Richard Ellmann, in chapter thirty-five of his biography of James Joyce, a chapter covering the years from 1932-1935, briefly mentions some of the activities in which Joyce was aided by Samuel Beckett during the composition of Finnegan’s Wake. Ellmann describes one instance when Joyce asked Beckett `to read to him passages from Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, in which the nominalistic view of language seemed something Joyce was looking for’.1 While critics studying Joyce have rarely pursued the relevance of this book to the composition of the Wake ,2 Beckett critics have, with growing frequency, traced connections between Beckett’s use of language and the ideas expressed by Fritz Mauthner in his 1903 study of the limits of language.3 It is clear that for those interested in Beckett’s development, details about Mauthner are important, and that the brief reference by Ellmann, offered without supporting citations, is not sufficient. When asked to provide additional information about the event, Ellmann said that he no longer had the substantiating details as to the dating and particulars and suggested that Beckett be contacted for corroboration .4
Beckett’s reply to my query was to correct Ellmann’s account: he had not read Mauthner to Joyce but had, on Joyce’s request, taken the volumes and read them himself.5 He also stated that the copies of the Critique, which are now in his personal library, are not the missing Joyce copies, which have not surfaced and are not recorded either in the Buffalo catalogue of Joyce holdings of the 1930s or the Ellmann listing of the Joyce library of 1920.6 In response to a question as to the significance of Mauthner with respect to his writing, Beckett responded, ‘I skimmed through Mauthner for Joyce in 1929 or 30. I do not remember what passages I imagined as likely fodder for FW’.7 The date which Beckett provides for his reading of Mauthner differs from the one Ellmann listed, placing it before the writing of Proust and Dream of fair to middling women and simultaneous with the composition of the Wakean apologia ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce’. In the same correspondence, Beckett also offers his succinct reaction to the Critique:
Such was my levity.
Beckett’s concise description perfectly reduces the central ideas of Mauthner’s study: thoughts and words are synonymous - there can be no thinking without words; the words which we use are inane -lacking substance or sense; therefore our very thoughts are inane - empty, never obviating the void. The choice of the word ‘inane’, conveying as it does emptiness and void, clearly indicates both Mauthner’s extreme skepticism about the possible consequences for thought and language and Beckett’s own recognition of the same. In Beckett, however, such a recognition is tempered by ‘levity’. While Mauthner displays no humour in his self-proclaimed battle against the limits of language, Beckett recognizes the irony inherent in waging a war with weapons supplied by the force you wish to vanquish.
In the same correspondence Beckett clarifies his response to Mauthner and the Critique: ‘Recently I came across an ancient commonplace book in which I had copied verbatim the paragraph from the last section of the work (Wissen and Worfe) beginning "Der zeine and konsequente Nominalismus" ‘.8 What is significant about the paragraph, besides the obvious fact that Beckett has kept it for fifty years, is the relevance of the content to the central themes in Beckett’s writing. These ideas are not, of course, unique to Mauthner; Beckett could well have discovered them in other sources, and most directly from his own experiences with language. However, it is important to note that Beckett read the Critique at the very beginning of his career and found, in this and other passages, indictments of language that have echoed through his own writing for many years. In order to trace the connections between Mauthner and Beckett I quote the paragraph in full:
Epistemological nominalism is not a world view that
can be proved, that is, pure and consistent nominalism such as was never
expressed by nominalists but which presumably was merely ascribed to them by
vicious opponents: namely the doctrine that all the concepts or words of human
thought be nothing beyond mere ejaculations of air on the part of a human
voice, that consistent nominalism according to which the human brain -
the same way as the surface of a stone is closed off from its chemistry -has
no access to reality, this pure nominalism that despairs - all natural
science notwithstanding - as quietly of any knowledge of gravity or of
color or of electricity as of a knowledge of consciousness - this
epistemological nominalism is not a provable world view. It would not be
nominalism were it to pass itself off as anything more than a feeling, as a
mood of the human individual when confronted with the world. Even a thinking-through
to the end of this doctrine, even a satisfactory immersion into this mood, is
denied to us, for all thought takes place within the words of language, and
thought dissolves itself once the nebulousness of words has become clear to us.
To be sure, for a short while immersion into a mere mood is possible, but then
the ponderer tries over and over again to get hold of this mood in one pure
word, just like a poet, and if he no longer believes in the word he must reach
out into emptiness. Pure nominalism puts an end to thinking and - with a
new shudder of humanity - pure nominalism feels that color and sound,
leftovers from a way of looking at the world, are children’s toys that the accidental
senses (Zufallssinne) have put into the cradle of mankind. Truly, words can be
used merely for quarrelling but not for creating; they can fight old beliefs
but they cannot prove new ones. ‘It is possible to refute opinions universally;
to prove opinions universally is not possible’. (S. Philipp, Vier skepiische
Mauthner is such a thoroughgoing skeptic that he even goes so far as to deny the validity of natural science. The argument is complicated and in places contradictory, revolving around Mauthner’s theory of Zufallssinne, the accidental or chance occurrences of the senses.11 Briefly, what Mauthner means by this coined term is that the senses, like language and thought, are faulty since their data are gained through chance observations, subject to the limitations of the perceiver, his mental predisposition to the events, and the vicissitudes of memory, which becomes the ultimate repository for impressions of the senses. Since Mauthner is a strict empiricist, he denies anything that is not provided by the testimony of the senses. At the same time he considers their verifiability limited since they have no irrefutable method of substantiation. What is perceived is filtered through faulty mechanisms, stored in fallible memories, and - perhaps most damaging - shaped by predetermined expectations or thoughts, that is by words. In Mauthner’s view everything is subject to doubt ‘natural science notwithstanding’. He never denies the possibility of a natural science, just as he never denies the possibility of the existence of an inner self or even of a God, but he argues that such a possibility remains just that - merely possible, not actual. Since there are no words that can prove these concepts irrefutably, we can never know of their absolute existence.
