That again: a motif approach to the Beckett canon

 

Thomas J. Taylor

 

When, in Samuel Beckett’s Ghost trio, a young boy appears in the corridor, only to shake his head and walk away into the darkness, a thought immediately strikes us: we have seen this child before. He brought a message from Godot; so did his brother. He led a white horse, a ‘Schimmel,’ in the far distance of From an abandoned work. He caught up with Mr Rooney in All that fall, to return an object that had fallen under the train seat. Clov sees him out of the window in Endgame. This youthful figure, so often contrasted with the ageing protagonist (the word is not too harsh), means something, or many things, to Beckett, and like an echo in the eyes he appears again and again.

 

On further viewing of Ghost trio, we begin to note other familiar elements: the almost empty room, its single window, its door, its closet, its pallet, furnished like Joe’s room in Eh Joe, ideally sparse, free of embellishments, as is the parlour in First love when the narrator gets done with it. The faint music, coming and going like a dimly remembered voice, we heard in Cascando. The boy’s head shaking reminds us of other enigmatic semiotic gestures—the deasil, Nackybal’s ‘characteristic gesture’ in Watt, the mother’s gesture in From an abandoned work, ‘still in the window waving, waving me back or on I don’t know, or just waving, in sad helpless love . . . ‘ The lighting directions for Ghost trio—‘Faint, omnipresent. No visible source.’—could be applied to The Lost Ones—‘Its dimness . . . its omnipresence’—or the view from Hamm’s window—‘light black.’ It seems that the voice’s description (‘The colour grey if you wish, shades of the colour grey’) fits virtually every Beckettian decor and landscape. Even the cassette in the hands of the aging character, strangely mechanical, strangely technological, strangely modern, evokes comparisons with Krapp’s tape recorder, Molloy’s bicycle, and the complicated arrangement by which Murphy warms himself and inadvertently kills himself. And finally, the ageing figure itself is so much like Joe, like Krapp, like Malone dying, like so many other Beckett characters in so many other rooms.

 

And we have seen that figure in motion as well, on a goalless journey. Often it is a journey remembered; often it is an expulsion from home; often the traveller turns back, then back again, then ‘back again again’; often his path is determined by an arbitrary avoidance of obstacles walls, poultry, ditches—or the journey is halted altogether by a sudden or gradual stiffening of joints, attrition of senses, stumbling, falling, lying prone or supine, looking at the sky or at the mud; he often sleeps, or thinks he sleeps, and the time passes mercifully unobserved. Always he goes on, despite his inability to do so, despite the pointlessness of doing so, despite his unutterable desire to hold still.

 

The frequent recurrence of recognizable elements through Beckett’s canon leads the reader to hypothesize that all the characters are the same character, living over and over the same anguishing experiences, in essentially the same room and the same barren landscape, impeded by the same obstructions to forward progress, hearing the same sounds and almost seeing (and almost making sense of) the same external phenomena. The narrator in All strange away, Beckett’s most recently published work (but written in 1963/64), recognizes his surroundings as we all do:

 

            A place, that again. Never another question. A place, then some-

            one 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 . . . Now he is here.

            Sitting, standing, walking, kneeling, crawling, lying, creeping, in

            the dark and in the light, try all.1

 

Recurring elements form a bridge between one desolation and the inevitable next. By approaching these recurring elements for comparison, development, and contrast, the Beckett scholar is examining a distillation process that has reduced Beckett’s expression to its present pure, powerful and undiluted form. Discarding, abandoning, retrieving, sorting out, ‘trying all,’ Beckett has found his essential metaphors.

 

It is a fairly simple matter to note all occurrences of young boys, of minimally furnished rooms, of sourceless light, of hardware. But what of Beckett’s more ephemeral, perplexing, and complicated habits, embedded not in one word but in phrases, in sentences, in whole passages, in subtle linguistic variations, in obscure references, in large patterns discernible only by an examination of the whole work? Setting aside its immediately recognizable elements, Ghost trio’s themes are recognizable as well: a man alone in a room remembering, listening to some faint sounds, perhaps his own, waiting for relief in some form, intensely watching for something out the window, out the door, in his own reflection, seeking (by inverting Berkeley’s principle) to cease being, all without solace, without relief, continuing (as life does) the debilitating struggle between an acknowledged hopelessness because abandoned, and an unexplainable hope because still alive. If we are ordering Beckett’s images and habits of mind into neat packages, we must find room for that room—an easy enough task—but we must also find room for that whole statement, repeated, revolved, revisited throughout the canon.

