The nature of allegory in ‘The lost ones,’ or the Quincunx Realistically Considered


Peter Murphy


The lost ones (1966, completed by the addition of section 15 in 1970) may initially appear to be a type of ‘closed garden’ (or ‘paradise’) in which the fictional world seems to possess an order that can be easily identified with the world outside it. One may even be tempted here to invoke a variation of Voltaire’s dictum ‘we must go and cultivate the garden.’1 The ‘cultivation’ is, however, unsuccessful and only produces a hortus siccus or arrangement of ‘withered ones.’2 Discounting the ‘words of the poet’ on ‘nature’s sanctuaries’ and the allusion to Dante’s ‘sun and other stars’ (18), the images not directly derived from the cylinder itself also depict a wasteland:


            The bodies brush together with a rustle of dry leaves (8).


            This dessication of the envelope robs nudity of much of its charm as

            pink turns grey and transforms into a rustling of nettles the natural

            succulence of flesh against flesh (53).


The ladders ‘planted’ (20) in the ‘bed’ (18) of the cylinder do not afford ‘a way out to earth and sky’ (21): the band of searchers is finally ‘rooted to the spot’ (37). Nature and art are not truly compatible within this hermetically sealed world. Or, to formulate the central issue in terms that Beckett adopted from Proust, ‘tree’ and ‘building,’ the natural and artificial, cannot both flourish within the structure of a fiction.3


What is at stake in The lost ones is a determination of the relationship between world and book. In the hermetic tradition the world was regarded as a book, and a series of allegorical correspondences established a realm of meaning in which the natural and artificial were reconciled. The lost ones rewrites this equation: the book is its own world, the cylinder is a world unto itself. Even the references to a nature external to this enclosed world can be read in terms of the new equation. The pages of the work are the ‘dry leaves’ of the ‘envelope’ in this undersized folio with its oversized print. What then is the reader left with after he has ‘rustled’ his way through The lost ones? Is he confronted only by a formally self-sustaining verbal construct that tantalizingly holds out the promise of meaning but finally forces the reader to conclude that the verbal riddles (like the cylinder ‘riddled with niches’ [21]) lead nowhere? This is surely not the case. The lost ones is not cut off from all realms of meaning. On the contrary, what gives life to the ‘dry leaves’ is a series of questions that are raised concerning the ontology of the fiction. If the dual realities of ‘author’ and ‘character’ cannot co-exist, the authorial presence is inexorably drawn towards an allegorical form in which the characters mean what he wants them to mean. But to impose an outright allegorical form deprives the work of any life and goes against many of Beckett’s most strongly held views about the integrity of the creative act. The following discussion will show that Beckett was led towards allegory as a result of the failure to find a modus vivendi between the narrator and the narrated.


Failure to appreciate the crucial importance of determining the exact nature of the narrator’s relationship with the inhabitants of the cylinder leads to a misunderstanding of Beckett’s use of allegory in The lost ones. Susan Brienza’s initial reaction is that the piece ‘seems to cry out for an allegorical interpretation. The cylinder is hell; the cylinder is the Tower of Babel.’4 This impulse is quickly checked, interestingly enough, by an appeal to Beckett’s authority—‘one can almost hear Beckett answering “No allegories where none intended”‘ (142). But there follows immediately a remarkable volte-face in which her declared preoccupation with the ‘structural level’ becomes explicitly allegorical again:


            Also, if the story presents a statement about man’s futile search for

            order and meaning in the world this is translated easily into a

            comment on the reader’s futile search for order and meaning in the

piece itself. Thus the reader becomes one of the searchers trying to

            find a critical ‘way-out’ of the cylinder (148).


The ‘translation’ is indeed too easy, as Brienza half-suspects, in that it substitutes a further allegorical reading for those rejected at the beginning of her essay. To say that the search of the cylinder-dwellers is equivalent to that of man in the world outside may sound less rhetorical than saying the cylinder is hell, but it is nonetheless allegorical. The traditional equation of world and book has, in a roundabout way, been reintroduced.


But Brienza’s conclusion again confirms a belief in the primacy of a formalist approach:5


            As the reader tries to find some path to meaning Beckett turns him

            into one of the searchers obsessed with order and pursuing a false

            hope . . . The reader, like the searcher, is trapped by a paradox: the

            harder he searches for an allegorical meaning to the story, the

            farther away he gets from the meaning the text offers (164).


This conclusion is surely as unsatisfactory as the one that Beckett had such great difficulty in writing for The lost ones. The implications of Brienza’s reading are unacceptable on several grounds. First of all, it is not Beckett who has turned the reader into a ‘searcher obsessed with order’; the critic has to accept responsibility for this idee fixe of equating order with meaning. The literary form of The lost ones is not so tightly and authoratively controlled that it forces the reader into only one line of speculation. Secondly, there is no need to accept the identification of reader with searcher as the fundamental one. If anything, the reader more naturally identifies with the narrator. If the critic is not to evade his responsibilities, his main task is surely to encompass both points of view, the view of the author and the view of his characters. There is, in fact, no need to ‘search’ for an allegorical meaning here: it is given in the opening sentences, which raise the question of the narrator’s relationship to the work at hand. The ‘way out’ is the ‘way in,’ namely, through the narrator. If he is concerned with the ontological premises of the fiction rather than with the secondary questions of order, the critic need not compromise his enterprise before starting.


