What Where by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Time passes.
That is all.
Make sense who may.

What Where is Samuel Beckett’s last play. Like many of his later works it was written for a commission, in this case for the 1983 Autumn Festival in Graz, Austria. Beckett wrote it between February and March 1983, initially in French as Quoi où, then translated it into English himself.

Setup

As you might expect What Where is a very minimal work, although quite a bit fuller than its predecessor, Nacht und Träume. In that play there was no dialogue at all and no named characters, so What Where feels positively packed by comparison, with no fewer than five characters, namely:

BAM
BEM
BIM
BOM
VOICE OF BAM (V)

Beckett gives relatively short and simple stage directions:

Players as alike as possible.
Same long grey gown.
Same long grey hair.
V in the shape of a small megaphone at head level

It is set in a confined ‘Playing Area’, for which Beckett, in his original script, characteristically provided a floorplan marked very precisely to indicate the location of the four actors, or the positions they entered, stood at, and exited from.

Note the way the Voice of Bam (V) is different from the actual physical person, Bam, and that the Voice emanates from a megaphone, carefully and distinctly placed apart from the main ‘Playing Area’. As we work through the different versions and interpretations of the play, the ‘apartness’ of this voice will take on larger and larger significance.

TV production

Though conceived and premiered in the theatre in 1983, in 1985 Beckett supervised a made-for-TV adaptation for the German Süddeutscher Rundfunk, assisted by Walter D. Asmus. The producers claim:

This new production of What Where also represents a significant technical updating of the original version with new production techniques adding subtleties and dimensions to the work that were not achievable with the technology that was available when What Where was first adapted for the screen.

In this version the whitened faces of the characters simply appear and disappear with no physical movement whatsoever, either by them or the camera, which remains rigidly in place. Compare this with Beckett’s script which describes both a definite, visible place, and the movements of the characters between very specified locations within it (the letters in the following refer to specific locations in Beckett’s set diagram).

[BOM enters at N, halts at 1 head bowed.
Pause.
BIM enters at E, halts at 2 head haught.
Pause.
BIM exits at E followed by BOM.
Pause.
BIM enters at E, halts at 2 head bowed.
Pause.
BEM enters at N, halts at 1 head haught.
Pause.
BEM exits at N followed by BIM.
Pause.
BEM enters at N, halts at 1 head bowed.
Pause.
BAM exits at W followed by BEM.
Pause.
BAM enters at W, halts at 3 head bowed.
Pause]

This sequence at the start has come to be called the ‘opening mime’ of the play. For the German TV version Beckett cut it altogether.

Plot

The four men are all dressed in identical grey gowns with the same long grey hair, similar to the long white hair of the protagonists in Ohio Impromptu and That Time.

The names are incongruously silly, nonsense names – Bam, Bem, Bim, Bom. The opening voice says there are five of them, suggesting one for each of the five vowels in which case the fifth member would be Bum. As my little boy would put it, ‘Daddy, you said a rude world’.

In fact Bim and Bom were the names of real historical personages, two Russian clowns from the 1920s and 30s who were allowed to travel abroad. Beckett saw them perform in Paris and their names or variations on them crop up throughout his works, in the collection of short stories More Pricks Than Kicks in the novel Murphy (along with Bum), in draft passages deleted from Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Bom and Bem appear in the long gruelling ‘novel’ How It Is before making their final appearance in this, Beckett’s final play.

The silly names contrast with the intense seriousness of the content. This can be divided into two aspects.

First there is the mystery of presence and absence, by which I mean the way the oracular opening voice calls into being the other characters, in a solemn stately, incantatory way, intones solemnly about time passing, calls the other three to him and disapproves (‘No good’) then approves (‘Good’) of their entrance and disposition.

But the second element is quite different. In this, Bam and Bom dialogue on a much more specific topic, namely the violent interrogation of a third, absent, person. By contrast with some other Beckett plays where characters speak at great length, the dialogue in What Where is very clipped, consisting of one short sentence each, like a call and response, making it harsh and brief, almost itself like an interrogation between a menacing interlocutor and someone almost visibly shaking with fear.

BAM: He didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.
BAM: You gave him the works?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: And he didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.
BAM: He wept?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Screamed?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Begged for mercy?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: But didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.

Screamed?. So the topic would appear to be torture. This links What Where back to Rough For Radio II, written back in 1961, in which a man is interrogating a prisoner tied to a chair with the help of a stenographer who reads out the previous day’s proceedings and an actual torturer who is periodically ordered to whip the prisoner, who as a result screams. Hmm. Torture. A surprisingly lurid and violent theme not usually identified with Beckett, whose plays rarely feature action of any kind.

And indeed, in this work, the animation of Rough For Radio II – the way we hear the victim actually being whipped and actually screaming – has been muted until it simply consists of Bom and Bem and Bim reporting on the supposed torture of the third party, who is tortured in each instance until he passes out.

What slowly becomes clear is that the person being tortured is one of them, that each of them are tortured, in turn. Each of the Bems presents themselves to Bam, who asks whether they got the desired results and, when they claim their victim passed out, Bam refuses to believe them, accuses them of being a liar, and summons the next in the sequence of Bems and Bims, orders them to take away their predecessor and give them ‘the works’.

Thus, one by one, three others is ordered to be taken away by one of the others to torture his predecessor; when he returns, having failed to get results, he himself is carted off and tortured until he confesses. But confesses to what?

BEM: What must I confess?
BAM: That he said where to you.
BEM: Is that all?
BAM: And where.
BEM: Is that all?
BAM: Yes.

