Purgatory unpurged: time, space, and language in ‘Lessness’1


Philip H. Solomon


noplacelike notimelike


            James Joyce, Finnegans wake


‘Grey sky no cloud no sound no stir earth ash grey sand. Little body same grey as the earth sky ruins only upright. Ash grey all sides earth sky as one all sides endlessness.’2 Thus the nameless protagonist of Lessness (published in French as Sans -literally ‘without’—in 1969, and in Beckett’s English translation in 1970) presides over his wasteland, immobile, arms frozen to his sides, legs fused together. The reader familiar with Beckett’s writings will no doubt discern in the passage just quoted another modality of the purgatorial situation so pervasive in Beckett’s oeuvre and perhaps most explicitly in the trilogy. It is equally apparent from these lines, even to the uninitiated reader, that any thematic approach to the work must perforce take into account is distinctively elliptical and paradigmatic language. Ruby Cohn has referred to Beckett’s post-trilogy text as ‘lyrics of fiction,’ situating them on that (increasingly) ill-defined borderline between prose and poetry.3 My examination of Lessness will attempt to elucidate both aspects of the work: the thematics of the purgatorial situation it depicts, and the ‘lyricism’ of its concomitantly purgatorial language.


Before proceeding with my analysis of the text it is essential to review certain basic elements of the purgatorial situation as Beckett has presented them in some of his earlier works. Given the extreme concision of Lessness, its ‘residual’ nature, it is necessary to establish an inter-textual framework within which to interpret the text under consideration. I will use Beckett’s article on Joyce’s Work in progress (the future Finnegans wake) and his trilogy (Molloy, Malone dies, The unnamable) to constitute that framework.


‘All life is a wake,’ Joyce wrote in Finnegans wake, summarizing in this pun the energy of the world he depicts in his novel.4 In ‘Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce,’ published in transition, Beckett defends Joyce against his critics by means of an elucidation of the Work’s vitality, what Beckett terms its ‘purgatorial aspect.’5 In so doing he not only illuminates his subject but also, prophetically, reveals a great deal about the shape of his future fiction. According to Beckett, Joyce’s opus is purgatorial in two respects. First, the Work—based upon the Viconian concept of a recurring four-part cycle of human history and influenced as well by Bruno’s concept of the identity of opposites—is purgatorial by virtue of its ‘cyclic dynamism’: its organizing principle, growth, death, and rebirth/ resurrection.6 Second, contrasting the Work in progress with the Divine comedy, Beckett argues that the former is purgatorial in that it is spherical in shape as opposed to the conical configuration of the latter. The Work in progress, Beckett states, contains neither Dante’s absolute the static ‘unrelieved viciousness’ of Hell, the equally static ‘unrelieved immaculation’ of Paradise—nor his culmination—the assured passage from Purgatory to Paradise. The ‘flood of movement and vitality’ that, for Beckett, characterizes Joyce’s novel as purgatorial derives from the ‘conjunction’ of those absolutes of Vice and Virtue.7


Beckett’s ‘rejection’ of the Divine comedy in favour of the Work in progress notwithstanding, the Purgatorio—notably through the figure of Belacqua—will constitute a major influence upon Beckett’s fiction, especially during the period prior to the writing of the trilogy—More pricks than kicks and Murphy, for example. Yet, ultimately, the Beckettian quest will be shaped by forces analogous to those the author discerned in the future Finnegans wake. A brief examination of the ‘vitality’ of the trilogy will permit us to verify this perception.


Spatially, Beckett’s Purgatory may be a room, suggesting a metaphor for the mind (as is the case with Molloy in his mother’s room or the skull-like enclosure in which Malone lies ‘dying’) or an ill-defined zone which puts in doubt the applicability of the term place (the Unnamable). This space functions as a refuge of sorts, an intermediate region situated between the Hell of existence in the macrocosm, from which the protagonist has withdrawn—but not entirely—and the Paradise of selfhood within the mental microcosm to which he aspires. The dynamism of his purgatorial situation will derive from the ‘conjunction’ of these two opposing absolutes. The Paradise that the Beckettian protagonist seeks is the void that, for Beckett (as also for Sartre), lies at the core of consciousness, outside of time and space—therein resides the essential self. But in order for that void to be attained, it must be named. Beckett’s Purgatory, like Joyce’s, is also a textual space and, in a larger sense, the space of language itself. But for the protagonist to realize his goal, that space must be made to shrink: language must be purged of its relationships to contingent existence (notably space and time) so that it may say the nothing that will restore the silence of the void.


