The voice and its words: How it is in Beckett’s canon


Judith Dearlove


Useful as it otherwise may be, a tripartite division of the Beckettian canon obscures an important shift in the conceptual framework of Beckett’s pieces. How it is does not present simply a continuation of the techniques and themes developed in the trilogy. Instead the book marks a turning point in Samuel Beckett’s career from an exploration of the limitations of the human mind and an emphasis upon definitions of the self, to an identification of the self with the voice and an acceptance, if not celebration, of the life of the imagination. Indeed, How it is enables Beckett to surmount the attitude of disintegration L’Innommable once caused in him1 by directing attention not to the divorce of the mind from the external world, but rather to the internal worlds the mind creates. How it is reduces everything to a voice speaking in the eternal present creating its own universe. This interior focus in turn makes possible the highly self-conscious and admittedly arbitrary constructions of Beckett's latest fictions.


The works written prior to How it is are concerned with the problems of a mind/body dualism. From Belacqua scoffing ‘at the idea of a sequitur from his body to his mind,’2 to Watt discovering the abyss between objects like pots and the words intended to describe them (81 ff.), to the Unnamable trying to say who he is even though there are no names or pronouns for him (404), we see Beckett's characters trying to bridge the gap between the mind, which Murphy describes as a ‘large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the universe without,’ (107) and what Neary refers to as ‘the big blooming buzzing confusion’ (4) of the world. The problem for Beckett's characters, as for the post-Cartesian philosophers to whom Beckett frequently alludes, is that action, speech, identity, and thought become problematic once the mind is isolated from the material world. Ultimately, Murphy’s quest to become immersed in the dark flux of his mind's third zone, ‘where he could love himself’ (7), is a self-destructive quest which can be accomplished only by annihilating that physical part of himself 'which he hated’ (8). Watt's efforts to superimpose the rational constructions of his mind upon the irrational world he encounters meet with no greater success. No matter how many hypotheses he formulates, nor how many generations of ‘needy local men’ he traces to guarantee the feeding of ‘two famished dogs’ (91-117), Watt never ‘penetrate[s] the forces at play . . . or even perceive[s] the forms they upheaved, or obtain [s] the least useful information concerning himself, or Mr Knott’ (117). Knott cannot be known: the rational mind, incapable of knowing the irrational, can only combine and permute its own limitations. Those limitations are explored further in the trilogy as the first person narrator proffers us a consciousness experiencing itself. From Molloy’s inability to recall his name (22) and Moran’s contradiction of his own report (176), to Malone’s inventory of stories and possessions (181 ff.), to the Unnamable’s continuing effort to say the words that will put an end to words (369), we see Beckett's successive narrators struggling to define themselves in relation to the external world and to the words they speak. Even after the Unnamable renounces foreign objects and ‘vice-existers’ as terms in his self-definition, he is still forced to rely on a language learned from others (314). The result is an infinitely repeating pattern in which some larger category is always necessary to encompass the speaker and his definition, to contain the perceiving mind and its self-perceptions.3 While Beckett’s early pieces portray a mind/body dichotomy, his ‘middle period’ works investigate the restrictions that dichotomy imposes upon the mind.


The pieces written after How it is, on the other hand, turn from an emphasis upon the mind’s limitations to consideration of its imaginative constructions. References to, and comparisons with an unreachable external reality are replaced by detailed descriptions of objects which exist only in the inner world of the mind’s creations. Portrayals of a mind creating stories are omitted in favour of the creations themselves. Moreover, these creations often pay tribute to the imagination.


‘Imagination dead imagine’ is based on a paradox: imagination is necessary to envision a state in which imagination is dead. The envisioned state is that of a solid, white, and silent rotunda containing two figures whose vital signs are reduced to slightly sweating bodies, unblinking eyes, and a misted mirror. Emphasis, however, is placed not upon minimal signs of continuation, but rather upon absence. Without imagination there is no motion, no emotion, no voice, no thought, ‘no trace anywhere of life’ (63). The rotunda must be described through negative propositions. We learn not what it is, but what it is not (63); not what we can say happens, but what we cannot say happens (66).


The identification of colour, movement, sound, and even life with imagination is more subtly continued in ‘Ping.’ Instead of entering a rotunda almost at will and observing its inhabitants, ‘Ping’ confines us to a box in which everything keeps fading and disappearing into the shining ‘white on white invisible’ (70). ‘Ping’ becomes, in fact, a catalogue of what is finally over. Significantly, the last element in this catalogue to be alone unover, is not the ‘heart breath’ nor even the blue eyes, but the murmur. More minimal than even the ‘ah’ of ‘Imagination dead imagine,’ the murmurs are too indistinct to be quoted directly, too fleeting to be recorded. They belong to the world of the imagined, the ‘never seen,’ ‘invisible,’ ‘no trace.’ Yet in a world that increasingly approaches absolute zero, vitality persists in the nonmaterial murmurs and their postulations of what is not: ‘perhaps [there is] a way out’ (69), ‘perhaps a nature’ (70), ‘perhaps a meaning’ (70), ‘perhaps [the figure is] not alone’ (69). Like existence, the piece itself is over only after the final murmur has ended and the last ‘ping’ has faded away.


