‘Watt’ and the significance of the mirror image


Nicola Ramsay


One of the most remarkable passages in Watt lies at the heart of the novel and consists in a series of peculiarly formal encounters between Sam, the novel’s recorder, and Watt, its central character. The two characters go through identical actions so that they appear to be physically mirroring one another. After initial difficulty in co-ordinating a simultaneous exit from their separate ‘mansions,’ they finally meet in the garden where Sam wonders at the fact that:


            my arm should ever have rested on his arm, and his on mine, and our

shoulders ever touched, and our legs moved in and out, together

over more or less the same ground, parallel, the right legs forward,

the left ones back, and then without hesitation the reverse, and that,

leaning forward, breast to breast, we should ever have embraced...

                                                                                                (Watt 150)


Anyone familiar with clown routines will register that Sam and Watt have been going through an elaborate form of the ‘mirror’ gag, in which one clown apes the movements and expressions of another clown who believes himself to be watching his true reflection in a mirror. Beckett admits as much by having Sam feel ‘as though I were standing before a great mirror, in which my garden was reflected, and my fence, and I,’ (Watt 157). One cannot help but wonder why a specialized convention of this kind should suddenly make such a prominent appearance—the passage is nearly twenty pages long—in a book that has seen fit to do without such conventions to this point. And in doing so one uncovers a crucial clue to the understanding of the book and particularly the way it uses symbolic means to communicate its dilemmas.


The scope and importance of the mirror gag have been well documented by John Towsen, who writes:


            The Broken Mirror, in which one clown accidentally breaks a large

mirror and then must enact the role of his partner’s reflection, was

known to circus audiences in the Pipo-Rhum entree, and to millions

more in the hilarious Marx Brothers version in their film, Duck Soup,

1933. Will and Fred Hanlon were said to have originated it, but

according to Lupino Lane this idea was conceived by his great

grandfather and first performed in 1862. Actually it appears in an

anonymous Spanish play of the seventeenth century, The Mirror, or

The Rogueries of Pabillos, and probably in even earlier comedies.1


Another celebrated film version of the gag occurs in Max Linder’s feature Seven years bad luck,2 made in 1921; the device evidently has a long history in clown performances. Paul Adrian has written a useful description of the routine in which he stresses the reflexivity of the gestures involved:


            Auguste, ayant malencontreusement brisé le miroir que I’on vient

d’offrir a M. Clown, profitera de is griserie de celui-ci pour sembler le

refléter en imitant tous ses gestes de I’autre côté du cadre visible

jusqu’a ce que le lancement d’un verre d’eau reçu de part et d’autre

fasse découvrir la supercherie.3


But when we look at the particular ways in which Watt and Sam appear to imitate one another, we find that the reflexive tendency is by no means confined to gesture. Indeed Sam discloses, with a trace of discomfiture, that the pair even have the same preferences, preferences which one would normally think of as being highly idiosyncratic:


            I was very fond of fences, of wire fences, very fond indeed: not of

walls, nor palissades, nor opacious hedges, no; but to all that limited

motion, without limiting vision, to the ditch, the dyke, the barred

window, the bog, the quicksand, the paling, I was deeply attached...

And . . . so, I believe, was Watt.

                                                                                                 (Watt 156)


This ‘coincidence’ between the pair begins to give the reader cause for a closer inspection of their relationship, for what Beckett seems to be intent on developing by means of the mirror device is doubt as to the status and identity of Sam. This is consistent with traditional practice in respect of the mirror image. If we consider Shakespeare’s use of the device in The comedy of errors, it is plain that a confusion of identity leading to a diminishing assurance of the ‘self’ is a crucial consequence of the mirror image gag. To the original Plautine pair of identical twins, Shakespeare added identical twin servants, so that the characters describe a delicately held cat’s-cradle of relationship which is only finally unravelled at the end and after much confusion of identity. Whereas the twin servants are psychologically identical, the masters are antithetical, the one womanising and selfish, the other loyal and generous in temperament. The impression of types of congruence is consolidated throughout by a verbal duality exemplified in the scene where the two pairs address each other through the door of Antipholus of Ephesus’ house. The door acts as a kind of aural mirror as the two pairs retort in kind, the Dromios (servants) completing each other’s rhymes and thought patterns:


            Dromio of Ephesus:      Maud, Bridget, Marian,

                                                Cicely, Gillian, Ginn!