The starting-points for an ontological analysis are a determination of what constitutes the realities of this text. Brienza says that the narrator’s “‘assuming” calls on the reader’s continuous suspension of disbelief . . . he continually reminds his reader that his words make up a created fiction. If this notion is to be maintained at all, it must be in the reader’s imagination’ (158). Brienza interprets the final words of the book (‘if this notion is maintained’ [63]) as ‘putting in doubt all that came before’ (168). One is surely bound to balk at this. The lost ones is immediately distinguished from preceding ‘residua’- All strange away, Imagination dead imagine and Enough—in that it does not begin with a prologue describing the aesthetic that governs the creation of the work.

The lost ones begins in situ: the ‘abode’ has already been discovered or created. All that remains is a description of its workings. The cylinder and its occupants are given realities, donnees. A careful reading reveals that the phrase ‘if this notion is maintained’ never calls into question these basic realities. The word ‘notion’ refers always to the question of time, and it must be emphasized that, given the cylinder or ‘abode,’ the narrator is willing to abide by all its rules, except those that require him to bide his time. After only ten sentences, he is ready to speculate, ‘It is perhaps the end of their abode’ (7). The narrator (like Beckett) is trapped by the cylinder, by the realities of his own creation or discovery. Section 15 attempts ‘a way out’ of this dilemma by imagining the end of the searchers. The epilogue is, however, a patent falsification of the reality of the work in the interests of a rhetorical closure that will satisfy the narrator’s need for order. Once again Beckett presents two irrefutable realities—those of author and ‘others’—in an apparently irreconcilable situation.


In her discussion of allegory Brienza says that, although the narrator questions his own creation, ‘the searchers do not dare to question the consequences of their absurd system . . . and Beckett’s question for the reader becomes “Do you dare to face the real conditions of your own world?”‘ (158). But Brienza has not convincingly demonstrated how the rules etc. are truly absurd evasions of reality. Given the cylinder, the rules are part of that reality. The question might more properly be rephrased as. ‘Does the critic dare face the real conditions of this fictional world?’ The larger question of relevance to ‘our world’ cannot be broached until this question is resolved. Beckett makes it a paramount point that the cylinder is not our world from which it is hermetically sealed (though, of course, narrator and reader are miraculously allowed access -’no way in, go in,’ to use the words of Imagination dead imagine). The real conditions of this fictional world involve a struggle for authority between narrator and the ‘little people’ (15). In short, whose story is The lost ones to be—the story of the narrator, or the story of the inhabitants?


Brienza says that the ‘if’ formulations ‘under-cut any authority the narrative may have had’ (157); but they are, in fact, the narrator’s main means of asserting his authority, for only by speculating on the’unthinkable end’ can he escape from the almost timeless present in which his narrative has trapped him along with the searchers.


There is a great deal of sardonic humour in the narrator’s comment: ‘That a full round should be authorized is eloquent of the tolerant spirit which in the cylinder tempers discipline’ (49). The narrator’s own authority is anything but ‘tolerant.’ Rather than put up with the indecisive nature of the quest (will pandemonium reign? will the searchers miraculously escape?) he ruthlessly jumps to the conclusion (knowing full well that ‘all has not been told and never will be’) that vanquishes all the inhabitants to ‘cold darkness motionless flesh’ (15-16). He puts his ‘rebellious house’ in order by placing all ‘in the dark, every man in the chambers of his imagery’ (Ezekiel, Cha8, v.12). Section 15 leaves no doubt as to where authority resides. The compassionate image of the last of the searchers does not hide the fact that the narrator has imposed his will in a God-like fashion upon ‘intractable complexities.’6


There is a price to pay, however, for winning this battle against the ‘little people.’ The reality of the inhabitants’ world and quest is undermined by the narrator’s deus ex machina solution. Until the last section the narrator, although evaluating and reporting upon the system in the cylinder, does not presume to speak for its inhabitants. But in the last section he does speak for them and the price to pay is a fall into allegory. Denied a ‘natural end’ (61), the inhabitants are made to mean something else for the benefit of the narrator’s message. The narrator has adapted the reality of the cylinder to his own system, a move which leads directly to allegory. Beckett has pejoratively termed allegory ‘a threefold intellectual operation: the construction of a message of general significance, the preparation of a fabulous form, and an exercise of considerable technical difficulty in uniting the two . . . .’ But Beckett adds that if a myth or story is considered allegorically ‘we are not obliged to accept the form in which it is cast as a statement of fact.’7 This last statement is exemplified in The lost ones by the narrator’s scorn for those ‘amateurs of myth’ (21) who believe in a ‘way out’ via a tunnel or the ‘fabulous zone’ at the centre of the ceiling: ‘Its fatuous little light will be assuredly the last to leave them always assuming they are darkness bound’ (20). Throughout The lost ones there is an implicit ‘message of general significance’ (the narrator’s obsession with darkness and stasis) and a ‘fabulous form,’ the cylinder itself. But when Beckett realized that he could only remain faithful to the realities of the work by abandoning the narrator to a time without end, he opted finally (and, from the four year pause after section 14, it would seem reluctantly) for allegory. This ‘exercise of considerable technical difficulty’ does not, however, really succeed in uniting the ‘message’ and the ‘fabulous form.’ Consequently, the reader is definitely not obliged to accept The lost ones as a ‘statement of fact.’


