The Lost Ones by Samuel Beckett (1970)

So true it is that when in the cylinder what little is possible is not so it is merely no longer so and in the least less the all of nothing if this notion is maintained.

The last half dozen Beckett prose pieces I’ve read take their lead from his 1953 novel The Unnameable in being extreme close-up descriptions of individuals, either the figure crawling through the mud in How It Is or highly self-centred, solipsistic descriptions of trapped consciousnesses, in which sentences come apart at the seams and cluster or blocks of words are endlessly recirculated, in the case of Lessness using chance processes to order prefabricated sentences.

The Lost Ones is significantly different from its predecessors. For a start almost all the sentences make sense, albeit many are long-winded and with sometimes demanding word order. But they are not like the conglomerations of phrases joined together without any punctuation which you find in its half dozen predecessors, which demand a lot of interpretation or which you can relax for the effort of parsing and let create a kind of dynamic alternative to traditional prose, a kind of poetry of repetition in your mind.

The Lost Ones is more like a report, an anthropological study, of a particular environment and its inhabitants. It’s almost like a piece of science fiction, the kind of sci fi story which gives a detailed account of a new and bizarre alien society. It is definitely not a story: there are no characters, no events and no dialogue. But it is laid out in a logical structure and the sentences make sense.

The abode

The cylinder Beckett describes a cylinder fifty metres round and sixteen high, populated by about 200 human beings. The cylinder is all they have ever known. It is their life. He refers to the cylinder throughout as ‘the abode’. If you do the math you discover that each of these individuals is allotted ‘a little under one square metre’ of space.

One body per square metre of available surface.

This explains why ‘lying down is unheard of in the cylinder’.

The light The text (about 20 pages of a normal Word document, 8,240 words)  moves on to give precise description of the interior of the cylinder. One of the main features is that the permanent yellow light which suffuses it (from no identifiable source) grows dimmer and then brighter on a regular cycle. Long term exposure to these oscillations of light leads to blindness.

The temperature The oscillations of light are accompanied by changes in temperature from 25°C down to 5°C, occasionally as low as 1°C, the changes happening within four seconds! These drastic alterations have the effect of destroying the skin and drying up the mucus membranes, rendering sex (sex appears in most of Beckett’s texts, no matter how degraded) very uncomfortable, although some lost souls still fling themselves at it.

The walls are made of a rubber-like substance:

Floor and wall are of solid rubber or suchlike. Dash against them foot or fist or head and the sound is scarcely heard. Imagine then the silence of the steps.

The niches The next thing to note is the existence of 20 niches set in the walls:

cavities sunk in that part of the wall which lies above an imaginary line running midway between floor and ceiling.

The tunnels They are arranged in a cunning pattern of quincunxes (‘a geometric pattern consisting of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square or rectangle and a fifth at its center’, like the number 5 on a dice) but are undetectable from floor level. Some of the niches are connected by tunnels. There is one long unfinished tunnel which many have set off crawling along only to reach the blockage and have to shuffle backwards all the way back to the opening.

The ladders For those who want to find the niches, who are called searchers, there are fifteen ladders ranged along the cylinder walls. They vary in length but are all broken and missing some of their rungs. Some of the inhabitants not interested in ‘searching’ use them to hit each other or defend themselves.

The queues Those who want to mount the ladders have to queue because there are only fifteen ladders. Beckett goes into the rules of queueing for the ladders in great detail, but then he goes into great, obsessive detail about every aspect of the cylinder and its inhabitants.

This tendency to not be at all interested in character, psychology, plot or dialogue but to give obsessively precise descriptions of the physical aspect of a location and, above all, to give long and complete enumerations of every possible permutation of a particular physical activity (the classic example is the two pages devoted to describing all the different ways Molloy could transfer 16 stones from one pocket of his jacket to the other, giving each a good sucking on the way) is a core and central characteristic of Beckett’s prose. It’s odd that it is so overlooked, critics and commentators much preferring to focus on his schoolboy nihilism.

