Pascale Casanova: Beckett's combinatorial art


Ars Combinatoria

With his first publications in French in the 1950s, critical prejudices emerged in a kind of double-blind to obstruct access to each of Beckett's texts. They have had enormous theoretical consequences. Commentaries on Beckett's writing as testimony to the 'unsayable', the 'essential', and even the height of misinterpretation the `inarticulate' are now too numerous to count. Refusal of the formal character of this literary under-taking, and belief in a kind of inspired passivity on the writer's part, have resulted, for example, in the emergence of a critical consensus around the notion of 'confusion'. 'Criticism,' writes Bruno Clément for example in summarizing the various hermeneutic positions on the subject, 'converges in regarding the increasing scarcity, and sometimes disappearance, of signs of formal organization (parts, chapters, paragraphs, and even sentences) as the positive mark of an essential disorder that has affected the oeuvre, thereby stripping it of any genuinely technical characteristics.'

It is perhaps with Worstward Ho, one of Beckett's last texts, that the distance between the standard interpretation (derived from Blanchotien presuppositions), which confers on this text – as on all the others – a disorder considered inherent in the ultimate expression of existential suffering, and the interpretation imposed by a systematic analysis, becomes most apparent.

On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on. Say for be said. Missaid. From now say for be missaid.

Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

A first reading of Worstward Ho, it is true, conveys the impression of a discourse that fades out in a kind of paratactic inarticulation. Beckett had seemingly never gone so far in the direction of hermeticism and literal obscurity. But the power of critical bias precludes observing and understanding Beckett's project as it unfolds in this text. If we overturn the prejudice of non-meaning and confusion associated with Beckett's writing, we can bring out strict rules of composition and organization. Worstward Ho is a summit of Beckett's ars combinatoria, prodigiously controlled and devised, the magisterial conclusion to the whole oeuvre.

So we have the worst, posited in the title as a goal to be reached, as a professed project, and which is to be understood not as an approximate, random evocation of the oeuvre, but precisely as an algorithm, a generative formula from which Beckett has produced the ensuing text. The title is, of course, a parody of Charles Kingsley's well-known Westward Ho and, through this migratory irony, signals both motion and direction. The worst is what must now be striven for ­– the end aimed at but not yet attained. Attesting to this is the first word of the text – `on' – expressing continuation, effort, movement, a kind of resolute `forward'. Beckett immediately raises the problem with a quasi-mathematical rigour: how to say the worst and how to work incessantly to worsen the worst? If, by definition, `said is missaid' whatever one says, how, stylistically, can one convey the idea of the worst and say it ever worse? How can one win the incredible wager of a `better' that would be a successful statement of the worst? To this question of the how, Beckett responds in the first paragraph by adopting two of the modalities allowed by English through variations on the adverb of manner `how': the worst will be reached by setting out from `somehow' to arrive at the point of `nohow': `On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.'

Beckett thus states the only two modalities that he will use in the text to attain the worst and, at the same time, defines the minimal form in which he has committed himself to saying it: `somehow' can only be said on the basis of a syntax limited to the essential, a unique punctuation, a vocabulary restricted and reduced to words of the worst. It is as if he was giving himself the word and the thing at the same time – an ultimate, extreme attempt finally to make what one says and how one says it coincide. The worst will therefore be written in the precise gap between these two words. It will be written to the extent and for as long as one can write it, as best one can, until one can no longer do so. By immediately positing them as modes of writing, he makes `somehow' and `nohow' things; he substantivizes them and represents them as two points on a line, given as a beginning and an end between which the book will be written.

Later in the text, the terms in which Beckett has posed the problem become clearer: the word `blank', which makes its first appearance on p. 31, signals the distance that still remains to be covered, in order to attain the `nohow' which is so desired as an end (in all senses) of the text: `Blanks for nohow on. How long? Blanks how long till somehow on? Again somehow on. All gone when nohow on. Time gone when nohow on' (p. 31). That is, at the final `nohow', everything – or virtually everything – will have to have disappeared, including and in the first instance time: what is somehow said, as best one can, throughout the text is still of the order of the possible ± that is, of the order of time. When one can still act, it is because a future, even an immediate one, can still be envisaged. The point of `nohow', on the other hand, positing that there is nothing left to do, is not in time; it is the culmination of the worst. At this point, words too will have dis- appeared: `Try better worse another stare when with words than when not. When somehow than when nohow' (pp. 38–9). In the same way, the text's verbs are mainly employed in the infinitive and past participle, without the mobility of verbal `tenses'.

