Beckett, Valéry and ‘Watt’


Ross Posnock


The most fundamental critical challenge Beckett presents is to discover ways to discuss his work; the construction of analogous paradigms is one method of approach. The usefulness and validity of the paradigm will depend, of course, on its congruence to Beckett; the more apt the paradigm the greater elucidation it will yield. It seems to me that some of the critical writing of Paul Valéry can directly illuminate Beckett’s strategies as a novelist, particularly those evident in Watt. I will limit myself to a discussion of Watt, which can be seen as Beckett’s critique of the traditional novel, providing as well a tentative answer to that tradition. Valéry is pertinent for he makes a distinctly similar critique of the novel as a genre.


Valéry and Beckett are not a surprising coupling; a few of the obvious affinities between the two authors can be quickly enumerated. Both share an absorbing interest in Cartesian rationalism that informs their work. They have a fondness for perceiving mathematics as an exercise of purely formal relationships akin to literature; as well they both possess a definite methodological rigorousness. Despite these intersections, and these are only the most noticeable, Federman and Fletcher, in their exhaustive bibliography, report that only two essays on Beckett mention Valéry; on further investigation these essays include Valéry solely in passing. However, the grounds for an analogy between the two seems to have some initial validity. Despite the vast difference between their oeuvres some aspects of their sensibilities engage one another.


After reading Watt, how does one account for its stangeness? The perplexed reader may observe that the relationship between Watt and reality has clearly been altered; this novel has little interest in any traditional, i.e. mimetic obligations. The narrator, late in the novel, makes this explicit: ‘For since when were Watt’s concerns with what things were, in reality?’ (227). A street, a house, a mental institution, a train depot, and a university are the sole remnants of the familiar world in Watt; the ‘action’ of the novel centers around the linguistic experiences of the title character as he constructs intricate schemes and systems of relations and possibilities in an effort to cope with the world. The novel traces Watt’s tenure as servant to a Mr. Knott; by the novel’s conclusion Watt leaves Knott and literally fades away at the depot.


The realism of the novel exists in a paradoxical state; although this is clearly not a realistic novel in a traditional sense, in another aspect it is hyper-realistic. The many catalogues of various trivial phenomena constructed by Watt, for instance the recording of Knott’s movements in his room, cover with language every conceivable movement Mr. Knott could make. This is realism in extremis and reduced to absurdity because it obliterates the traditional novelist’s ‘selection of detail’ and substitutes for this necessarily arbitrary selection (upon which the traditional novel’s illusion of life rests) a transcription of every variable and every possibility that is available to a given character in a given situation. In a frustratingly limited but nevertheless logical sense, the reader is supplied with knowledge of Mr. Knott. Arbitrary is the key word in describing the traditional novelist’s procedure of mirroring reality; it is this quality that Beckett ridicules in his critique of the Novel that is implicitly operative in Watt. When one rejects the basic tenet of realism - that the task of language is to reflect with fidelity familiar reality through a selection of detail - the result is to vanquish selection by including everything, which is what occurs in Watt. As early as 1931 in his essay on Proust, Beckett had scorned realism and naturalism. Surely he speaks of his own taste when he writes of Proust: .’ . . his contempt for the literature that “describes”, for the realists and naturalists worshipping the offal of experience, prostrate before the epidermis and the swift epilepsy . . . ‘1


Valéry would have enjoyed Watt, completed in 1945, the year of his death, because its author shares with Valéry similar reservations about the Novel. In 1937 Valéry wrote this about the genre: ‘I can admire them as stimulants, pastimes, and works of art; but if they claim to “truth” and hope to be taken seriously their arbitrary quality and unconscious conventions at once become apparent, and I am seized with a perverse mania for trying possible substitutions.’2 Valéry is implicitly attacking the enemies of Beckett and Proust: the naturalists, preeminently Zola. Valéry augmented his critique of the Novel (Zola is only one target; the nineteenth century mimetic tradition is the general object of criticism) with a vivid example. He reported that if he happened to read the sentence ‘The Marquis went out at ten o’clock’ in a novel he would immediately ask why not at 10:15 or 9:46 for example. Valéry’s point is that selection of detail must rest upon arbitrary convention rather than internal necessity.


