Review article: ‘All strange away’ by Samuel Beckett

by John Calder, 1979. £4.50


Peter Murphy


In 1976 Gotham Book Mart published a new work by Beckett entitled All strange away, with fifteen illustrations by Edward Gorey, which serve admirably to underline the fact that the work is itself a type of enigmatic emblem book. It was reprinted in JOBS Number 3, but this is the first trade edition. All strange away was written in 1963/64 and is an important missing link for a critical appraisal of the subsequent ‘residual’ works. The following discussion will show that while the title is really an ironic misnomer, All strange away does help to remove some of the ‘strangeness’ of the works which were written after it by clearly establishing the basic issues which they attempt to elucidate. More important than the use of phrases which will figure prominently in later works (for example, the first sentence, ‘Imagination dead imagine’) is the delineation of a context, a set of signifieds,’ to which the ‘signs’ of the later works (often regarded by critics as divorced from referents) are also drawn in the attempt to reveal the truth and meaning of the creative act.


Before embarking on further ‘strange journeys,’ Beckett drew back from the radical solution of How it is with its implication that if the narrator/narrated breaks away absolutely from authorial control the result must signal the death of the author. Beckett’s central problem has always been to control ‘that wild rebellious surge that aspired violently towards realization in sound,’ whose claims for expression are ‘as real as his [Beckett’s] own.’ But the struggle is no longer for ‘divinity’: verification that the self is indeed real and in the world has become the major topic in the later Beckett. The ‘screams’ at the end of How it is convey a desperate hunger on Beckett’s part for the words that will testify to the self’s independent existence. All strange away, on the other hand, focuses less dramatically on the ‘nourishment’ to be gained ‘in a cry nay a sigh torn from one whose only good is silence’ (How it is, [143]). The last sentence of the work recounts Beckett’s failure to extract even a sigh; the ‘unappeasable turmoil’ with ‘no sound’ is still in other words the ‘soundlessness’ of ‘Assumption.’ The ‘sigh’ with which the work concludes is only an imagined one: it is added ‘for old mind’s sake’ as no more than a ‘sop to mind faint sighing sound for tremor of sorrow at faint memory of a lying side by side and fancy murmured dead.’ All strange away takes its point of departure from part three of How it is (in which ‘imagination spent’ [103]), while trying to avoid the final screams.’


The rationale for the narrative strategies which will be followed later in the work are contained in the first sentences: ‘Imagination dead imagine. A place, that again. Never another question. A place, then someone in it, that again. Crawl out of the frowsy deathbed and drag it to a place to die in. Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again. Five foot square six high, no way in, none out, try for him there.’ (7) The work begins with the most startling opening sentence since ‘The Calmative,’ but startling in a very different way. The ‘I’ has disappeared, its absence mockingly visualized in the Gotham text by the illumination of the first letter. In ‘The Calmative’ the narrator is simultaneously ‘alone in my icy bed,’ ‘in my distant refuge’ and in his ‘story’ (‘what I tell this evening is happening this evening’). But in All strange away the never explicitly named ‘I’ is not directly involved in the action at all. There is indeed a rejection of the earlier method of the nouvelles, Molloy and From an abandoned work, in which the exercise of the imagination involved a physical engagement, ‘out of the door and down the road.’ Beckett is now intent on rejecting this strategy as a clever trick that masks an essential unreality, an  ‘I’ masquerading as both author and character. ‘Imagination dead imagine’ indicates an attempt to dispense with this more conventional role-playing and to substitute at last a true image of the self’s predicament in the act of creation.


What results, however, is a failure to substantiate the reality of any of the images used to portray the ‘he’ and his various personifications by the undesignated ‘I.’ The presence of a first person is strongly felt in the first five sentences and is further implied by the antithetical ‘last person’ which the character uses to refer to himself. This is in no sense a straightforward anticipation of the situation in Not I in which the old woman ‘vehemently refuses to relinquish third person.’ A radical disjunction occurs in All strange away: the ‘I’ and ‘he’ cannot be simply conflated, as in the play. The authorial consciousness moves to a new position, a new state of the imagination (‘Crawl out of the frowsy deathbed and drag it to a place to die in’) and his hunger for words once again compels him to create ‘a place, that again.’ But if he fulfills the ancient command to ‘take up thy bed and walk,’ he refuses to ‘take up [his] life and walk’ in the sense that ‘The Vulture’ made of it, or as exemplified by the narrator of ‘The Calmative’ who satisfies his hunger through a ‘story.’ The unnamed narrator of All strange away will admit his original implication in the creative process but, in furthering the realistic impulse of How it is, will not pretend that what is depicted after that point is literally identifiable with himself. The creative act does not involve palingenesis.


