The first quality apt to strike readers of Company, the recently published work of Beckett’s old age, is the strong autobiographical tone. Several of the recollections in the text correspond with incidents cited in Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett. Perhaps the most remarkable of these concerns an enraged child hurling himself from the top of a huge evergreen onto the boughs below.1 Yet, to point to autobiography, without recognizing how Beckett’s art transforms the very notion of life which autobiography takes for granted, is to imperil the task of interpretation. Let us go back a few steps to see why.
Autobiography is the recounting of one’s life as a series of personal experiences or acts occurring through time, lifetime. Strictly speaking, the autobiographical perspective is linear, extending from point B in the present a line of experiences belonging to the same self and stretching all the way back to point A, birth. As a mode of self-knowledge, autobiography is based on extension. That line segment AB, that life, defines the identity of the self located at B; his identity is reflected in his life. Then what kind of identity is this? Fundamentally, it is an identity through exteriority. Life gives intelligible form to all the inner forces and conflicts inhabiting the individual. It tells us what they signified by showing what kind of patterns they provoked or enabled. To Dante, for example, life is the act par excellence of individual identity, resolving the potential vices and virtues within. Indeed, he distributes souls in the afterlife according to their trajectories in this life. Moreover, there is nothing essentially private about life in this linear view except in terms of ownership: this is, after all, my life. But as a sequence of experiences and acts, life is everywhere plunged into the world. Even a life of isolation and withdrawal, as that of the Confessor in Dostoevsky’s Notes from underground, is saturated with the world by becoming an enactment of the spiteful distance between oneself and the others so resented. Furthermore, the line segment AB, which seems the exclusive property of its owner, intersects at innumerable points with other segments to form the great grid of communal and social life. In fact, at bottom the meaning of AB depends on its position in the grid: that is, life, from this linear perspective, is fully intelligible only in conjunction with other lives.
It is important to recognize that this linear model is completely antithetical to Beckett’s own artistic convictions. In Proust, a work of his youth, Beckett contrived the manifesto of his own art in phrases which will help us considerably: ‘The only research is excavatory, immersive, a contraction of the spirit, a descent.’2 Instead of extension, Beckett invokes contraction; instead of exteriority, a descent towards an interiority too fundamental to be lived—too profound, that is, to be reflected in the line segment called life and the superficial personal identity it traces. This is perhaps the single most important truth to grasp about Beckett’s art. He steps beyond the great mimetic tradition of representing reality in terms of life and instead expresses human experience on a level far below the relation of self and world that the linear notion of life assumes. But his art faces a tremendous challenge: how can it overcome the habits of mimesis ‘this ballsaching poppycock about life and death,’ as Malone calls it3—and express human experience in a different way?
In the first place, as far as geometric imagery in Beckett’s work is concerned, that line segment AB is everywhere bent into a circle, a cycle: the revolving spools of Krapp, the orbits of The lost ones, the peregrinations of Molloy, the migration in How it is. Beckett transforms the line of life into a circle in order to isolate the centre and excavate it. To ensure that the assumptions of life do not leak into the excavation site, he deploys a complex strategy. As every reader has noted, Beckett creates a prose fiction that insists on its fictionality. Again and again, we hear disclaimers: ‘It was not midnight. It was not raining,’ writes Moran,4 ‘more lies,’ says The unnarnable,5 ‘All balls,’ pants Born.6 In Company, as we shall see, a figure is lying on his back in the darts, with the ambiguity of ‘lying’ increasingly emphasized. The point, however, is not just that fiction is, after all, merely fiction and not truth, but more significantly that fiction as mimesis is burdened with the representation of a life which in turn is only a fiction, a false or, at best, partial reflection of human identity. Therefore, to neutralize the expectation that fiction represent life or, more precisely, that the experience presented be construed as a life, Beckett, especially since Mercier and Camier, foregrounds the very act of imagination creating the fiction. The opening words of Company will illustrate: ‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.’
By emphasizing the act of imagination, Beckettian narration becomes self-referential, a closed system where experience can be presented that relates only to the special purposes of the ‘reason-ridden’ (45) imagination which conceives it and not to the movement of a self through time called life. In the closed system, imagination is free to express experience in alternative modes that resist the reader’s tendency to assimilate them to his more familiar notions. Parts of The unnamable, for example, present experience as if before birth: ‘I alone am immortal, what can you expect. I can’t get born,’7 or again, ‘I shall never get born, having failed to be conceived.’8 Texts for nothing suggests a species of afterlife or damnation: ‘I am dead, but I never lived,’9 as of course do sections of The unnamable: .’ . . this hell of stories . . .’10 Company, as we shall see, intimates sepulchral existence. These alternative modes, working as metaphors, signify far more about the experience of being human than would be possible on the level of life. Life, with the guarantees of order and meaning we usually take for granted, is explicitly denied, as in From an abandoned work: .’ . . there never was anything, never can be, life and death, all nothing, that kind of thing, only a voice dreaming and droning all around . . .’11 Or the negation in Company: ‘No life’ (26).
