In Time and free will, Henri Bergson gives a chilling description of what we need to accept—what we accept all too readily—if we are to use the laws of Classical Materialism to define the world:
Let us also note that the law of the conservation of
energy can only be intelligibly applied to a system of
which the points, after moving, can return to their
former positions. This return is at least conceived of
as possible, and it is supposed that under these con-
ditions nothing would be changed in the original state
of the system as a whole or of its elements. In short,
time cannot bite into it: and the instinctive, though
vague, belief of mankind in a fixed quantity of matter,
a fixed quantity of energy, perhaps has its root in the
very fact that inert matter does not seem to endure or
to preserve any trace of past time.1
The notion is as old as Democritus, at least. It leads to what Whitehead in Science and the modern world called the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness.’ But what is interesting about Bergson’s formulation is that he assumes that it is a psychological condition, an error we need to make, rather than a question of philosophical or scientific truth as such. His model here is not just a perennial debate (between Idealism and Materialism), but also a complicated examination of the limits of human self-definition. What he is suggesting is a much more interesting paradox: that an essentially human yearning for emotional security results in human self-contradiction, a world in which ultimate change (our own mutability would be a noble inheritance) has no place.
Bergson’s language is always difficult because it is a rich displacement of philosophical method and terminology into an area of psychology. For him, anything can become an instance of the paradigmatic ‘closed system,’ including, of course, our conception of the human individual. Hence the more familiar argument in Laughter. But that argument is at once less ambiguous, and more unclear; for his disgust with what amounts to a primitive psychological trap expresses itself in a vividly Platonic allegory:
This soul imparts a portion of its winged lightness
to the body it inhabits: the immateriality which thus
passes into matter is what is called gracefulness. Matter,
however, is obstinate and resists. It draws to itself the
ever-alert activity of this higher principle, would fain
convert it to its own inertia and cause it to revert to
mere automatism. It would fain immobilise the intelli-
gently varied movements of the body in stupidly
contracted grooves, stereotype in permanent grimaces
the fleeting expressions of the face, in short imprint
on the whole person such an attitude as to make it appear
immersed and absorbed in the materiality of some
mechanical occupation instead of ceaselessly renewing
its vitality by keeping in touch with a living ideal.2
The justice of this as a description of what happens to ‘the human’ in certain kinds of comedy is striking: one thinks of all the disputes about ‘caricature’ in Dickens; Chaplin perhaps; and, inevitably, Beckett’s characters come to mind. What is not so just is the way his vitalism causes Bergson, at certain crucial points in his argument, to relinquish the true complexity of his position; he concludes, in a locution that seems meaningless, that wherever this absurd effect occurs, ‘matter achieves, at the expense of the body, an effect that is comic.’ A more accurate formulation would be this: ‘the perception of materiality creates, at the expense of the body, an effect that is comic.’ Comedy, unlike argument, cannot be other than pragmatic: it must dramatize conception at the level of perception.3 Compare Johann Huizinga’s definition of play in Homo Iudens:
But in acknowledging play you acknowledge mind, for
whatever else play is, it is not matter. Even in the animal
world it bursts the bounds of the physically existent.
From the point of view of a world wholly determined by
blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play
only becomes possible, thinkable and understandable
when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute
determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play
continually conforms to the supra-logical nature of the
human situation. Animals play, so they must be more
than merely mechanical things. We play, and know we
play, and so we must be more than merely rational
beings, for play is irrational.4
Huizinga’s point is an obvious reaction against the pressure of a Materialist (in this case, behaviourist) argument. Its idealism in many ways resembles Bergson’s especially in the implied equation between freedom and irrationality. But, when simplified in this fashion, the potential usefulness of Bergson’s position is lost. There is no room for an account of psychological or social conditioning. The possibility that play could be determined is not entertained, because it denies ‘the human.’
Dickens and Beckett are comic writers with a considerable overlap of sensibility. For them, play is matter. They are both concerned quite centrally with the Materialist paradigm: with the conception, that is, of a dead system in which sequence heralds no fundamental change. But the difference in their uses of this paradigm demonstrates a truth which neither Bergson nor Huizinga takes into account: the idea (the imaginative deployment) of a system which can get older without using up time, may be inimical to certain human expectations, but is not in the least to others.
There is some evidence that Beckett, like Freud and Kafka before him, is fond of Dickens. He shows considerable acquaintance, for example, with David Copperfield. Quite early on in the novel, David, the hero and the narrator, confesses to a dilemma which reveals this double role. After a long and ‘significant’ description of Little Em’ly, David suddenly becomes worried in case he has prejudged her: ‘This may be premature. I have set it down too soon, perhaps. Still, let it stand.’ (36)5 Beckett, naturally sensitive to a Proustian double-take, makes his narrator in More pricks crassly disclaim even the art that conceals art: ‘This may be premature. We have set it down too soon, perhaps. Still, let it bloody well stand.’ (67)6 One might argue, I suppose, that this reveals the pressure of a fictional tradition on the early Beckett. But the real artfulness seems private, not public: the nod to Dickens is a tenuous form of collusion, a fastidiousness about the nature of narrative.
The other obvious example of ‘influence’ is a more important one. When David runs away from the Murdstones to his Aunt’s house in Dover, he meets there a Mr. Dick, a benevolent, but weak-minded individual, whom his Aunt is befriending. Mr. Dick’s mind is racked by a guilty compulsion to produce a memoir of his past life. Each attempt to do so is foiled by the unwanted association of anything to do with his former self with King Charles’s head. He gains peace by flying his kite:
It was quite an affecting sight, I used to think, to see
him with the kite, when it was up a great height in the
air. What he had told me, in his room, about his belief
in its disseminating the statements pasted on it, which
were nothing but old leaves of abortive Memorials, might
have been a fancy with him sometimes; but not when he
was out, looking up at the kite in the sky, and feeling it
tug and pull at his hand. He never looked so serene as he
did then. I used to fancy, as I sat by him of an evening,
on a green slope, and saw him watch the kite high in the
quiet air, that it lifted his mind out of its boyish confusion
and bore it (such was my boyish thought) into the skies.