In fact the thing each torturer is instructed to extract from his victim changes: First it is spring and the Voice of Bam tells Bim that he only wants to know ‘That he said it to him’. Then it is summer and the Voice of Bam orders Bim to take away Bem and to ascertain that ‘he said where to you’. Then it is autumn and Bem returns to report he has been unable to extract ‘where’ from Bim, whereupon Bam accuses Bim of lying and threatens him with ‘the works’. Since there is no one left to carry out this threat, Bam himself escorts Bem away.

That he said it, that he said where – Are these absurdly unspecific and apparently inconsequential concerns meant to highlight the absurdity of torture as a practice?

It is a notable aspect of the play that the ritualistic way each of the four becomes, in turn, the victim to be taken away and ‘given the works’, is preceded by a little passage from the Voice of Bam indicating the passing of the seasons:

V: I am alone.
It is summer.
Time passes.
In the end Bim appears.
Reappears.

Thus the movement of the status of prisoner and torture victim through the four characters is deliberately pegged to the very ancient trope of the passage of the four seasons, and you can see several reasons for this. One is that Beckett is addicted to numbers and patterns, witness the supercomplex choreography of Quad, also featuring four players, although silent fast-moving unspeaking dancers in that case, but also in numerous other works in prose and drama.

The second reason is, presumably, to make the doleful point that humanity’s tendency to persecution and torture is as ancient and unchanging as the cycle of the seasons.

What where

Let’s look again at what’s at stake in the serial interrogation. First of all Bam asks Bom whether the person he interrogated till he passed out (presumably the logical fifth in the sequence, the unnamed Bum) said ‘it’.

BAM: You gave him the works?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: And he didn’t say it?
BOM: No.
BAM: He wept?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Screamed?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Begged for mercy?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: But didn’t say it?
BOM: No.

Then Bam orders Bim to interrogate Bom till he admits that ‘he’ (presumably Bum) did say ‘it’ to Bom, but the latter is refusing to admit it. And when Bim fails in this task, Bam orders Bem to interrogate Bim in turn:

BEM: What must he confess?
BAM: That he said where to him.

So that’s where the What Where of the title come from. The first two interrogations are designed to identify ‘it’ (what?); the third interrogation is designed to identify ‘where’. So What? and Where? are the key subjects of the interrogation.

This has the vagueness of allegory, allowing thousands of critics and commentators to read into this focus on ‘what’ and ‘where’ the issues of their choice. Some have taken a psychological interpretation, focusing on birth and Freudian issues of personal guilt, others on the origin and nature of consciousness.

But maybe a more obvious interpretation is to expand the two questions into the big Meaning of Life ones, namely ‘What is it all about?’ and ‘Where do we come from and where are we headed?’ Thus, without much effort, the play can be turned into an allegory of ‘philosophical enquiry’, or at least of metaphysical enquiry.

An allegory but also, maybe… a parody, a mockery of the pointlessness of asking such questions. From the start of his writing career Beckett expended a lot of energy mocking the Rationalist tradition in philosophy, which he associated with René Descartes, and his entire oeuvre amounts to an attack on the notions that the human mind is rational or knowable, or that it can understand a rational, ordered world. Precisely the opposite.

And yet, we find ourselves over and over asking the same questions of life, of our existence, even though we know that no sensible answer exists, condemned by our natures to endlessly asking unanswerable questions. As Ezra Pound wrote in The Exile’s Letter in 1917:

What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking…

That could almost be Beckett’s motto. What is the point of writing, but there is no end of writing. The writing has to continue even if the writing is doomed to failure. You just have to fail again, fail better.

The Beckett on Film production

In December 1999 Damien O’Donnell directed a filmed version of What Where for the Beckett on Film project with Bam the person and the Voice of Bam-coming-through-the-loudspeaker played by Sean McGinley, and the succession of other Bems and Bims all played by the same actor, Gary Lewis.

This production is, in my opinion, preferable to the Asmus production. It makes a big difference to see the action taking place in an actual location because it clarifies the way each successive character fails in his attempts to get the previous one to confess and is himself hauled off to be given ‘the works’. It makes it a much more political play. It brings out the extreme menace of Bam, placing him up there with O’Brien, the torturer in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four, as an embodiment of total, terrifying power:

BAM: It’s a lie. [Pause. ] He said it to you. [Pause.] Confess he said it to you.

The Beckett on Film version dramatically highlights the transformation of each Bem figure from initially smirking torturer to terrified victim. And it brings out an aspect I didn’t get at all from the Asmus production, which is the way the Bems are picked off one by one, until there is only Bam left to escort the last one away and then, in the final scene, none of the clones remain, leaving Bam alone.

Thus this production brings out the way that the text is not cyclical but unidirectional. The way it starts with five characters and ends with one, the implication being that the others have been tortured to death. It paints an image of humanity as having exterminated itself down to a bare handful of survivors. As if in some science fiction apocalypse we witness the tragedy of the last survivors unable to end the ceaseless cycle of suspicion and pointless accusation and torture and death which has brought them to the brink of, and will drive them on to, extinction:

VOICE: We are the last five.

This is one way of interpreting the remark Beckett made for the 1985 production, that the Voice of Bam – which very stagily emits from an onscreen loudspeaker – is to be imagined as coming ‘from beyond the grave’. Maybe the last five have reduced themselves to zero. Mankind has tortured itself to extinction.

The German version, reprise

But this notion of the ghost peaking from beyond the grave brings us back to the 1985 German TV version for, if you watch it again after the Beckett on Film production, the German version may well lack the drama of the various Bems and Bims entering and exiting, and the amoral thrill of McGinley’s menacing presence – but this is because, instead, it has turned the play from a political powerplay into one of Beckett’s late period ghost stories.