Just as the imaginative murmurs provide variety and vitality in ‘Ping,’ so too those sentences associated with imaginary constructions provide mystery and meaning in ‘Lessness.’4 Four of the six groups of sentences Beckett wrote in composing ‘Lessness’ are relatively simple: one set describes the ‘true refuge,’ another expands the description placing emphasis upon the greyness and/or the endlessness, a third treats the appearance of ‘the little body,’ and a fourth set defines the body’s intellectual capacities by offering a litany of what is now ‘all gone from mind.’ The last two groups of sentences are more difficult to characterize. Whereas the first groups describe setting and body—the known or observable aspects of the present situation—the last groups deal, not with given data, but with the imaginative and mental, with day-dreams and figments. The fifth group postulates things that are not, except in the mind, except in dreams and figments and illusions. The mere mention of these illusions—of passing time, of days and nights, of light, of wild laughter and cries—enriches both this group and the entire work by relieving the grey endlessness. The final group of sentences is similarly suggestive as it deals with future possibilities, with the imagined return of a diverse world in which man can act and speak again ‘as in the blessed days.’ But the return to diversity, order, and action is also an implicit return to the false refuge of imagined days and mental containers. By presenting figments and impossible futures, Beckett forces us to see what does not and cannot exist in the ‘true refuge’ except through the imagination.


Although Fizzles does not describe self-contained worlds of rotundas, boxes, and cylinders, and although it does return in some sections to first person narration, its stories and images are nonetheless distinct from those of the trilogy. Unlike the narrator of the trilogy, that of Fizzles is not obsessed either with defining himself or with labelling, controlling, and hence divorcing himself from his stories. Indeed, the narrator's identity and location are often difficult to determine. Sharp divisions between mind and world are blurred. Moreover, the brevity of the pieces prevents them from self-consciously unmaking themselves or irrepressibly battering the boundaries of human knowledge. Rather than exposing his impotence, the narrator creates images of ‘stillness’ or of ‘ending yet again.’ Rather than recording the sounds the mind makes in struggling with its words, the narrator presents prose poems and movements analogous to Sarraute’s tropisms. The Unnamable’s urgency to say his pensum and to find the correct words is gone. Instead, the words as stated are accepted as adequate. Everything ‘needed to be known’ is known, imagined, and said: there is nothing beyond the world of the fiction: ‘Closed place. All needed to be known for say is known. There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing. What goes on in the arena is not said. Did it need to be known it would be. No interest. Not for imagining’ (37).


The sense of self-sufficiency suggested in Fizzles is central to ‘Enough.’ As the title implies, the work is concerned with the moderate and the balanced. Even in a minimal world there can be too much—too much of silence, too much of speech, too much remembered, too much forgotten: ‘All that goes before forget. Too much at a time is too much . . . Too much silence is too much’ (53). The piece, like the weather, deals not with the extremes of storms, but with calm acceptance and the ‘eternally mild’ (59). There are questions one sees, but never asks (53). Desires are no longer manifested (53). Reasoning is a sedative rather than a tool of investigation (58). Emphasis is on the unity and sameness beneath the diversity and flux (58). Parts are fused; ‘anatomy is a whole’ (55); past and present merge (56); entropy is expressed in images, not of decay, but of a spreading calm (60). Instead of the defiance and determination expressed in the claim that ‘to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail,’5 instead of the commitment to an unending pursuit of futile quests saying, ‘you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on’ (The Unnamable, 414); instead of these, ‘Enough’ hesitantly and tentatively proffers the reconcilation, calm acceptance, and perhaps even the affirmation of a narrator who feels it is enough to have spoken at all, of a narrator who can accept the inevitable failure of his quest saying, ‘Stony ground but not entirely. Given three or four lives I might have accomplished something’ (54). The piece, though a reduced and even minimal literature, is itself enough. When chaos cannot be captured, it is enough to have created an image that fleetingly gestures toward the void. When imagination is divorced from material reality, it is enough to have written words that wipe out everything but a sense of unity with the passing image (60).


The transition from rebellious questing to tentative acceptance, from examination of the mind’s limitations to exploration of its creations, from external definitions of the self to internal identifications with the imagination, is first expressed in How it is.6 By directing the narrator’s attention to the self-creating powers of the voice and by eliminating external referents and efforts to locate oneself in opposition to an exterior order, Beckett frees both the voice and his fiction to consider earlier themes and subjects within a new framework. Paradoxically, the more the voice must rely on its own words for both its existence and the wherewithal to endure, the more ambiguous its postulations become. Where everything is produced by, and contained within a speaking voice, nothing need be ultimately affirmed or denied. How it is is bound only by self-imposed limitations. Unencumbered by the problem of sequiturs between body and mind, the voice creates its own space, time, identity, and even style. These creations, in turn, are more meaningful for their metaphysical than their mimetic associations.


The shift in Beckett’s framework begins with the reduction of everything to a voice speaking in an eternal present. While Molloy, Malone dies, and even The unnamable contain vestigial characters with bits and scraps of a plot still clinging to them, How it is reduces even those fragmentary characters and plots until there remains only the archetypal elements of the panting, the murmur, the dark, and the mud. Of these elements only the murmur in the mud has the capacity to differentiate, to individuate, to create. This imaginative murmur, then, is the source and substance of the universe—of the Pims and Boms, the sacks and tins, the memories and images. Only through our reading of the voice’s whey of words does the narrator assume an identity or existence. Indeed, as the initial and final ‘Stanzas’ reveal, the book itself is literally a quotation of the voice’s narration. Style and form become content, become surrogate characters and plots. Instead of a three part division of eternity, we have the perpetual present formulation of a voice creating itself in the here and now. When the voice ceases, so does How it is and our journey through its bizarre world ends.