Worstward Ho is perhaps an ultimate, paradoxical, aporetic poetic art: trying everything, trying again, forging ahead as best one can, to the point where it is no longer possible, to the point of the `nohow' that resonates like a strange victory at the very end of the text, when the programme foreshadowed in the initial equation is repeated word for word: `Nohow less. Nohow worse. Nohow naught. Nohow on. Said nohow on' (p. 47).

Once these two modalities have been posited as the text's generative formula, Beckett states the first of the numerous rules that are going to punctuate Worstward Ho, each new rule being designated by the `from now' that fixes the syntactical or lexical conventions as we proceed: `Said for missaid' (p. 37). Thus henceforth, every time we encounter `said' we should read `missaid'. The law of `somehow' involves the necessity of an unstable text that fixes, at the very moment it is written, its own laws of functioning. It recounts nothing but its internal genesis; and it endlessly explains how and why it needs to be written in this particular form at each instant. We remain in the extraordinary double-bind of a rule that is always provisional and shaky, open to alteration at the very moment it is stated. And the initial resolution of sticking in the gap between the two modes of `how' is also that of sticking to a precarious position, in a permanent self- rectification, in an uncertainty that is itself only ever formulated on a provisional basis. The worst might never happen. It is not a question of retaining at any price a posture of rigour, the static imposition of a stylistic constraint, or a novel metaphysical position, but of accepting the inevitable shakiness of `somehow', which is likewise part of the worst in that it leads to its own problematization.

Better Worse

The most formalist is not necessarily the most disembodied. It is through the practice of form that the most acute experience of tragedy finds a decisive, radical and radically new form. If `said is missaid' en route to the worst, there is only one solution for `worse missaid': the position of generalized pejoration.

First operation: transform all idiomatic expressions in which `well', `good' and the like feature to pejorate them: `that will do just as badly', `for bad and all', and so forth. But the change of sign only pejorates the semantic and syntactical surface of the text and, if one likes, indicates the major lines of the project, which is efficient solely in being systematic and pushing to the utmost limit the very idea of the worst that is in play. To missay is to try to say the worst: you can only missay the worst if you want to give yourself a chance to say it, to make the worst to be said and words for the worst coincide, and hence to say the worst as badly as possible. Worstward Ho, assembling all earlier efforts, is a mechanism of ars combinatoria in the mathematical sense, since it attempts, on the basis of the minimum number of elements (the least also being the basis of its definition of the bad), all the operations and combinations that can syntactically be realized. For example: `Of all so far missaid the worse missaid. So far. Not till nohow worse missay say worse missaid' (pp. 35–6). The terminus of this line of reasoning is that it is necessary to fail to say the worst so as to remain within the order of the worst. To fail to say the worst is to provide the optimal statement of it. Becket thus supplies the rule of this novel game (and a strict interrogation of words is to be understood here): `That little better worse. Till words for worser still. Worse words for worser still' (p. 41).

Second operation: worsen the three quasi-narrative elements or figures. Beckett states them, enumerates them, and gives them a coding so as to designate them more simply on each occasion: `From now one for the kneeling one. As from now two for the twain . . . As from now three for the head' (p. 20). Thus we find them distinct, numbered, identified: one, a `bowed back'; two, a `twain' ­– an old man and a child, hand in hand; three, a `[h]ead sunk on crippled hands. Clenched staring eyes' (p. 13).

Through these three figures, we see the labour of literary objectification and materialization at work. The total absence of personal pronouns throughout the text is merely a rhetorical, superficial sign of Beckett's refusal to adhere to the conventions of literary subjectivism. The emphatic presence of the `head', by contrast, is its most refined expression: it is the materialized presence of a `worsened' subject, which, by means of this unprecedented provocation, has become a mere object. The `head' and its `some soft of mind' are not representations of a metaphysical subject, but mere objective images that themselves produce images. `Say a body. Where none. No mind,' Beckett had posited as a preliminary, in the opening lines of his text (p. 7).

