`Imaginative Transactions’ 1 in `La falaise


James Hansford


The first draft of La falaise, entitled Pour Bram, was begun on January 6, 1975, and the final typescript is dated March 26, 1975. 2 Although written as a temoignage to acCompany a 1975 exhibition of Bram van Velde’s paintings, and despite the feeling that the text describes a painting or the painterly, Beckett apparently had no particular van Velde canvas in mind;3 indeed La falaise is a recognizable incursion into a ‘skullscape’ while being at the same time a homage to an artist whom Beckett has always admired and with whom he has always felt an affinity.


La falaise is a ‘skullscape’ in two senses, for the landscape in the text contains at one point ‘un crane entier’ and more generally the text enacts the movements and impulses of the eye (or, as it becomes, the mind’s eye) as it searches for a ‘rapprochement’ with the object of its consciousness. In doing so the subject faces the ‘empêchement’ that Beckett recorded in his 1948 essay on Bram and Geer van Velde. In that essay, ‘Peintres de I’empêchement’, Beckett distinguished the brothers’ assaults upon and by the object by suggesting that for Geer the object was invisible and unrepresentable because of what it was, while for Bram it was equally inaccessible, but because the subject was what it was. 4 In his 1976 poem ‘Neither’, Beckett asserts that both ‘self’ and ‘unself’, both subject and object are ‘impenetrable’ and that movement ‘to and fro’ is ‘by way of neither’5. This route or passage described at the end of the poem as an ‘unspeakable home’, is surely the same area to which he referred in the 1934 essay on Irish poetry as the ‘space which intervenes’ following the ‘rupture of the lines of communication’. 6 The artist is ‘absent . . ./from self and other’, hovering in no-man’s land. It is a topic to which Beckett returned in a short text of 1966, again on the occasion of a fine art exhibition, this time the Israeli artist Avigdor Arikha:


Seige laid again to the impregnable without. Eye and hand fevering after the unself. By the hand it unceasingly changes the eye unceasingly changed. Back and forth the gaze beating against unseeable and unmakable. Truce for a space and the marks of what it is to be and be in the face of. Those deep marks to show. 7


Of course the final emphasis here upon being ‘in the face of such an ‘empêchement’, rather than upon the subject-object dichotomy as such, is different from that in the earlier essays (and also from the later poem ‘Neither’), but the predicament for the artist remains essentially the same. The object (the ‘unself’) is ‘impregnable’ because the ‘eye and hand’ of the artist ‘unceasingly changes’ its constitution and disposition; and the artist in his turn is ‘unceasingly changed’ by the attempt at representation. The ‘fevering’ of artistic endeavour (a condition sketched as early as the Proust essay) is a perpetual movement rendered even more unsteady by the process of attempted rapprochement.


La falaise depicts this movement without in fact attempting to clarify the formal conflict between subject and object which the poem and the art essays try to encompass. Although the paintings of Bram van Velde provide a suitable occasion for Beckett’s own incursion into a ‘skullscape’ (‘my skull shell of sky and earth’, as he wrote in an early poem ‘The Vulture’8), in La falaise it is the artist’s or observer’s ‘fevering after the unself’ which is recorded and the subject as vulture who finally provides the centre of attention. The ‘shell of sky and earth’ is presented at the very beginning of the text with the window apparently serving synecdochially as the eye witnessing the scene9: ‘Fenêtre entre ciel et terre on ne sait où’. It is not enough, however, simply to equate the window with the observing eye, however often Beckett may insinuate such a parallel elsewhere in his writing.10 Beckett wants us to see a window, rather than to see it as the observing eye, wants us to be aware that the narrator is ‘under . . . glass’, like the `I’ in the second of the Texts for nothing.11 Early drafts of the text make it clear that the window is very much there and that the eye is ‘derriere la vitre’, and also indicate that the window needs to be circumscribed in a manner familiar to us from the Têtes-mortes of the 1960s: ‘Quatre mètres de haut sur deux de large la fenêtre s’élève loin du sol.’ The window in La falaise serves very much to frame the view, as the edges of a canvas serve as the constraints surrounding the art object: ‘L’inspectio ‘ plus rasante par rapport au plan de la fenêtre n’apprend rien à ce subjet’. Whilst it is true in some measure that in revising the drafts Beck was, as John Pilling has said, ‘jettisoning irrelevant details’, 12 details that make little alterations in kind to what we have in the finished version, it would certainly be a mistake to overlook this initial presence of the window. The text begins (like Beckett’s early poem ‘La mouche’13) by showing the window as the agent that both separates and joins observer and observed. Moreover, a little later in the text it becomes clear that the observer’s position behind the window (and consequently within a dwelling that commands only a restricted view of the outside world) leads to difficulties in arriving at an accurate picture of what is seen within a wider context that remains unperceived.


