A man lies on his back in the dark. If we meditate on this image, it conjures up various representations that seem to arise naturally, but that owe more than we realize to various strands in the Western religious and cultural heritage. One of the ideas that will occur to us is that God may lie hidden somewhere in the depth of this dark. One does not need to be mystically inclined for such a thought to occur. It is a notion so deeply lodged in our tradition that it can be seen as a facile cliché, which may devalue such lines as T. S. Eliot’s: ‘And let the dark come upon you/Which shall be the darkness of God’ (‘East Coker’ III). What Beckett does in Company and elsewhere is to parade such clichés, affecting scorn for them, yet paradoxically allowing them to resonate and to recover some of their dormant power.
The dark is a major dimension of Beckett’s imaginative world. It is a visual, physical dark, not an abstract metaphysical obscurity or a metaphorical spiritual darkness. As Junko Matoba shows, the dark area in the late plays is ‘not just a normal theatrical blackout, but a darkness of a different order’ (2000:31) – not only as carrying metaphysical or spiritual significance, but also as having a qualitatively different visual and physical impact. Matoba compares this handling of the dark to the use of blank spaces in Chinese and Japanese art. She suggests that this dark conjures up, or gives body to, Buddhist emptiness.
Beckett is well aware of the theological suggestiveness of the image on which Company is based, ‘the proposition’ (8) that is the germ of the entire textual performance: ‘A voice comes to one in the dark’ (7). The first elaboration, or fuller ‘imagining’ of this is: ‘To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past’ (8). The ‘voice’ itself is a theologically charged image, recalling above all the voice of God in Exodus, speaking to Moses from the burning bush (Exod. 3.4) or from the dark cloud (Exod. 19.9). The situation could also be taken as a parody of the way prophets are addressed by a divine voice: ‘The word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou?’ (Jer. 1.11); the book of Jeremiah was on Beckett’s mind as he wrote this text (see Brater, 130). Company raises theological associations without confirming them, or even explicitly denying them, yet they nonetheless lodge themselves in the reader’s awareness. Even an interpretation only fleetingly entertained can add to the harmonics of a text. Even common words like ‘hope’ and ‘despair’ (20, 22, 34, 42, 62) carry theological potential. Though the situation Company imagines and reasons about is defined exclusively on its own narrow terms, it nonetheless resonates with traditional and contemporary discourses about the human condition, those of religion, philosophy and psychoanalysis. The construction of an inconsequential fiction parodies these more grandiose enterprises, and in doing so it seems itself to take on grandiose significance.
The problematic that the text explicitly stages is that of the act of writing or ‘imagining’ itself; this act is the core of Beckett’s personal religion. The penumbra of theological implications spreads out around this, but is not allowed to develop an autonomous substantiality independent of the explicit puzzles of the imagined situation. Thus the text enacts an exploration which is sui generis, neither religious nor psychoanalytical nor philosophical. In giving writing an import comparable to that of religion or psychoanalysis, Beckett short-circuits the more direct addressing of the riddles of existence in the great modernists. He is composing an opaque hieroglyphic, but he is not dabbling in symbolism. The apparent triviality of a text that seems to be about nothing but the problems of its own composition shocks the reader into confronting language as language rather than merely as a window on reality. Each word is presented as a problem to be analysed; and each word keeps recurring for further analysis – the non-recurrent words – ‘saltation’ (43), ‘repent amble’ (68), ‘philoprogenitiveness’ (71), ‘rectigrade’ (74), etc. – stick out by their strangeness, take on a dramatic impact, as if secreting in themselves the entire enigmatic opacity of language. Thus the writing makes us ‘undergo an experience with language’ (Heidegger, 159) as we listen intently to what is being said, sensing its momentousness, though aware also of the exasperating inconsequentiality of the surface meaning, a combination that climaxes in the long analysis of the movement of the hands on a watch (80-3). Language reproduces all the bother and frustration of life, but in a medium that leaves room for the lucid, creative intervention of the writer. The difference between Beckett and other writers is that instead of using the freedom of composition to create a compensatory fulness he uses it to refine and sharpen the experience of emptiness which life's deficiencies point to. Words are shaped into a ‘form’ revelatory of ‘emptiness’, to use the terms of the Heart Sutra.
