Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Worstward Ho is a short piece of prose published by Samuel Beckett towards the end of his life. The title is a parody of the adventure novel Westward Ho! by Victorian novelist, Charles Kingsley, which itself is a reference to the Elizabethan play Westward Ho! by Thomas Dekker and John Webster.

Regarded with a detached eye, the title is almost a parody of Beckett’s notorious miserabilism, but the title doesn’t begin to capture the apocalyptic evisceration of language which characterises the text.

Along with other late prose pieces, Company and Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho was collected in a volume with the equally parody-worthy title, Nohow On, which is actually one of the recurrent phrases in WO, in 1989.

On the first page the text includes what is probably Beckett’s most famous quote:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

By this late stage in his career, Beckett had moved far beyond conventional categories such as novel, novella or short story. In fact he had moved beyond what most people probably think of as literature or even meaningful language.

The piece takes his late prose mannerisms to extremes. The following analysis relies on the excellent summary of the piece given by James Knowlson in his biography of Beckett, Damned To Fame, because Knowlson has read and thought about this difficult piece far more than I will ever have time to.

Shakespearean source

Beckett began writing Worstward Ho on 9 August 1981 (we know all this kind of detail because these notebooks were left, in good condition, to university archives). Beckett wrote out three quotes from King Lear to the effect that, if you can say we’ve reached the worst, you have not reached the worst. It is Edgar who says, in King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1:

And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

The worst is unsayable, inexpressible. Therefore, the mere fact of being able to speak or write, by definition, means you’re not there yet. The piece therefore approaches the final collapse of language, repeatedly enacting it, but failing to cross the threshold into silence. Language can’t. It can only try and try again. Hence the repetitive nature of the motto: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Language games

In the attempt to approach the edge of expressibility, Beckett experiments with language’s potential and Knowlson gives a useful little summary of the tactics employed:

Paring away

Most obviously the English language has been pared right back to a handful of words, brought together to create small phrases or lexical units.

A place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now. Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none.

Combinations

These tiny units, the handful of words and short phrases, are then combined, recombined, repeated with variations. The strategy of ‘enumeration’ which had been part of his prose since Watt.

On back to unsay void can go. Void cannot go. Save dim go. Then all go. All not already gone. Till dim back. Then all back. All not still gone. The one can go. The twain can go. Dim can go. Void cannot go. Save dim go. Then all go.

New coinages

Paradoxically, having reduced English to almost the bare minimum, Beckett generates a number of new words, coinages, especially around the core idea of ‘worse’.

unworsenable, unmoreable, unlessenable, evermost, meremost, dimmost, unlestening, unnullable

This much messing about with words is unusual in Beckett. And there’s lots of it, it’s a conspicuous feature of this piece:

invain, unasking, missaid, whosesoever, hindtrunk, astand, nohow, vastatween, inletting, outletting, ununsaid, unreceding, unsay, unsunk, unmoreable

As you can see, most of them are created by adding un- to perfectly normal words to create their opposite. Matter and anti-matter. Inventions in the desert of language. Tinkerings on the verge of the void.

Swapping parts of speech

In the same spirit, words change their usual syntactical function. Thus nouns are used as verbs, verbs as nouns, adverbs as adjectives and so on.

Alliteration

Playing with these last few counters of a mind on the brink of collapse throws up a surprising number of alliterative phrases, which possess a hard, chiselled beauty:

Skull and lidless stare. Where in the narrow vast? Say only vasts apart. In that narrow void vasts of void apart.

Tongue twisters

Knowlson makes the point that Beckett loved crossword puzzles, word games, tongue twisters and there turns out to be surprising capacity for such games even when playing with a handful of dead counters:

  • Somehow in. Beyondless. Thenceless there. Thitherless there. Thenceless thitherless there.
  • With leastening words say least best worse. For want of worser worse. Unlessenable least best worse.

The intrusive narrator

Beckett took the tradition of the intrusive narrator, who had been used for comic effect in 18th and 19th century novels, and turns him into an unsmiling director of the action whose presence is indicated by the imperative form of the verb ‘say’. Say this. Say that. The word ‘say’ occurs 100 times in the text. Could be paraphrased as ‘take a…’ or Let’s assume the existence of…’ only pared right back to the shortest possible verbal gesture:

Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none.

Or this longer quotation gives a flavour of how the text creates itself through a series of orders or suggestions:

It stands. What? Yes. Say it stands. Had to up in the end and stand. Say bones. No bones but say bones. Say ground. No ground but say ground. So as to say pain. No mind and pain? Say yes that the bones may pain till no choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Or better worse remains. Say remains of mind where none to permit of pain.

And what is it all this ‘saying’ is labouring to conjure into words, into reading, into being?

Content

Autobiographical memories

There is no ‘plot’, Good God, what an idea! But quite a few shapes or patterns emerge from this careful series of patterned paragraphs.