The answer to Valéry’s question should be supplied. The novelist has the Marquis go out at ten o’clock as a convenience; it is a cog in the steady progression of the plot. Of course ten is arbitrary but it is a convention obeyed by the reader as he follows the story. That the Novel tells a story is the aesthetic premise underlying the author’s selection of detail. To the novelist who rejects this premise and its attendant conventions, an enumeration of every possible time the Marquis might leave is transcribed. A logical system of possibilities is reported and the progress of the story, stalled by these systems, is secondary and relatively ignored. Instead of telling story about the ‘real’ world, Beckett provides the linguistic manifestations that occur when a novelist refuses to select detail; language is given free rein to proceed according to its own inner and obsessively systematic logic. Beckett in Watt shares with Valéry a ‘perverse mania for trying possible substitutions.’ Therefore Mr. Knott does not simply move ‘to and fro from the door to the window’; reality is more complex and tiresome than this arbitrary, story-telling convention allows. For, strictly speaking, Mr. Knott moves in all sorts of directions in relation to his door, window, fire and bed. And to record reality one must scrupulously record all the directions.


Throughout Watt language turns back upon itself, crippling any narrative efforts because all its linguistic energy is spent in absorbing every element of the text into systems, lists, schemes. The novel consistently flirts with an infinite regress of closed system of logic upon closed system of logic. In terms of narrative everything that ‘happens’ occurs as if in slow motion, anchored by tireless feats of analysis through language.


Quite strikingly, Valéry asks for a novel like Watt. In the same 1937 essay he writes:


            Perhaps it would be interesting, just once, to write a book which at

            each juncture would show the diversity of solutions that can

            present themselves to the mind . . . To do this would be to sub-

            stitute for the illusion of a unique scheme which imitates reality

            that of the possible at each moment, which I think more truthful.

            (Valéry’s emphasis)3


Watt denies the ‘illusion of a unique scheme’ and opts for ‘the possible at each moment’ because of the degree of its realism. By abolishing the cherished selection of detail upon which the traditional novel rests, Beckett, in the words of Leo Bersani, ‘helps to kill the realistic novel by the very profundity of [his] commitment to realism.’4 For Valéry, like Beckett, novels are unfortunately ‘bound to the real world’ seeking to create ‘the impression of “life” and “truth” ‘ from a ‘pattern composed of actual yet arbitrary details.’5 According to both writers the novel has refused to confront ‘the diversity of solutions that can present themselves to the mind,’ which is ‘the more truthful’ realism. In Watt Beckett confronted the ‘diversity’ of reality, unaware that he was fulfilling Valéry’s request. I offer Valéry not as a direct source of anything in Beckett but rather as a distinctly parallel sensibility in his views on the novel and its aesthetic implications.


What is at the heart of sensibilities that exhibit extreme sensitivity to the arbitrary? Valéry, in what is most likely mock befuddlement, says: ‘I do not know whence I derive this very lively sense of the arbitrary.’6 It seems to me that an explanation for this acute awareness in both Valéry and Beckett can be found in their Cartesian rationalism. For the rationalist anything arbitrary is repellent; he seeks to master experience by comprehending everything through the power of the mind. The notion of an art form dedicated to producing, though arbitrary selection of detail, ‘an illusion of life’ is something worthy of laughter for the rationalist. One method of conquering the arbitrary is a rigorous insistence on the transcribing of all possibilities of a situation; thereby systematizing all elements in a logically necessary order. Therefore, for the rationalist, a recording of Knott’s movements is not an absurdity but rather a safeguard against absurdity. The positing of solutions to the phenomena of Knott’s actions in his room is one way the rationalist can control and understand Mr. Knott. Language is a protecting force in Watt. Before expanding upon this important theme in the novel, a significant qualification must be registered concerning the arbitrary and fiction. All literary art, however strenuously it seeks to purify itself by purging the arbitrary, is inherently arbitrary. For language, the fabric of literature, is never anything but selection, choice, discrimination.


