Imagination dead imagine: the imagination and its context


James Hansford


First of all, it must be noted that the two terms ‘outside’ and ‘inside’

            pose problems of metaphysical anthropology that are not symmetrical.

            To make inside concrete and outside vast is the first task, the first

            problem it would seem, of an anthropology of the imagination. But

            between concrete and vast, the opposition is not a true one. At the

            slightest touch, asymmetry appears.


            G. Bachelard, The poetics of space.


            2.0131 .......(A spatial point is an argument-place).....


            L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus


At the beginning of Part III of How it is, the narrator makes one of his repeated attempts to describe ‘my life last state’1 and does so, as so often before, in three parts:


            ....these last tracts they are the last extremely little hardly at all a few

            seconds on and off enough to mark a life several lives crosses

            everywhere indelible traces


            all that almost blank nothing to get out of it almost nothing nothing to

            put in that’s the saddest that would be the saddest imagination on

            the decline having attained the bottom what one calls sinking one is



            or ascending heaven at last no place like it in the end


            or not stirring that too that’s defendable half in the mud half out



It is characteristic of Beckett’s work that there are ‘three possibilities’2 to the solution of an epistemological and ontological problem and that these possibilities are not separate. What appears to be a synthesis resolving a dialectical problem only adds to it, creating a trilateral series of propositions which undermines the clarity of the two initial terms, Here, for example, ‘having attained the bottom’ is ‘what one calls sinking’ and ‘at last’ there is ‘no place like [heaven] in the end’. Accordingly the narrator, having reached neither and ‘not stirring,’ is caught in between, ‘half in the mud half out,’ divided by the line which traces the separation of mud from ‘ambient air,’3 as unable to assert the division as he is to locate the limits of the world within which such a division has reference and meaning.


As the narrator is situated ‘half in the mud half out,’ so consciousness is split between knowledge and imagination, the latter ‘on the decline’. The contrast between what is available to knowledge and what is made present to the imagination is characterized on the one hand by what there is to ‘get out’ and on the other by what there is ‘to put in,’ what ‘these last tracts’ can yield and what they can be made to contain, what memory and perception can perhaps find there and what imagination can place there. Recovery from the past and discovery in the present are set against uncovering in the future. Whilst there is ‘nothing . . . almost nothing . . . to get out of it’ there is ‘nothing to put in’ and ‘that’s the saddest that would be the saddest’ (italics mine). That the projection of imagined realities should be referred to here as an ‘uncovering’ underlines the complexity of the imaginative project which, in an analysis of Imagination dead imagine, this discussion attempts to examine.


For the narrator of How it is, the status of images is uncertain. Consider, for example, that of the woman who ‘sits aloof’ (11) at the beginning of Part 1; as an image of ‘life. . . above . . . said to have been mine’ (8), of life prior to partition, it has the characteristics of memory, of recovery, without the certainty of priority; as an image of ‘life . . . in the light’ (8), it has the mysterious genesis of a dream but the narrator lacks the certain knowledge that it has been created anonymously. He therefore discounts both memory and dream: ‘it was an image the kind I see in the mud part one sometimes saw’ (11). The narrator’s mental reminder that while remaining within Part III he is describing ‘part one’ and that the image belongs to both parts, typifies the confusion between mental co-ordinates in the novel. It awakens us to the inauthenticity of partition and prompts us to ask whether ‘part one’ is remembered or imagined in its ‘present formulation’ (141). Even so, just as ‘my beginnings’ (13) are entertained in Part I, so ‘last images’4 (last or latest?) are presented in Part III so as to accord priority and authority to the distribution of sacks, roles, tenses (‘the whole story’ [158]) in order to avoid the conclusion that all is present and perpetual discontinuity. ‘Having attained the bottom’ the image is of:


            the voice quaqua on all sides then within in the little vault empty

            closed eight planes bone-white if there were a light a tiny flame all

            would be white ten words fifteen words like a fume of sighs when the

            panting stops then the storm the breath token of life part three and

            last it must be nearly ended (140)


This image is the vehicle for an attempted depiction of a place and a mode of being within which and from which the ‘tale is told’ (140), from which it may be said ‘how it is’:


            clench the eyes I quote on not the blue the others at the back see

            something somewhere after Pim that’s all is left breath in a head

            nothing left but a head nothing in it almost nothing only breath pant

            pant hundred to the minute hold it be it held ten seconds fifteen

            seconds hear something try and hear a few words after Pim how it

            is quick (113)


The narrator/ narrated5 (the eye/I) of the novel proposes this image of his own inside, of ‘what little remains’ (117), wishing at the same time to remain outside, to become both part of and apart from the image. ‘Clench the eyes try and see a third’ (116) he says to himself. But there is ‘no alternative’ (111) to the confused discontinuity within which and against which he is placed; indeed it is not a position which allows for alternatives. Split between tormentor and victim, the ‘journey’ and the ‘abandon,’ the ‘last images are projected into ‘the mud the dark’ (114) in an attempt to assert continuity. The vault ‘bone-white if there were a light’ (146) into which the voice moves from the without is a place in which ‘imagination [is] spent’ (111) but which the declining imagination has constructed. ‘Closed in, as it were, on the outside,’6 it is an imaginative construction ‘put in’ to the flux of forms and tenses; from it consciousness wishes to absent itself: ‘to the sole end that there may be white on white trace of so many and so many words . . .’ (147). The image of ‘white on white’ is only imaginable as a ‘trace,’ in the shadow which places figure upon ground and thus disrupts continuity. The ‘so many words’ are ‘a fume of sighs’ traced in the panting which they replace. As Derrida reminds us ‘[the] inscription [of the trace] . . . succeeds only in being effaced’.7 In the act of being inscribed, these traces invite complicity from a consciousness which finds itself replaced on the inside, no longer the ‘ear in these conditions the gift of understanding . . . the means of noting’ (147).