Most importantly, the disappearance of the window after the first sentence and the increasing attention paid first to the eye itself (finally in evidence as the vulturine Toeil de voler’) and then to the eyes within the skull glimpsed in the cliff, make it clear that the presence of the window is part of the dynamics of the piece. In Imagination dead imagine, narrative consciousness is split between a third person narrator and a second person observer who at the start of the text is present only as the object of the narrator’s imperations (‘go in, measure’) or only as having reportedly spoken (‘No trace anywhere of life, you say’).14 Similarly, in La falaise, we must see the window as a preliminary means of access to, or emblem of separation from, the object and controlling incursions upon it. Just as in Imagination dead imagine the observer ultimately becomes an object to the presiding third person narrator, appearing in the text (and the rotunda) as ‘the eye of prey’,15 so in La falaise ‘I’oeil de voler’ becomes very much in evidence towards the ending of the piece. The subject has gradually become an object and supplanted the original object that the observing subject has begun to resurrect. The ‘coronal’ of the skull and the ‘orbites’ within it increasingly constitute, or insinuate, themselves as a mirror image of the subject. This gradual process causes the original object to disappear along with the cliff from which it had emerged and against which it had been set. All that remains is a blank surface (‘les blancs lointains’), the very surface that confronts the subject at the start of the text. As the narrator of Imagination dead imagine put it, ‘no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness’.16


It is clear at the start of La falaise that both observer and observed are imprecisely constituted. The absence of a pronominally identified narrator is characteristic of much of Beckett 70’s fiction (notably Still and For to end yet again), in which it is accepted that the search for self is unconnected with the question of pronominalisation as such; indeed, that the search for a pronoun when there is, as the Unnamable put it, ‘no pronoun for me’17, only results in being ‘far’ from a constituted self. The imprecision of any relationship between observer and observed is a direct result of the instability of both the terms. In the opening sentence ‘Fenêtre entre ciel et terre on ne sait où’, the unspecific personal pronoun ‘on’ is mirrored both phonetically and semantically in the use of ‘où’ which indicates only a vague area to which attention is being directed. This stresses the difficulties of focussing clearly upon the subject-object confrontation. It is only the window that stands out as a specific object. While the window is an object in its own right, it is more importantly a means through which the subject may perceive and organize more compelling objects of attention that as yet totally elude his grasp. The window is very much the ‘way of neither . . . self . . . [nor] . . . unself as recorded in the poem of 1976.


The cliff which becomes visible (‘à quelques kilomètres de la fenêtre’ in an early version) is nevertheless ‘incolore’. It was originally described as ‘irrelle’ and as ‘crayeuse’; but the most suggestive of the comments omitted from the final version is the remark that the cliff ‘a l’air faite par l’homme’. This reminds us, as nothing in the published text does, that van Velde’s paintings provided the occasion for La falaise, a reminder that Beckett no doubt thought distracting and unhelpful. But there is a more compelling reason for the omission of this intriguing detail; whereas recourse to the painted surface (a recourse implicit in Beckett identifying the cliff as ‘couleur de craie’ in an early draft) provides an opportunity of winning a point of perceptual purchase on the object - very much a central concern in the text - it shirks the more compelling problem surrounding the ‘deep-seated invisibility of exterior things’ which Beckett had identified as crucial in the work of the van Veldes thirty years before in his art criticism of the 1940s. 18