Valéry is aware that it is the burden of art to forge from a medium that is arbitrary an artifact that possesses an internal necessity. He writes: ‘In all arts, and this is why they are arts, the necessity a successfully created work must suggest can be engendered only by what is arbitrary.’7 (Valery’s emphasis). Only poetry, says Valéry, approaches a condition of necessity that the Novel as a genre so sorely lacks. Watt, in its creation of internally coherent, logically necessary private systems of language, has reached, in a perverse way, the condition of a symbolist poem. This will be elaborated upon later.


Throughout his life Valéry was fascinated with the example of Descartes, devoting a number of essays to the philosopher. In a 1925 essay Valéry writes a description of Descartes that bears directly on Beckett’s Watt:



            In full independence of mind, he enjoys the pleasure of existing

            simply in order to understand. The properly organized conscious-

            ness turns everything to account. Everything contributes to its

            detachment; everything serves to engage it; it stops at nothing.

            The more relationships it absorbs or endures, the more closely

            integrated it is . . .8


This might serve as a portrayal of Watt after he has puzzled out the vast complexities of the famished dog and Mr. Knott’s food. Beckett writes of this: ‘But once Watt had grasped . . . the mechanism of this arrangement . . . enjoyed a comparative peace of mind . . . he had turned, little by little, a disturbance into words.’ (117) Beckett’s ‘peace of mind’ that he attributes to Watt is the equivalent of Valéry’s description of Descartes as existing for the pleasure of understanding. Both Watt and Valéry’s Descartes seek ‘detachment,’ that is protection from experience either by mental ‘absorption’ or through articulation. The fact that Watt realizes, in regard to the dog and food, that he has failed to ‘penetrate the forces at play, in this particular instance . . . or obtained the least useful information concerning himself or Mr. Knott . . .’ (117) is finally irrelevant. What is vital is that Watt has verbalized every possibility of a situation; he has stopped at nothing (to use Valéry’s phrase) ‘in order to understand.’


When applied to Watt, Valéry’s description indicates that Watt ‘bears the Cartesian cross, the discursive intellect’9 as Hugh Kenner has written. Valéry’s statement, ‘he enjoys the pleasure of existing simply in order to understand,’ can be revised in the light of Watt’s ‘character’ to read: he exists in order to formulate private systems of logical enumeration that serve to encompass and disarm anything. Watt can hardly be said to ‘enjoy the pleasure of existing’ for his is a consciousness singularly melancholic in its absorption in hermetic, selfcreated systems. Watt is a Descartes manqué, scrambling to name things, always in need of ‘semantic succour’ so he can be at rest.


In a recent essay one critic has attempted to prove that Watt is a ‘devastating depiction of the cul de sac of modern Western rationalistic philosophy.’10 His evidence is that on close examination the internal systems devised by Watt prove to contain errors that make their calculations logically incorrect. Therefore, according to the critic, Watt has ‘portrayed the equal failure of rationality to provide an internal system of any validity or use.’11 Although his exposure of errors in Watt’s systems is accurate, what is ignored is this important fact: all of Beckett’s works present various situations and computable data that are persistently awry, slightly out of joint. Murphy’s seven scarves that are in fact only six is an example that comes immediately to mind. In Beckett’s world mathematical notations refuse to cohere exactly - this is one of the perverse données in that world, a condition of its existence. In Watt there is an anecdote told by Arsene that expresses the condition of pervasive misinformation that is all that is available to a Beckett ‘character.’ Arsene’s story concerns a man who tells him, after great deliberation, that it is 5:17 and ‘a moment later Big Ben . . . struck six.’ It is Arsene’s comment on this that is crucial: ‘This in my opinion is the type of all information whatsoever, be it voluntary or solicited.’ (46) Therefore, to say that Watt’s errors are a critique of rationality is to refuse, in effect, to grant Beckett his donnée that nothing, including rationalism, is in fact rational. Beckett’s characters tacitly acknowledge this condition and act as if the construction of logical systems, for instance, was founded on accurate information. Beckett is only being consistent to the unique epistemological foundations of his fictional world in his deliberate errors of calculation in Watt’s construction of closed systems of order.