            Dromio of Syracuse:     Morrie, malt-horse, capon,

                   within                    coxcomb, idiot, patch!4


The comedy of errors in fact illustrates the two most frequent attributes of the mirror image: perfect congruence (twin servants), and alternatives or complements (the opposite characterization of the twin masters). The first function effectively asks the question ‘What is the residue of “self”‘ when we can slip into each other’s roles so easily with the aid of a mask—here, identical appearance? The second function, illustrated by the master pair, posits an alternative to the established idea of self and offers a kind of inverse reflection of what one supposes oneself to be.


This second function can best be illustrated by the simplified version in Kri Kri domesticuss,5 a very early Italian clown film concerning the exploits of a gentleman and his valet: the valet stands in the place where the mirror would normally be and imitates his master’s gestures as he dresses for a society ball. The valet dresses in his master’s elegant evening dress whilst the master, believing the ‘reflection’ to be an image of himself, is inadvertently putting on a worn-out tramps outfit. The stunt achieved, the valet delightedly watches his master’s arrival at the ball, enjoying the derision of the other guests. They all burst out laughing at the incongruity between the self-assured, stately manner and the ragged attire of the latest arrival. The bafflement and dismay of the discomfited socialite is the real crux of the routine—for has he not seen himself, with his own eyes, dressed to the utmost standard of decorum? It is obviously a traumatic experience for him to discover that he is not, as he had thought, as he ‘knew’ he had been. In this example, as with the Antipholus (master) twin set in The comedy of errors, a customary sense of identity has been disrupted: the Italian clown has been socially displaced, and the Shakespearean pair are left wondering what they really are, or might be.


Both the identical and antithetical characteristics of the gag are present in the Watt/Sam confrontation, as I hope to show. Sam’s relationship to Watt in fact becomes increasingly peculiar as the mirror image consolidates itself:


            Then, our eyes meeting, we smiled, a thing we did rarely, when

together. And when we had lain a little thus, with this exceptional

smile, on our faces, then we began to draw ourselves forward, and

upward, and persisted in this course until our heads, our noble

bulging brows, met, and touched. Watt’s noble brow, and my noble

brow. And then we did a thing we seldom did, we embraced. Watt

laid his hands on my shoulders, and I laid mine on his (I could hardly

do otherwise), and then I touched Watt’s left cheek with my lips, and

then Watt touched my left cheek with his (he could scarcely do less),

                                                                                                (Watt 152)


The question naturally arises as to how far Sam is coextensive with Watt for, in addition to the physical homogeneity he records, his very mode of reaosning is imitative and Watt-like. Sam’s cogitations, for example, on the difficulties likely to be experienced by a hypothetical ‘big-bottomed big-bosomed woman, an obese wet-nurse’ on passing through a rusty barbed fence, are identical in impulse to the famous dog’s dinner episode worked through by Watt earlier in the novel. These are surely indications that Sam would like to appropriate Watt himself and in particular to appropriate his habitual way of coming to terms with the phenomenological world, much as the Unnamable will later try to live through his characters. Indeed, Sam may very well be an early version of the Unnamable, learning to profit by surrogates.


The difficulty is that, like the eponymous hero, ‘we have to do with events that resisted all Watt’s efforts to saddle them with meaning,’ (Watt 75). All we can do is to ‘induce’ meaning in a way that seems to provide coherence, without being deluded into the belief that a single line of explanation will provide a complete and definitive answer to the novel’s mysteries. Our response to any work must be partly affected by the critique that the work itself discovers. So then, in Watt our judgements will always be contaminated by the pervading spirit of pyrrhonism:


            For Watt now found himself in the midst of things which, if they

consented to be named, did so as it were with reluctance .


