‘Film’: a dialogue between Beckett and Berkeley


Sylvie Debevec Henning


The general introduction to Beckett’s solitary screenplay begins with the words esse est percipi, signalling the importance of Film’s relation to Berkeley’s Principles of human knowledge.1 One might, then, follow the course of this particular ‘dialogue’ with one of Beckett’s historical ‘doubles.’ It will quickly become apparent that, whatever else it may be, Film is also an attempt to work through the logic of Berkeley’s main thesis. This is not to say, however, that Beckett is a Berkeleian or that Film merely repeats the latter’s ideas. Indeed, Beckett refuses to allow any philosophical meaning or thesis to be attributed to his work, including the significance of such a refusal. Consider, for example, the statement that follows the series of apparently philosophical references at the beginning of the screenplay: ‘No truth value attaches to above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience’ (F, 11). Beckett has elsewhere written that what interests him is the ‘shape’ (rather than the ‘truth’) of an idea. I shall suggest, therefore, that Beckett is taking Berkeley seriously in Film in order to point up the weak spot in his generally fascinating work.2


An examination of the broad outlines of Beckett’s rather confusing text might first be helpful. Film presents us with a protagonist ‘sundered into object (O) and Eye (E), the former in flight, the latter in pursuit. It will not be clear until the end of film that pursuing perceiver is not extraneous but self’ (F, 11). The general introduction goes on to specify that ‘E is the camera.’ Taken together these statements suggest that the writer is about to play with the traditional principle of identity. E is both part of O and not part of O; E is also the camera and, through the camera, the eye of the spectator as well. But E is also self, not merely O’s self but the self of any person or people, specifically that of the other characters—the elderly couple and the flower-lady—who respond to its stare with that look of horror. And as O’s self it is also an eye, that wrinkled eye that opens the film and stares at the spectator, an eye that belongs to O’s double who is only seen in the last episode. Already E is not simply O. Nor is E merely the camera or the spectator. It should be added that O is not simply E, nor in face merely O. The seven photographs of moments from his past present other O’s that are similar to, yet different from the present self of O.

‘Throughout first two parts,’ continues the screenplay, ‘ all perception is E’s. But in third part there is O’s perception of room and contents and at the same time E’s continued perception of O’ (F, 11-12). In order to distinguish between the two perceptions, objects seen by O were shot through a lens-gauze, blurring O’s perception while keeping E’s clear.


O believes he is fleeing from all extraneous perception, from perceivedness or percipi in general; this is the ‘search of non-being’ (F, 11). He abandons the street, where he jostles the elderly couple, for the narrow passageway where he avoids the flower-lady, finally arriving in a room from which he removes or obscures all perceiving ‘eyes’—windows, mirror, dog, cat, parrot, fish, print of God the Father, photographs, even a manila envelope with eye-like clasp and a ‘staring rocking-chair.’ But he has been mistaken; his pursuer is really his own uncanny double—his self. Irrepressible, this latter must eventually be encountered, it seems, ‘face to face.’ Perception, in the form of self-perception can never be totally eliminated.


Now E is never seen at all until the final scene, and O is only viewed until then from behind and at an angle not exceeding 45 degrees. The convention is established that O only enters the state of percipi when that angle is exceeded. Only then does he experience the ‘anguish of perceivedness’ (F, 11). But why 45 degrees? Perhaps because an observer standing at an angle of 45 degrees or less to a mirror can no longer see his own reflection. By analogy, Film may be suggesting a point at which man does not reflect on himself, i.e., is not aware of his own existence as conscious being. To exceed that angle is to focus consciousness on the self. Forty-five degrees is, in any case, ‘the angle of immunity’; any other causes O anguish or pain. The immunity to pain provided by unselfconsciousness can moreover be destroyed whenever E wishes (F. 11).


In the third part of the film, E corners O and retains him within the ‘anguish of perceived ness.’ This besieging of O (but not his capture, for E always remains at a distance) is termed ‘investment’ (F, 39). It is, however, more than a military operation; it is also a Berkeleian investiture, a clothing with attributes and qualities. ‘Investment,’ in this sense, is what O flees, and what he momentarily experiences in the anguish of perceivedness.