The motive for Watt’s system building, his need of ‘semantic succour,’ is a fear of nothingness. Nothingness is anathema to the rationalist, who, as Valéry pointed out, thrives on ‘everything.’ The Galls father and son exploit Watt’s fear: ‘What distressed Watt in this incident of the Galls . . . was not so much that he did not know what had happened . . . as that nothing had happened, with all the clarity and solidity of something.’ (76) The rationalist, like nature, abhors a vacuum; one way to fill a vacuum is with words, with names: ‘. . . he would learn the name, some day, and so be tranquillized.’ (82) Beckett calls into question the very existence of the Galls in relation to Watt: ‘. . . were there neither Galls nor piano then, but only an unintelligible succession of changes, from which Watt extracted the Galls and the piano in self-defence?’ (79) This is a key statement in Watt for it exposes the motive and hence the direction language takes in the novel; as well as giving pause to the reader to wonder if the entire work has not evolved from self-defence. The line between referential language and private fantasy becomes obscured.


Language which comes into being out of ‘self-defence’ is necessarily a private language that can exist only by the rules of its internal coherence. This closed system turns its attention from any public utility, i.e. communication, for it seeks to stand autonomously on the strength of its purely formal unity. Closed systems care to have little commerce with reality. The stages in the formation of Watt’s private language are reported to the reader in part three by Watt’s fellow inmate Sam, the presumed narrator of the novel. Beginning by dislocating syntax, Watt proceeds to invert letters of words and finally to invert every element in his sentences, retaining, however, a consistent and comprehensible logic. This allows his language, no matter how mutilated, to be understood by Sam. Watt’s final linguistic contortions, the last version of his language, prove unfathomable even to Sam. The entire novel, I think, can be read as a series of various closed systems of language that reveal, to use Beckett’s phrase from Proust, ‘the comedy of an exhaustive enumeration.’12


Before discussing some of the other closed-systems in Watt, it is interesting to note that at the heart of Beckett’s linguistic strategies in the novel is an attitude towards language that bears striking resemblance to Valéry’s well-known belief in the radical disjunction of poetry and prose. Valéry’s poetics rest upon the premise that poetry uses language in ways distinct from its use in ‘ordinary’ (non-poetic) discourse. The essence of the difference is that for the poet the medium of language is an end in itself, rather than a means to communication. This is a central Symbolist insight, derived from Mallarmé and cherished by his principal heir Valéry. The prose/poetry dichotomy, crucial for Valéry, is directly involved with the construction of closed, private systems of language. Language is a public possession, handled by everyone day in and day out. Public language is prose; it burns itself up as it is uttered, obliterated as it fulfills its duty of communication. Its lack of internal necessity makes it perishable. In direct contrast, the poet, according to Valéry, ‘abuses language,’ making it so private that finally he is the only one who can understand his words.


In a passage from his famous essay ‘Poetry and Abstract Thought,’ Valéry lucidly charts the journey of language in its passage from public use to private use:


            . . . in practical or abstract uses of language, the form - that is the

            physical, the concrete part, the very act of speech - does not

            last; it does not outlive understanding; it dissolves in the light; it

            has acted; it has done its work . . . it has lived.

            But, on the other hand, the moment this concrete form takes on,

            by an effect of its own, such importance that it asserts itself and

            makes itself, as it were, respected; and not only remarked and

            respected, but desired and therefore repeated - then something

            new happens: we are insensibly transformed and ready to live,

            breathe and think in accordance with a rule and under laws

            which are no longer of the practical order . . . We are entering the

            poetic universe.13


It seems to me that what Valéry has described above - the movement of language from public utility to private construction - is precisely what occurs in Watt. What my emphasis is meant to stress is that, for Valéry, the moment language calls attention to itself as an object (‘asserts itself and makes itself . . . respected’) simultaneously the maker seeks to construct a system (‘poetic universe’) that is operated by internal laws and rules. These laws enforce necessity and outlaw the arbitrary.


