‘Imagination dead imagine’: the microcosm of the mind


Susan Brienza


The little world of the mind has been the province of Beckett’s fiction from the beginning, but in Murphy the mind is merely described objectively, and even as late as The unnamable the mind is not given the exact narrative enclosure it deserves. In Imagination dead imagine though, for the first time, Beckett achieves a style imitating a descent into the imagination. Using the imperative mood and giving the reader exact directions, the narrator requires us to visualize an image and then to dissect it. By describing his fantastic image (a white vault within a white rotunda housing two white beings lying within a three-foot-diameter circle) in a matter-of-fact tone and with scientific precision, he makes it come alive—at least in the reader’s imagination.


The narrator does not so much describe the image as create it; doesn’t so much create it as cause it to be created by the reader, because of the second-person perspective used from the beginning of the piece. But since this image arises out of nothing, fades into nothing, and may represent the nothingness of the dead imagination, Beckett is faced with a problem similar to the one he surmounted in Texts for nothing. He must develop a language that embodies a paradox—a picture of a void. The setting of Imagination dead imagine, a white enclosure, has appeared in Beckett’s fiction from Murphy to Ping, but the style of this piece marks a new direction for Beckett. Imagination covers familiar ground in a very unfamiliar way.


Near the end of How it is there is a speculation about a kind of life different from an intricate system of sacks and torturings:


            and if it is still possible at this late hour to conceive of other worlds


            as just as ours but less exquisitely organized


            one perhaps there is one perhaps somewhere merciful enough to

            shelter such frolics where no one ever abandons anyone and no

            one ever waits for anyone and never two bodies touch (143)


This perhaps is the world described in Imagination dead imagine,1 a world consisting of two bodies lying on the floor of a rotunda within a vault whose physical environment is carefully regulated by an outside force. Finally Murphy’s dream of ‘embryonic repose’ is realized in this small fiction; Murphy’s white garret has shrunk to a white vault barely able to contain two bodies in foetal position. These bodies (in a sleeplike state), suffering alternations of heat and cold, and light and darkness, resemble Molloy when he ‘was virtually bereft of feeling, not to say of consciousness, and drowned in a deep and merciful torpor shot with brief abominable gleams . . .’ (Molloy, 72). Malone thinks he may be ‘in a kind of vault’ (Malone dies, 44), and talks of coming ‘back to this foul little den all dirty white and vaulted’ (63).


The vault in Imagination dead imagine, when rapped, gives ‘a ring as in the imagination the ring of bone.’2 Similarly, Malone wonders if ‘these six planes that enclose me are of solid bone’ (Malone dies, 47). Echoing this, and anticipating the still figures in Imagination, the Unnamable sees himself as ‘a head, but solid, solid bone, and you imbedded in it, like a fossil in the rock’ (The unnamable, 48). The narrator of How it is also suggests a comparison between a white enclosure and the inside of a head:3


            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. (128)


This passage gives a sneak preview of the oscillating storm in the little world of Imagination.


In the beginning the ‘setting’ and ‘characters’ of this short fiction may seem strange, but experience shows that the white rotunda is simply one more contraction of familiar Beckettian images and preoccupations.


The concept of Murphy’s mind, the light and dark imagery of the plays, the skull-like set of Endgame, the womb and tomb imagery in the trilogy, the obsession with white in From an abandoned work, and the couple from Enough are all combined here so that Beckett can explore some of his primary concerns—perception, being, and the activity of writing. What is new is thus not the matter but the medium. The themes of Beckett’s first novel, Murphy, find expression in this tiny residuum of a novel through a new style which filters out both the ironic, omniscient voice of Murphy and the tortured, first-person voice of How it is.


The rotunda of imagination dead imagine may be classified as one of the items conceivable in the third zone of Murphy’s mind, ‘a flux of forms’ where ‘there was nothing but commotion and the pure forms of commotion’ (Murphy, 112). Murphy withdraws from the real world and tries to live in his mind, which for him is a place. In this mental area of commotion, ordinary space and time are destroyed so that the two endpoints of a lifespan become one, and time is stopped. In Imagination dead imagine life and death are similarly fused: the creatures of the rotunda may be either foetuses or dying bodies or both.