To these three figures we must add a semblance of scenery: the dim and the void. To the question `Where now?' with which The Unnamable opens, Beckett now answers, as if modelling himself on the mysterious `back- grounds' of Manet's paintings, by asserting an empty, dark background against which his images stand out. Therewith he has found, it seems, the precise equivalent of the `thing' painted (according to him) by Bram Van Velde: `The immobile thing in the void – here at last is the visible thing, the pure object. I see no other.' The dim and the void are Beckett's response to the spatial conventions posited by the whole literary tradition as conditions of possibility of literature. These five elements are on course for the worst, between `somehow' and `nohow'.

Since the book is written in a striving for the `worse than worst', each formulation of its five worsenable objects is going to be repeatedly taken up, imperceptibly altered, broken down with rules stated in conformity with the coherence of the text, towards that melting into the night where the dim itself would disappear. Without unfolding the whole process of `worsening' of the five figures here, let us take the example of `two' ± the twain ± in its gradual metamorphoses. It makes its appearance on p. 12: `In the dim void bit by bit an old man and child . . . Hand in hand with equal plod they go . . . Slowly with never a pause plod on and never recede. Backs turned. Both bowed.' They reappear on p. 16: `Dim hair. Dim white and hair so fair that in the dim light dim white. Black greatcoats to heels. Dim black. Bootheels. Now the two right. Now the two left.'

We have hitherto been in the register of the `bad'. On p. 21 an initial comparative break is made. By a strict grammatical progression, we pass from `bad' to `worse': `A pox on bad. Mere bad. Way for worse. Pending worse still. First worse.' It is now a question of `failing better' by passing `from bad to worsen'. And to this end Beckett provides a decisive new rule for his definition of the worst: `Add? Never' (p. 21). Accordingly, he is now going to embark on a labour of subtraction and diminution: `The boots. Better worse bootless. Bare heels. Now the two right. Now the two left . . . Barefoot unreceding on. Better worse so' (p. 23).

With `back', Beckett indicates seven pages later that he is returning to `two': `That said on back to try worse say the plodding twain . . . Least worst failed of all the worse failed shades . . . And yet say first the worst perhaps worst of all the old man and child. Worst in need of worse' (pp. 30–31). This is another new step, because the comparative `worse' is abandoned for the superlatives `worst' and `the worst'. In passing, Beckett `unsays', as he does several times, an initial affirmation that proves false from the standpoint of the text's logic: `Here now held holding. As when first said. Ununsaid when worse said. Away. Held holding hands!' (p. 32). Inverting the process (`Ununsaid when worse said'), with the critical irony that accompanies each of his technical feats Beckett restores, in a double negative that renders it positive, the first formulation, which turns out to be best from the standpoint of the logic of the worst.

Having next stressed not the worst but the least (`So leastward on . . . To last unlessenable least how loath to leasten' [p. 33]), he undoes the twain but not conclusively, so as to retain a new possibility of worsening it: `Gone held holding hands they plod apart . . . Not worsen yet the rift. Save for some after nohow somehow worser on' (p. 34). And then he increases the void between the old man and the child: `Two once so one. From now rift a vast. Vast of void atween . . . That little better worse' (p. 41). In the final references to the twain, the three shadows merge, indistinct and alike: all three have become `[t]opless baseless hind-trunks. Legless plodding on' (p. 43).

James Knowlson has highlighted the fact that images of childhood recur in Beckett's texts, including the most obscure and abstract of them. The image of an old man and a child hand in hand, present in numerous texts in various forms, is one of those figures that Beckett has called `obsessional'. And we cannot resist seeing in it the moving, evanescent sketch of a final image of his father, a memory of childhood happiness, a trace in the memory of the old man that he has himself become. Through these polished forms Beckett also summons up what is most intimate and most hidden. The seemingly most mechanical variations of the `twain' are also the most pathetic: `Two once so one. From now rift a vast. Vast of void atween' is an evocation, in an incredible résumé, of the past closeness of father and child and the irreparable death of the father that has separated them, when the rending apart of their previously clasped hands has become irreversible. We also discover at the end that the upright body, and then bowed shadow (the worsened body), unidentifiable, is the pathetic one of a woman: `Nothing and yet a woman. Old and yet old. On unseen knees. Stooped as loving memory some old gravestones stoop. In that old graveyard. Names gone and when to when. Stoop mute over the graves of none' (p. 45).

