Chartacre: How does Samuel Beckett's Trilogy use scepticism of language to question traditional theories of consciousness?

Ben Westlake

Using a methodology of imaginative writing set alongside textual criticism, Ben Westlake explores how the limits of language are tested by writers. Ben's dissertation uses the understanding gained from his own creative practice to balance other levels of understanding through close critical analysis of modernist texts.



Our man Johnnie Chartacre was resting. Night’s sonorous score had ended in a bleak crescendo and grey light wandered into the room. Camp was set up in that pleasant margin between sleep and awake and Johnnie lay calm. To his left the chimney breast panted. A giant black lung. To his right the radiator let out a childish gurgle. Johnnie liked these middle places. These times of isolation where ones mind can enjoy being a closed circuit.

The moment was smashed by the church bells and the great out there flooded in. Grand discs of sound exploded across the sky racing away from the 50ft origin. 7.00 a.m.

The squat, wooden timepiece on the mantle agreed.

Usually it was a case of wrapping himself up and catching kip once more but Johnnie had been short of time recently. Our protagonist is a man with things to do! A busy chap indeed . Days and weeks passed him quickly and silently like ships watched from land. He would stay and watch until they were dots, and then nothing.

Plotting to extend his days more and more, Johnnie, a man of action had begun a process of rousing himself at these hostile times. Perhaps he could rise earlier each morning until his days consumed themselves and collapsed like an Ouroborus. We can only hope.

First he went about remembering. The bastard behind the eyes was a forgetful one and often forgot during these interims. Where he was, what he was, that he was. The latter being most pressing he comforted himself mumbling silently.

Much better.

Options were considered, rhetoric tossed to and fro.

He tested the physical, clenching his right hand, unfurled his left, weak as an infant but what else can be expected. He curled his toes, bent at the knees, folded his arms, bowed at the waist ravelled himself up in a tight coil.

 Johnnie split his eyelids,dragged them back over their salty globes and surveyed.

He noted that the sun had risen, admired worldwide for its reliability. Spots and rays were slowly negotiating the knots and cracks of the wooden floor and making their way towards him. Johnnie eyed them suspiciously.

 ‘These curtains are inadequate.’ He scowled, nesting deeper. ‘These holes, these slits. She does it on purpose, spiteful woman.’

His mind flicked through a rolodex and arrived at his, landlady, keeper, sometime friend, rare lover one time curtain merchant Mrs. Slapp. A woman of immense dimensions. Twenty years Johnnie’s senior, Mrs. Slapp could be described as someone who had lived. And would often tell Johnnie so. ‘I have lived Mr. Chartacre.’ Nodding sagely.

‘Haven’t we all?’ Johnnie would mutter, ‘Is this not the basic requirement for residency on this earth?’

He hatched a plan, a protest of sorts. To lie in this den forever. Telling himself stories in the dark. Speak of god as if he were a Man; speak of man as if he were a termite. That kind of drivel.

Enough. He rose quick and was soon up vertical. Pinnacle of man. Johnnie swayed gently on a pair of varicosed trunks and licked his lips. 

Chartacre swivelled on his atlas and scowled at the clock, looked back apologetically at the mangy bed and smiled down at the wooden trunk in the corner.The most enduring of human needs; to live amongst geometry. Thank God for the break of the insufferable right angles and sheer wall that made up the six panes of Johnnie’s hinterland. An unmolested straight line could chill Jonnie to the marrow.It had happened more than once before.

These three things furnished this sparse room, hermetically sealed from the rest. The room was world-tight.

Kneeling down in front of the trunk he stroked the coarse, cheap wood. It needed varnish, maybe sanding first if he found time. The loops of rope at the ends of box smiled up at him. The left hinge had become difficult and stiff, it made for an unpleasant opening and was getting worse day by day. He would have to find some oil, there was…


Action please.

Johnnie approached the ill concealed windows to take a peak at the big and the ordinary. He inserted index and middle finger between the two sheets, made himself a peep hole and glanced out the window. Voyeur extraordinaire. The whole affair achieved a nostalgic sepia effect by the muck packed thick on the pane.


It is unimportant. Enough to say it was the time of year when the earth starts to lean back on its axis, exhausted after a long spell in the sun. The sun rose at an acute angle and barely lifted off the horizon.

Seagulls wheeled and arced off in the distance. Dead waste floated across his retina. Either, neither. Johnnie rubbed his eyes and looked down onto the street. People came and went. Johnnie had been known to come and go. Plod streets. Dexterously weaving between the other fleshy capsules. The cardboard pieces.

