett on His 80th Birthday by His Friends and Admirers (London and New York: John Calder and Riverrun P, 1986).

Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans., intro, and notes by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, preface by John Meyendorff (New York, Ramsey, Toronto: Paulist P, 1978).

Harvey, Lawrence E., Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970).

Hoeden, Jean van der, Samuel Beckett et la question de Dieu (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1997).

Kristeva, Julia, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia [Soleil Noir: Dépression et mélancolie], trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (1987; New York: Columbia UP, 1989).

Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, trans. by Members of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Serguis. [Essai sur la Théologie Mystique de l'Eglise d'Orient] (1957; Cambridge and London: James Clarke, 1968).

Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans by Colm Luibheid (New York and Mahwah: Paulist P, 1987).

Vahanian, Gabriel, The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era (1957; New York: George Braziller, 1967).

Wolosky, Shira, “The Negative Way Negated: Samuel Beckett, Counter-Mystic”, in Language Mysticism: The Negative Way of Language in Eliot, Beckett, and Celan (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995), 90-134.

Wright, T. R., Theology and Literature (1988; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

Julie Campbell (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Campbell, Julie. “‘Echo's Bones’ and Beckett's Disembodied Voices.” Samuel Beckett Today 11 (2001): 454-60.

[In the following essay, Campbell situates Beckett's unpublished story “Echo's Bone's” within his earlier and later texts.]

The dead die hard, trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, till such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them. They are free among the dead by all means, then their troubles are over, their natural troubles. But the debt of nature, that scandalous post-obit on one's own estate, can no more be discharged by the mere fact of kicking the bucket than descent can be made into the same stream twice. This is a true saying.

These are the first lines of “Echo's Bones”, an unpublished short story, which was originally planned as the final story of More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), but which did not appear, after all, in the published text. It relates Belacqua's adventures after the death that occurs in the penultimate story “Yellow” of More Pricks [More Pricks Than Kicks]. Here we see that death isn't the end of it all for Belacqua. Perhaps fittingly, as his name is borrowed from Dante, we are introduced to an afterlife in which a “debt” must “be discharged”; “natural troubles” are over, but new, posthumous troubles begin.

Belacqua seems to be revisiting the living world as a ghost. He can smoke (Romeo and Juliet cigars), drink (rum and champagne), eat (garlic), but he cannot see his reflection (this is not Narcissus), and he throws no shadow. Nor has his death removed women's fascination for him. He is discovered, sitting on a fence, “picking his nose between cigars”, and wondering “if his lifeless condition were not all a dream and if on the whole he had not been a great deal deader before than after his formal departure, so to speak, from among the quick” (1). He has been enjoying, since death, “a beatitude of sloth […] in the “womb-tomb”, but on his return to the world as a ghost he finds, “My soul begins to be idly goaded and racked, all the old pains and aches of my soul-junk return!” (2). It is as if it is in the living world, rather than the afterlife, that torment exists, and he has been returned there for “major discipline” (2).

However, if this is the living world that Belacqua now inhabits, it has a strange and dreamlike quality. Zabbrovina, the woman he first encounters after he has been dead for at least forty days, turns, suddenly, into a Gorgon, even as she is seducing him: “She tossed back the hissing vipers of her hair, her entire body coquetted and writhed like a rope, framed into a bawdy akimbo […]” (6). Belacqua appears to be facing a number of heroic tests, for his next encounter is with Lord Gall of Wormwood, a giant, who carries him off to a nest high in a tree. Yet again, it is his sexual prowess (not one of the living Balacqua's most salient features) which is required. Lord Gall requires him to impregnate Lady Gall with a son and heir to ensure that Wormwood does not fall into the hands of his arch-enemy, the Baron, who will otherwise inherit it by default. They travel to the castle on the back of an ostrich; Belacqua fulfils his function, we are told, but sires a girl rather than the required boy. We seem to have entered a fairy-tale world, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland or Looking-Glass World, with additional bawdy developments (echoing Boccaccio's Decameron), where birds speak and characters transform and nothing seems to be as it should be.

At the end of the story, Belacqua is shown suddenly sitting on his headstone, a scene described as “classico-romantic” (19). A man, Mick Doyle (the groundsman from “Draff”, the narrator tells the reader), is digging up Belacqua's grave, in order to “snatch” the body. In this scene, Belacqua reflects upon his life: “I daresay my life was a derogation and an impudence […] which it was my duty, nay should have been my pleasure, to nip in the womb” (22). The scene begins to take on a distinctly Gothic air:

What a scene when you come to think of it! Belacqua petrified link-boy, the scattered guts of ground, the ponderous anxiomaniac on the brink in the nude like a fly on the edge of a sore […] in the grey flows of tramontane, the hundreds of headstones sighing and gleaming like bones, the hamper, mattock, shovel, spade and axe, cabal of vipers, most malignant, the clothes-basket a coffin in its own way, and of course, the proscribed hush of great solemnity broken only by the sea convulsed in one of those dreams, ah one of those dreams, the submarine wallowing and hooting on the beach like an absolute fool, and dawn toddling down the mountains. What a scene!


There is no body in the coffin, but this mystery is not resolved. The story finishes with the enigmatic “So it goes in the world” (28).

The fact that this story did not get published does mean that the very special quality of its humour and strangeness has been shut out of the Beckett canon. The Lewis Carroll quality of the world depicted is also present in the early manuscripts of Watt that feature a big bird and transformation scenes. But it is these episodes that Beckett omitted from the final version of the novel, thus choosing to suppress the fantastic elements in the earlier manuscripts that feature the protagonist Quin. Watt is a strange and perplexing text as it survives, and it could well be that Beckett wanted to preserve this very particular kind of mystery, which has far less recourse to rather more obviously fantastic situations.

Fantastic or Gothic elements are treated quite differently in More Pricks and the unpublished story. In More Pricks, the demarcation between life and death is often left intentionally vague, whereas in “Echo's Bones” Belacqua's death is made certain and often referred to in the story. The kind of ‘this world/other world’ that “Echo's Bones” borrows from Carroll and Gothic is, in More Pricks, a suggestion of a purgatorial afterlife, with a different kind of mystery and strangeness. Beckett can be seen to be challenging the life/death divide in a new and disturbing way, and thus circumventing the ‘naturalisation’ that the familiarity with existing conventions allows. There is also the question of tone. Although there are many funny moments in More Pricks, “Echo's Bones” treats death and purgatory with such lightness—more so than anywhere else in Beckett—that it would perhaps have given the volume of stories too bathetic a conclusion. Death, of course, is often treated humorously by Beckett—the narrator of “First Love” declares that “Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards” (1984, 1)—but the humour always has a distinct edge to it, a darkness and a serious quality that are not found in “Echo's Bones”.

Many elements of “Echo's Bones”, however, are shared with Beckett's later writings: the strong focus on death and the afterlife; the lament of having been born; the oxymoronic “womb-tomb” (in one place referred to as “the lush plush of the womby-tomby”, 7); the torments of living and the simultaneous desire for and dread of non-existence. Belacqua inhabits the story in an “in-between” space, dead but within the living world, recalling those interstitial spaces, where characters are somehow in between life and death that haunt Beckett's work. This story points to directions Beckett did not follow while also containing essential features that appear in later works.

The title “Echo's Bones”, of course, comes from Ovid's story of Narcissus and Echo in the Metamorphoses. Thomas Hunkeler has recently discussed the importance of the Echo myth in Beckett's work, emphasising, for example, the associations evoked by the term ‘Echo's bones’ throughout Beckett's oeuvre. The use of the myth is clearly apparent in work dating from the thirties: alongside the unpublished story, there is another “Echo's Bones”, the title poem of Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates. Although it could be argued that Beckett's play with the Echo myth is primarily ‘intertextual play’, I aim to show that it is the source of recurrent intratextual images in Beckett's works, such as closed spaces or refuges, the limbo world of neither life nor death, and the disembodied voice. Echo can also be seen to stand for repetition with a difference, an essential strategy of Beckett's intratextual play.

In Ovid's story, Echo is called “resounding Echo, who could neither hold her peace when others spoke, nor yet begin to speak till others had addressed her” (7). She is punished by Juno for her talkativeness, and as a result can only repeat the last words she hears. Her rejection by Narcissus causes her to hide “her shamed face among the foliage, and [she] lives from that time on in lonely caves”:

But still, though spurned, her love remains and grows on grief; her sleepless cares waste away her wretched form; she becomes gaunt and wrinkled and all moisture fades from her body into the air. Only her voice and her bones remain: then, only voice; for they say that her bones turned to stone. She hides in woods and is seen no more upon the mountain sides; but all may hear her, for voice, and voice alone, still lives within her.

(Ovid, 8)

This image of Echo fading away to voice and bone, voice and stone seems to have fascinated Beckett. Echo's plight highlights an important area of intratextual play, or “recollection by invention” in H. Porter Abbott's terms (28). The bone and stone of the Echo story can be recognised in the ‘skullscapes’ that seem to represent, in part, the lonely cave to which Echo withdraws, as well as the refuge inside the head from which the Beckettian voices speak echoing other voices. In The Unnamable the voice speaks of “a head … [of] solid, solid bone, and you embedded in it, like a fossil in the rock” (1979, 361-2), whereas in Texts for Nothing there is mention of an “ivory dungeon” (1986, 76). Then, too, The Unnamable partially echoes the works that went before and is echoed by those that follow.

These spaces, or skullscapes, link up with “the Limbo and the wombtomb” of Dream of Fair to Middling Women (121) as well as “Echo's Bones”. Phil Baker has discussed this as a kind of “narcissistic self-containment (Beckett's ‘womb/tomb’ in the head)” (118). Angela Moorjani describes this space as “the tomblike womb and the womblike tomb in the darkness of the mind in which the living are unborn and the dead do not die” (21). What Baker has described as the “withdrawal of interest from the outside world” (119) or “inward turning of the libido” (115) is apparent in many of Beckett's characters. Such withdrawal can be read as a response to the kind of rejection by others suffered by Echo. For example, the protagonist in “First Love” is expelled from his secure space in the family home and seeks refuge again with Lulu; he makes a “womb/tomb”-like space by turning the sofa around: “Then I climbed back, like a dog into its basket” (1986, 14).

There is an important connection between stones and death, so essential in terms of Echo's story, in Beckett's own life:

Beckett's relationship to stones, which he called “almost a love relationship,” was associated by Beckett himself with death […]. As a child he frequently picked up stones from the beach and carried them home, where he built nests for them and put them in trees to protect them from the waves and other dangers. On the same occasion, Beckett mentioned Sigmund Freud, who had once written that man carried with him a kind of congenital yearning for the mineral kingdom.

(Büttner, 163, n. 200)

In a sense Beckett's childhood play with stones continues in his adult creativity. Daniel Albright speaks of how in Beckett's narratives “every identity, every predicated self is a stone” (181). Malone speaks of the imaginary play space he creates “with my little suns and moons that I hang aloft and my pockets full of pebbles stand for men and their seasons” (1979, 217). Molloy, famously, plays with his sucking stones: creating a long and elaborate system only to, characteristically, explode this time-consuming play with self-mockery: “I didn't give a tinker's curse” (1979, 69).

A voice coming from somewhere unknown, a disembodied voice, is encountered with increasing frequency in Beckett's works. Eventually Echo is no more than a disembodied voice: “Only her voice and her bones remain: then, only voice; for they say that her bones were turned to stone […] all may hear her, for voice, and voice alone, still lives in her” (Ovid, 8). Echo's voice emanates from her bones, and then from stone; it is a voice from the dead that “still lives” and echoes the voices of the living, and thus is somehow simultaneously dead and alive. Interesting, too, is the fact that Echo's punishment does not end with her death: she is still forced to repeat the voices of others. In The Unnamable, the disembodied voice resembles Echo's, and indeed there is nothing else: “all is a question of voices” (1979, 317).

One intriguing element of this play with the voice is the way in which it is intimated that it is repeating what it is told, an essential feature of Echo. This is a recurring phenomenon; Molloy speaks of such a voice: “I heard a voice telling me not to fret, that help was coming. Literally” (1979, 84). Moran, too, reports about “a voice telling me things. I was getting to know it better now, to understand what it wanted” (1979, 162). These voices bring “comfort”, or tell the recipient “to write a report” (1979, 162). In The Unnamable there is the recognition that, like Echo, “there are no words but the words of others” (1979, 288); “I'm in words, made of words, others' words” (1979, 355). This turns the voice into a passive receiver: “a transformer in which sound is tuned” (Beckett 1979, 327) or into “a mere ventriloquist's dummy” (1986, 97), as the voice of Texts for Nothing VIII says of itself. How It Is reiterates this passivity: “I say it as I hear it” (7) as do Company and the short pieces “Heard in the Dark I and II”, in which the voice speaks to a passive receiver addressed as “you”. The opening line of Company: “A voice comes to one in the dark” gives the voice a sense of being disembodied, a ghostly emanation. With Fizzle 4, “I gave up before birth”, there is a movement from the undead, still living voice of Echo, intoning, “he […] will die, I won't die […] I'll be inside, he'll rot, I won't rot, there will be nothing of him left but bones, I'll be inside […]”, to an unborn voice that declares “I gave up before birth […] I didn't have a life” (1984, 197). These passages recall Beckett's own feeling that he had never really been born (see Harvey, 247). The voice seems to live in an unreal, twilight space: a narrative play space of impossible existence/nonexistence. If we relate this space to Beckett's own words about creation, “You hear it a certain way in your head” (qtd. in Knowlson, 596), then the resemblance to Echo as a ‘passive receiver’ becomes apparent. “In the end,” Beckett said, “you don't know who is speaking” (qtd. in Juliet, 157). And with his contention that “you write in order to be able to breathe” (qtd. in Juliet, 152f.), there is a strong sense of the imperative that seems to lie behind the voice in The Unnamable: at a loss as to where the words come from, but under the obligation to repeat them.

