Stealing from Samuel Becket

Being in the middle of what the nice man from the NHS is calling ‘a severe depressive episode’, I shouldn’t be reading Beckett because of his ability to really “rub your nose in the shit” (Pinter). But here I am reading Beckett out loud, to myself and finding the whole thing oddly moving.

In my search for things to read during this period of enforced rest, I’ve looked at Prynne’s ‘Field Notes’ purely on the grounds of density and the opportunity it presents to lose yourself in the arguments that are presented. I started out with good intentions but then found myself getting irritated by some of the more tenuous lines of thought. By chance, I then looked at the epigraphs and was reasonably astonished by this (the third):

Another trait its repetitiousness. Repeatedly with only minor variants the same bygone. As if willing him by this dint to make it his. To confess, Yes I remember. Perhaps even to have a voice. To murmur, Yes I remember. What an addition to company that would be! A voice in the first person singular. Murmuring now and then, Yes I remember.

I’ll worry about that capitalised ‘Y’ later but there are a couple of things that immediately spring to mind. The first is that ‘Field Notes’ was published in 2007, two years before ‘Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian which contains as its epigram a 15th century French lyric which piles up variations on ‘fume’ and that the first poem in the sequence (as I’ve said) really plays around with the repetition theme. So, there’s some kind of link between the two and I would normally dive back into the commentary to see what else is said about repetition.
On this occasion I decided to look at ‘Company’ because one of Vance Maverick’s comments to a previous post had made me think about Beckett and repetition but I hadn’t gone any further than re-reading ‘Lessness’.
For my sins, I haven’t paid serious attention to Beckett for a long while and re-reading ‘Company’ is a reminder of the strength and rigour of the work. It has been said that ‘Company’ can be read as a kind of distillation of all of Beckett’s output. I don’t think this is the case but I do recognise some of the recurring themes, especially in the later work.
Apart from the above-quoted paragraph and one or two phrases, the level of repetition is not high but it is the way in which the phrases are deployed and then commented on that is particularly effective.
By ‘effective’ I think I mean the way that Beckett manages to drag the reader in so that we become participants rather than observers. I’d forgotten how compelling this involvement becomes.
Repetition comes more to the fore with ‘Worstward Ho’ which is more abstract and contains the immortal ‘fail better’ line and appears to take repetitiousness to excess:

Say for now still seen. Dimly seen. Dim white. Two white dim empty hands. In the dim void.

So leastward on. So long as dim still. Dim undimmed. Or dimmed to dimmer still. To dimmost dim. Leastmost in dimmost dim. Utmost dim. Leastmost in utmost dim. Unworsenable worst.

When I started thinking about repetition I certainly didn’t have this level of concentration in mind but this and other examples from the later work do provide4 fertile ground to think this thing through further. One of the things that I wanted to avoid was that repetition or slight variation should make things too ‘busy’ or complicated and it seems (and this is provisional) that Beckett avoids this by the length of the piece which allows him to ‘extend’ phrases in ways that are quite startling but always fairly plain- especially when read aloud…..


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