A bus slowly pulled up to the curb on the other side of the street like a beached whale. ‘A beached whale!’ Johnnie laughed. He had heard that one before. Choked a little. Recovered. He watched this particular Jonah board the noble beast and off it glided. 

The hero of this tale was a proud resident of Indistinct Row. As much desired and respected as any other strip of asphalt in the place. Jonnie was a lucky man.

He shook his head.

Maybe he’d go out today.

He would not go out today.

He peered up and down the street. On and on the houses replicated, split, multiplied until disappearing into a sharp point. He only had a clear view of the other side of the street but he knew from some memory (dependably false) that his own side was an exact copy. Behind his own street and in front the system was reflected again. A city of mirrors.

Perspective was a wonderful thing, a favourite optical trick. Johnnie could remember a time when he was wandering in a park. When he was younger of course. Much younger. For our champion was now approaching his fifty-fifth or sixty-fifth birthday and the rigor mortis of middle age has firmly set in.

 The anecdote is told like this. More or less. Johnnie wandered Close to a Father and son. To peer in on their chat; ‘Daddy, why is mummy small?’ The man looked through thick glasses to see his wife at some distance. She waved to them. He looked back at his son, his eyes searched amongst the weeds and grass for the words to explain. This was his role as Father and guide. Illuminate and teach. Instead his mouth opened and closed, a dead ringer for a cod. Finally, pathetically; ‘Well… I… at a distance… things become small…’ He stumbled, stuttered. He knew no more than the child!

The story made Johnnie laugh every time. He choked. Composed himself.

His eyes relaxed and retreated focus, settling down again on the grime tinted glass two inches from his face. He considered the hazy reflection. The eyes, nose, the skin especially. The pocks, don’t look so closely at the skin, the cracks. Scars left from laughter perhaps. A man who had smiled too much!

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 

All seemed in the correct situation. How could you tell one from the rest?

Anxiety rose from his gut. He jumped back, averted his eyes like a dog being scorned by his master.

‘You carry on like that my boy that will be that!’

What would be that?

Johnnie turned.

He had not moved this much in years. Take a closer look at the wall of eastern bearing, and then sidle up with caution to inspect the western.

He listened close to the walls. Splayed his hands out over the plain and white.

Maybe there was something to the big blank. Five complete maps of the arctic. The sixth interrupted by the modest porthole.

 He could learn the intricacies of the inhospitable land from this very cell! Launch an expedition and escape this colossal fiasco. Somewhere one could see the horizon from all angles.

 No, it would be too much for poor Johnnie. He would end up clinging to the ground like a mollusc. Grabbing at the snow, then letting it run through his fingers. Mumbling quietly.

Back to the room. Johnnie was starting to feel dizzy.

He leaned close. The concentration of a safe breaker. The nervousness of an ultrasonographer.

‘Please beat.’

 A murmur rose from the endless rooms stretching away from his own. So far so good.

What could the others be like? Maybe there were none. Simply two radios set up in the rooms next to his. Pumping out grey noise. Conversing with each other, trying to drown out Johnnie.

There was depth to this sound. There were others.

In a row of infinite rooms, each room is the centre.

What was the time? He edged closer to the clock.


No trace of a smirk across the face. Complete deadpan.

Cold and alert suddenly. Someone was pushing gently just beneath Johnnie’s sternum. Just where the arch of bone met the soft vulnerables.

He had to stay calm; important above all else was to stay calm. Easy now.

There were other hours between then and now! Ascension in numerical order, this is what he knew and loved. The system was flawed yes. But it was all the poor boy had! 

Johnnie panicked. Shuffling on his feet to reassert his grip. Movement helps. Achieved a healthy Vertigo.

Picked it up, closed his eyes and made ready to smash. The blind watch breaker.

Wait. He had been distracted for a while. The story, told properly, always took some time. It was all about careful delivery after all.

It was midday. Unlikely. Impossible. Nervous laughter.

He made a lunge for the door handle. Voices again. Or sounds, same thing. Chartacre flinched. He lowered his hand and bent forwards, letting his arms swing gently like two pendulums. Pressed his ear up against the door. Whispering? Or the scrabbling of rat fingernails, should you call them claws? Fingernails reserved for the higher beings.

No, not quite yet. 

Now to write. Our man is a writer. There was paper in the trunk. This was certain. And a pencil or piece of charcoal, something to devalue the blank with. He opened the stubborn lid and extracted the necessary tools.

