The ‘voice of silence’: reason, imagination and creative sterility in Texts for nothing

(For Barry Smith, ploughing the same field)

Hannelore Fahrenbach and John Fletcher

Texts for nothing, it is widely agreed, are beautiful and baffling pieces. The reader is simultaneously attracted by the sensuous richness of the language, which appears to convey naturally genuine complexities of meaning, and put off by an obscurity which arises in large measure from an almost willful refusal on the part of the narrator or speaker to stick to the point. In the ghostly dimension of space/time inhabited by this disembodied voice, nothing can be affirmed and nothing named with any assurance: being converts with astonishing ease into nothingness, and significance into nonsignificance.

Nevertheless there are genuine continuities, which take the form of permanent features recurring from text to text. For one thing, grammar and syntax are elements of genuine stability: Texts for nothing are not written in stream-of-consciousness prose, but consist rather of a dialogue which is conducted within the self and is dependent upon the regular incidence of rhetorical questions. Periods show subject and predicate; main verbs occur in their orthodox position in the sentence. However random the treatment of the subject-matter, the linguistic framework remains stable and consistent throughout. The characteristic structure of each text is based upon the vignette which lasts for several sentences as the voice latches on to specific images, before slipping again, almost like a badly-worn clutch, into another gear. The connectives linking these vignettes—which are normally too brief, too fragmentary to be called episodes—are the affirmative and negative interjections ‘yes’ and ‘no’: ‘Suddenly, no, at last, long last . . . Ah yes, we seem to be more than one . . . To change, to see, no, there’s no more to see . . . Yes, it will be night, the mist will clear . . .’ (Text 1, No’s knife, London, Calder and Boyars, 1967, 71, 73, 74, our italics. Page references throughout are to this edition). ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ become progressively more important, especially in the later texts, with their reiteration of the theme that nothing prevents anything and their acute awareness of the screaming silence of no’s knife in yes’s wound (135). It is this continual habit of cancelling what has been affirmed, or of reinstating what has previously been denied, which not only gives Texts for nothing their unique tone, but consistently implies the meaning that there is no meaning: ‘No, something better must be found, a better reason, for this to stop, another word, a better idea, to put in the negative, a new no, to cancel all the others, all the old noes that buried me down here . . .’ (Text 11, 126).

Such patterns of affirmation/negation underline the self-destructiveness of the texts; nevertheless, despite this continual contradiction which introduces chaos into the pieces, there is an element of stability in the shape of the individual sentence, which tends after rise and fall to return to its starting point: ‘In every hold, I mean in all those places where there was a chance of my being, where once I used to lurk, waiting for the hour to come when I might venture forth, tried and trusty places, that’s all I meant when I said in every hold.’ (Text 7, 103). Similarly, the text as a whole has a ballistic shape, with the last sentence of all providing a sense of completeness, like the coda in a musical composition. Sometimes the end occurs on a rising tone; Text 9, for instance, finishes grandiloquently with the following words, a clear echo from the closing quatrain of Dante’s Inferno: ‘There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, the rest would come, the other words, sooner or later, and the power to get there, and the way to get there, and pass out, and see the beauties of the skies, and see the stars again’ (117). But more often the ending is flat, unemphatic, as in Text 11, which closes with ‘that is all I can have had to say, this evening,’ (127).

Whatever the shape of the individual sentence or text, the predominant tone is that of wry, almost sarcastic humour, achieved by various devices of rhetoric. This ranges from the literary joke (such as ‘night’s young thoughts’ [111 ]—a pun, that is, on the title of Edward Young’s Night thoughts) and the twisted cliché like ‘cock and bullshit’ (135), to the elegant ballet with words which recalls the manner of the young Beckett (for example: ‘a bowler hat which seems to my sorrow a sardonic synthesis of all those that never fitted me,’ [110]). How far this humour is genuinely comic and how far it serves only to undermine sardonically the few certainties which the Texts present is a continual puzzle to the reader, a further unsettling element in a deliberately baffling sequence of words and images.

For if, one thing is paradoxically clear about Texts for nothing, it is that they are not intended to be fully intelligible. They girate anxiously towards a meaning which can never be reached and constitute perhaps the only possible epic a contemporary poet could write, in that their chief subject of concern is with the difficulty of literary creation in a world of cosmic absurdity. In their acute contradictions, ranging from an oxymoron like ‘a voice of silence’ (121) to whole sentences cancelling affirmations previously confidently made, they repeatedly suggest that life itself has no meaning, that chaos (like cruelty in the world of the Marquis de Sade) is not the aberrant exception, but the rule. The crisis in the poet’s creativity—haunted continually as it is by the threat of sterility—is reflected in the refusal of the body of the Texts’ hero to respond because of his suspended will (‘I couldn’t stay there and I couldn’t go on,’ [71]). The hero’s relationship with himself is one of total alienation; but then so is his relationship with others, whose very existence he comes to deny, He has no perception of time (‘how long have I been here,’ he asks, ‘what a question, I’ve often wondered,’ [72]); for ‘to speak of instants, to speak of once, is to speak of nothing’ (133-4), since ‘all mingles, times and tenses’ (74). Much the same applies to space (‘here . . . which is no place,’ [135]). But his deepest alienation is from language, with which his voice struggles in its refusal of extinction, ‘the farce of making and the silencing of silence’ (135). Everywhere the words are ‘failing’: in another characteristic oxymoron, tinged with grim humour, he feels that he is ‘burst[ing] with speechlessness’ (79).