The crux of the problem posed by The lost ones concerns a reconciliation of the natural and artificial, and is implicit in the opening sentence adapted from Lamartine’s Uisolement.’8 The absence of a loved one from the landscape empties the world of all significance for the poet. Beckett revises this situation by making explicit the demarcation between the natural and the artificial. A reversal of Lamartine’s situation has occurred: enclosed in a purely artificial environment the ‘little people’ seek to regain nature where their ‘lost ones’ may be. The situation is complicated by the fact that the narrator commits himself to a mimesis of represented action within this artificial world. Only in Section 15 does he abandon Aristotle’s dictum against the intervention of external authority and re-establish the priority of the artificial over the natural.


Whilst it could be argued that in Section 15 the narrator is simply combining art with nature to form a convincing conclusion, this case does not stand up to careful scrutiny. The conclusion is the inevitable outcome only in terms of the narrator’s own ends. The confusion between the natural and artificial is evident in Beckett’s alteration of the title and first sentence in the English edition. In the original French version each body or searcher is described as its own ‘depeupleur.’ (Indeed, Beckett’s working title in 1966 was ‘Chacun son dépeupleur,’9 which implies a type of mimetic sequence whereby each inhabitant will follow this own route to oblivion.) The choice of the final title, Le dépeupleur, seems to emphasize that the real ‘Depopulator’ is the narrator who intervenes to place his own interpretation upon the workings of time. The English version holds out more hope—‘each searching for its lost one.’ While most critics have assumed that the inhabitants of the cylinder can be called the ‘lost ones,’ it is questionable whether this neat identification can justifiably be made. The first sentence clearly terms the inhabitants ‘lost bodies’ in contrast to the object of the quest, the ‘lost ones.’


The narrator dogmatically asserts that ‘in the cylinder alone are certitudes to be found and without nothing but mystery’ (42). But the statement can only be read ironically. The question of time, for example, is surely just as much a mystery within the cylinder as it is in the world outside. Moreover, maintaining the notion that all will ultimately be ‘vanquished’ does not so much demystify the nature of the quest as make it explicitly more mysterious (‘Mystery’ comes from the Greek for closing the lips or eyes—the identifying signs of ‘the vanquished’). The narrator in his conclusion shows that he is literally trying to turn the cylinder into his idea of a utopia. For the truly vanquished their surroundings no longer exist and have become a ‘no where,’ a negation of reality which complements the earlier assessment, ‘None looks within where none can be’ (30).


There is a movement in the last section from the natural and artificial to the mystical. This is what sets The lost ones apart from works like Candide and Rasselas which it in other ways resembles. While Johnson, for example, finally turns to a consideration of an other- worldly realm, he does keep the central action well within the human sphere.’10 The ‘best of all possible worlds’ for the narrator of The lost ones is one in which everyone, Murphy-fashion, enters a trance that negates both the inner and outer worlds. This conclusion is undoubtedly meant as an ironic selfindictment, for it is as absurd and unwarranted a manipulation of cause and effect as anything fabricated by Pangloss. The pretence that the final conclusion is the natural one, merely abetted and hurried on by art, is unacceptable in terms of the narrator’s own description of the life in the cylinder and the possible courses it could pursue.


Until the last section, the most remarkable characteristic of The lost ones is its attempt to view patterns of order realistically in terms ‘as far removed from the mystical as it is possible to imagine.’11 The lost ones is, indeed, best seen as a reinterpretation of the hermetic tradition as examplified by a work like Sir Thomas Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus or, The Quincunciall Lozenge or Net-Work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered. The lost ones, like The Garden of Cyrus, takes as its fundamental principle of order the quincunx (an arrangement of five objects set so that four are at corners of a square or rectangle and the other at its centre): ‘In the upper half of the wall disposed quincuncially for the sake of harmony a score of niches connected by tunnels’ (17). The quincuncial figure has long fascinated Beckett; one thinks of the quincunxes of the square Saint Ruth in Mercier and Camier, Molloy’s ‘strange instrument’ composed of ‘four rigorously identical V’s’ and the more ‘irregular quincunx’ of How it is—‘now his arms Saint Andrew’s Cross top V reduced aperture.’12 But the most detailed example is found in the abandoned J. M. Mime (of 1963) where the stage is actually marked off in a quincunx, and the character’s task is to carry stones through all the possible paths created by the maze:


            (Takes small thick book from pocket, opens about middle, reads)

            ‘Stop,’ done that—(turns page) ‘Double Diamond’—(turns page)

            ‘Easy maze’—(turns page)—‘Loops,’ done all of them—(turns

            page) ‘quink,’ ah (reading)—‘Setup quink.’13


But this latter-day Sisyphus is unable to puzzle his way through the complexities of the quincunx. Carrying all the stones through the various routes and back to the centre is beyond his strength and cunning. He reads further in the guidance manual and discovers a footnote, ‘Not for beginners.’ He puts the book away and ‘takes up position at centre stone,’ which can only mean that there is no longer any hope that book and world can be meaningfully connected.


