Artistic theory in the work of Samuel Beckett


David Read


The term theory is perhaps misapplied to the work of an artist who aspires toward ‘contemplation of the world independently of . . . reason.’1 Beckett’s main aim is not the exposition of principle. The first word, according to one of his narrators is ‘how.’2 and it is to the task of relating how things are, or, rather, how they appear to be that Beckett, as an artist, is committed. Nevertheless the artist’s desire to identify the rudimentary nature of being is naturally tempered by the critic’s recognition that the obvious pitfall of an art dedicated to elementals lies in oversimplification: ‘The danger is in the neatness of identificatrions.’3


According to Beckett, the classical artist assumes omnipotence and ‘raises himself artificially out of Time in order to give relief to his chronology and causality to his development.’4 In this conception the work of art derives its authority and its personality from the artist and from his creatures respectively. The writer’s will gives shape and his voice gives form to the incoherent inklings of thought. The artist’s world is thus a microcosm of Creation, devised by the extratemporal authority of his will, but presented through the personality of his creature. His faith in his creative independence in the microcosm is a corollary of his feeling of physical dependence in the macrocosm. As an object in the real world, the individual is related to other objects according to the principle of causality adopted by their creator. In considering his place in a finite and temporal universe shaped from without, the artist assumes that he is himself finite and temporal. The individual’s mental world is a replica of the physical world he perceives:


Murphy’s mind pictured itself as a large hollow sphere, hermetically

            closed to the universe without. This was not an impoverishment, for

            it excluded nothing that it did not itself contain. Nothing ever had

            been, was or would be in the universe outside it but was already

            present as virtual, or actual, or virtual rising into actual, or actual

            failing into virtual, in the universe inside it.5


For Murphy, the microcosm and the macrocosm are parallel worlds controlled by the same destiny: ‘Murphy was content to accept this partial congruence of the world of his mind with the world of his body as due to some . . . process of supernatural determination.’6 The supernatural is also extratemporal, providing the model for the artist who wishes to conceive a new world. Creative will conforms to the ‘labour-saving principles’ of Habit, which consist ‘in a perpetual adjustment and readjustment of our organic sensibility to the conditions of its worlds.’7 Nothing that does not already exist in the real world can be created in the imagination; art imitates reality. For the artist who accepts this line of thought, omnipotence is confirmed. Since all his raw materials are to hand, his art consists merely in adapting objects from the real world to the pattern of his own fictional world.


For Beckett, concerned with the fundamental nature of being, the sin of the classical artist is one of negligence, in supposing that he is himself as apparently stable as the universe around him. In Murphy’s deepest mental world, self is merely ‘a mote in the dark of absolute freedom . . . a missile without provenance or target . . . in the will-lessness.’8 The artist who finds himself locked in this unproductive state ‘deplores his lack of will until he understands that will, being utilitarian, a servant of intelligence and habit, is not a condition of the artistic experience.’9 Will interposes between the subject and its true object and substitutes a pseudo-subject and a pseudo-object, a stable personality in an ordered world: ‘The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day.’10 The true realm of the artist is ‘the dark of absolute freedom.’ Here, in the ‘inaccessible dungeon of our being . . . is stored the essence of ourselves, the best of our many selves and their concretions that simplists call the world . . . the fine essence of a smothered divinity.’11 ‘Murphy is the author of his own world and external reality is the concretion of his notion of self:


            The more his own system closed round him, the less he could

            tolerate its being subordinated to any other. Between him and his

            stars no doubt there was correspondence, but not in Suk’s sense.

            They were his stars, he was the prior system.12


In so far as perception is a matter of attainment, it is the individual who acts upon the world. Beckett’s aim, the realization of his intuition of a central being responsible for one’s percipience, can only be achieved, however, when the object of his creation adequately represents the subject that occasioned it: ‘The only reality is provided by the hieroglyphics traced by inspired perception (identification of subject and object).’13 Beckett has identified suffering, the antithesis of the artificial stability manufactured by Habit, as ‘the main condition of the artistic experience.’14 When self ‘betrays its trust as a screen to spare its victim the spectacle of reality, it disappears, and the victim, now an ex-victim, for a moment free, is exposed to that reality.’15 Inspired perception of reality involves a loss of personality as the artist labours to align his object with a subject that is denied expression: .’ . . the heart of the cauliflower or the ideal core of the onion would represent a more appropriate tribute to the labours of poetical excavation than the crown of bay.’16 Being, like the ideal core of the onion has location, but no magnitude. A ‘smothered divinity.’ it is, as far as concerns the individual, the true centre and impulse of the universe, but it lacks the extratemporal creative authority of a supernatural being. This is the centre toward which the artist gravitates, as, ‘shrinking from the nullity of extracircumferential phenomena, drawn in to the core of the eddy.’ he seeks repose at the hub of life.17