Beckett’s style advances painfully, making us feel the recalcitrance of speech, the breakdown of its naming function before that which constantly withdraws before its advance. He provides the comic spectacle of a man fumbling with words, unable to get to the end of a sentence, baffled by the endless difficulty of getting said even the simplest thing. This reveals the enigma of language much as a gloriously penned Chinese character confronts us with the silent majesty of the word, which seems to mean so much more than it says. Moreover, the writer's performance serves as a cipher of irresoluble metaphysical dilemmas. Its excruciating quandaries resonate with the intimate questionability of existence, never in an obvious allegory, but obliquely, elusively, and all the more tellingly for that. The text never gets written because human beings never manage to be; their very inability to be is the mark of their existence, as the very stamp of a Beckett text is its inability to attain rounded articulation. Each of his texts is a dramatic scenario, culminating not in some masterful statement but in a huge gap where the statement should be; what has been dramatized is the impossibility of making the statement.
Through a sprinkling of subtle allusions, Beckett brings into play the other ‘darks’ and the other ‘voices’ of the tradition, from Milton, Dante, Kant. When the protagonist’s memories bring ‘visions in the dark of light’ (84), the religious dimensions of this image again come into play, with allusions to Wordsworth. The echoes of Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth recall the school curriculum, the texts Beckett would have memorized as a boy. The ‘father’s shade’, which accompanies the protagonist for a time after his father’s death, recalls Anchises, whom Aeneas encounters in Hades in another common school text, Aeneid VI. It also recalls the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet, in the wake of Montaigne, mirrors the theological crisis of the sixteenth century in the ‘reason-ridden’ (45) imaginings of its protagonist, and is a major predecessor text for Company.
The father’s ghost evokes purgatory, and the hearer’s situation is a limbo; allusions to Milton's hell, Dante’s hell and purgatory, and Beckett’s own infernal scenario The Lost Ones enrich our sense of the strange posthumous place that the text invents and explores: ‘darkness visible’ (24) is from Milton: ‘No light, but rather darkness visible/Served only to discover sights of woe...’ (Paradise Lost I 63-4); ‘In its trembling shade’ (66), recalls Dante, nell'aura che trema (Inferno IV 150). Note that some allusions double as references to their previous occurrences in Beckett’s own oeuvre. Belacqua, from Purgatorio IV 106-135, has figured as Beckett’s alter ego from his earliest writings. His final appearance at the end of Company, ‘the old lutist cause of Dante’s first quarter-smile’ (85) echoes his most recent one in The Lost Ones, ‘sitting for the most part against the wall in the attitude which wrung from Dante one of his rare wan smiles’ (CSP 205).
The text seems to fall into five distinct phases, each containing three of the biographical paragraphs, which I shall call ‘flashbacks’, spoken in the second person by the ‘voice’ to the hearer. I shall comment on each phase in turn, focusing on the theological overtones.
Phase I: The Initial Situation (paragraphs 1-10).
The hearer, lying on his back, attempts to verify what the voice says to him: ‘Only a small part of what is said can be verified’ (7) – the same epistemological problem faced by Hamlet in checking the ghost’s story. In both cases the implication of the doubt spreads beyond its immediate context, suggesting a theological allegory. Like Beckett’s hearer, Western man, at the end-point of an exhausted tradition, listens to the religious voices of the past and checks them skeptically.
We soon encounter a third instance besides the hearer and the voice: ‘in another dark or in the same another devising it all for company. Quick leave him’ (8). Speculation about the deviser, ‘that cankerous other’ (9), will prevail increasingly as the text proceeds. It echoes the conundrums of Western philosophical theology. Of course the deviser is a projection of the author, the merely human inventor of the text. Yet his appearance within the text is analogous to the presence of God within his creation, and from the first his presence is enshrouded in mystery, as an unthinkable ultimate. The riddle of the deviser’s identity is the central neuralgic point of the text, causing increasing bewilderment, which eventually builds to a frenzy.
The flashbacks to the past punctuate the text like windows opening on a dark room (though ‘the place is windowless’  where the hearer lies, like a Leibnizian monad). But these epiphanal scenes are themselves pervaded by the doubt and questioning that has become the element in which the hearer lives. The ‘small boy’ of the first one is already an anxious questioner: ‘Looking up at the blue sky and then at your mother’s face you break the silence asking her if it is not in reality much more distant than it appears. The sky that is. The blue sky’ (12-13). The boy’s hantise de l’azur carries theological resonance, as an inchoate reflection on the distance of God. Throughout the text human faces are an elusive emblem of this distance: the pronoun ‘it’ is so placed that at first it seems to refer to the mother's face. Awareness of the mother’s distance is displaced onto the sky, and the child’s question probes deeper than he realizes, as an accusation of or demand on the mother, in response to which ‘she shook off your little hand and made you a cutting retort you have never forgotten’ (13). The mother’s distant face contrasts with ‘the loved trusted face’ (21) of the father, and with that of the beloved: ‘a moment later that seems an eternity her face appears at the window’ (56), both now lost. The phrase ‘hand in hand’ (12) echoes the same phrase in Paradise Lost IV 321, XII 648, where it is a motif of the communion between Adam and Eve. When the mother shakes off his little hand he is cast out from paradise. The hearer's suspicion of the voice is subliminally connected with his broken trust in the mother.
