Samuel Beckett as Geometer

I was going to write something thoroughly enthusiastic about Beckett’s ‘The Lost Ones’ and ‘Lessness’ making extravagant claims for both as crucial works in 20th century literature. Then I decided to use the above to get to something that’s being nagging away for a while. I also wanted to claim the shorter prose for poetry, suffice it to say that all of the shorter prose (including ‘Texts for Nothing’ and the ‘Fizzles’ sequence) can be successfully read as prose poems.

Beckett’s plays are marked by the precision of his stage directions and some of the later stuff consists mostly of incredibly detailed directions which has led most critics to conclude something about Beckett’s need for control over the way his work is presented to the world. I’m going to argue that, whilst this may be the case, there’s something else going on with regard to the function of structure and structure as process.

For those who doubt the significance of geometry to Beckett, I would refer them to Quadrat 1 – 2 both in performance and in the detail of Beckett’s directions. ‘The Lost Ones’ is of a different order but nevertheless begins with:

Abode where lost bodies roam each searching forits lost one. Vast enough for search to be in vain. Inside a flattened cylinder fifty metres round and sixteen high for the sake of harmony.

We are then told that the light inside this structure is yellow and that it oscillates, becomes still and then oscillates again and that the temperature rises and falls between 25 and 5 degrees in a four second cycle that also has brief periods of ‘stability’.
The inside of this structure is lined with rubber and that there are niches or apertures set in the lining but only in the top half of the cylinder.
Before we go any further it is probably as well to say that not very much happens in ‘The Lost Ones’, we are shown how various groups function, some climbing ladders to the niches, others remaining inert, we are told of a number of rules or customs governing the use of the ladders and of the rumours of a way out of the structure but we aren’t given any idea as to the origins of this little world although we are given the strong impression that things will continue in a similar vein ad infinitum.
As with most things Beckett, it is entirely possible to read something dystopic and miserablist into this but a closer and more attentive reading reveals that we are being offered an acute analysis of the political and ideological processes currently at work in the world and of the strivings this involves. The inhabitants of the cylinder are divided into four distinct groups and there are two competing beliefs about the way out of the structure. There is perhaps less emphasis than normal placed on the meaningless and futile nature of this sort of activity as it is given some kind of rationale but all the kinds of activity lead to nothing.
To continue, there is no need to include so much relational detail in this brief piece unless a ‘point’ is being made about the relationship of these dimensions to the figures/people that live within them. At times the detail we are given comes across as being deliberately arch:

They are disposed in irregular quincunxes roughly 10 metres in diameter and cunningly out of line. Such harmony only he can relish whose long experience and detailed knowledge of the niches are such as to permit a perfect mental image of the entire system. But it is doubtful that such a one exists. For each climber has a fondness for certain niches and refrains as far as possible from the others.

This is probably the most significant passage for it blends the geometrical parameters with the inadequacies or failings of the system or customs by which the people function. We are, of course, expected to know what a quincunx is and to pick up on the use of ‘cunningly’.

There does seem to me to be something else going on with this emphasis, as if the detail of the frame is almost of more interest than what it contains and this isn’t just about the essential futility/absurdity of human existence but more about the structure of performance (for the want of a better term) per se.

If we view the beings in ‘The Lost Ones’ as performers and the structure they inhabit as a set then things do become a little easier. I’m not for one moment suggesting that Beckett is meaning that we should view life as ‘merely’ a performance but I think that he is saying that structures and elements within those structures are about staging and that human beings will inevitably respond to structures in certain wearily predictable ways. The people have ladders that they take turns in climbing, there are rules or customs governing the use of the ladders and pandemonium breaks out if these are infringed. There are rumours and speculation about what the ceiling contains but nobody attempts to reach it even though this is technically possible.

The other structural element is the fifteen ladders which can be moved around the inside of the cylinder. Ladders have always had some significance for Beckett both as a means of escape and of a means of isolation as here when a climber exceeds his time in a niche and the ladder is consequently taken away. We are told that some of these ladders have rungs missing which makes climbing difficult and that these rungs are used in fights or in attempts by individuals to ‘brain’ themselves.

The floor of the cylinder is divided into zones-

The bed of the cylinder comprises three distinct zones raised by clear-cut or imaginary frontiers invisible to the eye of flesh. First an outer belt roughly one metre wide reserved for the climbers and strange to say favoured by most of the sedentary and vanquished. Next a slightly narrower inner belt where those weary of searching in mid-cylinder slowly revolve in Indian file intent on the periphery. Finally the area proper representing an area of one hundred and fifty square metres and chosen ground of the majority. Let numbers be assigned to these three zones and it appears clearly that from the third to the second and inversely the searcher moves at will whereas on entering and leaving the first he is held to a certain discipline. One example among a thousand of the harmony that reigns in the cylinder between order and licence.

Before we get on to the importance of that last line, I just want to point out the mordant brilliance of ‘invisible to the eye of the flesh’. It’s in the details of his work that the strength of Beckett’s genius is revealed to us.

The last sentence is key because it indicates the grounds for his insistence on providing us with shape, trajectory and physical dimension. The climbers climb and the searchers search in spite of themselves, they are responding and contributing to the deadening structure around them and responding in particularly painful and futile ways for there is no way out and the only certainty is in the oscillating light and the temperature that continues to rise and fall. Of course it is Beckett who has created this level of precision as he does with his dramatic works and reflects his expressed wish to do away with actors/characters altogether.

As Robert Coover has tellingly described in ‘Spanking the Maid’, sado-masochistic practices are enhanced by both the ritual certainty of calibration and repetition. Those who torture others find it more effective to follow a structured regime- to inflict the right amount of pain for the right length of time etc.

With Beckett nothing is straightforward but I would argue that his extreme us of geometry here and elsewhere does challenge us to think in quite different ways about performance and the expression of that performance. ‘Texts for Nothing and Other Shorter Prose’ is published by Faber and sells for £9.99 in the UK.

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