The concept of an indeterminate force at the centre of the universe is one that Beckett first introduces in his early essay, ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce.’ History, according to Beckett’s interpretation of Vico’s theory, is neither materialistic (individual will as the harbinger of collective experience) nor transcendental (the work of God or Fate) but rational, the concretion of individuality and universality:


            History, then, is not the result of Fate or Chance—in both cases

            the individual would be separated from his product but the result

            of a Necessity that is not Fate, of a Liberty that is not Chance ....

            This force he called Divine Providence, with his tongue, one feels,

            very much in his cheek . . . . Humanity is divine, but no man is



The artist and his creatures are at the mercy of an inner tension exerted independently of both. The work of art is ‘neither created nor chosen, but discovered . . . pre-existing within the artist, a law of his nature.’19 If we recognise in the artist’s creatures a correlative of mankind, then we may say of art, as Beckett does of history, that ‘here is all humanity circling with fatal monotony about the Providential fulcrum.’20 In fact, Beckett draws on this analogy again in order to express the artistic consciousness at the depth of self:


            Me, utter me, in the same foul breath as my creatures? Say of me

            that I see this, feel that, fear, hope, know and do not know? Yes, I

            will say it, and of me alone. Impassive, still and mute, Malone

            revolves, a stranger forever to my infirmities, one who is not as I

            can never not be. I am motionless in vain, he is the god . . . I alone

            am man and all the rest divine.21


The writer is the Providential fulcrum of his fictional world, the perfect stillness at the centre of a relentlessly turning circle on the circumference of which his creature occupies a fixed status. The omnipotent deity of the classical artistic tradition, who creates and then withdraws to contemplate his microcosmic world, disappears from Beckett’s scheme like his counterpart in the macrocosm. The new artistic deity is represented by Malone, who exists in a much more positive way than the ideal core of being can be said to exist. The non-existence of being is that of an object without form or substance; Malone’s non-existence is that of a purely imaginary creature. Where being is only felt, the artist’s creature is seen. Malone reflects the essence of that which is divine in being. Collectively, he and the artist’s other creatures correspond to Vico’s concept of a necessity in history, since they represent an intellect that is the prime mover of the universe, the perceiving subject. The world according to Beckett is a concretion of these agents of perception. Individually, Malone represents a non-comprehending expression of what, in one instance, the artistic impulse intuits. Art is a product of his liberty to exist independently of being and of the artist’s other creatures. Malone is the voice of artistic authority and a model of the artistic personality. But, as an artistic object, he is only a partial representation of the artistic subject. Alone he is not divine. Complete and fixed in himself, Malone drifts away from the true centre of being.


Beckett’s dilemma is fundamental; one cannon demonstrate the existence of self without first assuming it. If one can say ‘I.’ there must be a self, but, like the existence of God or Vico’s Divine Providence, the proof is elusive:


            . . . all the peoples of the earth would not suffice, at the end of the

            billions you’d need a god, unwitnessed witness of witnesses . . . it’s

            all down the drain, nothing ever as much as begun . . .22


To confirm my existence I would need to be perceived by someone I did not myself perceive, one who could not be my own creation. Such a being cannot be shown to exist, since the only perceptions of which I could possibly be sure are my own, and they belong precisely to that object which requires to be proved. I believe I exist, but my evidence is negligible:


            . . . it must have been I, but I never saw myself, so it can’t have

            been I, I don’t know, how can I recognise myself who never made

            my acquaintance . . . ?23


The object at the core of the Providential cycle can never witness itself without being removed from the centre. The centrifugal momentum of art—the necessity to relate expression to personality—ensures that the reality of being is obscured by the revolutions of the superficial self. Even God would need to be seen to believe in Himself.


