Lessness by Samuel Beckett (1970)

Never but dream the days and nights made of dreams of other nights better days. He will live again the space of a step it will be day and night again over him the endlessness.

Beckett’s writings as antidote to the modern world

Sometime around 1802, that’s to say 220 years ago, William Wordsworth wrote:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

And nowadays, via smartphones and social media, probably the majority of the population has invited the world right inside their brains, addicting many people to the mini-dopamine hits created by an unending stream of updates on every aspect of an over-wired world, from their friends’ latest makeup secrets to attempted coups in America. Surveys show that people check their smartphones every 12 minutes and spend two and a half hours a day staring at their tiny screens.

Beckett is an antidote to all this. In a world where everything is reduced to easily assimilable, shorter and shorter bite-sized snippets designed to provoke the crudest emotions of mirth or outrage, Beckett’s texts are messages from another planet, one right on the edge of known experience or comprehension. The mere fact that each reader struggles to make sense of many of Beckett’s works, or to make their own sense of it, is a blessèd relief.

Beckett’s nihilism has a place but isn’t the whole story

I can see that the ostensible ‘content’ of much of Beckett often circles around ideas of physical decrepitude, mental collapse, describes human relations which have decayed into the grave and beyond, allegorical figures crawling through mud for years or trapped inside tiny white spaces.

  • Blank planes sheer white calm eye light of reason all gone from mind.
  • Head through calm eye all light white calm all gone from mind.
  • Face to calm eye touch close all calm all white all gone from mind.

And many people respond to his insistent imagery of collapse, decay and futility very strongly – in a positive way if it helps express their own sense of futility, or very negatively if they find his unceasing emphasis on collapse, decay and futility too negative and depressing to handle.

But for me literature is first and foremost about words and how they are deployed. As a middle-aged man whose family has been through various stresses and traumas, I understand where his content is coming from, I can appreciate its grimness, I witnessed at first hand the physical and mental decline and gruelling deaths of my parents, I sometimes feel in myself the symptoms of decay he writes about – all of that is very vividly captured in text after text.

But I also know the world is huge and contains an enormous range of happy and joyful human experiences as well, which are never covered in his writings and that a healthy mental attitude has space for both. My father’s dementia was real and upsetting but it didn’t negate the joy and happiness of playing with my baby son.

Beckett’s subject matter has its place in what you could call a total overview of the human condition, but it is not the be-all and end-all of the human condition. It is one take (a very powerful, haunting take) on one aspect of human existence.

Beckett’s language as a liberation from sense

I’m struggling to express the idea that you can fully and deeply read his works, especially the prose works, without being depressed by them. The opposite. Although the ostensible subject matter may be about mental collapse and decay, the language it is written in and the elaborate structures he creates with his stylised language, can be fantastically liberating.

One way of thinking about it is that Beckett writes at an angle away from ordinary life as most of us live it, in a style of language which is just over the horizon of how any of us think or create sentences, read or write or talk, ourselves – and so it consistently shows us other ways, other possibilities of mental life.

If we take these two elements, style and content – the title of this piece, Lessness, clearly indicates its continuity with Beckett’s interest in collapse, inanition, sparsity and the minimal. In fact it is an attempt to translate the French word Sans which is the title of the original French version of the piece. Possibly Lessness is less good than Sans. At first sight it seems a bit obvious, like a bit of a cliché, another predictable iteration of Beckett’s core theme.

But the actual text is anything but a cliché. The text is something as weird and different now as it was 50 years ago. Here’s the first sentence:

Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind.

It feels like the words are themselves the ruins of longer sentences which once made sense. Maybe it can be parsed as: the ruins are the true refuge towards which, at long last, the speaker or voice or sentence is heading towards after so many false starts, which have been going on time our of mind.

This trope, the endless attempts to start again and try to end an account, to complete a narrative, can’t go on, must go on, features in numerous Beckett texts and is (for me) best expressed in the brilliant radio play Cascando. The central idea is familiar – but if you open your mind to the flow of the words they, for me, open up new mental vistas:

Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind. All sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir. Grey face two pale blue little body heart beating only upright. Blacked out fallen open four walls over backwards true refuge issueless.

Carl Andre’s Equivalents

It’s another example of the central Beckett technique of repetition: ‘Develop a set of key words or phrases. Repeat with variations.’ The technique is cognate with musical composition but words are not music. The technique is closer to minimalist art.

When I was a boy, in 1976, there was a firestorm of criticism in the philistine press at the fact that the Tate Gallery had paid £2,300 for an artwork by minimalist artist Carl Andre titled Equivalent VIII. The eight equivalents consist of 120 firebricks arranged in different simple geometric shapes. Personally I think they’re, well I won’t say ‘genius’, but I like the simplicity of the idea, I like what it says about how you can ring the changes with very simple elements, using the same elements over and over to create an eerie, abstract kind of beauty. I like its crispness and asperity.

