What follows is a close reading of a comparatively inaccessible text completed in August 1973 and submitted on request as a contribution to a memorial volume for the German poet and radio playwright, Günter Eich. Entitled ‘As the story was told’ and to date published only in the Suhrkamp Verlag memorial volume,1 it has every appearance of being an occasional piece. But like La Falaise published two years later and originally entitled Pour Bram,2 it makes a significant contribution to the developing canon of Beckett’s recent fiction and shows Beckett exploring problems which have always been his particular concern. Nevertheless, as the text clearly does explore the nature of a ‘writing occasion,’ in conclusion I speculate on its connection with the circumstances which attended its composition.
For other reasons besides the text’s comparative inaccessibility, it is best to offer a chronological close reading. In the course of doing so, my aim is to demonstrate that the text is concerned with the nature of creative activity, with the relationship between story-telling and truth-seeking and between Imagination and Fancy—to use Coleridge’s distinction. I shall contend that the split within the subject, apparent in creativity, is dramatised both in the story itself and in the manner of its transmission, to both of which the title of the text alludes. Consequently the split is not only within both story and narration but between them as well. While the text explores these disjunctions, it also uncovers the ground upon which they rest and finally suggests the belated possibility that a creative synthesis might have existed, a synthesis uniting author and character, story and narration, fiction and truth within the imagination of the creative artist. In uncovering this possibility, it is essential to chart the ways in which the text shifts from one level of discourse and plane of reference to another. In examining the ways in which these disjunctions operate it will be demonstrated how they beguile the reader intent on remaining within the familiar conventions of narrative which the text exploits.
The opening sentence invites such a response by setting up a number of perspectives to which we can refer: ‘As the story was told me I never went near the place during sessions.’ By repeating the title words here, Beckett seems to be emphasizing (as he does when they are later repeated) the frame of reference within which the story has its place, that the story is told by an Other, thereby removing authority for it from the first person narrator. The sentence also makes plain that the story itself places the narrator at a distance from what is happening, removing him from both narration and story and allowing us to forget the very act of narration which is the text we are reading.
This distance from both the act of narration and the details of the narrative is developed in the first of two questions that the first person narrator asks of the story-teller: ‘I asked what place and a tent was described at length, a small tent the colour of its surroundings.’ We are reminded of the ‘little fabric’ in Imagination dead imagine,3 and must conclude that the tent is an imagined place. Just as the rotunda in Imagination dead imagine (when seen from the outside) was pictured ‘all white in the whiteness,’4 so the tent here is camouflaged ‘the colour of its surroundings.’ The man within the story is removed from the place, his only contact with it being through the story-teller, and it is because he is not nearby that only such a barely imagined place is described to us. But because the information is provided by a story-teller who (like the third person narrator in Imagination dead imagine) is more authoritative, the description is offered to the narrator ‘at length.’ It is odd that the place should be described ‘at length’ when there seems so little that is capable of being described. After all, description is essentially a matter of placing figure upon ground, of separating content from context, and ever since Murphy Beckett has explored the implications of Neary’s remark that ‘all life is figure and ground.’5 Here it would seem that the tent is both figure and ground, both part of and apart from its surroundings. I shall argue later that this paradoxical form of imaginative perception is at the heart of any authentic creativity, but here, so long as narrator and story-teller are apart, so long as the narrator’s distance from the sessions is maintained, there is no possibility of any authentic identification of the object as object or of the object with its surroundings.
Because the narrator is located outside both the story and the tent which figures within it, it is not difficult to understand his reaction: ‘Wearying of this description I asked what sessions and these in their turn were described, their object, duration, frequency and harrowing nature.’ Once more, information is withheld from us (in particular the identity of the occupant) but it is clear from the references to categories of description—‘object,’ ‘duration’ and ‘frequency’—that inside the imagined place, circumspect description of the conditions which obtain is at least provisionally possible (as it was in Imagination dead imagine).
Of course, upon hearing of the ‘harrowing nature’ of the sessions—this is, after all, more a mode of experience than a category of description it is hardly surprising that the narrator should interrupt the story: ‘I hope I was not more sensitive than the next man, but finally I had to raise my hand.’6 The tent was described ‘at length’; there was too little there for the narrator to imagine. Here there is clearly too little room for the imagination and too much information about raw experience for the narrator as auditor to feel comfortable. Here he deliberately underplays his sensitivity in order to establish that his reaction is a normal, human response to the record of pain. But in doing so he is inevitably associating himself with the victim of the sessions who is, as it were, ‘the next man’ and no doubt as sensitive as himself.