Later in Beckett’s fiction, Molloy seeks mental isolation comparable to Murphy’s and his image for it seems to foreshadow the setting of Imagination: ‘I listen and the voice is of a world collapsing endlessly, a frozen world . . . .’ The rotunda emerging from nothingness is white; the characters appear frozen; and their world collapses endlessly in cycles. The Viconian cycles discussed in Beckett’s essay on Finnegans wake may provide the model for this vibration in a world of flux. Beckett, interpreting Joyce, shows how Vico devised his cyclic theory of history from Giordano Bruno’s ideas on opposites:4


            The maxima and minima of particular contraries are one and

            indifferent. Minimal heat equals minimal cold. Consequently

            transmutations are circular. The principle (minimum) of one contrary

            takes its movement from the principle (maximum) of another.

            Therefore not only do the minima coincide with the minima, the

            maxima with the maxima, but the minima with the maxima in the

            succession of transmutations. Maximal speed is a state of rest.


Beckett’s condensed characters in Imagination dead imagine are foetal mummies oscillating between the white-hot calm of pre-birth and the great cold dark of post-mortem. But these two states actually become one, and the flux between them constitutes the Purgatory of human existence. Very often in Beckett an image of a state between two extremes (e.g. day and night, or land and sea) characterizes the mental microcosm.5


Another characteristic of the small world of the mind, especially in Murphy, is the absence of all things, nothingness. After the infamous chess game, .’ . . Murphy began to see Nothing, that colourlessness which is such a rare postnatal treat, being the absence (to abuse a nice distintion) not of percipere but of percipi’ (Murphy, 246). Murphy gets his first direct contact with Nothingness through his chess partner’s eyes. ‘Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen’ (250), just as Imagination’s rotunda is a ‘white speck lost in whiteness.’


Perception, real and imaginary, emerges as the challenge to both reader and narrator in Imagination dead imagine. The reader must alternately enter and exit from the white rotunda. On the symbolic level this may represent the movement into and out of one’s mental world, but literally the narrator is simply asking the reader to view the rotunda and its contents from different perspectives. In large part then, Imagination deals with the problems of visual perception. And Beckett gives the impression of this movement being repetitive and perhaps endless by revising the phrases ‘Go out’ and ‘go in, knock’ to ‘Go back out’ and ‘go back in, knock’ (my italics).6 Finally, in order to get a clear picture of the positions of the bodies in the vault, the reader must do exactly what the narrator recommends—actually draw a circle, with properly labelled diameter, and draw the bodies inside. Beckett himself has some calculation doodles on the handwritten first draft of Imagination dead imagine—for which he appropriately used graph paper. Imitating the narrator (for the moment becoming as concerned with geometry as he) we must become active participants in the process of visualizing.


First we are given one glimpse of a world full of places and things before all is made to vanish. Then the reader must distinguish the white rotunda against its white background. ‘Go back out, move back, the little fabric vanishes, ascend, it vanishes, all white in the whiteness, descend, go back in’ (63). (Neary, in Murphy, makes the general statement, ‘Murphy, all life is figure and ground’ [4]. If this same definition applies to Imagination, then the white rotunda against the whiteness already has a trace of life.) Next the reader must discern—through the words of the narrator—the wall, the vault, and the bodies inside. But vision depends on the presence of light so that when ‘the light goes out, all vanishes.’ And when the light is vibrating, or oscillating with darkness randomly, then perusal becomes especially difficult: ‘In this agitated light, its great white calm now so rare and brief, inspection is not easy’ (65), says the narrator—not one given to overstatement.


Besides presenting the dichotomy between external vision (the sight of the rotunda from a distance) and internal vision (the close-up view of the bodies inside), Beckett also contrasts objective views and subjective views, and opposes surface reality and inner reality. The narrator forces the reader to see through his eyes, and implies that the only valid frame of reference is the internal view: ‘Rediscovered miraculously after what absence in perfect voids it is no longer quite the same, from this point of view, but there is no other. Externally all is as before . . . But go in . . .’ (65). When inside, the reader must mentally project a three-dimensional reality from the two-dimensional one he is allowed to see. ‘Neither fat nor thin, big nor small, the bodies seem whole and in fairly good condition, to judge by the surfaces exposed to view. The faces too, assuming the two sides of a piece, seem to want nothing essential’ (66). This ‘assuming’ pushes perception to the brink of imagination.