There is in All strange away a fundamental duality that must be recognized if the reality of the situation is to be apprehended: ‘Him’ is distinct from ‘self’ and stands for an ontological ‘otherness.’ A ‘he’ undeniably exists in the creative act. But the problem is that an authorial self who refuses to admit his own identification with the ‘he’ cannot be sure of the nature of this strange being. The first reference to ‘him’ establishes the sense of doubt and tentativeness that envelops the piece, ‘try for him there’ (7). Logically, the ‘he’ should be easily located since both occupy the same space: ‘no way in, none out.’ But they cannot be identified because they belong to different realms of discourse. The ‘he’ communicates only self-reflexively - ‘talking to himself in the last person murmuring, no sound.’ The pervasive irony of All strange away is that the original quest for the reality of the creative act involves an entanglement with more patent illusions (‘no real image’) than was ever the case in ‘The Calmative’ where the ‘I’ accepted the reality of a series of ‘as-if’ metamorphoses (‘But reality, too tired to look for the right word . . . ‘ [45]). In the earlier work the ‘I’ as his own surrogate fiction can escape ‘the terrible light’ (41) and satisfy his hunger for both a being (the ‘story’) and a self that is distinct from the whole process (‘sated with dark and calm’). The ruthless realism of All strange away precludes such liberality.


In All strange away the ‘hellish light’ of the authorial inquisition alternates tormentingly with periods of darkness: ‘Surprised by light in this posture, hope and fancy on his lips, crawling lifelong habit to a corner here shadowless and similarly sinking head to ground here shining back into his eyes. Imagine eyes burnt ashen blue and lashes gone, lifetime of unseeing glaring, jammed open, one lightning wince per minute on earth, try that.’ (11) A later incarnation of ‘he’ is still ‘hungering for missing lashes burning down for commissure of lids’ (32). Any final cessation of suffering is denied—‘hell gaping they part and the black eye appears’ (32). The implications of this torture are highly ambiguous. The treatment obviously involves some kind of Christ-like crucifixion—‘Physique, flesh and fell nail him to that while still tender, nothing clear, place again.’ But at the same time the torture is directed towards making the ‘he’ speak, for only then will a catharsis of the original drive that has once again dragged the self into the realm of fiction-making be possible.


As in the first sentence of ‘Assumption’ we have a situation in which two contradictory views are held together. Is the suppressed ‘I’ trying to still the ‘turmoil’ or trying to release it? For the latter to occur the ‘he’ must become fully human and abrogate the imposition of any fictional categories (speechlessness, timelessness)—‘all being well vented as only humans can’ (40). The ‘disappointment naturally tinged perhaps with relief’ (39) ascribed to the self in the refuge applies equally (if not more so) to the authorial self. While compelled by the dualistic reality of sound/no sound (which is the duality of author and character) to seek either to still the ‘turmoil’ or allow for its expression, he is secretly willing to follow a course that will relieve him of this terrible paradox that is the essential ‘strangeness’ of literature. Rather than pursue the reality of the situation as outlined in the first four sentences of the work, he is drawn more and more to a formal structuring of what ‘Alba’ calls ‘tempest of emblems,’ thereby obscuring the central problem of the ‘unstillable turmoil’ (41). The truth is indeed stranger than the fiction. To impart a fake clarity to the ‘strangeness’ is to turn the refuge into a kind of platonic cave filled with chimerical images, in which a ‘he’ without any valid ontological status is forced to ‘swallow cave-phantoms.’ The ‘tempest of emblems’ can now, it seems, only be stilled by a formalism which leads towards naturalism and allegory.


This progressive redirection of the work can be traced by a brief summary of the five sections into which it divides naturally. The first section sets the problem of aesthetics governing the work and introduces basic elements which are developed more fully in subsequent sections. The ‘he’ is imagined in various positions—once allocated a place by the imagination, the ‘he’ must fill it. The opposition of light and darkness is established in terms of the author/character split. The ‘he’ tries vainly to avoid the light: ‘sheets of black paper stick them to the wall with cobweb and spittle, no good, shine like the rest.’ Any attempt to escape awareness of self (and hence others) is thwarted when the lights come on by the projection of women’s faces on the walls—‘tattered syntaxes of Jolly and Draeger’ (7). The opposition of the author’s imagined words and the ‘murmuring no sound’ of ‘he’ is constantly returned to. At the same time we find two strategies that lead away from these fundamental ‘sounds.’ The rigid authorial control characteristic of the allegorical displacement of the image emerges as a geometrizing obsession: ‘Call floor angles deasil a, b, c and d and ceiling likewise e, f, g and he, say Jolly at b and Draeger at d, lean him for rest with feet at a and head at g . . .’ (12). The more naturalistic mode also tends to turn the hypostatized agent into an ‘emblem’ with a purely diagrammatic role. The ‘he’’s search for the pins, paper and shroud are obviously ornamental rather than realistic details.


