Reading Samuel Beckett

(April 13, 1906 - December 22, 1989)
Arthur Broomfield
Samuel Beckett is one of a precious few who have   revolutionized the approach to writing. He shares a special place in the incremental development of the process    with Homer, the Greek playwrights, Shakespeare and very few others. Homer, where it all began, from a western perspective at least, with the epic poems that tell the great stories of ancient Greece; the Greek playwrights who dramatize suffering, and Shakespeare who does all this and everything else through unsurpassed language. Beckett earns his place in this pantheon by challenging what we admire most in the work of his predecessors. He puts an end to the narrative; for Beckett the story cannot be told. Suffering is the human condition, so cannot be in conflict with an opposite and is therefore not dramatized in, for example, Waiting for Godot. Where Shakespeare gives us thousands of new words to make sense of our perceptions  Beckett goes back into commonplace language and argues that perceptions cannot be accurately represented in language. For Beckett it is a naïve notion to think that a thing can be conclusively defined in stable language.

Beckett combines a philosophical curiosity, rooted in the question ‘what is it to be,’ with a cryptic style and syntax that asks the reader to look at, not through or beyond, so-called everyday language? In Beckett’s writing language is arranged so that it draws attention to itself, not to the thing, or concept, it may be thought, or believed, to describe. By so doing his art form and his philosophical approach become the one.  His philosophical belief is that language is reality, or the real, and his art form justifies his belief  by showing that we cannot get out of language.That is, language that is divorced from meaning and knowing, and from all association with the senses- empty language that has been freed of the obligation to describe what the senses perceive, and relieved of the task of justifying the supposed link between the two. To fully appreciate Beckett’s works we need to understand his thinking on philosophy and language, and we can best do this through the evidence he provides in his artistic work, especially that from The Unnamable on.

The first thing that should be stressed is that Beckett is a believer. He believes in a Platonic type reality; that reality for him is pure language, it is not in a particular location for that would suggest dependency on time and space but is. Language is all being, as he says throughout his works, and all being is language. All else, the body, what the senses perceive in this dimension, is doubted  and is classified as non-being   His approach to the philosophical and linguistic questions that exercise him is summed up in the title I have chosen for my book. The Empty Too : language and philosophy in the works of Samuel Beckett (too as in also) is a complete sentence from Worstward  Ho,that like many other sentences running through Beckett’s works seems not to make sense on early readings. However when we realize that he is speaking about the  definite article, the word ‘the’, not an assumed thing or referent beyond that word, we  will have reached an entry point into understanding Beckett’s thinking. In this sentence ‘the’ is torn from the assumption that it represents some thing .It is freed and  can stand alone as a word unsupported, severed from the backing of a presumed chair, table, or whatever. There it stands, a word that will not go away, what Beckett calls an empty word, that only effort and ideology, or misreading, will link  to any thing, or concept, but a word, nevertheless. The definite article can only be definite insofar as it refers to itself. ‘The’ is the word the, or to be accurate, the representation in writing or speech of the word that exists beyond speech and writing.  Beckett doubts, rather than dismisses the possible existence of perceived things; that doubt is in itself enough to qualify them for classification as non-being.

When we study Beckett’s works we need to remember that he is a creative artist who locates his creation in a fictional world that is a remove away from the familiar world, as we know it,  it is a world that has been created to accommodate his artistic vision. We need to avoid the trap of assuming that his works are located in the world we believe to be reality. To approach his works thus will persuade us to accommodate them to an interpretation of reality rejected in Beckett’s texts. It will lead us to look for a relationship between language and things, and for meaning, where the overwhelming evidence in his texts argues for the undoing of meaning, and for the freeing of language from the referent. In marked contrast to our perceived world Beckett’s fictional world   creates the space to accommodate the cross-fertilisation of his art and his philosophy; it can be  seen to good effect  in his great dramatic work, Waiting for Godot,