Works Cited

Abbott, H. Porter, Beckett Writing Beckett: The Author in the Autograph (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U P, 1996).

Albright, Daniel, Representation and the Imagination (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981).

Baker, Phil, Beckett and the Mythology of Psychoanalysis (London: Macmillan, 1997).

Beckett, Samuel, Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (Paris: Europa P, 1935), reprinted in Poems in English (London: John Calder, 1961).

———, “Echo's Bones”, typescript B389/122, Beckett Collection at the Baker Library, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.

———, “Watt” manuscript, composite T and Tccms/inc with A revision and A note S, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, U of Texas at Austin.

———, Watt (London: John Calder, 1963).

———, More Pricks Than Kicks (London: Calder and Boyars, 1970).

———, Murphy (London: Picador, 1973).

———, Mercier and Camier (London: Picador, 1974).

———, The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy; Malone Dies; The Unnamable (London: Picador, 1979).

———, Company (London: John Calder, 1980).

———, Collected Shorter Prose (London: John Calder, 1984).

———, How It Is (London: John Calder, 1985).

———, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (London: Calder, 1993).

Büttner, Gottfried, Samuel Beckett's Novel “Watt” (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1984).

Harvey, Lawrence E., Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970).

Hunkeler, Thomas, Echos de l'ego dans l'oeuvre de Samuel Beckett (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1997).

Juliet, Charles, Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde, trans. by Janey Tucker (Leiden: Academic P, 1995).

Knowlson, James, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996).

Moorjani, Angela, “Beckett's Devious Deictics”, in Rethinking Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Lance St. John Butler and Robin J. Davis (London: Macmillan, 1990), 20-30.

Ovid, “Narcissus and Echo” from the Metamorphoses, trans. by Frank Julius Miller, qtd. in The Narcissus Theme in Western European Literature up to the Early 19th Century, by Louise Vinge, trans. by Robert Dewsnap et al. (Skånska Centraltryckeriet, Lund: Gleeerups, 1967).

Joseph F. Connelly (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Connelly, Joseph F. “The Shared Aesthetic of Jack Yeats and Beckett: More Pricks than Kicks.Notes on Modern Irish Literature 13 (2001): 47-54.

[In the following essay, Connelly investigates the relationship between the short stories in More Pricks than Kicks and the visual arts, particularly the work of the Irish painter Jack Yeats.]

When the Irish short story comes under scrutiny, Samuel Beckett's collection More Pricks than Kicks (1934) is neither at the forefront nor, at least, even mentioned. As a writer of prose fiction, Beckett is an anomaly as he is considered more French than Irish, and his reputation rests in theater and the novel originally in French and later translated into English. The collection MPTK [More Pricks Than Kicks] is regarded as apprentice work, a curiosity that interests a handful of readers who then may label the stories as neglected in light of the later and more thought provoking fiction.

My approach in examining MPTK as short pieces that constitute a whole is twofold: to analyze Beckett's relationship with the visual artists, and to establish an aesthetic from which the stories may have evolved. The Irish painter Jack B. Yeats, whom Beckett befriended in 1931, demonstrates the major connection between Beckett and the visual artists, in particular their shared aesthetic, which various commentators have acknowledged.1 This early attitude he brings to the writing of fiction does not readily apply to the later and longer works whose character portrayal becomes almost exclusively interior, unlike the combination of narrative and still worked throughout MPTK. The analysis of the short fiction in this manner suggests an awareness that enhances appreciation of the collection based in visual perspectives. When placed against the framework of the visual artists, the stories emerge more formally and less avant garde than previously considered.

Anne Cremin's article “Friend Game” establishes a beginning in this study by outlining Beckett's numerous associations with European visual artists and by focusing on themes, styles, and in general the modernist mode of abstract imagery and thought associated with Beckett's chosen contemporaries. She uses a quotation from Beckett's review of Thomas MacGreevy's monograph, Jack B. Yeats: An Appreciation and an Introduction (1945), to show Beckett's emphasis on artistry when he ranks the painter

… with the great of our time, Kandinsky and Klee, Bellmer and Bram van Velde, Roualt and Braque, because he brings light as only the great dare to bring light, to the issueless Predicament of existence, reduces the dark where there might have been, mathematically at least a door.


In disagreeing with MacGreevy's praise of Yeats' nationalism and citing “the issueless Predicament of existence,” Beckett notes the objectivity and the disengagement of the artist from his or her subject matter, and in listing Yeats among the recognized moderns. He brings the painter to the forefront when he is just becoming known on the continent while MacGreevy places Yeats within the literary revival, viewed by Beckett as restrictive.2

Commentators have noted the relationship of writer and painter in their depictions of figures on the edge of society, the pairing of characters and the subtle humor in their handling.3 More recent studies focus on the nature and effect of their relationship. Hilary Pyle, in Yeats: Portrait of an Artistic Family (1997) explains “… the young writer was immediately impressed, as much by Yeats' self-reliance in his work and determination to remain independent, as by the individual canvases which became a constant visual stimulus to him” (232). He purchased three Yeats' paintings, as well as other artists' over his lifetime, and his studied interest in the visual arts displays a broad and meticulous knowledge. In the late 1920s, as Lois Gordon notes, Beckett kept a notebook of the design of paintings he had studied which were later used in stage settings (33). More important to the considerations of this paper are the seven sketchbooks of Yeats, on display in his studio where Yeats, Beckett, and others met on a regular basis. They have practical considerations in the painter's development as individual pictures and in their narrative qualities. As Bruce Arnold states:

They have the realization of his art and not its starting. Something has happened to him as a storyteller … in the way his books are narratives, a succession of images running through the individual pages and from page to page, even from book to book, for the total work consists of no less than seven volumes of drawings. He achieves a creative transmutation, from the static singleness of the moment with no before or afterwards, which is peculiar to painting, towards the progression of narrative idea, the moment through a tale or story, a sequence of events, peculiar to writing. He comes near to achieving the virtually impossible synthesis of two quite different forms.


The relationship begins at an opportune time when Beckett is writing and publishing MPTK; their developing friendship displays mutual appreciation and discovery of like sensibilities. Yeats is painting hybrid picture-narratives at the same time that Beckett is writing narratives that employ detailing and positioning of imagery associated with the visual arts.

Beckett maintains his friendship with Yeats despite long separations during the war and Beckett's permanent residence in Paris. While abroad, his circle of companions includes the visual artists Avigdor Arikha, Bram van Velde, Alberto Giacometti, Jasper Johns, and Stanley William Hayter. He did collaborative projects with some, and also purchased individual works that he gave away as personal gifts. What characterizes the varied relationships is a common taste among the contemporaries based on the mystery of human existence and more particularly on the space and silence that encompass and separate individuals. This distancing also marks the modernist principle of artistic detachment from the matter of the work as Beckett wrote of Hayter: “[the] bare presence of he who does, bare presence of what is done. Impersonal, unreal work … Everything is recognizable, but not to be known. Strange order of things made from an order lacking objects, from objects without order” (qtd. in Cremin 87).

Commentators on Yeats emphasize his working from memory, rather than from model (Pyle, JBY 127-29) which may also be compared to Beckett's desire to draw from his creative imagination and not copy life. Yeats' sketchbooks and Beckett's notebooks, along with careful meditations,—perhaps silences—serve as selected memory from which painter and writer work. In relying on memory, years preceding the sketchbooks, Yeats is able to paint watercolor illustrations for Canon Hanny's Irishmen All (1913), by working from the chapter titles alone. They collaborated without meeting or reviewing each other's contribution (Pyle, JBY 105-06). In Yeats' scholarship, the watercolor “Memory Harbor” (1920), set at Rosses Point in Silgo, becomes the representation of his memory.

From childhood and during student years, Beckett is remembered for a remarkable memory from which he later develops keen awareness of and response to the difficult lives of the lower class. Sharing middle class upbringings, Beckett and Yeats observed and depict the marginalized, travelers, circus performers, laborers, and the rootless in general. Their working from memory differs in the degree each relies on it. The painter's early work as illustrator caused him to follow more faithfully external reality than did Beckett whose sympathies, formed from the past, permeated his characterizations, without reproducing types he encountered or recalled from memory. At the beginning of their friendship, Yeats' style and tone have undergone alteration. Like Beckett he visions the limitations of the human condition in light of changing world events, and the paintings reflect these complexities, especially the poverty and violence of the lower class. The overwhelming space on many of the canvases expresses the vast universe that diminishes the individual, and the flash of color and thick brush strokes points to the unknown that likewise burdens humankind. Beckett's almost total depiction of his major figures from within, especially the later fiction in French, indicates a more philosophical approach than the traditional characterization, while spacing and positioning of image and secondary characters, presented by the distant and omniscient author, reflect little reliance on memory's storehouse. Though Bair explains that four of the ten stories of MPTK employ personal material (161-64), the overall portrayal of Belacqua is the creation of imagination focused on his singularity. He is neither traditional nor unique in his portrayal. The later major figures and pair of figures have less active lives than Belacqua.

The concept of space and distance identified with the creative powers is also necessary in collaborative efforts, such as Still (1973), with William Stanley Hayter. Out of respect for Beckett's work methods, the engraver-artist estimates seven years to complete the project, though much of the writing is already done. Over four years they meet, and except for the change of one face Beckett judged as too particular each worked independently and without editorial oversight. This collaboration differs from Yeats and Hanny's; both reveal the dependence on memory as the repository of the other artist's work, but more importantly both conserve the awareness and sensitivity of each other's approach to the completed book.

Aside from memory, collaboration requires the ability to combine, abstract, and correlate. These basic characteristics of the creative mind are extended by Yeats and Beckett in melding picture and narrative in their respective media. Arnold refers to this junction in describing Yeats' sketchbooks, while Pyle cautions the viewer to give attention to the titles of paintings as Yeats is a literary painter (Pyle JBY, 129). In the fragmented pieces of MPTK, Beckett has Belacqua alert the reader to the narrative method when he labels it “moving pauses” which he rightly judges to be an oxymoron (38). This occurs in “Ding-Dong”, story three, that ends in the hero's flight from the woman selling prayers for her customers' salvation. The author gradually works in characters of greater eccentricity than Belacqua, such as the revelers in “A Wet Night.” They further isolate him, as he is more thoughtful and perceptive, but still erratic and asocial, though not a figure of satire. The best synthesis of Belacqua comes from the omniscient narrator of “What a Misfortune,” who comments: “Say what you will, you can't keep a dead mind down” (140). While not an oxymoron, it contains a similarly dual effect that evokes the image of the lobster, from story one, and the idea that if his mind is dead, what are the minds of the others. Are they more dead?

One of Beckett's purchases, “A Morning” (also cited as “A Morning in Silgo” 1935), provides insight into their shared aesthetic. The top of the painting is bright sky, creating a clear space that becomes a characteristic of Beckett's work. The reader notes this as early as MPTK, in the story “yellow,” when Belacqua desires to curtail the dawn, as if to stop time in his hospital room because it activates the mind. As in the Yeats' painting, the morning brings anticipation in the horseman ready to embark. Though the horseman's eyes convey apprehension, the horse and a cat have a moment of communication. This note of humor is reinforced by the pose of rearing horse and rider looking back, from the popular westerns of the time. The prelude to the action has resonance in the lives of both the painter and writer. While Silgo connotes Yeats' formative years, the date and purchase of the painting signify for Beckett the deepening of their friendship and recognition of their shared aesthetic. For Belacqua, in “Dante and the Lobster,” the discovery that the lobster is alive indicates his own movement to death and beyond, encapsulated in the nine stories that follow.

Yeats painted a number of singular works in series. “On the Broads” (1899) are three watercolors of the sailing vessel “The Broads,” distinguished in the titles by numbers and in content by perspectives. Two are above deck, the first from behind the boat and the second on mid-deck. The third is below deck looking out at a passing ship and shore. Each is self-contained; together they form a series of stills in motion. No person is present. In “Love and Lethe,” the fifth story, Beckett writes the basic three scene story: post mid-day dinner conversation of mother and daughter, Belacqua's calling on Ruby and departure with her, and the stayed double suicide which the narrator explains: “… on this occasion, if never before or since, he achieved what he set out to do; car, in the words of one competent to sing of the mother: L'Amour et la Mort-caesura-n'est queune mesme chose” (100). Belacqua, the romantic, has resisted intimacy, accidentally firing the weapon, and tuned their quest into a non-scene worked in parody. Beckett consciously plays with the reader's anticipation when he intervenes and warns about prescribing motivations, at the end of scene one: “How he had formed this resolution to destroy himself we are quite unable to discover. The simplest course, when the motives of any deed are found subliminal to the point of defying expression, is to call that deed ex nihlo and have done. Which we beg leave to follow in the present instance” (89). We are asked to take in the scenes and their lively humor, and suspend judgment to the end of the story or the book or both. Beckett's building of parody through the story's rising action, the hero's bungling of its purpose, and Ruby's vision of “her life as a series of staircase jests” (88) reminds the reader of a Charlie Chaplin film with its dualities of joys and sorrows, misconceptions and unrealized achievements. While Yeats' scenes of the sailboat look to the late modern number paintings or Marilyn Monroe faces by Jasper Johns, Beckett's vignettes of Ruby and Belacqua culminate in his later dramatic work of the two tramps.