The structure of How it is intimates the overriding importance of the voice for that work. The presence or absence of the voice distinguishes the journey of part one from the abandon of part three (21). Likewise, the couple of part two is subdivided by the momentous discovery that Pirn ‘can speak then that’s the main thing’ (56). Repeatedly the narrator anticipates the return of his voice (e.g. 60). If it is not with relief, at least it is without objection that he finds this voice ‘back at last in my mouth’ (106). Like Watt seeking to make a pillow of words, the narrator seeks solace in saying something, anything, to himself (43). The flow of words is necessary for without them both the images of life above in the light and existence in the here and now cease (92). Just as the typography of How it is consists of print and spaces, so too the universe consists of words and silences (13). The narrator no longer searches for a ‘language meet for here’ (17); yet only through that language can he live (129).


Although the importance of the voice is emphasized by the structure, its nature remains ambivalent. Indeed, the voice freely contradicts and revises itself. The narrator asks a question, then denies his capability of asking such a question (92-3); he describes motions he makes to hear Pim’s watch, then concludes that ‘all that beyond my strength’ (58); he posits a word, then retracts it as ‘too strong’ (55, 115). Uncertainty increases as the voice points out its own faulty transmission. Not only do we depend on some less than assuring witness, but this witness himself depends on a less than definitive narration. Like Sam in Watt, the witness is trying to transcribe a story of which he hears only ‘bits and scraps’ (15) and ‘little blurts midget grammar’ (76) which come too fast and end too soon (81). In spite of its ambiguity and uncertainty, however, the voice is consistent in its modes of operation. It remains loyal to the self-imposed limitations of the way the story is told. Reality is not really an issue. Phrases such as ‘its one or the other’ (11), ‘I remember . . . or I forget’ (8), ‘it's not said or I don’t hear’ (18) become refrains. Nothing, not even an ending, need be established irrevocably. The narrator may be engulfed in the mud, may be part of an unending cyclical progression, may be shat into the light. He may be the only figure who exists, or may be diffused into the great collapse of a million Pims and Boms. He may know other figures or may remain isolated. Unlike the trilogy characters, he may even die, ‘I am not dead to inexistence not irretrievably’ (69). The only rule of order for dealing with permutations is that ‘justice’ be maintained. This justice is itself nothing more than the preservation of symmetry. Every Bom must be a Pim for equivalent periods of time (125). Every four yards to the north must be balanced by four yards to the south (47). As in The lost ones and ‘Imagination dead imagine,’ the narrator uses his mathematics to create verbal diagrams (47). Ironically, in an uncertain world of undifferentiated mud, we know precisely how the narrator crawls—if he really does crawl. Likewise, the narrator’s ‘dear figures’ yield the percentage of words lost (if they are lost) (95), and enable a contrast between Pim’s ‘iso’ buttocks (if Pim exists) and the narrator’s own ‘ration [of] four to one’ (37). The voice is thus consistently operating according to the abstract postulations of systems such as ‘mathematics astronomy and even physics’ (41), in an inconsistent world lacking the ‘history and geography’ which gave time and place to mimetic novels.


The ambivalence of the voice is due not only to its uncertainty about the universe it postulates, but also to its ambiguous source. Although the narrator purports to be murmuring in the mud, at the same time he attributes the voice to some external person or thing which he is at best only quoting, ‘I say it as I hear it’ (7). As in The unnamable there is a sense that the words are part of some pensum taught by and belonging to a ‘them’ or ‘it’ (108). But there is no longer any urgency to define ‘who is speaking that’s not said any more it must have ceased to be of interest’ (21). Nor are we concerned whether the narrator speaks from obligation, necessity, or desire; whether he uses his speech ‘freely’ or not (18). The narrator accepts without desperation the realization that his words can pass through him and beyond his control. Moreover, he uses the externality of the voice as the first premise in the proof of its divinity. If the voice is other and is the source of words, it may be the source of the murmurings of all Pims and Boms (76). The voice is prime matter and prime mover. Like the Christian God it is creator and trinity, ‘the voice quaqua from which I get my life . . . of three things one’ (113). It is to this ‘voice quaqua the voice of us all’ (138), that the narrator assigns the ‘minimum of intelligence’ required to validate his universe by hearing and noting our murmurings and by filling the ‘need of one not one of us an intelligence somewhere a love who all along the track at the right places according as we need them deposits our sacks’ (137-8). The tasks are not too difficult since ‘to hear and note one of our murmurs is to hear and note them all’ (138). The external divinity not only creates us by giving us words, but he also confirms us by listening to us repeat them (137). But, just as a rationalist’s proofs of God’s existence led to agnosticism, so too the narrator’s deduction leads to doubt. Given his world, it is unlikely that a voice as powerful and intelligent as his divinity would endure a system whereby it would hear its own story endlessly repeated. Since it is impossible to stop the cycle without causing injustice (139), the voice would be forced rather to formulate a system eliminating himself as divinity and ‘admitting him to peace at least while rendering me in the same breath sole responsible for this unqualified murmur’ (144). The narrator has thus gone full circle. Beginning with a voice which he locates externally, he goes on to construct a universe over which such a voice would be the divine intelligence, only to end by acknowledging the errors of his system and his own responsibility for the voice.