Categories of inhabitant This compulsion to categorise and enumerate comes into play when Beckett turns to describing the inhabitants of the cylinder, which include:

  • the searchers, keen to find a way out
  • the carriers (of ladders)
  • the climbers
  • the sedentary (‘if they never stir from the coign they have won it is because they have calculated their best chance is there and if they seldom or never ascend to the niches and tunnels it is because they have done so too often in vain or come there too often to grief.’)
  • the vanquished who, as the name suggests, have given up, who believe that ‘For in the cylinder alone are certitudes to be found and without nothing but mystery’ — the narrator estimates there are about 185 searchers which means about 15 vanquished
  • the watchers, who only sit and watch
  • the blind, their eyes worn out by the fluctuations in light

Wall space Because the ceaseless motion of the milling crowd would seriously interfere with the activity of the searchers moving ladders from one position to another up against the walls of the cylinder a convention has arisen to leave the yard or so closest to the walls free, creating a space for the searchers. In fact, Beckett quickly categorises the types of floor space available within ‘the abode’:

  1. First an outer belt roughly one metre wide reserved for the climbers and strange to say favoured by most of the sedentary and vanquished.
  2. Next a slightly narrower inner belt where those weary of searching in mid-cylinder slowly revolve in Indian file intent on the periphery.
  3. Finally the arena proper representing an area of one hundred and fifty square metres round numbers and chosen hunting ground of the majority.

Escape And why this endless effort to climb ladders, find niches and crawl along the tunnels? Because some of the inhabitants believe the tunnels are a way out, and will lead to a wider world:

From time immemorial rumour has it or better still the notion is abroad that there exists a way out.

Although here, as in everything else, things fall into sets or series although, in this case, only two:

  1. One school swears by a secret passage branching from one of the tunnels and leading in the words of the poet to nature’s sanctuaries.
  2. The other dreams of a trapdoor hidden in the hub of the ceiling giving access to a flue at the end of which the sun and other stars would still be shining.

These can be taken as allegories of religions, in the way you encounter strange religious sects in all manner of science fiction stories – one sect is seeking Nature, the other Heaven,

Law of ladders There’s quite a bit more detail about the laws and conventions governing the moving of the ladders, and the climbing of the ladders (only one at a time; if someone is coming down any ascender has to go back down to the floor to let them), the timing of the fluctuation of the lights and the temperatures, the behaviour and beliefs of the different types of inhabitant, but that’s the main gist.

True north A bizarre aspect of the abode is the way the first woman to give up all hope, and squat down, head down, naked, not caring any more about anything, has come to be taken by the others as a kind of lodestar, the only fixed point in the endless shuffling round the arena of all the other inhabitants.

There does none the less exist a north in the guise of one of the vanquished or better one of the women vanquished or better still the woman vanquished. She squats against the wall with her head between her knees and her legs in her arms. The left hand clasps the right shinbone and the right the left forearm. The red hair tarnished by the light hangs to the ground. It hides the face and whole front of the body down to the crutch. The left foot is crossed on the right. She is the north.

Hell

The abode is, of course, a version of hell, and Beckett brings out one or two hellish aspects, for example the way the inhabitants are filled with the horror of contact and yet are compelled all their lives by lack of space ‘to brush together without ceasing’.

Beckett also makes no bones about namechecking the chief imaginer of hell in the Western tradition, Dante. Dante also had a very mathematical, geometric, categorising kind of mind, clearly imagining the geography of the nine descending circles of hell and carefully categorising all the different types of sin, before imagining all manner of colourful punishments for them. You could say he co-ordinated the confused host of punishments his Christian predecessors had imagined for various sins into one huge and coherent system whose comprehensive structure combined with vivid poetic touches and a sympathetic insight into human nature in all its many manifestations has impressed everyone who’s read his great work, The Divine Comedy, for the past 700 years.

Maybe Beckett imagined himself doing something similar, he was certainly a lifelong devotee of Dante – except that the wonderful cohesiveness of medieval philosophy, medieval theology, medieval society and medieval culture had long since been lost and fragmented by the mid-20th century.

Maybe a modern approach to the same problem – a deeper analysis of the human condition which seeks to probe beneath the superficial details of character, plot and dialogue – can only be achieved via fragments, offcuts, shards and that explains Beckett’s approach.

Hence the shortness of Beckett’s later prose pieces, along with the sense that they are approaching the same thing over and over again, but each time from a slightly different angle. ‘Fail again fail better,’ as one of his t-shirt mottos has it.

So the cylinder of The Lost Ones may well be a vision of hell but there are no flames or demons and it is a weirdly modern, almost absurdist, hell – a hell of rubber walls, damaged ladders and tunnels which don’t lead anywhere.

Sentiment

Beckett clearly set out, in both his prose and plays, to reject bourgeois conventions of plot, psychology or character. Difficult to achieve in plays where the human actors generally require at least some kind of identification, even if they’re three mannekins in jars, as in Play, or three old ladies on a bench, as in Come and Go. Much easier to achieve in prose, which is one of the things which makes his run of prose works during the 1960s so interesting:

  • All Strange Away (1964)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine (1965)
  • How it Is (1964)
  • Enough (1965)
  • Ping (1966)
  • Lessness (1970)

But something that’s often overlooked by critics who focus on his fifth-form nihilism, is the way many of these texts include unexpectedly sentimental passages, especially at the end. He fights it, he resists it, but endings are difficult, just ending, point blank, somehow feels crude.