This unacknowledged and unwelcome complicity with the man in the tent awakens us to an unwilling identification between the two men. Distance from the narration which contains the record of painful experience has only been achieved by a further interruption of it. But it is the very manner of this interruption which alerts us to the identification and which prompts us to ask a long overdue question regarding the ‘sessions’ themselves. The gesture of the raised hand can be seen in a variety of ways. Clearly the auditor has heard enough; more specifically, however, bearing in mind its repeated occurrence in Beckett’s writing, it suggests the customary gesture of placing the hand in front of the face to shut out what is either seen or imagined.7 What has been ‘told’ by the story-teller has in turn been seen by the auditor; having interrupted description of the tent because it could be insufficiently visualised, he now interrupts description of the ‘sessions’ because they are too vividly imagined.
But the gesture of the raised hand has, I suggest, a further reference. Beckett frequently alludes in his work to the hand as a writing hand. The gesture here is surely that of the hand which ceases writing and raises itself from the page. If this is the case, then what has been ‘told’ has not only been seen but also written. The distance (within the narration) between ‘voice’ and ‘hearer’ is reflected in that (within the story) between the ‘I’ who ‘never went near the place during sessions’ and the man whom we imagine is there suffering. Story and narration can therefore be seen as complementary parts of a single process, for are not the ‘sessions’ writing sessions of the kind dramatised for example in the fizzle ‘Horn came always’? Beckett, we know, has talked of himself as being ‘absent’ during periods of creativity and of emerging from them unable to remember what he has written.
I am suggesting that the ‘hearer’ of the story (who is also the narator of the text we are reading) is actually the man in the tent, but that because of the divisive nature of creative activity—this is already dramatised in the dictation motif with which the text begins—they are not identified with each other. The fifth of the Texts for nothing (to which I shall return) concerns itself explicitly with ‘sessions’ of an inquisitorial nature, and within the courtroom setting the narrator is clearly representing his creative difficulties : ‘Yes,’ he writes, ‘I see the scene, I see the hand, it comes creeping out of shadow, the shadow of my head, then scurries back, no connection with me.’8
It seems odd that while the ‘place’ and the ‘sessions’ are described, no description or identification of the victim is offered. Given the sensitivity which causes the auditor to interrupt the story he is writing, we must conclude that writing itself is the activity of a ‘harrowing nature.’ It is an activity engaged in both by the occupant of the tent and by the narrator of the text we are reading. The distance in the story between the man in the tent and the man who ‘never went near the place’ is matched by the distance between the man who is told the story and the unnamed author who dictates it. It is at the moment when the story (and therefore storytelling) is interrupted that the distance is revealed as a device for exploring the nature of storytelling and truth-seeking. The interruption temporarily suspends both the narrative and the narration, uncovering a further level, and it is here that we are reminded of the act of narration which is the text we are reading. But this level is immediately covered up by a return to the dramatized narration of story-telling: ‘I lay there quite still for a time, then asked where I was while all this was going forward.’ Here the auditor attempts to dissociate himself from both the narration and the story, describing himself as the passive, supine recipient of story, and keen to be placed in the story at a remove from the activities in the tent: ‘In a hut, was the answer, a small but in a grove some two hundred yards away, a distance even the loudest cry could not carry, but must die on the way.’ It is my contention that the tent and the but are essentially the same dwelling, but that such a dwelling is only imaginable if split into two, just as the creative act of narration is only imaginable as a process of ‘invocation’ (as How it is puts it).9 The initial description of the but—‘a small but in a grove’—is very similar to the description of the tent—‘a small tent the colour of its surroundings.’ First the place itself is named and then its surroundings, the ground against which it figures. But whereas the narrator wearied of the description of the tent because there was too little to imagine, the image of the but is a good deal more substantial and its position ‘in a grove’ more readily imaginable. While both dwellings, therefore, are camouflaged, blending in with, though separate from, their surroundings, the but is clearly a more fully realised construction and its position less ambiguous.
If, as I am suggesting, ‘As the story was told’ is concerned with the nature of the creative act, with the struggle between the dissociation of story-telling and the identity of truth-seeking, then the split within the creative artist is embodied in the narration as the difficulty of uniting the two dwellings. Encountering this difficulty leads to the expedient of wanting the dwellings clearly separated so that their individual characteristics and the relationship between the two places can be scutinized. This, of course, only compounds the difficulties, for the author can only examine his creativity through the creative act, and cannot therefore dissociate himself from the process he wishes to scrutinize. He is both the figure and the ground of his own creativity. Consequently story-telling emerges from truth-seeking (as The lost ones puts it, ‘prior to never having been’10), and the auditor’s dissociation from the activity within the tent is reflected in his renunciation of responsibility for the story which places him at a distance from it. Unable to hear ‘even the loudest cry’ which might emanate from the inquisitorial sessions, the man can dissociate himself from the activities there. And yet the hut is placed at an imaginable distance from the tent, placed in perspective to it although impermeable to interruption from it. Although absent from the tent, the narrator has to be found in relation to it; although he is the passive recipient of a story, it is nevertheless a story concerning himself, very much a story which is related to and which therefore relates to him.