For over fifty years - from the composition of Dream of fair to middling women in 1932 to the 1979 completion of Company -two Mauthner themes appear and reappear in Beckett’s works: the impossibility of verification and the impossibility of proving this impossibility. In Dream the narrator introduces a technique which other Beckettian storytellers will employ, the unverifiability of the very story being told: ‘The fact of the matter is we don’t quite know where we are in this story’, 12 the narrator says. Refusing to write the traditional kind of novel where ‘all the novelist has to do is to bend his material into a spell, item after item, and juggle politely with irrefragable values’ (p. 106), the speaker in Dream denies absolute status, even fictive absolute status, to any action or to any person, even to his protagonist: ‘There is no real Belacqua’ (p. 108).
are also no other characters, if by that term we mean literary creations with
determinable dimensions. ‘It is possible that some of our creatures will do
their dope’, the narrator remarks early in his tale, ‘And it is certain that
others will not’ (p. 7). The incorrigible ones are those not willing to be
circumscribed by the neat parameters of the fictional mode. Beckett employs a
musical analogy, indicating that it is possible to capture pure sound, in the
form he calls the musical liŭ-liũ and repeat it: ‘If all our
characters were like that - liŭ-liũ minded - we
could write a little book that would be purely melodic, think how nice that
would be, linear, a lovely Pythagorean chain-chant solo of cause and
effect’ (p. 8). Unfortunately for the story-teller, and for the writer
who must fashion the story, humans are not so amenable to representation; they ‘will
not for any consideration by condensed into a liŭ. They are ‘not a note at
all but the most regrettable simultaneity of notes’ (p. 8). A simple rendering
and a simple verification will not suffice. The story may progress as if words
could approximate the purity of the musical note, but if the novelist is honest
- as Beckett insists he must be - then there must be constant
reminders of the impossibility of the storytelling, the imprecise transfer of
reality into words. Belacqua may feign a desired imprecision.
‘"It’s silly of me, I know", he lisped, "but I hate to be a snob and use the mot juste" ‘ (p. 153). The truth underlying the pose, and the novel, is that there is no mot juste. Even one’s sense of self is not provable; it is, Belacqua explains, ‘something of which you have and can have no knowledge’ (p. 91). The sense of the present and of an ego existing in the present can never be verified for it can never be captured in words. ‘There is no word for such a thing, there is no such abominable thing. The notion of an unqualified present - the mere "I am" - is an ideal notion’ (p. 91). Here Belacqua seems to be echoing Mauthner’s notion that words provide no verification of things. Even the self falls prey to the distortions caused by words, remaining a vague feeling not reducible to language and so not communicable, either to oneself or to others.
To represent the self, therefore, the writer must find a means of capturing this fragmentation and this ‘something’ which exists but which is ‘no such abominable thing’. The narrator in Dream attempts the task by describing his hero as follows: ‘At his simplest he was trine. Just think of that. A trine man! Centripetal, centrifugal and . . . not. Phoebus chasing Daphne, Narcissus flying from Echo and . . . neither. Is that neat or is it not? . . . Trine. Yessir’. (p. 107) Synthesis is not possible; there is always the third element unlike either aspect of the self: ‘His third being was without axis or contour, its centre everywhere and periphery nowhere, an unsurveyed marsh of sloth’ (p. 108). Such diffusion of character explains ‘the untractable behaviour of our material’ (p. 105), the speaker says. What other kind of story could one expect from characters whose shapes are in ‘perpetual erosion’ (p. 103)? This multiplicity is present not only in the characters but in the storyteller as well. He announces at the beginning of the work that he will henceforth use ‘we (consensus, here and hereafter, of me)’ (p. 3).
A prime reason for the diffuseness of action in Dream comes, therefore, from the schismatic nature of character. How can figures who are ‘trine’ conduct business as usual? How can they also perceive the external world and physical phenomena as clear discrete occurrences? Mauthner’s theory of the unverirfiability of the senses and the ensuing distortions which occur is present in Beckett’s works as an extension of the characters’ inability to fix their own egos in concrete modes. If there is no direct connection between object and representation of self, and characters are unable ‘to bind forever in imperishable relation the object and its representation’ (p. 142), there is a like impossibility of fixing forever the objects of the physical world and the language which is used to represent them. Belacqua shares with Molloy the uneasy sense ‘that I forget who I am and strut before my eyes, like a stranger. Then I see the sky different from what it is and the earth too takes on false colours’.13 Thus the natural world becomes unfixed because of the shifting sense of the self, as Molloy explains:
But that there were natural causes to all things I am willing to concede, for the resources of nature are infinite apparently. It was I who was not natural enough to enter into that order of things, and appreciate its niceties. But I was used to seeing the sun rise in the south, used to not knowing where I was going, what I was leaving, what was going with me, all things turning and twisting confusedly about me. (p. 44)
Belacqua, too, finds it difficult to distinguish the sensations which whirl around him and the memories which they trigger in his conscious mind.14 Usually the memory, grafted onto the present, tends to overshadow and neutralize immediate events. As Belacqua observes, ‘The real presence was a pest because it did not give the imagination a break’ (p. 9). The effect of this double vision, of the immediate and of the imagined, is not heightened clarity but heightened doubt; the constant refrain in Dream is ‘is that what we mean? What do we mean?’ (p. 10).
Against this sense of doubt and uncertainty, the characters in Dream seek out minutiae to shore up uncertain situations. ‘Facts, we cannot repeat it too often, let us have facts, plenty of facts’ (p. 66), the narrator calls. Yet the welter of facts only serves further to undermine surety, since it causes the entire structure of the fictional world to flounder in inconsequentialities. While calling for substantiation of the tale he is unfolding, the narrator rejects what is traditionally supplied in fiction as evidence or testimony:
Milieu, race, family, structure, temperament, past and present and consequent and antecedent back to the first combination and the papas and mamas and paramours and cicisbei and the morals of Nanny and the nursery wallpapers and the third and fourth generation snuffles . . . That tires us. (p. 10)
Instead what he would prefer is something of more import: ‘The only perspective worth stating is the site of the unknotting . . .’ (p. 10). But the problem for narrator and characters is the absence of such ties, the absence of traditional ‘unknotting’. In place of meaning, the narrator admits to ‘fashioning intricate festoons of words’ (p. 202). The implication is that these words do not connect to a reality that lies beyond them; they are decorative without being revelatory of anything beyond their own limitations. This nominalist note, struck in the first extended work in the Beckett canon, is offered not only as a theoretical point of departure but is embodied in the very diffuse form which the work takes.