In The lost ones Beckett sets up an even more elaborate ‘quink.’ But this time no direct correspondence between book and external world is sought. As a result, the quincuncial patterns of The lost ones, while similar, indeed often strikingly similar to the examples educed by Browne, have a dramatically different import. For Browne the world is ‘the great Volume of nature,’ and ultimately, ‘that intelligible sphere, which is the nature of God.’14 In both works the letter X derived from the quincunx is the ‘Emphatical decussation, or fundamental figure’(131). In rhetoric ‘decussation’ means ‘marked by chiasmus,’ i.e. the inversion in the second phrase of the order followed in the first. Such a ‘double cross’ is one of the jokes of The lost ones. Beckett undercuts the significance of Browne’s celestial symmetries by confining them within a world hermetically sealed from nature.


Browne begins his survey with a description of the patterns of order in the gardens of the ancients, especially with reference to the arrangement of trees. And Beckett, as we have seen, ironically exploits the image of his cylinder as a ‘garden.’ The obvious example for Browne of the tree of knowledge in the midst of the Garden of Eden is not without an ironic counterpart in Beckett’s ‘garden.’15 Stricken rigid in the midst of the cylinder is one of the vanquished (31), a tree of non-knowing, at the centre of a quincunx formed by the other four vanquished (of which only two are described—both women—the white haired one with the child and the red-haired one who serves as the north marker). Both Browne and Beckett exploit the most obvious parallel between body and quincunx: the five fingers. The vanquished are indeed said to equal precisely the number that can be counted on the hand (30). The lost ones seems ironically to corroborate Browne’s assertion of the primacy of quincuncial multiples in art: ‘To omit many other analogies, in Architechtonicall draughts, which art itself is founded upon fives, as having its subject, and most graceful pieces divided by this number’ (136). The total number of inhabitants (205) is based upon various multiples of the vanquished 5. All bearings are taken from the woman who acts as the north, whose shape is itself a quincunx or ‘fundamental decussation’:


            She squats against the wall with her head between her knees and

            her legs in her arms. The left hand clasps the right shinbone and the

            right the left forearm . . . The left foot is crossed over the right



An X, we might say, marks the spot.


The work is organised around multiples of fives. There are twenty niches or alcoves and fifteen ladders. The temperature falls by ‘a regular variation of five degrees per second’ (16). It is, however, quickly pointed out that this is ‘not quite accurate,’ thus creating another ‘irregular quincunx.’ Still there are enough examples from the thousand which the narrator assures us exist to confirm a quincuncial disposition ‘for the sake of harmony.’ Like Browne’s examples they seem to ‘neatly declare how nature Geometrizeth, and observeth order in all things’ (154). In reality, of course, this is far from being the fundamental characteristic of The lost ones. This narrator is no more successful in solving the quincuncial problem than was the protagonist of J. M. Mime. All the patterns have not been traced, and never will be. The narrator only recounts one point in time in which the five vanquished form an ‘irregular quincunx.’ To trace the progress of the other 200 inhabitants to their imagined end would involve a reticulation or ‘net-work plantation’ beyond the capability of any cunning literary artificer.17


The rules for climbing etc. are obviously merely conventions and hence lack the authority which Browne is able to ascribe to the various correspondences of God’s handiwork that he discerns. Section 14 ends with a description of the worst ‘scenes of violence the cylinder has to offer’ (60) and implies that, if anything, the ultimate state of this world is likely to be ‘pandemonium.’ Order appears to be giving way to licence. The allegorical hierarchy of physical, ethical, and spiritual is often collapsed in favour of a crudely naturalistic appraisal: ‘The effect of this climate on the soul is not to be underestimated. But it suffers certainly less than the skin . . .’ (52). There is, admittedly, an ironic recognition here that the ‘incessant straining’ of vision leads to a ‘concomitant moral distress and its repercussion on the organ’ (38), which combines with the ‘certain ethics’ which states ‘not to do unto others what coming from them might give offence’ (58). This latter is a variation on Robert Burton’s so-called ‘familiar example of Regulus the Roman’ in the section on ‘Anatomy of the Soul’ in The anatomy of melancholy: ‘Do not that to another which thou wouldest not have done to thyself’18 and proves decisively that anatomy is definitely no longer the whole it was in Beckett’s Enough (1965).


One reason for this is the obliteration of the divine faculty of vision—‘the eye which with the best will in the world it is difficult to consign at the close of all its efforts to nothing short of blindness’ (52-3). This deterioration of sight affects a dramatic contrast between the quincuncial systems of Browne and Beckett. For Browne the very laws of vision are based on the quincunx:


            It is no wonder that this Quincuncial order was first and still affected

            as grateful unto the Eye. For all things are seen Quincuncially. For at

            the eye the Pyramidal rayes from the object receive decussation,

            and so strike a second base upon the Retina or hinder coat, the

            proper organ of Vision (167).


But vision in Beckett’s cylinder is finally destroyed:


            And were it possible to follow over a long enough period of time eyes

            blue for preference as being the most perishable they would be seen

to redden more and more in an ever widening glare and their pupils

            little by little dilate till the whole orb was devoured (38-39).