“Love and Lethe” prepares us for the next two linked stories, “Walking Out” and “What a Misfortune,” connected by Belacqua's marriages, first to the bedridden Lucy and then to Thelma Bloggs. As in Yeats' rose paintings and those depicting performing clown and equestrian, where image or characters serve the narrative function, the sequence or movement has little consequence in that each incident is separate and contained. Yeats states his intent in a letter to Thomas Bodkin: “… I painted the rose alive and then followed it into the ante room of the Rose's Shadow Land, and painted another little panel of it departing. But there's nothing piano about it, not yet fussy digame” (White 151). In plan and execution his emphasis is series, not sequence, and as such discourages allegorical interpretation.

The most revealing series is the clown and the equestrian, whose relationship extends beyond their singular performance. In the first painting, “The Haute École Act” (1925), the rider and horse appear to be leaving the performance; as she rides side saddle, cradles a rose in her left arm, her eyes are lowered. The title is important as it indicates the social distinction of performance in the world of circus. In “This Grand Conversation was under the Rose” (1943), the title and picture convey the conversation's intimate nature, as it occurs sub rosa, the rose above their heads. The horse seems to be listening adding a note of humor. The last painting, “When the Cat's Away” (1949), further carries the humor when the clown now rides the horse; his face appears masked like Pan in a Greek drama, as she watches, relaxes, her riding hat removed, and holds what looks like a bouquet. Their roles are reversed as the horse is actively at play and enjoying the light reprieve from their usual routine. Their privacy is secure for no others are present as they are in the foreground or background of the other paintings. The title reveals what they are doing is not what the viewer has come to expect. Clown and horse are centered in a shift from their previous stances, and the imagery is less clear as Yeats now works with more vibrant coloration, whirling brush strokes, and feelings that direct the eye, in the substantive change from the earlier linear and more representative approach. Not only does the rose image indicate the private relationship of equestrian and clown; it has permanently become the painter's signature of how he works sub rosa. In the series' last painting, the equestrian is the onlooker, who offers her bouquet in homage to clown and horse, a gesture of mutual recognition. The depth of feeling sets off this series from the previous sailboats and roses.

A similar and gradual shift in MPTK comes through in “yellow,” the next to last story. In the placement of stories, Beckett causes the reader to reconsider Belacqua's character as he dies in bed prior to surgery. He is now more thoughtful, though no less humorous, as he thinks of death and his various ways to handle it. His only human contacts are the nurses who remain distant. His wife, the Smeraldina, whom we learn of in the concluding story, is not by his side, as Beckett centers on Belacqua's aloneness and singularity. Statements like “The mixture is too rich,” referring to the anesthetic, and “His heart was running away, the terrible yellow yerks in his skull” (174) indicate how unsuited his person is among the flow of humanity and his uniqueness in dealing with what his nature will allow. The quotations taken metaphorically lead naturally to the concluding sentence that affirms his neglect. “They had clean forgotten to osculate him” (174)! His death is an ironic compliment that raises Belacqua in the reader's esteem, as do the words of the surgeon overheard by the hero. “One of the best …” (174), though not spoken about him.

Amid these ironies and the compacted comic imagery of the closing pages of “yellow,” Beckett prepares the reader for the fiction's final irony, which is another reconfiguration of Belacqua after his demise in the previous story. To the person Harry Capper Quin, whom we meet as the hero's best man in “What a Misfortune,” Beckett gives another chance on a new life and one to Belacqua also.

… (Hairy) seemed to have taken on a new lease of life. … Perhaps the explanation of this was that while Belacqua was alive Hairy could not be himself, or, if you prefer, could be nothing else. Whereas now the defunct, such of his parts at least as might be made to fit, could be pressed into service, incorporated in the daily ellipses of Capper Quin without having to face the risk of exposure. Already Belacqua was not wholly dead, but merely mutilated.


Whether the characters undergo a reversal or one character assimilates into another, Belacqua now can continue though cold in the ground in an added twist reminiscent of Yeats' clown and equestrian, in “When the cat's away.” Though in different media, writer and painter retain common human nature shared by very different characters and a comic rendering that borders on the burlesque. They employ imagery of a similar nature that meets the materials of their chosen arts well. Brush strokes and words, scenes and stories, make for lively narratives that are singular moments as well; Harry as Belacqua, clown as equestrian, and vice versa heighten the liveliness.

The principle supporting the twists and turns of the stories and paintings is basic irony. Beckett works the technique to its full extent by cloning character from a different character, and in the process of Belacqua's dying integrates the imagery of marriage and holy orders. The hero's passing is a multisided and broad comedy without the crudity of slapsticks or the harshness of parody. Its realism is absurd and differs from Yeats' as the painter is less fanciful than the writer is, at this stage of development, though his works will gradually become more visionary.

A good example of a painting that coincides with the development of MPTK is “The Clown among the People” (1932). Leaving the performance, the clown is portrayed centering the picture in ironic position to those he passes, two of whom are distinguishable as they look contentedly at him. His face has a preoccupied look in contrast to theirs, and though he is among spectators he is alone. A tent pole behind the figure on the right is the only identifiable object except for the three figures. Short and overlapping brush strokes, among muted shadowy coloring, create a weight as if the clown is burdened. Sadness and joy mingle in the perfectly executed composition. A slight note of humor in the scene is the one figure's glance of satisfaction and admiration beside the clown who passes her and ironically may not even notice. James White commends the characters' universal quality and the significance of the human condition (14). At the time of the painting and stories of MPTK viewers and readers were accustomed to Yeats' subtle form of realism and confused by Beckett's convolutions which he will temper and simultaneously deepen the complexities in later writings.

In analyzing the aesthetics of Yeats and Beckett, the paper examines the backgrounds of each, and in selected paintings of Yeats interprets their approaches and concepts with those of Beckett's writing in MPTK. In placing pictures and stories in relative position to each other, the artists' shared and modernistic sensibilities come through. The principle of distance, so important to early modernists, is consciously maintained in the respective works at the onset of their relationship. Though neither artist is a social reformer, their blend of realism and humor suggests more than a passing interest in the human condition, as both deal sympathetically with the outcasts and rootless who people their work. They portray humanity in acts of sustaining itself, rather than justifying and evoking moods of pity and despair.

In contrast to mirroring, their realism represents as both rely on active and disciplined imaginative memories as the source of their artistry. I have attempted to present Beckett's stories as the visual artist may approach a canvas by exploring and creating scenes that utilize imagery, color and form in detailing the pictures. The latter is important in MPTK as the collection appears chaotic and lacking causation, and in hindsight alone are our apprehensions rectified when they are least appropriate, such as the death of Belacqua in “yellow,” preceded by the lamenting “The Smeraldina's Billet Doux.” The conscious detailing and positioning of stories and characters create a sense of detachment, like pictures in a museum, while serving the humorous tone and ironic coherence that surprise and delight the reader. In Beckett's words about Yeats' paintings, “(they reduce) the dark where there might have been … a door” which is also applicable to the writing of MPTK.

The 1930s are the appropriate decade for the young writer and seasoned painter, in the process of stylistic and conceptual adjustments, to come together and discover their mutual working endeavors. What more can we expect of consummate artists in their respective media than their unique excellences!


  1. Dierdre Bair refers to the relationship as father-son (119). The Yeats commentators, Hilary Pyle in both citations and Bruce Arnold, rely on the writing of Yeats in dealing with their friendship, as does Marilyn Gaddes Rose in “Solitary Companions in Beckett and Jack B. Yeats.” Eire Ireland IV (Summer 1969): 66-80.

  2. Brian Fallon. Irish Art 1830-1990. Appleton, 1994, uses the term “painter of Literary Renaissance” to describe Yeats. He agrees with McGreevy in placing the nationalist tag on the painter.

  3. Marilyn Gaddes Rose is the first to make the comparison.

Works Cited

Arnold, Bruce. Jack Yeats. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.

Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York and London: Harcourt Brace and Javanovich, 1978.

Beckett, Samuel. More Pricks Than Kicks. New York: Grove, 1972.

Cremin, Ann. “Friend Game,” Art News 84 (May 1985): 82-89.

Gordon, Lois. The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.

Pyle, Hilary. Jack B. Yeats, A Biography. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

———. Portrait of an Artistic Family. London: Merrell Halberton, 1997.

White, James. “Memory Harbor”: Jack B. Yeats's Painting Process.” Yeats Studies 2 (Bealtaine 1972): 9-17.

———. Ed. Jack B. Yeats: Drawings and Paintings 1871-1951 A Centenary Exhibition. London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1971.

Adrian Hunter (essay date April 2001)

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SOURCE: Hunter, Adrian. “Beckett and the Joycean Short Story.” Essays in Criticism 51, no. 2 (April 2001): 230-44.

[In the following essay, Hunter determines the influence of Joyce's Dubliners on More Pricks than Kicks.]

Reviewing More Pricks than Kicks in 1934, Edwin Muir identified a Beckett very much at home in Bloom's kitchen: ‘the toasting of a slice of bread, or the purchase and cooking of a lobster, can become matters of intellectual interest and importance to him’.1 For Muir, the influence of Joyce was no cause for concern, though he was firm in his conclusion that, as yet, Beckett's work ‘[did] not nearly come up to’ the standard of the master. Other reviewers at the time were not so forgiving, blaming the waywardness, incontinence and ‘verbal aggravation’ of Beckett's prose on his obvious enthralment to ‘Mr. Joyce's latest work’ (i.e. ‘Work in Progress’), a book which for any young writer was bound to prove ‘a dangerous model’.2 While it is not surprising to find reviewers connecting the two authors, it is nevertheless odd that they should identify Beckett's debt as owing to Ulysses and the ‘Work in Progress’ and not to Joyce's volume of similarly interconnected short fictions, Dubliners. As John P. Harrington points out, if one reads the More Pricks [More Pricks Than Kicks] stories alongside Ulysses and ‘Work in Progress’ then the portrait of Beckett as ‘epigone of Joyce’,3 his loyal secretary, is quickly drawn. It is only when we compare them with Dubliners that the critical and parodic intelligence of Beckett's stories begins to emerge.

An important document in Beckett's response to his modernist precursors is the first of the three dialogues with ‘George Duthuit’, concerning Tal-Coat. The dialogue is frequently cited for the vision it offers of an expressionless art of the future: ‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express’.4 This statement is generally taken as Beckett's commitment to an art of radical indigence from which all of ‘nature’ will disappear, all white in the whiteness. However, Beckett is stating here his disappointment with the ‘revolutionary’ art of the present: Matisse and Tal-Coat, for all their ‘prodigious value’, are still for him artists of ‘nature’ enlarging upon that fundamental ‘composite of perceiver and perceived’ to which all art of the past has appealed. Modernism continues to patrol ‘the field of the possible … the plane of the feasible’, and so to understand it, to assimilate it, requires only some realignment by the viewer. Faced with the work which foregrounds its incompleteness, we learn to read silence and absence: ‘Total object, complete with missing parts, instead of partial object. Question of degree’ (Proust and Three Dialogues, pp. 101-3).

In recent criticism of Dubliners there has been much discussion of the indeterminacy generated by Joyce's ‘missing parts’, his ‘scrupulous meanness’.5 Irritated by realist and symbolist readings which seek ‘verifiable facts and incontrovertible conclusions’ (Bašić, p. 351), critics have tried instead to reckon with the destabilising effects of the stories' gaps and withholdings, rather than attempting to explain these features away. Instead of reading Dubliners as a complex symbolist puzzle wanting a few key thematic pieces (one named ‘Irish paralysis’, for example), we are encouraged to celebrate, as readers of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have been doing for years, the text's ellipses, to deal with it not as a partial object, but as a ‘total object, complete with missing parts’.

Beckett's phrase offers a useful formula for viewing Joyce's stories because it treats reticence and fragmentariness as, in Elizabeth Bowen's word, ‘positive’6 qualities, and not as obstacles to satisfactory interpretation. It suggests that we should frankly acknowledge the disruptive effects of what is missing from the stories, rather than try to gloss what isn't there. When one considers the extent to which the Dubliners stories are indeterminate, the value of approaching them in this spirit becomes clear. To take an obvious example, ‘The Sisters’ is maddeningly full of apertures and evasions. Its boy narrator in many ways mirrors the reader's attempts to find meaning in the utterances of Old Cotter and the sisters themselves, utterances more notable for what they keep back than what they avow (Joyce's ellipses throughout):

—No, I wouldn't say he was exactly … but there was something queer … there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my opinion …7

—I have my own theory about it, he said. I think it was one of those … peculiar cases … But it's hard to say …

(p. 8)

—Wide-awake and laughing-like to himself … So then, of course, when they saw that, that made them think that there was something gone wrong with him …

(p. 17)

That last statement is the story's conclusion and comes amid a silence which has taken possession of the house as it has the dead priest. The ‘something’ that went wrong with Father Flynn looks back to Cotter's ‘something uncanny’ (literally ‘unknown’) at the beginning of the story. Similarly, the narrator feels that he ‘has been freed from something’ (p. 11; my emphasis) by the priest's death. What these ‘somethings’ are is not made clear. Even if Cotter's ‘something’ could be identified, it would still be ‘unknown’. As with the trio of baleful words that trouble the boy on the first page of the story—paralysis, gnomon, simony—we are left to infer meaning and significance from the contexts of reference and utterance. But although the narrator studies the language of Cotter and the sisters, as he attempts to piece together meanings in the adult world in the same way as the reader does, there is an important difference between their positions in relation to the facts of the case. The narrator may indeed be left to study the silences of the other speakers in the story, but the reader is doubly distanced because he has to cope with the narrator's silences too. The narrator plays the same game of withholding from the reader as do the adults with him. What is the ‘something’ (p. 11) the narrator feels freed from? What is the nature of his interest in the news of Father Flynn's death? Why is he so hostile to Old Cotter? Is it because the old man knows or suspects that the boy's relationship with the priest was ‘unhealthy’? Why does he think the priest in his dream smiles? What relation, if any, does he perceive or intend between the strange words in the first paragraph? Why does his story peter out in the weightless coffin-side chatter of the two sisters? What has he got to hide? The narrator neither explains nor clarifies any of the questions about his situation that he himself prompts. Although he implies that he is, like the reader, involved in a process of learning and acquiring knowledge, he fails, or refuses, to interpret his own story.