In a 1934 review of a collection of writings by Sean O’Casey Beckett commented that ‘What is arguable of a period - that its bad is the best gloss on its good - is equally so of its representatives taken singly’.15 Many of the difficulties encountered in the presentation of the nominalist position in Dream throw light upon the successful rendition of the theme in other works. The story of Belacqua has no conclusion, despite the narrator’s observation, ‘Extraordinary how everything ends like a fairy-tale tale or can be made to, even the most unsanitary episodes’ (p. 98). The work remains incomplete in order that Beckett may clearly delineate it from the typical Balzac novel where ‘he can write the end of his book before he has finished the first paragraph’ (p. 106). In this early attempt at writing a different type of fiction, Beckett seems to have a clear sense of what he does not want, but is still looking for what he will later call ‘a form to accommodate the mess’.16 After Watt, any of Beckett’s works -in varying ways and with varying success - could be used to illustrate the possibility of fusing form and content successfully, but I purposely choose to discuss the handling of the theme of verifiability and its structure in Beckett’s recent prose work Company . When read in tandem with Dream , it offers striking parallels, illustrating many of the contentions of Mauthner’s paragraph - a source Beckett rediscovered at approximately the time he was composing Company - about the ways in which doubt may be explored without sacrificing control and precision, and without turning tail before the ultimate penury of incertitude.
If Dream is marked by diffuseness and does not even display ‘the involuntary unity’ that Belacqua feared, Company has those qualities of precision and extreme compression that mark Beckett’s recent writing, far surpassing such works as The lost ones, Lessness, and AU strange away in the scope of the world pictured. In fifty-eight paragraphs spread over some fifty-six printed pages, we are offered both the story of a life and the condition of living. The paragraphs are of two sorts: forty-three tell about a figure ‘lying on his back in the dark’17 and fifteen offer up memories, presumably of the life the figure has led.18 The figure himself, like the man in A piece of monologue, the play which precedes Company in composition, _is silent throughout, and is referred to as the listener or hearer. At one point the name H Aspirate Haitch is suggested to vary the monotony of the two appellations. The name recalls Mauthner’s ‘all concepts or words of human thought [are] nothing beyond mere ejaculations of air on the part of a human voice’, since all three parts of the name refer to a single act: the ejaculation or blowing out of air. The letter H marks the sound, aspirate, the act, and aitch, preceded once more by H, the nominative for the letter and a repetition of the sound. The name also points to the ‘levity’ of the situation. The aitch-bone is the name for the large bone of the buttocks, the bone on which the silent figure reclines as he blows out air and aspires to achieve some high goal. The pun conveys the ironic situation which so many Beckett characters have faced: on their arses, in the dark, without words, aspiring to clarity and an understanding of the experiences of their lives. ‘Belacqua opened his mouth and said "ah" when he felt nothing, or when words could not convey what he felt’ (Dream , p. 168). Since words never seem to be adequate representations of feelings or of reality, the ‘ah’ becomes the dominant sound, drowned out by an accompanying torrent of words in Dream , and marked by a puff of breath in Company .
In Company the listener, having given up the act of speech, remains silent, listening to the voices alive in his head. Like Belacqua, he, too, is ‘trine’: the he of the third person singular marks the narrator, the you of the second person the voice of memory and of present conditions, the I the unacknowledged ‘third being . . . without axis or contour, its centre everywhere and periphery nowhere’ (Dream , p. 108). The listener is prodded by the voice into assuming a singular identity: ‘In the end you will utter again. Yes I remember. That was I. That was I then’ (p. 21). Though the prediction is repeated twice in the course of the novel, the man remains silent, not even offering the vehement refusal of ego that Mouth exhibited in Not I. Yet, like Mouth, the figure fails to acknowledge a unified self for the same reason: the presence of the other voices. ‘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’ (p. 8). The he and the you remain closed off to each other, like the stone which Mauthner describes; the object and the subject have no means of access for there is no language that could bridge the schism. Yet unlike Dream , where the fragmentation of the self is presented in a disjointed fashion, Company orchestrates the simultaneity of voices in a tightly controlled form.
Company is perhaps Beckett’s most parsimonious piece: nothing wasted, nothing superfluous. If, as John Pilling observes, Dream is almost impossible to summarize because of its diffuseness and complexity, 19 Company is almost equally hard to summarize because of its compactness. One is tempted merely to quote what seems to defy summary and paraphrase. The first paragraph, for instance, which offers background, is only nine words: ‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine’ (p. 7). What, to whom, in what condition, and what complication; a speaker to a listener in the dark using his imagination. One is reminded of Belacqua’s constant imprecations against background and his equally constant forays into the past, virtually obliterating the present. In Company the present is a constant; the man lying mute in a world of darkness is always conscious of his state. From time to time, light pierces the dark; the source of the light is the voice of imagination spinning the memories of the past. ‘That then is the proposition. To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusions to a present and more rarely to a future’. (pp. 7-8).
