Time, space, and verisimilitude in Samuel Beckett’s fiction


Rubin Rabinovitz


Samuel Beckett sees the world as a mysterious place where appearances are deceptive and ultimate reality is rarely perceived. In his fiction Beckett attempts to represent the world as accurately as he can, or, as he might put it, to lie about it as little as possible. There are few difficult passages in Beckett which cannot be understood with the help of the gloss, comment c’est. This is how things are; and if our world looks very different from the one Beckett describes, it may be foolhardy to assume that he is the one who is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.


Many of those who find Beckett’s ideas strange favour a world view which originated with the rationalists, materialists, and empiricists; that is, they are more comfortable with the ideas of Locke, Hume, Descartes, or Hegel than with those of Kant, Berkeley, or Schopenhauer. Most of us at least implicitly tend to believe in the normalcy and solidity of time and space; next to it the purely mental world seems unreliable and unpredictable.


Beckett, however, agrees with Berkeley and Schopenhauer that the world of time and space is less substantial than it seems. Beckett’s early heroes—Murphy and Watt in particular—longed to penetrate to the other side of what Schopenhauer called ‘the veil of māyā’ the illusory world of time-space phenomena. But the human sensory apparatus and intelligence provide poor equipment for such a quest. ‘Our vulgar perception,’ Beckett said in his essay on Proust, ‘is not concerned with other than vulgar phenomena.’1 Even more, Beckett saw these ‘vulgar phenomena’ as having their origin in the mind of the perceiver, ‘the world being a projection of the individual’s consciousness (an objectivation of the individual’s will, Schopenhauer would say).’2 Beckett wrote these words in the early 1930s; since then his ideas have changed somewhat. Today, for example, he would probably not write a sentence which attempts to explain what the world is. But unchanged since the 1930s is his sense of distrust in the appearances conjured up (as he wrote in Watt) by the ‘games that time plays with space.’3


The relatively self-assured tone of Beckett’s early fiction is based on a sense that, if time and space present us with a deceptive form of reality, at least we know where to find the sources of error. In the 1930s Beckett considered time-space reality as utterly unknowable: ‘All that is enveloped in time and space is endowed with what might be described as an abstract, ideal, and absolute impermeability.’4 Beckett’s hero Murphy therefore rightly turns away from this impermeability and attempts to withdraw into his little world, the world of inner, subjective, mental reality. But Watt discovers what Murphy overlooked: that a totally impenetrable world is less misleading than one which occasionally yields information. By the 1950s, in From an abandoned work, Beckett was writing about ‘the old half-knowledge of when and where.’5 The world of time and space at times gives us half-truths; it is therefore a most deceitful sort of world, one which is inconsistent even in its mendacity.


The optimism of Beckett’s heroes evaporates when their hoped-for nirvana, the inner world, also disappoints them. Murphy and Watt go off eagerly in quest of inner truths; even Moran—once he manages to pry himself loose from his bourgeois materialism—imagines he has happy days ahead.6 But the inner world can be gloomy, labyrinthine, and perilous; the early cockiness of Beckett’s heroes usually gives way to despair.


Beckett’s uneasiness with the reality of time and space is not—as may first appear—based on a mystical denial of the truths of twentieth-century science. Rather, Beckett is aware that science, which nineteenth-century positivists expected would shortly establish the ultimate validity of empiricism, has in fact done the opposite. In many respects, modern science has shown that the senses, in providing information about physical reality, are serving us with half-truths. Einstein’s theories of the curvature of space, the equivalence of mass and energy, and the relativity of time indicate that the materials of our universe—once thought to be absolute and unchangeable—are in fact mutable. With this discovery a fundamental tenet of materialism collapses. Similarly, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle undermines empiricism when we learn that we never can fully trust sensory evidence in observing physical reality, even when the senses are aided by the most precise and ingenious scientific instruments. Reality may not operate according to the principles of Schopenhauer and Berkeley (and Beckett never claims that it does), but their skepticism about the ultimate reality of the world of time and space has to some degree been vindicated.


One idea which emerges from a number of recent scientific discoveries is that our ideas about ordinary time-space reality do not always hold up on a microcosmic or macrocosmic level. An apparently solid object must be considered as a lattice-work of atoms; an object, seemingly at rest, is undergoing various thermal and atomic movements. Before the twentieth century, it was usually, and erroneously, assumed that the phenomena of ordinary experience could serve as models for all microcosmic phenomena. A planet and its satellites might serve as a model for electrons and nucleus; the collision of billiard balls had as a counterpart the collision of molecules in a gas.