 

At the Chicago MLA Convention, December, 1977, a group of Beckett scholars formed an editorial board for an Index of Beckettian Motifs. (The first fruits of their labours, a compilation of recurring elements in From an abandoned work, appears in this same issue.) The word ‘motif’ has been the centre of much debate among the board members. We agree that there is such a thing as a ‘folk-motif’ and that Stith -Thompson’s indexing of recurring features in the world’s folk tales helps scholars and students understand more thoroughly the interlocking debts and borrowings among otherwise diverse cultures.2 And we agree that applying the term ‘motif’ to recurring elements in James Joyce’s Ulysses does not successfully describe Joyce’s method of echoing his proliferated images into exhaustion.3 But can we speak of Dickensian motifs? of Proustian motifs? of Melvillean motifs? And if we do, what are we saying about the works by listing those recurring elements? Surely Dickens is more intrigued than Beckett by the communicative possibilities of young male characters. Could we say something important by listing every occasion on which a young man appears in the Dickens canon, a ‘motif’ we discern in Beckett? And what then of hats, gloves, scarves, greatcoats, carriages, trains, grandmothers, forests, seasides, butter, toast, gallows, garrets, gravestones, and all the other trappings of realistic verisimilitude? Are we making an assumption about Beckett’s work that allows us to treat it as folklore is treated - expression of a finite number of ideas in a finite number of ways? We run the risk of reducing Beckett’s accomplishments, his anguished insights, by presuming to list all of what he has to say. And yet, who will deny that Beckett paints with a more limited palette than Dickens, Proust or Melville, when he describes his characters’ world? Beckett’s early work bristles with realistic detail; we would hardly say that More pricks than kicks, Murphy, and Watt depict landscapes in ‘shades of grey.’

 

There is, in fact, an assumption underlying our attempt at an index of motifs. The board maintains that Beckett, as he continues his monumental struggle to ‘eff  - the ineffable,’ is distilling his images into essential ‘motifs,’ gradually eliminating the clutter of three-dimensional reality, finding more and more effective certain insistent images, images that refuse to be turned away: the near-empty room, the slight sound of ‘the body on its way,’ the voices ‘like leaves,’ the mouth in Not I (a work which many consider to be the most nearly perfect condensation of Beckett’s essential expression so far). And it is from this distillation process that the index gets its raison d’être.

 

The first step in following through the canon the process of gradual reduction, not of ideas but of ways to express those ideas, into a relatively small group of precise correlatives, is to list as comprehensively as possible every image Beckett tries and discards, or tries and retains, or tries and alters to refine. Godot’s messenger answers questions; Mr. Rooney’s boy talks noticeably less; the lad in the corridor in Ghost trio has reduced his expression to two semiotic gestures: a head movement and a smile. In First love the main character moves all the unnecessary furniture out of his room (a perhaps conscious metaphor for Beckett’s own reduction of real objects in his work); in Ghost trio the bed in Eh Joe has become a pallet on the floor. Unnecessary furniture is removed from the central character’s paysage psychique, taking away the hiding places, leaving him only his ‘foul old wrapper’ (compare All strange away: ‘take off his coat, no, naked, all right, leave it for the moment’) and his ability to squeeze out the faint voice (perhaps his own), as protection from the perceiving eye of the camera and the reader.

 

Once the editorial board has listed as comprehensively as possible the recurring motifs in the canon, the Index will allow the reader to look up a specific reference, identified by a short descriptive phrase (‘odd walk,’ ‘inability to go on,’ etc.) and a representative quotation (‘I’d set off. What a gait. Stiffness of the lower limbs . . . ,’ ‘With the result he must often, namely at every turn, strike against the walls that hem his path,’ etc.); he will find there page and line references (Grove Press edition) to every other occurrence of that motif in the Beckett canon. Thus, as he prepares his instruction or researches his scholarship, the teacher and scholar seeking several examples of Beckett’s careful use of hand gestures, or several occasions on which a Beckettian figure turns back from his journey, or several typically Beckettian punctuation omissions, may find ready at hand a thorough list of those specific habits of mind. Providing that its editors have solved all the problems of any taxonomical project—categorizing, classifying, citing entries—the Index will serve its users well whenever the nature of the inquiry requires citations of recurring phenomena. Perhaps most importantly, the reader can hear the echoes that refuse to be reduced, the ‘sound of the body on its way,’ which, like the author’s own creative voice, cannot be silent.