The German version brings out, much more than the On Film version, the way that the entire action may be no more than a memory of the speaking voice, V. That the Voice of Bam may be only remembering all the onstage actions which are so carefully annotated.

More than that, more than a living mind remembering all these supposed events – what if Bam himself may be dead! What if the Voice of Bam (V) is so distinct and separate from the onstage actor called Bam, because it is a voice from beyond the grave, another of Beckett’s late-period spectral voices from nowhere.

This appears to have been the understanding encouraged by Beckett himself during the German production which he helped supervise. In the words of director Walter Asmus, we are dealing with:

The ghost Bam, dead Bam, a distorted image of a face in a grave, somewhere not in this world any longer, imagining that he comes back to life in the world, dreaming and seeing himself as a…face on the screen.

What? When? Turns out to be no-one, from nowhere.

The reflexive consciousness

Actually there is a third element, sitting above the way the 1. repeated scenes of accusation are embedded within 2. a frame of the four seasons – and this is the extremely characteristic way the narrative reflects on itself, stopping, pausing, making itself start again, try again, do another take.

Not good.
I switch off.
[Light off P]
I start again.

The way in which his texts comment on themselves or, more precisely, one of the several ‘voices’ in the text will command it to stop, try again, start again and so on – in the words of the famous quote from Worstward Ho, ‘Fail again. Fail better’ – this had been a central characteristic of most of Beckett’s prose from Molloy onwards.

The novel has a long tradition of intrusive narrators right from the start (Henry Fielding in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy) but generally they were light, humorous, chatty and inventive. In Beckett, the comic exuberance of the tradition has been pared right back to the bone, right down to this specimen of hard, mechanical, rote repetition, as grimly robotic as every other element of this bleakly automated fable.

There is a God supervising our fates but he has the heart and soul of a robot arm in a Nissan car-making factory.

It says what it means

I’ve a lifelong aversion to seeking symbolic or moral or psychological truths lurking in the depths of literary texts. All too often, when these are dredged to the surface they turn out to be trite and disappointing, blether about Original Sin or the Oedipus Complex or the revelation that all the world’s a stage or money makes the world go around.

I am far more interested in the mechanics of language, and the infinite number of registers, tones and effects it can create. In the detail and precision of the language and in the weird, other-worldly effects language (and light and sound and music and movement) can create in a theatrical context.

Therefore I have every sympathy with the Beckett who loathed being asked what his works ‘meant’. For example, the exasperated author was forced to state explicitly that if he had meant the name Godot to refer to God, he would have written as much.

Over and over Beckett had to tell inquisitive actors that he had no idea what happened to his characters before they make their appearance in the plays, what their ‘back stories’ or ‘personal histories’ consist of. I was delighted when I came upon director George Devine’s 1964 statement regarding the script of Play that even the text itself barely matters, but is merely the dramatic ammunition which enables the performance to take place (quoted in Knowlson, page 516) – a performance which, in Beckett’s vision, is often closer to a kind of moving sculpture, or painterly ballet, than any traditional idea of a ‘play’.

So I am heartened to find Beckett, here at the end of his writing career, repeating the same stance. When he was asked by yet another in a long line of berks what What Where ‘means’, he very reasonably and accurately replied:

I don’t know what it means. Don’t ask me what it means. It’s an object.

I think of works of literature as sophisticated devices designed to create certain psychological or aesthetic effects, neurological reactions in the mind. ‘Meaning’ can be among these effects and may well be a component of the work, the author might even think it’s the most important part of the work, but it needn’t be either the most important or the most interesting aspect.

Often asking what the ‘meaning’ of a work is, is as stupid as asking what’s the meaning of vanilla ice cream. It’s a flavour. You like it or don’t like it, it produces a certain reaction on your palette, you may be in or not in the mood for it. It’s an experience not a ‘meaning’.

Same with most poems, novels and plays, in my opinion. They are psychological experiences in which the ostensible or even buried meanings may play a part but don’t account for the entire experience, which is likely to be much richer, stranger, deeper, emotional or aesthetic and so on, than the narrow concept of ‘meaning’ allows. A lot more is going on than we are ever aware of…

Two versions

Having read about What Where in James Knowlson’s brilliant biography of Beckett and in the Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett I have now understood that the two YouTube versions I’ve included in this review represent what were, in fact, two distinct versions of the play. The Beckett on Film version is (despite the grandiose Terry Gilliamesque setting in a futuristic library) very loyal to the original script 1983 (as published in the Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett), and so makes clearer the sequence of events Beckett originally conceived, whereby successive Bems and Bims are turned on each other and done away with, until there is only one left.

Whereas the 1985 Asmus version benefited from Beckett’s ongoing amendments to the play, and transformed it into a thorough-going ghost story, in the sense that Bam might well be dead, all the characters in it might be dead, including the physical Bam, and the entire thing might be the staging of a ‘memory’ and the creation of fake personages, who are put through their paces and then put through their paces again in the strange ritualistic way, by the faint volition of a person beyond the grave.

By the time of a 1986 production, Beckett had revised the text so much – dispensing with the opening mime which I quoted at the start of this review, reconceiving the Bems and Bims not as actual people coming and going but as static disembodied faces illuminated only by spotlights, the actors now standing stationary on platforms two feet off the stage with none of the entrances and exits of the original version – that this new iteration came to be known as What Where II. It is, according to the Beckett Companion, nowhere written down or published, for reference we have only the earlier, unamended What Where I version which is what is included in the edition of Collected Shorter Plays which is the text I started off analysing and working from, and which is why it took me a while to even realise that the play exists in two such very different forms.