Now, Berkeley’s Principles of human knowledge argues that ‘the absolute existence of unthinking things without their relation to their being perceived . . . seems perfectly unintelligible. Their esse is percipi, nor is it possible they should have any existence out of the minds of thinking things which perceive them’ (PHK, 23, sec. 3). Therefore, to the extent that Film’s O is a sensible thing (or ‘idea’ in Berkeleian terminology, i.e., a body), he cannot ever actually succeed in fleeing the perception of others—not, at least, without fleeing into absolute oblivion. Indeed, from Berkeley’s point of view, O can exist at all only because he is perceived. It is only in the act of being perceived that O is invested with sensible qualities, thereby coming into existence (PHK, 60, sec. 78; also TD, 186-7). Were he to escape perception altogether, he would no longer be. Hence, apparently taking Berkeley up on his proposition, Beckett shows that to attain (or maintain—Beckett’s text is here ambiguous, F. 11) a state of non-being, O must first suppress all extraneous perception, animal and human. He must remove or obscure whatever might perceive him. (Obviously, then, suicide would offer no real solution since, even after his death, O would long continue to exist as a perceptible, sensible thing, i.e., a corpse.) Shutting out the everyday world, however, is not by itself enough. He must also eliminate God for, as Berkeley insists, ‘all objects are eternally known by God, or which is the same thing, have an eternal existence in his mind’ (TD, 199). Beckett, then, continues to take Berkeley at his word and is visually working through the argument in its most forceful form. Yet, even after O has symbolically eliminated God the Father by tearing up the print, he remains anxious about the blank spot created on the wall by the representation’s absence. And with good reason, for this is the spot into which E steps at that crucial moment of investment. Self-perception replaces divine observation, it seems, and maintains O in being. Following Berkeley’s line of thought forward into the modern world-without-God, Beckett can reason that, from the perspective of our dominant subjectivist philosophy, one might still maintain with Berkeley that to be is to be perceived, since even when everything else has been successfully avoided, there is always perception by the self.


By thinking Berkeley’s argument through in this fashion, Beckett has clearly carried it further. In fact, he has apparently felt able to distill the Irish bishop’s principal thesis into a simpler form. For, Berkeley’s complete thought was actually: existence is either percipi or percipere or velle i.e. agere (PC, 356, 429, 429a). Perceiving, he believes, is important to existence as being perceived. Further, as one who perceives (however poorly), O must also be what Berkeley calls a ‘spirit,’ his word for whatever entity is capable of perception (PHK, 34, sec. 27; 223, sec. 2). ‘Spirit,’ for Berkeley, is an active, indivisible substance, distinguishable from others by its sole possession of this unique power. Only spirit can perceive; whatever can perceive is, ipso facto, spirit. In order not to perceive, then, (and therefore not to be), O must not only cut himself off from the world, but also shut his own eyes. This, however, proves unsatisfactory, since he is nevertheless still obliged to have awareness of himself in one way or another. Beckett seems here to respond to Berkeley’s two-part thesis by suggesting that the latter has failed to take account of self-perception. Given the way the perceiver of other entities may also become aware of himself as perceived, the two parts of Berkeley’s formula can be reduced in the end to that single assertion with which Beckett chooses instead to begin: esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. The fact of self-perception means there is no entity to which this revised formula might not be applied.


It might be argued that Beckett has forgotten the part of Berkeley’s complete statement that the Bishop later added on the back of his notebook page: ‘or velle i.e. agere’ (PC, 429a). To be is to be perceived or to perceive, or will i.e. act. The writer, however, has not forgotten. O, in his attempt to find non-being, retreats into a state of inaction—seated in, a rocking chair in the middle of a deserted room, alone and immobile, his eyes closed and his mind as blank as the walls. He would like neither to will nor to act, in order not to be. But the inevitable presence of his self, E, engaged in the act of self-perception, makes that total retreat impossible. (For how would one ever know that one was attaining it, except by being conscious of one’s act, which in turn makes the attainment impossible? And how could the attempt be made except by an act of the will?) The self that perceives itself (or is conscious of itself), i.e., is both perceiving subject and perceived object, is, at the same time inevitably both willing and acting. Consequently, percipi, percipere, velle and agere are all comprehended in self-perception and, where self-perception is at issue, as it is here, Berkeley’s statement can once again be reduced to esse est percipi.