The world of How it is, reduced to a voice speaking in an eternal present, is traced by discontinuous images created and effaced by respiration. Through ‘images,’ the narrator attempts to create a continuity from which consciousness can become displaced, and at the same time to create a place within which he can discover himself without relinquishing a position outside himself from which point he provides the context of the imaginative enquiry. But there is an important distinction between the discrete images that are yielded by imperfect memory and perception and those ‘last images’ which are provided in the search for an order of the imagination. External reality in How it is, the ‘life up above said to have been mine,’ ‘all this business . . . of other worlds . . . of sacks . . . of a procession’ (p158, 159) is unreachable because it is imaginary; and being imaginary it is not imaginable. Unable to place himself within the context of such a world by invoking, simultaneously, a ‘not one of us (151)—who, being displaced on the outside, provides the context that makes that world imaginable—it fragments into velleities.


When the imagination is ‘spent,’ there is ‘nothing to get out of the by now imaginary world; but the narrator is at once unable to get out of it and unable to find himself placed within it.8 In constructing an image of his own inside by making imaginable the displaced centre of an imaginary world, he is attempting to be outside discovering his own inside rather than inside creating the outside. Having acknowledged that ‘the whole story from beginning to end yes completely false yes’ (158), and thereby admitted that it has been not so much discovered as created from the threads of memory and perception, the narrator attempts to discover a world at the centre of deceased creativity, as though (as he had hoped was true of the world outside) it was already there available to perception and consequently to memory. The paradox of this enterprise lies in the will to discover; for discovery is seen to be a creative activity. This is also the case in Imagination dead imagine where the discovery of the created image, the attempted uncovering of the imagined object, becomes the partial recovery of all that the image was designed to displace.


Imagination dead imagine dramatizes the manner in which this will to discover becomes the impulse to create and shows how narrative consciousness ‘half in’ and ‘half out’ of the imagined world—astride the trace of a boundary which both separates and joins the inside and the outside—cannot occupy both positions simultaneously. The narrator is unable to prevent the effacement of the trace and cannot consider either activity separately. It is in Imagination dead imagine that the distinction between what ‘these last tracts’ can yield and what they can be made to contain is examined further.


The imagination that is ‘dead, good’9 is linked to memory and perception, the world of ‘Islands, waters, azure, verdure,’ the discrete world of external reality, of troublesome velleities that question the relationship between nature and consciousness. To exclude the world present to the eye it is necessary (as How it is puts it) to ‘clench the eyes . . . not the blue the others at the back’ and to turn to what the mind’s eye uncovers. The ‘one glimpse’ is that which is achieved in the blink of the eye, the moment becoming past as soon as the movement is registered. This is why the world does not vanish, it has ‘vanished,’ never being fully present because already past, and vanished ‘endlessly’ without the perspective of succeeding moments to ensure both the presence of the moment of vision and its moment of absence.10


Having negated both life and imagination as the life of the imagination (‘imagination dead’) and having rehearsed the procedure to be followed, ‘the omission of the whole process negates that negation by excluding altogether the movement of erasure: ‘one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit’ (italics mine). However, the life of the imagination cannot be dead; it can only be killed by an act of the imagination. Similarly, the attempted transcendence of such a death through its omission is equally inauthentic; it perpetuates a process which cannot omit itself but must always, as negating function, stand ‘outside of its relation to the positive . . . in that it is what the positive is supposed to be’.11 The narrator of the thirteenth of the Texts for nothing asks


            Is it possible, is that the possible thing at last, the extinction of this

            black nothing and its impossible shades . . . but it’s ended, we’re

            ended who never were, soon there will be nothing, where there was

            never anything, last images. (135)


While the double negation here is the work of omission, the interpolation of ‘last images’ is that of inclusion. But the space which is vacated is not truly vacant;12 remaindered by the work of omission, it constitutes a prior text and assumes a consequent reworking of material through inclusion, a project from which the writer can never finally absent himself. The imaginary world of memory and perception is at first discovered. The process of discovery deals with what consciousness can ‘get out’ of outside reality. But because the process of discovery is also an investigative one, consciousness imagines creatively what is present in perception and responds habitually to what is past in memory. Accordingly, what was there to ‘get out’ of the world is replaced by what is ‘put in’ to it and the subject is split between third and second persons, on the one hand unable to ‘put [himself] in’ as object—to include himself in a discovered world—and on the other unable to ‘get out’ of it, to omit himself from a created, an imaginary world for which he is responsible.


Omission attempts to heal this split, for it is at once an omission of the death of the imaginary world as though that world had never been13 and at the same time an omission of the creation of the imagined world as though it was already there. Whilst one omission involves the destruction of what is already absent, the other is the making imaginable of what is already present to thought and awaiting discovery.


The split between third and second person forms is very important in Imagination dead imagine, latent in the life of the imagination at the start of the text where life is seen as a series of discrete objects realized imaginatively by the subject. The distinction between ‘life’ and imagination’ is mirrored in the dialogue between the third person narrator and the second person: ‘No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet . . .’ The second person, however, to whom the narrator addresses himself, is at best reported as having spoken (‘No trace anywhere of life, you say’14) so that the report forms part of the third person narrator’s disquisition upon the relationship between ‘life’ and ‘imagination’ rather than the latter being a distinguishable response to the former. The frenetic exchange of utterances—reminding, stating and confirming (‘yes, dead, good’)- and the imperative form of ‘omit’ destroy both the clarity of a putative dialogue and the singularity of assertive statement.


The space between the second and third sentences (‘omit. Till’) which is opened up by the necessarily incomplete form of the imperative, also leaves incomplete the movement preceding ‘till,’ demonstrating how the end of one movement overlaps the beginning of another. The omission of both these movements (one towards darkness and the other towards light) means that there is no clear ‘space’ between subject and object ‘that intervenes,’15 that it inevitably belongs to the ‘feverish greys’ which, it is discovered, feature in the imagined world itself.