Perhaps it is only in a Beckettian universe that a narrator can without contradiction assume responsibility for an external voice. The consistency, or at least compatibility of such claims is due to the paradoxical nature of the voice. It is both external and internal, archetypal and intimate, universal and individual (7). Internality is emphasized by the soundless voice of the journey (18). No qualitative difference accrues between silent and audible murmurings, between ‘two cries one mute’ (48). The voice and its significance lie beyond mere vocalization. The essential and internal nature of the voice is also supported physiologically. Murmuring and panting are similar processes. An end will not come until both have stopped (104-5, 106). The voice, the pant, and even the fart are all defined by the same elementary description. Foreign matter is brought into the body, it is processed, waste products are expelled: inspiration, respiration, exhalation; ingestion, digestion, excretion. The application of voice to this pattern undercuts western veneration of the mind. In the archetypal world of mud, dark, pant, and murmur, it is the murmur with its ability to invent that must bear the burdens normally associated with the mind, imagination, and thought. With embarrassing ease, principles concerning human understanding can be plugged into the description—perception becomes foreign input, thought becomes processing, and ideas become mere waste products equivalent to the less inspiring and more earthy pant or fart. The voice, the pant, and the fart are the basic life process, are the hiss of air which bestows existence on the little that's left of the narrator:


            escape hiss it’s air of the little that’s left of the little

            whereby man continues standing laughing weeping and

            speaking his mind nothing physical the health is not in

            jeopardy a word from me and I am again I strain with

            open mouth so as not to lose a second a fart fraught

            with meaning issuing through the mouth no sound in

            the mud.


            it comes the word we’re talking of words I have some

            still it would seem at my disposal at this period one is

            enough aha signifying mamma impossible with open

            mouth it comes I let it at once or in extremis or

            between the two there is room to spare aha signifying

            mamma or some other thing some other sound barely

            audible signifying some other thing no matter the first

            to come and restore me to my dignity (26).


On another level, the words restore the narrator to his dignity because they are that dignity. Although there may be an external voice providing the words for the narrator and for thousands of Pims, we hear of that voice and of those thousands only through the narrator’s murmurings (87). The voice creates the narrator who in turn embodies that voice or, as the narrator says, ‘I personify it it personifies itself’ (112). He can have no desires beyond those the voice grants him (12). He can make no judgments independent of the voice’s evaluations (37). He ceases to exist when the voice leaves him and returns to himself only when the voice returns to him (95). His life is the murmurings in the mud, ‘my life last state last version ill-said ill-heard ill-recaptured ill-murmured in the mud’ (7). Life is presented at its minimal point—the ill-said, ill-heard—nevertheless, a certain dignity inheres in the resiliency and inevitability with which that ill-said continues to speak, to create itself and its fictitious worlds.


In the archetypal world of the ill-said, time is also reduced to its most basic component. Past and future are irrelevant in a world without cause or effect. The three part division of eternity (24) is actually the three part division of a stream of words uttered in the eternal present. Correlation between those three parts and those words is possible if part three is accepted as an accurate description of the present and the book is seen as a version of the traditional flashback. The viewpoint is that of a narrator who has already survived the journey and couple and is recounting them from his current abandoned position. Throughout, the first two stages are consistently referred to by the past tense, while the present is applied to the third, and the future is employed in conjecture about the fourth, ‘how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is’ (7, my italics). The narrator’s decision to follow the ‘natural order’ enables him, like Malone, to tally what he must say in order to make an end (51). His knowledge of the entire cycle enables him to anticipate later stages. In the journey he predicts the discovery and loss of Pim (20) and he knows that the difference between the silent journey and the abandon will be ‘words like now words not mine before Pim’ (21). The narrator’s knowledge of the whole order allows—or causes—him to get ‘the various times mixed up in [his] head all the various times before during after vast tracts of time’ (107). Although the images belong to the journey (10), they appear in the couple (85, 86, 88). Although numbers and ‘reckoning’ are supposed to fade out after part one (51), part three contains elaborate computations (114-142). The best indication that the whole must be spoken from the part three viewpoint is the existence of the narration itself. The book is dependent upon a voice which is ‘peculiar to part three or seven or eleven or fifteen so on’ (116). The speechless life in the couple can be portrayed only after speech has returned (60).


Unlike the conventional flashback, however, the narration denies the validity of a past and the possibility of a future. As in Happy days, once a state is ended, it is as though it never existed. One ‘knows one’s tormentor only as long as it takes to suffer him and one’s victim only as long as it takes to enjoy him if as long’ (121). If there is ‘no more Pim [there] never [was] any Pim’ (74). The scenes told of life above in the light are images not memories (11) because memories imply a past. The narrator is displaced in time, cut off from a causal world, denied an heroic past and a golden age (10, 54). The lack of a future denies him any hope or goal. His obligation is ‘precisely that of fleeing without fear while pursuing without hope’ (143). He cannot deal with questions such as what would happen if he were to lose the opener or if the sack were finally empty (9). Nor can he predict that no-one will ever come again to shine a light on him (15). The present formulation undercuts the narrator’s entire metaphysics as he is forced to admit that Pim never was and Bom never will be (86-7), that one cannot present in three episodes ‘an affair which all things considered involves four’ (130). Pim’s howl comes when asked how life is (96-8): the narrator’s scream comes when asked how it was (144). This scream is ‘good’ because it is proof of present life (122). Yet, at the same time, the scream is an acknowledgement that all the descriptions of how it was are false. The narrator is forced to return to the present with its only certainties of the mud, the dark, the panting, and the murmur.