Trapped in his purgatory between a past not yet present and a present haemorrhaging unceasingly into the future, the protagonist discovers that time may have slowed down—as it does the closer one comes to the Paradise of timelessness—but continues to pass, its end growing, perforce, ever more distant. Molloy expresses his anguish over such a temporal impasse: ‘My life, my life, now I speak of it as something over, now as of a joke which still goes on, and it is neither, for at the same time it is over and goes on . . .’ (36). The passage of time is manifested by a continuing narration, in which stories about the self are told and retold in the hope that a language of self will at last be found. And for the writer-heroes of the trilogy, and particularly the Unnamable (the creative consciousness of the three volumes), the realization of that language of the void will terminate, at last, their exfoliation into fictional characters, the unceasing production of fictions to which they have been condemned in their eternal quest for silence. The colour—or light appropriate to this purgatory is grey, neither the white or blue of the macrocosm nor the black of the void (in several of the post-trilogy fictions the void is represented by purest white, the two extremes black and white—having become interchangeable, a phenomenon that recalls Bruno’s identity of opposites).8


 Lessness contains 769 words (each of which will appear twice) but only 166 distinct lexical items. They make up 120 sentences divided among 24 paragraphs varying in length from 3 to 7 sentences each. Beginning with the thirteenth paragraph, each of the 60 sentences of the first twelve paragraphs is repeated—randomly—in the second group of 12 paragraphs. As Edith Fournier was the first to demonstrate, within each half of the text the 60 sentences can be easily grouped according to 6 thematic categories (henceforth designated as paradigms): decor, body, ruins, refuge forgotten, time past, and time future.9 Hence the architecture of the text embodies the presence of time. This temporality is also conveyed by the configuration of the protagonist’s body, which suggests the two hands of the clock would be fixed at perpetual noon (the moment of greatest light) or perpetual midnight (the moment of greatest darkness)—these opposing atemporal “moments” being interchangeable as I have already indicated.


But we are informed that this dolmen-like figure is grey, which reveals that the hands of our metaphorical clock must point to a time halfway between noon and midnight or midnight and noon. Thus the hour in question is 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. Each is a moment of transition with respect to light and dark - the grey of dawn or the grey of dusk. A sentence from the ‘time past’ paradigm refers to these purgatorial hours: ‘Figment dawn dispeller of figments and the other called dusk’ (10/4, 24/4). Time is thus a fabrication embodied in and perpetuated by language, as opposed to the timelessness of the void, the essential self (‘figment,’ as in ‘figment of the imagination,’ translates the French ‘chimère’ [72]); but its continuing passage, revealed by the coming of—and interval between—dawn and dusk, is no less real for the protagonist.


Trapped in the ambivalence of the sixth hour, the protagonist ‘remembers’ a lost paradise of selfhood, when time had, apparently, come to an end. He had found a shelter from the phenomenal world within a skulllike, dazzling white interior, which contained the sought-for void of consciousness. The blank walls of that space—like the white, blank page—connote the disappearance of language, co-extensive with the absence of thought: ‘Little void mighty light four square all white blank planes gone from mind’ (12/3, 16/1). All the sentences of the ‘refuge forgotten’ paradigm, in which the shelter is described, end with the words ‘gone from mind.’ The English here—as opposed to the French ‘aucun souvenir’ (73), no memory—is significantly polysemous. It has spatial connotations—the protagonist is no longer encompassed by the refuge, whose ruins now surround him—as well as temporal ones. That the protagonist should have no recollection of his refuge might appear to be a contradiction, since his experience is described. However, it is depicted with words that express nothingness in terms of something. Hence the refuge the protagonist seems to have enjoyed must also be considered—paradoxically—a fiction.


The problems posed by the nature of past events (as well as their recollection) are further elaborated in the ‘time past’ and ‘time future’ paradigms. With the exception of the sentence describing ‘figment’ dawn and dusk (which depicts the illusory nature of time as opposed to the reality of the void), each of the sentences in the ‘time past’ paradigm begins with the words ‘never was’ or ‘never but.’ This series of negations serves to emphasize that all the protagonist can know are the fictions propounded by language: ‘dream’ (2/5, 16/5), ‘imagination’ (10/2, 18/ 6), ‘poesy’ (12/2, 21/2). And among these fictions we once again find time, here expressed as the cycle of day and night: ‘Never but dream the days and nights made of dreams of other nights better days’ (7/6, 18/3).