This delicate and deliberate positioning within both narration and story naturally elicits a reaction from the auditor:
This was not so strange as at first sight it sounded when one con-
sidered the stoutness of the canvas and the sheltered situation of
the but among the trees. Indeed the tent might have been struck
where it stood and moved forward fifty yards or so without incon-
It has become increasingly clear that ‘inconvenience’ is what the man most wants to avoid, a suffering identification of and with the man in the tent. As All strange away reminds us, what had once been imagined and thought strange can, at least provisionally, be imagined as real. In an early draft of ‘As the story was told’ what was ‘strange’ was merely so ‘at first’11—the addition of the word ‘sight’ reminds us that the landscape is imagined. What seems ‘strange at first sight’ is that the tent and the hut can be imagined as separate. Because they are essentially the same, as speaker and hearer are the same, it is only (to quote from ‘Still’) by ‘Close inspection’12 that they can be sundered, only by prolonged imaginative attention that they can be distinguished. All strange away moved forward by imagining ‘A place, then someone in it’13; because the tent in this text cannot be adequately represented, no identification of the ‘someone’ inside is possible. Only by imagining another more substantial dwelling located with reference to the tent can the creative activity and the place in which it ‘go[es] forward’ be located and examined at that distance. I would suggest that, as in Imagination dead imagine and the fizzle ‘Horn Came Always,’ what is seen ‘at first sight’ is what the narrator of the fizzle described as ‘an unbroken plane’ in his case ‘the ceiling’14 as he lay supine on his bed—the ‘whiteness’ of Imagination dead imagine. In the ‘fizzle’ the narrator recognised Horn’s face ‘the more it entered shadow’ and referred to it as a ‘disclosing,’ an opening out of the image as the real figure was closed off, as it were, by the darkness. His attempt to ‘banish’ the image, to ‘interpose’ the hand (like the figure in ‘As the story was told’) was therefore ‘not a real protection’ from confusing ‘outer space’ with ‘the other . . . as we shall see’15 (my emphasis). The moment at which the object appears or disappears, the moment at which it is both figure and ground is the moment at which, to quote Beckett on the brothers van Velde, ‘invisibility itself becomes a thing.’16 But it is also the moment at which the confusion between ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ the real world of the imagination and the imaginary nature of the real ‘disclos[es] itself.’
In ‘As the story was told’ the disclosure of the two dwellings from the ‘unbroken plane’ from which they can, as a single object, be said to have originated, is something ‘considered,’ as the text suggests. However, the details concerning the hut are a different kind from those relating to the tent. While the tent itself is rendered more hermetic, having ‘stout’ canvas, it is the situation of the hut ‘sheltered . . . among the trees’ which is explored. The tent, as we discover, is portable.17 It is an impenetrable object, yet grounded nowhere. Like the imagined object in Imagination dead imagine, it is ‘solid throughout’18 if examined from the inside, for the ‘loudest cry’ does not reach it. But it is not grounded securely in its surroundings if observed from the outside. The hut, on the other hand, is carefully grounded in its ‘sheltered situation . . . among the trees’; its hermeticism, we might say, is a matter of circumstance not substance. The but itself has not been described, but its fixity in contrast to the movement of the tent means that while it was at first positioned ‘some two hundred yards away’ from the tent, it is now the hut which provides the perspective within which the tent figures (or would ‘figure’ were it capable of being clearly delineated from the outside). The tent merges into its surroundings; the hut emerges out of them. The movement of disappearance and appearance is such that in crossing the boundary at which ‘invisibility iself becomes a thing,’ the object changes from tent to hut. The imagination cannot grasp any one object and its context, only the object at the expense of its surroundings, or circumstance at the expense of substance. The object seen from inside is a different object from that seen on the outside; similarly, the writer is pictured as both hearer and scribe.
In mentioning the ‘hearer’ (who is also the author of the text we read and the unacknowledged author of the story that is ‘told’) I return to the narration, for similar problems apply here. The information, we recall ‘was not so strange as at first sight it sounded’ (my emphasis). ‘Sounded’ reminds us that speech accompanies, indeed involves, the sundering of the object into tent and hut. The information, significantly enough, is that sound does not ‘carry’ between the two dwellings; but it is clear that in conveying this information, sound must ‘carry’ between teller and told. The silence within the story is at the expense of the silence within the narration. The sound of silence is no more accessible than the ‘thingness’ of ‘invisibility’ to the creative artist who is unable to authenticate story and text, for whom the act of writing is literally a ‘displacement.’