When the voice creates its own material universe out of undifferentiated, soundless, and scentless mud (25), attention no longer need be directed to the height of Cuchulain’s statue7 nor to the location of the Unnamable’s jar. Mimetic details are subsumed by their metaphoric and metaphysical implications. Geographic division is less important than perception that the primeval mud (11) is the protoplasm from which all else is derived and to which all things return. The mud is both ‘humanity restoring’ drink and food (27, 28) and the excrement of billions (52). It is like that ‘drop of piss of being’ man drinks and ‘with his last gasp pisses’ to the next (132). Although the narrator imposes directions upon the vast plains of mud (47), his compass references are only arbitrary divisions of a purposeless tack. The eastward movement is metaphorically meaningless. It cannot be a movement towards the sunrise with its conventional association of rebirth because birth, sunrise, and even the earth’s rotation belong not to the mud, but to life above in the light (123). Nor can it be a journey towards death for ‘death [is] in the west as a rule’ (123). At best the journey from west to east, from left to right, is analogous to the motion of words across the printed page. The voice’s geography belongs to its medium of words. Likewise, objects depend on the voice’s narration. The objects presented are purposely simple, few in number, grudgingly given, and rigidly controlled. Unlike the trilogy, where characters, plots, and objects proliferate until they escape control, until for example, Malone does not know why his own character Sapo ‘was not expelled when he so richly deserved to be’ (Malone dies, 190), the objects here are contained and carefully labelled (8, 9, 11, 25). They never attain independent existence, but rather always remain subject to the voice’s postulations. By revising his description of Pim’s watch (58), the narrator calls the materiality of that watch into question. The sack steadily depreciates from one of the early certainties (8), to an incidental object, to one of the ‘not true’ (145). Indeed, the narrator is able to envision himself without sacks or other anomalous objects, ‘quite tiny,’ sustained only by the air and the mud (17).


Paradoxically, these problematic objects bear a large burden of meaning. Having stripped away circumstantial reality and external association, Beckett thrusts enormous pressure on the few remaining objects. They must operate on a material level (sack as wet jute sack [8]), on a referential level (sack as penitential shirt [36]), as container of the world's howls and laughter (38), on a symbolic level (sack as lover [44], as body [17]), and on metaphysical and mythic levels. It is the necessity of replacing the sacks which calls into question the narrator's cyclical system and hypothetical divinity. His parallel claims that he will never let go of the sack (10) nor of Pim (55) and the parallel negations of the sack abandoned (46, 55) and Pim lost (99) reveal the narrator’s ultimate inefficacy. His burst sack and Pim’s ‘not burst’ sack raise the problems of justice and human understanding (61). The deposition of sacks becomes a metaphor for the human condition and an image of how it is: ‘. . . we leave our sacks to those who do not need them we take their sacks from those who soon will need them . . .’ (111). Likewise, the tins of tunny tell us more about human existence than they do about the social and material reality of the narrator. They are more important as objects to be counted, opened, thrown away, or returned to the sack half empty (8), than as containers of food. Significantly, the narrator never portrays himself doing anything so lifelike as eating the prawns or a crumb of mouldy tunny (8). Instead, the tins are a crude measure of an approaching end, when it will be possible to count them with one hand (8). The narrator compares himself casting off empty tins to a dealer of cards and to ‘certain sowers of seed’ (11). Unlike the Biblical seed, the narrator’s is hollow and exhausted, failing without hope or fertility in the random order of a card game. Even the narrator seeks no harvest from his tins but will, if he sometimes finds a tin, ‘make haste to throw [it] away again’ (11). In a similar fashion Krim and Kram’s notebooks function as a paradigm of our three part story. The blue notebook, like part one, is a record of the physical movements of the narrator (p81-2); the yellow notebook, like the presentation in part two of Pim’s story, is a record of another’s ‘mutterings verbatim’ (82); and the red notebook, like the present state of the abandon, is ‘or my comments’ (82). The attempt to keep distinct in these notebooks what has ‘up till now all [been] pell-mell in the same’ (82) is akin to the narrator’s effort to divide his eternity into three. Thus, when ‘the idea of the three books [is] set aside’ as ‘questionable’ (83), the structure of How it is is also challenged. The quest of the narrator, like that of the recorder of the notebooks, is not for a three-part history but for an end and a silence.


The quest for an end is itself undermined by the ‘vast stretch of time’ (7) of the eternal present. Before this vastness, any efforts to assign order or to measure segments are as absurd and futile as having ‘Pim’s timepiece . . . and nothing to time’ (40). In fact, all of the narrator’s chronometric devices are negated by his condition. The diminution of tins as a crude measure of the approaching end is made ineffectual by the loss of both the tins and the need for the tins. Likewise, the alarm-clock like the breath bag (19) becomes irrelevant when the narrator admits he no longer sleeps (40). Although he may, like Winnie, occasionally speak of time in the ‘old style’ of measurable units like days and weeks, the narrator is aware that such units belong not to his vast, static world but to the revolving world of life above in the light (123). He speaks to fill in the void, discussing things and desires he no longer has in preference to not speaking at all (p12-13, 16, 18). The whole work becomes his effort to find the 'there wherewith to beguile a moment of this vast season’ (91).


Denied escape from the ‘vast season’ of the present, the narrator explores the implications of his existence. Like a tree falling in an uninhabited forest, does a voice speaking in the eternal present need some ‘other’ to hear its words and confirm its existence? As in Film, the narrator can examine the structural and dramatic convenience of Berkeley’s dictum, Esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived), without attaching any ‘truth value’ to the idea. The actual reality of a witness is less an issue than are the images and theories resulting from the narrator’s felt need for one.