The discovered world, ‘the rotunda,’ is ‘all white in the whiteness’. Like the ‘white on white trace’ in How it is, it is only imaginable in the trace which places figure upon ground, but it is developed here as a content within an enveloping context, the adjective adding to the noun. The half-rhyme ‘till all,’ however, shows how tenuous is the linguistic perspective that is being forged. Furthermore, while the movement from ‘white’ to ‘whiteness’ places the rotunda within a context as the description moves from the inside towards the outside, emphasising the outline of the object, the ‘all’ that is ‘white’ cannot be ‘all’ if it is situated in surroundings which share its whiteness.


The imagined object that is created in Imagination dead imagine is like Worm’s dwelling place in The unnamable: ‘Quick, a place. With no way in, no way out, a safe place. Not like Eden. And Worm inside’. (65) This hermetic world is opened up because Worm ‘hears the sound that will never stop’ and consequently ‘no longer is’. Conceived as a being who is ‘feeling nothing, knowing nothing, capable of nothing, wanting nothing,’

‘the instant he hears the sound’ he is no longer a Being in himself but rather an existant, a vice-exister for whom and in respect of whom the relationship between subject and object, beginning and end, word and world is hopelessly confused:


            Then it’s the end . . . we know it, we don’t say it, we say it’s the

            awakening, the beginning of Worm, for now we must speak and

            speak of Worm . . . It’s no longer he, but let us proceed as if it were,

            he at last . . . (65)


Worm is no longer ‘still he,’ already there beyond notions of beginning and ending. In being ‘he’ no longer, he begins to be Other; but his beginning is not so much a commencement as an interruption and his end does not complete a movement because nothing can be said to have begun. ‘The sound . . . will never stop’ and is only said to begin because it interrupts Worm who hears it. The ‘instant’ at which he hears it is both beginning and end, the moment at which both notions come simultaneously into play, the beginning of that which will have no end and the end of that which never began. Before this moment, Worm was always ‘he’; after it he will ‘never stop’ being Other.


As the experience with Worm shows, the trace of the ‘instant’ which creates a temporal perspective is not therefore a clear line which separates into before and after but rather a momentary line which effaces itself in insinuating the context within which notions of beginning and end come into play. Spatial perspective is also marked by only a momentary line, a line which at once separates and brings together the inside and the outside of the ‘place’ with which Worm has been conceived as coterminous. To situate Being it is necessary to imagine and circumscribe the place of Being. But to imagine Worm, it is necessary to place him on the inside, within the context of the imagined space, and to this end consciousness moves inside. Consequently the place is no longer ‘safe’ and Being is violated. Worm now registers what is outside his hermetic world through the space inside, the space which has been opened up by effacing the trace of separation. And at this point Worm is seen to be not so much coterminous with the place of Being, but rather to exist in the context of the inside, a context in itself replaced by that of the outside from which enquiry began.


The play of inside and outside displaces Being in space as the play of beginning and ending displaces it in time. Simultaneity is seen to be illusory because any simultaneity assumes a consciousness capable of displacing itself in the observation of coincidence and remaining inviolate outside the processes of observation and enquiry. In its search for unity and uniformity, the subject can observe only partial coincidence.


The split within the subject, a part of the inside and apart on the outside, is very clear at this point in the text. Imagined from the outside, the rotunda is conceived as hermetic: there is ‘no way in’. Only its external form inside the total field is posited. But, as Wittgenstein remarks, ‘If I am to know an object . . . I must know its internal roperties’.16 This is why the sentence as a whole oscillates between third and second person forms, between assertion and command: ‘No way in, go in, measure’. This shows how the trace of separation between the rotunda and the surrounding area is no sooner marked than it is effaced. This being so, the observer opens up a space within the rotunda itself: the movement towards the inside displaces consciousness from a position in which the rotunda traces itself in the context of ‘the whiteness’ and replaces it, in effacing the trace, inside the rotunda’s own context, where ‘all’ is ‘white’.


Neither space is entirely vacated; that which is created in the interplay of third and second persons places each person in the context of the other. The attempt to place ‘white on white trace’ is at once to see discontinuity ‘ in the presence of the trace and at the same time to assert continuity in its effacement. While the third person narrator discovers the rotunda as an image of discontinuity circumscribed from without (but therefore imagined as a hermetic continuity), the second person observer reveals the rotunda’s continuity in being violated from without (but makes it imaginable in its discontinuity by being inscribed from within):


            Diameter three feet, three feet from ground to summit of the vault.

            Two diameters at right angles AB CD divide the white ground into

            two semicircles ACB BDA. Lying on the ground two white bodies,

            each in its semicircle.


Whilst it is clear that it is in the second person’s suggested or achieved movement from the outside to the inside and vice versa that the disjunction between the two is most apparent, once the second person is active inside or established outside it is very much more difficult to determine whether the descriptions that ensue are a report of what is found or a reminder of what would be found, a report of discovery or a reminder concerning an imagined creation.


These descriptions are on the one hand descriptions of the rotunda’s internal form (which shares the boundaries of its external form, i.e. the dimensions which would be as easily calculable from the outside as from within) and on the other descriptions of how two-dimensional space within the rotunda can be imagined as distributed, an ‘effort of the imagination’ (How it is, 144) not available to outside enquiry. It is clear that ‘diameter three feet’ describes a single measurement from any two points on the contours of the rotunda, but the reference to ‘two diameters at right angles’ reminds us that the measurement of internal space is once again a matter of content and context. The lines that describe internal space do not merely ‘divide the white ground’ as a picture of separate configurations; they also join the object together into a whole centred around the point at which ‘two diameters’ meet ‘at right angles’. But when consciousness reaches for this central point, partition proliferates. One diameter (of ‘three feet’) becomes two (‘at right angles’), creating four partially overlapping semicircles. The two semicircles chosen, arrived at with reference to the diameters AB and CD, are formed only by the line AB, and they are united rather than divided because (as is clear from the notation employed to describe them, ACB BDA), points A and B (forming one diameter) figure in both.


