Note From the Author:
These essays have yet to be published anywhere but here, so take them for what they're worth.
If you ever happen to cite them in a paper or something, I'd love to hear about it, so drop me an email at: js @ jonathanstephens . com.
Beckett's Raw War: Language and Aporia in Company & Worstward Ho
"Words are coming to an end" (Beckett 46). This is the essence of Beckett's trio of books titled Nohow On , of which I will focus on the first and the third in the set. In Company he begins his final onslaught against language, which his Armageddon piece, Worstward Ho , finishes nicely. It should not come as any surprise that Beckett, known for his ultra-postmodern approach to literature, storytelling, and language, would finish his writing career with this collection of works.
In Nohow On he finishes his lifelong war against language, a war that seems to attack language so that he might play with it more enjoyably, and one that may only be finished because these are his final works. Each of his works seems "instilled with a sense of finality ... as though both in form and content his enterprise could go no further" (Renton 99). That said, Beckett's utilization of aporia and language conventions in Company and Worstward Ho amounts to a final deconstructive attack against the clarity problems inherent in the signification process of language that allows him, in the end, to play.
While the word aporia is a sort of aporia in itself, it is a term worth using in the discussion of Beckett's prose. It can be understood to mean the wonder and amazement one experiences standing before the confusing puzzles and paradoxes of our lives and of the universe. It can be something that needs to be awakened within the individual. Further, it can represent an insoluble contradiction or paradox in the meaning of a text. While this variety of signifieds is precisely the sand box into which Beckett enjoyed digging, the latter definition best serves my purpose here and more closely aligns itself with the discourse of signification.
Beckett hopes to "fail better" by minimalizing his use of language as he shows through written example the crisis inherent in language and words so that he can expose the impotence of language and ask the question "What is the word, really?" (Beckett 89). To him, a maximum level of corruption and a minimum level of creation are one and the same. Everything can be reduced or blurred into the same meaning or into whatever meaning the reader wishes it to be. As Ann Banfield asserts in her article "Beckett's Tattered Syntax," "[t]he images are seen by 'the other' eye, the mind's eye," meaning that the writer may have intended one thing when he wrote the words on the page but that the images may appear differently within the eye of the reader (18). This is the reason that words fail, a signification problem which Ferdinand De Saussure's polarity of "signs" - the "signifiers" and "signifieds" - can explain.
Beckett is playing with Saussure's proposal that language is a bi-directional system of "signifiers," which can be understood as the written words that represent a given meaning, and the "signifieds," the meanings to which the written words refer. Beckett proposes that one signifier may enjoy any number of signifieds, all different meanings recalled by different readers. Even a single reader may be confused by the lack of specificity of the signifier. This is because one cannot read and react to a word without pulling a memory from the mental archives to assign to that word as used in that particular instance.
Ruud Hisgen says that "[t]his ... automatism of saying causing seeing and seeing causing saying ... obviously severely hampers the imagination. In fact, pure imagination cannot exist: imagination will always be 'contaminated with memory'" (243). It is significant that Beckett begins Company with this struggle over imagination: "A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine" (Beckett 3). Already the narrator, who many fallaciously attribute to Beckett, is commanding the reader to imagine, as if his words alone can invoke meaning in the mind of the reader. It is this clever, yet flawed, creation process toward which Beckett focuses his battle. Immediately, the reader is lying on his back in the dark because the narrator has spoken this setting into existence, about which Beckett gives few specific details. Which of his words can be misimagined? "Lying?" "Back?" "Dark?" Can his readers imagine a different dark? This purposeful minimalist ploy makes it "extremely difficult to place the action in an intelligible world of any description," yet it accomplishes Beckett's purpose of transmitting a meaning that fails better (Hisgen 244).