In paragraph two the narrator explains these parameters of action, but he also sets the theme that will affect both the evocation of the physical states of the listener and of the memories which he spins: doubt. ‘Only a small part of what is said can be verified’ (p. 7). Empirical evidence may supply only limited corroboration. The narrator can refer, for instance, to the physical position of the figure - ‘on his back in the dark’ - but when he tries to ascertain any more about his surroundings or about the voices he hears, all slowly dissolves into uncertainty. ‘This at first glance seems clear. But as the eye dwells it grows obscure. Indeed the longer the eye dwells the obscurer it grows’ (p. 22). The figure is not even certain if the voice he hears is addressed to him: ‘he cannot but sometimes wonder if it is indeed to and of him the voice is speaking’ (p. 8). If the physical facts of his existence are subject to ‘this faint uncertainty and embarrassment’ (p. 9), then there is little hope of determining the truth underlying the fifteen memories that are offered in the work. The voice attempts to gain a degree of veracity by grounding them in empirical data: ‘Sometimes the two are combined as for example, You first saw the light on such and such a day and now you are on your back in the dark. A device perhaps from the incontrovertibility of the one to win credence for the other’ (p. 7). Yet the coupling hardly gains the desired surety. The listener, like Belacqua and all ‘sons of Adam’, is cursed with ‘an insubordinate mind’: it is ‘unstillable’ (Dream , p. 23). The figure suffers from ‘unformulable gropings of the mind’ (p. 23). Since he finds no verbal outlet for his questionings, he t: f cannot reach any certainty of place or situation; for what cannot be formed in words, cannot be known - the Mauthner equation.20
Verification, however, is only part of a larger aspiration expressed in the work - the desire for Company . Thirty-five times in the novel - not including noun, adjectival and adverbial variations - the word Company is evoked as a kind of incantation used to ward off the contrary state, the condition of being alone. The descriptions of the listener, the comments on the surroundings, the memories related by the voice are attempts at ‘devising it all for Company ’. Like Winnie and so many other Beckett characters who could not bear to be alone and ‘prattle away with not a soul to hear’, the figure in this work needs Company . Yet he does not pretend that there is a Willie in the wilderness. If there is to be dialogue it can only be provided by the fragmented voices of his own person, however insufficient. ‘The voice alone is Company but not enough’ (p. 9), the narrator remarks. Were the first person singular pronoun to be assumed ‘what an addition to Company that would be!’ (p. 21). In lieu of this, anything will do, even doubt: ‘Confusion too is Company up to a point’ (p. 26). The memories, of course, provide Company but so, too, does the constant reshaping of the details of the fiction: from supine figure ‘on his back in the dark’ to ‘crawling creator’, whose altered physical state is also a source of Company : ‘Devised deviser devising it all for Company ’ (p. 46).
The entire situation is one Beckett has used in the past but never with so much economy or power. A figure, existing in blackness, capable of almost no movement or physical options - or so constituted by a capricious creator - hears a voice or voices, even occasionally sounds that are mere buzzes and not discernible as language. He finds from time to time that the light of memory in the form of words breaks through the darkness providing brief illuminations that create shadows in their wake. Stories told to a silent listener by a voice that may or may not be his but which keeps him from acknowledging his own self with any certainty. And all for Company .
The opposition between Company and alone is echoed in the several binary opposites that structure the work. The most dominant opposition is the tension created between the reporting of the present condition and the fifteen memories of the past that punctuate the present. The movements between the: two times represent this pattern of fictional discourse in the work. The paragraphs of memory divide in the following way: seven of childhood, two of ‘the bloom of adulthood’ (p. 38), six of old age. It is interesting to note that in several of Beckett’s later works the pull seems to be between youth and old age, as the voice in Monologue indicates: ‘Birth was the death of him’.21 There are virtually no memories of adult life, which play so prominent a part in the imaginations of Winnie and Krapp. It is helpful to illustrate the position of these memories in order to see how the pull of youth is finally overshadowed by the inevitability of age and death:
Youth Adult Old Age
Memories of childhood dominate the beginning of the work. They are not presented in the expected chronological order, however; the memory of birth is preceded by a memory of youth. The ordering is significant because in this first scene the dominant theme of doubt is struck, and it will be repeated in subsequent memories. Also, many of the actions described in scene one are repeated, with variations, in the other memories. The memory appears following six short paragraphs of exposition which establish - or attempt to establish - the conditions and surroundings of the listener:
A small boy you come out of Connolly’s Stores holding your mother by the hand. You turn right and advance in silence southward along the highway. After some hundred paces you head inland and broach the long steep homeward. You make ground in silence hand in hand through the warm still summer air. It is late afternoon and after some hundred paces the sun appears above the crest of the rise. Looking up at the blue sky and then at your mother’s face you break the silence asking her if it is not in reality much more distant than it appears. The sky that is. The blue sky. Receiving no answer you mentally reframe your question and some hundred paces later look up at her face again and ask her if it does not appear much less distant than in reality it is. For some reason you could never fathom this question must have angered her exceedingly. For she shook off your little hand and made you a cutting retort you have never forgotten. (p. 11)
The description begins in traditional third person narrative form with the introduction of ‘a small boy’. It is followed by the appositive you presented in this way to indicate that the voice of the self is coexistent with the third person singular, and that the boy is coexistent with the silent adult - the you - who is imagining the scene. The past, which Beckett in Proust called ‘a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably part of us’, is still part of the conscious mind of the silent figure though ‘we are other’.
The small boy is in many ways like the avatars of the self who follow in subsequent memories. First, he is in motion as many of the figures will be, ironically in contradistinction to the inert or crawling figure who remembers them. Though not made expressly clear in this initial passage, the path to be followed is a familiar path: ‘The beeline is so familiar to your feet that if necessary they could keep to it and you sightless with error on arrival of not more than a few feet from north or south’ (p. 36). Beckett assigns all his characters the same direction, from east to west, indicating their common journey from birth to death. This movement is also indicated in the novel by shifts from light to dark. The boy, like the figures who follow him, starts out in the light of early morning and heads into darkness. It is the same, inevitable darkness of night and age experienced by the man in the dark who imagines these scenes of the past. Against the pull of the inevitable direction of motion, there is the attempted rebellion. In one memory, after following the familiar direction, ‘suddenly you cut through the hedge and vanish hobbling east across the gallops’ (p. 24). Twice the word withershins is used, a word which means movement in a counterclockwise direction. In old age the figure, no longer able to go out and traverse the countryside, sits staring at the inevitable rounds of the hands of the clock. ‘Withershins’ is now impossible.