These initial investigations into the internal properties of the imagined world duplicate those into its external configuration, for the semicircles are only imaginable separately and together they overlap in the same way as imaginary construction overlaps surrounding space: ‘all white in the whiteness’. Each semicircle (each imaginable part) exists in relation to another which is the outside of its own inside. What the imagination has provided, mathematics makes imaginable. But this method of confirmation employs an imaginary language to visualize the distribution of space: the ‘two diameters at right angles,’ the points along the circumference, do not exist—they are only convenient means of making space imaginable.17


In omitting the creation of the imagined world (‘omit. Till’), the presumption was that an imagined world would therefore be available for discovery, as though it had always existed, less a matter of an imaginary world than one made imaginable by enquiry. But the imaginary language of mathematics and geometry indicates that the business of making imaginable is more a creative process than the matter of empirical verification it appears to be. But at the same time, the language of geometry is a pure sign system. not creating through signification but attaching names to what is already present and thereby discovered through signification. In so far as consciousness ‘discovers nothing but what it has put into [the signs]’18 the language of geometry is imaginary. But because it functions metalinguistically, ‘science attaches clear and precise significations to fixed signs’19 which make real what they signify because the signs themselves are transparent. As Merleau-Ponty points out:


            Whatever stimulates the perceiving apparatus awakes a primordial

            familiarity between it and the world that we express by saying that

            the perceived existed before perception. In a single stroke, the

            immediate data of perception signify well beyond their own content,

            finding an inordinate echo in the perceiving subject. This is what

            enables the data to appear to us as perspectives upon a present

            object, whereas the explication of this object would proceed to

            infinity and would never be completed. Mathematical truth, reduced

            to what we truly establish, is not of a different kind. If we are almost

            irresistibly tempted, in conceiving the essence of a circle traced in

            the sand which already has all its properties, it is because our very

            notion of essence is formed in contact with an imitation of the

            perceived object as it is presented to us in perception, namely as

            more ancient than perception itself, a self-contained, pure being

            prior to the subject.20


This ‘self-contained, pure being prior to the subject’ is reminiscent of Beckett’s description of Bram van Velde’s attempt to glimpse ‘the static thing in the void . . . the visible thing, the pure object’21 forcing ‘the deep-seated invisibility of exterior things to the point where invisibility itself becomes a thing’.22 As Beckett goes on to say, ‘the work considered as pure creation, whose function stops with its genesis, is consecrated to the void’.23 In Imagination dead imagine creativity is omitted in order to make room for the void, in order to make way for ‘the object grasped independently of its qualities, in its indifference, its inertia, its latency’.24 But ‘the explication of this object’ is undertaken in such a way that its essence (already present to thought) is superimposed upon by the image and the image becomes subject to investigation as object.


This superimposition cannot be a simultaneous perception of essence and image, intuition and mental representation. Since intuition relies upon memory and thus upon repetition, the image which is discovered as present to thought is only a representation of that which is being lost to memory. Just as memory of the life of the imagination is established only through the representation of habitual response, so the imagination of its death continues with the memory of intuition which is ‘obscured and obliterated’25 in the representation as image. This image is consolidated into an object by the supplementing power of the imagination. But the language of geometry, however transparent a system, only signifies the image obscurely. By partitioning the available space and placing one part adjacent to but not separate from another, geometry compels the object to lose both its unity and its clarity. The proliferation of lines and angles highlights the representational nature of the language employed and the narrator’s ability to dispense with them exposes the language as imaginary.


That which is imaginable—thought made real in perception—must not transgress the limits of perception. But it is only in attempting to define those limits through an image of its essence that the imaginary can be made imaginable. Because such at attempt necessarily gestures beyond the limits of perception, the process of making imaginable through discovery becomes one of imagining creatively, as the ‘white on white trace’ makes clear. Towards the end of the text the ‘thousand little signs too tong to imagine’ show that to imagine a dead imagination leads to a resurgence of the imagination once destroyed. These ‘signs’ show that the work of inclusion, by supplanting the work of omission, goes beyond the limits of the imaginable and returns consciousness to the imaginary world of reality.


Although the subsequent movement outside the cylinder to view the ‘plain rotunda, all white in the whiteness’ replaces the third person as author, this is itself followed by further investigation by the second person observer, and the source of the narrative is once more split in the search for what is imaginable: ‘go back in, rap, solid throughout . . .’The boundary separating the inside of the rotunda from the outside is here made concrete by tactile enquiry. Following on from the perceptual observation and the geometric mapping, this is an attempt to determine mass and volume, to make what has been a part of infinite space into the whole of finite space. But at the same time, tactile feelings (‘rap’) are combined with aural sensations (‘a ring as in the imagination the ring of bone’) which challenge the solidity which the tactile feelings have established. Albeit solid from the inside, the chamber nevertheless exists within the space that has been made apparent by the echo which opens out on the outside world and returns inside once more. The ‘ring’ sounds within by releasing the echo of the without. In characterizing this sound, the ‘imagination also characterizes the contours of the object which the sound has threatened to efface, but provides a representation in figurative language. Because the observer is dealing with aural and therefore fugitive phenomena, the image of ‘bone’ belongs outside the immediately imaginable world under investigation; it is also a representation of the place from which the imagination stems. Having moved inside, consciousness discovers not another world from which it can return inviolate to the outside, but its own inside. At this point the rotunda is imagined as a skull; it becomes ‘the vault . . . the little chamber all bone-white,’ the ‘ivory dungeon’ of the second of the Texts for nothing.26 In the words of How it is that which is inside is ‘in me’.27