In fact it matters little whether the source of the cliff’s unreality is connected with the world of man-made objects or not; if the observation is as much a projection of the subject’s need to establish relationships as an account of what is indisputably there. And it is clear that attention soon shifts (as with the sighting of the ‘tent the colour of its surroundings’ in As the story was told19 and the rotunda in All strange away and Imagination dead imagine) to more readily available means of establishing contour and reference. In particular, the eye exhibits a profound need to separate figure from ground rather than remaining content with dissolving the problem (and blurring the distinction) by recourse to the painterly. Inspection along a vertical axis does nothing to clarify the view, however: `La crete echappe a I’oeil ou qu’il se mette. La base aussi’. This is to be explained by the fact that the window provides only a partial and selective aperqu; the viewer remains somewhere between ‘ciel et terre’. But inspection horizontally is more successful: Deux pans de ciel à jamais blanc la bordent’. A just discernible contour enables him to delineate the width of the cliff, which now figures against the ground of the sky.


But a problem arises in having detected two patches of sky within the total frame provided by the view from the window, a view which it was hoped would be that of an `endscape’: `Le ciel laisse-t-il deviner une fin de terre? L’ether intermédiaire?’ Perhaps there is another cliff, further sections of cliff lying alongside the view provided by the window; what the window or the frame of the canvas excludes evidently becomes an integral part in determining what is there. The observer therefore needs to place his view within a much wider context even while he hopes that no inspection beyond what is in front of him is required. Responding to this need, the eye behind the window sees both the sky and the cliff as the ground against which the frame of the window figures.


The observer’s sudden impulse to reassessment is epitomized by the number of questions asked at this point in the text that strike a very different note from the short, declarative statements earlier in the piece. The observing subject is beginning to see his own processes of observation as themselves objects of enquiry. Indeed both the tone and the situation remind one of the conclusion of Imagination dead imagine, in which two voices speak where previously there has been only one: `Leave them there, sweating and icy, there is better elsewhere. No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere’.20 The `white speck lost in whiteness’ of Imagination dead imagine has been transformed in La falaise into the sea birds which are perhaps `tout claire pour paraitre’. The narrator has already remarked `D’oiseau de mer pas trace’ as an expression of his need both to witness some sign of life in an otherwise `irrélle’ scene and to confirm that the scene is indeed an `endscape’, the cliff forming ‘une fin de terre’ by giving straight onto open sea.


Although there are no traces of such life, it is suggested that such traces may be invisibly there, present as part of the ground although thus far absent as figures set upon it, existing negatively. The suggestion appears to provoke in the viewer the need for an ostensibly more promising sign of life, a human face. But once again, it is the question of its existence that is posed: ‘Enfin quelle preuve d’une face? L’oeil n’en trouve aucune où qu’il se mette’. In a text about ending, Beckett’s use of ‘enfin’ is characteristic here,21 and the syntactical proximity of ‘face’ and Toeil’ alerts us to the progressive mirroring of subject and object which is gradually being willed into being, but which has yet to occur definitively.


Because nothing of the kind is forthcoming the eye gives up its effort: ‘ll se desiste et la folle s’y met’. In the lengthier drafts it is clear that the imagination, the mind’s eye, takes over: ‘Licence ainsi donne a I’imagination the mind’s eye, takes over: ‘Licence ainsi donne a l‘imagination. To draw back what the narrator of the unpublished novel Dream of fair to middling women referred to as the ‘still flat white . . . warpless music’22 and to reveal what is present beneath the hermetic surface can only, we must infer, be achieved by drawing the lids across the eyes. In a different context, and with different problems to tackle, the narrator of Company describes this process well:


…This at first sight seems clear. But as the eye dwells it grows obscure. Indeed the longer the eye dwells the obscurer it grows. Till the eye closes and freed from pore the mind enquires, What does this mean? What finally does this mean that at first sight seemed clear? ‘23