            . . .he made the distressing discovery that of himself too he could no

longer affirm anything that did not seem as false as if he had affirmed

it of a stone.

                                                                                          (Watt 78-79)


As a paradigm of the way in which the characters in Watt are denied surety of knowledge we remember Arthur’s anecdote in which he asks a man the time, going over Westminster Bridge. The man goes through a great deal of effort stripping off outer garments, and assorted obstructions until he can get through to his watch which lies near to his body. He declares the time to be a quarter past five, at which point Big Ben strikes six. Tremendous efforts need not expect to be rewarded by truth. Moreover, Watt foists upon the reader some of the perplexities that face its protagonists. In this book, so-called ‘fact’ becomes ever more inaccessible to reason, and thus to verbal explanation. As Watt fails to fathom the indeterminate Mr Knott, who cannot be recognized by what we would call ‘characteristics,’ so we find it harder and harder to be certain of events, in a narrative which is self-confessedly unreliable.


‘One is sometimes tempted,’ Sam tells us, ‘to wonder, with reference to two or even three incidents related by Watt as separate and distinct, if they are not in reality the same incident’ (Watt 75) and he later says that Watt found it increasingly hard to distinguish ‘between what happened and what did not happen, between what was and what was not’ (Watt 124). We are even told that:


            . . . many things described as happening, in Mr Knott’s house, and of

course grounds, perhaps never happened at all, or quite differently,

and that many things described as being, or rather as not being, for

these were the more important, perhaps were not, or rather were all

the time.

                                                                                                  (Watt 124)


Under such unpropitious conditions for narrative coherence it is especially helpful for interpretative purposes to recognize a convention like that of the mirror gag. For equivocal identity is one of the issues which is invariably associated with this routine. And once we have recognized an adaptation of the mirror image convention, we have an immediate clue as to what is likely to be its significance in a novel which is concerned with meaning but also with the virtual impossibility of communicating it.


The extent to which Sam wants to perpetuate the reflexive relationship with Watt is made clear in the symbolism of the bridge-mending episode. This bridge joins Watt’s part of the garden to Sam’s ‘For without it how should we have passed from one part of the garden to the other,’ (Watt 153). The pair set to work to repair the damage caused by Watt putting his foot through it, and do so in a typically imitative way: ‘But we set to work at once, Watt from the one bank, I from the other,. . . We lay at full length on our stomachs, I at my full length on my stomach, and Watt at his on his,’ (Watt 152). Thus the means of communication, and thus of identification between the two, are explicitly refurbished.


Sam’s Watt-like grammatical constructions are here a gauge of his need for fusion with his image Watt, and of his peculiarly ambivalent status as both an objective and subjective presence in the mirror passages. Thus far Sam has taken no active part in the narrative and we have no reason to suppose that he is about to do so. Earlier in the novel he has presented himself as the confidant of watt and given Watt as the informant for all his facts. Anxious to remain uncommitted, he takes no responsibility for any of the information he passes on to us:


            And if Watt had not known this, that Erskine’s key was not a simple

key, then I should never have known it either, nor the world. For all

that I know on the subject of Mr Knott and of all that touched Mr

Knott, and of Watt and all that touched Watt, came from Watt and

Watt alone.

                                                                                                (Watt 123)


However we cannot really trust this statement, since how could Watt have known about the Mr Hackett/Mr Nixon conversation at the opening of the narrative? Since Watt could hardly have related a story which he was not in a position to hear, we are bound to regard Sam, as most commentators have done, as an inventor rather than someone writing solely in the capacity of Watt’s amanuensis, as he claims. It is only much later, when the narrator discloses that he lives in the garden adjacent to Watt’s, that he finally enters the story itself as an active participant. And it is at this point that he finds himself in grammatical difficulties, uncertain as to whether to stick to ‘I’ or, since he is now telling a story in which he figures as an objectified being, whether to switch to ‘Sam.’ What emerges is syntactically confused and highly revealing as to the ambiguous identity of the narrator/Sam:


            But whereas for Watt the important thing was the wind, the sun was

the important thing for Sam. With the result that though the sun

though bright were not so bright as it might have been, if the wind

were high Watt did not audibly complain, and that I, when illuminated

by rays of appropriate splendour, could forgive a wind which, while

strong, might with advantage have been stronger.