Like the presence or absence of a voice, the presence or absence of another is a major structural device. It is the fact of the couple rather than role of tormentor or victim which is important: part four is unnecessary to our narration because it is essentially a repetition of part two (131). The journey and the abandon are themselves defined in terms of the ‘other.’ The journey is a quest without hope and without the ‘all-important most important’ other inhabitant (13). Yet even in that solitude there remains the dream ‘of a little woman within my reach and dreaming too it’s in the dream too of a little man within hers’ (13). Or, if that dream is too hopeful, there is an emergency dream of an alpaca llama in whose fleece one may huddle (14). Part three presents not simply man alone, but man abandoned, man rejected, man aware of his lack of the other. The need of another simply for its otherness manifests itself in the narrator’s relationship with his sack. During the journey the sack is the only available other. By being an external object against which individuation may occur, the sack becomes the first sign of life (8). More than a thing to be manipulated or an object to be possessed, the sack assumes almost sexual relationships with the narrator, who cradles and caresses it (44), makes a pillow of it to lie ‘soft in my arms’ (46), murmurs endearments to it (17). The narrator clings to the sack not from fear of losing it (10) nor from expectation of any profit from it (66), but because it admits of his own existence.


Like the sack, the narrator’s people evolve out of his felt need for a witness. Long before they are named, Krim and Kram appear as listener and scribe. Indeed, the narration technically cannot exist without their recording of the narrator’s stream of words (7). Their transcript is the book we hold and read. Yet Krim and Kram are unreliable witnesses. Not only do they ‘lose the nine-tenths’ (81) of what is being said, but their whole capacity for comprehension is made questionable by their inability to determine if the narrator and Pim are alive (93), or to agree if their role permits affording the narrator relief (82). Moreover, the narrator denies them an independent existence, even abandoning his own viewpoint in one scene to speak their thoughts. At one point he tells us there is no witness, no scribe (84). At another, like Watt dealing with the Lynch family, he postulates generations of Krims and Krams to ensure continual observation (80). Pim is similarly undermined. Pim is the necessary other. Only by feeling that Pim is there, can the narrator feel he himself is there still (92). However, Pim’s reality is questionable. Just as the book would never be, but for the energy and life the reader invests in it, anything but a pile of paper, so too Pim would ‘never be but for me [narrator] anything but a dumb limp lump flat for ever in the mud’ (52). Like Krim and Kram, Pim may be only a figment of the narration (27). Not only does the narrator, as he says ‘efface myself behind my creatures when the fit takes me’ (52), but he quite blatantly assumes their names (60) and lives (72) and ‘plays’ at being them (57). The hope for another who will penetrate the voice’s hermeticism is destroyed.


This failure of the ‘other’ shatters the narrator’s most concrete image of the couple. The best the narrator can offer is a melancholic portrayal of an almost couple. Boredom rather than affection induces him to question Pim without hope or desire of an answer (74). The narrator doesn’t know if he presses Pim to himself out of love or fear of being abandoned or ‘a little of each’ (66). Emotional overtones of a romantic tradition are gradually stripped away until the couple becomes merely one stop in a meaningless journey ‘from the next mortal to the next mortal leading nowhere’ (62). Part two is a litany of missed opportunities. With a companion the narrator would have been a ‘more universal’ man, another’s words could have improved him, he realizes his injunctions could have been communicated by more humane means; but the companion (67), the words (69), and the realization (90) all come ‘too late too late indisputably’ (69). The couple fails to attain certitude, purpose, affection, or vitality. The tragedy of this failure is magnified by the expectations the narrator holds for the conjunction. Not only is it to be the hoped for end to solipsistic solitude, silence, and cosmic loneliness, but it is also to be a source of consolation. The journey is less burdensome when placed in a series of similar sufferings (48). The existence of one other increases the probable existence of a whole universe of others, ‘the moment there are two there were yes billions of us crawling’ (52). An endless progression of ‘billions of us’ makes hearsay knowledge and communication possible (119). Thus the failure of the couple destroys consolation, communication, and knowledge. No one knows another ‘either personally or otherwise’ (123). With the dissolution of the couple and the ‘other,’ inevitably comes the dissolution of the self: ‘at each instant each ceased and was there no more either for himself or for the other vast tracts of time’ (122).


Nothing so positive as the hopes from even an improbable couple is left unchallenged in the voice’s world. The couple is simultaneously extolled and undermined. Communication and connection are desired and fled. The narrator desires no caller (12) and prefers not to meet even himself. Only after all else has failed will he stop fluttering his hand before his eyes and actually touch it to his face (14). The discovery of Pim’s voice, which ‘makes us better acquainted’ (55), is the ‘hitch’ that ends the ‘long peace’ of the ‘beginnings of our life in common’ (55). Pim wants the narrator to leave him in peace (98). When conceiving other worlds, the narrator imagines a more merciful one without a couple and thus without an abandonment or journey (143). It is ambiguous whether Pim has been given to the narrator as a reward or as a punishment for his high morale: ‘the morale at the outset before things got out of hand satisfactory ah the soul I had in those days the equanimity that's why they gave me a companion’ (25). Caught in the paradox of his system, the narrator needs the ‘other’ to establish his own identity, yet finds life in the couple yields only false identity. There is no real conjunction and life in common is only an ‘orgy of false being’ (69).