In How it is, the chamber is ‘all bone-white if there were a light,’ light being necessary to make ‘place then most clear,’ as is shown in All strange away.28 But in Imagination dead imagine ‘the light that makes all so white [has] no visible source, all shines with the same white shine, ground. wall, vault, bodies, no shadow’.29 There is ‘no shadow’ because there is no point which directs light at the object for it to cast a shadow. To quote The lost ones, the light ‘appears to emanate from all sides and to permeate the entire space as though this were uniformly luminous down to its least particle of ambient air’.30 In imagination dead imagine as in The lost ones, there is no distinction made between what sheds light and what receives it. The ‘ground, wall, vault’ do not contain the place of Being—they are the place itself. The bodies too are not apart within it but a part of it. Unlike the ‘rap’ and the `touch’ that registers the ‘strong heat’ which emanates from the surface of the rotunda, there is ‘no visible source’ of the light and therefore `no shadow,’ no echo from the object to place parts of the imagined world within a phenomenal field.


Just as in The lost ones we are referred to ‘hidden sources,’ so in imagination dead imagine we are reminded that observation and investigation operate in a reasoned manner and that the light source is merely not ‘visible’. Moreover, the objects referred to, as in the earlier sentence ‘Islands . . .’ (which recalled and then erased objects in the imaginary world outside), are placed one in the context of the other by the process of designation. Although it is written that there is ‘no shadow,’ the shadow is written about and falls between the objects that are named. The objects remain (and are remains) in the trace of description. ‘All shines with the same white shine’ assumes that there are parts that comprise this ‘all,’ and these parts have to be set beside each other in order to begin to validate the suggestion that they appear ‘the same’. Whereas the ‘all white’ referred to earlier is singular, ‘all shines’ here is plural. Phenomena are neither independent of the observer nor wholly dependent upon him. The observer’s search for clarity and uniformity is essentially a contradictory one: clarity is marked by differences and uniformity by similitudes which can only be asserted by examining differences. Although these differences cannot be clearly traces, neither can they be uniformly erased: the walls are not hot enough to repel contact and not solid enough to muffle sound; while there is light, it has no source; although there is ‘no shadow,’ objects are revealed.


There are thus two points of view within the rotunda: one which is imagined (that of the investigator who is present) and one which is imaginary (of which there is ‘no trace’). The latter conflates cause and effect, surface and substance, and asserts hermetic uniformity; the former traces the relationship between parts and properties in the rotunda. These points of view are therefore intimately but obscurely connected within consciousness, for it is not just a matter of discovering what is already present but also of determining how what is there has come to be present. Although earlier the observer has omitted the creation of the imagined world (‘Till all white in the whiteness the rotunda’), this is the question which he now has to include. Just as the ‘one glimpse’ of ‘ objects in the imaginary world was neither present nor finally absent, so the genesis of the imagined world is neither discoverable nor capable of being erased. It cannot be traced by conscious enquiry, but neither can it be effaced by the limitations of conscious enquiry.


In the disengagement from the imagined world which follows this examination of conditions within the rotunda, two movements are involved—the first of retreat and the second of ascension: ‘Go back out, move back, the little fabric vanishes, ascend, it vanishes, all white in the whiteness, descend, go back in’. These two points of view outside the rotunda complement the two points of view inside the imagined world. Whereas conscious enquiry of the rotunda’s internal properties attempted to imagine another point of view which would circumscribe its own, outside the imagined world consciousness can adjust its position and, by rising above it, circumscribe its earlier point of retreat. In doing so it omits the point to which consciousness had withdrawn, for what is aimed at here is the establishment of a position from which ‘the sighting of the little fabric’ will be a ‘matter of chance’ and not the conscious recreation of an established procedure. In order that the rotunda may be placed and then displaced ‘all white in the whiteness’—independent of conscious enquiry in other words—consciousness displaces itself to a position independent of that from which conscious enquiry proceeded.


But these two points of view nevertheless remain intimately related to each other. Re-entry into the imagined world proceeds along the same route, for its discovery must be guaranteed; it must be discovered at once as though it had always been and at the same time as though it had never before been discovered, as though conscious enquiry had not already foundered against the limits of imaginable phenomena and had been obliged to refer imaginatively to a point of view which could extend them. The rotunda’s disappearance is therefore not complete nor is its appearance fortuitous. It remains both present and absent—‘all white in the whiteness’—a whole which is yet part of a larger unrealized totality.


This aspect of imaginative enquiry becomes clearer in the subsequent discussion of the phrases ‘world still proof against enduring tumult’ and ‘absence in perfect voids’. For the present it is sufficient to suggest that the view from the without accords with the view, yet to be imagined, of the within, that on emergence the rotunda ‘vanishes’ in the light and on re-entry ‘vanishes’ in the dark. While there is ‘still no trace’ of the source of the fluctuating light (although the phenomena are variously perceptible), so the positions outside are no more omniscient than those inside and from them the rotunda is no less variously disposed.


On re-entry the rotunda is characterized by ‘emptiness, silence, heat, whiteness’ and conceived as a hermetic place emptied of objects and governed by properties which assert stability and avoid problems of causation. But re-entry begins an inevitable movement towards plenitude. Not being coterminous with the object of investigation, the enquiring consciousness must clear a space for itself inside, a space which is opened up by the injunction ‘wait,’ an admonition which, accompanying a movement towards darkness, disrupts the appearance of uniformity. In order to imagine the death of the imagination it is obviously necessary to erase what has been imagined. In All strange away it is suggested that ‘dark must be in the end’31 but even there it is necessary to see what is in the dark, to imagine `all strange away’ in the light so that what is ‘in dark alone’ is ‘as though in light’. There is, as Beckett puts it, ‘need for light as in long light for dark’. But whereas in All strange away the ‘mere delay’ of the words moving ‘down again’ disturbs the consonance of the movement towards darkness and the tendency of other phenomena towards entropy, in Imagination dead imagine the temperature falls ‘at the same time’ and reaches ‘its minimum, say freezing point, at the same instant that the black is reached’. This, we are told, ‘may seem strange,’ and later we are again informed that the stability of the extremes in temperature may also ‘seem strange, in the beginning’. This suggests that habit will serve to make imaginable what is variable and uncertain, coercing light and temperature into simultaneity and closing the gap between past, present and future by projecting memory as habit.