The second section continues the movement away from the central mystery of the two languages, of ‘a subtler language within language wrought.’ The transition, marked by a simple rhyming association, is from space to face—‘Faces now naked bodies, eye level, two per wall, eight in all, all right, details later’ (12-13). The problem is that these  ‘details,’ when they appear, do not combine to create a representative reality.


Isolated from a normal human context and restricted to the inferno of the imagination (‘all six planes hot when shining’), the details only serve to elaborate mental conceptions rather than a living human reality. Anatomy is definitely not the ‘whole’ it was in ‘Enough.’ Able to grasp only parts, the artist becomes a kind of vivisector-cum-pornographer. The various positions and ‘play of joints’ is dominated by sexual elements: ‘First face alone, lovely beyond words, leave it at that, then deasil breasts alone, then thighs and cunt alone, then arse and hole alone, all lovely beyond words’ (13). The triteness of this repeated phrase ‘lovely beyond words’ is further emphasized by a variation on a famous line of W.H. Henley’s : ‘lifetime of unbloody bowed’(14). The second stanza of Henley’s poem is:


            In the fell clutch of circumstance

            I have not winced nor cried aloud

            Under the bludgeoning of chance

            My head is bloody, but unbowed.


A key point of All strange away is that ‘he’ is, like Henley, unable to cry aloud. No false bravado, whether physical or moral, can hide this fact. ‘He’ cannot ‘wince nor cry aloud’ as long as he is merely an object at the disposal of the ‘fell clutch of circurnstance’ controlled by the author. ‘He’ is not able to re-write ‘the scroll’ that is ‘charged with punishments.’ In this respect ‘he’ is not as Henley claimed to be, the ‘master of my fate,’ nor the ‘captain of my soul.’


The mute language theme debilitates even the puerile attempts at creating a semblance of a crude physical reality—‘imagine him kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking and buggering all this stuff, no sound’ (14). The patent artificiality of these images is, indeed, further emphasized by a confusion as to the sexuality of the original character: ‘No, no image, no fly here, no life or dying here but his, a speck of dirt. Or hers since sex not seen so far, say Emma standing . . .’ (17) Henceforth, ‘he’ disappears (or is assumed to exist as a ‘couple’ with the ‘she’) and Emma becomes the central character. This introduction of Emma marks the mid-point of the second section. A figure called Emmo is now projected ‘on the walls’ (17). The ‘o’ and ‘a’ act (as in Latin) to distinguish the gender. Emma and Emmo are the masculine and feminine forms of the anagrammatically expressed ‘Me.’ This latest phantom is, however, no epipsyche and is quickly dismissed, ‘no Emmo, no need, never was’ (18).


As with the original ‘he,’ Emma is subjected to various geometric rituals of order. The author’s attention again turns to the space, now termed a ‘perfect cube.’ The statements ‘all that most clear’ and ‘all strange away’ refer to the descriptions of the space the character fills, but fail to engage the question of language and being which the character’s problematical existence persistently raises. As in section one, there are six references to the ‘great confusion’ engendered by the ‘he/she says, no sound’ formula. A ‘he’ or ‘she’ undoubtedly exists, but until allowed to speak for themselves the language that tries to speak of them will lack any ontological validity: ‘Say again though no real image puckered tip of left breast, leave right a mere name.’ Only the ability to speak will confer a true particularity on details and make them the embodiment of a meaningful reality. Until that point, forceful images such as ‘puckered tip’ are only indicative of the cunning artificer’s conventional literary disguises.


Section three tries unsuccessfully to clarify further the strangeness of the murmurs. The previous strategies are now recognized as only formal devices that mask the fundamental need. The discourse strives to find what Beckett called in ‘Denis Devlin’ ‘its own end in the end and source of need’: ‘So great need of words not daring till at last slow ebb ten seconds, too fast, thirty now, great need not daring till at last slow ebb . . .’ (22) The complex synaesthesia of light and words fails, however, to strike a balance in which the ‘murmurs’ can be truly voiced. Light and dark will only be in balance, ‘when all done with dead imagining (23). In the text the words that ‘were trembling up’ cease when ‘the light dies down’ (22-23). The two needs cannot be reconciled as long as the ‘source’ is not felt to be a common one. There is ‘no visible source’ of the light that the ‘I’ as author acts as an agent of. While this light also contains periods of darkness, the authorial role has primary allegiance to the brightness and seeks to make ‘all clear.’ But the ‘he’/’she’ aspect cannot be turned into a ‘shape all light,’ a Shelleyan ‘embodied ray of the great brightness.’