One of the first models of this sort to break down—and therefore to indicate that ordinary phenomena might differ qualitatively from microcosmic phenomena—had to do with the nature of light. Some nineteenth-century scientists, like Young and Fresnel, argued that light was made up of waves; others, following Newton, said that light was made of particles. The debate about waves and particles was not resolved until the early twentieth century, when Planck proposed-that light was made up of quanta, which had properties of both waves and particles. The disturbed surface of a pond may serve as a model for waves; billiard balls can serve as models for interacting particles; but we encounter nothing in ordinary experience which simultaneously displays the qualities of both. In providing us with a sense that the rules governing ordinary reality are only partially useful in understanding larger or smaller time-space configurations, twentieth-century science has led us to question the rules themselves.


At one point in Molloy Beckett refers to the wave-particle controversy: ‘Yes, even then, when already all was fading, waves and particles, there could be no things but nameless things, no names but thingless names.’7 Here (as in many other places) Beckett shows that he has not ignored the discoveries of modern science but understands very well the corrosive effect they have had on models of reality in positivistic philosophy.


In the nineteenth century, when the positivistic view of time and space seemed unassailable, verisimilitude was enjoying its heyday in fiction. Given the apparent solidity and permanence of space-time reality, it seemed necessary for novelists to inject large doses of this reality into their writing. Works of art, which originate in the airy, flimsy world of imagination, seemed to need this sort of booster. Shandean tricks were unfashionable; so were authorial interjections and digressions, improbable coincidences, and other devices which tended to undermine the willing suspension of disbelief—itself a nineteenth-century phrase. A ‘realistic’ work was one which had close links with the world of time and space as opposed to imaginary works, which seemed unreal.


Verisimilitude may be thought of as a series of rules governing the relationship of the time-space world and the novelist’s world. Self-assured in the belief that his perception of the time-space world is as close as he can get to reality (or even claiming that it is reality), the ‘realistic’ novelist used the time-space world as the model for his created world. Forgotten in his eagerness to incorporate this reality were the many demonstrations in works of the past—Don Quixote is an example—that the reality of time and space in essential ways may be inferior to the reality of the imagination.


In Beckett’s writing, the world of the imagination is once again emphasized. More pricks than kicks and Murphy do make use of verisimilitude, but Beckett introduces it in order to parody it, to thumb his nose at the shoddy reality it conveys. In his later works Beckett systematically makes the world of time and space subservient to the world of his imagination. Indeed, these works reverse the formula for verisimilitude: for now it is the time-space world which slavishly must follow the whim of the imaginary world. Many of these novels present scenes which are set not in the time-space world but in a mental arena; and so here the rules of mental transactions become more important than physical laws.


In Watt and the later fiction, objects and experiences from the time-space world are introduced as aids in establishing some aspect of a purely mental reality. Verisimilitude utilizes imaginary reality to intensify our appreciation of particular aspects of the physical world. Beckett’s chief interest in physical objects is the light they can shed on their counterparts in the imagination. The self for Beckett’s narrators often is a membrane-like divider that separates physical and mental reality and sometimes permits objects to slip from one realm into the other. The Unnamable says, ‘an outside and an inside and me in the middle, perhaps that’s what I am.’8 If one must choose, the world of inner reality takes precedence over the world of physical reality, especially in describing people. As we learn in Malone dies when the narrator regrets time wasted in describing his possessions, ‘True lives do not tolerate this excess of circumstance.’9


In playing down verisimilitude, Beckett gives his readers a number of insights about how time and space operate within the world of thought. For example, he perceives that imaginary events seem to operate according to rules which have no counterpart in physical experience. In the physical world, for example, we seem to live from instant to instant sequentially. Yet, as we listen to a melody, we do not hear the individual notes sequentially; the notes we have heard, the note we hear, even the memory of the notes we anticipate, all give us the sense of melody. Mentally we somehow experience past, present, and future simultaneously in order to experience the melody. The same is true in Beckett’s works themselves; the rigid sequential effect of time is somewhat modified by the mental experiences we undergo as we reread his works.