The lengthy description of the movement of the light and temperature which occupies the long middle section of the text shows us the attempt to locate phenomena in relation to two extremes. But we should recall here the displacement of the outer limits of being-there in How it is with the narrator ‘half in the mud half out’ when learning of ‘the convulsive light,’ of the stability of the extremes being only ‘as long as they last,’ of observation undermining the temporal and phenomenal certainties—‘the black dark or the great whiteness, with attendant temperature’—in attempting to locate the intervening periods within the imaginable frame-work.


‘If there were only darkness all would be clear. It is because there is not only darkness but also light that our situation becomes inexplicable’.32 Although it is suggested in All strange away that ‘dark must be in the end,’ it is also necessary to ‘say dark and light here equal in the end that is when all done with dead imagining and measures taken’ for the movement from ‘the very sill of black . . . till at last in and black’ lasts ‘any length’ and is impossible to time. Although Beckett asserts via Bruno that ‘the maxima and minima of particular contraries are one and indifferent,’ and thus that ‘minimal heat equals minimal cold,’33 the stability of the extremes is undermined as the contrasts between light and shade and heat and cold throughout the intermediate periods and passages become increasingly difficult to locate. When, for instance, a pause in the light and heat occurs ‘at some intermediate stage . . . then all vibrates, ground, wall, vault, bodies, ashen or leaden or between the two as may be’. Although the vibration is a microcosmic appearance of the larger vibration between the two extremes, the oscillation between two intermediate and adjacent points is so rapid as to be incalculable and therefore unimaginable. The ‘all’ is fragmented and the bodies are either ‘ashen’ or ‘leaden’ or ‘between the two, as may be’. ‘These feverish greys’ prey upon the imagination which attempts to put into them an imaginable clarity but which gets out of them only an unimaginable plethora of possibilities.34


Examining the ‘pauses of varying length . . . between end of fall and beginning of rise’ and ‘between end of rise and beginning of fall,’ it is discovered that they vary between ‘the fraction of the second to what would have seemed, in other times, other places, an eternity’. It is highly significant that the pause should be that of ‘the fraction of the second,’ for Beckett’s use of the definite rather than the indefinite article does little to increase the clarity of such a supposedly imaginable moment. This is a moment similar to that later in the text at which the ‘eye of prey’ murmurs ‘ah, no more in this silence and at the same instant . . . the infinitesimal shudder instantaneously suppressed.’ The murmur of the observer and the ‘shudder’ of the inhabitants occur ‘at the same instant’ and yet, as written, they follow each other. They may overlap, but they cannot be said to occur simultaneously. Similarly, the ‘shudder’ (like the ‘vibration’ earlier) is ‘instantaneously suppressed’. The moment of its occurrence, the space between its appearance and disappearance is no more imaginable than it is possible to time the interval between the murmur and the shudder, between action and reaction. ‘The fraction of the second’ is as unimaginable as what is posited as the opposite extreme, ‘an eternity’. The sentence ‘It is clear from a thousand little signs too long to imagine, that they are not sleeping’ sets beside ‘a thousand little signs’ (which are too discrete to make imaginable) ‘an eternity’ which is too long to imagine. In the one, memory is unnecessary; in the other, it has no place. In between, memory as habit attempts to make the future imaginable by recalling the past, but the process of momentary and continuous observation places the enquiring consciousness as both part of the ‘enduring tumult’ and apart from it, situated in a position from which the ‘world [is] still proof’ against it.


That the world should ‘whatever its uncertainties . . . return to a temporary calm’ suggests a movement back from the rotunda towards that ‘absence in perfect voids’ in which it is ‘rediscovered miraculously’35 and its sighting purely ‘a matter of chance,’ after which it is ‘no longer quite the same’. The tumult is of the world which is ‘still proof’ against it only if the imagination sets consciousness ‘against’ the world by placing itself in a certain imaginable relation to it, and at the same time displacing itself as absent from it; in other words, only if the inside and the outside are separate and yet simultaneous. The world is itself a perfect void only if it is not present; but it asserts its presence by the making present of conscious enquiry. It also asserts itself in the rotunda which, on the return of the observer, is ‘no longer quite the same, from this point of view’. ‘This point of view’ cannot be finally specified. While at any moment ‘there is no other,’ it differentiates itself from another from which phenomena are ‘no longer quite the same’. (‘Absence in perfect voids’ is clearly not a presence from which there can be a point of view and is therefore not self-contradictory.) The unexplained movement from absence to presence is described as one in which the rotunda (which can only exist from a point which sets surface against depth, sound against echo, light against shadow) is ‘rediscovered miraculously,’ as ‘a matter of chance’. Perfect voids are not imaginable because they have neither inside nor outside and are not conceivably imperfect. Having omitted the sighting ‘all white in the whitness,’ on return ‘externally all is as before’ despite the chance encounter, and despite the fact that the rotunda is once more included in the surrounding area. But the imagination of life emerges through what is imaginable and moves inside to what is imaginary. This is why the point of view is fixed but always changing, why although there is still ‘storm’ it is never ‘the same’. This is why ‘its whiteness merg[es] in the surrounding whiteness’ and why the world which is ‘rediscovered’ is nevertheless a different world.