In Watt the closed systems abolish the arbitrary in two ways; one being that necessity is engendered internally by the recording of all possible combinations of selected constants. Not only do the closed systems achieve an inner necessity, but they come into being as products of a logically necessary development premised on the Cartesian principle that creation equals logical entailment. This principle is clearly at work in the section concerning the Lynch family, which is the logically necessary answer to Watt’s predicament: who will provide the manpower to coordinate the famished dogs and Mr. Knott’s food. After Watt patiently and scrupulously surveys the situation, computing various possible solutions, he constructs an answer: ‘A suitably large needy local family.’ Thus is born the Lynch family; his computations require them. Though the family is logically entailed, Beckett’s insistence that everything, including logic is irrational, is operative here for the Lynch’s existence is somehow arbitrary - ‘the name of this fortunate family was Lynch.’ (100)


When characters are logically entailed one prominent feature of the traditional novel is erased: characters so life-like they seem to obey their own laws. Selection of detail creates the mimetic illusion of free, spontaneous, ‘real’ characters; the creation of logical necessity circumscribes this selection and punctures mimetic illusion. Valéry scorns novelists who are enslaved to this task of mirroring reality and consequently ‘assure us that they believe in the “existence” of their characters, whose slaves they claim to be, blindly following their destinies ignorant of their plans, suffering for their misfortunes, and experiencing their feelings . . .’14 Obviously the Lynches are the creation of a far different sort of novelist. No one suffers over the Lynch’s misfortunes, least of all Beckett; they are a closed system created by the demands of Watt’s ‘logic.’


The most thoroughly self-contained closed system in Watt is the story of Louit and the committee of examiners, that is related by Watt’s coworker for twenty-six pages. Included in this tale is another closed system - a five page inventory of the possible combinations involved when the committee attempts to look at itself. The story, told by Arthur, ends only because Arthur desires to ‘return to Mr. Knott’s house, to its mysteries, to its fixity.’ (199) The ‘fixity of mystery’ which surrounds Knott can only be penetrated by the creation of a closed system that will enumerate his actions within a limited area. Therefore the reader is subjected to a three page catalogue of Knott’s movements and arrangement of furniture in his room. Rationalism and absurdity blend into one here, as happens throughout Watt. In one sense the reader is told a great deal concerning Knott’s movements, and in an equally logical sense the reader learns nothing of Knott.


Watt calls his tabulations of trivial, obsessive phenomena a ‘personal system’ (46): the plot of Watt presents one ‘personal system’ engendering another in a chain of causal connection. Hugh Kenner’s notion of ‘closed fields’ as being a new form of fiction in the twentieth century serves to illuminate the structure of Watt. Kenner writes:


            For centuries literature, like arithmetic, was supposed to be, in a

            direct and naive way, “about” the familiar world. But lately we

            have been getting what amounts to the shifting of elements and

            postulates inside a closed field . . . . Once we have a theory of

            fields we can invent as many mathematical systems as we like,

            and so long as they are internally consistent their degree of corre-

            spondence with the familiar world is irrelevant.15


This analysis of non-mimetic form in the modern novel, thoroughly apt concerning Watt, would have been quite congenial to Valéry for his own definitions of the poem and the novel as literary forms combine Watt’s ‘personal system’ and the ‘closed field.’ The ideal poem, according to Valéry, is a ‘closed system... in all its parts, in which nothing can be modified. . .’16 By contrast the Novel is defined as an ‘open system . . . in which elements are replaceable by others and into which new elements can be introduced.’17 A work of art ‘in which nothing can be modified’ because it has been purged of the arbitrary was almost impossible for Valéry for he believed that no work of art is ever finished. ‘A work is never completed except by some accident, like fatigue, satisfaction, a deadline or death... There is no incontestable sign of a work’s intrinsic completion.’18 The problematics of closure are surely evident in Beckett’s work. Watt ends for no discernible reason; Watt seems to dissappear at the depot though this is barely registered in the text.


When novels become more concerned with the construction of private fictional worlds, what Valéry calls the ‘poetic universe,’ than with representing external reality, the act of making becomes of primary significance: ‘the doing means more to me than its object. It is the doing and the making in themselves which represent the achievement as I see it .’19 This essentially Symbolist concern is one that Beckett shares. ‘I am interested in the shape of ideas, even if I do not believe them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine. . . “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.” That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters.’ When the shape of sentences become crucial every word in the sentence matters; precision of syntax and diction is demanded. As Beckett wrote of Proust it is ‘the quality of language’ that is the true writer’s first concern. In short Beckett’s insistence on formal control places him firmly in the Symbolist tradition. His prose seeks to reach a condition of immaculate necessity - a ‘closed system’ in ‘which nothing can be modified.’