The text begins its treacherous career of self-emendation when it undertakes to correct the hearer’s faulty reasonings: ‘So with what reason remains he reasons and reasons ill… Were it not of him to whom it is speaking speaking but of another it would not speak in the second person but in the third… It is clear therefore that if it is not to him the voice is speaking but to another it is not of him either but of that other and none other to that other’ (14-15). It is not the hearer whom he has imagined but the deviser himself who is responsible for the confusion, and his admirable clarification is advanced in language that is likely to baffle the reader. The comedy of the diction could be directed at logicians, grammarians, lawyers or theologians. It shows the deviser firmly, cockily in control of his creature, the hearer. But this assurance masks a deeper insecurity, concerning the status of the deviser himself. Pedantic expertise goes hand in hand with radical disorientation.
The third flashback shows an aged wanderer: ‘You halt with bowed head on the verge of the ditch... Halted too at your elbow during these computations your father’s shade... Finally on side by side from nought anew’ (18-19). These images have a long pre-history in Beckett’s writing. Company can be seen as ‘a kind of cryptic memorial to all the texts that have gone before’, the chain of associations from text to text reflecting ‘a buried world of unconscious fantasy’ (Hill, 160, 34). The writer works on this material in the cogitations that fill the framing narrative surrounding these emblems. The objects associated with the father – staff, greatcoat, etc. – are fetishes clung to in order to assuage the trauma which has placed the self in a state of irremediable alienation, a state felt to have begun at birth, figured as expulsion or excretion into a world in which one has no natural place. The father himself, or his ‘shade’ is a fetish, summoned up as company in a narcissistic fusion: ‘And this evening again it seems to be working, I’m in my arms, I’m holding myself in my arms, without much tenderness, but faithfully, faithfully’ (CSP 103-4).
The space of the framing narrative is a sterile and controlled one, like a psychanalyst’s office or a confessional. The silence that surrounds what goes on there allows each sentence to resonate with a suggestive power in excess of its explicit content, as in a psychoanalytical session. ‘The central fact of psychoanalysis – from the analyst’s side at least – is the fact of this silence... While the patient is speaking, the analyst’s silent attention is the necessary other (or unconscious) which the patient is “racked” by and “in search of” – towards which the patient's words can be said to be “en route”. The patient's words thus form a sort of ceaseless commentary on the silence of the analyst... The patient carries out his search by way of the detour of the pronoun “you”’ (Gunn, 216-17). The search shared by hearer, deviser and reader consists in a painful exposure to vacuity and silence. Or perhaps the mood is best described as one of mourning and elegy. The game the texts play is rather like that of the child observed by Freud who dealt with the anxiety caused by his mother’s absences by making a little bobbin disappear (Fort!) and reappear (Da!). Beckett sets up imagined figures who are dying bit by bit interminably in a confined space. The problems of creating and sustaining these figurines become associated eerily with the basic problems of human living and dying. The labour of composition and imagination is as an assertion of life and meaning – the Da! of Freud’s infant – and the falling to pieces of these efforts is an enactment of failure, futility, death, corresponding to the child's Fort! and having the same function of self-therapy.
‘Silence’ and ‘listening’ could have associations with a divine presence. The hearer, mourning for vanished company, projects a comforting hearer, a residue of God. The text dismisses such a possibility, yet in raising it again and again it explores the space of religious attention. It is rather as if one were to write love poems to a non-existent beloved.
Phase II: The Deviser Contemplates Improvements (paragraphs 11-25)
The text now focuses attention on the voice, with more detail on its location, direction and tone. The voice’s recurrent phrase ‘you first saw the light’ (8, 10, 14, 15) acquires a more explicitly religious overtone when it becomes: ‘You first saw the light at Easter’; but the anticlimax that follows is all the more disheartening: ‘and now. Then a murmur in his ear, You are on your back in the dark’ (19-20). Indeed, ‘Easter’ turns out to mean Good Friday: ‘You first saw the light of day the day Christ died’ (20), as if the hearer were born to spend his life buried in the tomb. The superimposition of the dead Christ on the scenario lends a further layer of indeterminable religious suggestiveness to the figure of the man on his back in the dark.
A new restlessness arises as alterations are contemplated to the scenario as thus far imagined. The first such suggestion is that the hearer might respond to the voice: ‘What an addition to company that would be! A voice in the first person singular’ (20-1). But this improvement will never be enacted. For the hearer to say ‘I’ would be a lie. ‘The road is blocked into the personal pronoun with which language would open its gates to the formation of a human (desiring) subject’ (Gunn, 67). The self relates to its past personae as comforting memory-fragments, relics for elegiac musing, but does not assume them in a project of self-creation.