So the Beckett on Film version presents What Where I and the Asmus production presents What Where II and you’re left reflecting on the immense impact different stagings can have on work which is essentially the same but which, through different visualisations, can create such sharply, such hugely different experiences.


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

Ill Seen Ill Said by Samuel Beckett (1981)

For the last time at last for to end yet again…

Ill Seen Ill Said is a short prose text by Samuel Beckett. It’s 33 pages long in the modern Faber paperback edition. It was first published in French as Mal vu mal dit in 1981, and then published in Beckett’s own English translation in 1982.

Its immediate predecessor in Beckett’s prose works, Company, consisted of 59 paragraphs, printed with enough space between them to create the sense that each paragraph is almost a freestanding unit. Ill Seen Ill Said continues this layout, with 61 paragraphs in total. A revealing aspect of this paragraph-ness is that it’s quite difficult to quote individual sentences from the piece. They all read much better when given in the full context of their entire paragraph, testament to the way each paragraph is carefully crafted and assembled.

Late Beckett prose style

The paragraphs sort of describe, or appear to describe, an old woman alone in a cabin, who, at various points, watches the evening and the morning star, and ventures out apparently only to visit a grave. But that gives the completely misleading impression that there is some kind of a plot. There isn’t, not at all. But the point is not the plot or story (which doesn’t exist). The points are, or include:

  • Beckett’s late-in-life, continuing experiments with a prose which is pared to the bone, and yet dominated by the repetition of key words or phrases, images and… strange perceptions
  • a sort of muted fantasia of other elements which infest the ostensible ‘story’, for example, the recurrence of a sort of all-seeing ‘eye’ through which we see much of the changing scene, or the occasional presence of a mysterious set of twelve ‘guardians’
  • above all, a sustained obliqueness of approach to the entire concept of ‘narrative’ which means that, although the words flow by in an apparently orderly fashion, quite regularly and sometimes for long stretches, the reader has no idea what is going on

Late Beckett prose is pared to the bone. The text is not made of long, rangey, descriptive sentences, no sir. Commas and all other punctuation except full stops are conspicuous by their absence. Instead the text is built of generally very short sentences, often with their subject surgically removed.

There was a time when she did not appear in the zone of stones. A long time. Was not therefore to be seen going out or coming in. When she appeared only in the pastures. Was not therefore to be seen leaving them. Save as though by enchantment.

These relatively simple omissions create a version of what used to be called telegraphese (which the internet defines as: ‘the terse, abbreviated style of language used in telegrams’ ) and that’s certainly an obvious and negative effect, the removal of unnecessary words.

But there are positive effects too. Removing pronouns and unnecessary words highlights what remains and contributes to what you could call a kind of cluttering effect created by the deployment of unexpected syntactical patterns. The text enjoys staging little car crashes of nouns and pronouns, often deliberately creating difficulties or ambiguities.

She is drawn to a certain spot. At times. There stands a stone. It it is draws her. Rounded rectangular block three times as high as wide. Four. Her stature now. Her lowly stature. When it draws she must to it.

‘It it is draws her.’ Presumably this means: ‘It is this which draws her to the spot’, and you can imagine traditional authors, from Dickens to Hardy, elaborating further: ‘It is this worn and weathered ancient stone which attracts the lonely old woman to his bleak and isolated location…’ or some such colourful locutions.

But for Beckett, in 1981, this has been worn down to just: ‘It it is draws her’. The language itself has been worn and weathered down to a kind of stump.

And making sense of those five words requires the reader to stop and parse the syntax. The repetition if ‘it’ causes the mind to stumble for a moment, till it gets its bearings, and a lot of the text is like this – like the mind stumbling over very uneven terrain, strewn with rocks, continually having to come to a dead stop and work out the way forward.

I suppose a sentence like ‘It it is draws’ can also be categorised as a sort of word game. Repeating a word or phrase, one after the other, but with a different syntactical weight.

Last example the flagstone before her door that by dint by dint her little weight has grooved.

Saying ‘dint by dint’ would make a sort of sense, albeit an unusual phrase. But ‘by dint by dint’ really forces you to stop and work out the syntax of what is going on in these four short little words.

So Beckett makes his prose sparser and barer by:

  • using short sentences
  • removing verbs
  • removing pronouns
  • removing the definite or indefinite article (‘the’ or ‘a’)
  • unusual repetition of the remaining elements to create numerous syntactical challenges

All of which result in a really strange, super-charged prose.

Mysteries

Then there are moments, many moments when, by combining this fairly familiar set of tricks, he makes the prose suddenly mysterious and unfathomable.

What is it defends her? Even from her own. Averts the intent gaze. Incriminates the dearly won. Forbids divining her. What but life ending. Hers. The other’s. But so otherwise. She needs nothing. Nothing utterable. Whereas the other. How need in the end? But how? How need in the end?

‘The other’s’? What other? What other’s?

This paragraph goes right over the edge into new territory. I don’t understand any of the sentences. I mean I can read them, but I have no idea what they’re referring to. They don’t seem to refer to anything in the preceding text apart from ‘her’, the ostensible female subject.

But language can never be empty, its purpose is to convey meaning, so each word conveys meaning – can be read – it’s just that arrangement of words into these sentences conveys no clear or definable meaning. Therefore you end up in this situation where you can read it – easily read it because there are no hard words involved – but have no idea what it really means.

This is why I sometimes use the word incantation or spell about Beckett’s prose because, although you can understand the individual words, the way they are combined works to evoke or create a kind of uncanny otherspace in your mind. Personally, I find this rather delirious and quite addictive sensation is often almost unrelated to the ostensible subject matter of the prose (although it obviously helps that the subject matter is spare and bare and bleak and simple). The subject matter, in its colourless, passionless minimalism abstractness is merely the vehicle which enables the prose to reach out into their entirely unexplored, strange and hypnotic otherspace.

