"Between Contiguous Extremes": Beckett and Brunonian Minimalism, with reference to The Lost Ones.

by Michael Guest (guest@ia.inf.shizuoka.ac.jp)

Copyright © 1994 by Michael Guest. (Originally published in Reports of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Shizuoka University (Japan), Vol. 30, No. 1 (1994). Reproduced here with the permission of the author.)

Beckett considers Giordano Bruno briefly in his early essay on Joyce,[*1] giving more attention to Giambattista Vico's New Science.[*2] Vico's philosophical-philological theory and the history he derives from it are a more tangible presence in Finnegans Wake, at once justifying Joyce's approach to language and providing a model and resource for form and content. Beckett proceeds in his defence of Finnegans Wake by demonstrating the presence of Vico and then affirming the plausibility of Viconian theory in relation to Joyce's literary accomplishment. Generally speaking, Vico works in opposition to a metaphysical tradition in philosophy, decrying its emphasis upon abstracted or reflected truth, in favour of what he calls the consciousness of the certain (Vico 331), which involves an introspective process:

To discover the way in which this first human thinking arose . . . we encountered exasperating difficulties which have cost us the research of a good twenty years. [We had] to descend from these human and refined natures of ours to those quite wild and savage natures, which we cannot at all imagine and one can comprehend only with great effort. (Vico 338)

Whatever the exact nature of Vico's philosophical technique is, we should not overlook the similarity between this description and one he gives to the origins of history, in the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity (331), when giants roamed the earth like beasts - a time of primal consciousness, prior to the emergence of abstract reason and representation. Vico suggests that he himself descends into a primal state of mind, existing somehow beneath and in opposition to the parameters of time and reason, and that his Science is to be read as a kind of bridge of discourse between reason and unreason (or pre-reason). [H]e who meditates this Science narrates to himself this ideal eternal history so far as he himself makes it for himself (349), he asserts of his writing, anticipating Marcel Proust's thought that "his" readers should be, rather, "the readers of their own selves."[*3]

Given this context, one might recall Beckett's description of the artist in his essay on Proust, who "is active, but negatively, shrinking into the core of the eddy." Variations on the theme occur repeatedly within Beckett's own corpus. Murphy comes to spend ever more time in the third, dark zone of his mind, of "neither elements nor states, nothing but forms becoming and crumbling into the fragments of a new becoming . . . , where he finds himself "a mote in the dark of absolute freedom." For the voice of the Unnamable, which is itself the final phase of an interior motion made by the trilogy as a whole, "all that is needed is to wander and let wander, be this slow boundless whirlwind and every particle of its dust, it's impossible."[*4]

We may speak of a "state of mind" in such cases only insofar as Beckett has structured a relationship between certain conventional modes of narrative representation and whatever is that unnamable and unthinkable existence indicated. Murphy's third zone definitely does not constitute the unthinkable reality, because he does think it, and it is able to be represented to us in the narrative. Instead, the unthinkable is contained within the figure of Mr Endon, Murphy's catatonic, chess-playing hero. Or it may be useful to consider that the area occupied by Mr Endon's figure on the representative surface of the novel conceals from our eyes a void of the unsayable, extending back through a third dimension to infinity.[5] Murphy's scrutiny of Mr Endon sets in motion an infinite regression of eyes gazing into eyes, back into the vacuum of a super-individual freedom:

'the last at last seen of him himself unseen by him and of himself' A rest. 'The last Mr Murphy saw of Mr Endon was Mr Murphy unseen by Mr Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy.' A rest. 'The relation between Mr Murphy and Mr Endon could not have been better summed up by the former's sorrow at seeing himself in the latter's immunity from seeing anything but himself.' A long rest. 'Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon's unseen.' (Murphy 140)

The vacuum thus concealed by the figure of Mr Endon is, in its way, an escape from representational forms. It is a void of unreason that is somehow implicit in the plenitude of rational representation. Hence, the thematic movement from sanity to madness in Murphy coincides with a theme of containment, as this unreasonable state is confined increasingly by reasonable forms and institutions: to within the asylum, to within Mr Endon's opaque and uncomprehending pupil. Yet, within the final, irreducible iota of this whatever-it-is (perhaps non-being within being, or the not-I within identity), Murphy attains an unbounded release, or at least, one that is beyond knowing in terms of an exterior-interior opposition. He identifies with an unclassifiable and infinite region. So, although Murphy's release seems to coincide with his death, the two states may not be identified so easily:

Most things under the moon got slower and slower and then stopped, a rock got faster and faster and then stopped. Soon his body would be quiet, soon he would be free. The gas went on in the wc, excellent gas, superfine chaos. Soon his body was quiet. (142)

An indefinable difference remains, such that positively to affirm either Murphy's death or his freedom would be to mis-say or "ill say" the reality. The dimension of the narrative that refers to Murphy's subjective experience grinds down to a halt as he broaches the realm of the non-representable, as his subjectivity becomes the space between signifiable entities, an indeterminable void between subject and object. Christopher Ricks observes a life-death continuum in several of Beckett's works. Hidden in the subtlety of Malone's expectation soon to "be quite dead at last": "We may assure ourselves that it, 'quite dead', must mean altogether dead, since the wish to be altogether dead is both more comprehensible and more common than the wish to be somewhat dead"; and "All the living are partially dead: the cells, the feelings. Beckett is said to have said, not of himself but with himself among those in mind, that there are some human beings who cannot be happy until quite a lot of them has died. (This is a stage towards what it will be to know happiness.)"[*6]

Vico's corresponding historical period or philosophical "state of mind" is one where logos is supplanted by fantasia, concerning the ability of the mind to construct the object of its contemplation.[*7] He postulates a primary, creative potency, a poetic age and mode of consciousness in which there is no generic concept, but where thought is founded in identity rather than similarity and difference. Here, thought and signification are concrete rather than abstract. Signs and concepts share the same mode of being as the things that they will come to represent: "Thus the first language in the first mute times of the nations must have begun with signs, rather that gestures or physical objects, which had natural relations to the ideas [to be expressed]" (Vico 401). Already in Murphy, in the asymptotic approach of the narrative toward its "object," Murphy's transcendental state (whether deathly, schizophrenic, shamanistic or semiotic), one can observe the manner in which Beckett's writing conforms to his evaluation of Joyce's, that it is "not about something" but "it is that something itself" (Exag 14).[*8] After the fashion of Vico, both make meaning relative, by identifying the abstract faculties and processes of the knowing or reading subject as within the object that would be known or the body of signs that would be read. For Vico, the philosopher cannot abstract a knowledge of history, for his capacity of reflection is itself merely a phase in the historical process, the same cycle of generation and dissolution, of concretion and abstraction, that is enacted in Finnegans Wake's drama of significance. Similarly, in Murphy the narrative form becomes its own content, in this regressive asymptote or spiral, the movement of thought and representation toward a point that is at once source and telos, where the greatest containment is at once an unbounded exteriority.

We can identify in Bruno's thought a more specific paradigm for the movement I have described - a movement that occurs in its variations throughout Beckett's writing and which should bear upon discussions of his specific minimalism. I should like now to describe the main thrust of Bruno's reasoning, and to indicate some of the ways in which it can function as a rationale and paradigm for structure in some of Beckett's work.

Bruno postulates the existence of the minimum. In so doing, he opposes himself explicitly against Aristotle, for whom reality is infinitely continuous. Aristotle's argument runs to the effect that, there can be no smallest (for instance, material) entity or minimum, for if there were, it must touch against other minima through its parts, and so, having parts, it would not be the smallest.[*9] In this, Aristotle invokes something like the "impossible heap" paradox that Clov mentions in Endgame and that the narrator of The Lost Ones echoes: . . . a great heap of sand sheltered from the wind lessened by three grains every second year and every following increased by two . . ." (The Lost Ones 32). Additions of the smallest quantity, minima touching in their entirety, will never result in an increased quantity nor an extended reality. Bruno counters that his minima do not touch directly through their parts, but rather, through their termini, or limits; and so here, as in the mud of How It Is, "never two bodies touch." In The Lost Ones, too, the term "body" may gravitate toward this stricter sense of "an object defined in physics," as well as mean "human body," "corpse," or "somebody" ("quidam" [14]).[*10]