The uncertainties of ‘The Sisters’ arise because Joyce withholds crucial evidence from the narrative, a method he employs throughout Dubliners. Sometimes the omissions can seem wilfully interdictive until the story is seen as a whole. When, in ‘The Boarding House’, for example, Mrs. Mooney interviews Polly concerning Doran, we are told that ‘Things were as she had suspected: she had been frank in her questions and Polly had been frank in her answers’ (p. 69). What the questions and answers were, and what Polly's frankness revealed, are matters for conjecture. It is only when we reach the end of the story that we see why Joyce has held back this information, for he has succeeded in making Polly his suspect as the prime mover in the whole affair—so that she becomes the controlling centre of the narrative—without revealing anything about her desires or motivations. When the story moves to the climactic interview between Mrs. Mooney and Doran, we are not told what transpires between them. Instead, we join Polly in Doran's room for a final scene which, while resolving matters on one level, generates deeper puzzles on others. The narrative deliberately shifts its focus to an inscrutably impersonal centre:

Polly sat for a little time on the edge of the bed, crying. Then she dried her eyes and went over to the looking-glass. She dipped the end of the towel in the water-jug and refreshed her eyes with the cool water. She looked at herself in profile and readjusted a hairpin above her ear. Then she went back to the bed again and sat at the foot. She regarded the pillows for a long time and the sight of them awakened in her mind secret amiable memories. She rested the nape of her neck against the cool iron bedrail and fell into a revery. There was no longer any perturbation visible on her face.

(pp. 74-5)

The description of Polly in Doran's room directs attention to the hitherto suppressed layer in the narrative which concerns Polly's true feelings. But instead of elaborating this or offering any explanation through indirect libre—a privilege we have enjoyed in relation to the thoughts of Mrs. Mooney and Doran—the narrative withdraws here into an uninflected third-person mode. When thoughts come, they seem to act upon Polly, not the other way round; Polly is only active when she is physically doing something. A notion of interiority is played with here, but the focus remains resolutely on the surface, the performative. We now view Polly without any interpretative commitment from the narrator: her ‘amiable memories’ and ‘intricate’ ‘hopes and visions’ remain ‘secret’ because the narrative, which has up to this point allowed the reader access to character motives, now pointedly refuses any such intimacy. This refusal can only strike us as forbidding because the text has hitherto deliberately prompted questions about Polly's enigmatic mentality, for instance through the song she sings, ‘I'm a … naughty girl’,8 and her saying that she would ‘put an end to herself’, a comment clearly made for effect given her light-heartedness once Doran has gone downstairs. At the crucial point, and in respect of the central character, the narrative has become reticent.

Elsewhere, Joyce's prefers free indirect speech to omniscient narration, as in ‘Clay’, ‘A Painful Case’, ‘Eveline’, and ‘A Little Cloud’, where a superintending, explicatory perspective in the narrative is refused. As recent critics of Dubliners have been at pains to point out,9 this technique complicates Joyce's epiphanies by allowing the possibility that they may be fabricated or delusory aspirations toward feeling rather than genuine occurrences of it. Take, for example, the final paragraph of ‘A Little Cloud’:

Little Chandler felt his cheeks suffused with shame and he stood back out of the lamplight. He listened while the paroxysm of the child's sobbing grew less and less; and tears of remorse started to his eyes.

(p. 94)

Dominic Head considers this scene ‘staged’, the language belonging to Chandler's ‘own “poetic” turn of phrase … chosen for its alliteration, without regard for the weariness of its cadence which is inappropriate for a scene of highly charged emotion’ (p. 62). Joyce's deployment of free indirect speech makes it possible to read Chandler's epiphany—like those of Duffy in ‘A Painful Case’ and of Eveline in her story—as falsified, his tears as crocodile, or at least as tears of self-pity for his failure in both art and life. After all, Chandler has been seen constructing such ‘poetic’ scenes for himself throughout the story, as when he wonders whether to write a poem about the tramps and beggars while crossing Grattan Bridge: ‘the thought that a poetic moment had touched him took life within him like an infant hope’ (p. 79).

Like Little Chandler, Duffy, in ‘A Painful Case’, is conscious of language. However, he is unwilling to give his ideas expression in written form because this would bring him into debasing contest with ‘phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds’ and subject him ‘to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class’ (p. 123). Convinced of the superiority and singularity of his thought, Duffy finds himself ‘listening to the sound of his own voice’ when conversing with Mrs. Sinico. His decision finally to break with her is taken in part because her ‘interpretation of his words disillusioned him’ (p. 124).

On the face of it, Duffy's epiphany at the end of the story involves his coming to appreciate the extent of Mrs. Sinico's loneliness and his own culpability in her death. Sonja Bašić sums up Duffy's insight as the point where ‘the theme—the rejection of life and love—is not only clearly outlined but also firmly related to character motivation’ (p. 20). In other words, the story achieves thematic and structural unity in its ending. But in order to read it in this way we need to accept that Duffy achieves some degree of self-realisation, that he does indeed feel that his ‘moral nature [is] falling to pieces’ (Dubliners, p. 130). That means ignoring what Joyce has told us about Duffy earlier in the story:

He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.

(p. 120)

The whole of the epiphany scene is conveyed through free indirect speech, much of it in the kind of short sentences described here. The final paragraph reads:

He turned back the way he had come, the rhythm of the engine pounding in his ears. He began to doubt the reality of what memory told him. He halted under a tree and allowed the rhythm to die away. He could not feel her near him in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.

(p. 131)

The possibility remains, tantalisingly, that Duffy's epiphany is one of his constructions. Certainly, that would seem to be what Joyce is suggesting by the preponderance here of short sentences containing a third-person pronoun and a predicate in the past tense. The effect is to threaten any certainty of attribution in the language. We do not know that these constructions originate in Duffy, nor do we know that they do not.

In his early story, “A Case in a Thousand” (1934), Beckett too can be found experimenting with the suppression of information and the occlusion of perspective. John Harrington has described it as Beckett's ‘most apparent adoption … of the style of Joyce's own early work’ (p. 36). For Harrington, however, the correspondences between Beckett's text and Joyce's are thematic; he takes no note of any affinities of form. The story concerns a young physician, Dr. Nye, who finds himself having to treat his former nanny's gravely ill son. The young boy dies during surgery but weeks later the mother is still to be seen every day lingering in the hospital grounds. The final scene of the story involves an enigmatic encounter between the mother and her former ward, Dr. Nye:

‘There's something I've been wanting to ask you,’ he said, looking at the water where it flowed out of the shadow of the bridge.

She replied, also looking down at the water:

‘I wonder would that be the same thing I've been wanting to tell you ever since that time you stretched out on his bed.’

There was a silence, she waiting for him to ask, he for her to tell.

‘Can't you go on?’ he said.

Thereupon she related a matter connected with his earliest years, so trivial and intimate that it need not be enlarged on here, but from the elucidation of which Dr. Nye, that sad man, expected great things.

‘Thank you very much,’ he said, ‘that was what I was wondering.’

(my italics)10

Gaps in Joyce are precisely that—apertures, silences which do not threaten the illusion of objectivity in the presentation. In Beckett's story, however, the narrative voice advertises what it leaves unsaid. There is no effort here to maintain an objective stance, to disguise the authorial sleight of hand. Beckett's candour of procedure here demonstrates his divergence from what is perhaps the defining mannerism of Joyce's short fiction. The narrator's refusal to tell all is revealed at the same time as it is enacted; Beckett is not willing to adopt uncritically the Joycean persona of the artist ‘refined out of existence’.

Throughout More Pricks Than Kicks, Beckett picks up on aspects of Dubliners, making explicit that which is normally implicit in the Joycean story. Linda Hutcheon's description of postmodernist parody as ‘repetition with critical distance’, an ‘ironic signalling of difference at the very heart of similarity’ which allows the writer to ‘speak to a discourse from within …’,11 usefully indicates how Beckett's irony functions. As Hutcheon implies, parody here acts not to diminish, or reveal the fallibility of, the text to which it refers. Rather, it infiltrates the language of its predecessor in order to conduct an ironic rearticulation of it.

When we read the following passage in “Draff”, for example, we are struck not by the sense that it ridicules the kind of epiphanic moment experienced by, say, Chandler in ‘A Little Cloud’, but by the way in which Beckett gives playful voice to the agonised suppressions of the Joycean story as a whole:

Hairy, anxious though he was to join the Smeraldina while his face was at its best, before it relapsed into the workaday dumpling, steak and kidney pudding, had his work cut out to tear himself away. For he could not throw off the impression that he was letting slip a rare occasion to feel something really stupendous, something that nobody had ever felt before. But time pressed. The Smeraldina was pawing the ground, his own personal features were waning (or perhaps better, waxing). In the end he took his leave without kneeling, without a prayer, but his brain quite prostrate and suppliant before this first fact of its experience. That was at least something. He would have welcomed a long Largo, on the black keys for preference.12

The irony directed at Hairy and his lusting after a certain melancholy depth of feeling is also aimed at the structural device of the epiphany and the way in which it sets itself up as a moment of illumination. Hairy's appearance is actually ‘waning’, but the scene demands a dilation of feeling, a ‘waxing’—lyrical and lachrymose. Where Joyce's epiphanies are insidiously qualified, if not undermined, by suggestions that they may be fabricated or delusory, Beckett is blatant about the constructed nature of the epiphanic moment: ‘Hairy’, we are told, ‘felt it was up to him now to feel something’ (p. 194). Beckett's irony works not by supplying a superior rendering of the epiphany, but by exposing the implicatory sleight of hand by which the Joycean story achieves its complexity of effect.

“Draff” ends in a spirit of mild suspensefulness as Hairy and the Smeraldina try to think of an inscription for Belacqua's headstone: ‘He did mention one to me once’, Hairy says, ‘that he would have endorsed, but I can't recall it’ (p. 204). In typically Joycean fashion, no effort is made to recall it: instead the narrative shifts its focus, in a manner similar to ‘Clay’ and ‘The Boarding House’, to a deliberately unrevealing figure—that of the groundsman. ‘So it goes in the world’ (p. 204) is the final line of the story, but it is not made clear whether this sentiment emanates from the groundsman (perhaps in relation to his own emotion at the ‘little song’ he is humming to himself), or whether it is meant by the narrator to be the missing epitaph for Belacqua. It might also be read as an oblique acknowledgement of the story's own failure to provide the inscription for Belacqua's headstone. Like Joe's comments on Maria's singing at the end of ‘Clay’, and like Crofton's opinion of Hynes's poem in ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’, and like the inscrutable thoughts of Polly which conclude ‘The Boarding House’, the statement hovers interrogatively. Beckett's ending, however, openly signals its ironic self-consciousness about its method:

The groundsman stood deep in thought. What with the company of headstones sighing and gleaming like bones, the moon on the job, the sea tossing in her dreams and panting, and the hills observing their Attic vigil in the background, he was at a loss to determine off-hand whether the scene was of the kind that is termed romantic or whether it should not with more justice be deemed classical. Both elements were present, that was indisputable. Perhaps classico-romantic would be the fairest estimate. A classico-romantic scene.

Personally he felt calm and wistful. A classico-romantic working-man therefore.

(p. 204)

Again, Beckett is simultaneously presenting an epiphany and exposing its inner workings as a device. The groundsman is a figure from the margins, a representative of that ‘submerged population group’ in which Frank O'Connor says the short story specialises.13 As with Joyce's endings, there is a refusal to synthesise the various elements of the plot here; instead the narrative shifts to an impressionistic soft focus. But Beckett applies one more twist by ironically signalling his own contrivance in the scene—its ‘classico-romanticism’.

Beckett draws attention in this way to the act of narration itself throughout his early stories, particularly at structural points. In “A Wet Night”, the broad parody of the end of Joyce's ‘The Dead’ climaxes in this passage:

But the wind had dropped, as it so often does in Dublin when all the respectable men and women whom it delights to annoy have gone to bed, and the rain fell in a uniform and untroubled manner. It fell upon the bay, the littoral, the mountains and the plains, and notably upon the Central Bog it fell with a rather desolate uniformity.