Let us refer to this process as designing the text, and at the same time de-"sign"ing the text. Not only is his language minutely crafted, it is pruned of flamboyance in order to leave a multiplicity of potential meanings. This is strange to consider alongside Beckett's simultaneous insistence on minimal settings in order to accomplish the most unified body of imagination. The examination of this de-"sign"ing can begin with Beckett's near refusal to use the personal pronoun "I." "I" is the "unnamable" person, the "last person" that should be used, "the unthinkable last" person, and the reader is told to "Quick leave him" (Beckett 17). Later, in his search for company, he tries naming the hearer, "H. Aspirate. Haitch" (22). This name does not last long though because he decides the hearer is just as unnamable as the seer - "H" for the [h]ears and "I" for the eyes.
Later, feeling the need for company, the narrator tries again to give himself and the hearer names to go by, which perhaps can be understood as anything similar yet contradictory to himself. "[He] tells himself to call the reader M at least. For readier reference. Himself some other character. W. Devising it all himself included for company" (31). Some need within the narrator necessitates his naming of himself and those around him, maybe because everyone is the same unless they are made different by their names. This mentality is similar to Beckett's in its affixation to signifiers as the carriers of meanings. "Is there anything to add to this esquisse? His unnamability. Even M must go. So W reminds himself of his creature as so far created. W? But W too is creature. Figment" (33). To him, if the naming signifier is removed, so too is the individuality and meaning of that individual. "All naming, [theorist Jacques Derrida] contends, designates an absence" (Parrott 100), and it is this absence that sits heavily in I's stomach as he realizes that their names and identities are a figment of his imagination. The irony in his naming process is that his "M" is an inversion of his "W." It is just himself "M" lying on his back "W," which is humorously not much different that "I" and "H," where "H" is "I" on his side.
This playful aporia is similarly revealed within first words of Worstward Ho , by the process of de-"sign"ing, which Beckett is attempting to achieve. "On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on" (89). In order for language like this to succeed it must "persistently challenge the logic of cause and effect by ... engender[ing] a new, if strangely irrational, form of perception" (Smith 22). Though critics like Garin Dowd have noted that this "on" is the reversal of "no," which they argue is the point of his writing, it is more likely a declaration that a process has begun. Challenging our perceptions of how language must work, "On" feels like an imperative verb here, like an action one is supposed to take, along with "saying" and "being said." It is not difficult to see how one can "say," but how exactly can one make themselves "be said"?
Anna Smith explains the apparent impossibility of one subject doing both "actions":
Rather than viewing Worstward Ho as continuous speech without an identifiable speech act, it is more accurate to see the subject who speaks in the text, as retaining his integrity, but at the cost of splitting into two. This is evident from the outset of Worstward Ho in the strange floating between active and passive voices (23).
This active/passive aporia resurfaces regularly. "Say for be said. Missaid. From now say for be missaid" (Beckett 89). These lines work together as both action and reaction, creating and being created. The subject, which in Company was you lying on your back, has been collapsed into both an active and a passive entity, both able to exact change yet impotent in that direction entirely. It functions as a microcosm of Beckett's larger problem of having to use language to show us how language does not work the way it is supposed to work. It is through his "constant 'missaying' or deviant use of language, that [he] can hope to express a quality of being" (Thobo-Carlsen 251).
An allowance for this quality of being within the formal analysis or reading of a text is an idea of Jacques Derrida's with which Beckett would have undoubtedly been familiar. Derrida takes aim at Plato's argument that writing is dangerous because it functions as pharmakon , a mind-altering, hypnotic drug that acts like a poison on the reader. Plato asserts that writing is a crutch for memory, an erosion of sorts that does not sharpen but rather dulls its faculties. Derrida's attack is pointed at Plato's treatment of the word pharmakon as a one-sided word, meaning only poison . Derrida argues that Plato purposefully ignores the obvious aporia inherent within the word pharmakon , sweeping under the rug its polar, opposing definition as remedy . Beckett surely understood this and wanted to utilize the qualities residing at both poles. He wanted to show the intrinsic danger built into language, while at the same time liberating his language to be a freeing process, in the writing, the reading, and the understanding.
