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

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