As he wound the string in, and it came lower and lower
out of the beautiful light, until it fluttered to the ground,
and lay there like a dead thing, he seemed to wake
gradually out of a dream; and I remember to have seen
him take it up, and look about him in a lost way, as if
they had both come down together, so that I pitied him
with all my heart. (216)
Through the passage, the relation between mind and kite is gradually developed: it is a literalizing of the idea of transcendence, of momentary freedom from the conditioning structure of guilt which, it is implied, makes Mr. Dick what he is—someone whose mind has been distorted by the material world to the point where he provides a continuous satire of it, a holy fool.
Mr. Kelly in Beckett’s Murphy is pretty obviously a rewrite of Mr. Dick. Beckett’s appropriation is extremely polished, and takes the image one stage further:
‘Before you go,’ said Mr Kelly, ‘you might hand me the
tail of my kite. Some tassels have come adrift.’
Celia went to the cupboard where he kept his kite, took
out the tail and loose tassels and brought them over to
‘As you say,’ said Mr Kelly, ‘hark to the wind. I shall fly
her out of sight to-morrow.’
He fumbled vaguely at the coils of tail. Already he was in
position, straining his eyes for the speck that was he,
digging in his heels against the immense pull skyward.
Celia kissed him and left him,
‘God willing,’ said Mr Kelly, ‘right out of sight.’ (25)7
The image here is altogether more knowing, more self-conscious, more aggressively used. It lacks altogether the coyness of the first-person narrative in Dickens. But it expresses the same major opposition: the struggle between the material world (physical, social, economic) and the mind’s (vain) desire to transcend it. In Beckett’s character there is the added problem of self-awareness. Mr. Kelly knows a good deal more about the satisfaction he is looking for than Mr. Dick, who merely loses himself. Mr. Kelly courts an illusion in the guise of an act of knowledge: the consciousness of his own material extinction. Eventually, the line snaps, as it must, with the pressure of self-contradiction.
Both writers share a sense of what Bergson calls ‘the materiality of mechanism.’ The human walk, for example, is a feature of behaviour which preoccupies them both. Locomotion, in different ways, is a revelation of mechanical system. Here is Dickens’s version of the walk pedagogic in Dombey and son:
The Doctor’s walk was stately, and calculated to impress
the juvenile mind with solemn feelings. It was a sort of
march; but when the Doctor put out his right foot, he
gravely turned upon his axis, with a semi-circular sweep
towards the left; and when he put out his left foot, he
turned in the same manner towards the right. So that
he seemed, at every stride he took, to look about him
as though he were saying, ‘Can anybody have the good-
ness to indicate any subject, in any direction, on which
I am uninformed. I rather think not.’ (165)8
Doctor Blimber is theatrically repressive: as such, his walk is purely symbolic, though it would not be at all foreign to Dickens by this time in his career to imply a literal send-up of progress: Blimber is the agent of economic materialism and the mind-body joke is a form of satire here, a means not an end. The whole idea of ‘direction’ is a metaphor: it hovers between mental (moral, perhaps) and physical terms.
In Beckett’s Watt, the image is appropriated and developed with characteristic bravura:
Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to
turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at
the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible
towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as
possible towards the south and at the same time to fling
out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and
then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the
north and fling out his right leg as far as possible towards
the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as
possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as
far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and
over again, many times, until he reached his destination
and could sit down. So, standing first on one leg, and
then on the other, he moved forward, a headlong tardi-
grade, in a straight line. (30)9
There is no audience factor: we are somehow looking at a primary act, prior to its social manifestation. Watt is simply like this: and the paradox we sense about his walk is funny for different reasons from Dr. Blimber’s. The concept of motion, at its simplest level, yields contradiction in Beckett’s writing: hence, for example, a ‘headlong tardigrade,’ ambiguous though it is, is an oxymoron. Both writers exploit mind-body jokes, but they are presented at different levels. Beckett is commenting on the intellectual deficiency of materialism: the absurdity of a system in which mind and body inhabit parallel, but distinct, modes of being. The Doctor represents the absurdity of the social and political manifestation of materialism of which he is an agent.
The question, however, is not really one of influence. Both Dickens and Beckett share a perception of ‘closed system’ in areas of human behaviour we normally prefer to think of as spontaneous and un-patterned. This is why Bergson’s account of the comic fits them both so well—up to a point. Both, for example, are interested in presenting various aspects of human character under the sign of the determined. Consider the way in which Dickens introduces us to Reginald Wilfer in Our mutual friend:
But the Reginald Wilfer family were of such common-
place extraction and pursuits that their forefathers had
for generations modestly subsisted on the docks,
the excise office, and the custom house, and the existing
R. Wilfer was a poor clerk. So poor a clerk, through
having a limited salary and an unlimited family, that
he had never yet obtained the modest object of his
ambition: which was to wear a complete new suit
of clothes, hat and boots included, at one time. His
black hat was brown before he could afford a coat, his
pantaloons were white at the seams and knees before
he could buy a pair of boots, his boots had worn out
before he could treat himself to new pantaloons, and
by the time he worked round to the hat again, that
shining modern article roofed-in an ancient ruin of
various periods. (49)10
Dickens lays out the family background here, but in such a way as to make R. Wilfer (the ‘existing R. Wilfer’) a mere term in a series. Further, he proceeds to systematize the relations between Wilfer’s various articles of clothing so that a situation of circularity and therefore stasis is guaranteed of necessity. Wilfer is a sartorial Tantalus. The strong implication is that this is a closed system into which time cannot bite; it is, in the terms given us (the opposition between ‘limited salary’ and ‘unlimited family’ reads like a law of equivalence) susceptible of no change.
Here is a comparable example of closed system in Watt:
Watt wore, on his head, a block hat, of a pepper
colour. This excellent hat had belonged to his grand-
father, who had picked it up, on a racecourse, from
off the ground, where it lay, and carried it home.
Then mustard, now it was pepper in colour.
It was to be observed that the colours, on the one
hand of this coat, on the other of this hat, drew
closer and closer, the one to the other, with every
passing lustre. Yet how different had been their
beginnings! The one green! The other yellow! So it
is with time, that lightens what is dark, that darkens what is light.