Now let us examine how the excavation proceeds in Company. The title, referring to the paradoxical project of improvising company only to deepen the isolation which that company is meant to alleviate, appears in several earlier works. The narrator in Texts for nothing says, ‘Yes, to the end, always muttering, to lull me and keep me company.’12 While Born in How it is admits, ‘I have had company mine because it amuses me.’13 Company renews this project with astonishing results. The ultimate task of imagination in this text is to express an experience of isolation and interiority so absolute that no company, real or fantastic, can ever relieve it. This is accomplished through the fable of a mirror which contains a reflection or image but which has no model or subject outside to reflect. In other words, the image in the mirror is a pure reflection, with no external referent whatsoever. The construction of the fable involves tremendous problems. The story cannot simply present a magical mirror hanging on a wall somewhere and containing an unfortunately stranded reflection, because in that case there would be something—namely the wall, the room, the world—outside the mirror, and these externals would modify the reflection inside by entraining the mimetic expectations Beckett wants to avoid. If the mirror in Company is to escape these difficulties, it must occupy the entire text; the entire text, that is, must become the representation of a mirror which has nothing inside it but the pure reflection and nothing outside but the act of imagination creating that reflection.
The construction of this mirror involves three steps. Step I: A body lying supine in the dark hears a voice speaking of the past in the second person, as for example: ‘You first saw the light in the room you were most likely conceived in’ (15). The body cannot confirm that the voice is addressing him and not another and similarly cannot claim the memories as his own. This connection between voice and supine body is in turn the creation of another supine body lying in the dark imagining. The text makes it clear that this act of imagination is, in fact, creating a mirror in which the supine body referred to as ‘the hearer M’ (59) is a reflection of the other supine body named W. Mirror relations between the two bodies abound. Just as the left hand of my reflection arises when I raise my right hand, so the relation of W to M displays the reversal or inversion characteristic of that between model and reflected image. The letter, ‘W,’ of course, is an inversion of ‘M,’ and repeatedly a F movement of the body W is reflected in a reverse movement of the body M, as when W closes his eyes to imagine what M sees on opening his.
Step II: It is now revealed that the act of imagination responsible for creating the mirror does not originate with W, for W is himself created by another ‘deviser’ (34) whom the text insinuates: ‘Yet another then. Of whom nothing. Devising figments to temper his nothingness. Quick leave him’ (64). Later, an infinite series of devisers is implied: ‘Yet another still? Devising it all for company’ (84). The mirror has thus expanded to include the entire text: on one side is the projecting imagination, the inaccessible deviser, with its own voice; on the other, the voice addressing M inside the mirror. The catoptric principle of reversal noted in reference to M and W,. applies to the oscillation of style in the text as a whole. The voice in the mirror addresses M in an earnest tone. For example, the phrase, ‘you have never forgotten,’ is attached to many of the recitations to invest them with urgency and validity. In contrast, the voice outside the mirror speaks in the opposite tone of sarcasm, implying that all is false, all lies. Some of the hallmarks are a ridiculing alliteration and repetition (‘Can the crawling creator crawling in the same create dark as his creature create while crawling?,’—73) and ludicrous interjections that undermine the project they are meant to advance. Consider, for example, this preposterous fiat: ‘Let there by a fly. What an addition to company that would be!’ (38). Finally, the principle of reversal applies even to the act of imagination considered as an act—that is, as the projecting or tending of an agent toward an end. Outside the mirror, the project is to create company, but inside the mirror that project is fulfilled through the pure reflection—a state of absolute isolation, interiority without identity. Interestingly, the word, ‘company,’ which appears frequently in the text, is uttered only by the sarcastic voice.
Step III: This last development is, in fact, comprised of several smaller ones. Near the end of the text, the second person voice explodes the fable of the mirrors by naming the reflection, ‘You,’ as the devising source: ‘Supine you now resume your fable where the act of lying cut it short’ (87). This recognition does not so much shatter the mirror as reverse it. Where earlier ‘you’ was the pure reflection inside the mirror, now `you’ is the model outside the mirror which the infinite regress of devisers reflects. But the change does not bring ‘you’ any closer to a sense of identity, because the infinite regress reflecting him can have, by definition, no ultimate subject. In effect, what has happened is that the pure reflection—that is, the reflection of a self who is not there now occupies both sides of the mirror.