The Equivalents series by Carl Andre

Their whiteness is important. The rejection of any colour. Their shape and arrangement set up dynamics in your mind. Repetition of the same basic components, but with teasing and beguiling variations.

Repetition with variation

The visual effect of the Carl Andre is comparable to the verbal effect of Lessness, which is dense with repeated words and phrases, positioned and repositioned so you can admire the angles, enjoy the patterning. Thus the word ‘ruin’ appears 26 times, ‘grey’ 52, ‘earth’ 22, ‘sky’ 30. The phrase ‘gone from mind’ occurs 17 times, the phrase ‘little body’ 22 times.

Scattered ruins same grey as the sand ash grey true refuge. Four square all light sheer white blank planes all gone from mind. Never was but grey air timeless no sound figment the passing light. No sound no stir ash grey sky mirrored earth mirrored sky. Never but this changelessness dream the passing hour.

There does appear to be a human in the text: We are told he will curse God, he has a little body, cracked face, two holes for eyes, looking up at the sky, it will rain, it will rain again.

On him will rain again as in the blessed days of blue the passing cloud

So, if we’re searching for literal meaning, maybe it’s a typical Beckett tramp in a typical Beckett ditch exposed to the typically harsh elements. Although he’s also said to be in sand. Is he on a beach?

  • He will stir in the sand there will be stir in the sky the air the sand.
  • In the sand no hold one step more in the endlessness he will make it.
  • One step in the ruins in the sand on his back in the endlessness he will make it.

While we’re trying to get our head round the variations, Beckett –as is his habit – throws in a few swearwords to épater le bourgeoisie (although nothing as rude as the words we came across in How It Is):

Little body little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun.

For those who seek symbolism in literature it appears as if the human figure is the only upright object among the ruins but is also on his back in the sand (22 instances) and ash (18). Contradiction. Paradox. Mirror images.

And insofar as the text describes, or at least references, the notion of a ‘refuge’, it can be manipulated into being ‘about’ man the refugee – a very fashionable concern of our times – endlessly seeking a refuge which is in fact in ruins, haven denied, no home, the endless rain, sand and ash. It has just enough semantic content to snare our minds, but is abstract enough to take almost any concern or idea we wish to project onto it.

Patterns and structures

As it happens, in a neat coincidence (if it is a coincidence) just as Andre’s sculpture Equivalent VIII consists of 120 bricks, so Becket’s prose work Lessness consists of 120 sentences. In fact, digging a little deeper, you discover the entire piece is the creation of a fantastically structuring imagination.

For some printed editions include a dotted line half way through to emphasise that the second 60 repeat the first 60 but in a different order. Because Beckett wrote each sentence on a separate piece of paper and drew them from a hat at random. He then wrote the numbers 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 on other sheets of paper and drew these at random to determine how many sentences would appear in each paragraph.

The sentences are structured around 6 families of images. In some print editions Beckett gives a guide to them with his usual mathematical precision:

  • Group A: collapse of refuge, key word ‘refuge’
  • Group B: outer world, key words ‘earth sky’
  • Group C: body exposed, key words ‘little body’
  • Group D: refuge forgotten, key phrase ‘all gone from mind’
  • Group E: past and future denied, key word ‘never’
  • Group F: past and future affirmed, key phrase ‘he will’

As Beckett put it, the text weaves through the family of images in, first, one random (dis)order (60 sentences) and then in another. It is a tale of two disorders, each containing, paradoxically, precisely the same 769 words although, to paraphrase Eric Morecambe, not necessarily in the same order.

Aleatory art

In the 1950s John Cage pioneered an aleatory process of composition whereby some elements of the composition are defined but their order, their length, the notes themselves and their pitch, were determined by ‘random’ inputs created by throwing dice or other randomising procedures. In fact Marcel Duchamps and Dadaists had experimented with this approach during the Great War. So Beckett was coming late to a well-established avant-garde practice.

The Beckett Companion (from which the section above is copied) states that this is the only time Beckett experimented with such a strictly aleatory approach, and I think you can see why: that a random approach is never entirely random. After all the author defined the themes, chose the words which express them, invented the number 120 and that it would consist of the same 60 sentences repeated – all this is chosen, is created, before the aleatory element which is, in the overall context, a relatively minor part of the process. The cherry on the cake.

BBC radio production

Interestingly, Lessness was given a full-blown radio production and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 7 May 1971. The six ‘image families’ were distributed among six different actors, namely Donal Donnelly, Leonard Fenton, Denys Hawthorne, Patrick Magee, Harold Pinter and Nicol Williamson, directed by Martin Esslin.

The fact this could be done shows there’s more to Lessness than meets the eye. That it exists (as one of the commentaries says) at a place where prose and drama meet. It’s another tangent, or angle from ‘normal’ prose, at which the text operates and which, to repeat my opening point, makes it a kind of antidote to the obvious and the immediate which is what we mostly meet with in contemporary culture.

I’ve searched high and low on the internet for a version of that 1971 BBC production but can’t find it. If anyone has the link I’d love to hear from you.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

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