Within the circumference of the perceiving self, in ‘the space that intervenes between him and the world of objects.’24 being is obliged to identify with a constant series of imaginary personae, in order to achieve even a minimal expression:


            I’ll have said it inside me, then in the same breath outside me,

            perhaps that’s what I feel, an outside and an inside and me in the

            middle, perhaps that’s what I am, the thing that divides the world in

            two . . . on the one hand the mind, on the other the world, I don’t

            belong to either.25


The artist’s intuition has its source deep within him, and is expressed through the personality of a narrator. Selfexpression demands a voice which being does not possess and must therefore assume. Art is the consequence neither of a desire to imitate divine perfection in the macrocosm, nor of the writer’s own inimitable creative omnipotence in the microcosm, but of a need to articulate the collective consciousness of the artist’s many selves. Tom between the physical impasse of an object that has location but no magnitude, and the mental anguish of a subject that cannot confirm its own existence, being struggles toward expression. The subject is, can only be, its own object. ‘For the intelligent Amiel there is only one landscape.’26


Beckett has spoken of his sense of being as ‘a presence, embryonic, undeveloped, of a self that never got born, an “être manqué’’’; life on the surface of self is ‘existence by proxy.’27 But one must guard against too literal an interpretation of the ‘abortive self’: ‘The mistake they make of course is to speak of him as if he really existed, in a specific place, whereas the whole thing is no more than a project for the moment.’28 The fact that the absolute centre of a circle can never be identified does not prevent the geometrician from basing his calculations upon it. Likewise Beckett assumes an ideal core of being in order to represent the conditions which mask this unobtainable object: ‘What I liked in anthropology was its inexhaustible faculty of negation, its relentless definition of man, as though he were no better than God, in terms of what he is not.’29 Being is isolated by the need to speak through personalities which possess the kind of existence, albeit imaginary, that it is itself denied. The limitations of art are determined by how much one can discard of surface self in order to arrive at the boundaries which mark the true object at the core: ‘In so far as one is, there is no material.’30 The ‘être manqué.’ unknowable and unutterable, does not, indeed cannot, have a personality of its own.


In an interview with Lawrence Harvey, Beckett claimed ‘that he knew of no form that didn’t violate the nature of being “in the most unbearable manner”.’31 Being can neither be made to express itself, nor disown itself as long as it remains an object of uncertainty. The ‘être manqué’ that is the object of the writer’s intuition is also the source of his artistic impotence:


            Here is an artist who seems literally skewered on the ferocious

            dilemma of expression. Yet he continues to wriggle. The void he

            speaks of is perhaps simply the obliteration of an unbearable

            presence, unbearable because neither to be wooed nor to be



If the artist were to capture his object, he would no longer be in a position to express it. If, on the other hand, he denies his intuition, he posits his own non-being. Beckett is driven to the seemingly inescapable conclusion that the writer ‘is like a foetus trying to do gymnastics.’33 Each assault of the self upon the nature of being, each attempt of the artist to attain his object, is hampered by the fact that expression requires personality:


            If this continues it is myself I shall lose and the thousand ways that

            lead there. And I shall resemble the wretches famed in fable,

            crushed beneath the weight of their wish come true. And I even feel

            a strange desire come over me, the desire to know what I am doing

            and why. So I near the goal I set myself in my young days and

            which prevented me from living. And on the threshold of being no

            more I succeed in being another.34


The artist’s intuition of an unborn self obliges him to seek a form adequate for its expression at the same time that his being that self precludes expression. Behind every denial of personality is the person who denies.


The artist’s need to articulate his vision is the source of his dilemma. The voices through which he speaks are not his own, nor are they adequate representations of his object, the ‘être manqué.’ The object remains the detritus of the artist’s assault on being:


            It is the thing alone, isolated by the need to see it, by the need to

            see. The thing immobile in the void, there at last is the thing visible,

            the pure object .... The brain-pan has the monopoly of this article.35


The writer is at the mercy of his need to express, but lacks the means to fulfill it, to state the sense, as opposed to the substance of what he sees. ‘What complicates it all is the need to make. Like a child in mud but no mud. And no child. Only need.’36 The artist’s compulsion to create objects is a consequence of his inability to express the pure object. He is like the barbarians who ‘use their fantasy to explain what their reason cannot comprehend.’37 The writer’s creation is a metaphor for the artist’s vision. ‘The artist has acquired his text: the artisan translates it.’38


The artisan performs his role dutifully, if imperfectly, in the manner of Matthew of the logia, the archetype of the devoted messenger compelled to spread the Word which is not his word but the Word of divine authority:


            It is I who write, who cannot raise my hand from my knee. It is I who

            think, just enough to write, whose head is far. I am Matthew and I

            am the angel, I who came before the cross, before the sinning,

            came into the world, came here.39


The artisan is to the artist as man is to God. The deliverer of the divine apocalypse denied the omniscience of the ‘Monad of monads’ who ‘acts on [humanity], but by means of her.’40 Art is the creature’s tribute to his maker. ‘All poetry.’ Beckett says, ‘is prayer’;41 the articulate expression of an indefinite intuition. Art is not a rational proof of the deity’s existence, merely an expression of faith. The artisan offers up to the artist an image of the latter’s vision in an ‘unfailing salute to his significant from which the fire is struck and the poem kindled.’42 Being forms a bridge not between the inner and outer selves, but between the speechless creator and his unenlightened voice, between God and Adam—‘I who am on my way, words bellying out my sails, am also that unthinkable ancestor of whom nothing can be said.’43 The writer’s personality is an extension of the artist’s vision, created for the purpose of expression. But in Beckett’s work the deity is not omnipotent and is himself a mere figment of the ‘être manqué’—‘Devised deviser devising it all for company.’44 The edifice of fiction is built around the precarious instability of the ‘être manqué.’ on the intuition, rather than the certainty, of being. Art is ‘an act of recognition.’ the writer’s acknowledgment of the artist’s vision: but more than that it is a ‘blaze of prayer creating its object.’45 The prayer itself precedes both the subject and the object. The writer’s need to describe the essence of self determines the nature and extent of his achievement. In the absence of a more tenable authority, the ‘être manqué’ becomes a metaphor for the origin of the artistic impulse. Art is characterised as the desire of an unknowable subject for possession of an unobtainable object. This desire for possession, which is discovered pre-existing within the artist, creates its own product from the raw material of expression.


In order to obtain a form that does not violate the nature of being, it is necessary for Beckett to overcome this tendency of art to enrich the paucity of the ‘être manqué’ with the luxury of a stable personality. The belief that the object named ‘I’ is always the same object is the consequence of man’s faith in the continuity of past, present and future. Beckett’s attempts to obtain possession of the object see self give birth to a whole series of artificial personae in order to avoid recognition of its own non-being. Through the relationship between ‘I’ and the objective world an individual history is erected. ‘But can that be called a life which vanishes when the subject is changed?’46


Beckett attempts to liberate the ‘être manqué’ from its responsibility as the agent of creation by accelerating the process of change in the subjective identity:


            Here all moves, swims, flees, returns, unmakes itself. All ceases,

            unceasingly. One would think it was the insurrection of the

            molecules, the interior of a stone one-thousandth of a second

            before it disintegrates.47


The writer grinds relentlessly away at the surface of the artistic self in order to remain always on the brink of the ‘être manqué’; stable enough to give utterance to his vision, but not so far removed from the volatile core of being as to; become a caricature of self. Thus poised, Beckett alternates between, the desire to secure being and with it the means of expression, and the longing for the non-being that would enable him to abandon his impossible task. He alternates between boredom and suffering as he saw James Joyce, an artist of the alien Classical mould, alternate between vice and virtue:


            There is a continuous purgatorial process at work, in the sense that

            the vicious circle of humanity is being achieved, and this achieve-

            ment depends on the recurrent predomination of one of two broad

            qualifies.,. . . On this earth that is Purgatory, Vice and Virtue—

            which you may take to mean any pair of large contrary human

            factors—must in turn be purged down to spirits of rebelliousness.

Then the dominant crust of the Vicious or Virtuous sets, resistance

            is provided, the explosion duly takes place and the machine

            proceeds. And no more than this; neither prize nor penalty; simply a

            series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail. And the

            partially purgatorial agent? The partially purged.48


For Joyce, life is the conjunction of Hell’s ‘static lifelessness of unrelieved viciousness’ and Paradise’s ‘static lifelessness of unrelieved emasculation.’49 For Beckett, the providential cycle of history receives its momentum from the struggle between non-being, the absence of personality which represents most nearly the reality of the ‘être manqué’ but which is destructive of art, and being, which necessitates the maintenance of a false continuity of self through habit and dull routine, but which nonetheless facilitates the artist’s means of expression. If there were only the vacuity of non-being, there would be no-one to express; if life were an unbroken round of routine, there would be nothing to express:


            If life and death did not both present themselves to us, there would

            be no inscrutability. If there were only darkness, all would be clear.