In this first memory, however, the path is still new and ostensibly leads to the security of home. There is none of the awareness of inevitability and the accompanying resentment which the mature spectres display. There is simply a young boy walking home hand in hand with his mother. However, Beckett embeds in this seemingly innocent scene the seeds of all the later doubting and turmoil, and he does so primarily through the language. As the boy and his mother head inland toward the west, they ‘broach the long steep homeward’ (p. 10). Broach at first seems a curious word to use. Its transitive forms, now obsolete or rare, indicate piercing, stabbing, or thrusting through, to obtain liquor or, figuratively, blood. It can also figuratively apply to piercing or breaking into in order to liberate or extract something. The more common usage, however, is associated with speech, where it means to utter or to bring up something .22 Beckett skillfully plays the figurative rare meaning against the literal familiar one: there is the attempt on the part of the boy to pierce through doubt by uttering or forming his questions in words. His broaching of the hill becomes a physical action parallel to the mental activity of broaching - both piercing through and uttering. The second word, steep, is also carefully chosen by Beckett for its multiple associations. The word carries the dual meanings of height, a steep incline or elevation, and depth, a decline or a precipitous falling of. 23 The word thus indicates the dichotomy which will be echoed in the memories which follow: rising and falling, the desire for elevation thwarted by the inevitability of descent.
As the boy successfully climbs the hill he reaches a certain spot in his trek where ‘the sun appears’. The reader recognizes the situation: the sun in its descent in the west has been hidden from view by the hill which the boy is climbing and only becomes apparent when the boy and his mother reach the ridge. However, in the young boy’s mind, the sensory observation of the sun’s sudden appearance could well allow for the opposite conclusion - the sun’s ascension toward the east. The arbitrariness of the duality between ascension and decline is again indicated. One remembers Molloy’s comment about the sun moving eastward because of Molloy’s strange way of perceiving the world. The possibility of so misreading the physical world also echoes Mauthner. Yet in this scene the boy has not yet grown to Molloy’s years of doubt, nor the narrator’s. For instead of asking the question that is suggested, about the sun, the boy instead asks about the sky. The narrator seems to imply the anticipation of the former by the words ‘the sky that is’. It is a question that a young child might very well ask an adult. Yet its position as the first question of a questioning mind makes clear that it is not a gratuitous question. It is a question of appearance and reality, of perception and imagination. When the boy uses the word sky, he is probably not thinking of its definition as the upper atmosphere appearing as the hemisphere above the earth, but of that which is outside of himself - of the macrocosm in general - trying to fix the demarcation between the me and the not me, as so many Beckett figures have done before him. It is important to note that when the boy receives no answer from his mother, he continues in silence, once again as so many Beckett characters have tried to do. He then begins once more reforming the doubt in words that will encompass it and elicit the response that will silence the questioning and the words. At first glance the second rephrasing looks like a contrary of the first, but it is actually the same question. Like almost all Beckett’s characters, the small boy is trying to find words to fit situations; and he, like the others, is greeted with a reproof: ‘a cutting retort you have never forgotten’.
It is not surprising that the boy’s questioning of the differentiation between the outer and the inner world should be framed in relation to the sky. Many of Beckett’s characters have been drawn to the sky as visual equivalent of their own states. As Pilling indicates in his chapter on Dream in Frescoes of the skull, Belacqua makes a connection between the night sky and the creative mind when he describes the sky as ‘the passional movements of the mind charted in light and dark’: (Dream , p. 14).24
Central to the structure of Company is this connection between light and dark. Light has two modes. It represents both the macrocosmic, physical world and the inner world of the imagination and memory. The boy in this scene walks in natural light, but his direction is toward the west and the eventual dying of the light. In the next memory, that of birth, the duality concerning the source of light is indicated by the opening idiom, ‘You first saw the light in the room you most likely were conceived in. The big bow window looked west to the mountain’ (p. 12). Here the light is both physical and mental, received by sensory apprehension and awareness; and again the direction of the light and of the view is toward the west.
The balance between the two types of light is finally destroyed in memory eight, at approximately the middle of the trail of memories, which describes a clear shift from the external source of light to the light of imagination. The scene begins, ‘The light there was then’ (p. 25). In this physical light a young boy at dawn climbs once more ‘to your hiding place on the hillside. A nook in the gorse’ (p. 25). However, instead of casting his eyes in the expected westerly direction, he scans the sky to the east. ‘East beyond the sea the faint shape of high mountains. Seventy miles away according to your Longman’ (p. 25). Given the distance, the image is probably one that the boy ‘sees’ in his imagination. At least, this is the conclusion of the adults to whom he has told of his vision: ‘The first time you told them and were derided. All you had seen was cloud’ (p. 25). Having been rebuked, as the mother intitially rebuked him, the boy now internalizes his experience. ‘So now you hoard it in your heart with the rest’ (p. 25). The scene of light is no longer experienced as part of an empirical observation; it becomes part of the memory, and the light experienced is the light which imagination provides. ‘Back home at nighffall supperless to bed. You lie in the dark and are back in that light .... Fall asleep in that sunless cloudless light. Sleep till morning light’ (p. 25). The light that wakes the boy at morning is the light of the natural world, external to the boy. It is now clearly demarcated from the light which pierces his darkness, the light his own mind controls. It is this inner light that comes to the silent figure as he lies ‘on his back in the dark’ in imitation of the young boy lying supine in his bed ‘back in that light’ (p. 25). Its form will be a voice speaking in the skull. ‘Dark lightens when it sounds. Deepens when it ebbs. Lightens with flow back to faint full. Is whole again when it ceases’ (p. 19).
As memories move toward those of old age, the physical light totally fails. The last three memories all take place at night or in darkness. In memory thirteen the figure stands on a strand at evening. In memory fourteen he is no longer outside but in a room with no physical light present save what is gained from the artificial one above him: ‘Numb with the woes of your kind you raise none the less your head from off your hands and open your eyes. You turn on without moving from your place the light above you’ (p. 57). In the last memory, where present and past seem to fuse, all is in physical darkness, the only light now possible is the light of the voice recounting memories: ‘What visions in the dark of light’, the voice says (p. 59).