(p. 87)

The parody here functions on many levels. The second sentence ostentatiously fails to follow Joyce's famous original where it leads—from ‘treeless hills’ and the Bog of Allen, through images of Calvary, to the ‘universe’, with all its living and its dead (pp. 255-6). On the Central Bog it's only raining, not snowing. Hugh Kenner has written of how in Joyce's original snow ‘rhymes with the uniform inevitability of human stasis’, of how it ‘levels and unifies all phenomena’ in Gabriel's sight.14 In Beckett's parody, this effect of uniformity, of the levelling of the gravestone, the mountains, Dublin, is toyed with, but the rain's uniformity is grey and mundane and transfigures nothing. Beckett's reiterative use of rain throughout the ruminative last parts of the story imitates Joyce's technique of narrow semantic repetition (‘falling softly’, ‘softly falling’, ‘falling faintly’, ‘faintly falling’). Beckett's reiteration, however, plays on a word that has been explicitly de-poeticised: ‘Now it began to rain upon the earth beneath and greatly incommoded Christmas traffic of every kind by continuing to do so without remission for a matter of thirty six hours’ (pp. 86-7). Furthermore, he does not allow the parodic epiphany to conclude his story.15 Belacqua leaves his girlfriend's house (having enjoyed the kind of passionate intimacy denied to Gabriel Conroy) in the pitch-dark small hours. The street lamps, which in Joyce's story provide the ‘ghostly’ twilight shrouding Gretta and also prompt Gabriel's vision of Michael Furey, are extinguished.

In “Love and Lethe” the crucial scene is again exposed, though in a somewhat different way:

Who shall judge of his conduct at this crux? Is it to be condemned as wholly despicable? Is it not possible that he was gallantly trying to spare the young woman embarrassment? Was it tact or concupiscence or the white feather or an accident or what? We state the facts. We do not presume to determine their significance.

‘Digitus Dei’ he said ‘for once.’

That remark rather gives him away, does it not?

(p. 104)

Beckett's narrator makes explicit the uncertainties which the narrative itself has prompted concerning the motives of the central character—the kinds of questions that Joyce's stories by their reticence cause us to ask. The comment ‘That remark rather gives him away, does it not?’ makes explicit the relationship the reader typically finds in Joyce: in the absence of a superintending, directive presence, we are obliged to supply our own provisional confirmation of the meaning of the various textual details. Earlier in “Love and Lethe” the narrator was similarly benighted concerning the recurring question in the book, why Belacqua wishes to kill himself:

How he had formed this resolution to destroy himself we are quite unable to discover. The simplest course, when the motives of any deed are found subliminal to the point of defying expression, is to call that deed ex nihilo and have done. Which we beg leave to follow in the present instance.

(p. 95)

More than comically disingenuous, this disclaimer again parodies the kind of narratorial withholding which we find repeatedly in Joyce's short fiction. It does so not by revealing Joyce's blind spots or expediencies but by uncovering the full complexity of his practice. All Beckett's early stories, in fact, can be read as counterpoints to Joyce's. In the treachery of apprenticeship, Beckett voiced the Joycean story's scrupulously unarticulated knowingness. As the narrator says at one point of Belacqua, ‘Notice the literary man’ (p. 101). Indeed we do.

Beckett's sensitivity to the devices of Dubliners is perhaps best borne out by the opening story from More Pricks Than Kicks, “Dante and the Lobster”. The story begins with Belacqua worrying over an ‘impenetrable passage’ in Dante—Beatrice's explanation, in Paradiso ii. 52-148, of why the moon has dark patches. He can follow her ‘refutation’, but is bemused by the ‘proof’ because it is delivered as ‘a rapid shorthand of the real facts’. Still, he ‘pore[s] over the enigma’ of the passage, endeavouring to understand ‘at least the meanings of the words’—as monads, one presumes, rather than as a connected sequence delivering a singular ‘meaning’ (p. 9). Later in the day, at his Italian lesson, Belacqua asks the Ottolenghi about the passage, but she defers an explanation of its sense: ‘It is a famous teaser. Off-hand I cannot tell you, but I will look it up when I get home’ (p. 18).

To these puzzles and textual enigmas is added, finally, Dante's pun, ‘qui vive la pieta quando e ben morta’. In English the pun on ‘pieta’ (meaning both ‘pity’ and ‘piety’) is lost, which leads Belacqua to wonder if the line is really translatable at all. At any rate this textual enigma patterns his subsequent thoughts: ‘Why not piety and pity together both, even down below? Why not mercy and Godliness together? A little mercy in the stress of sacrifice, a little mercy to rejoice against judgment’ (p. 20). As he approaches his aunt's house at the end of the story Beckett conspicuously shifts the scene, preparing us for the epiphanic moment and the emergence of the story's deep-laid significance: ‘Let us call it Winter, that dusk may fall now and a moon rise’ (p. 20). Once at his aunt's house Belacqua is horrified by the realisation that the lobster she is about to cook will be boiled alive. There it lies, ‘cruciform on the oilcloth’, having ‘about thirty seconds to live’: ‘“Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all”. It is not’ (p. 21). That final line—sounding as an ‘impersonal voice out of the heavens’16—strikes many readers as a false note, an unnecessary and heavy-handed narratorial intervention. Indeed, John Fletcher takes the presence of this and other ‘Beckettian asides’ as evidence that the author was unsuited to the short story—a genre, Fletcher explains, in which writers must ‘work their effects by understatement and humour rather than explicit comment’.17 This is to miss the point of Beckett's irony. His story proceeds as though about to reach a highly inferential and impressionistic ending which will bring together, at some deep metaphorical level, the ‘meanings’ of all its enigmatic details. The last line seems incongruous because instead of the characteristic short story withdrawal at the point of closure, Beckett allows the blatant intrusion of a voice signalling over the characters' heads. He blows the cover under which the story operates, exposing the narrator's presence by making it explicit. It is as though he wishes to terminate the kind of ‘lost’ or indeterminate endings which characterise the Joycean story. As with “A Case in a Thousand” and “A Wet Night”, he is unwilling to allow the naturalistic illusion of the inconspicuous or objective narrator to predominate, signalling instead an ironic awareness of how Joyce defers meaning and creates an enigmatic openness in his texts by suppressing the personality of the narrator. As Hugh Kenner put it in his ‘Progress Report’ some years later, ‘To play one more game by the old rules would merely be competence’.18

John Pilling suggests that Beckett's criticism of Maupassant, made during a lecture entitled ‘Naturalists’, that he contained ‘no subjectiveness’ comparable to the great European novelists, is evidence of Beckett's lack of interest in Maupassant and, by extension, the short story.19 But Beckett's complaint might also be read positively, as a declaration of intent. The intrusive ‘It is not’ sums up the break he is attempting throughout these early works with the aesthetic of the modernist short story as he inherited it from Joyce. The line brings to bear on the story a ‘subjective’ narratorial voice which exposes, plays with, the conspicuous detachment and ‘objectivity’ upon which the short form seemingly depends for its effects. Indeed, all Beckett's stories examined here contain this narratorial self-consciousness, this voice that reads as it writes.


  1. Edwin Muir, Listener, 4 July 1934, p. 42.

  2. Unsigned review, Times Literary Supplement, 26 July 1934, p. 526.

  3. John P. Harrington, ‘Beckett's “Dubliners” Story’, in Phillis Carey and Ed Jewinski (eds.), Re: Joyce'n Beckett (New York, 1992), p. 32.

  4. Samuel Beckett, Proust and Three Dialogues with George Duthuit (1965), p. 103.

  5. See for instance Phillip Herring, Joyce's Uncertainty Principle (Princeton, 1987); Dominic Head, The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice (Cambridge, 1992); Sonja Bašić, ‘A Book of Many Uncertainties: Joyce's Dubliners’, Style, 25 (1991), 351-77.

  6. ‘The Faber Book of Modern Short Stories’, in Collected Impressions (1950), p. 39.

  7. James Joyce, Dubliners, ed. and corr. Robert Scholes (1967), p. 7.

  8. As Zack Bowen illustrates, the song from which she sings describes a situation very close to that narrated in the story, prefiguring, among other things, ‘impish Polly's contentment on Doran's bed’ (Musical Allusions in the Works of James Joyce: Early Poetry Through Ulysses (Dublin, 1975), p. 17).

  9. See Head, Modernist Short Story, passim, and also Zack Bowen, ‘Joyce and the Epiphany Concept: A New Approach’, Journal of Modern Literature, 9 (1981), 103-14.

  10. Samuel Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, ed. S. E. Gontarski (New York, 1995), pp. 23-4.

  11. Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York and London, 1988), pp. 26, 35. The same point is made by Robert Alter, who describes parody as a mode which ‘fuses creation with critique’ (Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1975), p. 25), and by Matei Calinescu, who argues that a successful parody should ‘offer the possibility of being mistaken for the original itself’ (Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism Avant-Garde Decadence Kitsch Postmodernism (Durham, NC, 1987), p. 141).

  12. Samuel Beckett, More Pricks Than Kicks (1970), p. 195.

  13. Frank O'Connor, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (1963), p. 18.

  14. Hugh Kenner, A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett (Syracuse, NY, 1996), p. 54.

  15. The word ‘epiphany’ is in fact slyly inserted just before the scene in question: ‘A divine creature, native of Leipzig, to whom Belacqua, round about the following Epiphany, had occasion to quote the rainfall for December …’ (p. 87).

  16. Robert Cochran, Samuel Beckett: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York, 1991), p. 18.

  17. ‘Joyce, Beckett, and the Short Story in Ireland’, in Carey and Jewinski (eds.), Re: Joyce'n Beckett, p. 27.

  18. Hugh Kenner, ‘Progress Report, 1962-65’, in John Calder, (ed.), Beckett at Sixty: A Festschrift (1967), p. 61.

  19. John Pilling, Beckett Before Godot (Cambridge, 1997), p. 94.

Jan Alber (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Alber, Jan. “The ‘Moreness’ or ‘Lessness’ of ‘Natural’ Narratology: Samuel Beckett's ‘Lessness’ Reconsidered.” Style 36, no. 1 (spring 2002): 54-75.

[In the following essay, Albert utilizes “Lessness” to test the narratological approach of Monika Fludernik's Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology.]


According to J. E. Dearlove, the fragmentary short prose works that Samuel Beckett produced in the period following the publication of Comment C'est (1961), i.e., “All Strange Away” (1963-64), Imagination Dead Imagine (1965), Enough (1965), Ping (1966), Lessness (1969), and The Lost Ones (1966, 1970), might strike readers as “utterly alien and incomprehensible,” and by thrusting the burden of creating order and meaning on readers, “demand a new critical response” (“Last Images” 104, 116). Similarly, Mary Bryden points out that some readers have reacted adversely to Beckett's later prose, seeing it as “perversely uncommunicative” and “teasingly mysterious” (137). The short prose work Lessness is definitely one of the most enigmatic texts of the period after How It Is. Because of the initial shock that this strange and incomprehensible prose work might produce in readers, it may be used as a case to test the new narratological approach Monika Fludernik puts forward in Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology (1996).

Fludernik attempts to counteract some of the shortcomings of classical narratology and other traditional approaches to narrative theory. Her aim is the radical “reconceptualization of narratology” and “the creation of a new narrative paradigm” (xi), a paradigm, however, that despite its interdisciplinary make-up, will still be identifiable as narratological. As Gibson notes, Fludernik sets out to redefine narrativity in terms not of plot but of cognitive or what she calls “natural” parameters. These parameters are based on our experience, on our sense of embodiedness in the world (“Review” 234). Whereas structuralist narratology employs formal categories defined in terms of binary oppositions, Fludernik wishes to institute organic frames of reading. She reconstitutes narrativity on the basis of experientiality, a feature derived from research on oral narrative established by Labov (Language). At the same time experientiality relates to Käte Hamburger's thesis that narrative is the only form of discourse that can portray consciousness, particularly the consciousness of someone else (83). Since, for Fludernik, the prototypical case of narrative is given in its oral version (textual make-up is considered to be a variable), the “natural” narratological paradigm, as Ronen suggests, identifies narrativity with conversational parameters in a storytelling situation (647). Furthermore, Fludernik wishes to institute a reconceptualization of the term “natural” within a more specifically cognitive perspective. She argues that “natural” narratives, i.e., narratives of spontaneous storytelling, cognitively correlate with perceptual parameters of human experience. According to her, these parameters are still in force even in more sophisticated written narratives like those in many experimental twentieth-century texts. Fludernik subsumes the experientiality of “natural” narrative and the cognitive parameters that are based on “real-life” experience in the process of “narrativization,” i.e., a reading strategy that naturalizes (Culler 134-60) texts by recourse to narrative schemata. She argues that inconsistencies of strange and incomprehensible texts cease to be worrisome when we can read them as a series of events, a story, or when we can explain them as the skewed vision of a ruling consciousness, that of a teller, or that of a reflective or “registering” mind. Such reading processes that manufacture sense out of apparent nonsense are observed to apply even more radically when experimentation touches the core of narrative: the establishment of a fictional situation and/or the very language of storytelling. Fludernik argues that “natural” narratology is sorely tested at points where the oddities of experimental texts like “Lessness” obstruct readers' attempts to narrativize on the basis of “natural” parameters.