The fourth flashback presents an old beggar woman, half blind, fumbling at the gate of the house of another woman who is ‘stone deaf and not in her right mind’ (21). Yet in this world of miserably failing communication, it is the blind woman who communicates touchingly with the hearer: ‘She blesses you. What were her words? God reward you little master. Some such words. God save you little master’ (21-22). Like the father’s ‘far call’, ‘Be a brave boy’ (23, 24), these encouraging words from the past become a kind of viaticum to the hearer, a promise of hope.
Another amendment to the scenario might be to tamper with the silence and the dark by introducing the occasional sound and a dim light: ‘That were perhaps better company. For what odd sound? Whence the shadowy light?’ (23). The sound might be that of ‘some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more’ (24). Movement of the hand or eye of the hearer is envisaged as a further improvement (26-7) and again the idea of having him speak is toyed with. Intervening on these cogitations, the sixth flashback, a childhood suicide attempt, speaks of the underlying trauma which the inventions of the deviser are dealing with. The suggested improvement concern stirrings of life, but they are overruled by the movement of entropy governing the Beckett persona, the death-drive that prevents him from affirming himself as ‘I’.
‘What with what feeling remains does he feel about now as compared to then? When with what judgment remained he judged his condition final. As well inquire what he felt then about then as compared to before. When he still moved or tarried in remains of light!’ (29). Entropy has erased any ‘felt’ connection with the past, yet the last phrase here conveys an elegiac pathos denied on the surface. It recalls the light-imagery of Wordsworth ‘Immortality Ode’. The elegiac cry of that poem: ‘Whither is fled the transitory gleam?’ echoes in Beckett’s writing, but in a stifled, repressed way. The association of east with the light and west with death again recalls the theme of the Ode: ‘The Youth who daily farther from the East/Must travel’. The biographical flashbacks are confined within a radius of one league (three miles) from home (85), between the sea on the east and the mountains on the west. The boy walks westward in the first of them; the room in which he is born looks west (15). In the later flashbacks west dominates more and more. This trajectory resembles that of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. ‘The white pasture afrolic with lambs in spring and strewn with red placentae’ (48) may again echo the Ode: ‘while the young lambs bound/As to the tabor’s sound’. Even the framing narrative recalls the Ode’s ‘Blank misgivings of a Creature/Moving about in worlds not realised’.
Phase III: The Deviser Turns on Himself (paragraphs 26-33)
Another phase of the narration begins when the question of the deviser’s identity is at last confronted: ‘In another dark or in the same another devising it all for company. This at first sight seems clear. But as the eye dwells it grows obscure. Indeed the longer the eye dwells the obscurer it grows. Till the eye closes and freed from pore the mind inquires, What does this mean? What finally does this mean that at first sight seemed clear? Till it the mind too closes as it were. As the window might close of a dark empty room’ (29-30). Here is a parody of a Platonic ascent from sense knowledge to mental insight to a dimension beyond mind, an ascent into perfect darkness. But the bliss of mystical unknowing is not granted: ‘Pangs of faint light and stirrings still. Unformulable gropings of the mind. Unstillable’ (30). ‘For why or? Why in another dark or in the same? And whose voice asking this? Who asks, Whose voice asking this? And answers, His soever who devises it all’ (32). The questions that trouble the hearer’s – or rather the deviser’s – mental peace are a parody of the metaphysical constructions of God as ‘unmoved mover’ (Aristotle) or causa sui (Spinoza). The deviser indeed devises himself, but that is more a mark of his arbitrary, shoddy half-existence than of any rational impregnability of the divine. Far from being an unmoved mover, he wobbles clumsily. ‘“Creature”, “creator”, the coined phrase “His soever” and most particularly, for all its derisive jingle, the term “devised deviser”  all point to an old theological debate, the argument from ultimate causes, which St Thomas Aquinas derived from Aristotle… For Beckett, the argument splits, fragments, stops short’ (Long, 147).