Both Berkeley and Beckett would agree that Film’s O can appear as both sensible object and ‘spirit.’ Berkeley, however, would understand this to mean that O is a sensible object in that he is perceived by others and, at the same time, ‘spirit’ in that he is capable of perceiving others. Beckett seems willing to accept this, but then goes on to add that spirit itself is a two-fold thing in its turn because capable of perceiving itself. That part of O which perceives him as a perceiving spirit is E. Beckett, in other words, has invoked the phenomenon of everyday self-consciousness—the mind’s awareness of itself qua mind—and asks, in a sense, what Berkeley can make of it.


This, Berkeley would not find easy to do. His texts do indeed appear to suggest that the make-up of mind mirrors that of the world, and that mind will consequently have two aspects: ‘as it perceives ideas it is called ‘the understanding’ and as it produces or otherwise operates on them it is called “the will”‘ (PHK, 34, sec. 27). ‘Understanding’ resembles ‘idea’ in that it is passive (like the Aristotelian substratum), while will, like spirit, is active, having the qualities of velle or agere. Will may therefore be called the ‘real’ mind, and, as an active force, be said to be (like the Aristotelian substance or essence) closer to the Divine Mind than mere understanding. The passive O, who simply perceives worldly ideas but is acted upon by E, may be seen as the understanding. E, the cause of the ‘agony of perceivedness’ and the earthly substitute for God, would in turn be functioning like Berkeley’s will.


E, as will, would consequently be capable of acting upon O so as to produce self-perception. Berkeley, however, specifically rejects this conclusion drawn from his own conception of the mind. Spirit, he asserts, although it has two aspects, is actually indivisible (PHK, 34, sec. 27; also TD, 176). Without a distance of difference between the two aspects, no self-perception is possible. Furthermore, despite the resemblance between ‘understanding’ and ‘idea,’ the former is not an ‘idea,’ but rather pure spirit. Berkeley insists that spirits and ‘ideas’ are so ‘wholly different’ that ‘there is nothing alike or common in them’ (PHK, 93, sec. 142; also p65-6, sec. 89). ‘That this substance which supports or perceives ideas should itself be an idea or like an idea, is evidently absurd’ (PHK, 90, sec. 135) -Now, only ‘ideas’ are sensible. So, if ‘no aspect of mind is like an idea,’ then mind itself cannot be perceived to any extent at all, and self-perception is, according to Berkeley, a consequent impossibility.


Film, of course, raises certain major objections to this. If spirit and sensible ‘idea’ are completely distinct and unlike one another, if will and understanding are perfectly indivisible, how then does spirit ever come to know itself? Only ‘ideas’ are perceptible. How, then, do I know that spirit exists? How do I know that I exist? Again and again Berkeley returns to these obvious difficulties. The nature of spirit, he insists, is ‘that it cannot be of itself perceived,’ since it is not an ‘idea,’ ‘but only by the effects that it produceth’ (PHK, 34, sec. 27). Arguing from cause to effect is never very satisfactory, however, as Berkeley himself shows elsewhere. It does not seem sufficient to say that spirit necessarily exists, simply because man is capable of perception, willing, and understanding. In the second edition of The principles of human knowledge, Berkeley has felt obliged to introduce the rather puzzling term ‘notion,’ by which he intends to designate something resembling, yet at bottom entirely different from, ideas. He then feels he can meet the objection that results from his stubborn insistence on the impossibility of our having any idea of something (mind) that is entirely spirit, by arguing that `we have some notion of soul, spirit, and the operation of the mind’ (PHK, p34-5, sec. 27; p656, sec. 89; p90-2, sec. 135-40). Berkeley then went back and substituted ‘notion’ for ‘idea’ in every passage that talked about our knowledge of mind. Yet the problem does not actually disappear with this new usage, for Berkeley seems unable to explain very well what a ‘notion’ is. Indeed, although obviously bothered by the implications of his originally wider use of ‘idea,’ he has trouble making its replacement here and there by ‘notion’ seem a genuine change. Though the distinction, if it is to be effective here at all, must necessarily be a radical one, it is never very well established, being not so much argued as merely asserted. And, as a result, the insertion of ‘notion’ has the appearance of a sleight of hand. The change seems a merely nominal device, more a disguise than a solution. (See, e.g., PHK, 98, sec. 142).