What has been heard has been translated into something seen; what is sounded is sighted by he who listens. In translating himself from tent to hut, the hearer wants to place himself in a position which avoids ‘inconvenience,’ a position from which the process outlined so far can be reversed. In such a case the narration would be silent in order that the hearer might see the but and afterwards offer his own description within the text we read. This would be a description of the place which emerges from its surroundings rather than of one which merges with them and of which he can be ‘told.’
Lying there with closed eyes in the silence which followed this
information I began to see the hut, though unlike the tent it had not
been described to me, but only its situation.
The narrator is now in a position to imagine ‘with closed eyes’ the place previously occluded by the ground it occupied in the description which has been previously given to him. Up to this point he has been unable to see either the tent or the but in their entirety because the narration forced a separation between the two dwellings and between the two requirements of full description—figure and ground. By assuming authorship and closing the eyes which were before open to ‘outer space’ (or at least to sounds from without) he hopes that the object will disclose itself. In emerging from invisibility and soundlessness, the place will become visible as the place inhabited by the creative artist.
In an earlier draft of the text we find at this point a rhetorical question which Beckett’s narrator’s often ask: ‘How shall I describe it?’19 This reminds us very forcibly of the difficult translation of image into language and alerts us to the particular mode of description the narrator now offers:
It reminded me strongly of a summer-house in which as a child I
used to sit quite still for hours on end, on the windowseat, the
whole year round. It had the same five log walls, the same coloured
glass, the same diminuitiveness, being not more than ten feet
across and so low of ceiling that the average man could not have
held himself erect in it, though of course there was no such difficulty
for the child.
What is striking about this description, of course, is that it can hardly be said to be of the but itself. It is a picture of a remembered place rather than an accurate portrayal of an imagined dwelling which discloses itself to the mind’s eye. Perception of an object involves the sighting of a figure against the surrounding ground. The object is seen also in the context of other remembered objects which will themselves serve as the ground against which the specified object figures. Looking at the but not, we gather ‘at first sight’ but in ‘beg[inning] to see’ it—reminds the auditor of another dwelling. It is a relatively substantial dwelling; indeed the weariness that was felt in the description of the tent is to be contrasted with the strength of this image. But it is an image far removed from what we imagine to be present to the mind’s eye. And what is specified is not so much the contrast between the imagined and the remembered places as the similarities. Perception therefore is a matter of recognition, of identifying part or all of the object as already known, as already grounded in memory. It is clear that the hut invoked here is merging with a remembered place before it can possibly emerge from the surroundings which give it shape and substance.
The sketchy details of this represented place show the auditor’s unwillingness to recognise and engage with the predicament of the artist. In wishing to distance himself from the activities in the tent, he removes himself to a remembered place and a remembered time both of which are themselves removed from changing places and passing time: the summer-house was not used only in summer for the child frequented it ‘the whole year round,’ sitting there ‘quite still for hours on end’ immured in a sanctuary out of touch and out of time. The parenthetical reference to the ease with which the child could have ‘held himself erect’ in the summer-house reminds us of the pull towards the past, while the fact that ‘the average man’ could experience ‘difficulty’ in doing so forces us to consider the particular place which is being invoked. But just as the narrator had hoped he was ‘not more sensitive than the next man’ so this reference to ‘the average man’ shows us the narrator pulling away from active identification with a particular individual.
The tent is hermetic when seen from the inside; seen from the outside, it becomes indistinguishable from its surroundings. But no view from inside the tent has yet been provided because no identification has yet been made of the person who inhabits it. The hut, on the other hand is both camouflaged on the outside and hermetic from the inside because of the position occupied by the narrator, still far removed from the ‘sessions’:
At the centre, facing the coloured panes, stood a small upright
wicker chair with arm-rests, as against the summer-houses’s
window-seat. I sat there very straight and still, with my arms along
the rests, looking out at the orange light.
Situated ‘in a grove,’ ‘sheltered . . . among the trees,’ the place itself is made of logs and therefore very much a part of its surroundings. The coloured glass through which the occupant views the outside world clearly colours the world which surrounds it, to such an extent that we are uncertain whether the ‘orange light’ is that of the setting sun or a permanent hue given to the light outside the dwelling.
‘Lying there with closed eyes in the silence,’ he has imagined a place in which, unable to ‘hold himself erect,’ the auditor can be comfortably seated in the centre of a quincunxial dwelling. Having imagined the place, he can place himself in it and with ‘closed eyes’ can, as in ‘Still,’ see himself seeing the place and its surroundings as a secure whole. But, because of the movement back into childhood which is the beginnings of a life story, and because of the merging of perception with memory, the image as it emerges must be seen as part of a further retreat into story.