Deviser as speaker has split himself from deviser as object spoken of, and deviser as speaker is himself objectified in his own speaking. The regress threatens to be infinite: ‘Who asks in the end, Who asks? And in the end answers as above? And adds long after to himself, Unless another still. Nowhere to be found. Nowhere to be sought. The unthinkable last of all. Unnamable. Last person. I. Quick leave him’ (32). These ‘self-conscious discursive comments on the story which challenge or modify the terms of the text’ proliferate from this point on. ‘The result of these two oscillating regimes of speech, the one inventing stories and the other calling narrative into question, is to undo the unity of the narrating voice’ (Hill, 74). The deviser, up to now an authoritative narrator, becomes himself the principal character, subject to altering and duplication in a potentially uncontrollable process. The text tries to call this process to a decisive halt: ‘Deviser of the voice and of its hearer and of himself. Deviser of himself for company. Leave it at that’ (34). But to resign oneself to ‘confusion’ is no happy resting-place either: ‘Better hope deferred than none. Up to a point. Till the heart starts to sicken. Company too up to a point. Better a sick heart than none. Till it starts to break’ (34). The allusion to Proverbs 13.12, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick’, doubles as an echo of Waiting for Godot: ‘hope deferred maketh the something sick’ (CDW 12).
Soon imagination becomes restless again, reminding itself that it has yet to imagine in what dark and in what position the deviser is: ‘which of all imaginable positions has the most to offer in the way of company. And similarly for the other matters yet to be imagined. Such as if such decisions irreversible’ (35). This last phrase introduces the dizzying idea that the basic rules of the narrative game are themselves open to alteration, even perhaps the basic criterion of good and bad rules, their value for the creation of company.
Phase III ends with the last of the childhood flashbacks, which tells once again of thwarted communication: ‘You take pity on a hedgehog’ (38); ‘Kneeling at your bedside you included it the hedgehog in your detailed prayer to God to bless all you loved’ (40). This ends in disaster: ‘You are on your back in the dark and have never forgotten what you found then. The mush. The stench’ (41). The phrase ‘you have never forgotten’ was also used for another trauma, the mother’s ‘cutting retort’ (13). Rather than bring the blessing of Proustian involuntary memory, the voice insists on what has never been forgotten. A short story in itself, the hedgehog episode corresponds well with the desperately unimprovable position of the hearer as thus far imagined.
Phase IV: A Radical Crisis of Imagining (paragraphs 34-48)
Now the entire imaginative scenario is put in question, inaugurating a new phase of the narrative: ‘Impending for some time the following. Need for company not continuous. Moments when his own unrelieved a relief. Intrusion of voice at such. Similarly image of hearer. Similarly his own. Regret then at having brought them about and problem how dispel them’ (41-42). The basic rule of the construction was the optimization of company, but now the value of company is relativized; it even threatens to become oppressive. From this point on the deconstruction of company begins, leading to the final ‘Alone’ (89). This might remind one of Genesis 6.6: ‘And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart’. The hearer, the place where he lies, the deviser and the voice are successively reviewed in the following four paragraphs, without any advance on the preceding. The voice is now imagined saying ‘You were born on an Easter Friday after long labour’ (46-7) and there is a dark echo of Shakespeare’s ‘It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath’: ‘As best to erode the drop must strike unwavering. Upon the place beneath’ (47). Portia’s discourse is subverted by a glancing intertextual thrust. The ensuing flashback is the longest yet, and does indeed have this insistent, wearying impact. The same is true of the obsessive counting in the following, even longer flashback, the first evoking the ‘bloom of adulthood’ (53): ‘Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble’ (54). This flashback attains a note of serene bliss: ‘In that rainbow light. That dead still’ (59).
A new pitch of crisis is marked by the ensuing general collapse: ‘Wearied by such stretch of imagination he ceases and all ceases’ (59). (The ‘stretch’ here alludes to the cogitations preceding the two flashbacks.) This dead point of exhaustion reveals the flimsiness of the constructive imagination. The literary imagination has been the last resource of modern humanity for imposing order and meaning on a world which has lost its religious, philosophical and ideological frameworks and finds itself increasingly consumed by a technological order which itself is becoming splintered and rudderless. Now this imagination, so confident in the era of Romanticism, has reached its last gasp, and with its failure all fails. The desolation of the protagonist is associated with the desolation of the human race: ‘There in the same dark as his creature he leaves himself to these perplexities while wondering as every now and then he wonders in the back of his mind if the woes of the world are all they used to be. In his day’ (61).
Yet the deviser starts again. Slowly and carefully he resumes the conditions of the imagining as worked out up to now, deciding to call the hearer M and himself W. This attempt at stability crumbles as he looks at it more critically: ‘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’ (63). The unnameability of M recalls the novel The Unnameable, where the impossibility of naming the subject recalls the debates in apophatic theology about the name or namelessness of God.