It has been written of Valéry’s notion of poetry that ‘every true composition is the indissolubility of its internal relations. And every time this unity can be decomposed, the work loses its life.’20 On these terms Watt is a ‘true composition’ for its internal systems are indissoluble because they rest upon logical consistency. Mr. Knott’s movements, as catalogued in the novel, are incapable of being paraphrased; their unity cannot be `decomposed’ or `modified’ since they exist in a coherent, logical series. The novel as a whole exists as a ‘closed system’ or field, consistent within itself and serving as a framework for the closed systems within the novel. Watt, in its refusal of arbitrary selection of detail has reached the condition of a Symbolist poem as defined by Valéry. Necessity has emerged from the arbitrary; necessity is, for Valéry and Beckett, the handprint of art.


Not only can Watt as a whole be viewed as a Symbolist poem, but, as well, the closed systems individually are Symbolist poems reduced to absurdity. It is possible to read the novel as a prolonged and elaborate joke upon Symbolist aesthetics and the desire to form closed, autonomous worlds of discourse. It is also a joke upon Beckett himself, perhaps, for he is surely sympathetic to many aspects of Symbolist theory. Valéry’s one attempt at extended prose fiction, Monsieur Teste, presents a man not unlike Watt - a man of pure thought (tête). Valéry describes Teste: `He was a man absorbed in his own variations, one who becomes his own system, who commits himself without reservation to the frightening discipline of the free mind.’21 This statement reveals both the differences and resemblances between Teste and Watt. Teste is pompous and humourless; he never loses his dignity or becomes foolish. Watt is also ‘absorbed in his own variations’ and commits himself to the ‘frightening discipline of the free mind,’ but in this endeavour he crosses the line from supreme rationality to hopeless absurdity.


What is frightening about the ‘free mind’ is that it can so easily become enslaved by its own systems. Valéry refuses to explore this dilemma, his fictional character is perpetually condescending. Beckett, in contrast, has acutely grasped the problematics of the ‘free mind’ and the profound fragility of its existence. Watt, in a paradoxical way, is a far more human and affecting version of Monsieur Teste.


At the heart of Watt one can dimly sense the nihilistic rage of its creator; a rage at the futile, dumb exertions of language and the maddeningly immaculate ‘rationality’ behind it all. Watt is an inimitable and unrepeatable work that seems to me to answer Valéry’s request that ‘perhaps it would be interesting, just once, to write a book. . .’that would reduce to absurdity the arbitrary conventions of the realistic novel. What Valéry didn’t expect was the depth of anger and desperation from which the novel rises, literally against the backdrop of the Second World War. Beckett has pursued with rigorous determination the implications of some Symbolist strategies; charging them with a profounder and more disquieting meaning than their original intentions might have allowed.


1 Samuel Beckett, Proust, New York, 1957, 59.

2 Paul Valéry, The art of poetry, New York, 1958, 103.

3 Ibid., 104.

4 Leo Bersani, Balzac to Beckett, New York, 1970, 21.

5 Paul Valéry, Masters and friends, (Princeton, 1968, 296.)

6 The art of poetry, 104.

7 Jean Hytier, The poetics of Paul Valéry, New York, 1966, 168.

8 Masters and friends, 11.

9 Hugh Kenner, Samuel Beckett: a critical study, (Berkeley, 1968, 59.)

10 John J. Mood, ‘The personal system: Samuel Beckett’s Watt,’ PMLA, March 1971, 255-65.

11 Ibid., 265.

12 Proust, 71.

13 The art of poetry, 105. My emphasis.

14 Ibid., 105.

15 Hugh Kenner, ‘Art in a closed field,’ Virginia Quarterly, Autumn, 1962.

16 The poetics of Paul Valery, 243.

17 Ibid., 244.

18 Ibid., 242.

19 Masters and friends, xviii.

20 The poetics of Paul Valery, 195.

21 Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste, Princeton, 1973, 12.