The notion that what we perceive through our senses cannot be proved, either to exist or not, has plenty of precedents in philosophy. Reality, to Plato, or the same, as he calls it, is beyond perception, it ‘cannot be perceived through the senses at all’. That which can be perceived, according to Plato, ‘is grasped by opinion, it comes to be and passes away but never really is’ just like the fleeting perceptions we all experience, that differ from moment to moment, and from person to person .Descartes doubted the existence of everything he perceived except the one thing that assured him that he did exist, namely his ability to think. ‘I think therefore I am’ as the cogito is loosely translated, or because I am aware that I can think I know that I exist. The tradition of  Western philosophy that goes back to Plato argues that there is an elsewhere, an other to our existence, an unknowable world as Kant puts it. Interest in the nature of language, the other vital element to Beckett’s project, intensified through the twentieth century through the thinking of Ferdinand de Saussure who argued, convincingly, that the sign is arbitrary, in other words that the link between the thing we see and the words that describe it is no more than a convention agreed by us. We agree that words mean, or re-present, things and concepts so that we can exist within a community where we strive to make sense of the world around us, and where we can communicate with others. The necessities of life, the stresses of day to day living and so on, prevent us from thinking seriously about the miseries of our so called reality, content as we are to bask in the successes of our favourite football team, or to dream of winning the lotto.

   Beckett contests every assumption that has been made about the presumed reality of   our being here in the familiar world. For him this is not reality, but non-being, as he describes the world of perception in the screenplay of Film. Through his works, and this can be clearly seen in Waiting for Godot, every perceived thing and every  invented concept is stripped of proof of existence and can never go beyond the state of being doubted. In Waiting for Godot  time, space, the tree, character, Lucky’s  garbled  allusions to knowledge, because they are seen, heard or described by the functions and senses of the body, which is itself doubted, exist only in a state of doubt. Reality, or being, is, like Descartes ability to think, the core of our existence.  But for Beckett reality is pure language that is beyond thinking and meaning, and beyond the functions of the body, all of which belong to the world of perceptions. We cannot experience pure language  in this dimension .The closest we can get to it is through ‘going on’ to empty language which  is as far as the limitations of the body will allow. He surpasses the thinking of Saussure by arguing that language can be shown to exist when that which it purports to represent remains in doubt. He    insists, throughout his significant works, that when the perceived world inevitably collapses into the void, language will continue to exist.

 All literature begins with a question, according to Maurice Blanchot, and the question that  haunts Beckett’s works is ‘If language is the real how can it be proved to be so if the existence of that which tries to prove it, the body and its senses , cannot  be conclusively proved ?’ Beckett’s way of dealing with this insoluble problem is to establish the superiority of language over that which we perceive. He does this through the remorseless probing and   stripping of the thing   to which the word relates, until we are only sure of the word’s existence, it is in a superior, but not absolutist position to that to which it refers. The existence of the perceived, or the referent, can never be conclusively proven and must remain doubted, yet because it cannot be dismissed altogether it impedes the progression of the empty word to pure language, to what Hamm and Clov  call  ‘the life to come’ in Endgame  . So understanding this relationship between language and what we perceive is the key that will unlock the mysteries that are buried in the complexities of Beckett’s texts.

 This question, of the relationship between language and perception dominates The Unnamable, which is his magnum opus; it is the work in which his groundbreaking works originate. Serious students of Beckett’s works should begin by reading The Unnamable and leave his earlier works aside. It is the great anti- narrative, the book that cannot tell the story because, as it proves, we cannot get out of, or go beyond language to, talk about the always doubted things of the familiar world, which may disappoint those who continue to enjoy the great novels. After one hundred and twenty five pages of what can be trying prose the narrator admits that he has only got to the door that opens on his story, and even then would be surprised if it is a door; ‘what door,’ he asks, and if   it exists will it  open ? ‘They have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my own story, that would surprise me, if it opens.’ The prose however is only trying if the reader expects to hear a story. The Unmamable, as its title implies, challenges the notion that we can name. It suggests that the elements that form the basis of a story- location in time and space, and characterisation- relate to unstable perceptions outside of language that cannot be definitively described or named. To attempt to name   is an error in how we understand the world. If it is non-being then it is futile to explore it in any great detail. As he says in Texts for Nothing, ‘I’ll describe the place, that’s unimportant’. To name is to misunderstand the world, but more importantly for Beckett, it is to violate language, it is to limit words to particular meanings and by so doing  to question the supremacy that language holds over perceptions. Words for Beckett aspire to emptiness and freedom. The mistake we make when reading Beckett’s works is to look for meaning beyond the language where in fact the texts relate to language, they are language speaking to and about language. As he proclaims in The Unnamable ‘I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak,’ if he is to tell the story, which of course he cannot.