Worstward Ho is also a virtually explicit synthesis of Beckett's formal questions and uncertainties. In it he explains his previous attempts, the solutions hit on in other books – in connection with the disposition of the body, for example: `No choice but stand . . . Somehow stand . . . Simply up. A time when try how. Try see. Try say. How first it lay. Then somehow knelt. Bit by bit . . . Till up at last. Not now. Fail better worse now' (p. 10). The same decision in favour of symmetrical austerity is made as regards place: `A place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now' (p. 11). Here Beckett relates how he tried in other texts to refer to something out of frame, a reality existing outside textual closure. But in Worstward Ho there are no longer any concessions to the ultimate conventions of literary realism, no longer things or places (there are still some objects at the beginning of the text ± boots and overcoat ± but they very rapidly disappear). Beckett accom- plishes his project of an absolutely self-sufficient writing, generating its own syntax, vocabulary, self-ordained grammar, even creating terms that re- spond exclusively to the logic of the pure space of the text: no more referents, no more attempts to imitate reality or provide an equivalent to it, no more direct links of transposition or description of the world – a text that is indebted solely to itself for the fact that it could be written.

A Poetic Art

The logic of the worst implies crossing, entangling, piling up all the comparatives in degressive order (strict, precise worsening is carried out with the comparatives of `bad' for the three shadows and with those of `less' for the dim and the void). In this respect, the prepositional economy of English allows for infinite construction and alliterative play that yield the most dishevelled forms and proliferating constructions –`best bad worse of all', `for want of worser worst', `unworseable worst', `unworsenable worst', `worse better later', `unmoreable unlessable unworseable evermost almost void' – and the recurrent form of the whole text, emblem of this oxymoronic universe: `How better worse so-missay?'.

These comparatives, which all strive for the inverted perfection of the aesthetic of lessness, yoked to this implacable logic, are suddenly con- fronted with the rule already stated above: `Add? Never' (p. 21). In the land of the worst, logically enough, one can only subtract, diminish. It is then no longer possible to integrate the little word `more' into a formulation that is admissible in terms of the rule of the worst. But what if `more' means `less', as in `more obscure' for example? Beckett raises the question, advances, circumvents grammatical obstacles and difficulties, and then states the law: `Back unsay better worse by no stretch more. If more dim less light then better worse more dim. Unsaid then better worse by no stretch more. Better worse may no less than less be more' (p. 37). As we can see, such a project involves an impeccable logic and coherence. And that is why Beckett, on the basis of his rules, never stops raising and circumventing all the contradictions, paradoxes and impossibilities generated by pejoration and failure. To state the bad as badly as possible in order to try extricate oneself from it, and make obsessive images of the worst disappear, is not unproblematic.

As has been said, the text operates by `backs' in order to worsen some particular formulation. Reflexivity and examination of the systematicity of the mechanism occupy a very great deal of space. The writing progresses to the beat of an astonishing play of questions and answers, of interrogation of the consistency of the text and the validity and effectiveness of the process. We might even imagine that it involves a kind of dialogue, a text with two voices, with questions and objections from an alter ego who is rather sick and tired, rather doubtful, and who chalks up all the errors and inconsistencies: `What? Yes'; `No mind and pain? Say yes' (pp. 8–9).