Beneath the dense wordplay, and forest of repetitions two images seem to emerge vaguely, as if through a fog, an old man walking hand in hand with a boy:

Bit by bit an old man and child. In the dim void bit by bit an old man and child. Any other would do as ill… Hand in hand with equal plod they go. In the free hands – no. Free empty hands. Backs turned both bowed with equal plod they go. The child hand raised to reach the holding hand. Hold the old holding hand. Hold and be held. Plod on and never recede. Slowly with never a pause plod on and never recede turned. Both bowed. Joined by held joining hands. Plod on as one. One shade. Another shade.

Having read Knowlson’s biography, both of these central images strike me as having direct autobiographical roots. Beckett’s father loved going for walks in the Dublin hills, and took his son as often as possible, hence old man and boy hand in hand. The second recurring image is of an old woman:

Somehow again on back to the bowed back alone. Nothing to show a woman’s and yet a woman’s. Oozed from softening soft the word woman’s. The words old woman’s. The words nothing to show bowed back alone a woman’s and yet a woman’s. So better worse from now that shade a woman’s. An old woman’s.

And after his father died, Knowlson describes the way, on his increasingly infrequent returns to Ireland the family home, Beckett would accompany his mother to lay flowers on his father’s grave.

Nothing and yet a woman. Old and yet old. On unseen knees. Stooped as loving memory some old gravestones stoop. In that old graveyard. Names gone and when to when. Stoop mute over the graves of none.

Physical extremity

As so often, Beckett’s places his characters in extreme physical situations – not atop burning buildings or such, but caught in tight, taut, claustrophobic poses which mimic the tight, taut nature of the psychological conception and are reflected in the tight, taut, claustrophobic prose.

  • It stands. See in the dim void how at last it stands. In the dim light source unknown. Before the downcast eyes. Clenched eyes. Staring eyes. Clenched staring eyes.
  • Head sunk on crippled hands. Clenched staring eyes.
  • Clenched eyes clamped to it alone. Alone? No. Too. To it too. The sunken skull. The crippled hands. Clenched staring eyes.

Cramped, crippled, clenched. No wonder Beckett found it physically exhausting to write texts which require the reader not only to clench his body, but in some respect to clench your mind while reading. Knowlson tells us it took Beckett seven months just to write the first draft of Worstward Ho and that, over the winter of 1981 to 1982 he told friends that writing the piece was making him physically sick. As he wrote to long-time American collaborator, Alan Schneider, in his characteristically clipped and telegraphic style:

Struggling with impossible prose. English. With loathing.

Worstward Ho took Beckett a lot of effort to write and takes us a lot of effort to read, but I think it repays the effort. I think the major mistake that most people make who struggle with Beckett is thinking there is some grand hidden meaning behind it all. I think the truth is the opposite. There is no deep and hidden meaning, no powerful allegory or network of symbols which, if you could only decipher, would suddenly unlock these difficult texts, somehow make them easier to read and process.

They are what they are. The words mean what they say. Any reader or critic is at liberty to read into them any meaning they like, but all such readings looking for hidden meanings take you away from the immediate presence of the actual words themselves and their genuinely strange, haunting, beguiling, rigorously unsentimental, anti-romantic, hard, spare impact. And their difficulty.

First the bones. On back to them. Preying since first said on foresaid remains. The ground. The pain. No bones. No ground. No pain. Why up unknown. At all costs unknown. If ever down. No choice but up if ever down. Or never down. Forever kneeling. Better forever kneeling. Better worse forever kneeling. Say from now forever kneeling. So far from now forever kneeling. So far.

If the words are ‘about’ anything, if there is a ‘plot’ (and there isn’t) it’s to do with the way the text talks to itself, manipulates itself, positions, poses then immediately questions and subverts itself.

The dim. The void. Gone too? Back too? No. Say no. Never gone. Never back. Till yes. Till say yes. Gone too. Back too. The dim. The void. Now the one. Now the other. Now both. Sudden gone. Sudden back. Unchanged? Sudden back unchanged? Yes. Say yes. Each time unchanged. Somehow unchanged. Till no. Till say no. Sudden back changed. Somehow changed. Each time somehow changed.

It is the record of the narrator shaping and unshaping and anti-shaping the words and patterns and whatever they refer to, or unrefer to, as it goes along, or doesn’t go along, says or unsays, changes or unchanges, neverending, nevermoving, until it brings itself to a sudden and abrupt end:

Enough. Sudden enough. Sudden all far. No move and sudden all far. All least. Three pins. One pinhole. In dimmost dim. Vasts apart. At bounds of boundless void. Whence no farther. Best worse no farther. Nohow less. Nohow worse. Nohow naught. Nohow on.

If you let go the reflex need to find ‘meaning’, if you recalibrate your mind to just go with the words in front of you and let them in, let them do their work, not strain for meaning and over-read them, but take them at face value, then they take you on an amazing journey to a very strange place, then they do something wierd to your mind. This is one of my favourite Beckett works because one of the purest, like The Unnamable, it is one of the least referential and therefore feels like a difficult, rebarbative, but deeply rewarding adventure in the possibilities of language and strange psychological effects.


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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