The search for truth and divinely-sanctioned harmonies is essentially seen by Browne as an exercise in perception. Hence the need to shelter the eye, ‘Keeping the pupilla plump and fair, and not contracted or shrunk as in light and vagrant vision’ (165).


Browne’s conclusion to The Garden of Cyrus says that ‘a large field is yet left unto sharper discerners’ in which they can discover ‘delightful Truths, confirmable by sense and ocular Observation which seems to me the surest path, to trace the Labyrinth of Truth’ (174). In The lost ones a diametrically opposed situation occurs: ‘There he opens then his eyes this last of all if a man and some time later threads his way to that first among the vanquished . . .’ (62). He takes his place and ‘dark descends’ (62). However similar the ending of Browne’s treatise may seem—‘the Quincunx of Heaven, runs low, and tis time to close the five ports of knowledge’—its implications are radically opposed to those of The lost ones: ‘All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven’ (174). Browne’s allegory ends with the conjecture that perhaps ‘all shall wake again,’ that, on the anagogic level, a time will come which will free man ‘from everlasting sleep.’ But Beckett’s final picture of the cylinder shows all the inhabitants ‘truly vanquished: there will be no awakening.


The important point to be made about these two radically opposed visions is that they are both explicitly allegorical. In Section 15 Beckett’s narrator abandons his realistic critique of the hermetic tradition and imposes a solution that actually is equivalent to Browne’s. To say that all will never awake is just as allegorical as to say that all will certainly awake. The rage for order in Section 15 is as much in evidence as it is in Browne’s concluding fifth chapter. To achieve his own ‘mystical harmony,’ Beckett abandons his realistic premises and commits himself to allegory.


The final resort to allegory confirms that the narrator’s much-vaunted objectivity is really a form of pseudo-naturalism designed to circumvent the realities of this ‘abode’ of the imagination. The vital issue is not what is real but what is the ontological status of the real, that is to say, what is the being of the fiction created from the relationship of author and character? Beckett confirms here the truth of Georg Lukacs’ judgement that experimental forms can paradoxically lead to highly conventional effects such as naturalism and allegory.19 Beckett’s narrator is not really shown in the process of creating a fiction and self-consciously drawing attention at many points to his artifice. It would be more accurate to say that the narrator is shown in the process of distorting his fiction from its original realistic assumptions. In this respect his commentary serves to confuse further the status of the imagination’s role. His ‘searching eye’ (8) is clearly distinguished from the ‘eye of flesh’ (43) of the ‘little people,’ which is destroyed by the ‘fiery flickering murk’ (38). While all too fallible in his judgements, the narrator does often act like a traditional third-person omniscient author:


            Such harmony only he can relish whose long experience and detailed

            knowledge of the niches are such as permit a perfect mental image

            of the entire system. But it is doubtful that such a one exists



This comment raises once again the crucial question of the narrator’s own status in the work.


All his ‘aperçus’ are ‘seen from a certain angle’ (13), that of the author obsessed with the formal harmony of the literary construct. Although he says that he is ‘far from being able to imagine their last state’ (15) and that it would be ‘idle to imagine’ (22) the ‘unthinkable end,’ he does say that the light and temperature `may be imagined extinguished as purposeless and the latter fixed not far from freezing point’ (15). How engaged or committed, we must ask ourselves, is the narrator in relation to the reality of the cylinder? The phrase ‘clear-cut mental or imaginary frontiers invisible to the eye of flesh’ (43) seems to imply that the imagination is solipsistically detached from a creative interaction with the real. The narrator is obviously a ‘thinking being coldly intent on all these data and evidences’ (39) rather than an artist hungering after a transubstantiation of the real.


All his ‘detailed knowledge’ and ‘all these data’ do not combine to depict a representative reality. An acceptable mutatis mutandis does not occur; everything is predetermined by the ‘certain angle.’ The narrator is quite as much concerned with ‘certain details’ (58) as the searchers. But the ‘picturesque details’ of the white-haired woman do not combine with the ‘tedious details’ (42) of the life in the cylinder to give an affirmation of the searchers’ reality. What emerges instead is a sense that these details only exist for the affirmation of the narrator’s reality and his need to order the fiction. The query of How it is—‘details for the sake of what’—is clearly answered in The lost ones in terms of the author’s presence: details for the sake of harmony, for the sake of literary order. The ‘tedious’ and ‘picturesque’ are combined in section 15 to allow the author to end the work after ‘discouragement had prevailed at a certain stage’ (for Beckett the hiatus of four years after section 14). The result is not, however, realism, a living reality that possesses an immanent meaning, but rather allegory for the sake of the author’s need for harmony. The coy use of self-contradictory evaluations throughout the text leads away from realism to allegory: for example, ‘the fact remains’ (19), ‘in reality . . .’ (26), ‘nothing more natural’ (27), ‘so true it is . . .’ (32). But the inhabitants are dishonestly, not truly vanquished. Surrounding the hypothetical last searcher are not really ‘others in his image’ (61) but others in the ideal image which this God-author has created for himself.