Among the logical objections that arise straightaway are those of place and time. These two founding instances of any literary narrative, referring at once to the text's field and what is out of frame, are subject to constant alterations that emerge like second thoughts whenever it is necessary to make concessions to grammatical and referential order. One cannot advance the hypothesis of an absolute independence of the text with respect to the world, grammar and literary convention. One can simply propose, because one wishes to aim for it, the `minimal minimum' before the disappearance of words and meaning. As early as p. 11, the description of place is problematic: `A place. Where none . . . Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none. Whither once no return. No. No place but the one . . . Whence never once in . . . Beyond less. Thence less there' (pp. 11–12). Formulating the objection to himself (to enter one place it is necessary to leave another and envisage positing at least two places, including something out of frame, not in question in our constraints), Beckett explains the rule, which is essential, of his project's independence (no beyond or beneath, no transcendence or reference to the world). Time, defined at the outset as `[a]ll of old. Nothing else ever' (p. 7), raises precisely the same deductive problem of a time transcending the pastless present of writing: `No once. No once in the pastless now. No not none. When before worse the shades? The dim before more? When if not once?' (p. 38).

`From now', `so far', `later', `now' only explain and articulate the internal time of the text, the chronological unfolding of its formation, its autonomous conditions of possibility. In contrast, the `least minimal minimum' known of time, of place, of elements to worsen, necessarily implies something beyond the text that Beckett seeks to diminish solely so as to proceed in the direction of the worst. It is the irreducible residue of a referent, even when completely disembodied, even when reduced to its logical structure (the void, for example), which Beckett tries to get round by `somehow'. Thus, from defeats to concessions the way of `better missaying' is imperceptibly altered. For example, examination of `least' leads to a semi-defeat, resignation to an irreducible minimum that will henceforth have to be integrated into the rules: `Least never to be naught. Never to naught be brought. Never by naught be nulled. Unnullable least. Say that best worst. With leastening words say least best worse. For want of worser worst. Unlessenable least best worst' (p. 32). It is this irreducible residue that Beckett desperately tries to circumvent, sidestep, coax into arriving at all costs at `nohow'.

But there are some residues before which one must resolve to surrender: these are the three elements that resist both worsening and disappearing (and the progression of the text is also the disclosure of a strange powerlessness in the face of them).

The void first of all. The law of its immutability is stated very early on: `The void. Unchanging. Say now unchanging . . . The void. How try say? How try fail? No try no fail' (p. 17). But he makes a few attempts: `That narrow field. Know no more. See no more. Say no more. That alone. That little much of void alone' (p. 18); `Unworsenable void. Never less. Never more. Never since first said never unsaid never worse said' (p. 42). Only to conclude in irritation at the end of the text: `A pox on void. Unmoreable unlessable unworseable evermost almost void' (pp. 42–3).

Next, the dim. Beckett tries to worsen it in the sense of darkness, but it resists any metamorphosis. It gives rise to some virtuoso comparative variations that nevertheless fail: `Dim undimmed. Or dimmed to dimmer still. To dimmost dim. Leastmost in dimmost dim. Utmost dim. Leastmost in utmost dim. Unworsenable worst' (p. 33).

Finally, the head, aporia of aporias, observed and observing, `scene and seer of all' (p. 23). The head is the only element in the text that must necessarily, desperately be both within and without, in the text and outside it: the head that says, that sees, that forms images, sees its head in its head and very rapidly – paradox of infinite inter-locking – is confronted with the impossibility of making itself disappear without erasing the text along with it. Of the three `shades', the head is the one that Beckett most tortures, disfigures, scars, gradually reducing it to its most salient features (`stares' for the eyes). It is the very mark of the text's reflection on itself and its conditions of possibility. Reduplication under- scores the logical contradiction. The first formulation of it is to be found on p. 10: `Head sunk on crippled hands. Vertex vertical. Eyes clenched. Seat of all. Germ of all.' The setting and ordering imply that the head is at once a shadow on the stage and an element on course for the worst: a spectator (`clenched staring eyes' [p. 13]) before which stand the twain, the bowed one, the void, and the dim (`same narrow void. Before the staring eyes' [p. 19]); and, finally, matrix of all that (and of itself). The head is the begetter begotten: `On back better worse to fail the head said seat of all. Germ of all. All? If of all of it too. Where if not there it too? There in the sunken head the sunken head' (pp. 18–19). This is proof that Beckett pushes the coherence of his project to the point of raising in his text the issue of his own presence-absence; he incorporates into his `setting' the hand that writes and the head that thinks, supplying a kind of self-portrait in action. It is a disenchanted, prosaic self-portrait of the writer refusing the presuppositions of consciousness to the extent that he objectifies himself as manufacturing images in his own images ± that is, by placing himself in the painting, like Velazquez representing himself painting in the background of Las Meninas. He is the painter and the subject of the painting, represented and representing, `scene and seer of all'. In connection with the `centre' of this painting, at the beginning of The Order of Things Michel Foucault enumerates what he calls the `three ``observing'' functions' that we find in Worstward Ho: `In it [the centre] there occurs an exact superimposition of the model's gaze as it is being painted, of the spectator's as he contemplates the painting, and of the painter's as he is composing the picture'. `The entire picture,' Foucault writes, `is looking out at a scene for which it is itself the scene.'