The fictional world   established by Beckett is best seen in Waiting for Godot.  Throughout his texts Beckett bemoans the fact that language is tormented and frustrated by its annoying association to perceived things.  The perceived world is made material in Godot; it is shown to be a place in terminal decline where the uncertainty of time and place is stressed. It may be Saturday, or Sunday, or Monday or Friday. Estragon spent the night in a ditch ‘over there’; the tree may be a tree or a shrub, or a bush. It is a world where nothing is known and there is nothing to be done. Food and shelter are close to exhaustion; the two principle characters, Vladimir and Estragon, spend their time trying to pass the time, and survive on raw turnips and the occasional dirty carrot. It all makes for a very miserable place indeed and confirms, if seen in isolation, the view that Beckett’s texts are depressing and offer no hope, that existence is an unmitigated disaster from which there is no escape .

There are no actual women in Godot. The only woman mentioned in the play is a Mrs Gozzo who had capitulated to the discomfort of the sexually transmitted disease, the clap, which may have rendered her unfit to procreate. Vladimir must endure the hurt of his erection, the little thing that counts, in a world conspicuous by the absence of the female presence.

     However the perceived world is not seen in isolation in Godot The hope shared by Vladimir and Estragon is that it, which includes the body, will end, that non-being will disappear into the void, thus freeing language to be ‘all’ being, the uncontaminated real, the messianic, eternal life to come.

 Great artists strive to present the unpresentable; as Miles Davis said, ‘Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there’. The unpresentable,   to Beckett is pure language; it exists beyond the doubted experiences of the ephemeral illusions of the familiar world.  Yet, like the Kerry woman and the fairies it is there all the same. Beckett’s project hunts down, and damns with doubt every aspect of the perceived world till we are left only with that which bears the possibility of being the real, empty language that can speak of itself to itself. However, even empty language is presentable, through articulation and inscription and is thus contaminated by association with the senses and mechanics of the body. Beckett brings us to the outer limits of the understanding of our existence and compels us to ask what do we know of it, of existence? What is illusion and what is real? He believes in the life to come, but not in a religious sense. His rigorous logic identifies all that can be doubted; all the illusions of the world of non-being are excluded   from being the real. Like Plato’s opinion, they come in and out of view but never really are. They are presentable only with the complicity of the senses .As he says, cryptically, in Worstward Ho ‘Say a body. Where none’.

  However, this does not at all   leave us with the nihilistic destruction of every ‘thing’ as has often been claimed. The existence of things, of which Beckett cannot speak,    is not part of    reality and is consigned to the void of non-being, but is never dismissed. What remains, even in the familiar world of our existence, is language, emptied indeed of association to things, and because of the break in that link magnificently liberating in its own right, as its   existence is proved beyond doubt. Beckett establishes the primacy of language over perceptions through his texts but he cannot present ‘the life to come’. However, the logic of his project in which he proceeds through   ‘affirmation and negation invalidated as uttered,’    leads us, unerringly, to the truth that lies beyond the text, that ‘the last words, the true words’, that is, pure uncontaminated, unpresentable language, is the real.

This is the reality towards which Vladimir and Estragon agree to go in the   often poorly understood and misrepresented closing lines of Godot.

Blanchot has asked ‘who is speaking in the books of Samuel Beckett?’ Who or what do the two characters from Godot represent; for certain they are not tramps as has been said too often, for nowhere in the text are they said to be tramps. Vladimir’s insistence ‘we are not beggars’ is as close as it gets to broaching the term.  Far from being tramps in the conventional sense, they are more likely to be philosophers who have reached an awareness of the truth of reality. The last spoken line of Godot is ‘Yes, Let’s go,’ but the stage direction tells us [They do not move]. It can be understood, reading these lines, why some critics have called Godot theatre of the absurd. But this is not so, the logic that drives Beckett’s works does not desert him here.  The passage is not about bodies   going or moving the speakers are not speaking for or about the body, but is language itself speaking for and about itself.  The actual bodies are about to disintegrate as the illusion of familiar reality itself dissolves into the void. The who which is speaking here is the disembodying voice that is language, preparing to take its place as the life to come, as the last true words, the real.

It has been said that Godot is a play in which nothing happens, twice. In fact a lot happens in the drama, but it happens to and within language, not as conflict between characters, and it happens in the finely tuned changes to the language of Act 1 that are to be seen in Act 2    As with all of Beckett’s significant works the primacy of language over the familiar world of perceptions is stressed. Mere humanity is reduced, if not denigrated. The tyrannical Pozzo is ‘all humanity’; when Vladimir says ‘we are men’ (in reply to Pozzo)   can we take Estragon’s response ‘Sweet mother earth!’ as a challenge to  that appalling claim, because it is followed by an exclamation mark ?  Pozzo, on the other hand detects the possibility of other than merely human elements in Vladimir and Estragon when he observes, ‘You are human beings, nonetheless…as far as one can see’.  And of course these and other instances support the view held by some that Beckett’s plays are funny, even comic. One would need to be possessed by the zeal of my Puritan ancestors not to be able to laugh at some of the lines from Beckett’s drama. They are funny and they do make for good theatre, but beneath all of them lies a serious philosophical point. To treat them as humour, merely, by not going on into the language, is to miss the point in Beckett’s works.