Berkeley takes up this problem again in Three dialogues. Philonous, the Berkeleian immaterialist, asserts that.’ . . the being of my Self, that is, my own soul, mind, or thinking principle, I evidently know by reflexion’ (TD, 177). So we come to have a notion of self, not through perception but by ‘reflexion.’ But what then is ‘reflexion’? Earlier Philonous had explained that ‘my own mind and my own ideas I have an immediate knowledge of (TD, 176). ‘Reflexion,’ then, is ‘immediate and intuitive knowledge,’ an ‘inward feeling,’ (PHK, p65-6, sec. 87), while perception is knowledge mediated by the senses. Spirit knows it exists because it ‘reflects’ upon itself. And what it reflects or mirrors, although always extremely inadequately, is itself an image or likeness of the divine mind (TD, 176). Through its knowledge of itself, the mind has, ipso facto, intuitive knowledge of the divinity. Beckett then responds by positing a world in which God is no longer felt to exist, a world that is, like our own, in which the mind’s immediate knowledge of itself continues, but without bringing anything like a certainty of the presence of a divinity. Beckett leads us to consider, in other words, whether Berkeley’s solution to the problem of the mind’s self-understanding—his appeal to ‘immediate intuitive knowledge’—stands or falls with our belief in a divine mind of which our earthly minds are a more or less distorted reflection.


The answer, I think, is no, but that Berkeley cannot feel himself entirely off the hook. Rather, it seems his theory of the mind’s capacity for self-reflection never really met the basic difficulty in the first place. The distinction between mediate and immediate knowledge seems sound enough, but Beckett has never seriously argued that, by ‘self-perception,’ he means the mind’s awareness of itself must be provided by the senses. Film’s repeated emphasis on the staring eye is almost certainly intended as a visual metaphor for the more general problem of apperception. Beckett does not, indeed, really appear to bother over the mediate/immediate question. For him, it seems, the problem remains in either case: whether or not we feel able to believe that God is the ultimate source and support of the mind’s existence, the fact remains that the mind can have a conscious awareness of its consciousness; and he is asking Berkeley how this might be explained. Berkeley, for his part, has appealed to intuition or immediate understanding: the mind simply knows itself, and that is all there is to it. This he calls ‘reflexion.’ Beckett seems to be suggesting that this remains unsatisfactory for at least two reasons. First, because self-consciousness is not something we just have, immediately and intuitively. The act of ‘reflexion’ that produces it is, in Film, the result of a struggle. O is not normally aware of himself. In fact, his ‘immediate,’ ‘intuitive’ action is to flee from the E(ye) of apperception, by covering over his ‘reflecting’ glass and keeping E, his mirror image, at a non-’reflecting’ angle (less than 45 degrees). E actively pursues his double, tracks him down, and forces him into a confrontation. Reflection, Beckett is saying, is an arduous, active process that does not at all come about naturally or by itself, without effort. Our knowledge of the mind must be fought for and attained against our natural inclinations. On Berkeley’s telling, there should be no difficulty to self-knowledge; everything about the mind should be at once accessible to itself. For Beckett, this is manifestly not the case. We have managed to learn little and that only by dint of our great effort. In this sense, then, the mind’s self understanding is after all mediated knowledge, for, it is attained through the process of that struggle. And second because, however that knowledge is attained, and whatever the name we give to the process of attainment, the fact remains that when the mind is conscious of its consciousness, the mind has knowledge of itself qua mind. This makes the mind (a ‘spirit’ in Berkeley’s terminology) both the knower and the known. It is at once the subject and the object of the act of knowing. We see this suggested, of course, in Film’s presentation of its protagonist as two ‘distinct’ bodies, E and O. And, however he may struggle to escape an acknowledgement of the dilemma, Berkeley with his doctrine of spirit and idea, each a unified, indivisible whole, absolutely unlike the other, has no very sound way of accounting for this sort of awareness.