One might expect to find references to existence in the macrocosm in the ‘time past’ paradigm. That they are to be found instead in the ‘time future’ paradigm (in which, unique to this thematic grouping, each sentence contains a verb in the future tense), indicates both the inevitability of the resumption of the quest for selfhood and the temporality of the protagonist’s situation. Since the protagonist in the purgatorial situation remains perforce a ‘pseudo-self,’ to use Richard Coe’s apt term,10 his future life will recapitulate his past. He will be a character (re)playing an assigned role in the drama of the Beckettian quest. Here in Lessness several of that quest’s familiar themes are, often ironically, recalled, such as the vagabond Cain figure, the arbitrary suffering inflicted by a cruel cosmos (symbolized by the pelting rain), the condemnation of love and sexuality (for they may lead to the birth of yet another sufferer) and the abandonment of the upright position proper to man: ‘He will curse God again as in the blessed days’ (3/1, 23/4); ‘On him will rain again as in the blessed days of blue the passing cloud’ (4/4, 15/3); ‘Old love new love as in the blessed days unhappiness will reign again’ (10/2, 20/3); ‘He will go on his back face to the sky open again over him the ruins the sand the endlessness’ (11/1, 17/4).


‘For to be out of one [time] and not out of the other [space] was for cleverer than me,’ Molloy remarked (51). Similarly, in Lessness the protagonist’s spatial situation will be co-extensive with his temporal situation. As I suggested earlier, the path to selfhood demands a withdrawal from the macrocosm—what Beckett describes in Proust as a ‘shrinking from . . . extra-circumferential phenomena’11 and a concomitant retreat into the mental microcosm, within which lies the aspatial void that is the ultimate goal of the quest. The white shelter that the protagonist claims to have once enjoyed is now, we know, ‘gone from mind.’ That shelter is further described as ‘true refuge lost last issueless’ (8/6, 20/4). It is obvious that the refuge which the protagonist recalls was not ‘issueless’ has three possible meanings in this context: ‘without exit,’ ‘without heirs,’ ‘without possibility of discussion.’ Had the refuge not been a fiction, it would not have had an ‘exit,’ for the latter is a spatial notion; and, moreover, there can be no passage from space to non-space since the two are incommensurable. The protagonist is an ‘heir,’ so to speak, of the essential self; he is a ‘pseudo-self’ whose continuing existence testifies to the failure to attain paradise. The protagonist and his refuge remain a subject for discussion—existing in and through a language that has been unable to name the void and thus bring it into being.


The configuration of the protagonist’s body resembles that of certain other Beckettian protagonists after they have terminated their respective voyages in the Hell of phenomenal existence. Like Mahood in his jar or the ‘big talking ball’ (305) to which the Unnamable, Mahood’s creator, compares himself, the protagonist’s body with his arms and legs fixed to his sides and his ‘genitals overrun arse’ (8/2, 24/3) has been reduced to a block surmounted by a ball (the head). Thus his body has assumed an ‘essential’ shape, no longer flawed by those parts that protrude and which are, for Beckett, the most manifest signs of its spatiality.


However streamlined the protagonist’s body may be, it remains nonetheless a spatial entity. Moreover, he has a heart that continues to beat and two blue eyes that continue to see. Sight presupposes space as a necessary distance between the observer and that which he observes. This distance is the spatial equivalent of the temporal interval separating self from ‘pseudo-self,’ reflecting consciousness from reflected consciousness. When Molloy finds himself on the brink of the void, the above-mentioned interval disappears, as the one who sees and that which is seen merge: ‘I see . . . and am seen’ (40).


The blue of the protagonist’s eyes mirrors the blue sky of the macrocosm, the unreal space of the voyage-quest, as opposed to the absolute black or white of the void, or the grey of the protagonist’s present purgatory. A sentence in the ‘time past’ paradigm notes: ‘Never but imagined the blue in a wild imagining the blue celeste of, poesy’ (12/2, 21/2). The blue also appears in the ‘time future’ paradigm. Recalling our earlier references to the symbolism of the rain and the irony of ‘blessed,’ there can be no doubt as to the negative evaluation accorded to all that is associated with blue: ‘On him will rain again as in the blessed days of blue the passing cloud’ (4/4, 15/3).