Several other plans for making the ‘murmurs’ speak are then imagined. In particular, the ordered ebb and flow is abandoned: ‘And other times to imagine other extreme so hard on one another any order and sometimes when all spent if not assuaged a second time in some quite different so run together that a mere torrent of hope and unhope mingled and submission amounting to nothing, get all this clearer later. . .’ (24). As at other critical points in Beckett’s work (for example, Watt’s mental breakdown, Lucky’s ‘think,’ and the daemonic possession of Not I), there is a profusion of proper names as the self tries to invoke the talismanic powers of various authorities: ‘Imagine other murmurs, Mother mother, Mother in Heaven, Mother of God, God in heaven, combinations with Christ and Jesus, other proper names in great numbers say of loved and for the most part and cherished haunts, imagine as needed, unsupported interjections, ancient Greek philosophers ejaculated with place of origin when possible . . .’ (24-25). But this stratagem too fails. The last phase of speculation on the ‘murmurs’ involves an effort to assess the problem honestly - ‘try sound and if no better say quite speechless’ (25). ‘Though still too soon to deny,’ the authorial voice is clearly attracted to the simplistic solution that ‘none ever been but only silent flesh’ (27). But the ebb and flow testifies (as did the water imagery of ‘Assumption’) to the fact that the ‘flesh-locked sea of silence’ is striving inexorably towards some form of expression. This self-congratulatory attempt at honesty is, therefore, really directed towards a denial of the essential reality of the ‘murmurs.’ The obvious irony of the allusion to Diogenes, who searched with his lamp throughout the world for an honest man, is telling; this author with his ‘clumsy artistry’ would deny (if he could) the ‘murmurs’ that are irrefutable proof of the ‘ingenuous fibres that suffer honestly.’


Section four, the longest in All strange away (divided in the middle by the word ‘Diagram’) gives full play to the pseudo-naturalist desire for clarity that really involves an allegorical split between two levels of meaning that are seemingly irreconcilable. The focus in this section is again ‘from face a space to note how place no longer cube but rotunda’ (28). Metamorphoses of space replace the speculations on the source(s) of language. Indeed, the most striking characteristic of these pages is the total absence of the references to ‘murmurs’ and ‘no sound.’ There is also only one instance of a pronoun - ‘where she lay wedged against a wall at a with blank face on left cheek’ (39)—and this seems almost superfluous. The details of space and the body seem here to be independent of any agent except the author, who appears to relish ‘all this poking and prying about for cracks, holes, appendages’ (34). The angles into which the author bends his prey are likened to the contortions a fisherman puts his catch through: ‘with play enough to writhe . . . at some earlier more callow stage this writhe again and again in vain through weakness or natural awkwardness or want of pliancy or want of resolution’ (38-39). This bluff sporting philosophy gives way (not unexpectedly) to the most indulgent sentimentalism: ‘No memories of felicity save with faint ruffle of sorrow of a lying side by side and of misfortune none, look closer later.’ So ends the fourth section which justifies the choice of the title for the whole piece - ‘So in rotunda up to now with disappointment and relief with dread and longing sorrow’ (40). Nothing has been achieved thus far to justify the boldness of the opening sentence of the work. But a certain satisfaction (‘a sop’) can be gained, for the narrator has managed to continue the work as a formal entity.


Section five, the shortest, serves as a coda. The problem of the two voices is the central topic again. But here the irreconcilability of the ‘He could have shouted and could not’ conundrum is regarded as a thing of the past. It is circumvented, never properly confronted or ‘vented: ‘All gone now and never been never stilled never voice all back whence never sundered unstillable turmoil no sound, She’s not here, Fancy is her only, Mother mother . . .’ (40-41). A ‘last look’ is sentimentally invoked (‘oh not farewell but last for now’ [41]), and details of geometry and physique are duly repeated in condensed form. In a last indulgence of this ‘amateur soliloquy’ in which the author unsuccessfully tried to imagine the murmurs too faint for his mortal ears, he plays the ventriloquist again: ‘faint sighing sound for tremor of sorrow at faint memory of a lying side by side and fancy murmured dead’ (43-44). These last three words are in decisive contrast to the first three, ‘Imagination dead imagine.’ Rather than creating a work in which a new imaginative function could give voice to the murmurs. All strange away reveals a reduction of imagination to the mechanical collocations of fancy. The gerund ‘murmuring’ and the present tense ‘murmurs’ which dominate the text are only fancifully placed in the past tense in the last sentence’s ‘murmured.’ The tense is disingenuous in that the murmurs have not been ‘murmured’ at all, but only smothered by the officious narrator’s conventional fictional machinery. In his rummaging in the cube, rotunda etc. the narrator is dealing only with hearsay, unverified statements of doubtful accuracy. Only in a formal sense has anything been ‘murmured.’