            It is because there is not only darkness but also light that our

            situation becomes inexplicable.50


For Joyce, ‘tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist.’51 the cycle of corruption and generation is reproductive, the means by which the artist creates new life. For Beckett, the alternation between death and resurrection is expedient, the means by which the ‘être manqué’ is momentarily freed of the necessity to reproduce itself. The personality of the narrator is never allowed to establish itself as an independent being, but is perennially recast from the shards of self.


Around the central core of consciousness, which is neither being nor non-being, circle Beckett’s creatures, vehemently denying the ‘I’ and then obliged to affirm it: ‘They say they, speaking of them, to make me think it is I who am speaking. Or I say they, speaking of God knows what, to make me think it is not I who am speaking.’52 ‘I’ is a word others use, since all my words are leamt from others. But the perceptions that were mine must belong to someone, ‘for things that happen must have someone to happen to.’53 They belong to another, not I; but before there is the other there is the one. ‘They’ is a word I use. The cycle of ‘I’ and ‘Not I’ drives relentlessly on, since it is only under the conditions pertaining to the former—the rules of language—that the latter can be stated. Being, the agent of purgation, is temporarily purged of its own false implications by the declaration of non-being.


The purgatorial cycle of being and non-being allows Beckett to describe the protean nature of personality, but it is only a partial solution to the problem of artistic expression. It alternates between pronouncing that which is unthinkable either alive or dead. Language, like the kitten chasing its tail, is all a game, one of ‘the simple games that time plays with space.’54 Just as Time forms a link between the subject and the successive objects of his attention, so language embodies causality and secures a place for the ‘I’ as the anchorman of a line extending into the world of external phenomena, thereby reducing the features of creative infinity to a common denominator. Beckett’s artistic gyrations take the form of a struggle to release the ‘être manqué’ from its positional captivity, in order to isolate his blaze of prayer.


A major feature of language is that it reduces the world to a calculable commodity by ensuring, through grammar, that words behave according to a consistent pattern—‘sudden series subject object subject object quick succession and away.’55 Causality is a means of progression toward a goal. The subject implies a verb, which, in turn, implies an object. It seems impossible to say ‘I’ without assuming ‘I am.’ The mere act of statement restores the writer to the sanctuary of a stable and authoritative being. Beckett accepts this as a basic principle of his medium:


            As a writer [Proust] is not altogether at liberty to detach effect from

            cause. It will be necessary, for example, to interrupt (disfigure) the

            luminous projection of subject desire with the comic relief of

            features. It will be impossible to prepare the hundreds of masks that

rightly belong to the objects of even his most disinterested



Subjective desire cannot be divorced from the concept of a living and therefore constant subject, whose personality, or succession of personalities, sullies the purity of expression by interposing its infinite variety upon the uniaxial blaze of prayer. The continual process of change which represents the individual in Time is a wholly inadequate medium for the representation of extratemporal subjective desire. The subject and the object must be named and are thereby fixed, while desire itself becomes the agent of change. The desire for expression becomes a desire for possession, of the subject for its object. The phenomenal independence of being and its fictional attributes is overthrown by their verbal dependence; prayer appears as action, rather than the pure feeling Beckett would apparently wish it to be.


The problem of causality which Beckett acknowledges in Proust is particularly evident in his later prose, where he attempts to escape from the cycle of being and non-being by presenting an image of the pure object isolated in a timeless and sterile world. In Imagination dead imagine, two figures, fixed in the foetal position of the ‘être manqué’ and uniformly white in the midst of a white rotunda whose exterior is concealed by the blanket whiteness of the void, display no more urgent sign of life than the opening of an eye which interrupts the barren landscape, a breath which mists a mirror or perspiration in response to overwhelming heat, until they utter a single cry of being: ‘Only murmur ah, no more, in this silence, and at the same instant for the eye of prey the infinitesimal shudder instantaneously suppressed.’57 The murmur breaks the uniform silence and the shudder breaks the uniform stillness of a world seemingly without distinguishable objects and, therefore, without Time. But in this momentary glimpse of being uncomplicated by language ‘the eye of prey’ intrudes. A visual image is being presented through a linguistic medium and the writer is obliged to describe it in such a way that ‘to perceive it one must be in the secret of the gods.’58 The attempt to express his vision of the ‘être manqué’ unimpeded by causality casts Beckett in the role of omnipotent deity which he had formerly and formally renounced. Beckett’s artistic paradigm is strictly defined as the expression of subjective desire irrespective of the subject and undemanding of the object. ‘Perhaps the most perfect expression of Being would be an ejaculation.’59 Art is the pure expression of pure feeling, the ‘non-logical statement of phenomena in the order and exactitude of their perception, before they have been distorted into intelligibility in order to be forced into a chain of cause and effect.’60 It is impossible to conceive of a non-logical statement of phenomena through language and Beckett recognizes the fact: ‘At that level you break up words to diminish shame. Painting and music have so much better a chance.’61 Language is a form of achievement, the means by which the subject gains possession of his object.