In Godot the changes that take place in Act Two from Act One are subtle fine tunings of language. However, they are profound and because of their subtlety and their brevity they provide an accessible entry point through which to understand Beckett’s works. Possibly the most interesting example of   these changes are the dialogues between Vladimir and the boy. Both of them appear to share some common ground. Vladimir remarks, ‘You’re as bad as myself’, in Act One. Vladimir is anxious to know if the boy has seen ‘us’. ’You did see us, didn’t you?’ It is not at all to be assumed that the ‘us’ is himself and Estragon because the lengthy exchanges between boy and Vladimir takes place in the absence of Estragon, who has limped  off centre stage to remove his boots. So who are the ‘us’ that boy agrees he has seen? If we continue to read Beckett’s works through the logic of his philosophical approach, i.e. that language is the real but is haunted by that which persists in attaching   to it in the familiar world, the senses, the body, the belief that what is perceived exists, and so on, we could read the ‘us,’ to whom Vladimir refers, as the duality of Vladimir’s perceived body on the one hand, and the real, language itself on the other. In Act one boy tells Vladimir that he did see ‘us.’ ‘Yes sir’, he answers, before he runs off to report to Godot.

The changes that take place in Act Two seem to be no more than subtle tinkering s with language, and more often than not escape analysis, which is a pity because they encapsulate the heart of Beckett’s project. Where, in Act One , Vladimir seems to admit to an equality  in the   status of  language and the body, through the suggestion of equality in the duality of  his ‘us’, in  Act Two we see that the balance of probability has significantly shifted in favour of the superiority of  language. Vladimir asks the boy ‘Did you meet anyone. Two other … [He hesitates]…men? ’ Boy should have met the departing   Pozzo and Lucky but he stresses ‘I didn’t see anyone, sir. ’ Vladimir is reassured that boy is close to his level of consciousness, that  he can see beyond the world of the body, of a mere one; that he can understand the possibility of the existence of something other than the body even if he cannot ‘see’ it.  Pure language is inaccessible because it lies beyond the experiences of the familiar world; it belongs to Hamm’s life to come. Awareness of this reality comes through the startling realisation that language that is stripped of meaning, and that rejects claims to know, still exists, what we call empty language, the empty language of  the definite article   that dare not say ‘the’ when referring to anything outside of language.  Vladimir and Boy aspire to this elevated level of consciousness. Boy   therefore does not see any ‘one’ being; ‘I didn’t see anyone’. He doesn’t deny that he has seen men, for ‘men’ to Boy  can now suggest a confusion of more than one element , a view that is enforced by Vladimir’s instruction a few lines down,     ‘Tell him…tell him you saw me and that…’ For Vladimir, though, there is a clear distinction between ‘me’ and ‘that.’  ‘Me’ is the one that boy could not see, it is the possibility of pure language that is superior to the body. Vladimir sees what is represented by ‘‘that’, as the body, it has been forced out to a subordinate role.  The reader can sense the contempt in Vladimir’s voice, though the significance of the scene is not stressed in some    staged performances of the drama.  Vladimir, hoping that boy has reached his elevated level of consciousness, insists on demanding of boy ‘You’re sure you saw me’; ‘me’ here being language in a distinctly recognizable state of superiority to   and separation from the body. But boy hasn’t reached that level;  yes he does see the ‘us’ of  Act One, the body and language cohabitating within a parity of esteem arrangement, but has not  risen to Vladimir’s level where the distinction  of the ‘me’ from the ‘that’ is possible, so he cannot respond to Vladimir’s cry for recognition.

The exchanges between Vladimir and Boy may be the defining moments of Godot. The passage in Act Two is the moment where Beckett, through Vladimir, affirms the primacy of language over the perceived. Assured that language is reality Vladimir has no option but, with Estragon, to commit to becoming language, to go on from the disintegrating familiar world and leave there the baggage of the body.