The question of the ontology of the fiction in All strange away turns upon the use of capitalization. The opening ‘Imagination dead imagine’ is a capital sentence concerned with a loss of life, an ‘offence’ (the necessity of the creative act) that is punishable by death. The paradox of creation/destruction is at the centre of Beckett’s aesthetic dilemma here: how can the ‘I’ capitalize upon this situation to delineate the distinction between self and ‘he,’ and thus speak of the ‘something there’ which is brought into separate being by the creative process? The capital opening sentence promises a radically new way of exploiting the resources of Beckett’s previous fictions. But the authorial presence does not convert his capital into new productive forms. Instead of creating a true fiction that will accept the dualistic reality of the creative act, the author figure disappointingly uses his accumulated wealth to produce the same old commodities - the unreal fictions. His fixed capital is the same old machinery of allegory and naturalism.


The author is primarily concerned with making ends meet, of filling the space as economically as possible for his own profit (this is why the character has a ‘price to pay and highest’). There is a constant fluctuation between totally filling or totally employing the space, between total investment and total liquidation of assets: ‘The longer he lives and so the further goes the smaller they grow, the reasoning being the fuller he fills the space and so on, and the emptier, same reasoning’ (8-9). Towards the end of All strange away the most attractive speculation is simply to drop all options on the capital of the first sentence: ‘perhaps better fixed and all this flowing and ebbing to full and empty more harm than good and better unchanging black or glare on or the other or between the two soft white unchanging; (36-37, amended). This is tantamount to an admission of bankruptcy, of a failure to clarify the essential difference between author and character—‘all spent if not assuaged.’ Life alone, we can infer, possesses true wealth and value.


The use of capitals throughout the work shows a vain effort at establishing the reality of the ‘something there’ or at least the possibility of keeping ‘it’ distinct from the author’s narrative. The situation is therefore sharply in contrast with that of Text 4 in which identification with an ideal ‘I’ was sought: ‘If at least he would dignify me with the third person, like his other figments, not he, he’ll be satisfied with nothing less than me for his me.’ Recognizing the dualist reality of the creative act, the implicit ‘I’ of All strange away goes one step further. At certain points the third person pronouns (‘he’ and ‘she’) are capitalized, as sometimes in the Bible. The first use ot ‘He’ occurs on page 12: ‘murmuring, He’s not here, no sound, Fancy is his only hope.’ The first uses of capitals within a sentence establish the rules for this new convention: ‘murmuring, no sound, Now where is he, no, Now he is here’ (8). Whenever the ‘great confusion’ engendered by ‘no sound’ appears in the discourse, a capital begins the next word to emphasize that it is not the ‘he’ who is really speaking. The determining ‘no sound’ phrase tends to appear either directly before or directly after a capitalized word. But in virtually all instances the appearance of ‘no sound’ necessitates capitalization.


Examples of the ‘any order’ in which ‘no sound’ can appear and determine capitalization are: ‘Murmur unaffected, He’s not here, no sound’ (13); ‘no sound, No way in, none out, he’s not here’ (11); ‘Murmuring, no sound, though say lips move with faint stir of hair, whether none emitted or air too rare, Fancy is her only hope, or, She’s not here’ (21-22) (Italics mine) A minor exception to this rule occurs in ‘She’s not here for instance if in better spirit or Fancy is her only hope, too faint for mortal ear’ (23-24) But even in this case the last phrase is equivalent to ‘no sound.’ Major exceptions only occur when the authorial presence tries to give ‘voice’ to ‘he’ or ‘she’ by speaking for them. Significantly, both instances involve the demonstrative pronoun: ‘Back on the stool in the shroud saying, That’s better.’ (10); ‘completed propositions such as, she is not here, the exception, imagine others, This is not possible, there is one, and here another of exceptional length, In a hammock in the sun in here the name of some bewitching site she lies sleeping’ (25). Here the ‘She’ gives way to the minor case as the author tries to speak for ‘her.’ ‘That’ and ‘This’ are only ‘demonstrative’ in the emotional sense and do not express the living reality of the sounds or murmurs of the ‘something there.’