Fludernik's reconceptualization of narrativity allows us to define a great number of plotless narratives from the twentieth century as narratives fully satisfying the requirement of experientiality, since such texts operate by means of a projection of consciousness without necessarily needing any actantial base structure. In contrast to this, the traditional definition of narrative in terms of (a series of) action(s) (Genette, Narrative Discourse 30; Rimmon-Kenan 15; Stanzel 150; Prince, Dictionary 58; Genette, Revisited 20; Bal 16) does not cover plotless experimental twentieth-century texts like Beckett's later prose. Although all of these texts have discourse reference, what precisely (if anything) is their story (or plot) frequently cannot be determined with any clarity. Events and stories are simply no longer central to the focus of what these texts are about. Interestingly, Gérard Genette points out that “for Beckett,” ‘I walk’ would already be “too much to narrate” (Revisited 19). Since Beckett, for example in Ping and Lessness, does not rely on Genettean minimal forms of narrative, action or event sequences, his experimental texts do not qualify as narratives in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, Genette's statement implies that Beckett narrates, i.e., produces a narrative. The central question, then, is the question of what constitutes Beckett's narrative. An obvious theoretical solution to this problem is to deny the label narrative to such texts, to say, that is, that the norm for twentieth-century fiction is no longer instantiated by the narrative discourse type, and consequently to marginalize such texts. The predominantly negative characterization of experiemental fiction as contravening traditional story parameters (Hassan 9) points in this direction, as does the prevalence of the labels “anti-narrative” (Chatman 56-59; Prince, Dictionary 6) and “anti-literature” (Dearlove, “Last Images” 117; Buning 102; Hassan 3) among both traditional narratologists and Beckett critics, as well as in M.-L. Ryan's proposal of the term “antinarrativity” (379-80). Fludernik offers an entirely different solution to this problem. Rather than pointing out the negative features of this kind of narrative, Fludernik's approach describes its structure in terms of experientiality (Lieske 374). Therefore, in the present paper I wish to treat Lessness in so far as it relates to the visualizing of a story (plot) situation and/or a storytelling situation (Fludernik, Towards 269). More precisely, in my “natural” narratological analysis I shall concentrate on the establishment of story-world, that is, on characters, setting and plot, as well as on the storytelling frame and the language of storytelling. According to Fludernik, a text like “Lessness” does not completely disrupt the process of narrativization, but “merely dilute[s] constants of mimetic conceptualization to the point where realist frames become tenuous and are reduced to the notions of malleable or inconstant character, setting and event outlines” (273).

The purpose of the present paper is threefold. First, I wish to demonstrate the superiority of Fludernik's “natural” narratology to structuralist narratology in accounting for marginally narrative texts like Beckett's Lessness. Second, I shall illustrate the utility of Fludernik's new paradigm for the literary interpretation of such an incomprehensible avant-garde text. Third, I will discuss some of the shortcomings or what I call the “lessness” of “natural” narratology.



In Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology, Fludernik rejects all traditional plot-based concepts of narrativity, i.e., the quality of “narrativehood,” as Prince calls it (“On Narratology” 80), and equates narrativity with experientiality. “Narrativity is a function of narrative texts and centres on experientiality of an anthropomorphic nature” (26). According to Fludernik, experientiality involves “the quasi-mimetic evocation of ‘real-life experience’” (12) and is established by readers in the reading process (36). Experientiality includes a sense of moving with time, of the now of experience (Ricoeur 62-65). In contrast to Ricoeur, Fludernik supplements this almost static level of temporal experience by more dynamic and evaluative factors. Within her model, temporality is a constitutive aspect of embodiment and evaluation, but it is secondary to the experience itself. For her, experience cannot be subsumed under the umbrella of temporality. Rather, experience includes temporality as one of its parameters. Human experience typically embraces goal-oriented behavior and activity, with its reaction to obstacles encountered on the way. She argues that unexpected obstacles dynamically trigger the reaction of the protagonist. According to Fludernik, the three-part schema of “situation-event (incidence)-reaction to event” constitutes the core of all human action experience (29). Moreover, whereas in oral narrative, narrated experience always tends to be related to incidence, more extended narrative ventures frequently reproduce quite uneventful experiences and tend to center on the narrator's mental situations. Thus, the dynamics of experientiality reposes not only on the changes brought about by external developments or effected through the goal-oriented actions of a central intelligence. Rather, it is related particularly to the resolution effect of the narrative endpoint and to the tension between tellability and narrative “point” (Labov, Language 366; Fludernik, “Historical” 374-77). In other words, for Fludernik, the emotional involvement with an experience and its evaluation provide cognitive anchor points for the constitution of narrativity (Towards 13). She argues that embodiment constitutes the most basic feature of experientiality; specificity and individuality can in fact be subsumed under it. Embodiedness evokes all the parameters of a “real-life” schema of existence in a specific time and space frame. Experientiality combines a number of cognitively relevant factors. The most important of these is the presence of a human protagonist and his experience of events as they impinge on his situation. Experientiality always implies the protagonist's consciousness. “Narrativity can emerge from the experiential portrayal of dynamic event sequences which are already configured emotively and evaluatively, but it can also consist in the experiential depiction of human consciousness tout court” (30). Fludernik demotes the criteria of sequentiality and logical connectedness from the central role they usually play in most discussions of narrative. For her, the bounded sequentiality of “The king died and then the queen died of grief” (Forster 87) holds little or no interest as narrative. In Fludernik's model there can be narratives without plot, but there cannot be any narratives without a human experiencer at some narrative level. The fictional existence of an anthropomorphic experiencer is the sine qua non for the constitution of narrativity. In contrast to traditional narratologists, who endow plot-oriented narratives with proto-typical narrativity (Prince, Narratology 146), Fludernik argues that events or actantial and motivational parameters in and of themselves constitute only a zero degree of narrativity, a minimal frame for the production of experientiality. I also wish to note that Fludernik refuses to locate narrativity in the existence of a narrator (Towards 26). For her, all narrative is produced through the mediating function of consciousness. According to Fludernik, consciousness is the locus of experientiality and can surface on several levels and in different shapes.


Since William Labov and Joshua Waletzky (1967) hypothesized that narrative structures can be found in oral accounts of personal experience, conversational storytelling, as Minami notes, has received much attention (467). Fludernik has been influenced by “natural” narrative and relies on the results of research in discourse analysis established by Labov in Language in the Inner City (1972). In her approach, “natural” narrative includes only spontaneous conversational storytelling (Towards 13-14). According to Fludernik, one has to conceptualize the move from orality to literacy as a continuum that affords the narratologist interesting insights into the various functions of elements within their narrative pattern (53). Fludernik views “natural” narrative as a prototype for the constitution of narrativity and argues that narrative is always “natural” in the sense that, as Ronen suggests, it is anchored in human everyday experience (647).

The second basic ingredient of Fludernik's model is “natural” linguistics. For instance, she mentions Wolfgang Dressler and his Natürlichkeitstheorie (“theory of naturalness”). Dressler judges “natural” those elements of language that appear to be regulated by cognitive parameters based on man's experience in the “real world” (5). “Natural” linguistics attempts to locate linguistic processes within more general processes of cognitive comprehension: the general parameters of language relate to human embodiedness in “natural” environments; metaphors of embodiment serve as the basis for describing them. The central insights that Fludernik adopts from these approaches for her narratological paradigm are that cognitive categories are embodied and that higher-level symbolic categories rely on embodied schemata. The question of how human embodiment in the environment is reflected in readers' cognitive categories and schemata interests her most (Towards 19).

The third basic ingredient of Fludernik's model is the concept Jonathan Culler calls “naturalization.” Culler came up with this concept in order to account for readers' interpretative strategies when encountering initially odd or inconsistent texts. According to Culler, readers attempt to recuperate inexplicable elements of a text by taking recourse to available interpretative patterns. In naturalizing a text we give it a place in our cultural world (137). Culler's naturalization in particular comprises the familiarization of the strange. Fludernik redeploys and redefines Culler's concept as “narrativization,” that is to say, as a reading strategy that naturalizes texts by recourse to narrative schemata (Towards 34). She argues that whenever readers are confronted with potentially unreadable narratives, they look for ways of recuperating them as narratives. In the process of narrativization, something is made a narrative by the sheer act of imposing narrativity on it. Readers attempt to re(-)cognize texts in terms of the “natural” telling, or experiencing, or viewing parameters; or they try to recuperate inconsistencies in terms of actions and event structures at the most minimal level. In the process of narrativization, readers engage in reading texts as manifesting experientiality, and therefore construct these texts in terms of their alignment with experiential cognitive parameters (313). According to Pier, the dynamics of narrative are set into motion in this process. These dynamics are largely absent in the static models proposed by classical narratology (557).


Fludernik conceives of mimesis in radically constructivist terms. According to her, we must not identify mimesis as the imitation of reality. Rather, we should understand mimesis as the artificial and illusionary projection of a semiotic structure. Readers recuperate this structure in terms of a fictional reality. Since this process of recuperation takes place within the cognitive parameters of the readers' “real-world” experience, every reading experience in terms of making sense of a text inevitably results in an “implicit though incomplete homologization of the fictional and the real world” (Towards 35). With regard to experimental narrative. Fludernik suggests to read it as a kind of “intertextual play with language and with generic modes” (35). In this analytical context, as Lieske notes, experimental texts are not mimetic in terms of reproducing a prototypical version of narrative experience but in their structured anticipation of the readers' attempts to reinterpret them mimetically, if only at the level of an explicitly “anti-mimetic” language game (374).

Similarly, Fludernik develops a constructivist concept of realism. She does not relate realism to the nineteenth—century movement of realism. Rather, she links it with the specific mimetic evocation of “reality” and specific forms of the mimetic representation of individual experience. Fludernik sees realism as an interpretational strategy. In the process of narrativization, readers make texts conform to “real-life” parameters. Realism in Fludernik's sense closely corresponds to “a mimetic representation of individual experience that cognitively and epistemically relies on real-world knowledge” (38). The process of reading narratives as narratives inevitably involves an activity of narrativization on the readers' part. Readers project a realistic frame on the text and its enunciational properties. Fludernik demonstrates that the wide range of anti-illusionistic techniques radically disrupts conventional realistic story parameters and does not allow readers a realist mode of understanding. At the same time, as Lieske points out, she stresses that such disruptions do not inevitably destroy narrativity per se but deconstruct the overall narrative coherence of the text and affect the most fundamental properties of narrative discourse (374).


Fludernik summarizes the cognitive categories and criteria of “natural” narratology in a four-level model. This model runs somewhat parallel to the three Mimeses developed in Ricoeur's Time and Narrative. Mimesis I relates to prefiguration (54-64), Mimesis II to configuration in the shape of emplotment (64-70), and Mimesis III to reconfiguration (70-87). Fludernik's level I is identical to Ricoeur's Mimesis I. It includes the pretextual “real-life” schemata of action and experience such as the schema of agency as goal-oriented process or reaction to the unexpected, the configuration of experienced and evaluated occurrence, and the “natural” comprehension of observed event processes as well as their supposed cause-and-effect explanations. Furthermore, on this level, teleology, i.e., temporal directedness and inevitable plotting, combines with the narrator's after-the-fact evaluation of narrative experience, as is typical of “natural” narrative, and with the goal-orientedness of acting subjects. Fludernik's level II introduces the “natural,” macro-textual schemata or frames of narrative mediation. On this level she distinguishes between the “real-world” scripts of TELLING and REFLECTING,1 the “real-world” schema of VIEWING, and the access to one's own narrativizable experience (EXPERIENCING). Further, Fludernik situates the schema of ACTION or ACTING on level II (Towards 43-44). Fludernik's level III constitutes a fine-tuning of level II through well-known “naturally” occurring storytelling situations, generic criteria and narratological concepts. At this point I wish to emphasize that Fludernik's levels II and III do not reproduce Ricoeur's Mimesis II. Rather, they characterize features that are partially relevant for Ricoeur's reconfiguration on the level of Mimesis III. In contrast to the cognitive parameters on levels I and II, which are basic-level experiential frames, the categories on level III are culturally determined. One might argue that they are metaphorical extensions of concepts from levels I and II. Nevertheless, they are “natural” because they operate in a non-reflective manner and relate to one's experience of hearing and reading stories. I also wish to note that readers' interpretations do not (yet) constitute the cognitive parameters on level III. Rather, they provide cognitive tools for the interpretation of narrative texts (45). Finally, Fludernik's level IV is that of narrativization, the level on which the “natural” parameters from levels I to III are utilized in order to grasp, and usually transform textual inconsistencies and oddities. Narrativization is the process of naturalization that enables readers to re(-)cognize as narrative texts that appear to be non-narrative according to the cognitive parameters on levels I and II or III (46). The “natural” frames on levels I to III do not effect narrativization. Rather, narrativization utilizes “natural” parameters as part of the larger process of naturalization applied by readers. Although narrativized non-“natural” text types do not become “natural,” a new cognitive parameter may become available (330). For instance, second-person fiction (Fludernik “Introduction,” “Second,” “Second-Person Narrative”) does not become “natural” in the process of narrativization. Rather, a semantic and interpretative perspective renders this type of narrative recuperable, because readers have recourse to “natural” categories. It may institute a new genre or a new narrative mode and will then have to be included as a reference model on level III.

I shall now turn to my own “natural” narratological analysis of Samuel Beckett's Lessness. I am of course aware that other readers might narrativize the text differently.



Lessness is set in a container. At some point, this enclosure must have resembled the box-like chamber in Beckett's Ping and the first two stages of the shape-shifting container in Beckett's “All Strange Away.” At the time of narration in Lessness, the four walls of the container of this piece have fallen open into “scattered ruins” (197); “Blacked out fallen open four walls over backwards true refuge issueless.” The whiteness of Ping, i.e., the image of “four square all light sheer white blank planes,” is “gone from mind” (Lessness 197). Moreover, the narrative voice of Lessness abandons the fluctuations of light and darkness in “All Strange Away” and Imagination Dead Imagine, and reduces them to a pervasive and passive grey (Dearlove, “Last Images” 121). The container is “ash grey” like “the sand” (197). Earth and sky have the same color as the enclosure: “ash grey sky mirrored earth mirrored sky” (197). From our “real-world” knowledge we can infer that since the world of Lessness is not black but grey, a dim light has to emanate from somewhere. But the text does not contain any information about the source of the light. Moreover, as in “Enough,” there is “no stir,” that is no wind, in the world of Lessness, and, as in Ping, the silence of this world is unbroken: “no sound” (197). “Day and night” (198) appear to be abandoned in Lessness. The piece is “timeless” (199), and the narrative voice characterizes the world of “Lessness” in terms of “changelessness” (197). Philip H. Solomon argues that the hour in question must be 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. “Each is a moment of transition with respect to light and dark—the grey of dawn or the grey of dusk” (66). In Lessness, time seems to have come to rest in a transitional period.