Film then goes on to raise a second, related issue. When the mind reflects on itself, what does it see? Berkeley, often considered a Platonist in some respects, believes that sensible things have an ‘archetypal and eternal’ existence within the Divine Mind, as well as an ‘ectypal or natural’ existence within our merely created minds. Although only referring in this way to ‘ideas,’ his comments on how we have knowledge of God suggest that a similar distinction, archetype/ ectype, might be applied to spirit (TD, 176). From Berkeley’s point of view, then, E’s vision would be so clear because, like the Divine Mind, into whose place he steps in the modern subjectivist world (‘E’ at this point might also suggest the modern Ego), he knows and comprehends all things. O, on the other hand, as an ectype, could only know his own ‘archetype’ (i.e., E)—and, indeed, all other ectypes—in a distorted and incomplete manner. His vision in Film is therefore always hazy and blurred. When O and E, as archetype and ectype, finally confront one another at the moment of investment, the result, for Berkeley, could only be total (self)-knowledge, or perfect selfidentity: an attribute of God. If E has taken the place of God, and is therefore like that deity all-seeing and all-knowing, then O’s coming face to face with him should establish man’s status as the being privileged with total self-understanding and, as a consequence, a genuinely complete identity. This is, of course, an equally traditional goal (perhaps even the traditional goal) of Western metaphysics. ‘We see now through a mirror in an obscure manner but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I have been known’ (I Corinthians 13:12). At this unique moment the ectype/archetype distinction should disappear as the two are merged. Only a single united entity could remain (cf. TD, 195).


Now, is this what occurs in Film? Critics have often affirmed as much, for the closing scene, by bringing E and 0 into direct confrontation, certainly does suggest a moment of conscious self-perception. And, while the figure of E remains immobile and impassive, his features fixed in an intent stare, the figure of O indeed appears to undergo a change. A look of astonishment comes into his face as he recognizes E before him. Open-mouthed, he starts from his chair, then sinks back, hands covering his eyes. There he sits, face covered, slowly and silently rocking back and forth as E continues to gaze at him. One might well argue, as critics have, that in this prolonged moment of piercing self-perception, the protagonist, man, has come to know himself perfectly; the barrier between the parts of the mind has been broken, the two now coincide, E = O, and a whole self has at last been created.3 Film ends, they imply, with the attainment of that longed-for state of perfect identity, oneness, fulfillment, the final realization, peace, Nirvana, nothingness.


But is this really what Film shows us? Is it really the case that Beckett agrees with the implications of Berkeley’s logic and here offers us an image of precisely the sort of conclusions all his other work withholds and in fact does its utmost to undermine? Not likely. Closely examined, the final scene of Film makes such pleasing impressions impossible. There is indeed what seems a moment of astonished self-perception. But, as O sinks back into his rocker, the covered eyes do not suggest the satisfaction of fulfillment, of full identity. Rather, they suggest a continuation of just that desire the entire short movie has been built around: the desire to escape perception. O, by shutting off his vision, would like to escape the stare of E, the stare of self-perception and hence, of self-consciousness. Yet, he cannot. The camera cuts back to show us E still there, still with eyes fixed on O. In fact, the camera has moved in, and the image is larger, the stare still more intent. Despite the effort to avoid it, the degree of self-awareness has only increased. The camera reverts to O, who sits as before, face still covered, then back to E for what is in fact the closing shot. The camera has moved in so close that the screen is now filled by a giant, staring E(ye): self-perception remains.


At this point, it must be remembered that Beckett has, in Film, gone to extraordinary lengths to emphasize the fact that perception of any sort presumes at least two elements: perceiver and perceived. He has used this logic to point up the difficulty Berkeley would therefore have in explaining apperception. The significant thing to note about Film’s closing scene is that the distinction between E and O is preserved. There is no merger or unification.