The attempt to clarify the relationship of the two aspects of being involved in the creative act only results in further confusion. The author cannot have it both ways. the ‘he’ cannot be recognized as both a separate entity and a ‘something’ for whom the narrator is authorized to speak. Rather than validating the ‘he,’ the capitalization serves ultimately to confuse further its status. Are ‘he’ (and ‘she’) personified abstractions, allegorical agents, or real people? The fluctuations between major and minor case finally tip the piece towards allegory and the admission of the unreality of the image. The use of figurae indicates the author’s reluctance to employ allegorical agents. As Erich Auerbach points out: ‘Since in figural interpretation one thing stands for another, since one thing represents and signifies the other, figural interpretation is “allegorical” in the widest sense. But it differs from most of the allegorical forms known to us by the historicity both of the sign and what it signifies.’ Giving a proper name to ‘she’ (‘Emma’) and creating a historical past (‘evenings with Emma and the flights by night’ [14]) does not alter the fact that the author’s interpretation of the ‘something there’ is still essentially allegorical. Nor does the use of topical allusions: ‘Pantheon at Rome or certain beehive tombs’ (28), Diogenes and Greek place names, God, Christ, Mother. Praeger, Draeger and Jolly may or may not have been historical entities, but within the imagination of All strange away they are only shadows on the wall. Angus Fletcher reminds us that allegories ‘may have very human agents’ and that ‘we should make no automatic assumptions about the “unreality” of allegorical personifications’: ‘Such personified agents are of course intended to represent ideas, not real people; they could not, like the characters in a young author’s first novel, be traced to their particular “originals”. This point can be easily misunderstood—allegorical agents are real enough, however ideal their referents may be. They have what might be called an ‘adequate representational power.’ In All strange away the personifications may be intended to represent real people but the conventions of the literary process transform them into abstractions. Fletcher’s ‘real enough’ is an unacceptable qualification for Beckett. Fletcher’s chapter on ‘The daemonic agent’ does, however, serve to clarify some of the problems Beckett is faced with in All strange away. ‘The allegorical hero’ Fletcher writes, ‘is not so much a real person as he is generator of other secondary personalities, which are partial aspects of himself.’ It is this essentially conventional view of the creative process which the first sentences of All strange away challenge. The ‘author’ is real, but the ‘he’ is also real and cannot be simply regarded as a ‘secondary personality.’ The ‘I’ that ‘drags’ its ‘deathbed’ is itself a daemonic agent of the imagination. But the ‘I’ is not so totally possessed by this force that it can be identified with the ‘he’ that is being sought in this ‘place.’ The author possesses a ‘life outside [this] exclusive sphere of action.’ But reality in the skull of the imagination completely lacks Fletcher’s ‘adequate representational power.’ It is only in the temptation to compensate for this that the author becomes a daemonic agent in Fletcher’s terms. ‘Daemonic ambivalence’ in All strange away finally leads to the traditional distinction between agathodemons (‘good’) and cacodemons (‘bad’) and a ‘glimpse’ that follows close upon the prediction—‘Sleep if maintained with cacodemons’ (39). Imagining this torment the author succumbs to the literary convention and raises the spectre of an ethical judgement that is irrelevant to the basic question of ontology that he began with: how to substantiate the reality of the ‘something’ that is ‘other’ than self?


The determination of the ontological status of this ‘something’ (an indefinite pronoun which Beckett has been unable to clarify since ‘Assumption’), and the question of whether it differs in degree or in kind from the implicit authorial ‘I,’ involves Beckett in confronting the old Romantic distinction between Fancy and Imagination. Imagination in All strange away is associated with the authorial presence; Fancy is associated with the occupants for whom ‘She’ is the ‘only hope.’ The imagination is pictured as a servant of the author’s fantasies (‘Imagine what needed’ [9] and the desired objects appear); the Fancy is the last recourse of the ‘last person.’ The Imagination (discounting the use in ‘Imagination dead imagine’) is an agent of conscious will (‘some reason yet to be imagined’ [20]). Employed in these ways, both Imagination and Fancy would fall into Coleridge’s category of Fancy, inferior to Imagination: ‘Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.’ Schemes which promise an artificial memory, says Coleridge, ‘in reality can only produce confusions and debasement of the fancy.’ Fancy is ‘always the ape, and too often the adulterator and counterfeit of our memory’ (which is an apt description of the sexual fantasies in All strange away).


But this is to focus only on the failure in the work itself, the fall into allegory that precludes the implementation of the new concept of Imagination which is hinted at in the first sentences (and hence, by implication, a new concept of Fancy). Coleridge in his struggle to elucidate the ontological status of the Imagination posited two types: the primary ‘the living power and prime Agent of all human Perception’) and the secondary (which ‘dissipates in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events to idealize and unify’). Coleridge’s ideas here are notoriously elusive and probably confused. But it is clear that Beckett is concerned with what could be called the fundamental Imagination, that which follows after the ‘death’ of the conventional ‘living Power.’ This fundamental Imagination enacts a drastic rupture, fracturing the self into two parts and yet striving to reconnect them as a common being in language.