Of course in English the word ‘vision’ may refer to one’s sight or to a fantastic delusion, it spans the spectrum from physical reality to imaginative fancy. For Beckett these different meanings are often merged, and even more often the eye or vision becomes synonymous with the mental world. For instance, one morning Murphy awakens realizing that he has forgotten what he dreamt. ‘Nothing remained but to see what he wanted to see. Any fool can turn the blind eye, but who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand?’ (176). Murphy sees more clearly with his eyes closed (i.e., in his imagination) than with them opened: ‘In the days when Murphy was concerned with seeing Miss Counihan, he had had to close his eyes to do so’ (90).


In Imagination dead imagine the characters as well as the reader have problems with vision. It is as if two Murphys were tied back-to-back in two different rocking chairs and then commanded to view each other. In the vault the left eyes of the creatures open and stare ‘at incalculable intervals,’ but because of their positions and their unsynchronized eye-movements they will never be able to see each other: ‘Never the two gazes together except once, when the beginning of one overlapped the end of the other, for about ten seconds’ (65-66). Linguistically, their eyes are sometimes non-existent, so the problem lies even deeper: ‘Piercing pale blue [eyes] the effect of striking, in the beginning’ (65). (In the original French Imagination morte imaginez, the word for eyes is also missing.) They cannot perceive each other, but the two creatures are viewed by the narrator and the reader: ‘Only murmur ah, no more, in this silence, and at the same instant for the eye of prey the infinitesimal shudder instantaneously suppressed’ (66). This sentence, surrounded by relatively normal sentences with subjects, verbs and objects in conventional patterns, is stylistically foregrounded because it is difficult to parse, wonderfully ambiguous, and sonorous. With its accumulation of ‘s’ and ‘i’ sounds and its regular metre (‘infinitesimal’ and ‘instantaneously’ both have six syllables; ‘shudder’ and ‘suppressed’ both have two), the sentence is poetically rich. Significantly it also marks the climax of the piece.


Like the main character of Film, the two bodies seem to feel the ‘agony of perceivedness,’ of being, when they are viewed. With Film Beckett dramatizes Bishop Berkeley’s motto (also used in Murphy), ‘To be is to be perceived.’ With Imagination dead imagine, Beckett shows that the reverse is also true: to be perceived is to be; perception of A by B brings A into existence. The eye of the camera in Film is suggested to be human by the opening shot of a huge eye, notes Raymond Federman.7 Although ambiguity surrounds the phrase ‘the eye of prey’ in Imagination,8 the eye is unambiguously human here even if the reader is forced to focus and refocus like a detached camera lens. In the introductory remarks for Film, Beckett writes: ‘Search of non-being in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in inescapability of selfperception. . . . It will not be clear until the end of the film that pursuing perceiver is not extraneous but self.’9


This same confusion of perceiver and perceived occurs in Imagination in which, argues John Grant, ‘the eye of the investigator takes what is, at bottom, a morbid interest in his subject. And how he sees reflects his character and, conceivably, what he sees produces in him the “shudder” that is covered up as quickly as possible.’10


In an earlier version of Imagination dead imagine called All strange away Beckett had not yet exploited the possibilities of the narrator/ observer. Revealing merely a bored tone, this narrator stops himself from a continued examination of the lower parts of a character’s body, thinking ‘all this prying pointless.’11 He seems to share some characteristics with his two creations (for all three ‘Fancy is [the] only hope’) but not to react to them emotionally.