Placed the white sheet on the floor and crouched down like Narcissus. Ogled into the white sheet for a long while. He had to squint, his eyes had never been good. Left for long enough the sheet appeared like a fixture of the floor, the room. A window through to the floors downstairs as far as he knew. A mirror as far as he could remember.

He pushed it a little, our anthropoid shuffled on his haunches, pawed at it.


A living, autonomous (not quite that) character.


Eddy who?


‘Eddy Duemap woke up one day…’ awful.

‘Eddy Duemap did not wake up one day…’ Better.

Stop it.

Johnnie saw the sky was beginning to brighten. He crawled off into the dark; it was easier on the eyes. Dragged the paper with him. Keep yourself going, in words of words. If you don’t believe it who will?

‘Eddy, grew up in the suburbs, his Father turned a blind eye when he stole Lucky Strikes from his packet, said “boys will be boys” then coughed. His mother patted him on the shoulder when he cried or could not sleep. Sent him out to play with his brother whose name I forget, build towers from blocks, then knock them down with the relish of destruction only found in a child.’


‘He was a young boy, short sized and normal. He kept a pet dog or a cat; he lived in a house with a garden. With the neighbours he rarely spoke or saw. If a chance meeting would take place across the street they would wave and nod a while. “Yes, hello, yes, how are you? Interesting! Very interesting!” Let them know that their thread still contributed to the mortal coil. Visited places in books alone. Liked to walk in parks. Once, his father handed him the hot end of a recently expired sparkler. He was apologetic.’

“He’s smaller than most boys his age isn’t he.”’

 The story was bad. He was starting to believe it.

He looked up and around.

 From the gentle crackle of distortion came a voice slightly louder than the rest. Just for an instant. Angry? Happy?

Had they any say on the matter?

His matter?

They meant something, nothing. Hard to tell which disturbed him more. The marked wall, the unmarked wall. 

He stood and rushed over to the East wall, scored a black arc on the unblemished plaster.

It had been an effort. Breathless, he stood back to admire his work.

He started to regret it.

Liven up man!

He needed a pursuit, a mystery to keep a borderline metabolism. Get back to the work.

‘Eddy walked with his father in a park…’ wait, I’ve done that one.

Johnnie peered through his legs at the door. Wouldn’t take much to push himself into a roll, just hup, one push of the legs. He used to do it all the time, might enjoy it. Johnnie refrained. Keep things serious and present.

Mrs. Slapp, he had forgotten about her. Perhaps she would come? She had not been for a while, as long as he could remember in fact. When was the last time?

Where was the last time?

It was here of course, surely, probably.

Don’t worry yourself. Stay calm. 

He would leave soon. The whole thing had gone on for far too long. Jonnie looked over his shoulder at the door.

What about the trunk! He had not taken time over it earlier. Not really. Not like he used to.

Johnnie crawled over to the trunk. Opened carefully with both hands.

Filled with notebooks, scraps, papers. Crumpled, torn, folded with care.

He plunged an arm into the froth. As he trawled, pencil stubs the size of ball bearings clattered into each other along the bottom gathering in the corners like spiders.

He pulled out a half a piece. Jagged along the top. Who was it this time? He studied it. It did not look like Johnnie’s handwriting.

‘I can’t remember her name, maybe I never knew it. She lived across the street. We attended different schools. She was one year younger than me. In the summer when I walked home, old enough to walk alone now, or cycle, that time of day when people start to relax after it being too hot. Oh honestly it really is too hot. In the summer you are allowed to start drinking earlier. Drink Collins’, Pimms. Drink in this way and it is what they call an aperitif. It’s fine everybody does it. Cradling a jug like a child. Did she hold me like that? I rounded the corner into our little avenue. Just caught a glimpse of the little boy next door darting inside his house already stripping off his uniform. You have to change if you want to go out and play.

I could hear her music from her garden. I couldn’t see her. But the visual leaked through grain of the high fencing. I could picture it perfectly. One of those reclining chairs, with six, yes six optimum relaxation positions. With 1 year free warrantee. An aperitif?

“She’s well developed for her age.”

“Dirty, old man!”

She shoved him playfully. “You say that in front of her Father!”

His laugh was like someone kicking a bucket of gravel. He pinched the end of his cigarette between his finger and thumb. Rolled it backwards and forwards, let the ash fall to the floor and pocketed the stub.’

Who was this?

Johnnie blinked. He had not seen this one before. The scene, the style.