To begin the quest anew—if only the retelling of the protagonist’s story, the spawning of another ‘pseudo-self’—necessitates an ‘unlocking’ of the body, a resumption of its former spatial extension. Such a renewal is, as one might expect, co-extensive with a return to movement, space traversed in time: ‘He will live again the space of a step . . .’ (7/7, 17/12). And the protagonist’s movement, as we have already noted, will be a painful process as increasing entropy causes the voyager to abandon the upright position proper to man and adopt a mode of locomotion that, though less efficient, brings him closer to the ground and thus closer to the stasis he seeks. Such was Molloy’s mode of travel near the end of his journey. And such is the fate, with some minor variations, of the other wanderers of the trilogy, for whom the spatiotemporal journey of life is a via dolorosa, leading toward the hoped-for but never attainable transcendence that lies in the void. And when the voyage in the macrocosm is terminated, there remains another journey to be taken, an endless wandering through the space of language in search of the words that will finally terminate the quest.


One cannot examine the temporal and spatial circumstances of the pro-agonist of Lessness without exploring the particular stylistic problems posed by the writing of the text and, notably, its most salient characteristic—the unusually high frequency of nominal constructions. As opposed to the temporal and personal modalities of the verbal phrase verbal phrases are present only in the ‘time past’ and ‘time future’ paradigms—the nominal phrase is atemporal and impersonal. One of the functions of nominalization in Lessness is to present the brute facts of the protagonist’s situation without any intrusion of subjectivity in the form of an analysis of judgement, and to present those facts as phenomena, as something forever becoming without indication of beginning or end. Thus, to take only one example, in the description of the protagonist’s body, ‘little body little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun’ (8/2, 24/3), we have a past participle ‘overrun’ which no longer functions as a verb but as an adjective describing a state of events whose cause, effect, and duration are not indicated. Hence we have the protagonist not as the shaper of events but as the theatre, the medium through which they pass, as subject to the inexorable laws of the Beckettian quest that have brought him to where he is.12 At the same time, where he is—purgatory—is where he must stay. Beckett’s nominal phrases in their atemporal aspect convey the ‘changelessness’ (2/5, 16/5) of the protagonist’s situation, the impasse of endlessly waiting for an end to time.


Yet, as we have already noted, verbal phrases do occur in the text: the verb to be in the ‘time past’ paradigm (in which the expression ‘never was’ appears three times) and future tenses of several verbs in the ‘time future’ paradigm for example, ‘he will curse God again’ (3/1, 23/4), ‘he will live again the space of a step’ (7/7, 17/2), ‘he will go on his back again’ (11/1, 17/5). These verbal phrases reinstate the temporality of the protagonist by situating his present dilemma with respect to his past and future circumstances. However, as the repetition of ‘again’ emphasizes, his future holds nothing more than a reiteration of his past. He will perforce return to his present impasse. With respect to the apparent ineluctability of that trajectory, we can note that the auxiliary ‘will’ can function not only as a means of forming the future tense but can also convey the sense of command or prophecy.


Nominalization also has a combinatory function in Lessness. The sentences of the text are readily divisible into segments - minimal units of meaning - given the reduction in grammatical well-formedness and syntagmatic hierarchization inherent to nominalization.13 This segmentation is further facilitated, as J.M. Coetzee has noted in a study based upon a computer analysis of Lessness, by the limited vocabulary of the text. As Coetzee has demonstrated, there are only 106 segments in the work, varying in length from 1 to 12 words and occurring an average of 5.7 times each. With few exceptions—those sentences containing unique segments—there can be found for any sentence in the text, according to Coetzee, no more than three, and usually two, sentences that contain all its segments.14 Coetzee’s rule of segment distribution needs to be qualified, however, for it holds true only for sentences within the same paradigm, although segments from one paradigm can be found in other paradigms.


Using the ‘ruins’ paradigm as our example (it contains no unique segments), we can readily see how the rule operates. Taking sentence number 1 below for purposes of illustration, using slash marks to indicate its division into segments, we can locate 4 of its segments in sentence 2 (‘Blacked out,’ ‘fallen open,’ ‘true refuge,’ ‘issueless’) and the remaining 2 segments in sentence 3 (‘four walls,’ ‘over backwards’):


            1. Blacked out/fallen open/four walls/fallen backwards/true

                refuge/issueless. (1/4, 13/3)

            2. Blacked out/fallen open/true refuge/issueless/towards which/

                so many/false time/out of mind. (10/1, 20/1)

            3. Four square/true refuge/long last/four walls/over backwards/

                no sound. (4/5, 16/4)


There are 22 distinct segments in the ‘ruins’ paradigm (its sentences containing an average - approximated to the nearest whole number of 6 segments each). Ideally—assuming that any segment can be linked to any other—one could form 74,613 sentences according to the rules governing combinations: C = N! N! where N represents the 22 segments, r the average of 6 segments per sentence, and ! is the sign that a number is to be multiplied factorially (22x21x20 . . . ). In order to determine the total number of possible sentences in the work as a whole, one would have to add together the combinations possible in each of the paradigms and then add to that figure the millions of possible orderings of the 60 sentences C=60!—that make up the first half of the text and which must be repeated randomly in the second half.