By making the narrator’s existence and identity dependent upon a voice whose nature is ambivalent, whose postulations are uncertain, and whose auditor is problematic, Beckett has diffused his work into an intangible, paradoxical vastness. He has gone beyond Proust and Joyce and the problems of temporal identity. As in Ulysses, identity is continuous and successive. The narrator is the same ancient voice throughout and he is three figures who cannot recall earlier stages. But Beckett destroys the perimeters of the self in space as well as in time. The narrator is not only the ancient external-internal voice, but he is also the spoken and the heard voice. His existence is contingent upon the other: no sharp divisions separate him from that other. The dispersion of identity yields ambiguous pronouns. The unnamed voice is called ‘he,’ ‘it,’ and even ‘I.’ Often the third person pronoun remains indefinite as ‘he’ refers equally well to the narrator, Pim, Krim, Kram, Pam Prim, or Bom. The absence of individual boundaries results in the conjugation of names (114-15). In such a schema it is irrelevant whether the narrator is creating Pim or encountering one of a million non-individuating figures all identical to himself: ‘in other words in simple words I quote on either I am alone and no further problem or else we are innumerable and no further problem either’ (124). Each figure is Everyman pursuing the same archetypal cycle through the ‘warmth of primeval mud impenetrable dark’ (11). In his career each plays both Pim’s and Bom’s role. In fact, there is no real difference between being Pim or Bom, between section two and four. Joy and sorrow, tormentor and victim, ‘I’ and ‘he’ all merge as identity is denied definitive borders and as existence is diffused into spoken and heard, Pim and Born, I and Other.


Because everything in How it is depends upon the diffuse, narrating voice, the form in which the voice creates its universe is as important as the content of that universe. Style literally is meaning. In a world without past or future, cause or effect, there can be no order, no subordination. The omnipresent now is experienced without punctuation and without the interlocking memories that make the well-made sentence possible. In such a universe the major concern is to pass the time while waiting for an end that will not come. The lack of hope removes urgency from the verbal games the voice plays with itself to fill in the void. But even in these games—even in enumerating what must be said to reach the last at last, in positing resources, or in asking oneself questions and providing the answers—the self-imposed limitations of the voice’s universe must still be obeyed. In a world that has rejected traditional time, place, and identity, the voice can no longer ask how it got here, whence come its possessions, or even if it exists (7). Where everything, including identity, is ambiguous, pronouns become indefinite and names generic. Where nothing is certain, language itself begins to dissolve. Not only does the voice begin to contradict itself, but it also finds that its words are too strong (115, 127). It has only ‘the old words back from the dead’ (95) from which it must take ‘bits and scraps’ (106), stringing them together to make ‘phrases more phrases’ (p106-7). Where there is no external order, all becomes a free flowing mental construction. The lack of permanent and concrete connections is reflected in everything from the failure of the couple to communicate to the splitting apart of normal syntax groups. In a prose that imitates an entropic universe breaking down in the mud, there can be little imagery. The colours, gestures, near-metaphors, and almost-symbols that survive are few in number and sparingly used. Whereas earlier works are greatly concerned with the degenerating bodies of their characters, How it is is almost amorphous. It is the voice which captures our interest. Its references to eyes, ears, hands, and heads are neither insisted upon nor pursued as physical realities. Indeed, the body fades into surreality (28). Even the eyes become strangely unseeing eyes. The important vision is mental rather than material. Hence the voice’s need for two kinds of eyes: the blue to deal with the physical and ‘the others at the back’ (8) for the psychical.


Although How it is does not portray the self-sufficient and hermetic worlds of rotundas, boxes and cylinders, its images are, nevertheless, distinct from those of earlier pieces. Unlike the Unnamable’s ‘delegates’ who tell him ‘about man,’ provide him with ‘the low-down on God,’ give him ‘courses on love, on intelligence,’ and teach him ‘to count, and even to reason’ (The unnamable, p297-8), the voice’s images create no intellectual or emotional bonds between himself and their ‘few creatures in the light’ (8). Although the narrator begins by saying he has only old dreams, things, and memories (7), he quickly revises this statement. In a world without a definable past or sleep, there can be no memories nor any dreams. Therefore the narrator chooses to call the things he sometimes sees in the mud, ‘images’ (11). Unlike memories, the images are impersonal and independent of an external reality. There is neither recall by the narrator of the life the images portray (8), nor is there any question of, or even desire for returning to such a life (8). Indeed, most of the images in part two ascribed to Pim can also be linked to the narrator. The narrator’s brief reference to coming to ‘in hospital in the dark’ (22) is expanded by the image of Pam Prim’s hospitalization (77). The scene of the boy praying at his mother’s knees (15), reverberates in Pim’s description of mamma (78). The setting that leads into the narrator’s vision of Jesus (45) reappears in Pim’s section. The narrator’s concern with slipping and falling to lower levels is fulfilled in the falls that punctuate Pim’s life and relationships. The similarities between the two sections invite us to borrow Pim’s images to develop a prose context for the narrator. Isolation in the mud seems the inevitable end for one who ‘tried everything then gave up . . . never any good at anything’ (78), who ‘never knew anyone always ran fled elsewhere some other place’ (78), who sought only to ‘crawl about in corners and sleep’ (78) and to find the quickest, safest, darkest way home. The narrator’s search for an end seems but a continuation of Pim’s struggle to find a hole. However, the details leading up to such a quest are only of secondary importance. We do not need to piece out the birth of love in the twenties nor its decline and the futile ‘effort to resuscitate’ it (82), in order to feel the decay and increasing solitude which inform the narration. In the mud such prose constructions are irrelevant. Everything results in the same voice seeking the same cancellation of itself. As the narrator more graphically says, ‘. . . what the fuck I quote does it matter who suffers . . . who makes to suffer who cries who to be left in peace in the dark the mud . . .’ (131-2). Just as it is unnecessary to determine if there is only one or three or millions of figures crawling in the mud, so too is it unimportant to distinguish among images or to fill in the gaps in the story they imply.