He turned the sheet but the other side was bare. He examined the margins. Read it once more. Pay close attention to the white between the black, it is just as important, more so! Dipped it into the shaft of light which now dominated the room like a child looking for invisible ink. Nothing.

He laid it back in the white capped sea and sat against the wall, his legs out straight in front of him. Mouth opening and closing like a cod.

Concentration has been broken. Come back to the story.

What was the time?


He leaped up. Pain shot through his legs as he crossed the room in one stride. Blood shuffled slowly under his skin like glucose. 

Liar! Jonnie shook the piece, throttled it until its beat stopped. Let it slip from his hands and stared forwards at the wall while the clock met the floor and went about its noise.

He had always had a penchant for destruction.

He was thirsty, Hungry, they had brought food to him before. He used to have proud, effective enamel he used to eat well with and in style. But recently it was all the same. Always some kind of slop, easy on the mouth. Always something thrust in. Always there when he woke up. One time a fork! Couldn’t eat it with that. He had chuckled at that. Had to dip his head in like an animal, like a child who didn’t know better.

Nothing today. Or yesterday? Hard to tell.

Never mind. He limped back to his spot by the trunk.

Without looking he grabbed at the sheets. The oldest of lotteries.

‘I used to go up into the forest and spend time with their family, if my parents had known; they would never have let me go.

The father didn’t seem to mind me being around. He liked to show me his collection. I seemed more interested than the boy anyway. He introduced them to me one by one. They had strong, manly names like Winchester, Browning and Colt. He would take them apart for me show me their workings.

‘You’ve got to take care of them’ he would say.

“They’re historical artefacts. History is my background.”

He chuckled. Put the meet and greet on hold for a second, gave me a sideways look.

 See if he gets it. Give him a moment. No? Never mind.

He sat down in one of those dark brown wooden desk chairs, looked at me through large tinted glasses.

“You know, if these guys weren’t in the next room…”

He looked around, over Johnnie’s shoulder at the door.

What? What if you couldn’t? What if they weren’t?

His eyes came back to mine, like he had just noticed I was there in the room.

“I would feel trapped.”

I waited for the laugh, the slap on the back. ‘

What rot. He was embarrassed for the author. Where was the suspense?

What about Eddy? There had to be more in it. He was starting to like the boy! He grabbed Eddy. This is your world my boy. The limits to your world.His pencil was poised. One millimetre from the sheet. What now?

There was nothing. He felt sorry for the chap.

Johnnie was exhausted, his arm dropped and his head lolled like a new born.

From where he was propped he could see the horizon in the distance blush. By various deductions and recollections he knew that the firmament would be gradually changing to a deep cyanosis at the opposite pole.

Was it time to pack up? Hard to know the time now. Maybe six, more likely seven.

A job well done, he had just enough strength to thrust Eddy into the trunk. It made a slam like a coffin lid.

‘The hinges are sliding easily, I must have found some oil for them.’ Johnnie said to himself.

Said. To. Him-self. Unison out of the question. Make him say ‘I’ no longer, this is a farce. 

Johnnie stared at the bare mantle piece opposite where the clock had once stood. He had been rash, he was not too proud to deny that. It was becoming quieter now, the murmur from either side was winding down. He no longer had the tick or the tock (he enjoyed them both equally) for company.

With a languid twist of the head he glanced at the box.

A sheet of paper had got caught in the lid. Sticking out like a tongue teasing him.

Was there time for one more?

Was not sure he wanted one more.

He walked his fingers along the floor to the base of the box it was not far to go.

Reached and dragged out the piece. It looked the oldest of the lot. He had to handle it gently.

‘The facts –

The fire was warm.

The darkness was complete.

This we know, we sat round as usual and scrawled these truths in the spent charcoal to pass the time. We scrubbed it out we wrote it again. Then again.

There were four of us. The fire burned perpetually. At first we thought it was a case of waiting for dawn to break. Seems foolish now.

The one to my left would tell us the story about how he walked here; he was convinced he had walked.

We would stay silent as he spun his yarn.

It was speculation at first. None of us really knew. He had told himself the story so many times he had started to believe it.

It had started ‘what if we walked here? We must have walked here. You always start from somewhere. From our homes maybe?’

And now it was ‘I walked here, you all walked here too. Set out from your homes, got lost that’s all. It is easy to get lost, you’ve seen it out there!’

The same every time. He would even describe his home, his family. We knew it was all lies, just like he did. But we stayed quiet and listened. No harm in listening. If it helped, there was no harm.

He could get violent. That was the other fact. Although it was never said. Never written.