In Imagination, as the agony of being moves from the two bodies to the narrator, in Brian Finney’s reading, the sudder instantaneously flows into the reader: ‘But if it is painful for the two archetypal victims of their environment to be made to face the truth about human existence, then it follows that it must be equally painful for the reader-cum-observer to face the same truth.’12 At this point in the story the reader sees how clinical and unfeeling he has allowed himself to become, under the power of the scientific narrator. Released sympathy for the creatures becomes sympathy for self (after the shock of self-recognition), and the walls of delusion come tumbling down as they did for the narrator of How it is.


Throughout Beckett’s works the opening or closing of eyes has represented the acceptance or rejection of physical reality.13 Murphy tries to close his eyes and his mind and retreat to his blissful dark zone. Conversely, Krapp tries to stay in his ‘zone of light,’ the place near his table, for in Krapp’s last tape the movement from light to darkness symbolizes the movement from the self to the outside world. Krapp has the illusion that he can separate the light from darkness, and (in James Knowlson’s interpretation) he misses his one opportunity for salvation—through the girl, the Other. The French for Krapp’s romantically sexual ‘Let me in,’ ‘M’ont laisée entrer,’ indicates that the real subject here is ‘eyes,’14 so that the eyes of the girl contain everything, the whole world.


In philosophical circles, of course, this phenomenon has some acceptance: the existence of the world may depend on the perceiver, and one’s eyes may determine the reality of the entire world. As Bishop Berkeley argues, visual perception is crucial to both material existence and to the imagination. In his dialogues between Hylas and Philonous15 he demonstrates that sight is relative and subjective, partly because clearer vision can be obtained through the scientific extensions of the eye—the telescope and the microscope. Similarly, Beckett’s scientific narrator recommends telescopic and microscopic views of the rotunda, its surroundings, and its contents.


Perhaps the white vault, the only physical ‘reality’ we are given in Imagination, is an eye—a huge eyeball as well as a mental world. In Film the eye functions as the symbol of the separation between the inner and outer worlds. Since the eye is necessary for both the observer and the observed, reasons Knowlson,16 its eradication leads to total extinction, to nothingness. The eye determines being, and serves to separate the internal from the external, the mental world from the outside world, and imagination from reality. And if to be perceived is to be, then also to be imagined (to be seen in the mind’s eye) is to be. Berkeley’s Philnous would agree: ‘But are not things imagined as truly in the mind as things perceived?’ (Three dialogues, 52).


Besides suggesting a giant eye and a skull, the white rotunda of course represents a womb for the two foetal characters, or a tomb (‘vault’). Lawrence Harvey notes17 that in Beckett’s poetry both the womb and the tomb become images of the transforming imagination. In particular, the poem ‘The Vulture’ portrays the microcosm of the imagination as a place to live and do creative work. Here the bird and its prey correspond to the poet and his poem, according to Harvey’s interpretation.18 Thus the rotunda may simply be the construction of an imagination to prove that it is not dead, and Imagination dead imagine could be Samuel Beckett’s written proof that he has not been blocked by the fictional dead-end he reaced after The unnamable. Once again we are faced with the typically Beckettian paradox of a storyteller trying to narrate a story with nothing to express and no means of expression. This time the artist of failure may have succeeded.


The first sentence of Imagination indicates that someone (the reader’? an inner voice?) is daring the narrator to write a work of imaginative fiction in which there is no trace of life: ‘No trace anywhere of life you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet . . .’ (63). The narrator accepts the challenge, but then makes the task even more difficult: if there is no life anywhere then there is no mental life, so even the imagination must be dead. But, paradoxically, there is always a mind there (the reader’s?) to imagine the death of the imagination: .’ . . imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine.’ Here the second of John J. Mood’s three expressive renderings of the title seems helpful: ‘ “Imagination dead. (Well, then,) imagine (something anyway)”—using the imperative.’19 But for the piece as a whole the title might mean that we must imagine the death of the imagination, as other critics have come to feel. Either way the title sets the syntactic pattern of the entire piece, and introduces a syntax of ellipses and imperatives.20 In terse, compelling language, using the second person, Beckett makes the reader experience the process of the imagination, the creation of something out of nothing.