Imagery

As to the piece’s content and imagery, this interests me quite a bit less than the language, not least because so many of the images are actually repeats. A few reviews ago, I looked at Beckett’s short prose piece One Evening in which an old woman dressed in black has ventured out to pick flowers to adorn the tomb of her husband and comes across the body of a young man, dead in the grass. Well, here in Ill Seen Ill Said we have another old woman dressed in black fussing about the tomb of her husband.

Beckett published One Evening about the same time as another short prose piece, Heard In the dark 1, which describes a narrator going out for a long walk in the snow and mentions the lambs which have just been born, a passage which was incorporated entire into the longer, later work, Company. Well, here in Ill Seen Ill Said we have another solitary figure trudging through snowy fields empty except for a few lambs.

In Fizzle 7 a man sits at a window in a small upright wicker chair with armrests, just like the narrator in As the story was told who also describes himself as sitting in a cane chair with armrests. Well, in Ill Seen Ill Said the old woman spends at least some of the time sitting in a comfy chair looking out of the window, or one of the two windows there seem to be in her room.

Sitting in a chair looking out the window. Trudging through the snow. A gravestone. The young lambs – all these images recur in Ill Seen, Ill Said, reshuffled, tumbled into a slightly new order. It is a reminder that the subject matter in Beckett is often stupefyingly banal, almost bland. A woman sits in a chair in her ‘cabin’ and likes to see the evening star rise. During the cold days she goes walking in the snow. It comes as no surprise to learn that the manuscript was initially titled, very simply, ‘The Evening or the night’.

Bear in mind this was written in 1980, Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, a huge social shift to the right in politics, re-ignition of the Cold War, mass unemployment and social unrest across the Western world, strikes and race riots. But in Beckettworld… he conceives images of this old woman at night in her cabin staring out the window, during the day trudging to the grave of her dead husband, a ring of 12 ‘guardians’ sometimes appearing to maybe menace her… and, stepping up from that level, the text appears to comment on itself, describing some sort of ‘eye’ which is observing the action, or contributing to it, although at other moments it seems to simply be the eye of the old lady herself as she shuts it to go to sleep or doze or opens it to take in the sight of her bare room in the gathering dusk.

In other words, Ill Seen Ill Said is, first and foremost, an imaginary landscape utterly detached from the real world. And what is clear from a bare consideration of just the imagery, the non-existence of any ‘plot’, and the flatness of the original title, is the immense amount of effort Beckett must have put in to transforming a set of very banal images and half a dozen gestures (looking out the window, going for a walk in the snow, eating from a bowl) into the strange, very challenging and delirious experimental prose piece it has become.

The author struggling

As with so many other Beckett texts, this one appears to include the author as a figure struggling to make sense of his own creation. In this paragraph he appears to be saying how much simpler it all would be – thinking and writing about her – if she were just a pure figment, a fictional construct, ‘cooped up’ in ‘the madhouse of the skull’ along with ‘the rest’.

Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then. If only all could be pure figment. Neither be nor been nor by any shift to be. Gently gently. On. Careful.

I take ‘madhouse of the skull’ to be Beckettian hyperbole for the confusion within the creating mind which, at times, borders on mental illness. And I take ‘with the rest’ to refer to all the other creations of his mind, and half expect him to rattle off the list of familiar characters, Murphy, Watt, Malone, Molloy and so on.

But she can’t, she can’t be this simple. The authorial voice shares with us how much he is struggling to manage his material and then… makes what is probably the Beckettian manoeuvre: declares he must go on. He wants it to stop, the living, the breathing, the voices, the questions, God he wants it all to stop:

If there may not be no more questions let there at least be no more answers…

But, as Beckett characters have been declaring ever since he gave the notion its classic formulation at the end of The Unnamable (1953), something in him fights to continue, to go on:

I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Only it is 30 years later and that ringing statement has been worn down like her husband’s gravestone, and like Beckett’s prose, to the bare stump:

On.

The eye

One way of going on is to move sideways and stop taking responsibility for the text. Thus the text slowly begins to mention the presence of some kind of ‘eye’, as if there is an organ of visual perception which is observing the action and the creation of the text enacting the action, but which at the same time is detached from the author, as such, and from the narrating voice and, apparently, from any other entity within the text.

The ‘eye’ becomes a kind of freestanding device with which the author can shuffle off his responsibility to own or control or complete the text:

  • Let the eye from its vigil be distracted a moment…
  • The eye rivets the bare window…
  • The eye breathes again but not for long. For slowly it emerges again. Rises from the floor and slowly up to lose itself in the gloom…
  • Here without having to close the eye sees her afar…

At some moments it seems to be the old lady’s eye, looking up at the ceiling in the gloom of the cabin? But then the difference is made clear:

  • Weary of the inanimate the eye in her absence falls back on the twelve…
  • While the eye digests its pittance. In its private dark…

Whose eye? How can it have a private dark of its own?

‘The eye’ is like another character, or another point, another focus. Having read Beckett’s later television plays, and the screenplay for his one and only film, Film, I know how very very precise he was at envisioning the camera’s precise position vis-a-vis the action, and how much effort he clearly out into visualising the events he was creating, first from this point of view, then from that, and so on. Well, that’s what the appearance of this ‘eye’ in the text reminds me of, at some moments, anyway: a kind of TV director’s point of view.

  • The eye closes in the dark and sees her in the end.
  • Seated on the stones she is seen from behind.
  • The hands. Seen from above. They rest on the pubis intertwined. Strident white.