Walk back then. Why not?

Where to? You could walk away from the fire. Let the darkness swill about and bind you.

What if you walked so far that you could not see the fire what could that distance be? The horizon is closer than you think we would warn him. The curvature of the earth starts only 3 miles away.

What if you fell? What if you turned around by accident? Not even all the way around maybe a quarter turn. That would be enough.

You would never get back.

Even if you managed to walk straight. You walk long enough in a desert you end back at the start. That’s a fact, one leg dominant over the other. Gently, innocuously bending your path.

The one to my right once told us that even with unlimited fuel and an immortal astronaut you would never reach the edge of the universe.

We are not the world of the forms, there are no straight lines.

He would stay. He would always stay.’

It was not much to go on.

Johnnie exhaled slowly letting the sheet fall from his grasp. It was late now. Too late.

We, Johnnie, if only I could write, read, distract, there had been no games today, usually there were games. Distractions, Looked at his hands. Pronate at the wrist and then back again. Is it I that moves them, he that moves them, I, them, or are we two clocks side by side unconnected, random consequence, set to the same hour. Where is that cheeky bastard? The hands, arms, face, lay sprawled on the floor. How did I get here? He can’t remember. He was not calm, he had not stayed calm. It was a shame. A real shame. Slowing down, everything slowing down.

Spent, exhausted, his legs failed him, crawled back into bed. It was an effort. A terrible effort. Bent at the waist. Folded his knees up to his chest.

Why tell this story? There are other ones in you.

Thenocturne began.

The day had been a Mobius strip. Well done.

Progress is a circle.

Word count: 4058

How does Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy use scepticism of language to question traditional theories of consciousness?

All I know is what the words know.

Samuel Beckett was one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century; his highly ambiguous texts invite a multitude of interpretations. This, combined with an absolute refusal to explain his work, has contributed to a vast number of critical readings being published on Beckett. In fact, no other writer has provoked such a large amount of critical comment, explanation and exegesis in such a short time (Esslin, 1965: 1). The labels that critics have tried to pin Beckett down with include ‘nouveau romancier’, ‘Cartesian’, ‘existentialist’, ‘Nihilist’, ‘dramatist of the absurd’ (Katz 1999: 3). Yet his writing continues to elude analytic closure. For me, the most fascinating aspect of Beckett’s writing and the one that is most relevant to my own workis the exhibition of a number of philosophical theories of language.

Beckett’s texts may initially be read as an effort to express subjective experience employing Modernist devices such as stream of consciousness. But on closer inspection they can be seen to elucidate the limits of language and the impossibility of the expression of this subjectivity. What Beckett aspires to is “an art unresentful of its insuperable indigence and too proud of giving and receiving” (Beckett 1999: 112). Beckett acknowledges that the only medium with which to express is language, and that this system is inherently flawed. He wishes to create a bold new art which displays clearly this inadequacy and does not subscribe to any traditional literary style or aesthetic. This is what I believe he means by ‘too proud of giving and receiving’. He is not necessarily concerned with the experience of the reader, certainly, at times I found reading Beckett extremely uncomfortable, rather he wishes to make a statement about literature and its foundation of language.

Despite his provocative claim to a rather insistent French interviewer that he ‘never read the philosophers; I don’t understand what they write’ (Fletcher 1965: 43), I believe Beckett’s work to be saturated with philosophical influence. This denial should not be taken as a serious claim and rather be interpreted as another refusal to explain his work.

This essay will be broken into two interrelating sections, the first of which will be a discussion on how the theories of philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Mauthner have influenced Beckett. The second will be a discussion on how scepticism of language adopted from their writings is used to question traditional theories of self such as Descartes’ cogito. First however, I wish to discuss why I decided to study Beckett and why his writing is relevant to my work.