‘A pity hope is dead,’ sighs the narrator, only to deny this immediately afterwards in characteristic fashion with ‘no’ (80). The fact of it being positively the ‘last winter’ is a subject for rejoicing (83); death and disgust at existence, despair and rejection of life, are themes which keep recurring. Text 3, for instance, ends on a note of total resignation, and Text 12 on accumulated negatives (‘nothing ever but nothing and never, nothing ever but lifeless words,’ [131]). The poet begins to be very tired of his ‘toil’ (95), of the whole effort of artistic creation, involving as it does a continual struggle with phantoms and ‘apparitions’ (97), But even the tyrants of The unnamable (the novel written just before Texts for nothing) cease after a brief appearance at the beginning of Text 1 to matter much in the world of this voice: ‘apparitions, keepers, what childishness,’ he thinks (100); the loneliness of the speaker precludes even their punishing presence.

A closer analysis of the thirteen texts reveals, we believe, a progressive disintegration of the artist’s personality, a composite on the one hand of the rational man, and of the creative poet on the other. Beckett implies that the rational dimension and the creative element based on imagination are incompatible, and that if the poet’s rationality prevails over his emotions it will spell doom to his poetic creativity. But not merely will his words fait him, his very being is threatened since he will become alienated from himself and hence can no longer experience himself as being ‘one.’ As a result of the loss of the inner unity and order, the outer world will also be perceived as being chaotic, which can only lead to doubts about everything, including his own existence. Such total negation of everything can only be lived with ultimately in a state of insanity; if insanity does not occur then death, total annihilation, is the only escape from the torment.

In Text 1 the poet seems to have gone up into the mountains, perhaps to discover some higher truth, as did the philosopher Zarathustra. His method of trying to discover the truth is reminiscent of philosophical rhetoric based on thesis and antithesis: ‘I couldn’t stay there and I couldn’t go on,’ ‘I shouldn’t have begun, no, I had to begin,’ ‘I could have stayed in my den, I couldn’t’ (71). The crucial difference, however, between Beckett’s poet and a philosopher lies in the fact that the former does not deal with basic propositions in order to find out general truths; his statements are entirely related to his personal actions, or velleities of action, based on one will which is constantly opposed by another: ‘I say to the body, Up with you now, . . . it gives up; . . . I say to the head . . . stay quiet, . . . [it] pants on worse than ever’ (71). Although the poet’s dialogue with himself makes his inner disunity manifest, he is still capable (up to Text 31 of associations with the outer world. He thinks there are people above him, although he cannot raise his eyes to see their faces (72); in Text 2 he recalls pleasant memories about Mother Calvet and Mr Joly in the belfry; and finally, in Text 3, he remembers the good times he spent with his crony, a fellow warrior. However, each of these associations leads to a conclusion which becomes progressively more negative: ‘if only it [the good memory of Mother Calvet] could be wiped from knowledge’ (78), ‘I’d be better off alone [i.e. without the crony] . . . He’d nourish me . . . he’d, ram the ghost back down my gullet with black pudding’ (84). Although here in Text 3 the idea of suicide is introduced for the first time, the poet is still desirous of life, saying ‘get something to happen here, someone to be here’ (85). While he succeeds in overcoming his opposing will by resolving to take to the road again at night (74), he already in Text 2 introduces the basic problem that will become the major theme throughout successive pieces, that the words are ‘failing’ (78). He diagnoses this as the change which has taken place within him, and he judges it to be ‘bad,’ but as he has been, so far, unable to determine the cause for the change, he is up to Text 6 still hopeful (despite occasional lapses into hopelessness) that he may find the words for another story (Text 4, 88, Text 6, 101).

In Text 5, the speaker experiences a state of poetic inspiration: he finds himself engulfed by the ‘phantoms’ or ‘voices,’ to whom he owes everything he knows (95). He feels his whole being penetrated by them: ‘they want to create me, they want to make me,’ he says (95). However, the poetic inspiration lasts only for a brief moment; he already feels that they are deserting him, leaving him empty, and that all is silent again. For the first time the poet recognizes that ‘reason’ will be his undoing (‘I hear, that must be the voice of reason again, that the vigil is in vain,’ [91-2]). In agony over his creative barrenness he confesses: ‘it seems to me sometimes that deaf I’d be less distressed, at being mute’ (92).