Next, the last phrases isolate ‘you’ even from the company of the reflected devisers:
But with face upturned for good labour in vain at your fable. Till
finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane
word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of
one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling with you in the
dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as
you always were.
The word, ‘alone,’ receives tremendous emphasis. In the text, it appears several lines below all the others. But who is alone? That is the question which cannot be answered in conventional terms by pointing to a definite self. The aloneness can be predicated if only one subject—the pure reflection. The text provides no other referent whatsoever. Hence, the project of imagination to make the text a mirror of the pure reflection has been fulfilled and the book can close.
It may be worth adding that our examination of the three steps leading to this achievement can clear up some of the confusion concerning the place of the artist in Beckett’s prose fiction. The artist qua artist is only manifested through his act of imagination. Joyce, for example, keeps that artist, the imagination in act, out of the text which is presented as a fait accompli, a perfect universe put into our hands while the creative source which produced it pares his fingernails elsewhere. Beckett, in contrast, puts the act of imagination into the text, makes the text a mirror of that act until, at the end, the act is consummated and we are left only with the image it toiled to create.
Yet, what exactly does this image of the pure reflection signify? Beckett is stripping human experience of the most fundamental of all certainties—personal identity—and he does it by exploiting the locus classicus for all affirmations of identity: the mirror. In logic, identity means to be the same as oneself, as A=A is the formal statement of A’s identity. The self in front of the mirror affirms his identity by claiming his reflection; he knows himself as this self by recognizing the relation of sameness obtaining between himself and the reflection. But the pure reflection can have no such identity, for there is no other term outside the mirror in virtue of which a relation of sameness can be constituted: ‘And you as you always were. Alone.’ Even within the mirror the pure reflection cannot posit a relation of sameness with himself and thus confirm his identity. His experience is wholly the hearing of a voice that cannot be named and whose relation to the listener remains unknowable.
Fully to grasp the significance of the pure reflection we must understand that the special mirror imagination has created for him is the mirror of memory: his present experience concerns a voice narrating a past he cannot claim. The mirror in Company will seem clearer if we elaborate upon the conventional approach to memory suggested earlier. Memory is the private mirror each of us holds up to see in the images of the past a reflection of our identity now. More precisely, from the succession of past images which the mirror of memory reflects, we construct the idea of a linear life, a journey or evolution through whose unfolding we discover our present identity. Beckett attacked this notion of memory in Proust, and his remarks there will help us grasp the function of memory in Company. In Proust, Beckett distinguishes between two types of memory: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary memory, the conscious summoning of past impressions, cannot reveal any truth about the past and hence of present identity, for the images it reproduces are inaccurate records structured by our prevailing habits of attention. In these impressions, we do not see the past so much as repeated examples of our distorting processes of noticing. As Beckett writes of voluntary memory, ‘The material that it furnishes contains nothing of the past, merely a blurred and uniform projection once removed of our anxiety and opportunism—that is to say, nothing.’14 Involuntary memory, on the other hand, triggered by the sudden association of a present stimulus with a past sensation, as when Proust’s narrator steeps the madeleine in tea, restores the past experience in its concrete immediacy, before our habits of noticing had a chance to reduce and distort it. Involuntary memory is not simply a re-experiencing but a discovery. By making what now is a then into a now again, it uncovers the truth of the original experience: .’ . . thanks to this reduplication, the experience is at once imaginative and empirical, at once an evocation and a direct perception, real without being merely actual, ideal without being merely abstract, the ideal real, the essential, the extratemporal.’15
Yet, where to Proust, through involuntary memory, the present becomes a means of achieving a clarifying perspective on the past, of reflecting the true meaning of the past, in Company memory can only reflect the same emptiness in both past and present, the same experience without identity. In fact, memory as such is impossible for the pure reflection; his now always has been. Once again we can quote, adding the emphasis: ‘And you as you always were.’ The reminiscences narrated by the voice are not the impressions of a genuine succession through time, but instead superimpose different context on the same inner darkness and isolation. Elements of the paradigmatic situation involving a supine body hearing a voice in the dark of isolation are recapitulated in the scenes of rememoration: the infant on his back in the cradle, hearing the murmur of his parents above him: ‘No trace of love,’ observes the narrator (66); the young boy alone on the diving board ‘high above the sea,’ pushed by the ‘far call’ of his father: ‘Be a brave boy’ (23); the young man lying supine in the ‘trembling shade’ of an aspen, hearing the voice of his lover: ‘Your eyes opened and closed have looked in hers looking at yours. In your dark, you look in them again’ (66); the young couple in ‘the little summerhouse’ (55), after some unexplained rupture, silent, each ‘with eyes closed’ (59); the old man on the strand, head bent over his walking stick, hearing the tide ebb in the night: ‘Were your eyes to open dark would lighten’ (76).