It was to be expected that, once met, they would
not stay, no, but continue, each as it must, to age,
until the hat was green, the coat yellow, and then
through the last circles paling, deepening, swooning,
cease, the hat to be a hat, the coat to be a coat.
For so it is with time. (218)
Frustration, painfully evident in much of Watt, is more or less absent, due largely to the narrator’s frivolous parody of worldly omniscience (‘so it is with time’). But the system is no less closed: it is not to be thought that the ceasing of the objects in question from being what they are in any way alters the system. As Malone concludes in a similar passage about Macmann’s hat and coat: ‘. . . it is a pleasure to find oneself once again in the presence of one of those immutable relations between harmoniously perishing terms.’
Both writers are deploying what amounts to the same observation; but the tone of the passages is quite different. More importantly, so is the direction in which the system is seen as operating. For Dickens, the closed system is a socio-economic one from the beginning: the perishability of Wilfer (in contrast with his imperishably shabby appearance) is due to factors of class, family and income. In Beckett, system is appreciated for its own sake: there is a kind of debased aestheticism about the tone which makes little of the social and family background of Watt. In both cases, the implication is the same: nothing ‘belongs’ to anyone; one is precisely as one’s possessions are—a term in an immutable series. But the extent of this observation is quite different in Dickens. Wilfer is a special case of Our mutual friend’s comprehensive general analysis of ‘modernity.’ What appears to be new is shown by Dickens to be only relatively so, and the complacency of a world that conceives of itself as ‘new’ is constantly being exposed: Dickens uses an illusionist perspective, in which he proves that the new is the old. To do this, in his later work, he employs a myth of historical regression. Beckett produces a paradox of a similar kind, but in a far more abstract way. He is contemptuous of a myth of history that converts it into a ‘slow progress towards the light’: but largely because the concept of progress itself, when viewed in a Materialist, or Intellectualist fashion, yields immediate contradiction (as it does, for example, in Zeno’s paradox); not because, as in the case of Dickens, the things which can be grouped under the heading of progress do not fit any sane version of the notion.
In Beckett, determinism, when scrutinized, becomes paradoxical. As he says in Watt, the notion of an arbitrary could only survive as a ‘pre-established arbitrary.’ The arbitrary is determined; but, also, vice-versa. This system is poignantly at work in Celia’s dilemma in chapter three of Murphy:
How different it had been on the riverside, when the
barges had waved, the funnel bowed, the tug and barge
sung, yes to her. Or had they meant no? The distinction
was so nice. What difference, for example, would it make
now, whether she went on up the stairs to Murphy or
back down them into the mew? The difference between
her way of destroying them both, according to him, and
his way, according to her The gentle passion . . .
She fumbled in her bag for a coin. If her thumb felt the
head she would go up; if her devil’s finger, down. Her
devil’s finger felt the head and she rose to depart. (27)
What is germane to the context is the fact that Celia is delivering a ‘celestial prescription’ to Murphy, an astrological reading which, in fact, will sanction further inactivity on his part, only finally programming his death. It has become arbitrary to her whether she goes to him or not, and she expresses this sense of arbitrariness by using the coin. The arbitrariness of the result, however, is not sufficiently so, for Necessity, in the shape of Murphy’s groan, overrules Chance for Celia. But this is only her point of view. From Murphy’s point of view she is not rescuing him, but destroying him by bringing him back into the world of Material Necessity. Ironically, he has had an ‘accident’: he has overturned his rocking chair. Each narrative advance generates equally arbitrariness and necessity, as the values of the rejecting ego (Murphy) and the Big World (at this stage, Celia) parodically swop places.
Dickens’s version of this paradox is a more psychologically-based form of determinism; it occurs in Little Dorrit. There, Henry Gowan, like Celia, thinks of resorting to a coin in order to decide what attitude to take towards Blandois: ‘When they had first met this gallant gentleman at Geneva, Gowan had been undecided whether to kick him or encourage him; and had remained for about four and twenty hours, so troubled to settle the point to his satisfaction, that he had thought of tossing up a five franc piece on the terms, ‘Tails, kick; heads, encourage,’ and abiding by the voice of the oracle. It chanced, however, that his wife expressed a dislike to the engaging Blandois, and that the balance of feeling in the hotel was against him. Upon it, Gowan resolved to encourage him.’ (541)11 Despite the binary reduction of behaviour to what Beckett calls in Murphy ‘kicks and caresses,’ this example looks more like freedom (wilfulness) than necessity. It looks like the behaviour of chance within certain limits. But Dickens’s analysis of how Gowan’s attitude comes to be like it is, reveals the presence of a determining system:
He found a pleasure in setting up Blandois as the type
of elegance, and making him a satire upon others who
piqued themselves upon their personal grace. He
seriously protested that the bow of Blandois was irresis-
tible, and that the picturesque ease of Blandoig would
be cheaply purchased . . . for a hundred thousand
francs. That exaggeration in the manner of the man
which had been noticed as appertaining to him and to
every such man, whatever his original breeding, as
certainly as the sun belongs to this system, was accep-
table to Gowan as a caricature, which he found a
humourous resource to have at hand for the ridiculing
of numbers of people who necessarily did more or less
of what Blandois overdid. (542)
The image of Material Necessity, which rears its head in the reference to the sun, is comparable to the image of the Big World in Murphy. The pleasure principle causes Gowan to act against his own interests and cultivate a man whom ‘he would have had no compunction whatever in flinging out of the highest window in Venice into the deepest water in the city.’ Gowan’s reactions, though appearing to be free, are in fact as closed and systematic as they can be.
The difference between these two examples is once again a matter of the level at which the system is presented. The shape of the idea, the imagery in which it is presented, is quite similar. There is a crucial difference in the level of generality in the writing at any given point in the narrative. In Beckett, the determining system is presented as being at work in language itself, and therefore in the world: language itself is the vehicle of a prior necessity. In Dickens, the circle is not closed quite: certain forms of language are prior to the world and can therefore reveal things about it.