Although we may never know all the combinatory possibilities inherent in the text of Lessness, even with the aid of computers, it should be evident on the basis of my limited examination of the text as combinatory machine that the work is capable of generating an endless (to all intents and purposes) number of variants of itself, each variant with its rearranged patterns offering the reader a different elaboration of the protagonist’s purgatorial situation. The sum of these variants, intratextual reorderings, constitutes the frontiers of the verbal landscape in which the protagonist is held captive. Beckett’s random rearrangement of the sentences of the first half of the text offers us a glimpse of that vast realm. ‘A single repetition is sufficient to suggest,’ J.E. Dearlove has noted, ‘that all of the millions of possible reorderings are equally authoritative.’15


The pensum that the protagonists of the Trilogy had sought to discharge, their (anticipated) endless sifting of words in search of a language of self, has been transformed in Lessness into an elegantly formalized bricolage (in Lévi-Strauss’s sense of the term), into a dynamic interplay between choice and chance,16 form and chaos, something and nothing. Beckett has enmeshed his protagonist in a language as impossible to purge as his spatio-temporal situation. It is this language with its endless possibilities of textualization—less is more that in Lessness usurps the activity of telling, as opposed to the trilogy in which the protagonist attempts to tell himself. Each re-inscription of the quest, whether assumed by the teller or the telling (Joyce’s ‘taling’ would be appropriate here) creates, in the words of Ludovic Janvier, a ‘textual temple cut out of and . . . enclosed in the vast ever-open space of world language in which the story subject suffers, once again.’17


1 Some parts of this article were presented in a paper I delivered to a special session on time and space in Beckett’s fiction at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, December 1976.

2 Samuel Beckett, Lessness, English translation by the author, London, Calder and Boyars, 1970, 9. All quotations will refer to this edition and, consonant with the architecture of the work, will henceforth be indicated by paragraph and line numbers within parentheses following the citation. The first set of numbers indicates the initial appearance of the material quoted, the second set its repetition in the second half of the work. Quotations from the original French text are from Têtes-mortes, éd. augmentée, Paris, Minuit, 1972, and will be indicated by page numbers within parentheses in the body of the article. Only the first appearance of the quoted material is given. References to the trilogy, also indicated by page numbers within parentheses, are to the Evergreen Black Cat edition, New York, Grove Press, 1965.

3 Back to Beckett, Princeton, Princeton UP, 1973, 267-268.

4 Finnegans wake, New York, Viking Press, 1958, 55.

5 transition, 16-17, June 1929, 250.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 253.

8 For a more thorough examination of the purgatorial situation in the Trilogy, see my The life after birth: imagery in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy, University of Mississippi, Romance Monographs, 1975.

9 “‘Sans”: Cantate et fugue pour un refuge,’ Les lettres nouvelles, Sept.-Oct. 1970: 150-151.

10 Samuel Beckett, New York, Grove Press, 1964, 16.

11 Proust, New York, Grove Press, 1957, 30.

12 See Julia Kristeva, Semiotike: Recherches pour une sémanalyse, Paris, Seuil, 1969, 326.

13 See Geoffrey Leech, Semantics, Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1974, 181-201.

14 ‘Samuel Beckett’s Lessness: an exercise in decomposition,’ Computers and the humanities, 7, March 1973, 195-198.

15 ‘ “Last Images”: Samuel Beckett’s Residual Fiction,’ Journal of modern literature, Samuel Beckett number, ed. Enoch Brater, 6, Feb. 1977, 118.

16 See Susan Brienza and Enoch Brater, ‘Choice and chance in Samuel Beckett’s Lessness,’ Journal of English literary history, 43, Summer 1976, 250-254.

17 ‘Place of Narration/Narration of Place,’ trans. Ruby Cohn, in Samuel Beckett: a collection of criticism, ed. Ruby Cohn, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1975, 110.