A point of purchase on the cliff is finally (‘enfin’) provided by Tombre d’un comiche’. Interestingly enough, it is not actually the ledge itself, which is visible, but its shadow; the object is being conjured into being negatively. It is as though imaginative vision transforms the landscapes once scrutinized by normal stereoscopic vision into photographic negatives. While there were no shadows of sea birds visible to the ‘eye of flesh’ because the light was too bright for anything to appear, the light of the imagination (whilst strong enough to prevent the appearance of the ledge itself) permits the shadows of objects to figure against the impassive white surface. The muted light of the imagination unearths details comparable to those in photographic negatives - hence the emphasis in many of the late texts upon seeing in the dark. In La falaise (unlike, for example in ‘Horn came always’) it is very much in inner space that ‘such images develop’ (my emphasis), 24’ although the observer in the later text has a similarly ‘unbroken plane’ in front of the mind’s eye.


At this point Beckett makes clear that ‘Patience’ is the faculty which is needed to allow features to appear, and that questioning insistence either keeps objects (like the absent sea birds) embedded in the surface or distracts the observer away from the scene by the frame of reference which the window provides. And it is ‘Patience’ which allows for the resurrection (‘s’animera’) of what an early draft referred to as ‘lot d’ossements humains’, ‘des restes mortels’ of the final version. Nevertheless, the skull which appears along with the ‘débris’ it accompanies is very much the bare bones of humanity, something like the shadow of a real human face or a shape discernible under x-ray: ‘Un crâne entier se dégage pour finir. Un seul d’entre ceux que valent de tels débris’. It is in the hope that this imaginative projection will obviate the need for further enquiry that inspection fixes upon what has struggled into being. The syntactical proximity of what is essentially becoming (‘se dégage’) and ending (‘pour finir’) suggests that, having been vouchsafed this emergent vision by patient submission, the eye nonetheless wishes to control it. It must be an active concentration rather the passive submission which operates as the skull ‘tente encore de rentrer dans la roche’, thereby anticipating the skull and the skullscape which ‘pour finir encore’ will ‘glimmer’, not for the last time, in ‘For to end yet again’ .25


Before the skull disappears, however, a further vision is kindled into life: ‘les orbites laissent entrevoir I’ancien regard’. In earlier drafts Beckett stressed both that the glimpse gave ‘une idee’ of the old gaze and that the ‘orbites’ were ‘beautés’. 26 One may recall here the proposition Beckett made in Proust to the effect that ‘Imagination, applied - a priori - to what is absent, is exercised in vacuo and cannot tolerate the limits of the real ‘. 27 For just as the shadow of the ledge implied the presence of the ledge itself, so the vacant orbits of the skull bring to life Tancien regard’. Through the examination of something akin to a photographic negative, the imagination then ‘develops’ it into a positive image, to fill in spaces which are empty just as it had constructed ‘un crâne entier’ from ‘lot d’ossements humains’ (as an early draft has it).