 

Beckettian motifs in ‘From an abandoned work’

 

The following list of Beckettian motifs, from the Grove Press edition of ‘From An Abandoned Work’ (in First love and other shorts, 1974), has been compiled by the editorial board of The index of Beckettian motifs, an ongoing project for the indexing of recurring elements in the Beckett canon. We have selected those motifs which we consider to be distinctly Beckettian, and several assumptions are made in doing so. The motifs are clustered around general headings, such as perception, language, motion, etc., but will not be indexed more formally until several other short works have been annotated. The list is designed to build on; as other works are examined and other entries added, the list will expand and eventually divide into headings, subheadings, etc., according to accepted taxonomical procedures. We are concerned with Beckettian habits of mind, recurring features that identify the thematic and stylistic directions the work takes, and that clarify or exemplify the world view of Beckett’s characters. No attempt has been made here to list every occurrence of every feature—that work belongs to a computerized concordance—nor do we concern ourselves with lists of proper names, medical references, anatomical references, or other such specialized compilations. We invite comment from readers, especially in the following categories.

 

            a)         additional entries to already named categories;

            b)         additional categories the reader considers distinctly

Beckettian;

            c)         comments on the validity of the term and the notion of

‘Beckettian motif’;

            d)         comments on the usefulness of the eventual projected

index, as described above, in the preceding article, and in

the Index notice published in the Summer, 1978 issue of

JOBS (132):

            e)         interest in joining the project as editor or contributor.

 

 

1. ESSE EST PERCIPI (‘TO BE IS TO BE PERCEIVED’)

   49.26: ‘. . . fall and vanish from view, you could lie there for weeks

              and no one hear you, I often thought of that up in the

              mountains . . .’

 

2. UNRELIABILITY OF PERCEPTIONS

   39.17: ‘at a distance often they seemed still, then a moment later

              they were upon me.’

   & 39.09, 40.5, 40.17, 41.1

 

3.   DREAMING

      45.25: ‘Where did I get it, from a dream, or a book . . .’

                & 42.26, 46.24

 

4.   FIGURES BLURRED BY DISTANCE OR PROXIMITY

      41.8: ‘It crossed my path a long way off, then vanished, behind

               greenery I suppose, all I noticed was the sudden ap-

               pearance of the horse, then disappearance.’

      & 40.11, 40.29

 

5.  SCRUTINY OF PHYSICAL OBJECTS

      39.8: ‘So back with bowed head on the look out for a snail, slug

               or worm.’

      & 39.18

 

6.   PERCEPTION OF WHITENESS

      41.14: ‘White I must say has always affected me strongly, all white

                 things, sheets, walls and so on, even flowers, and then just

                 white, the thought of white, without more.’

      & 40.8, 40.13, 40.29, 41.2, 41.12, 42.28, 43.8, 46.1, 46.15

 

7.   LOOKING AT SKY

      47.17: ‘. . . my eyes wide open straying over the sky.’

      & 39.18, 43.17

 

8.   FAINT SOUNDS

      40.6: ‘. . . I heard faintly her cries.’

 

9.   ATTRITION AND LOSS OF SENSES

      40.9: ‘. . . piercing sight I had then . . .’

      & 49.12

 

10. GOING ON, GETTING ON

       45.1: ‘. . . How shall I go on another day? and then, How did I

               ever go on another day?’

      & 39.8, 40.24, 41.17, 42.11, 43.8, 44.8, 45.13, 45.18, 46.3, 47.3,

      47.20, 47.27, 48.12, 48.26, 49.28

 

11. GOALLESS JOURNEY

      39.25: ‘. . . I have never in my life been on my way anywhere, but

                simply on my way.’