Panic grows as the repressed division of the deviser resurfaces: ‘Yet another then. Of whom nothing. Devising figments to temper his nothingness. Quick leave him. Pause and again in panic to himself, Quick leave him’ (64). He turns away from the devising deviser to imagine improvements of the devised deviser. A creative fiat of some consequence licences a movement of the deviser, now permitted to crawl: ‘Then let him move. Within reason. On all fours’ (64). The degradation of the deviser to a crawling figure could recall the degradation of Satan in Paradise Lost X 514: ‘A monstrous serpent on his belly prone’. Milton’s Satan was one of the heroes of the Romantic imagination (a model for Blake, Byron’s Cain, Shelley’s Prometheus, even Keats’ Hyperion); Beckett follows this figure to its final degradation, which images the degraded status of imagination as a source of futility and deceit.
Phase V: The Final Crawl (paragraphs 49-59)
In pathetic contrast with the romantic twelfth flashback we come back to the deviser's increasingly undignified efforts to keep himself company: ‘Crawling again and falling again. If this finally no improvement on nothing he can always fall for good. Or have never risen to his knees’ (67).The deviser is trapped in his fiction as Milton’s Satan is trapped in his futile combat with omnipotence; hence the appropriateness of the Miltonic jargon of creator and creature, both trapped in the dark. Yet because it is fiction, it can always be made not to have happened. The mathematics of the crawl are painfully worked out, an imaginary continuation of the career of the walker evoked by the voice. But ‘crawl as he will no bourne as yet. As yet imaginable. Hand knee hand knee as he will. Bourneless dark’ (69). The deviser’s inability to imagine the end of his fiction emblematizes the unfigurability of death, ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourne/No traveller returns’. Except that the quandary is more radical than Hamlet’s because there is no bourne in sight.
Back to the hearer, whose various senses are considered, including the possibility of allowing him to hear or to smell and be smelled by his creator. The theological overtones are strongest in the conclusion of this section: ‘Some sixth sense? Inexplicable premonition of impending ill? Yes or no? No. Pure reason? Beyond experience. God is love? Yes or no? No’ (73). In stopping off the concrete deliveries of the senses, as well as of reason and divine revelation, Beckett's satirical intimation is that he is revealing the naked core of human existence. The review of various modes of privileged cognition imagined by philosophers and theologians reduces them to suspect shortcuts.
The ‘crawling creator crawling in the same create dark as his creature’ (73) suggests a parody of God’s creation of Adam, or his generation of the eternal Son. For the adjective ‘create’ is derived from the Miltonic ‘increate’, as in ‘Bright effluence of bright essence increate’ (Paradise Lost III 5), referring to the eternal light streaming from God. ‘Crawling in the dark in the way described was too serious a matter and too all-engrossing to permit of any other business were it only the conjuring of something out of nothing’ (74). Here what sounds like a theological discussion concerns in reality only the physical arrangements that have to be made for the deviser, who has not been able to maintain his purity as transcendental self. The enigma of the deviser's identity has dissolved into purely physical imaginings. After a flashback in which the wanderer has come to a halt, the deviser too is tempted to come to a halt: ‘Why not just lie in the dark with closed eyes and give up? Give up all. Have done with all. With bootless crawl and figments comfortless’ (76-7). It is the ‘craving for company’ (77) that revives him, a residual, delusive avatar of the craving for the divine presence, or more concretely for a capacity to identify with the dying or dead Christ, which would make paralysis and depression easier to bear: ‘The need to hear that voice again. If only saying again, You are on your back in the dark. Or if only, You first saw the light and cried at the close of the day when in darkness Christ at the ninth hour cried and died’ (77). The reference to Christ at this pitch of desolation suggests that Beckett’s preoccupation with Jeremiah, mentioned earlier, had to do with the Lamentations of Jeremiah used in Holy Week: ‘He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light… He hath set me in dark places… He hath hedged me about, that I cannot get out’ (Lam. 3.2, 6-7).
The penultimate flashback, in which the mathematical calculations reach an extreme as the now immobile wanderer studies the movement of the hands on the watch, again associates his agony with that of the human race: ‘numb with the woes of your kind’ (80). Beckett might claim to be a prophetic witness to the woes of the race, creating a sequence of emblems of the varieties of Angst afflicting post-war Europe. The futile study of the watch’s hands and the rhythm of their motion is a relief from this consciousness of agony, as is the game of composing his literary worlds, but the agony seeps in: ‘unable to continue you bow your head back to where it was and with closed eyes return to the woes of your kind’ (83).