David Hesla has shown that in Murphy Beckett explores different levels of consciousness in a way reminiscent of Henri Bergson’s Creative evolution.21 The different levels of cognition in Imagination dead imagine also seem to be modelled on Bergsonian philosophy. Bergson continues Descartes’s method, and demonstrates that even if man can think himself out of existence, some awareness must be left to perceive the awareness that is leaving.22


I see myself annihilated only as I have already resuscitated myself

            by an act which is positive, however involuntary and unconscious.

            So, do what I will, I am always perceiving something, either from

            without or from within. When I no longer know anything of external

            objects, it is because I have taken refuge in the consciousness that

            I have of myself. If I abolish this inner self, its very abolition

            becomes an object for an imaginary self which now perceives as an

            external object the self that is dying away. Be it external or internal,

            some object there always is that my imagination is representing. My

            imagination, it is true, can go from one to the other. I can by turns

            imagine a nought of external perception or a nought of internal

            perception, but not both at once, for the absence of one consists, at

            bottom, in the exclusive presence of the other . . . we cannot

            imagine a nought without perceiving, at least consequently, that we

            are acting, that we are thinking, and therefore that something still



Beckett seems to borrow from Bergson again for his first attempt to imagine nothingness.23 Bergson’s recipe advises that we begin by imagining everything, and then destroy it all. Imagination’s narrator calls up a world and then erases it: ‘Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit’ (63). The omitting continues until we are left with a perfectly blank slate on which we can mentally draw our white rotunda. Beckett achieved a sense of sudden change through some minor revisions to the original manuscript: ‘one look’ became ‘one glimpse’ and ‘gone’ became ‘vanished.’ Also, the French original for ‘one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit’ is ‘fixez pff, muscade, une eternité, taisez.’24 Here the onomatopoetic ‘pff,’ and the choice of ‘muscade’ which translates as ‘presto!’ give the impression of a verbal magician creating a world out of nothing. Beckett then peoples this imaginary world with two creatures and through them represents inner and outer reality. Bergson goes on to present an elaborate description of an image of Nothing:


The image, then, properly so called, of a suppression of everything

            is never formed by thought. The effort by which we strive to create

            this image simply ends in making us swing to and fro between the

            vision of an outer and that of an inner reality. In this coming and

            going of our mind between the without and the within, there is a

            point, at equal distance from both, in which it seems to us that we

            no longer perceive the one, and that we do not yet perceive the

            other: it is there that the image of ‘Nothing’ is formed. In reality we

            then perceive both, having reached the point where the terms come

            together, and the image of Nothing, so defined, is an image full of

            things, an image that includes at once that of the subject and that of

            the object and, besides, a perpetual leaping from one to the other

            and the refusal ever to come to rest finally on either. (Creative

            evolution, 303-04)


The reader’s attention in Imagination dead imagine moves from the narrator himself (as object) to the creatures in the dome (who in turn become the objects of the narrator-subject’s attention). This oscillating movement is mirrored in the flux of atmospheric conditions in the vault (which may determine the flux of consciousness of the creatures), and in the oscillating rhythm of the text itself. Just as the reader’s eye must look within and without the rotunda, so his imagination must move within and without, as in Bergson’s directions, in order to perceive the rotunda and his own act of imagining.


That this rotunda exists in the mind only is constantly emphasized. In this fiction, Beckett is developing Schopenhauer’s idea that if imagination is dead, then the external world disappears and only the internal remains.25 After all is ‘vanished,’ only the internal worlds of the narrator and of the reader still exist, and through an act of the imagination we must, together, construct a new external world out of the nothingness. The whiteness of the rotunda blends into the surrounding whiteness so that it can be distinguished only by the eye of the imagination. The rotunda is twice termed ‘the little fabric’; it is a pure fabrication. This is an aspect missing in the earlier English versions—and in the French version of the piece, where the rotunda is referred to at first simply as ‘elle’ (52) and later as ‘le petit edifice’ (55). With this change in the English Beckett is able to recall Shakespeare’s magician, Prospero, and ‘the baseless fabric of this vision.’