This idea becomes quite important in Molloy, where there are many suggestions that Molloy and Moran are older and younger versions of the same person; Molloy says he knows the future and not the past, and Moran says he knows the past and not the future.10 However, there is no conclusive moment in the novel when we are sure we see the Moran figure change into Molloy; nor is there an intermediary figure who claims to know only the present. But the present does exist, in the mind of the reader; and if Molloy and Moran ever do meet, it is not in the pages of the novel but in the reader’s imagination.


Because of this emphasis on imagination and reality, Beckett often uses physical objects to provide metaphors for various aspects of mental existence. Here he follows Dante, who uses objects and events in the after-life to represent esoteric mental or spiritual processes. For example, a portion of physical reality (i.e. fire in hell) is used to suggest a metaphysical process so difficult to comprehend (spiritual punishment in the after-life) that it can only be described metaphorically. In The lost ones Beckett uses a Dantesque setting, and once even refers to Dante.11 The action of the work takes place in an enclosed cylinder in which a number of people are confined; the size of the cylinder, the number of inhabitants, the temperature, and the lighting are all described with great precision. But the measurements mock the verisimilitude they purport to establish; clearly this cylinder does not correspond to any object we have encountered in the physical world. Like Dante’s metaphorical settings, the cylinder represents a portion of mental reality so obscure that it can only be suggested. The occupation of other enclosures in Beckett’s fiction, the caves, little rooms, and rotundas, may refer initially to a physical process (for example, a return to the womb); but, ultimately, it represents a mental experience (for example, a retreat from the outer world to the inner). Just this occurs in a passage where Molloy describes ‘that inner space one never sees, the brain and heart and other caverns where thought and feeling dance their Sabbath.’12


A similar point can be made about the metaphor of the journey in Beckett’s fiction. Beckett’s heroes ride trains, trams, bicycles, auto-cycles; they walk with the help of sticks and crutches; they crawl through leaves and mud and rest in ditches. All of this is part of an intricate metaphor in which travel may represent mental progress, the act of writing, or the process of moving through the moments of a life. Very often it represents all three and unites them, giving the sense of a subtle, faintly perceptible, but very important mental process.


The mind is at once a familiar and a strange entity; our old obsessions with the supposed solidities of the physical world have made it seem even stranger. It is unique in our experience in being a subject and object simultaneously, at the same moment playing the role of investigator and investigated. Moran described this quality in a wonderful sentence: ‘Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea.’13 Molloy introduces the reader to the rules of his mind where (in a parody of physical law) ‘water rises in proportion as it drowns you.’14  More than any other novelist, Beckett gives us a sense of the bizarre realms which the inner explorer must traverse:


            I listen and the voice is of a world collapsing endlessly,

            a frozen world, under a faint untroubled sky, enough

            to see by, yes, and frozen too. And I hear it murmur

            that all wilts and yields, as if loaded down, but here

            there are no loads, and the ground too, unfit for loads,

            and the light too, down towards an end it seems can

            never come. For what possible ends to these wastes

            where true light never was, nor any upright thing, nor

            any true foundation, but only these leaning things, for-

            ever lapsing and crumbling away, beneath a sky without

            memory of morning or hope of night.15


Here, as in many other passages, Beckett’s apparent betrayal of the solidity of the physical world gives us a meaningful representation of mental reality.


It is true that Beckett has helped to superannuate the world of the nineteenth-century novel, and in doing so he has robbed us of comfort and reassurance. But the idols he has destroyed had already been abandoned, and, like any great revolutionary, Beckett is more an innovator than an iconoclast. Beckett, like Dante, has had the courage to explore a rarely-visited world and the generosity to describe it on his return. ‘Comment c’est,’ he says, and kindly turns around the telescope so that we can look through the proper end.


1 Proust, New York, Grove Press, 1957, 6.

2 Ibid, 8.

3 Watt, New York, Grove Press, 1959, 75.

4 Proust, 41.

5 From an abandoned work in First love and other shorts, New York, Grove Press, 1974, 49.

6 Molloy, New York, Grove Press, 1955, 240.

7 Molloy, 41.

8 The unnamable, New York, Grove Press, 1958, 134.

9 Malone dies, New York, Grove Press, 1956, 21.

10 Molloy, 111, 182.

11 The lost ones, New York, Grove Press, 1972, 14.

12 Molloy, 11.

13 Ibid, 145.

14 Ibid, 16.

15 Molloy, 53.