The comic reduction of the human in Dickens is often a matter of the subdued opposition (at times, transposition) of mind and body. For example, the picture of Barkis in David Copperfield might, impressionistically, be a perfect model for some of Beckett’s characters. After he has displayed his famous willingness, and subsequently married Peggotty, Barkis becomes reduced to a bedridden life. When he is dying, David returns to visit him: ‘He received me with absolute enthusiasm. He was too rheumatic to be shaken hands with, but he begged me to shake the tassel on the top of his nightcap, which I did most cordially. When I sat down by the side of the bed, he said that it did him a world of good to feel as if he was driving me on the Blunderstone road again. As he lay in bed, face upward, and so covered, with that exception, that he seemed to be nothing but a face—like a conventional cherubim—he looked the queerest object I ever beheld.’ (308) The reduction is quite literal: Barkis has shrunk to a part of himself. There is a tension here between the overtones of innocence and premature ascent into heaven in the image of the ‘conventional cherubim’ and the sense of a human identity shrinking into a material object. But as Dickens goes on with the picture, one begins to see that Barkis’s mind also has been reduced to an obsession. The interplay between mind and body throughout the passage makes it almost impossible to determine which reduction is prior and causal:
‘it was as true,’ said Mr. Barkis, ‘as turnips is. It was as
true,’ said Mr. Barkis, nodding his nightcap, which was
his only means of emphasis, ‘as taxes is. And nothing’s
truer than them.’
Mr. Barkis turned his eyes on me, as if for my assent to
this result of his reflections in bed; and I gave it.
‘Nothing’s truer than them,’ repeated Mr. Barkis; ‘a man
as poor as I am, finds that out in his mind when he’s laid
up. I’m a very poor man, sir!’
‘I’m sorry to hear it, Mr. Barkis.’
‘A very poor man, indeed I am,’ said Mr. Barkis.
Here his right hand came slowly and feebly from
under the bedclothes, and with a purposeless uncer-
tain grasp took hold of a stick which was loosely
tied to the side of the bed. After some poking
about with this instrument, in the course of which
his face assumed a variety of distracted impressions,
Mr. Barkis poked it against a box, an end of which
had been visible to me all the time. Then his face
The stick is a potentially ‘Cartesian’ joke: it signifies the fact that Barkis’s mind is perpetually returning to his material possessions. But the audience factor is once again important: the impression he hopes to give (in the ‘purposeless uncertain grasp’) is that his mind has gone: and, with it, his money. In fact, Barkis is pursuing his own devious course of action. When David and Peggotty open the box, after his death, they find, amongst a host of other objects, three thousand pounds. Barkis’s ‘closed system’ is an economic one:
‘Old clothes,’ said Mr. Barkis.
‘Oh!’ said I.
‘I wish it was Money, sir,’ said Barkis.
‘I wish it was, indeed,’ said I.
‘But it ain’t,’ said Mr. Barkis, opening both his eyes
as wide as he possibly could. (309)
The innocent deception of the wide eyes here amounts to a systematic opposition between mind and body, but it is not taken that far; Dickens is not interested in the ‘philosophical’ question, so much as in the mechanics of obsession. The pathos of the situation derives from the fact that Barkis is an inverted miser; a martyr: in order to ‘deceive’ them, he endures the most racking agonies in crawling out of bed to his box, taking a guinea from his store, returning to his bed, and hiding it under his pillow. This is his way of making sure he will leave them a substantial sum.
A ‘sickbed’ scene it might be useful to compare in Beckett’s writing is the encounter between Celia and Mr. Kelly in Murphy:
Mr. Kelly’s face was narrow and profoundly seamed
with a lifetime of dingy, stingy repose. Just as all
hope seemed lost it burst into a fine bulb of skull,
unobscured by hair. Yet a little while and his
brain-body ratio would have sunk to that of a small
bird. He lay back in bed, doing nothing, unless an
occasional pluck at the counterpane be entered to his
‘You are all I have in the world,’ said Celia.
Mr. Kelly nestled.
‘You,’ said Celia, ‘and possibly Murphy.’
Mr. Kelly started up in the bed. His eyes could not
very well protrude, so deeply were they imbedded, but
they could open, and this they did.
‘I have not spoken to you of Murphy,’ said Celia,
‘because I thought it might give you pain.’
‘Pain my rump,’ said Mr. Kelly.
Mr. Kelly fell back in the bed, which closed his eyes,
as though he were a doll. (11-12)
Deception is present here too. Mr. Kelly’s gestures are designed to persuade Celia, even at this earliest stage in her relationship with Murphy, of the error of her ways. The ‘Cartesian’ perspective in a different way is tied up with an economic one. Mr. Kelly has been living off Celia’s earnings by the sale of her body: he now sees that his source of income is threatened by love. The economic basis of his inspired indolence is conveyed briefly in the metaphor from book-keeping: ‘unless an occasional pluck at the counterpane be entered to his credit’; though ‘doing nothing’ is also ambiguously a part of the freedom Mr. Kelly has arrogated to himself, the freedom of withdrawal from the material system. Like Mr. Barkis, Mr. Kelly is a mind and body in a state of progressive reduction; the main difference between them apart from the difference in mood is that Mr. Barkis is deceiving himself and no one else.
The radical shift in Beckett’s writing after the war presents itself formally as a move into the first person; along with that goes a much more important change: the desocializing of the central perception of the world: in some ways, a more obvious comparison with Mr. Barkis is the character of Malone. Malone too is obsessed by his possessions. He too is dying (ostensibly, at least). He too operates his fast-atrophying sensory system by means of a stick: ‘In the beginning it was different. The woman came right into the room, bustled about, enquired about my needs, my wants. I succeeded in the end in getting them into her head, my needs and my wants. It was not easy. She did not understand. Until the day I found the terms, the accents, that fitted her. All that must be left to imagination. It was she who got me this long stick. It has a hook at one end. Thanks to it I can control the furthest recesses of my abode. How great is my debt to sticks! So great that I almost forget the blows they have transferred to me.’ (185)12 But Mr. Kelly is much nearer to Mr. Barkis than Malone is, because, by the time we reach the later Beckett, the material system no longer includes an economic perspective. The mention of a debt in Malone’s case is a metaphor: but it is scarcely felt as a metaphor at all, because its literal base has virtually disappeared. We have to struggle to recapture it. The material system in its most abstract form is presented as prior to social process. It is no longer a question of money, but rather the way the mind ‘possesses’ its environment; possessions are merely objects, not objects of value: ‘When I have completed my inventory, if my death is not ready for me then, I shall write my memoirs. That’s funny. I have made a joke. No matter. There is a cupboard I have never looked into. My possessions are in a corner, in a little heap. With my long stick I can rummage in them, draw them to me, send them back.’ (184). Here death is envisaged as a material state (rhetorically, one could substitute ‘coffin’ for it without loss of meaning) and the contemplating mind is reduced to an inventory of its contents. But, as critics have pointed out, Malone can never inventorize his mind, because he uses his mind to do it: there is always therefore a tantalizing (quantified, materially-conceived) ‘remainder’ of consciousness. One cannot tell, from the amount of context we are given, whether the cupboard is literal, or a subdued metaphor for that supervening consciousness. This ambiguity of presentation has an important effect on our sense of the material; it necessarily makes us accept it at the most abstract level first. Instability of point of view means that the economic level of materiality is no more important than any other level. The images of old men in Beckett’s later fiction are images of impoverishment: but the main feeling we get is that the literal sense of the word is metonymic for a general sense of subtraction.