Bergson’s thoughts on the process of fabrication may even elucidate the very narrative technique of Imagination dead imagine:


            . . . an intelligence which aims at fabricating is an intelligence which

            never stops at the actual form of things nor regards it as final, but,

            on the contrary, looks upon all matter as if it were carvable at will . .

            . it is this power (fabrication) that we affirm when we say that there

            is a space, that is to say, a homogeneous and empty medium,

            infinite and infinitely divisible, lending itself indifferently to any mode

            of decomposition whatsoever. A medium of this kind is never

            perceived, it is only conceived. What is perceived is extension

            colored, resistant, divided according to the lines which mark out the

            boundaries of real bodies or of their real elements. (Creative

            evolution, 172).


This analysis of the imaginative process helps account for the geometry, measurement and boundaries of the text. The narrator does not depict a pre-existing, real rotunda; he fabricates it, and its world, as he goes along. Molloy proclaims (although he retracts it later) that ‘saying is inventing’ (Molloy, 38), and this typifies the speaker’s technique in Imagination. Here the almost conversational usage of the word ‘say’ implies that the narrator-inspector is devising the details of the vault’s environment as he speaks—that he is imagining out loud: .’ . . all grows dark together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds . . .’ (63); ‘At the same time the temperature goes down, to reach its minimum say freezing point . . .’ (63); .’ . . all grows white and hot together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds. . .’ (63); .’ . . pitch black is.reached and at the same instant say freezing point’ (64). This is the same kind of language Beckett himself employs in the stage directions for his plays. For example, for Winnie’s opening scene in Happy days, Beckett writes: ‘Long pause. A bell rings piercingly, say ten seconds, stops. She does not move. Pause. Bell more piercingly, say five seconds. She wakes.’ This is the language of a fabricator.


Inventing through saying is even more apparent in the language of All strange away. Beckett recalled to James Knowlson that he wrote this piece during 1963-64. ‘I imagine on the way to Imagination morte imaginez.’26 Here all the strange and extraneous narrative embellishments are taken away through self-conscious revision. This narrator’s motto is ‘Imagine what needed, no more. . .’; any detail that he decides on ‘always was’ and any object that he decides against is ‘gone . . . never was.’ Thus the process of selection and deletion, which produces shifts in narration even within the sentence, graphs a kind of de-creation in prose.


Similarly, Imagination’s narrator wipes out the real world by telling us to omit four things -islands, waters, azure, verdure. But in order to offer something for the imagination to grasp, he must supply other things, other nouns. By deleting certain verbs, omitting many articles, and rearranging some phrases, he puts a great deal of stress on each noun. To replace the four nouns which vanished at the beginning of the piece, we have ‘emptiness, silence, heat, whiteness,’ and four other nouns which recur as a group throughout the piece: ‘ground, wall, vault, bodies.’ The natural world was symbolized by four constituents; the artificial world of the rotunda consists of four objects and four properties.


Trying to give the reader the illusion of reality for this imaginary rotunda, the narrator uses language and its magic tricks. As Ludovic Janvier has pointed out,27 Beckett’s use of the imperative forces the reader to take possession of the rotunda, to enter in, to explore. The invitation (or the command) to measure the dome, coupled with Beckett’s geometrical notation and precise scientific language,28 gives credibility to this object created out of nothing. Our scepticism is calmed with the recurrent qualification that ‘in the beginning’ all this may ‘seem strange,’ but that ‘experience shows’ (the French is stronger: ‘l’expérience le prouve’) that not only the regularities of the rotunda’s environment, but also certain irregularities are ‘possible.’ Even the qualifications of the details lend credence to the earlier descriptions, because of the variability of reality in the physical world. But more important, the movement from ‘in the beginning’ to ‘experience shows’ gives the rotunda some illusory duration in time as well as reality in space.


Finally, Beckett uses the presence and absence of various verb forms (not just the imperative) to imitate his content linguistically. If imagination is dead and if nothing exists then Beckett can not call attention to any mind of body doing anything: he must delete actors, subjects of sentences. He seems to accomplish this by resorting more and more to passive verbs. Thus in the first manuscript the temperatures ‘reach their initial level,’ but in the first typescript ‘their initial level is reached.’ The use of the passive ‘rediscovered’ at the beginning of the sentence which seems to bring the vault back into existence begs the question of who is doing the rediscovering (the narrator? the reader?). At times even a passive construction sounded too active apparently, so that ‘a pause is made’ is changed to the more neutral ‘a pause occurs’ by the first typescript, erasing any creator of the pause.