                                                                                    (Watt 151, my italics)


In consecutive statements the narrator uses different parts of speech, first and third person singular respectively, to denote himself. This ambivalence embodies his fundamental insecurity as to how far he is prepared to commit himself in a story from which he has so far succeeded in remaining aloof, but it also registers his need to identify with Watt as strongly as possible through the self-declaratory ‘I.’ By talking of ‘Sam’ the narrator evades his own personal involvement in Watt’s mentality which he partakes of through the mirror image, a trick designed to deceive the ‘they’ who adjudicate the performance of all Beckett characters into thinking that Sam is other than ‘I.’ As elsewhere in Beckett’s prose, an unusual grammatical construction exposes a psychological dilemma. One cannot help but recall that ‘Unnamable’ who can only find bearable existence by proxy (‘Perhaps I shall be obliged, in order not to peter out, to invent another fairy-tale, yet another, with heads, trunks, arms, legs and all that follows,’ (The unnamable 309)), and the elaborate means he takes to try to conceal his dependence on his creatures. If the analogy holds, then Sam has invented Watt to stand in his stead as a surrogate pioneer into the realms of chaos, whom he can disown (by making him a character with an ostensibly separate name and self) and yet appropriate, and so satisfy his need to fuse identities. The narrator’s only active involvement in the story of Watt occurs in this mirror-image section. And this, by its very nature, involves him only in an apparently automatic response—an image after all has no say in how it will behave. The forms of the actions will be determined by the initiator, in this instance Watt. The narrator’s responsibility for anything he does, consisting only in copying Watt, is diminished to the point of disappearance. The mirror image is particularly effective insofar as it allows us to understand the dependence of Sam on Watt without this ever being explicitly admitted. Clearly, a narrator who has gone to such lengths to conceal the nature of his relationship with Watt is unlikely to admit to such a dependence verbally. The mirror device allows us to see—literally to see, since its appeal is primarily visual—the reflexive impulse at work. And it does this in a way that does not compromise Beckett’s portrayal of the creative artist’s need at once to disown the experience of his creatures and yet in some oblique way to acknowledge and share it.


The passage in which ‘Sam’ and ‘I’ occur in such close proximity brings to mind the Marx Brothers’ film Duck soup,6 which contains one of the most famous examples of the clown ‘mirror’ gag at work. Harpo and Chico are disguised to look like Groucho, an eccentric ruler with a moustache and bedca When Groucho appears accidentally on the scene, Harpo runs into the mirror in alarm, smashing it as he does so. This gives Harpo the idea of taking the place of the mirror and deluding Groucho when he comes near by mimicking his actions. The suspicious Groucho tries to catch out the image by making unexpected movements. It is only when Chico turns up and blunders into the mirror space that the illusion set up by Harpo is destroyed. Similarly, in Watt, when the question arises as to who is to play the part of Watt’s mirror image, ‘Sam’ and ‘I’ jostle each other through the grammar of the passage, vying with each other to enjoy the privilege of reflection. Initially it is ‘I’ who mirrors Watt:


            So it is not to be wondered at if, through sheer ignorance of what was

going on without, we spent indoors, now Watt, now I, now Watt and I,

many fleeting hours that might have fled, just as well, if not better,

cetainly not worse, from us with us as we walked, Watt, or I, or Watt

and I, and perhaps even went through some of the forms of

conversation, in the little garden.