Thus it is that, rather than concluding The Lost Ones after he has exhaustively described the inside of the cylinder, Beckett provides a kind of coda, in which he imagines the behaviour of the very last survivor. Some time in the remote future all the other inhabitants will not exactly have died, but been worn down to immobility. Leaving just one (male) survivor) to totter over to the sitting woman who represents ‘north’.

There is nothing at first sight to distinguish him from the others dead still where they stand or sit in abandonment beyond recall… And sure enough there he stirs this last of all if a man and slowly draws himself up and some time later opens his burnt eyes. At the foot of the ladders propped against the wall with scant regard to harmony no climber waits his turn. The aged vanquished of the third zone has none about him now but others in his image motionless and bowed…

There he opens then his eyes this last of all if a man and some time later threads his way to that first among the vanquished so often taken for a guide. On his knees he parts the heavy hair and raises the unresisting head. Once devoured the face thus laid bare the eyes at a touch of the thumbs open without demur. In those calm wastes he lets his wander till they are the first to close and the head relinquished falls back into its place. He himself after a pause impossible to time finds at last his place and pose whereupon dark descends and at the same instant the temperature comes to rest not far from freezing point.

Hushed in the same breath the faint stridulence mentioned above whence suddenly such silence as to drown all the faint breathings put together. So much roughly speaking for the last state of the cylinder and of this little people of searchers one first of whom if a man in some unthinkable past for the first time bowed his head if this notion is maintained.

This final sentimental scene wasn’t at all necessary. It reminds me of the scene at the end of The Time Traveller where the protagonist stings our imaginations by describing the final, expiring days of the dead earth; or any other science fiction story which portrays the last survivor of some tribe or group (‘this little people of searchers’) that the reader has become attached to, and so tugs a bit at our heartstrings. This sentimental coda is strangely at odds with the clinical reportage of so much else of the text.

Notes from The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett

  • Beckett wrote the original work in French with the title Le Dépeupleur then translated it himself.
  • The Lost Ones is Beckett’s longest later prose work.
  • He began it in 1965 and worked on it intermittently till publication in 1970.
  • The final paragraph which, as I point out, brings out a plangent, sentimental mood, was written separately from most of the text, just before publication.
  • This ‘softening’ is also detectable in the change from the French to the English title. The French title means ‘The Depopulator’ which suggests Death and that the entire work is a sort of allegory of being dead. Whereas the English title, ‘The Lost Ones’, is much softer, more romantic, echoes the sentimental name of ‘the lost boys’ in Peter Pan. I doubt if Beckett consciously intended this, but I think it is there in the finished work.
  • The cylinder has 205 inhabitants: 120 climbers, 60 remaining on the floor looking for their loved ones; 20 sedentary searchers; five vanquished, chief among them the woman known as The North.

What are we to make of The Lost Ones?

I don’t think you need to think about it too much. I’ve read hundreds of science fiction and other types of tales which give you the exact dimensions of a spaceship or room, give a detailed description of its contents, which is all preparation for moving onto the human action. Phrasing it like that makes you realise that a lot of these Beckett prose works amount to an obsessively detailed description of the mise en scène and then… a kind of walking away before what you could call the human or humanistic element begins.

That said, The Lost Ones differs significantly from his other prose works of the period because it is so readable. The sentences work, and contain the familiar elements of subject, verb and object. The following passage is typical of many and extraordinarily accessible for Beckett:

The ladders. These are the only objects. They are single without exception and vary greatly in size. The shortest measure not less than six metres. Some are fitted with a sliding extension.

What does it all mean? Well, the reference to Dante is an unmistakable nod to the notion of hell and the afterlife, but pretty much all the other details militate anything like a conventional idea of hell. And I don’t think there are any (and the Beckett Companion doesn’t mention any) riffs or references to any other traditional aspects of hell or Christian theology.

No, it feels more like a standalone imagining which we, the readers, can situate anywhere we want to. It reminds me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s brilliant science fiction novel, Rendezvous With Rama, which is about a mysterious hollow cylinder full of strange artefacts. And the constantly circulating crowd jostling against each other remind me of two of J.G. Ballard’s short stories about an overpopulated world, Billennium (1962) and The Concentration City (1957). And the last man standing who staggers over to the barely alive last woman remind me of countless ‘last survivor’ stories.

For these reasons, although The Lost Ones is weird, it is at least readable, and that alone makes it quite a bit less weird than most of the other prose works Beckett was writing at the time.


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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