The writer can never hope to accomplish a non-causal expression of subjective desire. His form is symptomatic of the ‘two old maladies’ which Beckett attributes to the painter Masson—‘the malady of wanting to know what to do and the malady of wanting to be able to do it.’62 Given his determination to express the inexpressible, he must face the enervating conclusion ‘that to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.’63 Nonetheless Beckett refuses to accept the traditional remedy of art, which is to brazenly thrust the unknowable core of self into the forefront of expression:


            [Art] attempts to escape from this sense of failure by means of more

            authentic, more ample, less exclusive relations between representer

            and representee, in a kind of tropism towards a light as to the

            nature of which the best opinions continue to vary, and with a kind

            of Pythagorean terror, as though the irrationality of pi were an

            offence against the deity, not to mention his creature.64


In expanding the boundaries of self, in portraying life on the surface rather than at the centre of being, the ‘être manqué.’ artist and the artist’s creatures are merged into a single deified individuality, whose authority is protected by its role as the foundation in any chain of perceptual events. The chaos of the irrational number is suppressed by the inevitability of the numerical series in a process of ‘estheticised automatism.’65


Beckett stubbornly rejects this solution, but is prepared to meet the problem and succumb. His counterpart of the irrational number is the irrational word. Spurning the artificial stability of the ‘I.’ he acknowledges the fact that between being and the terms which language employs to depict it, between the ‘être manqué’ and the artist, there is an ‘incoercible absence of relation.’66 Artistic desire is projected beyond the limitations of a finite subject and object. Beckett’s form is moving towards the infinity of pi, towards the ‘literature of the un-word.’67 The ‘I’ becomes redundant, because the authority behind it is no longer there. ‘The words too, slow, slow, the subject dies before it comes to the verb.’68


The culmination of this process is Beckett’s latest novel, Company, where the absence of relation is expressed in ‘the presence of unavailable terms.’69 Being is isolated from the artistic consciousness which perceives it, but not entirely from the voice of personality, which, through its efforts to express subjective desire (its blaze of prayer) creates the form of the ‘être manqué.’ The apparent omnipotence of the artistic authority is countered by the presence of the central being which is never seen nor heard but always felt:


            Use of the second person marks the voice. That of the third that

            cankerous other. Could he speak to and of whom the voice speaks

            there would be a first. But he cannot. He shall not. You cannot. You

            shall not.70


The artist conveys his image of being to the artisan, who, obliged to express it, determines, through his choice of language, its nature. The form of being is not violated, since it exists only in the mind of the artist and the voice of the writer. Though being is described and addressed, its existence, as befits the ‘être manqué.’ is never demonstrably proven:


Hearing on and off a voice of which uncertain whether addressed to

            him or to another sharing his situation. There being nothing to show

            when it describes correctly his situation that the description is not

            for the benefit of another in the same situation.71


The ‘être manqué.’ liberated from the shackles of the first person, rejoices in the freedom of the womb, ‘being the absence . . . not of percipere but of percipi.’72 Being is not obliged to respond to the undiscriminating prayers of the artisan, whose devotions are no less valid for that. Beckett has discovered a way of presenting the voice of memory and imagination which creates life, without attributing its fancies to the ‘être manqué.’ Being provides the impetus for, but is itself aloof from, the mechanics of artistic expression, defying the rationality of the causal series by virtue of its unutterability.