This brings to mind the title of the work, Film. A film is a piece of celluloid on which images are fixed and which produces an illusion of the presence of something else. It is, therefore, not the thing-in-itself, but merely an illusory representation. A film is also a haze or mist, or any translucent material like the lens-gauze itself, that partially veils, making a direct view or contact impossible. The confrontation between O and E always occurs through a glass darkly; vision and knowledge are only indirect and partial. This is not only because O’s vision is blurred. Both E and O are discovered, moreover, to be partially blind. Yet their visions do not add up to a whole, since each is blind in the same eye. This vision is partial for the spectator as well. Raymond Federman has argued as much (while, at the same time, seeming to misunderstand somewhat the implications):


            Conventionally, the viewer of a film sees more than the characters in

            the film. One might say that the spectator has a total perception of

            the action whereas the characters have a partial perception. In Film,

            however, since the field of vision of the camera-eye never exceeds

            that of the protagonist, the viewer is denied total perception.4


Perhaps this is why Beckett thought unsatisfactory ‘any attempt to express [the two separate perceptions] in simultaneity (composite images, double frame, superimposition, etc.)’ (F, note 8, 59). Indeed O and E never appear together within the same frame; they are always separated by a ‘filmic’ distance. Anything else would have been to introduce at least the illusion of totalization. And it is this unconquered and apparently, for Beckett, unconquerable distance between E and O that, once understood, causes anguish. That non-identity seen in E’s stare is suffered by the characters.


Some critics imply that a unification is possible, but that both human vision (whether interior or exterior) as well as the film medium itself (or any medium for that matter) are tragically limited. Film’s efforts to make E and O ‘coincide’ must, therefore, remain, they say, regrettably ‘ambiguous.’5 Such a conclusion depends on the assumption that a realm of essential identity exists from which man is barred by his corrupted nature, a thoroughly traditional metaphysical assumption. If this were the case, then Beckett would appear to share some of the very conventional aspirations of those very conventional thinkers with whom he is usually so completely at odds.


Finally, the belief that E and O are at least supposed to merge depends on a willingness to ignore the structure of the last scene’s close. Here we see the camera cut, three times in succession from O to E, positively emphasizing the distinction between the figures and the fact that it is preserved. There is no reason to believe their failure to be united is merely the result of a flawed medium. E and O remain apart, even in the moment of self-perceivedness, because, for Beckett, all perception requires two and this is true even of apperception. Hence there can never be full unity of the self, nor any perfect self-identity- not, at least that we would ever be aware of. This is Beckett’s point against Berkeley’s understanding of both mind and its knowledge, as it is, indeed, his point against the entire Western philosophical tradition.


1 References to the works of Beckett and Berkeley will be made in the body of text. The following key will be used:

F            Samuel Beckett, Film, New York: Grove Press, 1969.

PHK      George Berkeley, A treatise concerning the principles of human knowledge in Principles, dialogues and philosophical correspondence, ed. Colin Murray Turbayne, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, Inc., Library of Liberal Arts, 1965.

TD        George Berkeley, Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous in Principles, dialogues and philosophical correspondence.

PC        George Berkeley, Philosophical commentaries in Berkeley’s philosophical writings, ed. David M. Armstrong, New York: Collier Macmillan Publishers, Collier Books, 1965.

I should like to thank Professor Colin Murray Turbayne for his encouragement and assistance.

2 Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit, ‘Three dialogues’ in Samuel Beckett: a collection of critical essays, ed. Martin Esslin, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1965, 21; cf. Esslin’s ‘Introduction,’ ibid., 4 and the last enigmatic exchange between B and D, ibid., p20, 22.

3 Enoch Brater, ‘The thinking eye in Beckett’s Film,’ Modern language quarterly, 36, 169-71; Raymond Federman, “Film”, Film quarterly, 20, No 2 (1966-7), 49; Ernest Fischer, ‘Samuel Beckett: Play and Film,’ Mosaic, 2, No. 2, 112; Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973, 207-8.

4 Federman, 49.

5 Ibid.