By introducing the terminus, and thus affirming the possibility of the minimum, Bruno inverts the Aristotelian order of the infinite below (the existence of the infinitesimal) and the finite above (a bounded universe). Bruno's universe is discretely continuous, with the void that had contained the world's plenitude now being diffused among its particles. We are to imagine an infinite immensity of spheroid minima, separated by empty pyramidal interstices. These are like essences of being and non-being, mutually integral, and mediated by a principle of limitation.[*11]

The minimum is everywhere, a ubiquitous centre. Bruno's infinitely immense universe is, he asserts, more spherical than a finite sphere, because every point is at the centre, and equidistant from the circumference, which is always an infinity away.[*12] Here we arrive at a further important principle: the coincidence of contraries. Minima coincide with maxima, the smallest with the largest (cf. Exag 6). The minimum, the smallest, indivisible and first part (the number one, the monad, the being of God) is the same as the immensity of all being. "[T]he universe's centre is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere insofar as it differs from the centre - or rather the circumference is everywhere, but the centre is not to be found insofar as it differs from it" (CPU 137). To transpose this idea to the phenomenon of time yields Bruno's eternal instant, a perpetual present, which is at once "a beginning without end and an end without beginning": "eternity is the present which has the appearance of changing in the succession and change of things" (qtd. in Atanasijevik 35-36). The eternal instant is like Hamm's cell: outside its limits there is only "zero" (Endgame 25), and within, an inexorable progression of being, or the possibilities of being, to a state of zero entropy, which will, however, coincide with Clov's new individualized beginning.

I can turn now to some aspects of Beckett's articulation of the minimum in The Lost Ones. Reading this work, there is a temptation to conceive of the cylinder it describes as an objective structure, with reference, that is, to absolute terms of form and dimension. To do so requires a fixed opposition between the constructs interior and exterior, such that one would need to be "in the secret of the Gods" (19), presuming access to an exteriority (outside the cylinder and outside the text) that is the location for an absolute reality of constant form and dimension. In one sense, this is the "abode" of the reader, exterior to the text-as-book, whose pages "brush together like the rustle of dry leaves" (8).[*13] As well, it would consist of the reader's received social or socio-historical reality, or whatever exterior reference he or she invoked in a particular allegorical or metaphorical scheme of meaning.

Finally, it is the exteriority of res to signa, of things to signs, of signifier to signified, the immutable constants that imbue the domains of language and textuality with meaning, and whose constancy enables the communication of that meaning. Hence, the "rumour" or "notion" that has existed in the cylinder "since time immemorial" speaks exclusively of the possibility that an exit exists (17-18). Such an exit would parallel Dante's egress from Hell ("a flue at the end of which the sun and other stars would still be shining" [18]: cf. Inferno, canto 34) and his attainment of a "ideal vegetation" (Exag 22) at the summit of Purgatory. In this way, Beckett co-opts as a limiting factor, as an unverifiable possibility, Dante's "culminat[ing]" (Exag 21) simulacrum of meaning: the effacement of the self-as-sign before God, the ultimate res.[*14] The "rumour," as a minimal reduction of all discourse, speaks only of the logos, whose presence is affirmed, in a sense, to the extent that meaning is communicated by Beckett's text. But at the same time, the minimalist reduction of this idea, and its concretion in the "notion" described (both words are used to refer to the same thing), creates an opposite, circular form of reasoning that implies entrapment in a Wake-ian Purgatory of textuality: a pre-cogito, the "rumour," the "notion," speaks the precondition for its own being.