It is generally assumed—justifiably—that the intervening element in Beckett’s sense of the systematic is language: his prose is a tissue of serpentine connections between logic and rhetoric. A very obvious example of this is his habit of loading negation with symbolic import.
The concept of ‘Nothing’ is everywhere in Beckett’s prose doing its destructive work. ‘Nothing is more real than nothing,’ says Murphy and some thirty years later Malone is still guarding his mind against this form of simultaneous paradox and tautology: ‘I know these little phrases that seem so innocuous and, once you let them in, pollute the whole of speech. Nothing is more real than nothing. They rise up out of the pit and know no rest until they drag you down into its dark.’ (193) Bergson in his last work Creative evolution, a work which could well have been read by Beckett when he was a student, analyzes the concept of Nothing in depth. He divides it into two different kinds of usage. The mathematical, or ‘symmetrical,’ in which we contemplate the negative as real; and the practical usage of ordinary language, in which we employ negation to express our needs. When, for example, in ordinary language, we say: ‘There was nothing in the room,’ we do not include a reference to the oxygen. In this sense, there is no absolute symmetry between positive and negative terms. A negative is merely another way of making a positive statement. It is not only impossible, says Bergson, it is also normally irrelevant to imagine the idea of Nothing. In our daily lives, the problem does not trouble us. But if we treat negatives in a mathematical sense, as if they were symmetrical, then language produces what Bergson calls a ‘cinematographical illusion.’ We treat language as if it were simply referential. The existence of Nothing then becomes a problem, because, as Watt says, ‘one can only talk about nothing as if it were something.’ Language as a whole appears to grow unstable, if we ignore the fact that its logical and grammatical functions are not identical.
The rhetoric of Watt uses this sense of vertigo about negation most obsessively. The character of Mr. Knott is the embodiment of Negation: he is, as one might gather from his name, both a problem and a phantom. Mr. Knott needs people to witness the fact that he needs no witnesses: he is therefore kept in a state of existence, so tenuous that it can scarcely be apprehended.
Dickens’s major contribution to the dialectics of Negation is the novel Little Dorrit. The theme of the novel involves the collective corruption of language. The language, for example, of the Circumlocution Office is essentially a corrupt form of Negation: circulars are issued on How Not To Do Things. But negation is not just a matter of theme; the language of the narrative itself is a plethora of negative constructions, as Dickens takes us with enormous and frightening energy through endless dialectical catacombs of negation:
Anybody may pass, any day, in the thronged thorough-
fare of the metropolis, some meagre, wrinkled, yellow old
man (who might be supposed to have dropped from the
stars, if there were any star in the Heavens dull enough to
be suspected of casting off so feeble a spark, creeping a
along with a scared air, as though bewildered and a little
frightened by the noise and bustle). This old man is always
a little old man: if he were ever a big old man, he has
shrunk into a little old man; if he were always a little old
man, he has dwindled into a less old man. His coat is a
colour, and cut, that never was the mode anywhere, at
any period. Clearly it was not made for him, or for any
individual mortal. Some wholesale contractor measured
Fate for five thousand coats of such quality, and Fate has
lent this coat to this old man, as one of a long unfinished
line of many old men. It has always large dull metal
buttons, similar to no other buttons. This old man wears
a hat, a thumbed and napless and yet an obdurate hat,
which has never adapted itself to the shape of his poor
head. His coarse shirt and his coarse neckcloth have no
more individuality than his coat and hat; they have the
same character of not being his—of not being anybody’s.
The narrative perspective itself is dominated by the concept of negation. It looks at first like a piece of impressionism; the use of ‘always’ and ‘never,’ for example, seems as if it is only an intensifying device for a particular and exceptional instance. There are certainly examples of this kind of usage all over the early Dickens. But this passage amounts to a systematic use of negative terms; in every sentence we learn to wait for the individuality of the object (and ultimately, the person) to be subverted by the crushing negative. The perspective is once again that of material system. In this case, it is a quantitative assessment of the human: the idea of a ‘less old man,’ for example, is the same kind of trick that Beckett plays with language. But it is not simply a question of invoking typicality: there is also an awareness of dialectic here—this is an unperson dressed in unclothes. In the flights and drops of his sentences, Dickens is calling attention
with outrage to the imaginative effort required (what Beckett would call the ‘anthropomorphic insolence’) to picture such a phenomenon. Yet we are able to foist such a conception upon ourselves with unconscious ease.