                                                                                                  (Watt 150)


But on the very next page we hear of ‘Sam’ and his tastes in the weather and how, when his outdoor preferences coincide with those of Watt, the two meet. The next section restores ‘I’ to the action in the bridge building passage. And subsequently the narrator ventures to use a long series of ‘we’s,’ not bothering to differentiate between Watt and himself since they now do everything together ‘as one man.’ By this time there is obviously no need to distinguish them into different grammatical persons since their actions become increasingly the same actions and ‘we’ will do for both of them. The insistence of the ‘we’ increases the sense of a composite character—‘And then we did a thing we seldom did, we embraced.’ (Watt 152). Here three ‘we’s’ are used in one short sentence; in this climactic action the third person singular `Sam’ has been eliminated and absolved from the imitative reflexive status in which ‘I,’ the first person singular, is monopolized by the Watt who (in narrative terms, at least) enjoys priority over him.


By relating to Watt in the form of a mirror image, the narrator can identify and share in the nature of his creature without being too heavily implicated in his psychic traumas. It provides him with a way of living through Watt’s mental condition whilst deflecting attention from himself. But I suggested earlier that there was another function of the mirror image which had to do with the difference between the ‘original’ and its reflection. As we have seen, the narrator speaks of his encounter with Watt in a manner derived primarily from Watt himself. Thus, when he discovers the adjacent holes in either side of the hedge bordering the couloir, he is moved to digress on the origin of these openings. There follows one of the most outlandish passages in the book in which it is suggested that ‘a single exceptionally powerful infuriated or terrified bull, or cow, or boar, or sow, or even some other wild animal,’ (Watt 160), may have been responsible for the holes. On the other hand, reasons Sam, could one animal, in all fairness, be held responsible for both cavities?


            For where was the boar, where the bull, capable, after bursting a

hole in the first fence, of bursting a second, exactly similar, in the

second? But would not the bursting of the first hole so reduce the

infuriated mass as to render impossible, in the course of the first

charge, the bursting of the second?

                                                                                            (Watt 158)


These are precisely the same contorted pataphysical solutions which Watt customarily makes to explain such puzzling phenomena as that of the open door on his arrival at Mr Knott’s. It is worth noting that these baffling situations are baffling only for characters like Watt and the Narrator/Sam figure. They are things which would ordinarily pass as trivial or obvious; only the clown mentality finds them perplexing. However, at the point at which the mirror sequences occur, Watt has obviously passed beyond empiricism. Language, once a ‘pillow of old words for his head,’ is no longer comforting to him, ‘semantic succour’ a thing of the past. His disenchantment begins with the truculent pot which will not fit its verbal label, refusing to submit, in Watt’s mind, to its name. This causes the cautious Watt much anguish, for he has mistakenly believed that meaning can be wrested from event by means of a consistent enough linguistic pressure. By the time of the mirror sequences Watt has passed well beyond the salve of language, which instead he now stigmatizes. The Sam/Narrator persona, however, still cleaves to the hyper-rational as is plain from his ‘bull-cow/infuriated-libidinous’ reasonings. He is still trying to `exorcise by explanation,’ using the linguistic methods of logical positivism7 which Watt has since abandoned. This is highly suggestive in terms of the mirror analogy. What appears to be taking place is a distortion of logical tendencies between the object Watt, and the image, Sam/Narrator. Like the fair-features—Chaplin uses such a mirror in The circus8—here a psychological leaning is thrown back by the reflection (Sam/Narrator) grossly distorted. Watt is confronting a prior alternative in staring face to face with Sam. Sam, baffled and perplexed, sees, but does not recognise in Watt, the grotesque end-point of his own rationalist tendencies. What the pair see in their respective reflections is an image in which the time-scale has been thrown out. Watt sees himself as he was, Sam as he will be.