While the auditor, as we know, ‘never went near the place during sessions,’ he nevertheless preserves contact with the activities in the tent between sessions. He does not interrupt them: they interrupt his solitude: ‘It must have been shortly after six, the sessions closing punctually at that house, for as I watched a hand appeared in the doorway and held out to me a sheet of writing.’ This return to a specific occasion, arrived at by knowledge of the ‘duration’ of the sessions, involves an interruption to the security and solitude of the figure in the hut. Although separated from the tent and its activities, the auditor clearly has a part to play in the whole proceedings. He it is who assesses the statement extracted from the victim of the inquisition, the creative artist’s endeavour to speak and write the truth. ‘I took and read it, then tore it in four and put the pieces in the waiting hand to take away. A little later the whole scene disappeared.’ The appearance of the hand and its attachment to the piece of writing cannot but remind us of the raised hand earlier in the text, though the scene as a whole must also remind us of the beginning of Molloy. Both the hands in this text interrupt the narrative, but whereas the raised hand (overtly that of the auditor) suspended description of the sessions, the hand which appears in the doorway suspends continued solitude in the hut, placing the writing to the forefront. And the seated figure participates in the proceedings by transferring the sheet of writing to his own hands and using them to destroy the writing and return the pieces. This interrupts the narrative: ‘a little later the whole scene disappeared.’
The pieces are salvaged, for the hand is a ‘writing’ hand and both the sessions and the story are only temporarily interrupted. The man in the but is in the position of a writer as well as a reader; he is the ‘judge’ presiding at a distance, a figure reminiscent of the one in Text 5 who is involved in that ‘obscure assize where to be is to be guilty.’ The narrator is ‘judge and party, witness and advocate, and he, attentive, indifferent, who sits and notes.’ ‘It’s an image,’ the narrator of Text 5 remarks, an image ‘in my helpless head,’ an image of the Self divided unto itself, of the creative artist who seeks ‘to be like the one I seek, in my head, that my head seeks,’ who can only identify himself with a being who lacks and looks for identity. The court sits, he says, ‘in my head . . . that’s where I’m clerk and scribe, not understanding what I hear, not knowing what I write.’20 In ‘As the story was told’ the relationship between head and hand is dramatized in this visit to the hut. The hut, like the tent, is an image in a ‘helpless head,’ the head itself only a representation, as the but is only a representation of the childhood summer-house. The failure in Text 5 to understand what is heard becomes the failure to recognise, to ‘know’ what is written in ‘As the story was told.’ Were the man to recognise the writing, there would be no need to read it; instead it would ‘at first sight’ be recognized and the man in the hut become the victim in the tent. Because this is not accomplished, it is not surprising that ‘the whole scene disappeared’ after the tom pages have been taken away. The destruction of the written script means the erasure of the imagined scene. The imagined scene, like the writing, is only a representation, yet another story which, like the coloured glass, distorts true vision. Like the raised hand, the hand of destruction interrupts and displaces a subject who is no longer able to see himself in the hut and who therefore disappears with the writing. The image which has been invoked to replace those dictated to him has done no more than remind him of the distance which still separates him from himself.
The interruption therefore triggers a return to the original dictated story demonstrating that the image of the but and the man’s position has been simply a story within a story: ‘As the story was told me the man succumbed in the end to his ill-treatment, though quite old enough at the time to die naturally of old age.’ The repetition of the words of the title returns us to the form of story-telling which the narrator’s excursus into memory interrupted. Specifically, the return is to an ending. The fact that the man in the tent did not die before his time and that the end of his life was not a premature one, only underlines the distance that the narrator wishes to maintain between himself and the suffering man. Responsibility for his suffering can be avoided in so far as his natural life (his life story) can be equated with the sessions and his suffering compared with that of the ‘next’ or ‘average’ man. But these equations remind us, as before, of an identification between the man in the hut and the man in the tent. This is particularly apparent when it becomes clear that the story also involves the man in the but who, being unable to ‘h[o]ld himself erect,’ is seated like the child. It is precisely the child who is invoked in the description of the man in the story who in the course of the narration is ‘lying there with closed eyes in the silence’: ‘I lay there a long time quite still—even as a child I was unusually still and more and more so with the passing years—till it must have seemed that the story was over.’ Of course, the story only ‘seemed’ to be over. In an earlier draft of the text it was ‘story time’ that ‘seemed’ to be over, which invokes once more the childhood world and the stories that figure within it.21 Just as the tent was replaced by the but and the remembered place represented the imagined one, so the narrator’s life is drawn-out of childhood to replace that of the man who ‘succumbed.’
A further interruption to the story reminds us that the hearer/narrator is able to conceive of the possibility of having brought it to an earlier end:
But finally I asked if I knew exactly what the man—I would like to
give his name but cannot—what exactly was required of the man,
what it was he would not or could not say.