The true quest in The lost ones is for being, and being cannot be authenticated without an engagement with the temporal. But the problem is that the work of art occupies a timeless, ahistorical realm. Beckett’s narrator stresses that the inhabitants are cut off from the world of time outside and trapped in a hermetically sealed container at the same time as he insists upon a passing of time in this container, even if the inhabitants are unaware of it—‘a languishing happily unperceived because of its slowness’ (15), ‘all should die but with so gradual and to put it plainly so fluctuant a death as to escape the notice even of a visitor’ (18), ‘for forgetters the likes of these each is the first’(54). The narrator is, however, himself a ‘visitor’ and ‘forgetter.’20 He describes in the first fourteen sections only one specific moment in the cylinder’s would-be history: ‘But as to at this moment of time and there will be no other . . . may it suffice to state that at this moment of time . . .’ (35). All his judgements and prognostications are abstracted from this one instant of time. Despite the assertion that time is slowly moving forward, the narrator, when straining for accuracy, confirms his entrapment in a timeless present: ‘From time immemorial rumour has it or better still the notion is abroad that there exists a way out’ (17-18). In the cylinder everything is ‘immemorial’ without being temporal. The present has no foothold in a continuum of before and after. The only authentic reference point for the measurement of time involves a conditional tense and a would-be existence in the world outside where ‘the sun and other stars would still be shining’ (18). An alternative system of measurement is posited in the cylinder-’and so roamed a vast space of time impossible to measure until a first came to a standstill followed by a second and so on’ (35). But this ‘unthinkable first’ lies beyond the ken of the narrator. Unlike How it is there are no scribes to mark the reign of recorded time in this little kingdom. The woman who acts as the north cannot be transformed into a ‘bewitching Miss Greenwich.’21 When the last searcher ‘encompass[es] the object’ (59) he finds a position in space not time: ‘He himself after a pause impossible to time finds at last his place and pose whereupon dark descends . . .’ (62). The ‘pause’ is impossible to time because the narrator has confined himself to an instant of time in the present.


The eschatology of the fifteenth section is purely a construct of the author’s imagination. The pause between it and the preceding section is indeed impossible to time—‘So on infinitely until towards the unthinkable end if this notion is maintained . . .’ (60). The notion cannot be maintained, just as previous references to time cannot be maintained, because the narrator has restricted himself to an instant in the timeless present: ‘unerringly timed’ (23), ‘outstayed his allotted time’ (25), ‘before his time’ (26), ‘highly variable time’ (45), ‘inner timepiece’ (26) are just as arbitrary and speculative as the ‘unthinkable end’ of the last section. Since the narrator is concerned primarily with a spatial arrangement of the quincunx at only one point in time, the reader cannot accept without protest the narrator’s word for scenes that lie outside this particular moment. The following words from Texts for nothing apply equally to the inhabitants and the narrator of The lost ones: ‘Time has turned into space and there will be no time, till I get out of here.’22 The inhabitants can grotesquely copulate ‘long beyond what even the most gifted lovers can achieve in camera’ (54) (just as the couple in the rotunda of imagination dead imagine ‘gaze in unblinking exposure beyond what is humanly possible’) because they are not fully human, but fictions confined to the timeless present of the fiction. By calling attention to their status Beckett is being ruthlessly ‘realistic’ (after all how long can a fiction make love or gaze?) while at the same time admitting that he has failed yet again to create a true or living fiction.


The ideal or passion ‘preying on one and all’ is a hunger for being beyond their fictional status. The ‘need to climb’ and ‘the strange power’ (15) are ramifications of this basic drive. The searchers’ ‘eyes burn’ (46) not with lust (‘Whatever it is they are searching for it is not that’ [36]) but with a passion for confirmation of their own being. They are susceptible to the ‘old craving’ (31)—the eyes ‘as famished as the unthinkable first day until for no clear reason they as suddenly close again or the head falls’ (32). The negation of all desire seems here to be the only means of satisfying their insatiable hunger. Is this then another confirmation of what Beckett has called ‘the wisdom of all the sages from Brahma to Leopardi’?23 Not quite. The inhabitants of the cylinder are not historical beings who are able to pronounce evaluations of being: they are fictions in search of being. A cruel inversion has here taken place: whereas Belacqua in Beckett’s early short story ‘Dante and the Lobster’ was placed in the world outside and failed to read the faces of the people around him, which would decipher his own being and enable him to become an artist and shape his own meaning, these seekers are trapped in a cylinder and avidly seek to read the faces of their compatriots, particularly the vanquished. But since these others are also fictions (and hence lack being) all that can be discovered is of no value in the search for self-hood. As long as they are able to search they will be tormented by hunger—‘enough will always subsist to spell for this little people the extinction soon or late of its last remaining fires’ (15). They are doomed because their needs are in irremediable conflict with those of the author.