Thus we might be tempted to regard ‘Anybody’ as the opposite of ‘Nobody’: ‘anybody might see him’ and the coat has the ‘character of not being anybody’s.’ Therefore to be ‘anybody’s’ ought to be positive, a pole of individuality. But Anybody is only another version of the frightening Nobody. The dialectic is mercilessly parodic of the security of contract between writer and reader by which ‘anybody’ can be used as a fiction of complicity. ‘Everybody’ is an even commoner device, which more obviously seeks to appeal to common experience of something as a means of convincing the reader of an attitude. In Little Dorrit, the dialectic is self-cancelling: there are no opposites to ‘Nobody.’ Such common appeals are only part of a dramatized exposure of circumlocution, the lurking void of negative abstractions in human language. The terms ‘everybody,’ ‘anybody,’ and ‘nobody’ all have the same status; they are abstractions which we fill out with pseudo-flesh. When we do so, we are beginning to fall into the trap of negation. Even ‘somebody’ is not a stable opposite of ‘nobody’ in this novel, as Pancks’s description of Miss Wade makes clear: ‘‘I expect,’ rejoined that worthy, ‘I know as much about her as she knows about herself. She is somebody’s child—anybody’s—nobody’s. Put her in her room in London here with any six people old enough to be her parents, and her parents may be there for anything she knows. They may be in any house she sees, they may be in any churchyard she passes, she may run against ‘em in any street, she may make chance acquaintance of ‘em at any time; and never know it. She knows nothing about ‘em. She knows nothing about any relative whatever. Never did. Never will.’’ (595)
This is another example of the closed system which makes necessity and chance collide. She is somebody’s child necessarily, yet that means she is nobody’s child. She is in a state of abstraction. She is what she knows; nobody, who knows nothing.
Here it is worth invoking a precedent for the connection between Nothing and the Material System. Fielding, in his Erasmian ‘Essay on Nothing,’ an essay which both Dickens and Beckett may well have read, made the point like this:
There is nothing falser than that old proverb which
(like many other falsehoods) is in everyone’s mouth:
Ex nihilo nihil fit
Thus translated by Shakespeare in Lear:
Nothing can come of nothing.
Whereas, in fact, from Nothing proceeds everything.
And this is a truth confessed by the philosophers of
all sects: the only point in controversy between them
being, whether Something made the world out of
Nothing, or Nothing out of Something. A matter
not worth much debating at present, since either
will equally serve our turn. Indeed the wits of all
ages seem to have ranged themselves on each side
of this question, as their genius tended more or
less to the spiritual or material substance. For
those of the more spiritual species have inclined to
the former, and those whose genius hath partaken
more of the chief properties of matter, such as soli-
dity, thickness etc., have embraced the latter.13
This is very witty. The more one reads the passage, the more the terms dance back and forth before the eyes. The verbal formulation allows different contexts to slide, imperceptibly into one another: it draws together Idealism versus Realism under the same hat as Christianity versus Atheism and suggests, with airy, veiled self-consciousness, that the Materialists (‘those whose genius hath partaken more of the chief properties of matter, such as solidity, thickness etc . . .’) are, in fact, what they believe: matter personified. The trick of confusing being with knowledge is pulled off rhetorically by confusing words for physical processes with words for mental. In doing so, the author exploits a covert fact about language: that the words for mental processes often derive from the words for physical. This effect is very common in the writing of both Dickens and Beckett.
But in the case of Dickens, there is a crucial difference of stress in his scrutiny of language. In Little Dorrit, for example, the dialectics of Nothing—though rich, in fact, in metaphysical ‘feel’—are not used to recapitulate hoary philosophical paradox. The shuttling back and forth between negative and positive concepts in both narrative description and the way characters construct things to themselves has a quite different final effect: it sensitizes the reader to a negative relation between social structure and individual consciousness. There are countless examples of this. One example will suffice. Arthur Clenham is so repressed by the social system he lives in, his past life, etc., that, although he has clearly fallen in love with Pet Meagles, he must represent it to himself in negative terms. He therefore invents a negative self (the ubiquitous Nobody) who can do all the feeling for him. This gives Dickens the opportunity to produce some illusionist verbal constructions. Here, for instance, is Arthur’s reaction when he learns from Pet that Henry Gowan has asked her to marry him: ‘‘Mr. Gowan,’ said Arthur Clenham, ‘has reason to be very happy. God bless his wife and him!’’
‘She wept, as she tried to thank him. He reassured her, took her hand as it lay with the trembling roses in it on his arm, took the remaining roses from it, and put it to his lips. At that time, it seemed to him, he first finally resigned the dying hope that had flickered in nobody’s heart so much to its pain and trouble . . .’ (383) The effect is quite different in Dickens from Beckett, though the same peculiarities of language are being rhetorically exploited. In Little Dorrit, we have the vision of a whole society—everyone in their own way—vanishing into abstraction. In the later Beckett, ‘society’ is pre-empted by abstraction.
Both Dickens and Beckett in different ways evoke the hiatus between human projection and the indifferent state of the natural world. Both are concerned with images of accumulation of matter in defiance of a meaningful sense of time. Both use a form of elemental symbolism to achieve this. Dickens, for example, begins Bleak house by inducing the picture of a world that has regressed, without knowing it, to its primeval condition:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the
Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Im-
placable November weather. As much mud on the
streets as if the waters had but newly retired from
the face of the earth, and it would not be wonder-
ful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so,
waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn
Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney pots,
making soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in
it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into
mourning, one might imagine, for the death of
the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses,
scarcely better: splashed to their very blinkers.
Foot-passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas
in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing
their foot-hold at street corners, where tens of
thousands of other foot-passengers have been
slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this
day ever broke) adding new deposits to the
crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points
tenanciously to the pavement, and accumulating at
compound interest. (17)14
The picture is resolved into its material units: fog, smoke, mud. It is also assimilated to the idea of material accumulation. Mud, the primeval slime, is associated strongly with money: it increases in geometric progression, yet the strongest imaginative implication in this picture is one of regression to a state of blind (and blindly competitive) chaos.