Company is the closest Beckett has come to solving the problem of expression, but in the end the novel inevitably falls short of finding a form for being. However near Beckett comes to describing his apprehension of being, he can never inhabit it. Neither can he hope to express through language ‘the absence of terms’ which characterizes the ‘être manqué.’73 unless he is prepared to face complete impotence:


            It’s a lot to expect of one creature . . . that he should first behave as

            if he were not, then as if he were, before being admitted to that

            peace where he neither is, nor is not, and where the language dies

            that permits of such expressions.74


When the deceptive cycle of ‘I’ and ‘Not I’ collapses, the means of expression are gone. Beckett’s as yet unaccomplished task is to find the un-word that corresponds to the irrational number, through the dead language of subjective desire. ‘Being has a form. Someone will find it someday. Perhaps I won’t but someone will. It is a form that has been abandoned, left behind, a proxy in its place.’75


1 Proust, in Proust and Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, London, John Calder, 1965; 82.

2 How it is, London, John Calder, 1977; 111.

3 ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce’ in Our Exagmination Round his Factification for incamination of Work in Progress; London, Faber & Faber, 1972; 3.

4 Proust, 81.

5 Murphy, London, Picador, 1973; 63.

6 Ibid., 64.

7 Proust, 23 and 28.

8 Murphy, 66.

9 Proust 90.

10 Ibid., 19.

11 Ibid., 31.

12 Murphy, 103-104.

13 Proust, 84.

14 Ibid., 28.

15 Ibid., 21.

16 Ibid., 29.

17 Ibid., 65-66.

18 ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce.’ 7.

19 Proust, 84.

20 ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce.’ 9.

21 The unnamable in Molloy, Malone dies, The unnamable, London, John Calder, 1959; 302.

22 Texts for nothing in No’s knife, London, Calder & Boyars, 1967; 131.

23 The unnamable, 402.

24 ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ (1934) quoted in V. Mercier, Beckett/Beckett, New York, Oxford University Press, 1977; 4.

25 The unnamable, 386.

26 ‘Humanistic Quietism’ (1934) in T.D. Redshaw (ed.) Thomas MacGreevy: Collected Poems, Dublin, New Writer’s Press, 1971; 12.

27 Quoted in L.E. Harvey, Samuel Beckett: poet and critic, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1970; 249.

28 The unnamable, 375.

29 Molloy in Molloy, Malone dies, The unnamable, 39.

30 Quoted in L.E. Harvey, op. cit., 248.

31 L.E. Harvey, op. cit., 435.

32 Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit in Proust and Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, 110-111.

33 Quoted in L.E. Harvey, op. cit., 249.

34 Malone dies in Molloy, Malone dies, The unnamable, 194.

35 ‘La Peinture des van Veldes.’ translated by V. Mercier and quoted in V. Mercier, op. cit., 101.

36 Quoted in L.E. Harvey, op. cit., p. 248.

37 ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce.’ 9.

38 Proust, 84.

39 The unnamable, 303.

40 ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce.’ 6 and 7.

41 ‘Humanistic Quietism.’ 11.

42 Ibid., 11.

43 The unnamable, 355.

44 Company, London, John Calder, 1980; 64.

45 ‘Humanistic Quietism.’ 11 and 12.

46 The unnamable, 356.

47 ‘La Peinture des van Veldes.’ 102.

48 ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce.’ 22.

49 Ibid., 22.

50 Quoted in T. Driver ‘Interview with Beckett’ in Graver & Federman (eds.) Samuel Beckett: the Critical Heritage, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979; 220.

51 Quoted in I. Shenker ‘An Interview with Beckett.’ in Graver & Federman, op. cit., 148.

52 The unnamable, 373.

53 Ibid., 394.

54 Watt, London, John Calder, 1976, 71.

55 How it is, 12.

56 Proust, 11-12.

57 Imagination dead imagine in No’s knife, 164.

58 The lost ones in Six residua, London, John Calder, 1976, 60.

59 Quoted in L.E. Harvey, op. cit., 441.

60 Proust, 86.

61 Quoted in L.E. Harvey, op. cit., 249.

62 Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, 109 and 110.

63 Ibid., 125.

64 Ibid., 125.

65 Ibid., 125.

66 Ibid., 125.

67 Quoted in L.E. Harvey, op. cit., 249.

68 Texts for nothing, 78.

69 Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, 125.

70 Company, 9.

71 Ibid., 61-62.

72 Murphy, 138.

73 Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, 125.

74 The unnamable, p. 337.

75 Quoted in L.E. Harvey, op. cit., 249.