One may of course query the assumption that any character in a novel can ever be wiser, or have reached a greater pitch of experience than a narrator who, it may be said, must contain or at least engage with the minds of his characters. Yet in Beckett’s works the traditional demarcations between the status of the writer and those whom he writes about do not hold. One. is never in the position to make complacent judgements about a narrator’s independence from the tale he is relating and the characters, over whom in a conventional novel he would have control, are frequently stronger and more assertive than the story-teller himself. In this context, we may recall Beckett’s admiration for Pirandello—according to Deirdre Bair, Beckett valued his work even above that of O’Casey9—and also his fondness for Sterne and Diderot.10 In all these authors, characters have an unusual quota of initiative and intervene at will to alter the course of the narrative. But even to talk about characters in Beckett’s works as leading independent or separate existences flies in the face of the Unnamable’s ruse of refracting himself through various named individuals in order to avoid speaking of ‘I’: ‘All these Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me. They have made me waste my time, suffer for nothing, speak of them when, in order to stop speaking, I should have spoken of me and of me alone.’ (The unnamable 305). In spite of this bravado, to speak of himself is the very thing he cannot do; the only way he can survive is through surrogate existence. The Sam/Narrator figure uses Watt in much the same way, gravitating from his initially remote position as omniscient recorder into a personal involvement in the story by mirroring Watt in the person of Sam.


In resorting to rationalism, it is noticeably Sam who copies Watt, Watt’s thought patterns and actions being ‘prior’ to Sam’s. At their last momentous confrontation, Sam spies Watt coming towards him (‘backwards towards me’). Sam makes the typically Watt-like comment that ‘His progress was slow and devious, on account no doubt of his having no eyes in the back of his head,’ (Watt 157), and goes to greet and anoint his hero ‘with a little box of ointment that I had in my pocket’ (Watt 161). Watt’s regress is surely intended to be understood figuratively as his turning his back on what he had been, now represented by the adoring and impressionable Sam. Watt even wears his trousers back to front. And when he begins to speak, his language, previously conceived of as the bastion of order and rationality, is similarly affected. Precisely because language cannot bring him understanding he now uses it to destroy the possibility of meaning, through nonsensical speech. But it is a mark of the extent to which Watt had been affected by the principle of systematization that this, his only anarchic gesture, should be formulaic. Watt’s attempts at arbitrary speech fail, since Sam is able to restore the original sense by discovery and application of a series of formulae. Watt has used a rational method, or at least one which follows a system and is anything but random, in order to try to destroy the essence of rationalism, good sense. But Sam is perfectly well equipped to work out Watt’s various inversions of sentence, phrase, word and letter, inversions which become the more radical the more Sam learns to decipher them. Try as he may, Watt cannot produce a combination of letters which his mirror image is unable to translate back into familiar speech. For just as an ordinary word shown to a mirror will throw back a back-to-front image (for instance Watt will read ‘ttaW’), so Watt’s language shown to Sam turns from inverted language back into comprehensible words and sentences. Like the Groucho Marx of Duck Soup, who tried to outwit his image by producing unexpected actions which he hoped would flummox the ‘reflection,’ Watt tries out more and more bizarre permutations of normal language:


            Deen did taw? Tonk. Tog da taw? Tonk. Luf puk saw? Hap! Deen

did tub? Ton spar Tog da tub? Ton wonk.

                                                                                                (Watt 164)


Though at first each new baffling formulation appears to have stumped Sam:


            These were sounds that first, though we walked belly to belly, were

so much wind to me.

                                                                                                (Watt 164)


he relentlessly works out the code and is able to say each time, after a little deliberation; ‘But I soon grew used to these sounds, and then I understood as well as before.’


Throughout this period of linguistic mirroring in Watt, the physical mirroring goes on as before, and at one point the two become interlocked in the couloir:


            Then I took a double pace forward with my right leg, and he of course

with his left leg a double pace back. And so we paced together

between the fences, I forwards, he backwards, until we came to

where the fences diverged again ... And then turning, as one man,

we paced back the way we had paced back the way we had come,

                                                                                                (Watt 161)


