‘‘Twofold Vibration’’: Samuel Beckett’s Laws of Form

  • Ingo Berensmeyer, Avigdor Arikha
  • Published 2004


The formal specifics of Samuel Beckett’s writing have so far been redescribed in terms of mysticism, ordinary language philosophy, phenomenology, and deconstruction. Expanding on but also departing from these descriptions, this article tests the capability of a different heuristic vocabulary, derived from systems theory and second-order cybernetics, to reconstruct the formal dynamics of Beckett’s writing and to reveal the structural principle that determines the generation of form in Beckett’s work. The argument assumes that George Spencer Brown’s dynamic (operative) concept of form can be used as a conceptual basis for describing the complex and baffling operation performed by Beckett’s writing, and it proposes that this literary technique is best understood as a double recursion that envisages the unpresentable generativity of the literary text. These hypotheses are developed by drawing on a wide range of Beckett’s work, including major plays, prose, Film, work for television, and critical writings. Siege laid again to the impregnable without. Eye and hand fevering after the unself. By the hand it unceasingly changes the eye unceasingly changed. Back and forth the gaze beating against unseeable and unmakable. Truce for a space and the marks of what it is to be and be in face of. Those deep marks to show. Samuel Beckett, ‘‘For Avigdor Arikha’’ 1. Toward a Poetics of Form The critical hypothesis that Samuel Beckett’s texts are self-sufficient, selfcontained entities may rest on a well-founded suspicion.They seem to have Poetics Today 25:3 (Fall 2004). Copyright © 2004 by the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics. 466 Poetics Today 25:3 that singular quality which the logicianGeorge Spencer Brown (1969: 1) has called ‘‘perfect continence,’’ a maximum degree of formal elegance and rigor that is a high ideal of logicians and mathematicians but less familiar to writers and readers of literature. Although of course Beckett’s texts are not mathematical treatises consisting of theorems and proofs, they do seem to share with the language of mathematics not only the concern ‘‘to provide a shorthand for what is actually said’’ (ibid.: xix)—that is, to develop an aesthetics of reduction that leaves out more than it appears to include—but also the formal principle of reducing complexity, both linguistic and experiential, in order to gain a higher degree of (structured) complexity.1 As early as 1962, Hugh Kenner placed Beckett in a context of modern writers working in a ‘‘closed field,’’ a term derived from general number theory.2 What makes the analogy to mathematics even more pertinent is the observation that what readers have experienced as the sparseness and, at times, nearhermetic closure of Beckett’s writing tends to work well in very different languages.What Beckett called his ‘‘stylelessness . . . , the pure communication’’ (quoted in Knowlson 1996: 239) is to an unusual degree independent of the connotative dimensions of language, similar to a theorem,which stays the same no matter if published in English, French, or Japanese. Yet this very self-sufficiency has fascinated and baffled readers as a quite inexplicably enigmatic quality in its own right, and it has stimulated a wide range of responses, comments, and interpretations. Beckett (1984: 172) anticipated this situation as early as 1937, when he augured, in a letter to AxelKaun, that ‘‘in the forest of symbols, which aren’t any, the little birds of interpretation, which isn’t any’’ would never be ‘‘silent.’’3 If the production 1. For this figure of thought, see, e.g., Luhmann 1993: 780. I cannot, in the limited space here provided, unfold the full complexity (and a number of unresolved contradictions) of my theoretical assumptions, many of which stem from or have been mediated by the sociological systems theory of Niklas Luhmann and his disciples. For more extensive references and discussions available in English, see Luhmann 1993, 1995 [1984], 2000; Baecker 1999; de Berg 1995. 2. ‘‘The closed field contains a finite number of elements to be combined according to fixed rules’’ or ‘‘laws’’ (Kenner 1962: 600, 606). The concept of the field, Kenner argues, is ‘‘a device for making discoveries’’ (ibid.: 606) and ‘‘an instrument of possibilities, not foreclosures’’ (ibid.: 611). But he seems to have shied away from describing or even naming those rules that, in Beckett’s writing, supposedly determine the permutation of linguistic elements aswell as from saying how far the ‘‘intellectual analogy’’ (ibid.: 605) of the closed field reaches, down to which level of textual detail it is applicable, and whether or not mere permutation of elements is indeed the whole story (cf. ibid.: 604–5, 613). 3. The letter to Axel Kaun was written in German (Beckett 1984: 51–54), but I use Martin Esslin’s English translation (ibid.: 170–73) for convenience. In the original German, the sentence reads: ‘‘Denn im Walde der Symbole, die keine sind, schweigen die Vöglein der Deutung, die keine ist, nie’’ (ibid.: 53). Other translations from non-English sources aremine, unless otherwise stated. Berensmeyer • Samuel Beckett’s Laws of Form 467 or evocation of silence—‘‘Stillschweigen’’ (ibid.: 53)—is the communicative ideal of Beckett’s work, it is an ideal that criticism, because of its discursive and argumentative nature, cannot achieve or hope to imitate. But perhaps what theory can contribute to a reading of these texts is to demonstratewhat it is that makes Beckett’s writing so perfectly intelligible and perfectly inexplicable at the same time: ‘‘parfaitement intelligible et parfaitement inexplicable’’

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@inproceedings{Berensmeyer2004TwofoldVS, title={‘‘Twofold Vibration’’: Samuel Beckett’s Laws of Form}, author={Ingo Berensmeyer and Avigdor Arikha}, year={2004} }