As a result, in the game of the worst `that head in that head' is going to be devalued into a `sunken skull' (p. 22); the `clenched staring eyes' will lose their eyelids; and the `remains of mind' (p. 29) gradually disintegrate into `some soft of mind' which `oozes' (p. 33). As in the Vanities metaphorically representing death in the privileged form of a skull, Beckett worsens the head to the point of making it a single black hole: `One dim black hole mid-foreskull. Into the hell of all. Out of the hell of all' (p. 44). This is the `what little left' (p. 46) that makes it possible to conclude and reach the point where one can no longer advance (`nohow'); the residue of mind that remains for saying that one has come as close as possible to the dissolution of meaning, but that in still saying it – even to the minimum extent possible ± one is not quite there yet. On several occasions in the text we find an interrogation, logical and insoluble in the objectivist system set in place by Beckett, of the origin of words: `Whose words? Ask in vain' (p. 19); and later: `Worsening words whose unknown . . . Now for to say as worst they may only they only they . . . Nothing save what they say' (p. 29). Alternatively put, the task laid down in the first paragraph of acceding to the worst from `somehow' to `nohow' is also that of proceeding from words to their disappearance via the gradual withdrawal of meaning. In the order of lessness – that is, the `nearly unseen' and the `nearly unsaid' – what words say cannot be completely eliminated; it is impossible not to know anything (`[t]oo much to hope' [p. 9]), but it is possible to know `[e]nough to know no knowing' (p. 30).

Worstward Ho originates in an utterly coherent aesthetic programme, which at the outset posits its end (term) as its end (goal): what counts at the end, in the endgame, is not the disappearance, the final failure of the text, but instead a project that determines its end once the rule, the algorithm, has exhausted all its possibilities. The last words, repeated from the programme clearly announced at the beginning (`Said nohow on') resonate like a cry of victory: the success of the worst of failures.

The equation stated and solved by Worstward Ho therefore provides (strict) irrefutable proof of a formidable formal ambition, without precedent in the history of literature, of a logical, combinatory option in the service of a new literary form. Worstward Ho is not the evocation of a nihilistic stance or the representation of ontological tragedy, but a kind of ultimate poetic art: Beckett delivers his theory of literary abstraction in practice and elaborates an abstract text at the very point when he explains how he writes it.

It is possibly also a literary testament of sorts, discreet, disclaimed, tacit: the assertion of an aesthetic revolution with which Beckett has never been credited. But it would be too easy to reduce his set of discoveries to a pure formalism: the search for the appropriate road to abstract art in literature led him not only to alter the forms of organization of the text, but to undermine the foundations of literature. His mere problematization of the subject, of psychological interiority, or of the imagination disclosed, possibly for the first time in the history of forms (at all events, with such demonstrative power), that literature rests entirely on the presuppositions of the philosophy of the subject. By means of a simple displacement, Beckett denounces the taken-for-granted realist assumptions on which the whole literary edifice is based.

With Worstward Ho Beckett created a pure object of language, which is totally autonomous since it refers to nothing but itself. As if it was working towards a black hole from which there could issue no trace of representation, no form that might recall, even vaguely, a body . . . Without a subject, without scenery, standing out on a black (dim), empty back- ground, freed from any temporal or spatial reference-points, the images of Worstward Ho inaugurate abstract literature: they are headed towards a working drawing of abstraction or darkness.