But this illusion of perfect symmetry is naturally destroyed every time Sam takes his hands from Watt’s shoulders to make a note in his little book. After each solution Sam is meticulous in giving us the formula, and a considered grammatical analysis. He is pre-occupied with the ‘how’ of Watt’s speech, whereas the real meaning lies in ‘why’ Watt should be moved to speak in this way. Trying to work out meaning from grammatical observations only, Sam misses the point of this strange way of talking, all the time satisfying himself through painstaking attention to the syntax that he has ‘understood,’ a word which he reiterates after each new solution. Sam makes no comment on the substance of what is said, but only on the method. His reaction to the following passage, which is especially illuminating on the subject of Watt’s diminishing peace of mind and his loss of faith in empirical verification, is typical of his response to Watt’s glossolalia:


            Day of most, night of part, Knott with now. Now till up, little seen oh,

little heard so oh. Night till morning from. Heard t this, saw I this then

what. Thing quiet, dim. Ears, eyes, failing now also. Hush in, mist in,

moved I so.


            From this it will perhaps be suspected: That the inversion affected,

not the order of the sentences,

            but that of the words only;

            that the inversion was imperfect;

that the ellipse was frequent;

            that euphony was a preoccupation;

that spontaneity was perhaps not absent;

that there was perhaps more than a reversal of discourse;

that the thought was perhaps inverted.

                                                                                                (Watt 162)


Sam has here simply passed over what Watt actually has to say, contenting himself with what are, under the circumstances, only superfluous grammatical inferences. Watt’s crucial utterances chart the decline in his faith as to the reassurances which Knott’s establishment once gave him. Once, he saw and heard a little and was able to say what it was that he had seen and heard: ‘Heard I this, saw I this then what.’ Then things became blurred, and with the perishing of his senses—‘mist in’—he entered a nebulous region of uncertainty. Sam’s failure to give a humanitarian account of Watt’s obviously anguished speeches, and his generally clinical appraisal, underwrites Watt’s discoveries earlier in the novel about the shortcomings of methodology. Systematization, or more properly logical positivism, really evades the issue of meaning since it does not admit as possibly meaningful anything which cannot be logically explained and accounted for. Any form of meta-physical experience and large areas of psychic life are hence discounted, and the potentially significant moments of life are considered invalid because outside the scope of method. Man cannot do without language to conceptualize his experience, yet the rigid formal structure of language may falsely represent and therefore destroy the sense of what it seems to communicate. Watt found to his alarm that the word ‘pot’ had no coherence with the thing it apparently denoted; similarly, the attempt to render the Gall piano-tuning incident meaningful through description only made the whole episdoe ludicrous:


            The incident of the Galls . . . ceased so rapidly to have even the

paltry significance of two men, come to tune a piano, and tuning it,

and exchanging a few words, as men will do, and going, that this

seemed rather to belong to some story heard long before, an instant

in the life of another, ill-told, ill-heard, and more than half forgotten.


            . . .For the incident of the Galls father and son was followed by others

of a similar kind, incidents that is to say of great formal brilliance and

indeterminable purport.

                                                                                                       (Watt 71)


In the mirror image passages that I have been looking at, Sam/Narrator offers a splendid example of the way in which language can stand in the stead of meaning, giving a false impression of order where there may be none at all. As we watch Sam methodically working out the linguistic puzzles set him by Watt we observe (and perhaps partly share) his relish in converting chaotic utterances into relatively ordered statements. There is nothing reprehensible about this so long as Sam is merely foregrounging his `workings’ as predicated upon Watt’s original utterances. The full grammatical analysis and the statement of ‘understanding’ provide a point of balance. However, the final instance in the series is peculiar in that it provides, as previously, the next logical step in Watt’s sentence coding, but it omits any example! The code has been cracked but there is no message. The mere exercise of deciphering seems to have become all-important for Sam whose satisfaction in working things out has over-reached its object. Like the ‘pot’ which somehow failed to connect with what it was supposed to describe, this system of Sam’s has become self-sufficient, and thereby detached from meaning. After half a page of detailed analysis we meet the surprising comment from Sam that ‘I recall no example of this manner’ (Watt 167). We may legitimately doubt whether in fact Watt ever produced an example of this kind. Given Sam’s predilection for systematic series, we may infer that he has merely anticipated a Watt utterance which was never articulated. This final instance is a way of reminding us, albeit obliquely, that formulaic language can become so remote from meaningful event that in the end it acts as a substitute for it. We cannot help but remember that, for Watt, even a simple word like ‘pot’ failed to cohere with its object. How much more vacuous, then, must a complex verbal explanation, such as Sam thinks he is providing, seem?