The deviser’s last appearance shows him stuck in his quandary: ‘What visions in the dark of light! Who exclaims thus? Who asks who exclaims, What visions in the shadeless dark of light and shade! Yet another still? Devising it all for company. What a further addition to company that would be. Yet another still devising it all for company. Quick leave him’ (84). Here we see the slippage from transcendental to empirical becoming an infinite regress: at first the empirical hearer was clearly distinguished from the transcendental deviser; then the deviser, ceasing to be a lofty third person voice, become an empirical or objectified presentation of the self, increasingly physical, to the point of crawling and smelling, and the narrative presenter of this crawling deviser assumed the transcendental role; now it appears that this presenter is himself materializing as yet another empirical ego. This final portion of the framing narrative names once more the central enigma of the piece, that of the deviser's ultimate identity. But the question is left unanswered, it juts out as a precipice. The last flashback brings the wanderer to his final halt: ‘Huddled thus you find yourself imagining you are not alone while knowing full well that nothing has occurred to make this possible. The process continues none the less lapped as it were in its meaninglessness’ (86). (The last sentence is perhaps too direct, breaking the poetic spell of the text.)
Till finally you hear how words are coming to an end. With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one with you in the dark. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you always were.
This final ‘Alone’ is not a dramatic collapse, for the deviser has never ceased to be alone, and the trajectory mapped by the flashbacks converges logically on this final solitude. Is this a downbeat ending, a sigh of exhaustion? Or is there a sense that the labour lost of composition has made the silence deeper, even richer? It abolishes the infinite chain of devisers by accepting the identity of hearer, deviser and voice as aspects of the fabling self. The multiplication of devisers is the result of language; when language ceases the self will return to its solitude. This is still in the future; the task of composition is not abandoned; its end is only proleptically envisaged. The present work has perhaps whittled away some possibilities of creation which can no longer be used; at each stage in his trajectory Beckett drops some of the trappings and techniques of fiction, to start yet again with a narrower range of more elementary imaginary givens in the succeeding.
What is the nature of the silence and darkness into which the text finally leads us? It is nothingness given a precise contour, opened up through the artful deployment of minimal form. If it is the ineffable, it is an ineffable that makes itself precisely felt where words break off. This combination of the precise and the ungraspable is the mark of mystery. All mystery, even when tragic, has a gracious character, and can be taken as pointing to a divine presence. As Beckett’s kenotic art points to this dimension again and again, it can be aligned with Buddhist emptiness and even with Christ’s self-emptying. What emerges from this emptiness is not the glorious affirmation of Easter, but the subtle insistence of a sustaining grace. The Beckettian self is constantly crumbling into the dust of death, yet even in the process of its dissolution the silence that deepens about it is a space of communion. In Worstward Ho the figures with which the Beckettian imagination plays are reduced still further, to dim shapes that finally vanish into a grey background. The result is an epiphany: ‘Sudden all far. No move and sudden all far. All least. Three pins. One pinhole. In dimmost dim. Vasts apart. At bounds of boundless void’ (46-7). Alain Badiou suggests that this is Beckett’s version of the ‘constellation’ that emerges at the end of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés (Badiou 2004).
Self and God
The riddles of Beckett’s text concern explicitly the nature of self-identity, but by parodic implication the question of God is also rehearsed. The deviser pursues elaborate logic-chopping in the manner of a philosopher, one who, instead of checking and verifying the contents of his consciousness and cautiously building up a series of deductions in the manner of Descartes, instead cautiously creates a fictional figuration of the self. He thinks by ‘imagining’, in his many decisions and revisions parodying the procedures of Descartes, with the suggestion that the philosophical exploration of the psyche is no more than a tale giving the illusion of self-possession. Beckett’s figures cogitate incessantly, but they are fractured cogitos, characteristically expressing themselves in oxymoron and chiasmus, as they oscillate between their contradictory constituents in a purgatorial movement (see Hill, 6-11). Even to say they express themselves is misleading: the cogito is not in control of the words it produces but is their creature; from the moment the speaking or writing begins the position of the cogito has been irretrievably abandoned, and the speaker is aswim in a sea of words in which he or she struggles desperately to stay afloat. The cogitations flounder in searches for the appropriate word or in questions of grammar and syntax.
The modern self, which made its debut with Descartes, is located essentially in the cogito, the ‘I think’. Lucid, transparent self-awareness guarantees the self’s identity and autonomy, and transcendence of material nature. But this self slowly came to sense that its apparent freedom was a prison, its autonomy another name for sterile isolation, its transparency constantly disturbed by obstacles to insight, and even its apparent unity and stability an illusion. The Beckettian self is the last variant of the Western individual: ‘I am down in the hole the centuries have dug’ (CSP 101). His quest meets defeat at every point at which Kant’s seemed to succeed. The transcendental self now lacks all synthesizing power, and the fictive world it begins by positing with a show of authority crumbles in aimless rearrangements, which indicate a lack of secure identity on the part of the ultimate deviser. This collapse can be seen as enacting the ‘death of man’ in Foucault’s sense, the demise of the Kantian empirical-transcendental structuration of human existence. Instead of a sovereign consciousness, we have a scriptor toiling at the impossible task of assembling a text, fiddling with opaque words which cannot attain the clarity of the concept but remain clogged in their materiality. Sometimes the Beckettian narrator puts on a Flaubertian air of sovereignty, but this breaks down as the writing proceeds, until the lofty deviser declines to a ‘crawling creator’ who rejoins his creature in the dark.