And this feeling is reinforced in a couple of places where Beckett uses explicitly filmic terminology:

  • Close-up of a dial. Nothing else.

But it would be wrong to give the impression this screenplay terminology is consistent or easily comprehensible. The metaphor of the eye only sometimes appears to be televisual or filmic. In the text its precise meaning swims all over the place, from being, at one extreme, the actual eye of the old lady, at the other, the mechanical eye of a camera, while in other places it is sort of the eye of the narrator. Its definition and meaning are, in other words, radically uncertain, and one more factor destabilising the text and the reader’s efforts to situate themselves within it.

The intrusive author gives up

The intrusive author is traditionally associated with comedy, with the comic interventions into their own plots of novelists such as Laurence Sterne or Henry Fielding or early Dickens or William Thackeray.

Beckett reinvents the tradition as the voice of an author within the text, as he struggles to manage his own content, struggling to understand what he is seeing or hearing or experiencing. This explains, for example, the repeated one-word sentence ‘careful’. I take this to be the voice of the author telling himself to proceed carefully, as if the narrative itself is proceeding on a knife-edge, is in peril. As if it is dicing with dangerous material…

  • Was there once a time she did? Careful.
  • Gently gently. On. Careful.
  • What if not her do they ring around? Careful.
  • What forbids? Careful.
  • Dead still on her back evening and night. The bed. Careful.
  • With what one word convey its change? Careful.

The narrator is quite clearly telling himself to be careful about the way he conjures details into existence – but, as these details are by and large very banal, it’s clearly not them, the details, which are at stake.

South gable no problem. But the other. That door. Careful.

Here’s an example where he shares with us his indecision about precisely what posture to place the woman in:

Suddenly in a single gesture she snatches aside the coat and to again on a sky as black as it. And then? Careful. Have her sit? Lie? Kneel? Go?…

Thus the repeated phrase ‘careful’ builds up the sense that the narrator’s mind is in a very fragile state and that any sudden shocks or unexpected… slips in what he is fabricating, in what he is writing, inventing and describing, might tip him over the edge. But what edge? And why?

This sense of authorial jeopardy becomes especially vivid in one paragraph where the author appears to give up altogether, dismissing the whole attempt to write anything, to imagine anything, as a pitiful fiasco, dismissing all the details then the solar system itself, the entire universe he has invented, as a pitiful waste of time.

Such – such fiasco that folly takes a hand. Such bits and scraps. Seen no matter how and said as seen. Dread of black. Of white. Of void. Let her vanish. And the rest. For good. And the sun. Last rays. And the moon. And Venus. Nothing left but black sky. White earth. Or inversely. No more sky or earth. Finished high and low. Nothing but black and white. Everywhere no matter where. But black. Void. Nothing else. Contemplate that. Not another word…

Except that… there is always another word. Beckett’s characters and Beckett the author may repeatedly express the devout wish to cease, to end, to reach the end, to achieve completion. But humans can’t do that, the human condition is endless flux, consciousness won’t let up, the words won’t stop, the voices won’t be silent.

And so, after this moment of authorial collapse, this moment of authorial panic, the narrative picks up the pieces and carries on, doing what Beckett likes to do in moments of crisis, which is move to a systematic description of something trivial, in this instance the appearance of the old woman’s hands in her lap as she sits still:

Panic past pass on. The hands. Seen from above. They rest on the pubis intertwined. Strident white…

‘Panic past’. And so it continues, because it has to, like life.

Ghost stories

In my reviews of works like Eh Joe, Footfalls and Rockaby I’ve developed the notion that Beckett was writing ghost stories. Not deliberately, he is not consciously invoking the tradition of M.R. James et al. But in my opinion, although starting from a very different place, although starting from the rumbustious comic tradition of Rabelais which combines excessive interest in bodily functions with mockery and parodies of high philosophy, nonetheless Beckett has arrived in a place where he is obsessed with the evanescence of existence, with consciousnesses passing in and out of perception, of minds aware of multiple minds within themselves, containing multitudes of voices, voices in the darkness, voices from within the skull and maybe from elsewhere, who knows…

Times when she is gone. Long lapses of time. At crocus time it would be making for the distant tomb. To have that on the imagination! On top of the rest. Bearing by the stem or round her arm the cross or wreath. But she can be gone at any time. From one moment of the year to the next suddenly no longer there. No longer anywhere to be seen. Nor by the eye of flesh nor by the other. Then as suddenly there again. Long after. So on. Any other would renounce. Avow, No one. No one more. Any other than this other. In wait for her to reappear. In order to resume. Resume the – what is the word? What the wrong word?

A lot is going on in this paragraph but for my purposes I want to focus on:

But she can be gone at any time. From one moment of the year to the next suddenly no longer there. No longer anywhere to be seen. Nor by the eye of flesh nor by the other. Then as suddenly there again. Long after.

Someone appears to be watching the cabin where the old lady lives and knows that she disappears, or appears to disappear (this playing with words is contagious!) for periods of time. In my mind’s eye I see this filmically, dissolves with snow falling over an isolated rural cottage, and it appearing empty most of the time, only for the old woman, somehow, spookily, to reappear.

She is there. Again. Let the eye from its vigil be distracted a moment. At break or close of day. Distracted by the sky. By something in the sky. So that when it resumes the curtain may be no longer closed. Opened by her to let her see the sky. But even without that she is there. Without the curtain’s being opened. Suddenly open. A flash. The suddenness of all! She still without stopping. On her way without starting. Gone without going. Back without returning. Suddenly it is evening. Or dawn. The eye rivets the bare window. Nothing in the sky will distract it from it more. While she from within looks her fill. Pfft occulted. Nothing having stirred.