In one of Holbein’s illustration11 for Erasmus’s Praise of folly there is a man looking at himself in the mirror. The man has a hood with bells but the hood is folded down over his back and is not on his head. The reflection staring back from the mirror is sticking his tongue out at the gazer. The gesture obviously pokes fun at the man with the fool’s cap on his back. But the tongue of the image is also surely intended to signify that anyone who looks too carefully at what he is (an act symbolized by peering into a mirror) may necessarily be involving himself in a foolish activity; the very quest for self is likely to turn one into a fool.


Describing the effect of the Holbein drawing, Fritz Saxl remarks: ‘Scrutinising his face searchingly, and with a serious intent . . . , the fool symbolises the desire to know oneself.’12 One might add that the one of the pair who knows more really makes a bigger fool of his partner in mirror gags. The reflection in the Holbein example, with his derisive gesture, obviously has the advantage of knowledge over his ‘partner.’ Similarly, in the Italian film Kri Kri domesticus, Kri Kri is having a joke at his master’s expense; he knows something that the image does not. In both cases the image makes a fool of the original. In the Watt/Sam confrontation, Watt has clearly passed beyond the limited state of knowledge epitomized by Sam’s display of empirical reasoning. Watt may be foolish in the sense that he has given himself up to chaos, but Sam looks the bigger fool in the light of Watt’s experience of, and disillusionment with, hyper-rationality.


If Sam is, as we may legitimately suppose (given the nature of the internal evidence and the pressure of the external evidence) the ‘original’ and Watt only an ‘image,’ then Beckett has found a novel and intriguing way of reaffirming a wisdom as old as Erasmus’s, indeed a wisdom so old that it would be folly to seek its origin. And if the image can make a fool of the original in this way, who would deny Watt’s claim to stand as titular hero of the book which gives him life and which embodies so much of Beckett’s thinking on the vexed questions of priority, determinism, singularity and infinite regress?




1 John Towsen, Clowns, New York, 1976, 244.


2 Seven years bad luck, released by Robertson-Cole Distributing Corporation, 6th February 1921, starring Max Linden—5 reels.


3 Paul Adrian, Ce rire qui vient du cirque, Bourg-la-Reine, 1969, 62.


4 William Shakespeare, The comedy of errors, III, 1, 30-31.


5 Kri kri domesticus, Bloomer Man Servant, released by Cires, 1913, starring Guiseppe Gambradella—1 reel.


6 Duck soup, released by Paramount, November 17th 1933, starring the Marx Brothers—68 or 70 minutes.


7 Several critics have made this observation. Richard Coe writes; ‘In short, Watt is a logical positivist, a living incarnation of the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein.’ Richard Coe, Samuel Beckett, London, 1968, 39. The first commentator to note the connection was probably Jaqueline Hoefer; see ‘Watt,’ in Samuel Beckett: a collection of critical essays, edited by Martin Esslin, New Jersey, 1965, 62-75.


8 The circus, released by United Artists, August 16th 1925, starring Charlie Chaplin—9 reels.


9 Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: a biography, London, 1978, 47-48.


10 See John Pilling, Samuel Beckett, London, 1976, 140-144.


11 Marginal illustration for Erasmus’s Praise of folly, reprinted in Erica TietzeConrat, Dwarfs and jesters in art, New York, 1957, 57.


12 F. Saxl, ‘Holbein’s illustrations to the Praise of folly by Erasmus,’ in The Burlington magazine, 488, Nov. 1943, 176.