It is to an awareness of this level of language and being that the narrating voice    in Worstward Ho draws the reader. Allusions to the existential world are mentioned, only to be consigned to the void, in this his most complex, yet most fascinating and most intense exposition of the seamless bond that links his philosophy to his understanding of language. Worstward Ho, can be described as the book of on. It begins and ends with the word on. The journey between the two ‘ons’ that begin and end Worstward Ho is a process where every assumption of meaning in the key words used by Beckett is challenged –and almost every word is a key word-and where every presupposition of what it is to be is consigned to the void, till we are left with the only possible answer to the question posed. The reader’s difficulties in interpreting  the text could be eased  by noting Stanley Cavell’s observation that ‘the words strew obscurities across our path  and seem wilfully to thwart comprehension…yet …we discover that their meaning has been missed only because it was so utterly bare…totally in view’. An example of this missed meaning lies in the efforts of critics to apply meaning to the opening lines of The Unnamable, ‘Where now, who now, when now? where the point of the passage is to undo meaning, to ‘unquestion’, as the text says, to hold the focus on the empty word itself, not on the inference of question and of referent beyond the word.   Worstward Ho, is the book of on, it insists that we go on towards the real, pure language, which is ‘all’. We go on towards  ‘all’  having divested ourselves of the impulse to question, to ask what, or why ; we are being prepared to accept language as it is presented to us, empty.      The narrating voice in Worstward Ho, which is language speaking, having rid itself of the psychological subject, says ‘What seen? What said? What of all seen and said, not on them preying? ‘Beckett is, as Cavell says, speaking of that which is totally in view, the word itself, in this case the word ‘what’. For Beckett being is ‘all words’ so when he asks what of ‘all’ can be seen and said in the word ‘what’, he is suggesting, if ‘all’ is pure language, and pure language is reality, actually nothing of ‘ all’  can be seen or said in ‘what’, because seeing and saying are functions of the senses. The real as Plato, stresses cannot be perceived by the senses at all. Seeing and saying belong to the dimension of non-being, they are not of ‘all,’ not of reality. That of which they would speak   would   be a diminution, it would be ‘all’ contaminated   by the intrusion of what is perceived through the senses ’.    ‘All’ according to Beckett is when it rids itself of ‘of’ because ‘of’ is ‘soft’, it suggests that ‘all’ can be part of something wider, something more, but, the voice tells us, ‘all least’. Reality is the word stripped of every presupposition, of every influence imposed on it by the functions of the body, it is not of anything or in any place it just is. Beckett directs a serious admonition towards those who would prey on those words. Preying can mean to take advantage of, or to injure. In this case, in which the thrust of Beckett’s thinking is crystallized, injury would be caused by applying fixed meaning to words that would relate to referents in the familiar world. Beckett’s quest for the unpresentable insists that we go on, that we persist in confronting the assumptions of meaning and knowledge in the word until the word is emptied of such presuppositions.     By preying on the word ‘what’, the ‘them’ are misleading themselves –and in the case of critics, many classes of students as well. As Cavell notes, they demand further meaning, where in fact the meaning, which is non-meaning, is that which is nearest, the ‘utterly bare’ word itself.  Alas, the  them who prey on the word are ‘not on; ’ their level of consciousness  has not reached  that of those who go on, those who aspire to the truth of being, as Vladimir and Estragon do when they propose to  ‘go on’ from the body towards pure language in Waiting for Godot.  

Beckett’s philosophy is supported by the greatest thinkers but it surpasses all of theirs    by seeing language as the messianic life to come, the promise of the real. And we could note that the ancients believed that language is a gift from the Gods. The logic of his project negates the possibility of anything other than language being the real. His original and stylistically complex prose requires patient close reading, but the effort pays rich dividends. It is complex for the very definite purpose of stressing the superiority of language over that which is perceived, and reads,   like the great poetry -which in fact it is-where every word is measured and calculated, not to mean, but to destroy meaning, to show that even in the familiar world language can stand alone, can speak itself of itself, to itself, when all else subsides into the void of doubt. By so doing Beckett’s texts point to the remarkable proposition that language is the real, the life to come.


Bio: Dr Arthur Broomfield
Dr Arthur Broomfield is a poet, novelist, short story writer and Beckett scholar from County Laois, Ireland. His published works include When the Dust Settles  (International University Press 1993),  Language and Philosophy in the works of Samuel Beckett (Cambridge Scholars' Publishing 2014) Mice at the Threshing (Lapwing 2015) and Cold Coffee at Emo Court (Revival Press 2016)

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