‘Gone without going. Back without returning.’ Creepy! Later on she seems to disappear even as we’re watching her, in the middle of eating from a bowl, she simply fades away.

But before she can proceed she fades and disappears. Nothing now for the staring eye but the chair in its solitude…

Or take the paragraph describing the buttonhook the old lady uses to lace up her boots before going out. The point is that:

It trembles faintly without cease. As if here without cease the earth faintly quaked…

Just this one object, alone in the whole cabin, very faintly, continually trembles. Why? It is like the detail from countless ghost/horror movies, he scene where you see otherwise inconsequential household objects suddenly start to shake…

And then there is the role played by ‘the twelve’. There are twelve, twelve somethings, presumably humans. Who, what why? They appear. They seem to circle the lady. Why?

What if not her do they ring around? Careful. She who looks up no more looks up and sees them. Some among them. Still or receding. Receding. Those too closely seen who move to preserve their distance. While at the same time others advance. Those in the wake of her wandering. She never once saw one come toward her. Or she forgets. She forgets. Now some do. Toward but never nearer. Thus they keep her in the centre. More or less. What then if not her do they ring around? In their ring whence she disappears unhindered.

Being circled, being at the centre of a ring of spooky, ghostly, spectral beings is another classic ghost story trope. Later they are suddenly referred to as ‘the guardians’, an even more obvious, spooky trope:

The guardians – the twelve are there but not at full muster.

The twelve are guardians? Of whom, of what? Why? Mystery. There is a great deal of text about stones, about the stoniness of the environs of the lady’s cabin, about how white bleached stone is encroaching on the pasture. Possibly the twelve are menhirs, dolmen, ancient standing stones and their movement closer and further is something to do with fog or mist. Or maybe with the old lady’s failing eyesight. Eye. Sight.

My suspicions about ghost story were bolstered when another ghost story word makes an unusual appearance, unusually explicit, short-circuiting the often impenetrable vagueness of the text with a bolt of obviousness:

The long white hair stares in a fan. Above and about the impassive face. Stares as if shocked still by some ancient horror…

‘Ancient horror’ eh. Sounds like Bram Stoker or Conan Doyle at their cheesiest.

Time slowing down. A haunted cottage. An old woman at the centre of a ring of twelve silent guardians. Staring as if shocked by some ancient horror…

It’s not by any means all that’s going on in this text, and it may well not have been Beckett’s primary concern or intention at all… But I think Ill Seen Ill Said takes its place in what I’m coming to think of as Beckett’s late-period ghost stories…

The title

The phrases ‘ill seen’ and ‘ill said’ are dropped into the text with increasing frequency as it moves towards its ending, and have complex resonances, not least because ‘ill’ can be both an adverb and a noun, so that ‘ill seen’ can mean both ‘something evil which is observed’ and ‘badly seen’.

But, to take ‘ill’ as an adverb one fairly obvious interpretation, is that ‘things’, ‘it’, ‘the world’, ‘reality’, can never be perfectly seen (or understood) and never perfectly expressed. Any human perception is necessarily very imperfect and incomplete. The world, in other words, can only, at best, be ‘ill seen’. And all human expression is similarly partial, incomplete, doomed to inadequacy. Even the best words can only hope to be ‘ill said’.


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

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759-68)

Everything in the world is big with jest.

This is sort of embodied in Vol VII where Tristram flees Death heading South to warm France and ends up dancing with a beautiful gypsy girl. Or in Vol IX where he gets fed up of trying to tell the story of Widow Wadman & Uncle Toby & cuts to himself in the south of France listening to the postillion telling him the touching story of the unhinged country girl…

Tristram Shandy was published in 5 instalments: Vols 1&2; 3&4; 5&6; 7&8; 9. It came out annually between 1759 and 1768. Like Harry Potter.

The book is made of a number of elements. For me Sterne grasps two particularly profound aspects of ‘the novel’: the ambiguous role of the narrator; the arbitrary and thus ludicrous function of chapters.

[It must be said that, for all its tomfoolery, Tristram Shandy emphatically partakes of Ian Watts’s ‘formal realism’ every bit as much as Crusoe or Pamela: almost more so in that the characters are taken to be real people, with realistic names, in a realistic setting, behaving in silly but ultimately plausible ways].

The Digressive Narrator

Sterne noticed the centrality of the narrator as a puppetmaster in Fielding’s novels. But Fielding can be relied upon to return to the plot: what if the narrator didn’t return? What if he wandered off all over the place, constantly distracted?

Why would he do that? Two reasons:

  • Brain damage – as outlined by Walter Shandy p.296: Tristram’s animal spirits are dispersed at conception; then his mother seethes with resentment for 9 months; then his head is squashed by Dr Slop’s forceps. No wonder his mind wanders.
  • Locke’s theory of associations: Locke provides an intellectual underpinning for the novel’s divagations with his theory that the mind, the understanding, works through chains or trains of associated thoughts. Thus Walter’s learned obsessions e.g. with names and noses, and Toby’s notorious obsession with fortifications.

Thus we arrive at the easy paradox that the main body of the text is made of digressions and diversions.

Learned Wit

The tradition of learned wit i.e. using learning for comic effect by:

  • exaggeration
  • complexification
  • absurdity

Apparently the critic D.W. Jefferson coined the phrase ‘learnèd wit’ to characterise the tradition from Rabelais thru Cervantes to Sterne.