In Our mutual friend Dickens uses the image of dust-heaps. Less obviously, he also uses the image of wood. In this later novel, he envisages satirically the regression of a whole urban civilisation in organic terms to the primeval forest on which it is built. This too is a satiricially, but frighteningly constructed version of a system that ‘time cannot bite into.’ The latest point in history is systematically joined up by Dickens to its earliest point. The imagery of the novel brilliantly displays a fake anthropomorphism. The scheme is systematic, not randomly ‘imaginative.’ The pub The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, for example, is not as benign as it may seem, when one puts it into the context of this form of overall regression: ‘The wood forming the chimney-piece, beams, partitions, floors and doors of the Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters seemed in its old age fraught with confused memories of its youth. In many places it had become gnarled and riven, according to the manner of old trees; knots started out of it; and here and there it seemed to twist itself into the likeness of boughs . . .’ (79-80) Even the coal in the fire in which Lizzie sees pictures is only a later (not in any way a more advanced) stage of this regression. Ironically, it is Charley’s ‘new’ (progressive) Headstonian education that gives him the opportunity eagerly, unknowingly, to expose it: ‘‘That’s gas, that is,’ said the boy, ‘coming out of a bit of a forest that’s been under the mud that was under the water in the days of Noah’s Ark...’’ (44) Woodenness is the very image of the material: the idea of ‘growth’ is envisaged in (falsely) human terms as a state of human society engaged in blind pre-human expansion. The world has not risen out of its elements and the system of material action and reaction has not changed since its origins. Individuals cannot escape it: it is prior to them. The famous description of Silas Wegg is not at all a local comic excrescence, but a direct manifestation of the books paradigm: ‘Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle. When he laughed, certain jerks occurred in it, and the rattle sprung. Sooth to say he was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer that he might be expected—if his development received no untimely check—to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months.’ (63) This is a parody, simultaneously, of the idea of the ‘natural’ and the notion of ‘development.’ Woodenness is hardness; it softens only at the idea of profit. The switches from human projection to the indifferently material are piled up like a house of cards; but there is nothing actually anthropomorphic about this process. The notion of the ‘organic,’ for example,—the shibboleth of anthropomorphism in nineteenth-century thinking—is deployed purely for the sake of irony. Inhumanity is literally hard, and to be ‘close-grained’ is what we refer to anthropomorphically as being ‘tight-fisted.’
Few can escape this paradigm; either the body, or the perception, regresses. The most oft-quoted examples are Veneering and Twemlow; but the ‘secretary’ Harmon/Rokesmith is, in the eyes of both Bella Wilfer and Boffin, a wooden writing-desk, a repository of financial papers. Dickens’s version of the spring in this novel—traditionally appropriated in poetry for the purposes of human self-reflection—is a howling Democritan blizzard: ‘It was not summer yet, but spring: and it was not gentle spring etherially mild, as in Thomson’s Seasons, but nipping spring with an easterly wind, as in Johnson’s, Jackson’s, Dickson’s, Smith’s and Jones’s Seasons. The grating wind sawed rather than blew; and as it sawed, the sawdust whirled about the sawpit. Every street was a sawpit, and there were no topsawyers; every passenger was an undersawyer, with the sawdust blinding him and choking him.’ (168) The aristocractic security of a literary tradition is based on a set of anthropomorphic connections which reflect a human hierarchy; once that link between the human and natural is seen through, the world sinks, not into democracy, but into an accumulation of prehuman elements. The human point of view is caught up in a system that knows nothing of the natural sympathies, natural water-sheds (the seasons) that make up the natural ‘curve’ of human life. The obsessive ‘wood’ metaphor makes it but a short step for Dickens to travel from a parodic reduction of nature to the money system: ‘That mysterious paper currency which circulates in London when the wind blows gyrated here and there and everywhere. Whence can it come? Whither can it go? It hangs on every bush, flutters in every tree, is caught flying by the electric wires, haunts every enclosure, drinks at every pump, cowers at every grating, shudders upon every plot of grass, seeks rest in vain behind the legions of iron rails.’ (168) The closed system of the elemental world of matter, the garbage of a city, and the economic system are deliberately confused.
In Beckett too an onslaught is carried out on ‘anthropomorphic insolence,’ from the point of view of an imaginative acceptance of the fact of a material system. The most obvious example of this is Arsene’s speech in Watt where, in a fashion similar to Dickens’s assault on the poetic conception of the seasons, Beckett unleashes his withering irony in a list of anthropomorphic clichés:
But another evening shall come and the light die
away out of the sky and the colour from the earth -
Now the day is over,
Night is drawing nigh-igh,
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky -
haw! I began a little low perhaps, and the door open
on the wind or the sleet or the hail or the snow or the
slush or the storm or the warm or the warm still scents
of summer or the still of the ice or the earth awakening
or the hush of harvest or the leaves falling through the
dark from various altitudes, never two coming to earth
at the same time, then bowling red and brown and
yellow and grey briskly for an instant, yes, through the
dark, for an instant, then running together in heaps,
here a heap, and there a heap, to be paddled in by happy
boys and girls on their way home from school looking
forward to Hallows E’en and Guy Fawkes and Christmas
and the New Year, haw, yes happy girls and boys look-
ing forward to the happy New Year, and then perhaps
carted off in barrows and used as dung the following
spring by the poor . . . (56-7)
The grammatical confusion between the leaves and the ‘happy girls and boys’ clinches the perspective of the whole passage. Beckett deliberately writes badly in this novel, in order to induce a confusion between the subjects and objects of sentences. We sentimentally impose our human shapes on the ‘outer world,’ the material system that knows nothing of us, but is merely feeding its own stasis, the world ‘whose blooming,’ as Arsene says elsewhere, is a ‘budding withering’; only, in the end, to become its best examples, its prize clowns. Consciousness is no help, language neither; their ambiguities fatally symbolize the shallowness of human self-projection.
The leaves in this last example are an instance of elemental symbolism doing a comparable job to the one it does in Dickens. Beckett’s work is full of it: leaves, mud, sand, grains of millet, piles of beans, water. These may look concrete; but in reality they are abstractions; metaphors for and literal examples of homogeneous substance. They are the elements of a system into which time cannot bite. Beckett too is obsessed with the collapse of a distinction between the new and the old: ‘There is a great alp of sand, one hundred metres high, between the pines and the ocean, and there, in the warm moonless night, when no one is looking, no one listening, in tiny packets of two or three millions the grains slip, all together, a little slip of one or two lines maybe, and then stop, all together, not one missing and that is all, that is all for that night, and perhaps for ever that is all, for in the morning with the sun a little wind from the sea may come, and blow them one from another far apart, or a pedestrian scatter them with his foot . . .’ (43) The pedestrian is not a true human presence here; he is, like Dickens’s ‘foot- passengers,’ like the wind itself: mere agency, Arsene’s great revelation of change is revealed as an illusion as soon as it is articulated. So it is with the movements of the planet, the times, the seasons. When he shifts into the first person, Beckett pulls off an effect that Dickens is not concerned to approach. He gives us in Molloy the horrifying illusion that the movement of matter is perceptible deep within us, a kind of scurrying that presents itself to the unwilling ear of solitude: ‘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 . . .’ (40) This minimalizes the human perspective for its own sake; it gives the reader the feeling of looking on, even feeling within the self, a world that cannot acknowledge the presence of an onlooker, because subject and object are made of the same materials. But the assimilation of consciousness to matter, it is arguable,15 is still an anthropomorphic diminuendo. The position of the writer is ‘paradoxical’ in a way it never is in Dickens: Beckett’s purity of concentration on the grounds of ontological position leaves him open to an ultimate qualification of his own thought. Beckett’s writing relies on the pathetic fallacy it would hope to banish.