Beckett clearly desires the text to split into two parts much the same way Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man did, though in many ways their views contradicted or at least rubbed against the other's. Smith speaks to the heart of the conflict:
What compels Beckett to go to such extremes in fashioning a denatured prose style is his relentless pursuit of a form of expression that would express the inexplicable; which is, of course, a logical impossibility (24).
Understanding that all writers are stuck within the constructs of language, de Man and Derrida would both take aim at any attempt of Beckett's to create communicable meaning. Beckett's struggle and the focus of his attack is revealed in his attempt "to convey, through the use of poetic language 'what words are designed to suppress: the uncertain, the contradictory, the unthinkable'" (24). This is a tall task indeed and the reason so much metaphorical language can be seen used within his semantic playground.
Smith asserts that "the metaphorisation of language in Beckett's text initiates a dialogue between these two contrary modes of language; between literal, logical language on the one hand, and poetic language on the other" (25). This literal, logical language includes the qualities that could be considered causal and mimetic. So when Beckett describes his character's "breath," his "rising to all fours" (37), and "crawling in the dark" (39), this treads as close to the mimetic line as can be imagined. However, these "Xeroxes" of real life do not occur in any sequential or logical manner. In the scene immediately before the "crawling," Beckett offers this extremely visceral scene between a man, who we assume is one of his main characters, and a woman:
You are on your back at the foot of an aspen. In its trembling shade. ... You feel on your face the fringe of her long black hair stirring in the still air. Within the tent of hair your faces are hidden from view. She murmurs, Listen to the leaves (35).
No matter how minimal or visceral an approach he attempts, he must use signifiers. He cannot shuck off his morphemic coil. He must "[s]omehow up and stand. Somehow stand. That or groan. ... No. No groan. Simply pain. Simply up" (91). "Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. ... Throw up for good. Go for good. ... Good and all" (90). The dichotomy within his writing is that he cannot succeed without failing, something he realizes and asserts as the inevitable result of his quest.
This inevitability reflects itself in the development, or rather [d]evolution, of his adherence to traditional plot, setting, and time. In Company he has the reader, along with the "I," imagine a meager number of settings, most of which are stripped of "its colour and evocative density" (Smith 25). The dark room, the bed, the mountain, the country road, the garden gate, the high board, the snow-covered landscape, and the aspen is the limited spread of supplied settings. By the time he gets to Worstward Ho , nothing really "happens" in regards to any story, and that nothing really happens nowhere. Jose Angel Garcia Landa explains how this paring down of the unnecessary seems to reflect Beckett's belief:
[T]he barest minimum of representation is the best way of enacting the ascetical aesthetics of this text, that is, of evoking nothingness through language - although this whole aesthetic project is self-contradictory and doomed to failure, since the void can be represented only in a metalinguistic way (71).
Critics Renton and Hisgen, Renton especially, examine this "quality of the barest" by looking at the development of the first few manuscripts of Worstward Ho . His spirit of improvisation, heralded in his "finished" work, is even more evident in his "drafts." The multiplicity of crossed out words and the rarity of inserted words suggest the lengths to which Beckett was determined go to trim away the fluff. The "final" drafts have erased most evidence of tropes such as personification and metaphor, leaving it seems only the metonymic effects of the language.
Let's assume for a moment that Beckett's language is devoid of metaphor and other tropes and is strictly metonymic. Beckett carries out his attack on this level as well. The narrator is described as a "[d]evised deviser devising it all for company" (Beckett 33). This simple change in the order of letters allows him to playfully create obvious differences in language. Devised is a participial adjective; deviser is a gerundial noun; and devising is a verb. All he needs is the addition of an infinitive for his experimental collection to be complete.