But it should be stressed that this further imaginative transaction is of a different order from that which allows for the presentation of negative images. Just as in Imagination dead imagine the image that can be imagined becomes the ‘thousand little signs too long to imagine’ ‘28 in La falaise the impulse to develop the image into a positive picture disrupts the whole procedure. In Imagination dead imagine the ‘white speck’ of the rotunda is finally ‘lost in the whiteness’; 29 in La falaise at this point it is not only the skull that disappears but the cliff also: ‘Par instants La falaise disparait’. Both figure and ground vanish, revealing the vacant space upon which the cliff had been established and upon which the details that had been brought into precarious existence had figured. The imaginative impulse, which momentarily fleshed out the vacant eye sockets, has insinuated a further figure within the cranium to appear. It is not so much a patient passivity as a movement towards the object (like that suggested in the penultimate sentence of La falaise), the impulse ‘vers la blanc lointains’. The transaction is of a quite different order from that which allowed the figure of the cranium itself to appear. The imaginable construct of bone has been superseded by something approaching the imaginary creation of living tissue; the subject has become aware that he is imagining and now sees himself projected into the object. 30 Beckett said in Proust that subject and object are ‘automatically separated by the subject’s consciousness of perception’ and that ‘the object loses its purity’ 31 (he refers elsewhere in Proust to the ‘impure subject’ 32. In La falaise the object withdraws under the gaze of the subject. The Proust volume regards the issue in a moderately affirmative spirit and speaks of a ‘reduplication’ which is ‘at once imaginative and empirical, at once an evocation and a direct perception, real without being merely actual, ideal without being merely abstract, the ideal real, the essential, the extratemporal’. 33 But in La falaise the emphasis falls squarely on the collapse of imaginative enquiry in the face of its own image. The object reminds the subject of his own need, the need as Beckett described it in his 1938 review of Denis Devlin’s Intercessions ‘that is the absolute predicament of particular human identity’ 34.It is as though we are being returned to the opening scenario of the text: before a window looking out onto a featureless beyond. But at the end of La falaise the window is not the only figure in sight: there is also L’oeil de voler’: ‘Alors I’oeil de voler vers les blancs lointains. Ou a se détourner de devant’. The scene at the end of La falaise is once more ‘entre ciel et terre on ne sait où’, with the blank canvas framed only by the impulse to clarify what lies within its urlie The incursion of something like an ‘eye of prey’ (‘voler’ implies both flight and theft) has precipitated the disappearance of what signs of life have been glimpsed. Narrative consciousness, aware of itself as an object, has displaced the original object of its enquiry, a situation we also find at the conclusion of both Imagination dead imagine and Ping. A superfluity of need (most dramatically and chaotically enacted in All strange away with its sudden shifts of attention and contorted syntax) displaces the object and foregrounds that need. This movement of the eye towards the desiccated scene is quite inimical to the state of passivity during which it was hoped that ‘patience’ would bring the scene to life. The inaccessibility of the object as it attempts to merge once again with the ground will be even more apparent if it is assaulted. As the poem ‘Neither’ outlines it, the movement from self to unself is ‘as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared/gently close’, leaving the subject displaced and dispossessed. In La falaise the subject is left with two alternatives, the two possibilities cited earlier in the piece: either to concentrate upon what is in view or to look elsewhere. As normal vision reasserts itself once more, this uncertainty returns again. The text ends without any of the singularity of an ‘endscape’; les blancs lointains’ are beyond notions of beginning and ending. Impelled by the searching eye, they will perhaps once more throw up features that will begin in order to end. Alternatively, it may be possible to search elsewhere for another ‘endscape’ outside the frame of the window.


The retreat from the blank planes, however, is also a return (as the repeated use of ‘de’ as preposition and suffix in ‘de se detourner de devant’ serves to remind us). For the reader, the single solid paragraph a block of language - is itself a cliff-like surface upon the page, ‘that something itself’ as Beckett wrote of Work in progress.35 The reader is as unable to habituate himself to its contours and structure as was the observing eye faced with the cliff’s crest and base. In reading and reconstructing visual and imaginative experience, the reader’s eye moves ‘vers les blancs lointains’ upon which Beckett has inscribed the record of a perpetual struggle. La falaise leaves us with a wandering subject, a self unsure of its constitution because the unself has remained essentially impenetrable; but sure of its need to constitute itself by a further rapprochement while at the same time conscious of its desire to relinquish necessity.


1 Beckett uses this phrase in the course of a short critique of allegory in his review of Jack B. Yeats’ novel ‘The Amaranthers’. The review is entitled ‘An imaginative work!’ and was published in The Dublin magazine, vol. 11, July-September 1936, 81.

2 The drafts are in Reading University Library (RUL) and are mss 1396/4/34 1396/4/40. The published text is in Celui qui ne peut se servir de mots, Montpellier, Fata Morgana, 1975. All references to versions other than the published text are to ms 1396/4/35 (unless otherwise indicated). This is the first of the drafts in typescript.