As the external light dims and fades so, too, does this light of the mind. However it never disappears while ‘a certain activity of mind however slight’ (p. 9) is still possible. In memory thirteen the voice says, ‘Light dying. Soon none left to die. No. No such thing then as no light. Died on to dawn and never died’ (p. 54). The words are almost identical with those used in Monologue, but with two important changes: the addition of the word then and the shift from the present to the past tense. Beckett seems to be indicating in this later work that the possibility of an existence bereft of the light of imagination is more likely than supposed in the earlier work, and the figure in this present dark is, if possible, in a state more devoid of light than the silent figure in Monologue. However he, too, is not totally in darkness. As long as the voice supplies memories to a conscious mind there will be some light present.
Youth and age are a parallel set of contraries related to light and dark, and they also structure the work. The dichotomy is introduced in the memory of birth. The silent figure thinking about his birth is connected to his father through the transference of the third person singular pronoun from the former to the latter. The voice describes the birth attended by ‘A Dr. Hadden or Haddon’, taking place on ‘a public holiday’ that we are later told is ‘the day that Christ died’ (p. 13). The birth lasts for almost ten hours, from early morning to evening. While the child is being born, the father takes his well-loved hike in the mountains to remove himself from the scene because of ‘his aversion to the pains and general unpleasantness of labour and delivery’ (p. 13). The name Haddon was used by Beckett in an early version of Footfalls and later omitted,25 and there is much in the scene that recalls that play. There is the same fusing of parent and child, where the spectre of the adult is internalized in the memory of the offspring. The mingling of the third person singular to cover both men is similar to the blending of the voices of May and Voice in Footfalls. In Company the voice asks the silent listener to ‘imagine his thoughts’ referring to the mind of the father. ‘You may imagine his thoughts as he sat there in the dark not knowing what to think’ (p. 14). The father, alone in the dark, merges with the figure thinking these thoughts alone in his own dark. Just as May and her mother seem to become one -the voice of the mother in the head of the daughter - the father and the son also fuse in the memory of the younger. However, instead of employing a traditional dichotomy where the birth of a son foreshadows the imminent demise of the father, Beckett indicates the inevitable demise of the son following in his father’s ‘beeline’. When the father is told that the child has arrived, the maid bringing the news uses one word for her annunciation; ‘Overt’ (p. 14). Once more in Beckett the gravedigger puts on the forceps. Instead of a beginning, birth seems to mark an end or at least the beginning of the end.
The images used to describe the father, by contrast, are images of youth. When he receives the news he is ‘on the point of setting out anew across the fields in the young moonlight’ (p. 14; italics mine). What is beginning seems to be the journey of the father as spectre in the mind of the son, accompanying the next generation on the familiar, welltrod path. This idea is corroborated in memory three, one of two places in the novel where memories appear consecutively without intervening paragraphs of description of the present physical state of the listener, and one of three such memories of age that punctuate the memories of youth. The figure, presumably the baby of the preceding scene, is now an old man: ‘You are an old man plodding along a narrow country road . . . . With your father’s shade. In his old tramping rags. Finally on side by side from nought anew’ (p. 15; italics mine). The echoing word anew connects this scene of age with the scene of birth; the two men, father and son, are in tandem along the beeline from birth to death, the son beginning anew the journey the father has concluded. One other image that reinforces the dichotomy between birth and death and the sense of continuum is the reference to Christ dying on the date of the child’s birth.26 The anniversary of death marks the anniversary of birth, as the death of Christ marks the birth of Christianity .27
The third set of contraries that structure Company are those of ascension and decline that were first echoed in memory one in the word steep. The pull between rising and falling is described in three memories of youth. In memory four the voice tells of the young boy returning from school on his ‘tiny cycle’ and seeing ‘An old beggar woman’ who is fumbling at a big garden gate. Half blind. You know the place well. Stone deaf and not in her right mind the woman of the house is a crony of your mother. She was sure she could fly once in the air. So one day she launched herself from a first floor window’. (p. 16)
If the same form of apposition without punctuation is observed as in memory one - ‘small boy you’- then the woman not in her right mind is the friend of the boy’s mother. However, there seems to be a deliberate ambiguity about which woman is being described - the beggar, the friend, or even the mother - so that one is not totally sure just who displayed the desire for flight. Left unexplained, the act of this old woman - or women - is allied to two acts of the boy. In memory five the boy is remembered ‘at the tip of the high board’ (p. 18). Below in the water, his father calls. ‘He calls to you to jump. He calls, Be a brave boy’ (p. 18). The memory ends without making clear if the boy does, in fact, jump. More important than the act seems to be the invitation, or command, issuing from ‘The red round face. The thick moustache. The greying hair’ (p. 15) of the father. The launching from the board will end in the inevitable fall into the water; the beeline this time is vertical rather than horizontal but indicates the same inevitability, this time derived from the force of gravity rather than from the force of habit and time. In memory six which follows, the boy is once again pictured in flight. However, here he jumps from a tree in the presence of the mother and her friend, a Mrs Coote, possibly the women who herself attempted flight. Unlike the act of bravery, here the jump is deemed ‘naughty’ (p. 22). Flight has its contexts. The boy is no longer shown poised to act, but determinedly acting in defiance of the inevitable direction prescribed by nature. One is reminded of Winnie’s description of the pull of gravity versus the desire to escape and float dear of the earth. The same aspiration for escape and redress is countered with the same inevitability of ‘the stones’ in Lucky’s monologue. Flight seems always checked by the pull of ‘this old earth’, just as the path one follows in traversing it is always predetermined - withershins possible only in imagination.