A further crucial instance of the opposition within consciousness between that which forms part of and that which sets itself apart from phenomena in the world concerns the ‘left eyes’ of the inhabitants which ‘at incalculable intervals suddenly open wide and gaze in unblinking exposure long beyond what is humanly possible’. This statement is written at once from the point of view of one who is himself ‘humanly possible’ and at the same time from an unimaginable source which transcends it. Because the observer is unable to time the interval between opening and closure, because he is himself constrained to close his ‘eye of prey,’ he can only conclude tacitly that the period of ‘unblinking exposure’ is ‘an eternity’.


As we shall shortly see, it is particularly significant that there should be two inhabitants, and that, as with the light and the heat and the imaginative enterprise as a whole, the attempt should be to coerce differences into simultaneity. But ‘never the two gazes together except once, when the beginning of one overlapped the end of the other, for about ten seconds’. We are concerned here with three eyes: those of the two inhabitants and that of the observer. Although he is unable to make imaginable the period of an individual gaze upon the world and upon the witness of that world (in other words, himself), he is nevertheless able to measure the period between the point at which one eye, in opening, joins the other, and the point at which the other closes. Because they overlap during this period, he is able to isolate this period from the closure of one on one side and the other on the other.


But the individual gaze is ‘too long to imagine’; accordingly, the blink is too short. It takes place, like the ‘infinitesimal shudder,’ ‘in the fraction of the second,’ the momentary closure of the eye overlapping with the momentary disclosure of the bodies. This period is described in the past tense (‘overlapped’) as having already happened, just as the momentary ‘glimpse’ of the imaginary world ‘above in the light’ was said to have ‘vanished’. What has been captured by the imagination or lost in the imaginary asserts itself only momentarily against the ‘enduring tumult’ and the attempt to validate such moments has already been discredited. Similarly the contrast ‘between [the inhabitants’] absolute stillness and the convulsive light . . . is striking, in the beginning.’ At the ‘beginning’ the observer can note the difference, but now it is impossible. The contrast was only possible, furthermore, because habitual response could assert it, only possible ‘for one who still remembers having been struck by the contrary’. The ‘beginning’ is therefore displaced both by the memory of previous confusion and by the variable perception of present tumult. A stable term of relation no longer serves to locate any other. The present tumult precludes even the attempt at asserting differences in what has become an imaginary (because forgotten) world. The three stages of perception—the moment of perceiving difference, the moment of placing it within memory and the moment of having forgotten the difference—show not only how the imaginary becomes imaginable through memory as habit but also how it once again becomes imaginary as observation fails to locate phenomena within a habitual framework. Not only the products of memory but the process of memory itself becomes past.


It is important that there should be two inhabitants and that narrative consciousness should attempt to relate one to another in order to make a whole. It has already been noted that the diameter AB which divides the available space and separates the two bodies also joins them together as it knits together the two halves of the rotunda. Just as the line forms part of both semicircles, overlapping both, so one body is not clearly set apart from another. Neither, however, do they together form a whole when what is visible of them is only a part. Since both of them are lying on their right sides, both expose only their left eyes to view; although they are ‘back to back’ they are also ‘head to arse’. The bodies are only ‘whole and in fairly good condition, to judge by the surfaces exposed to view’ and ‘the faces too’ are assumed to be ‘the two sides of a piece,’ an assumption which could be made more conclusive if one were to expose one side of the face and the other the other. In the attempt to view the ‘world still proof against enduring tumult’ the process of inspection and enquiry, as has been commented upon in detail elsewhere in Beckett criticism, ‘is not easy’.36 Inspection here only reveals that one of the bodies is that ‘of a woman finally’ whose ‘long hair of strangely imperfect whiteness’ impedes both the subsumption of the figure into the surrounding whiteness and the recognition of this ‘strange’ detail as a sure ‘trace of life’. This assertion of difference between the woman and the ground against which she figures (and of difference between her and her ‘partner’) undermines further the suggestion that the parts are interchangeable, each part doing duty for the whole. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, the imaginary greater than the imaginable; in the same way, the position of the third person narrator encompasses that of the enquiring observer. But the role of the observer cannot be subtracted from that of the third person so as ‘finally’ to throw into relief the composition of the whole. The third person narrator’s final injunction ‘Leave them there, sweating and icy, there is better elsewhere’ becomes from this perspective a discourse upon what he has mistakenly supposed to be a problem resolvable by recourse to an alternative. Although ‘life ends,’ the imagination of life still remains. This remainder can neither be erased nor clearly formulated as ‘life necessarily’. 37Although there is ‘nothing elsewhere’ and ‘no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness,’ there remain interpolated questions regarding what can be imaginatively included Although these possibilities fall initially into two groups—that in which the bodies are still and the world in tumult and that in which the bodies are still and the world at rest—it is possible that the bodies are not still. But it cannot be imagined ‘what they are doing’. While the imagined world is described negatively in the attempt to extrude variable phenomena, the world of the imagination denied at the end of the text is released as a possibility which includes them. Just as it is necessary to assert the death of the imagination (‘yes, dead, good’) so it is inevitable that one can do no more than deny that it is alive.


1 How it is, London Calder & Boyars, 1964, 7. All page references to the text from this edition.

2 The unnamable, London, Calder & Boyars, 1975, 130. All page references to the text are from this edition.

3 The lost ones, London, Calder & Boyars, 1972, 40. All page references to the text are from this edition.

4 Texts for nothing XIII, in No’s knife, London, Calder & Boyars, 1967, 135. All page references to the Texts are from this edition.

5 This is Beckett’s phrase, used in a letter to Hugh Kenner. See Kenner’s A reader’s guide to Samuel Beckett, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973, 94.

6 G. Bachelard, The poetics of space (trans. M. Jolas), Boston, Beacon Press, 1969, p.215.

7 J. Derrida, ‘The retrait of metaphor’ translated by the editors of Enclitic, Enclitic, vol.II, no. 2, Fall 1978, 29.

8 This is a point made by J.E. Dearlove in her essay ‘The voice and its words: How it is in Beckett’s canon,’ in Journal of Beckett studies, Summer 1978, No. 3, 57.