      & 43.18

 

12. EXPULSION FROM HOME

      43.18: ‘. . . in the morning out from home . . .’

      & 39.2

 

13. INABILITY TO STOP AND START: INERTIA

      47.7: ‘. . . then stand in the middle of the room unable to move...’

      & 39.23, 40.22, 43.9, 48.13

 

14. PREFERENCE FOR STILLNESS

      39.10: ‘Great love in my heart too for all things still and rooted . . .’

 

 15. BODIES IN CLOSED PLACES

      49.20: ‘. . . I just sink down again and disappear in the ferns, up to

                 my waist they were . . .’

 

16. ODD WALKS

      42.5: ‘Perhaps I should mention here I was a very slow walker, I

               didn’t dally or loiter in any way, just walked very slowly, little

               short steps and the feet very slow through the air.’

 

17. ARTIFICIAL LIMBS: CANES, CRUTCHES, ETC.

      47.1: ‘My stick of course, by a merciful providence, I shall not say

               this again, when not mentioned my stick is in my hand, as I

               go along.’

      & 49.18

 

18. FALLING, STUMBLING, TRIPPING

      47.11: ‘. . . I just sank to my knees to the ground and then forward

                on my face, a most extraordinary thing . . .

      & 39.15, 39.23, 45.13, 47.19, 49.25

 

19. CHANGE OF DIRECTION

      44.8: ‘. . . the slow turn, wheeling more and more to the one or

              other hand, till facing home . . .’

      & 39.8, 39.25, 39.29, 40.20, 43.17

 

20. POSTURES AND POSITIONS

      39.2: ‘. . . mother hanging out of the window . . .’

      & 39.8, 47.11, 49.26

 

21. POSITIVE ATTITUDE TOWARD NEGATIVE EVENTS

      42.17: ‘Fortunately my father died when I was a boy . . .’

      & 44.11, 45.15

 

22. NEGATIVE ATTITUDE TOWARD NORMAL EVENTS

      39.1: ‘. . . I was young then, feeling awful . . .’

 

23. SOLACE IN ATTRITION

      48.5: ‘. . . All past and gone . . . so that I gather up my things and

               go back into my hole, so bygone they can be told.’

      & 49.4

 

24. PAIN AS PROOF OF EXISTENCE

      42.3: ‘There was a time I tried to get relief by beating my head

               against something . . .

 

25. BLEEDING, SIGNS OF INJURY, ETC.

      39.17: ‘. . . I have gone through great thickets, bleeding, and deep

                 into bogs . . .’

      & 46.15

 

26. LIVING A BOTHER

      46.8: ‘So on to this second day and get it over and out of the way

                . . .’  

      & 43.6, 46.12, 4729

 

27. AGEING, BEING OLD

      43.12: ‘Now I am old and weak . . .’

      & 44.22, 48.2

 

28. LONGING FOR REST

      48.26: ‘But let us get on and leave these old scenes and come to

                 these, and my reward.’

      & 39.9, 40.1, 40.3, 40.13, 42.21, 43.6, 45.10, 48.9, 49.15

 

29. DEATH

      40.1: ‘And that is perhaps how I shall die at last if they don’t

               catch me, I mean drowned, or in fire, yes, perhaps that is

               how I shall do it at last, walking furious headlong into fire

               and dying burnt to bits.’

      & 43.10, 44.21, 45.2, 45.20, 46.15, 48.1, 49.1

 

30. SUDDEN MOOD CHANGES

      41.19: ‘. . . suddenly I flew into a most savage rage . . .’

 

31. SANITY QUESTIONED

      39.12: ‘. . . not for the world when in my right senses would I ever

                 touch one . . .’

      & 44.18, 44.27

 

32. DUALITIES

      44.29: ‘In twos often they came, one hard on the other . . .’

      & 48.3

 

33. THINKING AN EFFORT

      42.19: ‘A very fair scholar I was too, no thought, but a great

                 memory.’

      & 41.29

 

34. CAUSE AND EFFECT RELATIONSHIPS REDUCED OR FUTILE

      41.29: ‘. . . there’s no accounting for it, there’s no accounting for

                 anything . . .’