The great themes of allegory are, according to Angus Fletcher, temptation and the quest for power.24 The narrator has succumbed in section 15 to the imposition of his authorial power. Meaning thus undeniably exists; the only problem is how we should evaluate it. The final section is as far removed as possible from the ‘syntax of weakness’25 which Beckett has said is necessary if being is to be given form. Rather it is a masterly exercise in rhetoric, an act of persuasion to convince the reader that this scene could be an acceptable description of the end of the ‘old abode.’ But the major reason for the failure of this rhetoric is that it totally excludes the ‘sounds’ of the inhabitants in order to further the interests of the authorial voice. Although ‘sounds’ were a prominent concern in the opening section, the references seemed designed primarily to dismiss their relevance. ‘A kiss makes an indescribable sound’ (8); a ‘sound is scarcely heard’ when a body or an object is thrown against the walls of rubber; the ‘only sounds worthy of the name’ (9) come from the movement of the ladders, or the searchers beating each other or themselves. The ‘happy few’ (ironic shades of Stendhal) are those who can temporarily knock themselves unconscious. But the fury they ‘vent’ does not come out in the way of words as in From an abandoned work. The situation is indeed ‘unspeakably dramatic’ (36): the narrator never records what (if anything) is said. But the cylinder is evidently filled with a ‘murmur’ (37):


            Among all the components the sum of which it is the ear finally

            distinguishes a faint stridulence as of insects which is that of the light

            itself and the one invariable (38).


This important reference to sound is repeated in the last section:


            Hushed in the same breath the faint stridulence mentioned above

            whence suddenly such silence as to drown all the faint breathings

            put together (62).


This is the central mystery which the narrator never explores. Does the ‘murmur’ emanate from the light that keeps the cylinder alive (throbbing like a pulse) or does it come from the inhabitants? The statement that the light seems to emanate from all objects in the cylinder (and the added qualification that light is not quite the right word) makes the problem even more intractable. As in All strange away, the narrator of The lost ones is attracted by the conclusion that no sounds exist.26 Rather than risk a destructive flood of sound (as in Beckett’s first published prose work ‘Assumption’) this narrator hypothesizes ‘such silence as to drown all the faint breathings.’ But the reader need not be a silent victim of the author’s designs; we are not compelled to accept the form in which the work  is cast nor to believe in it. If the reader is trapped in The lost ones, it is really a trap of his own making, not Beckett’s.


The lost ones is a fascinating work in that its conclusion shows Beckett driven towards an allegorical solution that goes against his preoccupation with the ontological issues that underlie fiction. David Richter’s two categories of ‘completeness’ and ‘closure’ are relevant here. ‘Closure’ is the formal, more mechanical, act of simply drawing to an end. But ‘completeness’ involves an act of integrity, the creation of a sense in the reader that the conclusion offered is more than aesthetically necessary, that it is the only acceptable or possible one. In other words ‘completeness involves the ontological premises of the fiction, As Richter points out, to make truth about the external world the sole criterion in evaluating a story’s end would be ‘egregious question begging.’27 His fine discussion of Candide’s ending is especially relevant to The lost ones, for he points out that it should not be evaluated in terms of views expressed by the author in other critical or creative works (as critics have often done in their search for allegory in The lost ones). Instead he proposes that the conclusion should be evaluated ‘in its function as an ending for the particular rhetorical fiction, with its particular thesis.’28 The lost ones possesses ‘closure’ but lacks ‘completeness’; faced with a potentially forever open-ended work the author opts for the imposition of his own views. This is the reverse of the situation in

Rasselas where the reader is led to accept the characters’ views and hence Johnson’s ‘message.’ The quest has been thoroughly carried out by Johnson and the conclusions, however unpalatable, seem natural and inevitable. But in The lost ones no such complicity with the reader is created, for Beckett has not even offered the semblance of a believable search. For all the details of ladder climbing etc. the quest has never been made real, never totally substantiated. The ‘little people’ have no choice in determining their entry into this closed world. They are placed there by their author and that is where they must stay until the work at hand is concluded. This means that while The lost ones tells us next to nothing about the world external to the fiction, it does tell us a great deal about the nature of fiction, especially the question of authority. The quest for a meaning that is more directly relevant to the world at large must be postponed until the meaning of the book as a book is fully explored, otherwise we will be entangled in an allegory that blinds us to our own realities.


1 However, this reading would, I believe, mistakenly view The lost ones as a ‘rhetorical fiction’ in the sense defined by David Richter in Fable’s end: completeness and closure in rhetorical fiction, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974, that is, works concerned basically with a ‘doctrine or sentiment concerning the world external to the fiction’ (9).

2 Samuel Beckett, The lost ones, New York: Grove Press, 1972, 14. All future references are from this edition and are given in the essay.

3 Beckett’s Proustian source for these terms which will figure so prominently in his own writing is given in Proust, London: Chatto and Windus, 1931, 48-9. Proust sees man as a ‘tree,’ while Beckett tries to see him as both ‘tree’ and ‘building.’

4 Susan Brienza, ‘The lost ones: the reader as searcher,’ Journal of modern literature, vol. 8, no. 1, Feb. 1977, 148. All further references to this article are indicated within my essay.

5 Raymond Federman in ‘Samuel Beckett: the liar’s paradox’ (in Samuel Beckett: the art of rhetoric, ed. E. Morot-Sir, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976) develops a much more extreme version of the formalist reading of The lost ones. The text is viewed as a would-be ‘perfect voiceless fiction . . . [with] no referential elements outside of itself—in the past or in the real world’ (136).