The empirical pole in Beckettian selfhood is obscenely physical; but even at this level identity cannot be securely established; the body falls to pieces, becomes dismembered, or is reduced to a partial representation, a mouth or a head, or is crippled, or rigidly confined in a carceral or sepulchral space, or is subject to bizarre metamorphoses as in The Unnameable. If the relations between transcendental and empirical selfhood are a source of unease in the Kantian system, in Beckett the split between them is irremediable and takes a great variety of forms. Much of the comedy and poignancy of Company comes from the disjunctions, and the even more bizarre conjunctions, between transcendental and empirical ego, between the ‘unthinkable last of all. Unnamable. Last person. I’ and the body of the hearer, or the body of the crawling deviser, who is its ignoble incarnation.
In undergoing the purgatorial disintegration of the Cartesian self the protagonist attains something like the detachment the Buddha teaches: ‘I am is a vain thought; I am not is a vain thought; I shall be is a vain thought; I shall not be is a vain thought’. Beckett’s minimalism aims at a quasi-sculptural detachment of the essential gesture which becomes a cipher of human existence: ‘The more naked his characters became, the more stripped of the external traits of daily life – possessions, clothes, behavior – the more they approached basic elements of human confrontation with life: loneliness, fear of loneliness, the need for communication, the impossibility of communication, the cry for help, the confrontation with decay and death’. (Megged, 46). Each text is an action of kenosis, of descent into vacuity, and the reader is drawn into the process, shares in the spiritual exercise. This process is an end in itself, worth pursuing on its own terms or not at all. It instills a sense that it is bringing us into touch with something essential.
All of this has a theological dimension insofar as the fortunes of the self in literature and philosophy have been linked with corresponding metamorphoses of the idea of God. The interventions of the voice in Company play a role similar to that of God in Descartes’s Meditations, relieving the cogito of the task of self-constitution at the price of introducing an incoherence into the logical unfolding of its self-construction. Descartes’ infinite God arises in his consciousness with the same suddenness and luminous evidence as the cogito. Beckett re-imagines both in a deconstruction that consigns them both to deepest obscurity.
The labour of rewriting the self connects with the contemporary experience of selfhood, and the labour of rewriting God equally reflects a contemporary experience of the withdrawal of origins, that may be a new mode of divine presence. It is problematic to speak of a salvific dimension to Beckett's efforts. ‘Writing is no longer attached in any way to salvation: salvation appears neither in the work nor outside it as its justification. Writing recognizes itself to be not only unjustifiable but as a stranger to a problematic of justification’ (Collin, 195). Such writing cannot confront death as a challenge to be overcome; death is the unfigurable, a process of negation at work in the constant paring away of identity that is going on in the prose style, the disillusioning background noise that undercuts any projection of a grandiose self-identity, that recalls the presumptuous self to the modesty of the anonymous ‘one’ or ‘it’.
Nonetheless, Beckett keeps before his imagination mythic figures of the self and of God, figures of heroic endurance in the former case, figures of some ultimate silent presence in the latter. Mythic figures, such as those of Scripture, grip and stimulate the imagination, urging it to reinterpret them through the creation of new myths. The mythic scenarios Beckett creates not only resonate with the deepest anxieties of his time, but revive old myths in a new key. As a novelist, exploring what Milan Kundera calls the ‘terminal paradoxes’ of modern European civilization, Beckett is neither a theist nor an atheist. His task is to lay bare an existential situation, with all its ambiguity and incertitude. Readers impatient with ambiguity will dub him, along with Flaubert, Joyce and Kafka, a ‘nihilist’. But a great fiction does not present ideas or creeds. It is a ‘mirror on the roadway’ of our existence, catching the chiaroscuro of our situation (see Kundera 1995).
As we become increasingly aware of the kenotic character of Beckett's art, let us note that theology, too, needs to unearth the essential Christ-shape which alone can give Christian discourse contemporary universality. ‘Infinities of space cannot be grasped in themselves: they must be caught by some tightly defined form’ (Megged, 50). The infinity of God is caught by the tightly defined form of Christ crucified; a form being sculpted anew in the contemporary historical struggle. Theology, if it lends an undogmatic ear to voices like Beckett’s, can find in literature an ally in its task of discerning this emergent figure of the Crucified.
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