      & 41.7

 

35. POOR MEMORY

      47.17: ‘Now was this my first experience of this kind . . .’

 

36. REFLECTIONS ON GUILTY PAST

      44.21: ‘My father, did I kill him too as well as my mother . . .’

      & 43.13

 

37. DISTASTE FOR PROLIFERATION

      39.10: ‘. . . bushes, boulders and the like, too numerous to

                mention . . .’

 

38. DITCHES, FURROWS, HOLES, BOGS, MUD

      48.21: ‘. . . the ragged old brute bent double down in the ditch . . .’

      & 39.28, 49.24

 

39. SLUGS, SNAILS, WORMS, ETC.

      39.15: ‘. . . a slug now, getting under my feet, no, no mercy.’

      & 39.8, 45.23

 

40. SEAS, BEACHES, STRANDS, ETC.

      39.28: ‘. . . water too, even the sea in some moods . . .’

 

41. WEATHER

      39.4: ‘The sky would soon darken and rain fall and go on falling

               . . .’

 

42. ETERNAL, PRESENT TIME

      47.25: ‘So in some way even olden things each time are first

                 things, no two breaths the same, all a going over and

                 over and all once and never more.’

 

43. IMPERFECT COMMUNICATION, INABILITY TO EXPRESS

      43.27: ‘My mother was the same, never talked, never answered

                 . . .’

      & 40.15, .41.22, 41.25, 42.27, 43.24, 43.26

 

44. SELF-CONSCIOUS NARRATOR

      46.2: ‘. . . please read again my descriptions of these . . .’

      & 40.24, 41.17, 42.2, 43.8, 44.22, 45.10, 46.18, 47.2, 47.27, 48.26,

      49.25

 

45. DISEMBODIED VOICE

      49.7: ‘. . . the voice that once was in your mouth.’

      & 43.13, 43.20

 

46. FAILURE OF SEMIOTIC GESTURE

      40.5: ‘. . . my mother still in the window waving, waving me back

              or on I don’t know, or just waving, in sad helpless love. . .’

 

47. REVERSAL OF READER EXPECTATION

      39.3: ‘Nice fresh morning, bright too early as go often. Feeling

               really awful, very violent.’

      & 39.2, 42.17, 44.10, 45.15

 

48. ARBITRARY SELECTION OF EVENTS

      40.25: ‘. . . the day I have hit on to begin with, any other would

                have done as well . . .’

      & 46.25, 47.22

 

49. VAGUE ANTECEDENT

      40.1: ‘And that is perhaps how I shall die at last if they don’t

               catch me . . .’

      & 39.13, 43.15

 

50. GRAMMATICAL ELISIONS

      40.27: ‘Well then for a time all well, no trouble, no birds at me. . .’

      & 39.6, 39.9, 41.17, 42.23, 43.15, 43.24, 44.7, 45.3, 46.23, 49.22

 

51. ODD NEGATIONS

      49.27: ‘. . . I often thought of that up in the mountains, no, that is a

                 foolish thing to say . . .’

      & 41.25, 44.25, 46.6, 49.17, 49.20

 

52. ODD VOCABULARY

      42.15: ‘. . . vent the pent, that was one of those things I used to

                say...’

      & 43.4, 43.23, 46.11, 47.25

 

53. RHYMING, ALLITERATION, ASSONANCE

      45.25: ‘. . . or a book read in a nook when a boy . . .’

      & 42.15, 39.11

 

54. OTHER LANGUAGES

      41.2: ‘. . . the only completely white horse I remember, what I

               believe the Germans call a Schimmel . . .’

      & 48.13

 

The following scholars contributed directly to this compilation:

                        Susan D. Brienza

                        James Cahalan

                        J.E. Dearlove

                        Martine de Clercq

                        Martha Fehsenfeld

                        Dougald McMillan

                        Philip H. Solomon

                        Thomas J. Taylor

Notes

1 Samuel Beckett, ‘All Strange Away,’ in Journal of Beckett Studies, no.3, Summer, 1978, 1.

2 Stith-Thompson, Motif-index of folk literature, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1955-58.

3 See William M. Schutte, ‘An index of recurrent elements in Ulysses,’ James Joyce quarterly, Fall, 1975 and subsequent issues.