6 Beckett appended an important note to the manuscripts ‘abandoned’ in 1966: ‘MSS Le depeupleur- Bing. Though very different formally these 2 MSS belong together. Bing may be regarded as the result or miniaturisation of Le depeupleur abandoned because of its intractable complexities.’ From manuscripts in the John Doe Papers, University of Washington, St. Louis. Photocopies are also to be found in the University of Reading Samuel Beckett Collection.

7 Samuel Beckett, ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce,’ in Our Exagmination round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, Paris. Shakespeare and Co., 1929, 12. Both quotations are from this page.

8 ‘Un seul etre vous manque et tout est depeuple’ is Lamartine’s famous line from Meditations Poetiques (‘L’isolement’) which Beckett admitted was a source for his own Le depeupleur. See Brian Finney, Since ‘How it is,’ London: Covent Garden Press Ltd., 1972, 11.

9 H. Porter Abbott, ‘A poetics of radical displacement: Samuel Beckett coming up to 70,’ Texas studies in literature and language, Spring, 1975, 228.

10 Note, for example, that although it is disputed whether the entrance to the Happy Valley was ‘the work of nature or human industry’ (8), the questers only manage to escape by means of ‘perseverance’ (Samuel Johnson, Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927, 68).

11 ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce,’ 4. These are the terms Beckett used to characterize the realistic bases of Vico’s theory of language.

12 See Mercier and Camier, London: Calder and Boyars, 1974, 10; Molloy, New York: Grove Press, 1959, 63; How it is, New York: Grove Press, 1964), 52.

13 J.(ack) M. (McGowran) Mime is a jettisoned work written in long hand in a Herakles notebook, dated 1963 and in the Trinity College, Dublin, Samuel Beckett Collection. The diagram of the ‘quink’ and a sample of Beckett’s mathematical calculations for J. M. Mime are printed in Sighle Kennedy’s Murphy’s bed (Lewisburg : Bucknell University Press, 1971, between p64 and 65.

14 Sir Thomas Browne, ‘The Garden of Cyrus,’ in Religio Medici and other works, ed. L. C. Martin, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964, 166. All future references are from this edition and appear in the essay.

15 A beech tree also stands ‘in the centre roughly’ (10) of the ‘quincunxes’ of the square St. Ruth in Mercier and Camier. Colin Duckworth in Angels of darkness, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1972, points out that in Waiting for Godot ‘the central point to which all four figures are constantly drawn is the tree, the cross (by extension of significance) . . .’ (90). The quincuncial pattern enables Beckett to ‘square the circle’ or mandala forms which Duckworth draws attention to.

16 This human ‘decussation’ could also refer to the goddess of SleeNeary in Murphy, London: Calder and Boyars, 1963, likens the position of his feet to that depicted on ‘Greek urns, where Sleep was figured with crossed feet, and frequently also Sleep’s young brother, to cross his whenever he felt wakeful’ (207). Sir Thomas Browne also makes this point in The Garden of Cyrus: ‘Why the Goddesses sit commonly crosse-legged in ancient draughts. . .’ (173).

17 Even that fabulous artificer James Joyce, who drew attention to the ‘form of the quincunx’ in ‘Grace’ of Dubliners, did not carry any further a detailed mathematical elaboration of Browne’s fundamental pattern.

18 Robert Burton, The anatomy of melancholy, London: William Tegg and Co., 1879, Part I, Sec. 1, Mem. 2, Subs. 10, 106. The words which follow this statement emphasize just how ironic Beckett’s variant is: ‘Regulus, thou wouldst not another man should falsify his oath, or break promise with thee: conscience concludes, therefore, Regulus, thou dost well to perform thy promise and oughtest to keep thine oath.’ Beckett’s narrator in The lost ones does however, ‘break promise’: he concludes by treating others as he himself would not be treated, i.e. as a mere pawn in a literary game.

19 Georg Lukács, The meaning of contemporary realism, trans. John and Necke Mander, London: Merlin Press, 1963, 74.

20 The narrator’s ‘forgetfulness’ may, however, be yet another example of how Beckett has ironically inverted the hermetic traditions. The cylinder with its quincunxes could be viewed as a ‘memory room’ in the sense discussed by Frances A. Yates in The art of memory, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966. Five memory loci are a common feature in several of the systems pointed to in her fascinating study (see for example, p116, 314). These artificial systems are, of course, doubly ironic when Beckett’s condemnation of ‘voluntary memory’ in Proust is taken into account.

21 Murphy, 81. Sighle Kennedy, ocit., discusses how Greenwich functions as a time marker in Murphy. But in The lost ones there can be no such exact time reckoning for there are no stars, let alone ‘clock stars.’

22 Samuel Beckett, Stories and texts far nothing. New York: Grove Press, 1967, ‘Text 8,’ 112.

23 Proust, 7.

24 Angus Fletcher, Allegory: the theory of a symbolic mode, Cornell University Press, 1964, 36.

25 Cited in Laurence Harvey, Samuel Beckett: poet and critic, Princeton University Press, 1970, 249.

26 For a more detailed discussion of the theme of ‘no sound’/’sounds’ see my article on All strange away in Journal of Beckett Studies, Autumn 1979, Number 5, 99-113.

27 Richter, ocit., 167. 28 Ibid., 55.

28 Ibid., 55.