At the beginning of the piece there is a noticeable lack of copulative verbs. Ordinarily one would expect a description to contain many ‘there is’s’ and ‘there are’s.’ Instead, Beckett writes otherwise grammatical sentences minus the main verb. With this stylistic device, he avoids stating that anything exists just yet; only after he has brought the rotunda into existence in other ways does he employ the verb ‘to be’ as other than a mere auxiliary. Thus at the start of Imagination dead imagine we read sentences like: ‘Till all white in the whiteness [there is] the rotunda . . . Diameter [is] the vault . . .’ (63). Conversely, by the end of the piece, copulatives and verbs in general abound. Now ‘there is’ seems to stand for the possibility of life itself as Beckett moves from ‘there is better elsewhere’ to ‘there is nothing elsewhere.’ The latter implies that there is something here -lost perhaps, but still existing. No trace of life has become at least a ‘white speck’ with creatures inside. They have become real (or at least imaginable) through language, and we can wonder ‘if they still lie still in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing’ (66).


We have come to accept the rotunda as real even though its qualities and parameters contradict our assumptions and knowledge about the real world.29 The only way to reconcile these contradictions is through the phenomenon of the imagination. Entering the world of the dome is like going through Alice in Wonderland’s looking glass. It is impossible to get in but somehow we are there: ‘No way in, go in, measure’ (63). In this imaginary world the strong light has ‘no visible source’ and creates `no shadow.’ Unlike the rational universe this is a place where causes have illogical effects. Time as well as causality seems to be warped in this world with ‘pauses of varying length, from the fraction of the second to what would have seemed in other times, other places, an eternity’ (64). Contrary to the laws of physics, in the rotunda there is no time lag between changes in light and changes in temperature.30 Also, time is stretched and human nature exceeded: the left eyes of the creatures ‘gaze in unblinking exposure long beyond what is humanly possible’ (65).


The reader also must attempt the impossible. We are asked to try to perceive the woman’s long hair ‘of strangely imperfect whiteness,’ against a background of white, and the narrator almost apologizes for other strange things: ‘The extremes, as long as they last, are perfectly stable, which in the case of the temperature may seem strange, in the beginning’ (64). In fact, the narrator admits that he had been asking the reader to imagine this world step-by-step by making a revealing qualification towards the end of the piece: ‘It is clear however, from a thousand little signs too long to imagine, that they are not sleeping’ (66, my italics).


Through the paradoxes and the contradictions of the world of Imagination dead imagine, Beckett has managed to write about the impossible, and in a sense, about nothing. Beckett has fulfilled the prophecy of Livio Dobrez: ‘He will treat nothing not as non-existent but as impossibly there. In other words it is not a question of not speaking but of speaking in such a way that nothing is expressed and that what is expressed is nothing . . .’31 By the end of the piece the white rotunda and the two creatures possess being, and the only questions concern their whereabouts and condition. Ironically, the narrative which began ‘No trace anywhere of life’ ends with ‘what they are doing,’ i.e., with beings and activity, the bare constituents for life and for fiction.


Indeed, perhaps the rotunda has become too real and this is why it must disappear at the end of the piece, never to be discovered again. ‘Leave them there, sweating and icy, there is better elsewhere. No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere . . .’ (66). Perhaps there is better elsewhere because there is nothing elsewhere. Beckett’s earliest major character, Belacqua, in Beckett’s earliest novel, began the search for absence which is the search for the mental microcosm.32 Dream of fair to middling women, despite its humour, is quite serious in its philosophical search for the void:33


The real presence was a pest because it did not give the

            imagination a break. Without going as far as Stendhal, who said . . .

            that the best music . . . was the music that became inaudible after a

            few bars, we do declare and maintain stiffly . . . that the object that

            becomes invisible before your eyes is, so to speak, the brightest

            and best.