Owen Barfield’s What Coleridge thought helps to clarify this famous controversy over Imagination and Fancy. Barfield points out that as poet and philosopher (as opposed to critic) Coleridge considered them different only in degree and therefore potentially of the same ontological status: ‘. . . imagination must have fancy, in short the higher intellectual powers can only act through a corresponding energy of the lower.’ In terms of All strange away (and Beckett’s work as a whole) the possibility of a creative interchange between Imagination and Fancy (as represented by the two languages, that of the author and the ‘murmuring’ of the ‘something’) sustains the hope of a radically new conception of language and being. If author and character are not so much different in kind as in degree, a common language may possibly be found that will allow for an appeasement of the ‘soundless storm’ by voicing the true words that will ‘vent the pent’ (as From an abandoned work has it) but not involve the ‘final drunken scream’ of ‘Assumption.’ The ‘something’ contained in the crucible of the author’s imagination in All strange away might then be man, a human being, struggling to give voice to himself.


Instead of developing further the ‘syntax of weakness’ of How it is, Beckett is forced back into rhetoric in All strange away. Faced with ‘soundlessness,’ the authorial agent of the imagination can only discourse with himself (a situation which he attributes to the ‘someone’ in the ‘place’- ‘talking to himself in the last person’). The words continually fall into rhetorical patterns divorced from their ostensible subject matter. This is evident in the breakdown of the central metaphor of body and language. The beings in this ‘place’ are identified with words: ‘tattered syntaxes of Jolly and Draeger’ (7), ‘syntaxes upended in opposite corners’ (12). There is, however, no real identification between words and flesh (as in How it is) for in this instance the body is only ‘silent flesh.’ Hence a more ‘objective’ attitude is taken to all this ‘stuff’ or ‘meat.’ The segments are merely toys for the author’s enjoyment, puppets with human characteristics: ‘this body hinged and crooked as only the human man or woman living or not’ (34). There is no life in ‘he’ or ‘she’ because they are not, as is constantly repeated, on earth, but rather confined to the timeless zone of fiction created by the imagination. No wonder the flesh is ‘quite expressionless, ohs and ahs copulate cold’ (26). There is in fact no employment of the copula ‘to be,’ except in the phrase that denies any being in time: ‘never was.’


The central irony of All strange away is that, since the narrator cannot detect the ‘sounds too faint for mortal ears’ he increasingly formalizes his own ‘sounds’ or words. Parts of the work read almost like a tone poem. Simple rhymes are a favourite device: ‘flights by night’ (14), ‘air too rare’ (22). Two other basic patterns are the flowing catalogue and the almost monosyllabic description: ‘Sitting, standing, walking, kneeling, crawling, lying, creeping, in the dark and in the light, try all’ (8); ‘For nine and nine eighteen that is four feet and more across in which to kneel, arse on heels, hands on thighs, trunk best bowed and crown on ground’ (15). Both types of language exhibit careful use of alliteration and rhyme, and demonstrate that throughout the piece the narrator is attempting to impose rhetorical balance upon materials which are not susceptible to any neat antithesis. The only two undeniable realities are the ebb and flow of light and the unequal opposition of the ‘murmurs’ and the author’s words. In the last sentence of All strange away the narrator tries to impose his own formal harmony upon the work: ‘all is dark’ and there is a ‘simple sighing sound black vowel a’ (43). But it is clear that these projections are only perpetuated to satisfy ‘old mind’s sake.’ The narrator’s rhetoric points to the need to satisfy his own desire for form in spite of the ‘turmoil’ of soundlessness’ which remains ‘unappeasable.’ The imagined words of ‘she’ are even at one point criticized for manifesting the ‘tailaway so common in untrained speakers’ (26). Just before the work ends there is a reference to ‘dying fall of amateur soliloquy’ (41), but the narrator of All strange away is no amateur, he is a very professional rhetorician. The last sentence is a masterly exposition of how to execute a ‘dying fall.’ But in terms of the fundamental issue of the two languages it is indeed an ‘amateur soliloquy.’ The authorial presence truly is that of an ‘amateur’: he is in love with his own voice.


Time is a key factor in distinguishing between the status of the authorial ‘I’ and the status of the ‘someone.’ The statement ‘no way in, none out’ (11) (already contradicted by the opening ‘drag it to a place to die in’) is significantly qualified later in the text: ‘And indeed how stay of flow or ebb at any grey any length and even on the very sill of black any length till at last in and black and at long last the murmur too faint for mortal ear’ (23).


There is a ‘sill,’ and hence a door, that leads from the earth to the confines of the rotunda. The narrator possesses a ‘mortal ear,’ but is unable to hear the sounds that will testify to the claim for being by the occupants. (Or he is unwilling to hear them; this is the key question which the work leaves unanswered.) At any rate, all the references to time stress the disjunction between the narrator (who is still in time) and the ‘someones’ (who are consigned to a fictional, timeless hell): ‘One lightning wince per minute on earth’ (11); ‘Years of time on earth’ (10); ‘Then lost and all the remaining field for hours of time on earth, (16-17). In the rotunda there is really ‘no time’ at all.