Beckett also attempts to construct his own set of protonyms, new words all of which have understandable meanings. "Unknow" (92), "unworsenable" (107), "unnullable" (106), "unlessenable" (106), "unutter" (107), "uninane" (107), "unstillable" (109), are easy ones, just the opposite of their original meanings and culminating in the double negation, "ununsaid" (106). However, the "[u]nmoreable, unlessable, unworseable, evermost almost void" provides a meaning for the reader to decode (113). This chain of protonyms has the feeling of a void that cannot be increased, decreased, and made any worse, or "worser" (107) - If Beckett uses it it must be a word, right? It seems as if he feels the power to create his own language by simply negating the existing one, his own alternate linguistic universe.
"Beyondless" (92), "thenceless" (92), and "thitherless" (92) are slightly more difficult but can be understood to mean not after a place, not from a place, and not toward a place. This creativity of words leaves the language stuck in its place, always having been there and never able to leave. Its "pastless" (110) and "onceless" (110) nature leaves it without a past and a present, its only hope lying in a doubtful future. However, his style is not to invent completely new words. The previously mentioned protonyms, viewed alongside others such as "astand" (93), "nohow" (93), "whencesoever" (104), "leastening" (106), "leastmost" (107), are all combinations or alterations of already existing words. For all Beckett's hard work and rebellion, he has not been able to escape his linguistic prison.
Yet on. His continued effort is perhaps manifested most clearly, as aforementioned, in his directional use of pronouns. They would, after all, be the shortest form of verbs and would agree with his thoughts in Nohow On - "With what one word convey its change? Careful. Less. Ah the sweet one word. Less. It is less. The same but less...To say the least. Less. It will end by being no more. By never having been" (81). Less is more, and conversely, more would be less. His hope would be that the "dim light" would become an "even dimmer light" (59), that things would continue "worstward," that it might all "fail better" (89) by being "even briefer" (64) than it ever has been before.
Whatever Beckett's overarching purpose, to blur the lines between signifier and signified, or to sever all distinguishable ties between them, it is clear he has a twig to whittle with the current linguistic system. "Say for be said. Missaid. From no say for be missaid" shows his strategic resignation to the limits of language (89). Since he cannot "be said" or "say" anything clearly, he hopes his "missaid" will present itself in the best worse way possible. In fact, his hope seems to be that his readers might not "see" anything in his words because his words will not be "saying" anything anymore but will instead be oozing (108) and secreting (104) meaning out of their semantic pores.
It is this playful language of Beckett's that contrasts appropriately with his academic use of aporia. In the "wake" of Nohow On , Beckett has left the deconstructionists nothing to do but resolve to play along with Beckett. His work has deconstructed itself and taken language down with it. Its unclear semantics never claimed to be anything but unclear. Its incomplete settings, characters, and plot leave only their minimal natures for scrutiny. Beckett appears to have had the last laugh by taking the last ribbon out of the typewriter with him on his way out of the office. There does not appear to be much left to do once he has "finished." After all, what can one do with a work whose primary goal is to be more by being less?
Banfield, Ann. "Beckett's Tattered Syntax." Representations 84 (2004): 6-29.
Beckett, Samuel. Nohow On . New York: Grove P, 1996.
Dowd, Garin. "'Vasts Apart': Phenomenology and Worstward Ho." Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui 14 (2004): 323-39.
Garcia Landa, Jose. British Postmodern Fiction . Rodopi: Amsterdam, 1993.
Hisgen, Ruud, and Adriaan van der Weel. "Worsening in Worstward Ho: A Brief Look at the Genesis of the Text." Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui 6 (1997): 243-50.
Leitch, Vincent, ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism . New York: Norton, 2001.
Parrott, Jeremy. "'Nothing Neatly Named': The Beckettian Aesthetic and Negative Theology." Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui 13 (2003): 91-101.
Renton, Andrew. The Ideal Core of the Onion: Reading Beckett Archives . Fndtn: Bristol, 1992.
Smith, Anna. "Proceeding by Aporia: Perception and Poetic Language in Samuel Beckett's Worstward Ho ." Journal of Beckett Studies 3 (1993): 21-37.
Thobo-Carlsen, John. "Beckett's Dialogic 'Design' and Rhetoric of Impotence." Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui 11 (2001): 245-52.
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