The deployment of ‘system’ in Dickens is heterogeneous. In this sense, the whole procedure of writing is over-determined; but that over-determination is a strength, not a weakness. The contract between writer and reader is no more secure than it is in an intellectually self- conscious writer like Beckett.
In some ways—important ways—it is less so. Both writers are drawn to the same jokes, yet the joke in each case takes a different slice of cultural expectation. In Bleak house, for example, the famous confrontation between Sir Leicester Dedlock, the decayed aristocrat, and Rouncewell the ironmaster provokes a fantasy of peasant revolution in Sir Leicester’s mind:
All Sir Leicester’s old misgivings relative to Watt Tyler
and the people in the iron districts who do nothing but
turn out by torchlight, came in a shower upon his
head . . . (405)
The peasant revolt and the new technology of the Industrial Revolution are one and the same thing for Sir Leicester: his fear is evoked in terms that are a cross between biblical coals of fire and industrial sparks. Certainly iron—though quite different in its social meaning from ‘mud’ in Bleak house—is part of Dickens’s materializing process. Right at the end of the novel, Rouncewell reveals that his son is named Watt—after Sir James, of course, the inventor of the steam engine. The joke is that Watt is the New Tyler for the Sir Leicesters of the world. But the historical ‘slip’ is never made explicit.
In Beckett’s Watt, it is. Arsene announces himself to Watt in Mr. Knott’s kitchen, and in return receives an introduction: ‘Haw! You heard that one? A beauty. Haw! Hell! Haw. So. Haw! Haw! Haw! My laugh, Mr. -? I beg your pardon. Like Tyler? Haw! May laugh, Mr. Watt. Christian name, forgotten.’ (48) The idea of a revolt against the serial nature of all things, in particular of Mr. Knott’s servants, may perhaps have been entertained briefly, but the joke is more or less purely verbal. Earlier, when Watt boards the train, he sits with his back to the engine. Here a neater joke about the ‘progress’ of technology is run together with a perception of the intellectual contradiction involved in the concept of motion. But the jokes are more ‘Victorian’ than Dickens’s: they have the parlour room feel, whereas the latter’s touch, if glancingly, upon a social and political issue that is central to the novel as a whole.
Such a trivial example should not be taken as a serious emblem of my main comparison. But the careers of the two writers show an extraordinary inverse relationship. Dickens’s early use of materialism in language is anarchic and unsystematic. It is not until Bleak house perhaps that he really begins to expound the historical and intellectual regression on which the myths of his society have been built. After that, the novels become more and more consistent, more and more recherche in their effects, as he begins to make connections that are not available to the mind that cannot seriously entertain the vision of a ‘closed system.’
In the case of Beckett, the early work shows an acutely ‘applied’ sensibility. In More pricks than kicks, for example, through the agency of his alienated hero’s consciousness, he ruthlessly anatomizes the class to which he belongs; while, at the same time, revealing his inability to identify with the class to which he gravitates—the ‘low’ Dubliners—the curates, beggars, tinkers, urchins, all of whom talk an exquisitely-rendered ‘indescribably sing-song.’ In Murphy, he goes farther afield, and comes closest to Dickens: the theme of that novel involves the ambitious and pathetically vain struggle between individuals and the market-place.
But the formal self-consciousness of the later work, the unreliable narrators, the self-cancelling statements, makes sure that the paradoxes of the material are referred back to a ‘prior’ point in the process of the reader’s consciousness than the social and political. They become, we are persuaded, a matter of metaphysics and language (not necessarily in that order). It is curious that such an intimate window on psychological determinism as Beckett’s trilogy should omit virtually all reference to social conditioning. The closed system has closed out the social and political valency of contradiction.
1 Henry Bergson, Time and free will, translated by F.L.Podgson, London, 1910; reprinted London, 1959, 153. For a sympathetic account, see F. Lange, The history of materialism, 3rd edition, London, 1925.
2 Henri Bergson, ‘Laughter,’ reprinted in Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher, New York, 1956, pp. 78-9.
3 This reads like a piece of crude dogmatism, but it is not meant to be. I am merely taking the opportunity to disagree with the premise behind Bergson’s argument. Comedy for him is asymmetrical with tragedy; the former, occurring in both art and life, is impure: the latter, occurring only in art, is pure.
4 J. Huizinga, Homo Iudens, London, 1949, pp. 3-4.
5 Quotations from David Copperfield are taken from the Oxford edition, 1948.
6 Quotations form More pricks than kicks are taken from the Calder edition, London, 1970.
7 Quotations from Murphy are taken from the Grove Press edition, New York, 1957.
8 Quotations from Dombey and son are taken from the New American Library edition, New York, 1964.
9 Quotations from Watt are taken from the Grove Press edition, New York, 1959.
10 Quotations from Our mutual friend are taken from the New American Library edition, New York, 1964.
11 Quotations from Little Dorrit are taken from the Penguin edition, Harmondsworth, 1967.
12 Quotations from Molly, Malone dies and The unnamable are taken from the Calder edition, London, 1959.
13 Henry Fielding, ‘An essay on nothing,’ reprinted in A book of English essays, (1600-1900), Oxford, 1912, p. 79
14 Quotations from Bleak House are taken from the New American Library edition, New York, 1964.
15 See Bernard Bergonzi’s discussion of Robbe-Grillet in The situation of the novel; and A.D. Nuttall’s analysis of the language of Sartre’s Nausea in A common sky.