From the start, the narrator's position or "point of view" - whether he is inside or outside the hermetic cylinder - is a problem: "Inside a flattened cylinder fifty metres round and eighteen high for the sake of harmony" (7). He appears to assert his interiority, and he must be inside in order to describe this completely interior mode of being, even to the extent of the inhabitants' perceptions. Yet they, on the other hand, seem equipped only to misapprehend the cylinder. Their perception might be, rather, that their abode is spherical, or at least, covered over by a dome (perhaps like a primitive perception of earth and sky), since the tallest climbers are only able to "touch the edge of the ceiling with their fingertips" (20), while the "hub" of the ceiling (the location of the trapdoor, if one exists) is beyond reach (19). Similarly, their visual impression may be of a sphere:

Seen from below the wall presents an unbroken surface all the way round and up to the ceiling. And yet its upper half is riddled with niches. This paradox is explained by the levelling effect of the dim omnipresent light (55; emphasis added).
Moreover, a simple calculation in arithmetic (dividing the circumference of fifty metres by Pi) shows that the dimensions given do not yield a "flattened" geometrical cylinder at all, but an elongated one, with a diameter slightly less than sixteen metres.

Yet even so, there is a literal sense in which this contradiction can be resolved. It is clear that the description is not that of an objective structure, or despite the empirical-scientific tone, an object that can be "known" in a positivistic sense. No matter how close we come to the object, or to the form of the object, it remains mediated by the senses, merging with the form of the subject that perceives it. The ceiling is objectively flat, inasmuch as this is affirmed by the objective God-consciousness of the narrator-as-Creator, who only needs to name it as such for it to be. However, the form of the perceiving subject, or the locus of the senses, is the circle, from which is derived the arc of the pivoting ladders an the pivot of the head on the shoulders, governing the form of what may be seen and touched. Therefore, the structure of the abode (which may be identified, moreover, as a specific detail or component of the narrative structure) occurs within a minimal space that interfaces the realms of subject and object. These are aligned with interchangeable formal contraries, the line and the circle: interchangeable, because the ladders possess linear and the ceiling circular functions, which we may oppose in the same way. The cylinder is "flattened" in the sense that in conforms with an "unthinkable" notion of linear circularity or circular linearity. It articulates a kind of "place between," neither subject nor object, the point at which all contraries coincide. In the 1978 edition of the story, in Six Residua, the eighteen metres height given in the 1972 version is changed to sixteen metres as well, further emphasizing the related alchemical idea of the "squared circle," which is evoked by cylinder's demographic organization of "One body per square metre or two hundred bodies in all round numbers" (13).[*15]

For Bruno, the minimum is the incomprehensible root of thought: "When one conceives the atom, one conceives all, but when one conceives all, one has not conceived the atom" (qtd. in Atanasijevik 36). Again, the smallest is the largest, so that if we were to arrive at the finite minimum, we would find ourselves simultaneously at the infinite immensity. Hence, Bruno's coincidence of contraries occurs at infinity. After juxtaposing the interval of a straight line to a series of arcs from larger and larger circles, he shows that the ends of the largest arc are closest to the ends of the interval: if he were able to draw an infinitely large circle, it would coincide with the infinite line (CPU 145). We observe a demonstration to the same effect, in the arc-shaped tunnels that have been dug into the cylinder wall, that limiting realm, at infinity, of linear circularity. The longest tunnels are "no fewer than fifty metres in length" (12), the same, that is, as the limiting fifty metres circumference. Presumably, the tunnels extend outward into some surrounding matter, suggesting a subterranean location, possibly Infernal. If, however, the fifty metres circumference has resulted from affixing a finite measure to an infinite dimension - if there is no beyond the cylinder wall - then we might be forced to contemplate a tunnel of infinite length, opening into itself but "blind" to the cylinder wall: "Woe the body that rashly enters here [again, compare with Dante's Inferno] to be compelled finally after long efforts to crawl back backwards as best it can the way it came" (12). This returns us to the cylinder itself. Because the decentred, infinite boundary must extend itself to subsume such a tunnel into its own singular interiority: the tunnel is an identical simulacrum of the cylinder.

Moreover, the body who is within this impossible tunnel articulates the same form as the bodies in the cylinder. Say, for instance, she or he feels back and forth along either the convex or concave surface of the "blind" tunnel: the body describes an "objective" circle but is unaware in his or her own blindness (the nature of which I will discuss shortly) that an infinite flat pane is not being traversed, and at the same time, articulated. So too, the three concentric zones of the "bed of the cylinder" are determined by forward and backward cyclical motion, "separated by clear-cut mental or imaginary frontiers invisible to the eye of flesh" (43) which, like the ground and wall (further "imaginary frontiers" if we are in a sphere), allow "passage" between zones (45, 51). The bodies are always in a conceptual passage (of being, of time, of event, of story) whose objective form it is impossible for them to divine, but which may be defined subjectively and conventionally, by an arbitrary allocation of contrary signifiers: motion right and left alternatively, step forward and back between concave and convex surfaces, which might just as well be flat parallels.