This familiar pattern of question and answer reminds us of the inquisitorial nature of the text we are reading, and the phrasing here—‘I asked if I knew’—is surely meant to alert us to the fact that the text (as I have assumed all along) is a self-inquisition. Early in the text, the hearer (and also the writer) had ‘finally’ to raise his hand to avoid further contact and complicity with the man’s sufferings. Here he has ‘finally’ to ask and answer himself the very question that was required of the man. In justifying his role as judge, he must equate himself with the accused and, if possible, establish his superior authority. But the judge, we discover, is not in a position to be more than equal to the victim; in trying to establish the veracity of his story, he merely exposes its factitiousness. Just as the victim ‘would not or could not say’ what we later understand would have pardoned him, so the narrator ‘would like to’ but ‘cannot’ identify the victim. He cannot, therefore, identify himself.
A glance at earlier drafts of the text is instructive here. At one time, the man was indeed identified and named Fox22 and a comparison with the victim in the radio play ‘Rough for radio’ (subsequently titled Radio II) is illuminating.23 The play has certain basic features in common with ‘As the story was told,’ notably the inquisitorial setting. The animator’s final remark to the stenographer that ‘tomorrow, who knows, we may be free’ reminds us that, as in this text, all parties are subject to a similar trial. The animator’s instructions to the stenographer that Fox’s words be amended to forge a quite unwarranted connection between him and the character Maud parallels the factitious nature of story-telling revealed here. Neither abnegation of creative responsibility allows for an authentic identification between various selves, assuming such a thing to be possible.
Beckett deleted this reference to Fox in the course of working quickly on the text.24 Perhaps he found such selfplagiarism too readily helpful, for future corrections and emendations show him developing and illuminating the connections between ‘judge’ and ‘victim,’ ‘narrator’ and ‘hearer.’ They also show him probing the difficulties of imaginative truth for the creative artist.
A further variant of the line appears in manuscript. It reads: ‘whose name I was told but have forgotten again.’25 What is particularly striking here, as in the final version (‘I would like to give his name but cannot’) is that identification of the man is conceivable but is rendered impossible.
While the final version contains the allusion to constraints laid upon the narrator, the earlier variant makes clear the suggestion that the name is known but ‘unnamable.’ It is known but has been repeatedly forgotten. The fact that the narrator was ‘told’ the man’s name surely indicates that such knowledge must remain within the confines of a story. One is also forced to wonder whether the workings of memory to recover what has been forgotten do not lead merely to further representations.26>
The question of ‘fiction’ is explored further in the final lines of the text in which identification of and with the victim is paralleled by identification of what the man ‘would not or could not say’:
No, was the answer, after some little hesitation, no, I did not know
what the poor man was required to say, in order to be pardoned,
but would have recognised it at once, yes, at a glance, if I had seen
The auditor’s sympathy for a fellow sufferer is now clear, for the victim has become ‘the poor man.’ Ignorance of what he ‘was required to say’ forces an identification between the two men. Clearly, however, the words are known but are not readily available. Similarly, the answer to the question which the narrator has asked is not instantly forthcoming, hence the hesitation which precedes the answer (and which reminds us of the closing lines of Imagination dead imagine). This hesitation undermines the conventional narration of story-telling. Before (when ‘it must have seemed the story was over’) the narrator was able to interpolate the representation of childhood stillness and allow it to fill the narration. Here, with the repetition of ‘no,’ the authority of the story-teller is reaffirmed; but the affirmative qualification which follows reveals that the story (and therefore story-telling) could have been cut short. The man in the hut, having known but having forgotten what ‘the poor man was required to say, in order to be pardoned,’ would nevertheless have `recognised it at once, yes, at a glance’ if he has ‘seen it.’ He would not have had to ‘read’ the manuscript, to follow the perspectives set up upon the page: a mere ‘glance’ would have confirmed the truth of what had been written by the man in the tent. The emphasis upon vision, upon seeing what will exonerate the man underlines the importance of Imagination in the text, a text whose ostensible subject is creativity. Recognition raises the question of forgotten knowledge, of a truth which is latent but inaccessible. Recognition ‘at a glance’ recalls what ‘at first sight’ seemed ‘strange’ earlier in the text, the separation of tent and hut, of figure and ground, the dissociation within the story of Self and Other, judge and victim, and of narrator and narrated within the text itself. The separation of tent and but was not achieved ‘at first sight’: only continued attention to the details of the tent and the situation of the hut could make for an imaginable distance between the two dwellings and the two selves whom, it is said, occupy them.