Beckett filled the empty space created by the omission of the real world and the death of the imagination with mere words, and his stylistic problem in this piece was to use language that would conjure up something and yet create Nothing at the same time. Waft asserts that ‘the only way one can speak of nothing is to speak of it as if it were something.’ The language of Imagination dead imagine is modeled on Watt’s advice, and the work as a whole serves as evidence for Beckett’s favorite statement by Democritus (also used in Murphy), ‘Nothing is more real than nothing.’ The imaginary creatures in the imaginary dome (partly because of their enchanting allusiveness) take form and reverberate in the microcosm of the reader’s mind.


1 H. Porter Abbott, The fiction of Samuel Beckett: form and effect, University of California Press, 1973, 146.

2 Samuel Beckett, Imagination dead imagine, in First love and other shorts, New York, Grove Press, 1974, 63. All later references to this piece will be to this edition.

3 Hugh Kenner, A reader’s guide to Samuel Beckett, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973, 178.

4 Samuel Beckett, ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce’ in Our exagmination round his factification for incamination of Work in Progress, New York, New Directions, 1962, 6.

5 Lawrence Harvey, Samuel Beckett: poet and critic, Princeton University Press, 1970, 32.

6 The manuscripts and typescripts containing these revisions are in the manuscript collection at Washington University at St Louis.

7 ‘Samuel Beckett’s film on the agony of perceivedness,’ James Joyce quarterly, 8, Summer 1971, 369.

8 John E. Grant ‘Imagination Dead?,’ James Joyce quarterly, 8, Summer 1971, 340.

9 Samuel Beckett, Cascando and other short dramatic pieces, New York, Grove Press, 1968, 75.

10 Grant, 340-41. Grant’s italics.

11 All strange away, 7. Printed in Journal of Beckett Studies, No. 3, Summer 1978, 1-9.

12 Brian Finney, ‘A Reading of Samuel Beckett’s Imagination dead imagine,’ Twentieth century literature, 17, April 1971, 70.

13 James Knowlson, Light and darkness in the theatre of Samuel Beckett, London, Turret Books, 1972, 18.

14 Knowlson, 26.

15 George Berkeley, Three dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, New York, Merrily, 1954.

16 Knowlson, 39.

17 ‘A Poet’s Initiation,’ 171-84 in Melvin J. Friedman, ed. Samuel Beckett now, University of Chicago Press, 1970, 184.

18 Harvey, 183.

19 ‘ “Silence within” : a study of the Residua of Samuel Beckett,’ Studies in short fiction, 7, 1969, 390.

20 Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett, Princeton University Press, 1973, 327.

21 Hesla, The shape of chaos: an interpretation of the art of Samuel Beckett, University of Minnesota Press, 1971, 57-58.

22 Henri Bergson, Creative evolution, New York, Modern Library, 1944, 303. Other Bergson quotation are from this edition.

23 Evidence that Beckett was interested in and influenced by Henri Bergson can be found in the many Bergsonian concepts of time, the intellect, and the artistic vision woven into his lectures on the French novel. See the notes taken by a student of Beckett at Trinity, Rachel Burrows, dated Michaelmas 1931; on microfilm in the Beckett Manuscript Collection at Trinity College Dublin.

24 Samuel Beckett, Imagination morte imaginex in Têtes-mortes, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967, 51. Other references to the French original are to this edition.

25 G.C. Bernard, Samuel Beckett: a new approach, New York, Dodd, Mead & Go., 1970, 80.

26 Quoted in James Knowlson’s ‘Editorial,’ Journal of Beckett Studies, No. 3, Summer 1978.

27 ‘Le Lieu du retrait de la blancheur de l’écho,’ Critique, February 1967, 224.

28 Finney, 66.

29 Finney, 67.

30 Kenner, 178.

31 ‘Samuel Beckett’s Irreducible,’ Southern review, 6, 1973, 207.

32 Harvey, Poet and critic, 315.

33 P9-10. A photocopy of this unpublished novel is in the Beckett Archives at the University of Reading Library, England.