Forward-retrograde, hot-cold, fast-slow, searcher-vanquished, "[a]nd so on infinitely" (50): because these are coincident contraries, they are also interchangeable signifiers. We as readers, progressing though our textual "passage," continually encounter what might be called barriers of the absolute: the "pure" substance of the signified, the object or quality that we cannot know, but which will accommodate either of two contradictory terms.[*16]

For one entering this zone head-on the nearest queue is on the right and if it does not please it is only by going right that a more pleasing can be found. Some could thus revolve through thousands of degrees before settling down to wait were it not for the rule forbidding them to exceed a single circuit. (48)
This passage exemplifies Beckett's reflexive strategy, opposing an allusion to Dante's spiralling Inferno (with its implication of a hellish entrapment in text, or at least, in sensual poetic forms) to a reading-simulacrum that implies entirely contrary values. His representation of the latter incorporates not only the mechanical conventions that apply to reading, but also conventional assumptions as to the delimitation of text, which are brought to bear in reading a particular "work."

In Beckett's alternative reading-simulacrum, the possibilities range between an infinite number of potential loci, traced through alternating signifiers, and a singular, objective meaning ("a perfect mental image of the entire system" [57]), whose existence one can only assume by acknowledging the truth of a rumoured exteriority and a concomitant God-authority. One might read and reread The Lost Ones until the end of time in attempting to realize the sum of permutations generated by each rereading (or else, the activity would be, anyway, a simulacrum for one's reading any or all text, and a simulacrum of "life"); just as one might "revolve through thousands of [academic] degrees" in pursuit of all objective knowledge. A significant opposition in this regard is between affective and objective modes of reading the cylinder-as-text, corresponding to the thin line between "licence" and "order" (44) and "tolerance" and "discipline" (49) in the cylinder-as-abode. Do we accept at face value the thorough order inferred by the narrator, who as the empiricist describes what he as God creates simultaneously through naming; or are motion and civilization in the cylinder in an utterly anarchic state, with actions that are interpreted as expressions of "rule" or "law" being in actuality spontaneous gestures, in the absence of any exterior authority, constant or absolute?

Events, perceptions and sensations are governed by the all-pervading "twofold vibration" (61), a representation traced by Beckett's Brunonian minimum, occurring and recurring upon itself. When the light goes out, the sound ceases, the bodies freeze in their attitudes, their fists "in their arcs" (37): "It is perhaps the end of their abode" (7). We are free but not obliged to infer a causality here: the fact may be that they are simply functions of the wave-form, and not that, on each occasion, they sense their imminent end. The Lost Ones may be living beings, or mere constructs in meaning, invigorated by each intermittent act of reading. In their reflexive reading of Waiting for Godot, Leo Bursani and Ulysse Dutoit distinguish the art form of theatre as the only one in which "waiting" is an essential component: "[W]hen we put down a novel between the third and fourth chapters, we don't begin waiting for the fourth chapter to begin." Beckett's Lost Ones, however, do appear to be waiting for the reader, thus gainsaying Bursani and Dutoit's somewhat naive-realistic (perhaps naive-humanistic) distinction.[*17]

Consideration of the wave or pulse yields further Brunonian thought, such as his assertions that absolute heat is absolute cold, and absolute speed a state of rest.[*18] The temperature oscillates "between [absolute] hot and cold," the wave-form limits that may not, by definition, be realized. It may, therefore, encompass an infinite range, subsuming, for example, the reader's own experience or knowledge of hot versus cold; or else the limits in the hermetic cylinder may be, in relation to his exterior point of view, both hot or both cold. Similarly, the "two or three candles" (38) range of the light, which is "shaken by a vertiginous tremolo between contiguous extremes" (16), may cover the brightness (or dimness) of an infrared glow or a super-nova.