The poet’s fundamental crisis begins to emerge in Text 7: for the first time he seriously considers ‘giving up’ as an individual (103), and subsequently manifests schizophrenic tendencies. He will no longer talk of himself as a poet but as ‘X,’ ‘that paradigm of human kind, moving at will, complete with joys and sorrows, perhaps even a wife and brats .... but above all endowed with movement’ (104). The concrete images relating to the creator as a ‘rational man’ become intensified by the description of a specific environment. While the Texts have so far suggested environments of a fairly imprecise nature (such as the mountains engulfed in mist), the poet now becomes part of a scene described as the ‘third class waiting-room of the South-Eastern Railway Terminus.’ The association of railway station and movement is obvious: the artist is engaged in an attempt to escape from himself which is, he realizes later, as futile as trying to rid oneself of one’s shadow. The ‘rational man’ is doomed to observing his ‘other half,’ that of the poet, from whom he feels successively more alienated: ‘is that me still waiting there’ . . . ‘this lump is no longer me’ (105). Yet the poet in him, just as life itself, cannot be extinguished as easily by mere act of will: the extinction of imagination will only occur in the tatter’s final struggle against reason which, as in the battle between Polynices and Eteocles, will have no survivors. At the end of Text 7, imagination reasserts itself over reason and it is the poet who speaks: ‘the time [is] come for me too to begin’ (106).

The writer’s struggle against his inner division is again the theme of Text 8. ‘Silence’ and ‘words’ become substitutes for ‘reason’ and ‘imagination.’ The poet becomes desperate to break the silence by indulging in a constant flow of words and tears to keep him from reflection. Yet he cannot help but admit to himself the terrible truth, that the uninterrupted flow of words has become meaningless because he is unable to cease ‘thinking,’ which condemns the ‘other half’ of him, that of the poet, to be ‘blind and deaf and mute’ (109).

The peripeteia in Texts for nothing is naturally less obvious than in a Greek drama in which the shift towards the tragic is caused by events outside the control of the hero, because Beckett’s scene is set wholly within the mind of the poet. Nevertheless, it can be claimed that the peripeteia in Texts for nothing occurs precisely at the point where the speaker denies his identity as a poet and calls himself ‘X.’ As a result of doubts about his true identity, the rational element within him begins to question everything else; this is, in essence, the theme of Texts 10 to 13. The subject of Text 10 is ‘giving up.’ The progression towards total annihilation can easily be discerned by comparing statements at the beginning of the piece with those at the end: ‘give up, it’s all given up . . . I had something once’ (119) and ‘I’ll have gone on giving up, having had nothing, not being there’ (121, our italics); from denying his past, that he ‘had something once,’ to denying everything else related to his very existence is only a short step. He becomes unable either to tell anything or to name anything: ‘nothing can be told, what then, I don’t know, I shouldn’t have begun’ (123), and he ceases even to be certain of the most basic facts of his existence: ‘vile words to make me believe I’m here, and that I have a head, and a voice . . . where am I, to mention only space, and in what semblance, and since when, to mention also time, and till when, and who is this clot who doesn’t know where to go?’ (124-5). Towards the end of Text 11, the individual’s total alienation from himself as well as from the external world becomes apparent: ‘I don’t speak to him any more, I don’t speak to me any more, I have no one left to speak to . . . perhaps he is dead, I am dead, but I never lived . . . remaining alone where I am, between two parting dreams, knowing none, known of none’ (126-7).

The theme of complete estrangement from the self and the world is further developed in Text 12, except that now the struggle seems to have ceased, and the individual accepts with resignation the inevitable outcome. Although there are still faint echoes from a distant, more hopeful past—’believing in me, believing it’s me, . . . with a voice, . . . the power to move now and then’—even these most basic desires are now being relinquished with ‘no, no need’ (129). Nothing matters any more because the end, which is all he yearns for, is near: ‘what a blessing it’s all down the drain, nothing ever as much as begun’ (131).

Text 13 constitutes a summary as well as a climax of the disintegration of the poet’s personality; this disintegration has developed into total annihilation, not only of the self but also of the present, the past and the future: ‘There is no one . . . there is nothing but a voice murmuring a trace . . . it won’t be long now, there won’t be any life . . . there will be silence’ (133). Not only is there no hope for the poet who speaks, but none either for any future poet as long as the ‘here is empty,’ because then the voice ‘breathes in vain’ (134). At this point Beckett universalizes the problem of the contemporary alienated poet: the sufferings which the speaker in Texts for nothing has undergone are not merely the tragedy of one sensitive and imaginative personality but are symptomatic of all creative individuals in modern society in which ‘no one feels anything, asks anything . . . says anything, hears anything’ (135). Thus these sombre and beautiful texts (surely Beckett’s masterpiece in the short fictional form, whose potentialities he has since done so much to develop) succeed, in spite of their vaunted failure, in conveying the grim message that as long as the world remains ‘soulless’ and rationality becomes ever more dominant at the expense of the imagination, the creative voices will remain barren and silent, and all will be ‘empty and dark, as now, as soon now, when all will be ended, all said’ (136).