The “setting” of Lessness resembles places in the “real world.” The scattered ruins of this piece may consist of stone. Indeed, the narrative voice mentions sand, earth, and sky. Since there is no wind and no sound, however, the world of Lessness also differs from “real-world” settings. Moreover, Lessness makes it impossible to differentiate between earth, sky, and the scattered ruins, because they are all ash grey. In contrast to the other “Residua,” which are set in a measurable container, the narrative voice of this piece does not give us any information as to the size of the enclosure in Lessness. The only hint we get is the phrase “the ruins flatness endless” (199). Spatial structure appears to be lacking altogether. Furthermore, the fact that there is no movement with time seriously impairs a “realistic” reconstitution of story-world.


The enclosure of Lessness contains an immobile “little body ash grey locked rigid” (197). The body's contours have been eroded: “Legs a single block arms fast to sides little body face to endlessness” (198). The figure's sex is undecidable. The “genitals” of this “little block” are “overrun” (198) and its features are barely defined: “grey face features crack and little holes two pale blue” (197); “grey smooth no relief a few holes” (198). The body is incapable of action: “Face to white calm touch close eye calm long last all gone from mind” (198). In a very ambiguous manner, the text indicates that the figure is alive: “Grey face two pale blue little body heart beating only upright” (197). This might imply that the body is the only constituent of story-world in an upright position, and consequently that the figure is alive, or that the body's heart beats only in an upright position. The figure is grey like the rest of this world. Furthermore, the narrative voice refers to the figure's past and to a possible future. I wish to note that in such instances, the voice refers to the figure in terms of the personal pronoun “he.” Additionally, the text presents the future as a return to past possibilities: “He will curse God again as in the blessed days face to the open sky the passing deluge” (197); “On him will rain again as in the blessed days of blue the passing cloud” (197). Later on, the references to past and future turn out to be dreams and figments: “Never was but grey air timeless no sound figment the passing light” (197); “Never but this changelessness dream the passing hour” (197). Susan Brienza and Enoch Brater point out that in the two sentences containing the personal pronoun “he,” which I have quoted above, the past is superimposed on the indefinite future by using the phrase “as in the blessed days” (250-51). They argue that a cycle of endlessness in time results, because both the “deluge” and the “cloud” will not pass nor have they passed. The present participle “passing” creates an action suspended in time, which is endless, like the “waiting” in Waiting for Godot (1985).

The figure in Lessness is most radically dehumanized. The narrative voice describes the little body exclusively in terms of bodily fragments. Additionally, its bodily parts are not recognizable. Readers will hardly confuse the block-like figure with inhabitants of the “real world.” This figure is indistinguishable from the box-like chamber. In fact, it seems to have become a brick of the scattered ruins.2 In other words, one cannot possibly differentiate between the figure and the “setting.” The only “features” that distinguish the body from the rest of story-world are pale blue eyes, and its possibly upright position. Moreover, the figure does not express any signs of intentionality or goal-orientedness in terms of Fludernik's cognitive level I. Its “life signs” are reduced to its upright position or the beating of its heart. I do not think that the figure's “eyes” can be seen as a life sign, since a dead body may (at least for some time) have pale blue eyes as well. Furthermore, the figure's past and future turn out to be mere illusions. The body is trapped in the timeless zone of fiction.

At this point, I wish to note that both the “setting” and the figure in Lessness differ from familiar narratological concepts on Fludernik's cognitive level III. But in contrast to Buning, who merely points out the “absence” of traditional story parameters and characterizes Lessness in terms of an “anti-literary tendency” (102), “natural” narratology takes a closer look at such allegedly absent constituents. On the basis of experientiality, “natural” narratology attempts to explain why these constituents are so different from traditional concepts. I would argue that the description of the “setting” and the figure in Lessness are reminiscent of the perception of an insane person or a person on drugs. We should keep this in mind while looking at other aspects of Lessness.

3.3. THE “PLOT”

The body in Lessness is incapable of action, and the “setting” undergoes no noticeable transformation. The narrative voice presents us with repeated descriptions of the rudimentary features of the strange world of this piece. Indeed, the voice postulates an imaginative realm of dreams and future possibilities. Lessness consists of 120 sentences, and is divided into twenty-four paragraphs. Upon closer inspection, we realize that the text consists of sixty sentences, each of which occurs exacty twice. There are sixty sentences in the first twelve paragraphs. Later on, they are repeated in a different order. Ruby Cohn divides the sentences thematically into the following six groups or families (265): (1) the ruins as “true refuge”; (2) the endless grey of earth and sky; (3) the little body; (4) the space “all gone from mind”; (5) past tenses combined with “never”; (6) future tenses of active verbs and the “figment” sentence “Figment dawn dispeller of figments and the other called dusk” (199; 201). Martin Esslin uses the following categories for the same groups: (1) the ruins; (2) the vastness of earth and sky; (3) the little body; (4) the fact that the enclosed space is now forgotten; (5) a denial of past and future; (6) an affirmation of past and future.3 J. E. Dearlove points out that the titles of the first four families are fairly consistent, whereas the last two groups are more enigmatic because they deal with daydreams and figments in reference to past and future. For Cohn, the distinction is one of tense, whereas for Esslin, the difference is one of assertion (“Last Images” 120). Beckett's method of composition in Sans (1969), the original French version of Lessness, is extremely creative. Cohn reports that

Beckett wrote each of the sixty sentences on a separate piece of paper, mixed them all in a container, and then drew them out in random order twice. This became the order of the hundred twenty sentences in Sans. Beckett then wrote the number 3 on four separate pieces of paper, the number 4 on six pieces of paper, the number 5 on four pieces, the number 6 on six pieces, and the number 7 on four pieces of paper. Again drawing randomly, he ordered the sentences into paragraphs according to the number drawn, finally totaling one hundred twenty.


According to Poutney, Lessness confronts us with the fact that an arbitrary and capricious world of chance lies beyond man-made, imposed order (56). “The confusion is not my invention,” Beckett told Tom Driver. “It is all around us and our only chance is to let it in” (Finney, “Assumption” 63). The formal patterning in Lessness may give readers the impression that a random number generator produced the text. This is, to some extent, true.4 Furthermore, there is a complete absence of memorable events in Lessness. Nothing happens at all in it. Events most certainly do not constitute the primary focus of this text. Hence, we are not in a position to reconstruct a proper event-series in terms of the ACTION schema on Fludernik's cognitive level II. Since there is a complete elimination of “plot,” the text exclusively consists in (vague and distorted) descriptions. Moreover, Lessness lacks teleology and closure. In contrast to Brienza and Brater, who argue that “the abrupt last line does not leave us with the impression that the piece might go on indefinitely” (254), I would argue that the cyclical way in which the narrative voice describes the central “situation” of Lessness, in combination with the final sentence (“Figment dawn dispeller of figments and the other called dusk” [201]), which is circular in itself, suggests that this short prose work may indeed continue forever. Whereas Mood simply argues that Lessness is “plotless” (78), “natural” narratology concerns itself with whether there is not a different story buried under the (admittedly quite) uneventful cloak.


The syntax of Lessness is most radically disrupted. The piece shares with Ping its sentence style and structure as well as the absence of any punctuation except periods. The “scattered ruins” (197) might be a description of the words themselves. The narrative voice uses verbs sparingly; present tense verbs are entirely absent. The personal pronoun “he” occurs only in connection with sentences dealing with the past or the future. This voice gives us the impression that human existence is possible only in the past or in the future. Later on, however, the voice reveals this to be a mere illusion. Occasionally, it also drops articles and prepositions. Its radical reductionism generates a terse, staccato-like style, and is reminiscent of a computerized programme. Moreover, the reduced syntactical form creates pseudo-independent phrases like individual images. Thus, Murphy argues (114) that the words may be said to face on “all sides endlessness.” For instance, as I have shown above, we can read the phrase “heart beating only upright” in several different ways. Likewise, in the sentence “little body little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun” (198), it remains unclear whether the genitals, or the arse, or both are overrun, and the “grey crack” is ambiguous (eye, tip of penis, vagina, or anus?). Additionally, in all but two of the twenty-four paragraphs, we come across words containing the suffix “-less” or the suffix “-lessness” (“endless,” “timeless,” “issueless,” “endlessness,” “changelessness”). These words, like the neologism Lessness, stand out and set up a network of tenuous meanings. Furthermore, we are faced with a mass of repeated elements in which no clear subordination of one to another is established (Knowlson and Pilling 176), so that we may concentrate on different elements each time we read the text. There are thirty-eight phrases containing “all,” as in “all sides” (198) or “all light” (197), that seem to be cancelled out by the thirty-four occurrences of “no,” as in “no sound” (197) or “no hold” (198) (Brienza and Brater 252), and a number of contradictory constructions like “all gone” and “never but” are used. This may give readers the impression that the narrative voice constructs a rudimentary world, and, at the same time, deconstructs it.

The language of Lessness is reminiscent of a person in a state of shock, or a madman, i.e., the babbling of a deranged person. This piece most radically foregrounds the linguistic medium. The construction of “sentences” is so awkward that it seriously impairs the reconstruction process. Hence, the text draws our attention to the “sentence”-structure itself. The narrative voice reduces language to repetitious echoings in a syntaxless chain of words and phrases. The deliberate nonfluency, in combination with the repetitive structure of this piece and the proliferation of conspicious “less(ness)” words, generates a style in which the words draw attention to themselves more as signifiers than as signifieds. The language is free-floating in proper Derridean fashion. Indeed, the strategy of constructing and simultaneously deconstructing is reminiscent of Robbe-Grillet's “mouvement paradoxal” (130).


While Ruby Cohn argues that in Lessness we are confronted with an observant third-person narrator (262), Mary F. Catanzaro thinks that the narrative voice should be attributed to the “little body,” the faceless storyteller of this piece (“Musical” 47). Although I find both accounts of the text convincing, one might argue that since the personal pronoun “he” occurs several times, Cohn's interpretation makes much more sense. The dispassionate depiction of the rudimentary world of this piece is reminiscent of third-person neutral narrative. We get, Fludernik suggests, the typical “camera-eye” effect of the mechanical shutter that registers incoming stimuli but does not interpret them (Towards 175). Since the depicted images are distorted ones, however, we get the impression that there has to be something wrong with the “camera.” Further, I wish to note that the nonfigural “camera-eye” cannot convincingly be ascribed to any position of fixity. Throughout, the text gives a sense of two distinct points of view operating, namely the point of view of the body, on the one hand, and the point of view of the “narrator,” on the other (Murphy 113). In this piece, the subject-object division is made obsolete. The disembodied voice may simultaneously be related to both points of view, that is to “narrator” and narrated alike. Hence, we may be confronted with first-person or third-person neutral narrative. The deliberately defocalized presentation of Lessness constitutes a serious problem for “natural” narratology not only because it rules out possible anchor points for experientiality but also because the narrative voice remains covert and impersonal (Chatman 197) throughout the piece. Is it then possible to establish experientiality anywhere in the text?

I think that we can read Lessness as the projection of the consciousness or imagination of the “character,” the “narrator,” or both, the “narrator”-narrated. To begin with, the human faculty of imagination plays a crucial role in the depiction of story-world. One can only distinguish between the sand, the sky, the ruins, and the figure with the “eye of imagination,” not with the “eye of flesh.” Furthermore, the piece evokes desire for a state where time has come to rest or where the mind enjoys “the blue celeste of poesy” (199). I would argue that the projected mind in Lessness carries out a mental experiment, namely the experiment of imagining the end of time. Like the attempt to imagine the death of imagination in Beckett's Imagination Dead Imagine, this mental experiment is based on a paradox, since time is ultimately necessary to imagine a state in which time has come to rest. As the work unfolds, the projected consciousness realizes that the experiment of imagining the end of time is doomed to failure. The form of Lessness, that is the repetition of the sixty sentences, which constitutes the most outstanding feature of the text, contradicts the subject matter of this piece. “The passing hour” (197) is not a “dream” but the ultimate reality of human existence. “Dusk” and “dawn” are not “figments” but “dispeller[s] of figments” (201). This short prose work is not “timeless” and cannot be characterized in terms of “changelessness” because the mind it projects moves within time, and, in doing so, changes the order of the sixty sentences. The “true refuge,” in which one can have the illusion of an eternal present, is ultimately “issueless” (197) since time will always go on.

In terms of “natural” narratology, this problem is handled by the REFLECTING frame on Fludernik's cognitive level II. This script tends to project a reflecting consciousness (Towards 44). The ruminations of the projected mind in Lessness might be directed at imagining the end of time, and are ultimately dependent on the “real-world” parameter of time. To sum up, in this piece, we may establish experientiality in terms of the necessity of the human faculty of imagination for depicting a story-world, in terms of the human wish to stop the stream of infinite time, and in terms of the “real-world” knowledge that stopping time is ultimately impossible. Thematically, human time seems to have been central to the composition of Lessness. Without coming to this conclusion, Ruby Cohn points out that although Lessness is almost bare of figures, it compels calculation. She notes that the resultant numbers serve to call attention to human time: “The number of sentences per paragraph stops at seven, the number of days in a week. The number of paragraphs reaches twenty-four, the number of hours in a day. The number of different sentences is sixty, the number of seconds in a minute, of minutes in an hour” (263).