A possible variation on the pull between elevation and decline is presented in the last memory of childhood. It is one of Beckett’s most powerful pieces of writing, reminiscent in style of some of the tales spun by Malone in Malone dies. In this scene the young boy learns the difference between desired ends and actual ends, or between good deeds conceived and ill deeds realized: ‘You take pity on a hedgehog out in the cold and put it in an old hatbox with some worms. This box with the hog inside you then place in a disused hutch wedging the door open for the poor creature to come and go at will’. (p. 29)
The boy basks in the warmth of his good deed thinking how fortunate the hedgehog is to have crossed his path: ‘As you stood there wondering how best to pass the time till bedtime it parted the edging on the one side and was making straight for the edging on the other when you entered its life’ (p. 30). However the boy soon grows uneasy about his intervention in the life of the animal, ‘a suspicion that all is perhaps not as it should be’ (p. 30). When the boy returns to the scene of his good deed some time later, ‘You have never fogotten what you found then. You are on your back in the dark and have never forgotten what you found then. The mush. The stench’ (p. 30). The boy, acting as God, wreaks harm not good on the poor creature left alone in the dark. The desire to perform a genuine act of kindness is translated most forcefully into an awareness of evil done as good. The plight of the animal is also connected to the plight of the man - both treading a particular path and both finding themselves alone in the dark, at the mercy of forces without.
This memory is the last picture of youth. It is a powerful culmination of the growing sense of doubt, rebellion, and isolation that has been displayed in the preceding memories. To balance the sense of fragmentation that these memories seem to convey, the adult memories display a growing tendency toward calculation. Much as Belacqua called for facts to shore up a world of doubt, the adult figures in Company continually calculate as if to make more sense of their situation. Like the young boy in memory one who showed a nascent tendency toward numbers - his hundred paces west - the older spectres are continually adding up the tot:
You halt with bowed head on the verge of the ditch and convert to yards. On the basis now of two steps per yard. So many since dawn to add to yesterday’s. To yesteryear’s. To yesteryears’. Days other than today and so akin. The giant tot in miles. In leagues. How often round the earth already. (p. 15)
The memories seem to be filled with numbers in direct relationship to the failure of the light of the imagination and declining years. While in the memories of youth, there are relatively few calculations, in the adult memories they are dominant. In memory four, for instance, which is one of the longest memories in the book, a man awaiting the arrival of his beloved spends his time calculating the volume and area of the summerhouse where he sits, of his own heartbeats, and even of the relative physical positions of the lovers. ‘She is late. You close your eyes and try to calculate the volume. Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble. A haven. You arrive in the end at seven cubic yards approximately. Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort’ (p. 40). In extended verbal, almost cubist images, the speaker dismembers the body of the woman to better see her. `You separate the segments and lay them side by side’ (pp. 41-42).
The voice indicates that this form of seeing is preferable to actual vision. ‘You close your eyes the better with mental measure to measure and compare . . .’ (p. 41). The tendency to cast his glance inward, a habit that has been illustrated in preceding memories, also seems to preclude the possibility of love, since he is not able to break the hold of his own self-created image: ‘How given you were both moving and at rest to the closed eye in your waking hours!’ (p. 41). The scene ends with both the man and the woman sitting with closed eyes. ‘In that rainbow light. That dead still’ (p. 42). The rainbow light indicates the light of the imagination and also indicates the nature of the refracted natural light which has been distorted by the prism of the glass window of the summerhouse. Through the window the lips of the approaching girl looked violet, her face ‘mainly blue’ (p. 40). When she is inside the lips become ruby. Beckett may be suggesting again the idea of the distortions produced by the chance or accidental occurrences of the senses, that call into question even the most objective testimony offered about the external world. But even more than the distortions of natural light, it is the domination of the inner light which blots out the reality or rather which becomes the reality.
The only other memory from adult life is very different in tone. It is reminiscent of the description of love presented in Krapp’s last tape. Unlike the former memory, there is no calculation, only a picture of two lovers lying under a tree. ‘Your eyes opened and closed have looked in hers looking in yours’ (p. 48). However, as the preceding memory has shown, the tendency of the listener has been to look with eyes closed, and now his view comes from his place in the dark. ‘In your dark you look in them again. Still’ (p. 48). The word still echoes the fizzle by the same name where Beckett described a scene of impending darkness in which ordering and calculation failed to produce the desired ‘still’: ‘Close inspection namely detail by detail all over to add up finally to this whole not still at all but trembling all over’.28 The word trembling is used twice in this memory in Company . It indicates the impossibility of totally capturing the desired state of objectivity, where the listener will no longer suffer the pain of lost love or lost opportunity. After this brief memory, the remaining three scenes are of old age and impending darkness, just as in Krapp’s last tape, where the remembered love scene in the boat became a prelude to the darkness and loneliness of the cell.
These last three memories of age appear in the remaining fourteen pages of the novel and contrast with six memories which appear in the first fourteen pages. As Company reaches its end, fewer pictures of the past appear to punctuate the dark, and the paragraphs related to the present condition of the listener become more numerous. In these descriptions of the darkness, Beckett uses phrases that are similar to those employed to describe the memories. For instance, when the narrator decides to set his creature in motion, crawling rather than prone, he says, ‘Then sooner or later on from nought anew. One two three four one. Knee hand knee hand two. Six. So on. In what he wills a beeline’ (p. 49). The beeline in life measured in leagues becomes here the beeline in the dark - measured in crawls. In a similar blending, the last memory is connected with the condition described at the beginning of the novel, ‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.’ The activities of life filtered through the memory become synonymous with the limited activities of the still conscious mind that can relive them. All done for Company :
Huddled thus you find yourself imagining you are not alone while knowing full well that nothing has occurred to make this possible. The process continues none the less lapped as it were in its meaninglessness. You do not murmur in so many words I know this doomed to fail and yet persist. No. For the first person singular and a fortiori plural pronoun had never any place in your vocabulary. (p. 61)
In Company , as in other Beckett works, the struggle for understanding and verifiability is conducted through language. The failure to find surety and the parallel failure to find Company , become failures of language. Words do not completely represent the memories of the past nor the conditions of the present. They also do not provide enough distraction to blur the realization that the listener is alone in the dark. The end of the novel becomes the end of the trail of words: ‘Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last’ (p. 62). This end is indicated by one word, placed in the middle of the last page: the word alone. It is the condition against which the memories and descriptions have battled, and its position at the end of the novel indicates its supremacy against the fable reared to counter it.