These recapitulations suggest that the function of memory in Company is not to establish autobiographical or historical sequence nor even, as with Proust, to illumine a past different from the present. Its function, instead, is prefiguration. In prefiguration, as Erich Auerbach has explained, one event or group of events (for example, the sacrifice of Isaac) is linked to a second (for example, the sacrifice of Christ) ‘in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first.’16 The connection thus established between the two events is neither temporal nor causal but exists in virtue of a principle outside the events which alone can explain the relation between them. In Christian theology, that principle is Divine Providence in whose eternal plan of history every earthly event is simultaneously present and fulfilled. Yet, the principle of prefiguration need not be understood only in theological terms. As Norman O. Brown has written, there is also prefiguration through the archetype by virtue of which ‘events are related to other events not by causality but by analogy and correspondence.’17 The archetype is the exemplar or paradigm to which particular events correspond and through which their meaning is revealed. In Company, the archetype or paradigm is the pure reflection in the dark. All the memories are prefigurations, analogies, of that unchangingness; they reveal a present that was always present. There is no new experience—only the same one in different contexts, and this idea is reinforced by the fact that many of the memories spoken in Company appear in earlier Beckettian texts. The question the boy asks his mother concerning the distance of the sky occurs in Malone’s story of Saposcat;18 the father after a hike ‘looking out to sea from the lea of a great rock’ (17) recalls a scene in From an abandoned work where father and son rest ‘against a huge rock looking out to sea’;19 the father’s paunch in the summerhouse, ‘straining against the unbuttoned waistband’ (58) repeats a scene in ‘The calmative’ with the father’s ‘big belly bursting out of the old cardigan and unbuttoned trousers. . ..’20
Thus, through the use of prefigurative memory, life in Company is assimilated to its archetype—the pure reflection lying supine in the dark. With astonishing compression, the text connects this image with one of the central archetypes of Western civilization—Christ in the tomb. The voice repeatedly links the birth of ‘you’ with the death of Christ on Good Friday: ‘You first saw the light and cried at the close of the day when in darkness Christ at the ninth hour cried and died’ (77).21 To be precise, this is a reincarnation not of the living Christ but of the dead Christ—the experience of the pure reflection is parallel with the experience in the tomb, and indeed the narrator’s mention of ‘Black basalt’ (44), when imagining the chamber in which the pure reflection lies, strongly intimates a sepulchre.
In Christianity, the image of Christ in the tomb is charged with the energy of transition from the Passion to the Resurrection; it focusses the enormous yearning for the redemption of human life from the insufferable weight of sin and death. By stressing the end of life, the tomb reveals a divine dimension, an afterlife, where the acts of this life will find their completion in eternal reward or punishment. In contrast, Company exploits the image of the tomb to represent life with the emptiness of death already in it. The (auto) biographical memories spoken by the second person voice do not portray a life with its succession of experiences enriching the self who underwent them. Instead, the memories confirm an interior isolation so fundamental that no new experience can ever alter it and so inaccessible that even the individual is estranged from it and hence cannot truly know himself. Human experience is denied the resurrection of the sense of identity that the linear notion of life once took for granted. By fusing the pure reflection with Christ in the tomb, Company expands the mimetic project of ‘the true sepulchral body’ found in Texts for nothing.22 There can be no more life in Beckett’s literature because there is no longer an accessible subject to live it.
1 See Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: a biography, New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978, 15. See also Samuel Beckett, Company, London, John Calder, 1980, 28. Future references to Company will be included in the text with the appropriate page number(s) in parentheses.
2 Samuel Beckett, Proust and three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, London, John Calder, 1965, 65.
3 Three novels: Molly; Malone dies; The unnamable, trans. Samuel Beckett and Patrick Bowles, New York, Grove Press, 1965, 225.
4 Three novels, 176.
5 Three novels, 414.
6 How it is, trans. Samuel Beckett, New York, Grove Press, 1964, 145.
7 Three novels, 383.
8 Three novels, 353.
9 Stories and texts for nothing, trans. Samuel Beckett, New York, Grove Press, 1967, 130.
10 Three novels, 380.
11 From an abandoned work in First love and other shorts, trans. Samuel Beckett, New York, Grove Press, 1974, 49.
12 Texts for nothing, 78.
13 How it is, 31.
14 Proust, 32-33.
15 Proust, 75.
16 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, trans. Willard Trask, New York, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957, 64.
17 Norman O. Brown, Love’s body, New York, Random House, 1966, 209.
18 Three novels, 268.
19 From an abandoned work in First love and other shorts, 42.
20 ‘The calmative’ in Stories and texts for nothing, 30.
21 Beckett too claims birth on Good Friday. See Bair, 4.
22 Texts for nothing, 125.