9 Imagination dead imagine in No’s knife, 161. The text is on 161-164 of this edition.

10 See J. Derrida, Speech and phenomena and other essays on Husserl’s theory of signs, trans. D.B. Allison, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1973, particularly chapters 4 & 5, ‘Meaning and representation’ and ‘Signs and the blink of an eye’.

11 Hegel’s Wissenschaft der Logik, i, 541-542, quoted by H-J Schulz, This hell of stories, The Hague, Mouton, 1973, 13.

12 It is this ‘space that intervenes’ (`Recent Irish poetry’ [1938] republished in The lace curtain, No. 4 Dublin, Summer 1971, 78) which Beckett believed the work of the van Veldes struggled to state, and it is this space which makes its appearance following the sundering of the relationship between subject and object. It is, then, necessary for the artist to glimpse in ‘the absence of relation and in the absence of object the new relation and the new object’ (‘Peintres de l’empêchement,’ Derriére le miroir, nos. 11 &12, Paris 1948, 7, quoted by J. Pilling in his translation in Samuel Beckett, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976, 20).

13 ‘no more blue the blue is done never was the sack the arms the body the mud the dark the living hair and nails all that,’ How it is, p.114. In earlier draft versions of the text in French, ‘omit’ first appeared as ‘leave unsaid’ (RUL ms. 1541/1) and as ‘leave out’ (RUL ms. 1541/2). Both mss. are in the Reading University Library Beckett Archive, (RUL).

14 In an early draft of the text in French (RUL ms. 1540/1) ‘dites-vous’ was ‘dites-vous, dis-je’.

15 ‘Recent Irish poetry’ (1938) republished in The lace curtain No 4. Dublin, Summer 1971, 78.

16 Tractatus logico-philosophicus, (trans. Pears & McGuiness) London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961, 2.012331, 6.

17 ‘Imagine what needed, no more, any given moment, needed no more, gone, never was: All strange away, London, John Calder, 1979, 9. All strange away was ‘I imagine,’ said Beckett, written ‘about 1963/64. . on way to Imagination morte imaginez’. To J. Knowlson, quoted in editorial to Journal of Beckett Studies, Summer 1978, No. 3.

18 M. Merleau-Ponty, The prose of the world, London, Heinemann, 1974, 5.

19 Ibid, 4.

20 Ibid., 123. See also his discussion of the parallelogram as a ‘possible triangle’ and the ‘equivalent meanings between them’ (104-105).

21 ‘La peinture des van Veldes, ou le monde et le pantalon,’ Cahiers d’art, nos. 20 & 21, Paris 1945-6, 352, quoted by J. Pilling in his translation in Samuel Beckett, 20.

22 Ibid., 354.

23 Ibid., 349.

24 ‘Peintres de l’empêchement,’ 4.

25 Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the philosophical sciences in W. Wallace, Hegel’s philosophy of mind, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1971, 203. Quoted by E. Donato, ‘The ruins of memory: archaeological fragments and textual artifacts,’ Modern language notes, May 1978, Vol. 93, No. 4.

26 No’s knife, 78.

27 How it is, 146.

28 All strange away, 16.

29 This unexplained presence of light is a frequent topological feature in Beckett’s late writing. See All strange away 8 and Ghost trio in Ends and odds, London, Faber & Faber, 41.

30 The lost ones, 39-40. However, ‘No other shadows then than those cast by the bodies pressing on one another wilfully or from necessity as when for example on a breast to prevent its being lit or on some private part the hand descends with vanished palm’ (40). See below for a discussion of the intimate relationship between the observer and the light source as a second ‘point of view’ within the rotunda.

31 All strange away, 23.

32 ‘Beckett by the Madeleine,’ interview with Tom Driver, Columbia university forum, IV, Summer 1961, 22.

33 ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce’ in Our Exagmination round his Factification for Incamination of Work In Progress, London Faber & Faber, 1972, 6.

34 ‘Whether all grow black, or all grow bright, or all remain grey, it is grey we need, to begin with, because of what it is, and of what it can do, made of bright and black, able to shed the former, or the latter, and be the latter or the former alone. But perhaps I am prey, on the subject of grey, in the grey, to delusions’ The unnamable 17. Grey is both subject and object here. Consciousness, itself grey, is surrounded by the object of the discourse’s subject. As the two overlap, one is not distinguishable from the other and the third term, consciousness of the world, shares both places—the place of narration and the narration of place. See the essay by L. Janvier, ‘Place of narration/narration of place’ in Samuel Beckett, a collection of critical essays edited by Ruby Cohn, McGraw-Hill, 1975 particularly p108-110. The following few remarks are worth quoting in full: ‘Writing, who can say he is building? Or having written that he has mastery over place? In a dwelling, who shelters whom? Words are not dwellings; speaking, I am always outside myself. And yet the theatre of words is a dwelling; they create space, an enclosure, an absolute exterior that is within, a tomb. In the inmost part of this enclosure is myself, that other’ (109-110). Alongisde an early draft of the text in French (RUL ms. 1451/1) Beckett has written ‘Observation instead of experience’; whether this is an assertion, command or reminder and to what part or parts of the text it refers can, as in the text itself, only be guessed at.

35 The suggestion of the miraculous is evident early in the text; the English ‘one glimpse and vanished’ is from the French ‘fixez, pff, muscade’—‘muscade’ referring to a conjuror’s vanishing ball.

36 See for example J.E. Dearlove, ‘“Last images”: Samuel Beckett’s residual fiction’ in the Samuel Beckett number of Journal of modern literature, vol 6, no. 1, Feb. 1977, 106-110.

37 From Beckett’s 1974 poem ‘Something there’ in Collected poems in English and French, London, John Calder, 1977, 63.