In invoking Colerdige’s thinking on Imagination and Fancy, I am merely suggesting that Beckett is interested in similar issues and that his post-Trilogy fiction engages with them most insistently. Indeed, Beckett’s reading of and response to Romantic poetry and poetics would be a fertile subject of detailed research. It seems clear in Imagination dead imagine, for example, that Beckett is interested in the Imagination firstly as a means of making sensible (but mental) phenomena imaginable, i.e. capable of circumspect enquiry. It is this process of making real through reasoned enquiry which allows for the separation in ‘As the story was told’ of tent and hut, figure and ground. For Coleridge the equation of Reason with Fancy had its sanction in his reading of Kant. ‘Fancy,’ Coleridge writes, ‘has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.’ It is ‘no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space . . . it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.’27 In ‘As the story was told’ this operation is dramatized in the childhood scene which supplements the story which is told, in the imaginable distance which connects and yet separates the tent and the hut, in the means of perceiving objects as figures against the surrounding ground; it is present indeed in the whole manner in which the narrator wishes to dissociate himself from the other ‘character’ in the story by placing himself at an imaginable distance from him. In Imagination dead imagine Beckett also investigates Imagination as the power of illusion, as the imaginary perception of the ebb and flow of wayward phenomena which are not available to reasoned attention.28 Attempts to capture them in this way lead to merely ‘adequate’ representations that are themselves subverted by further encounters with the imaginary nature of real experience. In the words of All strange away, ‘Fancy is his only hope.’29
What Beckett seems to be drawing our attention to is the belated possibility of a third conception of the Imagination through which an authentic engagement with the real is entertained. In his gnomic utterances in the Biographia litteraria, Coleridge writes that the primary Imagination (which, with Coleridge, I shall consider as ‘identical with the [secondary] in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree’) is ‘the living power and prime Agent of all human Perception . . . a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.’ In ‘As the story’ was told,’ the ‘glance’ of recognition would be a perception of what is known, but—because repeatedly forgotten unknowable. At the moment of perception ‘at once,’ of vision ‘at first sight,’ the imagination can perceive the real. At such a moment the object would be both figure and ground, invisibility made visible, inside and outside joined together in the resolution of opposite terms. What we have examined are the means whereby recognition gives way, as it must, to memory and thus to further representations, to Fancy. This representation occurs on the level of both story and narration. On the one hand, the figure in the story must become displaced from the subject of it—the creative artist as victim—and on the other, the hearer must become the passive recipient of such a story from the creative artist as narrator. He must also, as the reference earlier to ‘story time’ reminds us, be displaced within his own story of childhood, for the story of the sessions is told not only to the supine man but also, as it were, to the seated child.
The text concludes with the belated possibility of imagining the real truth: not a mere series of repetitions in the ‘finite mind,’ nor an emancipation ‘from the order of time and space’ within a story of, and the stories within childhood, but rather as an association of the finite being with ‘the infinite I AM.’ This would be, in Coleridge’s terms, a ‘self-realising intuition’ which is ‘at once both active and passive.’ Coleridge writes of the Imagination revealing itself in ‘the balance of reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness with difference . . . the individual with the representative’ and finally of ‘an obscure feeling as if that new phenomenon were the dim awaking of a forgotten or hidden truth of my inner nature.’30 It is towards this moment of recognition, before the operations of Reason and the mechanics of representation separate and dissociate into component parts, that the ending of ‘As the story was told’ is directed. But the direction is backwards, not forwards—the possibility is a belated one. Moreover recognition, like the sighting of ‘the little fabric’ in Imagination dead imagine is ‘quite as much a matter of chance.’31 The affirmative ending to the text which suggests an escape from story-telling, the active identification of truth and the resolution of the dualities within the creative act by an appeal to a lost source of creativity, is heavily qualified by the evident failure to have achieved such a recognition within the story that has been told. We as readers are reminded that the text we are reading is itself narrated, is the account (perhaps we can say, the story) of a tale told to the writer who is offering it to us as readers. We are in much the same position as the man in the hut, left to imagine the possibility for ourselves. Two other short texts, one written to accompany an Arikha exhibition,of 196632 and the other the 1976 poem ‘Neither’33 remind us that the ‘unself’ is ‘unseeable and unmakable’ and that the ‘home’ or shelter which might occupy a space absent of both Self and Unself—the very terms of a representation -remains ‘unspeakable.’
‘As the story was told’ shows few obvious signs of being an ‘occasional’ piece and the reasons for thinking it an important addition to Beckett’s oevre have been made sufficiently clear. But although, above all, the text clearly explores many of Beckett’s central concerns, it is hard not to see a reflection of its own occasion within it. The ‘sheet of writing’ offered to the man in the hut reminds us that we are holding the ‘sheet of writing’ Beckett offered to Suhrkamp Verlag at their request. It is hard to resist the speculation that the ‘poor man’ is Cünter Eich himself who died in 1973 ‘quite old enough at the time to die naturally of old age’—he committed suicide at the age of 66. But the thrust of my argument has been that the story of such a man is that of the story-teller Samuel Beckett. ‘As the story was told’ is clearly the product of a writing ‘session’; and it is the peculiarly divisive nature of creativity that the text dramatizes. But over and above this, it is, as Beckett wrote of Finnegans wake ‘that something itself.’34 In ‘As the story was told,’ writing is its own occasion. If this reminds us of Beckett’s dialogue on Bram van Velde, we must also remember that writing as its own occasion is but another ‘unstable term of relation’35 in a deceptively simple and profoundly puzzling text.