A very complex sentence which comes shortly before the sentence describing the ‘sill’ helps to clarify the time problem in All strange away: ‘So great need of words not daring till at last slow ebb ten seconds, too fast, thirty now, great need not daring till at last slow ebb thirty seconds on earth through a thousand darkening greys till out and incontinent, Fancy dead, for instance if spirits low, no sound’ (22). The lack of clearly defined pronoun references makes the situation described relevant to both the authorial presence and the ‘someone.’ For the character it is said that words are ‘trembling up’ as the light subsides. Only in darkness are the ‘mutterings’ voiced. ‘Till out’ remains ambivalent in that it could also refer to the author who can only ‘vent his pent’ when he leaves the rotunda. ‘Incontinent’ means unable to hold in something (derived from the Latin in continenti [tempore], in continuous time). ‘Till out’ might therefore refer to both the extinguishing of the light and the author’s departure. The author’s fundamental error is to assume that the ‘someone’ can only speak in the darkness and thus deny its own claim to human status, to being-in-time.


The actual situation is by no means so clear-cut. The complex colour imagery emphasizes a mixture of black (the hair and ‘black bottomless eye’) and white (‘cheekbone vivid white for long black lashes when light’). Images derived from the natural world are applied to the enclosure and enforce the claims for being by the imprisoned creatures: ‘floor like bleached dirt,’ ‘faint stir of white dust,’ ‘weak tremors of a hothouse leaf,’ ‘faint tremors of a leaf indoors on earth in winter to survive till spring.’ After the last reference, the command is ‘Glare back now where all no light immeasurable turmoil, no sound. Black soundless storms of which on earth all being well say one millionth stilled to mean’ (40). The botanical images are, however, more than tropes and cannot be simply dismissed as irrelevant to the situation in the rotunda in which (like on earth) there are fluctuations of light and darkness. The only way that the turmoil of ‘no sound’ can be resolved is if the narrator allows his characters to become fully human by releasing them from this torture-chamber of fictional nonbeing. The author is, in fact, being too ‘realistic’: what he needs are ‘as-if’ propositions by which the Orphic realities of word and earth (not this hellish ‘other world’) can be naturally identified.


The last pages of All strange away veer away, however, from the drama of being that is enacted in the last pages of How it is. The focus of the last third of the text is the object in Emma’s hand. This object (‘fingers tighten as though to squeeze, imagine later’) is duly expanded upon (‘and so arrive at though no true image at small grey punctured rubber ball such as on earth attached to bottle of scent’). The obsessive return to this object results in a stress on contiguity and metonymy. Roman Jakobson comments on the effects of this technique: ‘It is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called “realistic” trend . . . . Following the path of contiguous relations, the realistic author metonymically digresses from the plot of the atmosphere and from the characters to the settings in space and time, He is fond of synecdochic details.’ Of course, with regard to the odd ‘realism’ of All strange away some qualification of Jakobson’s insight is necessary. The concentration on the object in Emma’s hand is comparable to Jakobson’s example of how Tolstoy focusses attention on Anna’s handbag in the suicide scene, and Beckett is undoubtedly fascinated by ‘synecdochic details’ in All strange away. But the ‘long black hair’ and the ‘ivory flesh’ are details which are ‘emblems’ for the characters; they are not just the stock-in-trade of naturalistic authors. In fact, the concern with the ‘rubber bulb’ tends naturally towards allegory rather than realism. Contiguous relations with the whole natural world are cut off—‘but here alone.’ Beckett’s blatantly allegorical comments on the rubber ball Krapp gives to the dog in the Schiller Production Notebook suggest a similar intention in All strange away. But the ‘grey punctured rubber ball’ in this work involves a different ‘sin.’ For it is the author who in his own interests tries to reduce all to whiteness, darkness or greyness, and who ‘sins’ against the living human complexity with its irreducible admixture of darkness and light. The narrator of All strange away finally dismisses this object which (like the sack in How it is) promises to take on too much allegorical value: ‘So that henceforth here no other sounds than these say gone now and never were sprayer bulb or punctured rubber ball and nothing ever in that hand lightly closed on nothing’ (43). The only ‘sounds’ left are the imagined ‘sop to mind’ of the ‘dead imaginings.’ The pull towards allegory has been resisted. But there is a concomitant denial of any true sounds from the ‘someone’ in the ‘place.’ What remains, then, is little more than a ‘tempest of emblems.’