Absolute light is absolute dark, and so an infinite perception is a kind of blindness, the inability even to distinguish dark from light, or for that matter, visual from audible or tactile stimuli. Relative to this idea is evidence of synaesthesia, a cutting across the "imaginary frontiers" of the senses, such that the "throbbing" and "stridulence" of the light can be heard (37-38). A woman's youth may be judged "by her thighs" (30), even though the light is so dim that "[m]an and wife" might not recognize each other when they are "close enough to touch" (36). It is possible that the narrator's "divine" judgement of the Madonna-like figure is a spontaneous act of sexual penetration, the same as in the anarchic cylinder, where "erection" is, perhaps always, "followed by more or less happy penetration in the nearest tube" (53). So too, the "eye of flesh" evokes at once touch, sight, blindness and the phallus. As in other works, particularly How It Is, an important dimension of The Lost Ones involves the reduction of being to a minimal space within a sexual locus of representation, implying an infinite womb-like containment, wherein all are one, embryonic and androgynous, like the "tiny ones" who "crawl blindly in the tunnels" (31), and a reductio ad absurdum of the paternalistic idea of God as Creator and Author.

Notes 1. Samuel Beckett, "Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce," Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination Of Work In Progress (London: Faber and Faber, 1929) 3-22. Abbreviated to "Exag" for reference in this essay. 2. Giambattista Vico, New Science, trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (New York: Cornell UP, 1968). Revised translation of the third edition of Scienza Nuova (1744). References are to section numbers. 3. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrief and Terence Kilmartin, 3 vols. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983) 3: 1089. 4. "Proust," Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (London: John Calder, 1965) 65-66; Murphy (1938; London: Picador-Pan, 1973) 66; The Unnamable (1958), The Beckett Trilogy (London: Picador-Pan, 1979) 370. 5. Compare with Michel Foucault's interpretation of the reversed canvas appearing in Diego Velazquez's painting Las Meninas, in The Order of Things (New York: Vintage-Random House, 1973) 3. 6. Beckett's Dying Words (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 130. 7. Donald Phillip Verene, Vico's Science of Imagination (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981) 74, 77, 80-82 and passim. 8. The original, quieter version in the journal transition would, with the hindsight of structuralism, seem to take on a more general allusion to writing and textuality: "He is not writing about something: he is writing something" (Qtd. in Ricks 54). 9. Ksenia Atanasijevik, The Metaphysical and Geometrical Doctrine of Bruno as Given in his Work "De Triplici Minimo," trans. George Vid Tomashevich (St. Louis: Warren H. Green, 1972) 38-39. 10. Endgame (1958; London: Faber and Faber, 1964) 12. The Lost Ones (London: Calder and Boyars, 1972) (page numbers in the text are to this edition);How It Is (London: John Calder, 1964) 156. 11. See Atanasijevik 48-51. 12. Bruno, Cause, Principle and Unity [1584], trans. Jack Lindsay (Essex: Daimon Press, 1962) 136. Abbreviated to "CPU" for reference in this essay. 13. See Peter Murphy, "The Nature of Allegory in The Lost Ones, or the Quincunx Realistically Considered," Journal of Beckett Studies 7 (1982): 72. 14. See James Thomas Chiampi, Shadowy Prefaces: Conversion and Writing in the Divine Comedy, L'interprete 24 (Ravenna: Longo Editore, 1981) passim. 15. The Lost Ones, Six Residua (London: John Calder, 1978) 55, 59. Enoch Brater considers further anomalies, in "Mis-takes, Mathematical and Otherwise in The Lost Ones," Special Issue: Samuel Beckett, ed. William T. Stafford and S.E. Gontarski, special issue of Modern Fiction Studies 29.1 (1983): 93-109. 16. Susan D. Brienza establishes the reflexive thematics of Beckett's story well, in "The Lost Ones: The Reader as Searcher," Samuel Beckett's New Worlds: Style in Metafiction (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1987) 139-159. 17. Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1993) 29. 18. See, for example, Atanasijevik 32; Beckett, Exag 6.