Thus Walter Shandy can be a receptacle for the most reconditely learnèd obsessions, and this provide a peg for the most ludicrous displays of abstruse learning, of the utterly useless medieval variety e.g. the long disquisition on noses and the quote from Slawkenbergius’s tome on same; or the treatise on swearing…

Chapters

Along with the key role of the unbalanced narrator, Sterne has grasped the key role of chapters in ‘the Novel’ i.e. their implicit absurdity. Any chapter break by any author in any novel is a huge, improbable, highly artificial, interference by the author in a narrative. Sterne plays on this insight for all it’s worth: once he’s discovered he can declare that he will have a chapter on a specific subject, there is no end to the nonsense of promising chapters on every subject under the sun:

There is no end in trying experiments upon chapters. (p.311)

Bawdy

A sexual understanding underpins the entire novel. It opens with the split second of Tristram’s conception: from then on there is a permanent risk that any remark he makes will have a sexual innuendo.

Innuendo is a question of creating a context, a mood, an atmosphere in which even the most prosaic or innocent remark can be misinterpreted as sexual in meaning. This is a question for pragmatics i.e. context over logical content.

  • It begins with sex
  • Uncle Toby’s wound in the groin is a source of endless innuendo
  • The debate about why Mrs Shandy did not want Dr Slop to come too close to her ****
  • The hot chestnut on Phutatorius’s penis (needing to be warped in a wet sheet from his new book about concubines!)
  • The crude summary of Vol IV Chap 8 as having been about chambermaids, a green gown (deflowering a virgin) and an old hat (the vagina)
  • The sole purpose of the story of the abbess of andouillets is to get a pair of nuns shouting Bugger and Fuck
  • The story of the mule leads abruptly to Tristram’s breeches being slashed and, strongly implied, his pecker falling out

Sterne was friends with John Hall-Stevenson, a rake and libertine, who lived in Skelton Castle (nicknamed Crazy Castle) where they held pale copies of the Medmenham Hellfire Club, under the name of the Demoniacs. J H-S appears as the character Eugenius throughout; at the end of Vol III the debate, supposedly called to discover whether Walter can change Tristram’s name – after he was accidentally baptised Tristram by Yorick – back to the intended Trismegistus, but which instead discusses whether a child is at all related to its parents, with the incident of Phutatorius and the hot chestnut in the groin, can be taken as a comic account of the Demoniacs, with appropriately Rabelaisian names (Mr Kiss-Arse, for example).

The Imagined Reader

In fact a variety of imagined readers are created in order to give Sterne numerous opportunities for turning the text into a dialogue. I suppose Bakhtin’s notion of the heteroglossia of the text is relevant ie it contains multiple voices in permanent dialogue. The actual dialogues are on a variety of subjects:

  • Bawdy, where he comically deflates what appeared to be a bawdy moment
  • Invocations, e.g. a prologue, preface, dedication
  • Critics, who are invoked to give their opinions

Thus the book can be said to have a far larger cast of characters than merely the named half dozen.

Decorum

We are always taught that the Augustans valued decorousness of literature and art more than any other age i.e. had a highly worked-out sense of the fittingness, the appropriateness, of various sentiments to literary forms. And yet this is the age with a strong parallel tradition of burlesquing and parodying this formality, from Pope’s satires to Fielding’s use of burlesque and parody.

Everybody agreed The Epic was the highest form (just as History painting was the highest genre). Which makes it the more striking that no Augustan considered themselves capable of one. Pope and Dryden translated Homer. But their age – the late 17th and early 18th centuries – saw the heyday of the mock epic. Among the most famous examples are Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel, and Alexander Pope’s Dunciad. A key source of the humour is the delivery of low matter in a highflown style. Fielding used this repeatedly in his novels, starting with the mock epic invocation or paean. He saw his novel as ‘a comic epic poem in prose’. Sterne simply represents this tradition taken to an extreme where the actual content

Death

Sterne was ill all through the writing of Tristram Shandy. Various characters die:

  • Yorick: and his tombstone
  • Brother Bobby
  • Tristram, in the middle of describing Trim & Toby’s campaigns on the bowling green, end of Vol VI, has a morbid vision of Trim attending Uncle Toby’s funeral
  • All of Vol VII appears to be Tristram trying to outrun death by fleeing to France. There’s a Shandy moment when Tristram’s adult flight overlaps with his boy-ish Grand Tour accompanied by Walter, Toby et al. But this volume feels strangley rushed and hysterical…

Timescale

1698 Uncle Toby injured at the siege of Namur
1700 Toby & Trim’s 1st year of building fortifications in the bowling green

Tristram’s conception

Tristram’s birth i.e. Obadiah bumping into Dr Slop, Tristram’s bungled delivery i.e. squashing his nose
Tristram’s christening by the vicar
Tristram’s penis is cut off by the window sash when Susannah made him pee out of the window because the maid forgot to put a chamber pot under the bed

Example of the wandering narrative

We never get to find out how Tristram’s brother, Bobby, died. Instead Walter is inspired to deliver a moving panegyric to him, so moving he forgets about his son’s actual death – and Mrs Shandy bursts in, misunderstanding what is going on – and we cut to Corporal Trim’s extempore eulogy in the servants’ quarters – which leads to a meditation on the dropping of his hat – and so on, but never back to Bobby…

Characters

  • Tristram Shandy
  • (Jenny, his consort)
  • (Eugenius, his friend)
  • Walter Shandy, his father
  • Mrs Shandy, his mother
  • Toby Shandy, his uncle
  • Bobby Shandy
  • Corporal Trim (James Butler)
  • Yorick the vicar
  • Dr Slop, the Catholic doctor
  • Susannah
  • Obadiah
  • Jonathan the coachman
  • The scullion
  • Didius – member of the Demoniacs
  • Phutatorius – member of the Demoniacs
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