1 Günter Eich zum Gedachtnis, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1975, 10-13.
2 La Falaise in Celui qui ne peut se servir de mots, Montpellier, Fata Morgana, 1975.
3 Imagination dead imagine in No’s knife, London, Calder and Boyars, 1967, 163.
4 Ibid., 161.
5 Murphy, London, Calder & Boyars, 1963, 7.
6 The auditor’s sensitivity here and his ‘wearying’ of the earlier description: see Beckett’s remarks on Suffering and Boredom in Proust, Proust and Three dialogues, London, Calder and Boyars, 1965; ‘The pendulum oscillates between these two terms . . .’ (28).
7 ‘I turn to the hand that is free draw it to my face . . . it comes close to my eyes I don’t see it I close my eyes . . . if that is not enough I flutter it my hand . . . close my eyes a curtain falls . . . if that is not enough I lay it on my face it covers it entirely’ How it is London, John Calder, 1964, 15. See also the fizzle ‘Horn came always’ below.
8 Text 5 in No’s knife, p. 93.
9 How it is, 7.
10 The lost ones, London, Calder and Boyars, 1972, 19.
11 Ms 1396/4/12, Reading University Library (RUL).
12 ‘Still’ in ‘For to end yet again’ and other fizzles, London, John Calder, 1976, 19.
13 All strange away, London, John Calder, 1979, 7.
14 ‘Horn came always’ in Fizzles, 35.
15 Ibid., 34.
16 ‘La Peinture des van Veldes, ou le monde et le pantalon,’ Cahiers d’art, nos 20 and 21, Paris, 1945-6, 354.
17 A ‘dark tent’ is a portable dark room for outdoor use in photography. In ‘Horn came always’ the narrator refers to the ‘images’ which ‘develop’ in ‘outer space,’ op. cit. 34 (my emphasis). See Ruth Perlmutter’s discussion of the character in Film ‘resisting anecdote and pulling away from the seduction of weaving a tale’ (Beckett, Film and film’ in Journal of modern literature, Vol 6, No. 1, Feb 1977 83-94.) In his use of, among other things, the tent, Beckett may have had in mind Psalm 84 v. 10: ‘For one day in thy courts: is better than a thousand. I had rather be a door-keeper in the house of my God: than to dwell in the tents of ungodliness.’ In the Old Testament ‘tent’ can mean tabernacle or holy place, arising from the a tent as a portable tabernacle by the wandering tribes of Israel in the wilderness.
18 Imagination dead imagine, op. cit., 161.
19 Ms 1396/4/13 (RUL). See also ‘The Expelled’ in No’s knife, 12.
20 Text 5 in No’s knife, 94.
21 Ms 1396/4/13 (RUL).
23 Radio II in Ends and odds, London, Faber and Faber, 1977.
24 Ms 1396/4/13 (RUL). The original manuscript (Ms 1396/4/12 (RUL) is dated 3-4 August 1973. The completed typescript (Ms 1396/4/14 (RUL)) is inscribed ‘In memoriam G.E. Sent to Unseld 8.8.73.’
25 Ms 1396/4/13 (RUL). See also Watt: ‘The incident of the Galls . . . seemed rather to belong to some story heard long before, an instant in the life of another, ill-told, ill-heard and more than half forgotten’ (London, John heart and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept’ (Molloy, London, John Calder, 1959, 33).
26 See Beckett’s reply to Joyce’s question ‘How could the idealist Hume write a history?’ ‘A history of representations.’ Quoted in James Joyce, Richard Ellman, Oxford University Press, 1959, 661.
27 Biographia litteraria, London, Everyman, 1906, 159-160.
28 ‘Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit.’ Imagination dead imagine, op. cit., 161. Edward Casey refers to this phenomenon of ‘free imagining’ in his essay on literary imagination ‘Imagination and repetition in literature: a reassessment,’ Yale French studies 52, 1975, 249-267. (See in particular, 254-255).
29 All strange away, 11. For a discussion of Imagination and Fancy in Coleridge and in All strange away see Peter Murphy’s review article in Journal of Beckett Studies, Autumn 1979, Number 5, in particular 109-110.
30 Coleridge, op. cit., 65, 166. Coleridge, Anima Poetae, Boston, 1895, 115.
31 Imagination dead imagine, op. cit., 163.
32 Pour Avigdor Arikha, Paris, Galede Claude Bernard, 1967 (Beckett’s translation).
33 In Journal of Beckett Studies, Spring 1979, Number 4.
34 Our Exagmination round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, Paris, Shakespeare & Co., 1929, 14.
35 Proust and Three dialogues, 124.