Moreover, we can read Lessness as the projection of the readers' consciousness. Readers are brought into this text, as they must join the narrative voice in imagining whatever may be going on in its mind. When we read Beckett's Lessness, we get the impression that we (as readers) have the same “dream” as the narrative voice of this text. Therefore, one may argue that there is a large degree of involvement in Lessness (Opas and Kujamäki 287). This effect is extremely disconcerting since the narrative voice cannot be pictured as directing or directly addressing readers. Because there is no corresponding use of the first person, no deictic locus of utterance, Lessness lacks a first-person narrator, a speaker with whom we might identify.


“Natural” narratology provides only a partially satisfying analysis of Beckett's Lessness. Problems center on the redefinition of narrativity in terms of an experientiality that turns out to be a vague criterion. One may refer to the points mentioned below as the “moreness” or “lessness” of “natural” narratology. I shall begin with what I call the “moreness” of the new paradigm.

One might argue that Fludernik's redefinition of narrativity is useful, because it allows us to define a great number of experimental and plotless texts as narratives fully satisfying the requirement of experientiality, since they operate by means of a projection of consciousness—the character's, that of the narrative voice, or the readers'. Traditional narratologists like Gérard Genette, Gerald Prince, and Franz Karl Stanzel can only read such texts as contravening traditional parameters. They would ultimately have to deny the label narrative to such texts, and consequently marginalize them. For instance, Stanzel explicitly states that there is “no place” for Beckett's Ping in his typological circle (236), and this claim is obviously also true for Lessness. Additionally, Genette discusses very little experimental writing in any of the three books I have cited and mentions postmodernist texts merely in passing. As Lieske points out, Fludernik's approach is particularly important in the context of poststructuralist debates about the end of narrative or the death of the author because it reclaims postmodernist fiction for narratological analysis despite this fiction's lack of conventional plot or logical coherence (374).

Moreover, Fludernik's narrative paradigm has helped this essay to an entirely new interpretation of Lessness. One might argue that “natural” narratology paves the way for a new reading of this initially alien and uncommunicative text. I have utilized the following schemas, frames, or scripts as parts of a larger attempt to narrativize Beckett's Lessness. First, I have employed the schema of temporal directedness and that of agency as a goal-oriented process on Fludernik's cognitive level I for the context of a thought experiment. Second, I have referred to the REFLECTING frame on level II, which turns the act of telling into a process of self-reflexive rumination, for the mental activity in the course of a thought experiment. Third, I have utilized narratological concepts and familiar knowledge about first- and third-person neutral narrative on level III in order to establish a storytelling situation. As I have shown, narrativization by means of the consciousness factor acquires a central status in experimental writing like Lessness where the readers' establishment of experientiality serves to identify some sort of teller-figure, a registering mind. Even though the readers' attempts to establish experientiality are seriously impaired, we may read Lessness as the projection of the readers' consciousness or of the consciousness of the block-like figure, the “narrator,” or both, the “narrator”-narrated. One might argue that the projected mind carries out a mental experiment that is similar to the attempt to imagine the death of imagination, namely the experiment of imagining the end of time. Further, I would argue that the projected consciousness in this piece struggles with its imaginings in the course of the mental experiment and realizes that the task of imagining the end of time is ultimately impossible. Hence, we can read Lessness as the agonized ruminations of a mind that struggles with some kind of traumatic experience. I think that the projected consciousness realizes not only that its own existence but also that its “heroic” attempt to break out of the stream of infinite time are nothing but insignificant ripples on the surface of infinite time. Time imprisons us all. The mind begins to understand that while the stream of infinite time will never stop, both its existence and the mental experiment will sooner or later end. This quasitraumatic experience of feeling the ultimate meaninglessness of one's own existence could, in a way, account for why the images that can be reconstituted on the basis of the information given in the text are very distorted ones. One might argue that the projected mind finds itself in a state of shock. Consequently, the language of this mind is syntaxless and its perception, deranged. It may experience feelings of terror, hallucinations, or psychosomatic disturbances. I suspect that we are all more or less familiar with such disruptions of ordinary human experience. As far as Lessness is concerned, Fludernik suggests, embodiment is reduced to consciousness with the setting dwindling to rudimentary implied contiguities (Towards 311). Furthermore, I would like to argue that after paragraph twelve, the projected mind ends the mental experiment because it is overwhelmed by the stream of infinite time, and decides to do nothing but move passively within time. It decides to invent nothing new but to merely reshuffle old material. This decision could account for the repetitive structure of this short prose work, i.e., the repetition of the first sixty “sentences” in the second half of the piece. Since I feel that there are also problems with this new interpretation of Lessness, I shall now turn to what I call the “lessness” of Fludernik's new paradigm.

Despite my (more or less) desperate attempts to make Beckett's Lessness more readable, I wish to note that this text constitutes a borderline case. Lessness challenges narrativization and the whole “natural” narratological project. My analysis of this piece is obviously a strategy radically appropriated to the mimetic project, a move to make sense contrary to all linguistic evidence. When reading this text, we are confronted with a slippery boundary on which we may hesitate to tread for fear of losing our mental balance.

We have to situate Lessness at the boundary between the genres of narrative and lyric. In the realm of extremely experimental writing, the traditional distinctions between genres become erased. Fludernik argues, indeed, that where narrativity can no longer be recuperated by any means at all, the narrative genre merges with poetry (Towards 310). This obviously raises the question of what it takes for a text to project experientiality but still remain narrative and not lyrical. Fludernik speaks of “poetry's typical lack of experientiality (and hence narrativity)” (355). I do not see why, according to Fludernik, poetry's typical “preoccupation with sensibilia” (356) should have nothing to do with experientiality. Furthermore, she argues that the boundary between poetry and narrative is permeable (356). That is to say that, for her, there are degrees of narrativity. In contrast to her, I think that it is impossible to distinguish between narrative and lyrical texts, or to determine the different grades of narrativity, on the basis of experientiality, i.e., “the quasi-mimetic evocation of ‘real-life experience’” (12). For such a distinction, categories like plot, action, character, “real-world” setting, all of which Fludernik attempts to play down in her paradigm, turn out to be crucial after all. Interestingly, she claims that in her redefinition of narrativity in terms of experientiality she insists on such essentialities as plot, character, and voice in the constructivist interpretation of their cognitive foundation (305). For Fludernik, such categories can be subsumed under experientiality and embodiment. In contrast to her, I think that the categories of plot and “real-world” setting should play a crucial role in the definition of narrative as a distinguishing feature, because according to the approach taking “experientiality first, plot later,” almost every poem qualifies as a narrative. Furthermore, not only would almost every poem be a narrative but even almost every text. For instance, according to the experientiality criterion, inarticulate screams of horror would qualify as narratives. Fludernik's definition of narrative is thus too broad. Because she attempts to include almost every text in her definition (347ff.), the term “narrative” becomes meaningless. The more a term includes, the less it means. And this is the “lessness” of “natural” narratology.

Another problem is, of course, that the new paradigm is supposed to deal with an incredibly large number of “narrative” texts. I doubt that Fludernik's quasi-universal naturalizing mode of reading can do justice to all these texts. As I have shown, if one is willing to, it is even possible to narrative a machine-generated text like Lessness, actually structured by a throw of the dice, as the expression of a subject's thought. A “natural” narratological analysis ultimately has to ignore certain aspects, like the mechanical structure of Lessness, in order to make a text fit into its new consciousness-oriented paradigm. Such a piece calls for another mode of reading than the naturalizing mode prescribed by “natural” narratology. By narrativizing Lessness, we miss the central point of a postmodernist text that foregrounds ontological chaos, i.e., ontological questions concerning the self, or the mode of existence of the self (McHale 9-11); we impose a normalizing strategy on the text rather than deal with its fundamental otherness. Throughout the writing of this paper, I had the odd sensation that the easier it is to narrativize Beckett's Lessness, the more modernist the text becomes or seems.5 To put this slightly differently, I thought that my consciousness-oriented, “natural” narratological analysis ultimately involves some kind of modernist reading strategy. It is obviously much easier to establish a consciousness factor in a kind of writing that deals excessively with the depiction of consciousness (e.g., in texts by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, or William Faulkner) than it is to do so in a kind of writing that calls the very existence of consciousness into question. There is a fundamental contradiction between the aims of postmodernist literature, i.e., pieces like Lessness and texts written by experimentalists like B. S. Johnson, Christine Brook-Rose, Alasdair Gray, or Brigid Brophy, on the one hand, and Fludernik's attempt to narrativize them on the other. In Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology, Fludernik postulates something like a biological core, a minimal cognitive basis.6 In contrast to this, both postmodernist literature and poststructuralist thought (in Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, et al) call the very existence of a biological core and a minimal cognitive basis into question, and look at human beings as free-floating signifiers. One can of course argue that such self-reflexive word-gaming constitutes a last-ditch scenario for narrativization in terms of “natural” cognitive parameters, and that it ultimately has its roots in the “real world.” Nevertheless, I think that where experientiality resolves into words, “natural” narratology finds its ultimate horizon. Where language has become pure language, structured by a machine, or free-floating in Derrida's sense, disembodied from speaker, context, and reference, both human experience and Fludernik's concept of narrativization by means of human experience become redundant.

Since narrativity (in both the traditional and Fludernik's sense) is not a necessary condition of inclusion in the literary canon (one need only consider the mass of “non-narratological” Beckett scholarship), narratologists do not have to deal with avant-garde texts like Beckett's Lessness and may leave such texts to other approaches, perhaps of a more poststructuralist or even musicological orientation. A reading of Lessness should be liberated from the confines of experientiality, i.e., the feasible, the logically consistent, and humanly plausible, and instead concentrate on the text's otherness, on its monstrosity, on the role of chance and chaos. Reading Lessness draws the recipient “forwards towards the new, into strange, unfamiliar and monstrous compounds” (Gibson, Towards 272). Lessness deconstructs the categories of the anthropological and the textual, the human and the material. The disembodied voice of this text constitutes itself in and through the text and arrives at a new identity that has to be located in a counterworld, a limbo between signifiant and signifié. We should allow this limbo-world to seep into our “real world” and not attempt to explain this different counterworld by means of our “real-world” knowledge. Gibson argues that one should register elements of monstrous deformation and explore their implications (259). I wish to note that the word-stock in Lessness is finite and structured by chance. For me, Lessness implies that we attempt to define and redefine ourselves with regard to the limits of our discourses and that chance is actually the sole criterion that imposes a structure on our limited possibilities. Given the choice between taking Fludernik's approach to fiction, which is based on order and meaning, and Gibson's approach, which is based on chaos and confusion, with regard to Lessness, I prefer Gibson's, because, as Beckett puts it: “The confusion […] is all around us and our only chance is to let it in” (Finney 63).

Finally, there are also problems with the rather ahistorical conception of Fludernik's cognitive four-level model. If one accepts the redefinition of narrativity in terms of experientiality, I feel that it is necessary to investigate whether there are not different types of embodiment (and hence narrativity) in different centuries, i.e., the question whether one can distinguish between something like realist, modernist, and postmodernist experientiality. Additionally, we should address the difference between male and female experientiality. I agree with Gibson, who points out that Fludernik takes the concept of “embodiedness” to be an unproblematic given (“Review” 237). For instance, dehumanization, fragmentation, perspectivism, decentering, and self-reflexivity, e.g. in MTV video clips, which are arguably part of our everyday experience, play a much more crucial role in forms of postmodernist than of modernist experientiality, whereas an interest in consciousness and subjectivity and the assumption that there is something like a minimal cognitive basis is a more integral part of modernist than of postmodernist experientiality. Consequently, readers nowadays may consider postmodernist texts to be much closer to their everyday experience, and they may feel that they have to narrativize (in a postmodernist sense) earlier texts to make them “natural.” Irrespective of texts like Lessness, which are to be located beyond the scope of both experientiality (“natural” narratology) and plot-orientation (classical narratology), what is at stake, with regard to diachronic narratological projects, is the creation of a new narrative paradigm, one that subsumes “natural” narratology as the special case of an extended application of realist parameters or that is able to account for realism differently within its own framework. Experientiality thus remains a problematic criterion. On the one hand, it does not allow us to distinguish between narrative and lyrical texts; on the other, it does not address whether embodiment, i.e., humanity's being in the world, has not changed fundamentally over the centuries. I consider this paper to be a first step toward a larger investigation of the “moreness” and/or “lessness” of “natural” narratology.


  1. “Reflecting” refers to the mental activities outside utterance that turn the act of telling into a process of recollection and self-reflective introspection or rumination (44).

  2. The body in “Lessness” is reminiscent of the figures in Play, where we are confronted with “three identical grey urns.” We learn that “from each a head protrudes, the neck held fast in the urn's mouth” (147).

  3. Esslin's list is from his introduction to the BBC Radio 3 production of “Lessness” (25 February 1971) and is quoted by Brian Finney (Since 39-40).

  4. J. M. Coetzee uses the computer program Univac 1106 to deal with the combination of sentences in “Lessness.” His results verify mathematically that no significant ordering principle governs the arrangement of phrases, sentences, or paragraphs (195-98).

  5. As far as modernism is concerned, I refer to Brian McHale's distinction between modernist and postmodernist fiction. According to McHale, modernist fiction, particularly the stream-of-consciousness novel, foregrounds epistemological questions, i.e., questions of knowledge and consciousness, whereas postmodernist fiction foregrounds ontological questions, i.e., questions of modes of existence (9-11).

  6. Experientiality is an essentialist notion; Fludernik assumes that experience is the same for everyone.

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Beckett, Samuel (Drama Criticism)


Beckett, Samuel (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)