1 Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, New York, Oxford Univ. Press, 1959, pp. 661-62.
2 The Critique is not cited by James Atherton in his The books at the wake, New York, Viking Press, 1960; or in his article ‘A few more books at the wake’, James Joyce quarterly, 2, Spring 1965, 145; neither is it mentioned in Arthur Broes, ‘More books at the wake’, James Joyce quarterly, 19, Winter 1971, 189-217. For a discussion of the Joyce/Mauthner connection see my forthcoming ‘Fritz Mauthner’s Critique of language: a forgotten book at the wake’.
3 See my’Samuel Beckett, Fritz Mauthner, and the limits of language’, PMLA, 95, March 1980, pp. 183-200. Other sources are cited in this article.
4 Letter received from Richard Ellmann, 11 July 1979.
5 Samuel Beckett, Letter of 28 July 1978.
6 Thomas Connelly, The personal library of James Joyce: a descriptive bibliography, Buffalo, Univ. of Buffalo Press, 1955; Ellmann, The consciousness of Joyce, London, Faber and Faber, 1977, pp. 97-134.
7 Letter received from Samuel Beckett, 2 September 1979.
8 Fritz Mauthner, Beitnage zu einer Kritik der Sprache, 3rd ed., 3 vols. Leipzig, 1923: rpt. Hildesheim, Georg Olmes, 1967, III, 615-616.
9 This translation from the German was done in collaboration with Sabine Jordan.
10 Though Mauthner doesn’t emphasize the point in the paragraph quoted, he indicates in other sections of the Critique his determination to continue his struggles against the limits of language no matter what the obstacles, even the recognition of the ultimate defeat he must face. See vol I, 1-2.
11 For a discussion of Zufallssinne, see Gershon Weiler, Mauthner’s critique of language, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1970, pp. 59-70.
12 Samuel Beckett, Dream of fair to middling women, unpublished novel, Reading University Library Beckett Archive, MS. 1227/7/16/9, p. 7. All further references to this work will appear in the text.
13 Samuel Beckett, Molloy, in Three novels by Samuel Beckett, MolloylMalone dieslThe unnamable, New York, Grove Press, 1965, p. 42. All further references to this work will appear in the text.
14 Belacqua and Molloy are not alone in their reactions to the laws of nature. Winnie comes close to Mauthner’s theory of Zufallssinne when she says, ‘Ah well, natural laws, natural laws, I suppose it’s like everything else, it all depends on the creature you happen to be. All I can say for my part is that they are not what they were when I was young and . . . foolish and . . . (faltering, head down) . . . beautiful. . .’Samuel Beckett, Happy days, New York, Grove Press, 1961, p. 34.
15 Samuel Beckett, ‘The essential and the incidental’, rev. of Windfalls, by Sean O’Casey, The bookman, LXXXVII (Christmas 1934), III.
16 Quoted in Tom Driver, ‘Beckett by the madeleine’, Columbia university forum, 4, no. 3, Summer 1961, p. 22.
17 Samuel Beckett, Company , New York, Grove Press, 1980, p. 7. All further references to this work will appear in the text.
18 In Company , on page forty-seven, paragraph forty-seven, there is a description of a mother leaning over a cradle: ‘A mother’s stooping over cradle from behind. She moves aside to let the father look. In his turn he murmurs to the newborn. Flat tone unchanged. No trace of love’. This might well be grouped with the paragraphs of memory; however it is not told by the voice, as the others are, and it begins with descriptions of the present condition of the listener. Therefore I have chosen to group this paragraph with the other forty-two related to physical position and not discuss this as a scene of memory, though it obviously is based on a memory of infancy.
19 James Knowlson and John Pilling, Frescoes of the skull, London, John Calder, 1979, p. 8
20 The same idea is expressed by Ludwig Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: `What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’.
21 Samuel Beckett, `A piece of monologue’, Kenyon review, Summer 1979, pp. 1-4.
22 See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 1, London, Oxford Univ. Press, 1971, p. 1115.
23 OED, vol. II, p. 899.
24 Knowlson and Pilling, p. 17.
25 In typescript 2 of Footfalls there appears the following: ‘A general practitioner named Haddon. Long past his best. Not long to live. His last mess’. His name still appears in typescript 3, but is omitted in typescript 4. The copies of earlier versions of Footfalls are in the Beckett Archive, University of Reading, MS 1552/1.
26 Beckett was also born on Good Friday, the day Christ died. This similarity, as well as several instances cited by Deirdre Bair in her biography of Beckett -the diving into the sea, the jumping from trees - has led several critics in newspaper reviews of Company to focus on the autobiographical elements of the work. Certainly there are such elements, as there are in the works of all writers, and in Beckett’s previous writing. But to go as far as one critic does and to see Company simply as Beckett’s own rejoinder motivated by the furore of the biography, is to diminish the greatness of the work and the greatness of the author.
27 A further reference which might be construed to connect Christ to the speaker appears in memory eleven, a scene describing a young man in `bloom of adulthood’. While awaiting his love, he muses:
You assume a certain heart rate and reckon how many thumps a day. A week. A month. A year. And assuming a certain lifetime a lifetime. Till the last thump. But for the moment with hardly more than seventy American billion behind you .... (p. 40)
If one takes seventy heartbeats a minute and calculates the age of the young man in the scene, given the information provided, the result is approximately 1979 years, the age of Christianity - and the death of Christ - at the time of the composition of Company , in 1979. However, in a letter (14.2.81) Beckett indicated that the number ‘70 American billion’ is a miscalculation. It should read ‘700 million odd’. Given this number and again using seventy heartbeats a minute, the age of the speaker becomes approximately nineteen years: ‘bloom of adulthood’.
28 Samuel Beckett, ‘Still’, in Fizzles, New York, Grove Press, 1976, p. 48.