3 Beckett has thus far thought the text not worth translating into English. Both pieces of information I have, courtesy of Beckett himself, from John Pilling.

4 ‘Peintres de l’empêchement’, L’Herne issue on Beckett, ed. Bishop and Federman, Paris 1976, 67-70.

5 In Journal of Beckett studies, Spring 1979, number 4, np.

6 ‘Recent Irish poetry’, The bookman, August 1934, 235.

7 Beckett’s English translation of ‘Pour Avigdor Arikha’ Paris, Galerie Claude Bernard, 1967. Published in Victoria and Albert Museum catalogue, February-May 1976.

8 Collected poems in English and French, London, John Calder, 1977.

9 The point is made by Peter Murphy in Language and being in the prose works of Samuel Beckett, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Reading, 1979, 528.

10 For example in Embers, Faber & Faber, London, 1959, where Henry narrates how Bolton ‘starts playing with the curtain, no, hanging, difficult to describe, draws it back . . . then towards him again, white, black, white, black’ (p. 38). As Paul Lawley explains (‘Embers: an interpretation’, Journal of Beckett studies, Autumn 1980, number 6, 9-36), the ‘skull-room’ has its ‘window-eyes (hanging-lids)’ (20). In Company, once the eye has closed, then ‘the mind too closes as it were. As the window might close of a dark empty room. The single window giving on outer dark’. Company, London, John Calder, 1980, 30.

11 No’s knife, London, Calder - Boyars, 1967, 77.

12La falaise’ in Frescoes of the skull, with James Knowlson, London, John Calder, 1980, 185.

13 Collected poems in English and French, 43. The window is clearly a barrier: ‘entre la scene et mot/la vitre/vide sauf elle . . .’

14 No’s knife, 161.

15 Ibid. 164.

16 Ibid. 164.

17 The unnamable, London, Calder & Boyars, 1975, 122. ‘All the trouble comes from that’ he says ‘that, it’s a kind of pronoun too, it isn’t that either, I’m not that either’. Beckett returns more explicitly to the problems of pronominalisation in Company.

18 ‘La peinture des van Veldes, ou le monde et le pantalon’, Cahiers d’art, nos. 20 and 21, Paris, 1945-6, 354.

19 In Gunter Eich zum Gedachtnis, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1975, 10-[13].

20 No’s knife, 164.

21 In ‘Pour finir encore’ the word ‘enfin’ is translated - in ‘For to end yet again’. For to end yet again and other fizzles, London, John Calder, 1976 - as ‘in the end’, 11.

22 Quoted by Lawrence E. Harvey in Samuel Beckett., poet and critic, Princeton, New Jersey, 1970, 262.

23 Company 29.

24 For to end yet again and other fizzles, 34.

25 Ibid. 11.

26 Ms 1396/4/36 (RUL).

27 Proust and three dialogues with Georges Duthuit, London, John Calder, 1965, 74.

28 No’s knife, 164.

29 Ibid. 164.

30 The moment is not unlike that in Film, Grove Press, 1969, when E confronts O: ‘Gradually that look,’ 44, and is to be contrasted with the eyes in Still 3 which are ‘in imagination from the dead’ but which are ‘not looking’, Essays in criticism, XXV111, no. 2, April 1978, 156-7. Sartres discussion of ‘The look’ in Being and nothingness, Pocket books, 1966, 340-400; and Jacques Lacan’s analysis of the gaze as ‘the subject sustaining himself in a function of desire’, The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, tr. Alan Sheridan, London, The Hogarth Press, 1977, 85, are of interest in this respect.

31 Proust p. 74.

32 Ibid, 92.

33 Ibid, 75.

34 ‘Denis Devlin’, Transition, no. 27, Paris, 1938, 289. See also ‘Les Deux Besoins’ (unpublished) RUL.

35 ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . Joyce’ in Our exagmination round his factification for incamination of work in progress London, 1972, 14. Faber & Faber, 1972, 14.