In an ambivalent world where everything can ultimately be reduced to a voice creating and correcting itself, a refrain of ‘something wrong there’ is inevitable and natural. Inevitable because where nothing is certain, any statement must be only relatively true. Natural because where everything is self-consciously fictive, correction and revision can be flatly announced. Yet at the same time, the refrain is disconcerting as it abruptly destroys any suspension of disbelief we may have willed. The prose demands that we, like the narrator, agonize over and experience the present formulation without the mediation of even the most minimal fictions. Moreover, we are required to draw upon our own resources to discern what is wrong and where. The errors themselves are significant in a work in which ‘my mistakes are my life’ (34). There are three or four basic categories our refrain labels as erroneous. It is used to negate any statements implying a continuity with the past, a predictable future, or a possibility of change. The narrator can say neither that he has steadily gone from bad to worse (9), nor that he crawls toward a ditch which will never come (16), nor that one day he and Pim will travel together (57). The refrain is also appended to any statements granting credence to other bodies or objects. It is wrong to speak of Pim’s timepiece (40), of Krim’s knowledge of the couple (93), or of the couple itself as ‘two little old men’ (54). We are uncertain one body exists let alone others. A voice may be posited, but a choir of such voices must be undercut (107). The narrator knows only himself, not ‘[him] who is coming towards me and [him] who is going from me’ (116). Indeed, references to the narrator’s own body are themselves problematic. Although the hand controls a large amount of the book's imagery, its activities are repeatedly crippled by the refrain. Unsure whether or not the hand is really disintegrating, whether or not the thumb has dropped off (28), we have no assurance that the fingers and thumb do hold a sack (34), that the hand does flesh Pim’s buttocks (37) or feel his cheek (56), that a hand ever descends on an arse for the first time (121), or even that the hands exist and can be seen lying ‘tense in the mud’ (43). Finally, the refrain contradicts statements the narrator makes about his own cyclic theory. Unable to determine ultimately if there is eternal recurrence or eternal presence, he finds fault with both systems. In a cyclic world it is incorrect to call anything a first or last member, to say that a clinking tin is the ‘first respite very first from the silence of this black sap’ (p24-5). Likewise, in a cyclic world one is not simultaneously Pim and Bom and the roles should not be equated in the conjugation of their names (115). The ‘inevitable number 777777’ (140) cannot be, at the same time, Bom to 777778 and Pim for 777776. But, if the world is an eternally present now, one cannot alternate roles and be ‘now Bom now Pim’ (115). Everything must stem from the essential present of the abandoned where the narrator has a voice with which to create the other parts. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any other formulation (129): it is impossible to depict any other order (p 116-17). How it is is only a voice speaking in the present and creating a universe of Pims and Boms, sacks and tins, voiced and voiceless. Any statement which tries to ignore or circumvent this essential fact will naturally have ‘something wrong there’ and will inevitably be undermined by the refrain. The prose style of the narration insists upon our facing ‘how it is present formulation’ (129).


Every element in How it is from typography to time, from ‘objects’ to ‘others,’ derives from a voice narrating itself. The imaginary worlds the voice creates assume the ambivalence and uncertainty surrounding that voice. Although everything depends upon a stream of words, the source of those words is ambiguously external and internal just as identity is indistinctly I and Other. Existence and continuation are the present act of speaking. Time is only the now against which words are spoken. The already-mentioned and not-yet-said fade into irrelevance. Murphy’s concerns for mimetic details, like the Unnamable’s desires for self-definition, are replaced by a voice speaking in the eternal present. Instead of examining the limitations of the mind/body dichotomy, the work explores the fluid universe of the mind and its imagination. The murmurs in the mud mark a shift from exterior orders to internal fabrications. Just as the speaker and his narration intimate the way it is for us, so too the voice and its words suggest how it is in Beckett’s canon.


1 In a New York Times interview with Israel Shenker (6 May 1956, Section 2, p1,3), after describing L'Innommable as a work of ‘complete disintegration,’ Beckett confided: ‘The very last thing I wrote—Textes pour rien—was an attempt to get out of the attitude of disintegration, but it failed.’

2 Samuel Beckett, More pricks than kicks, New York, Grove Press, 1972, 29. Other Beckett works referred to in this paper and cited parenthetically will be to the following Grove Press Editions: Watt (1959), Murphy (1957), Three novels by Samuel Beckett: Molloy, Malone dies, The unnamable (1965), Fizzles (1976), and ‘Imagination dead imagine,’ ‘Ping’ and ‘Enough’ in First love and other shorts (1974).

3 Beckett’s infinitely repeating pattern is often observed; for example, see also Hugh Kenner’s Samuel  Beckett: a critical study (1973), David H. Hesla’s The shape of chaos: an interpretation of the art of Samuel Beckett (1971), and the articles, especially those of David H. Hesla and Edouard Morot-Sir, in Samuel Beckett and the art of rhetoric (1976).

4 Samuel Beckett, ‘Lessness,’ New Statesman, 79, 1 may 1970, 635.

5 Samuel Beckett, ‘Three dialogues,’ in Samuel Beckett: a collection of critical essays, ed. Martin Esslin, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall Inc, 1965, 21.

6 Samuel Beckett, How it is, New York, Grove Press, 1964.

7 In his article, ‘The Thirties,’ in Beckett at 60, London, Calder and Boyers, 1967, A.J. Leventhal recalls receiving an urgent postcard from Beckett requesting that he ‘measure the height from the ground of Cuchulain’s arse’—referring to the statue in the Dublin General Post Office. As Leventhal points out, Beckett needed this information to be certain Neary actually could ‘dash his head against [Cuchulain’s] buttocks, such as they are’ (Murphy, 42).