My first encounter with Samuel Beckett was attending a production of his play Waiting for Godot (1953)at the Theatre Royal Brighton in 2008, which is arguably Beckett’s most widely known work and a production that brought him world fame. After that I read more of his dramatic pieces including Endgame (1994)and Krapps Last Tape (2009) which I was fortunate enough to see performed by Michael Gambon in 2010. I believe Samuel Beckett’s work has influenced much of my writing style ever since. The short, sharp rhythm of my writing along with the use of repetition is derived from Beckett. However, it is the settings of my pieces that display the most obvious influence. My piece planet Snow for example, which I wrote in my second year, draws clear similarities with Beckett’s Act Without Words (1994)where the solitary figure continually tries to leave a stage but always fails (Robinson 1969:31) and this device continues in Chartacre.Clear similarities can also be drawn between Chartacre and Krapps Last Tape in which an old man alone on stage listens to and reflects on recordings he made at different stages throughout his life. What fascinates me about Beckett’s work is that in his pieces we do not have the usual distractions of fiction, marriages, society, and travel, we have a study of the human condition and the mind (Robinson 1969: 21). Within the trilogy we can see a descent into something past literature; ‘Molloy is still Literature, a consciously written description of an extreme situation; The Unnameable in its gasping breathless anguish has ceased to pretend’ (Robinson 1969: 140). Beckett attempts to remove traditional novel characteristics, omitting progressive plots and clear, defined characters. If James Joyce’s Modernist masterpiece Ulysses was an attempt to put everything into a book, Beckett’s trilogy is an attempt to keep everything out (Robinson 1969: 144). In The Unnameable we are presented with a character who does not know where or what he is, he is blind and can barely move. Here is a novel that probes with unprecedented intensity the fundamentals of consciousness and self-consciousness, the feeling of ‘I am’ (McDonald 2006: 104).

However, the reading experience of these texts at times proved incredibly laborious. Indeed, when reading for long periods of time, in particular the unceasing woof of words in The Unnameable, Beckett’s writing had a certain hypnotic effect not dissimilar to a having a nightmare. In Chartacre, I wanted to write a piece that embodied some of the characteristics of Beckett’s fiction, but that was slightly more palatable to a wider readership. In preparation for this I read much of Beckett’s published prose including First Love (2000), Murphy (1957), Stories and Texts for Nothing (1967)and More Pricks Than Kicks (2010) As well as, of course, his trilogy of novels Molloy (1955), Malone Dies (1956)and The Unnameable (1958). Also useful in gaining insight into the philosophical basis of his work was Beckett’s study of Marcel Proust, Proust (1999). Chartacre was also inspired by post modern authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and John Barth, whose collection of short stories Labyrinths (2000)and Lost in the Funhouse (1988) respectivelycan be seen to embody, and analyse certain theories of the self and the mind. Borrowing its title from the name of the collection, Barth’s ‘Lost in the Funhouse’in particular was useful to me. Within this story, the reader is constantly reminded of the fictionality of the tale, pushing the process of an author writing to the forefront of the stories. When describing his protagonist Ambrose negotiating his way through the funhouse the narrator comments: ‘Is there really such a person as Ambrose, or is he a figment of the author’s imagination?’ (Barth 1988: 88) In this respect, similarities can be drawn between Beckett and Barth. In Beckett’s trilogy all his characters are engaged in some form of writing (Molloy in his Mother’s room, Malone in his room/cell, and so on). The Post modern literary device of flaunting a text’s fictional nature (in the case of Barth, explicitly mentioning the author in the text) subverts the novels traditional role as a suspension of disbelief. It can be read as a study of the relationship between author and character (Waugh 1984: 22), and whether these entities can ever be two disparate beings or if they inevitably and necessarily blend. This exploration into the relationship between author and character is a clear theme in my own work. The narrator of Chartacre and the protagonist Johnnie seem to have a very close connection, at times almost overlapping each other. When Johnnie is reflecting upon the trunk in his room, the narrator interrupts: ‘Boredom. Action please.’ This draws attention to the fact that Johnnie is a creation of the narrator, or it could be read that the narrator and Johnnie are different facets of the same psyche. The characters of the trilogy certainly blend together and at times it is hard to know who is speaking. Malone, when considering his imminent death reflects;‘It will all be over with the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans unless it goes on beyond the grave’ (Beckett 1956: 217). The fact that Beckett’s character’s names are so similar could imply that they are the same character but presented at different times. Or that the past characters are inventions of Malone and that in past books Beckett has been writing as a pseudonymous narrator. It could even be speculated that the two characters that Molloy watches from the cliff at the beginning of Molloy, ‘A’ and ‘C’ represent the meeting between an ‘author’ and a ‘character’ (Hesla 1971: 102). I have included an aspect of self-reflexivity into my work with numerous instances of authorial intrusion, in a hope that like Barth and Beckett’s work, Chartacre may be read as a study of the writing process.

So, for Beckett, realist literature is finished. It is a superficial form of expression and is redundant to learning about our own existence.

To read Balzac is to receive the impression of a chloroformed world. He is absolute master of his material, he can do what he likes with it… he can write the end of his book before he has finished the first paragraph, because he has turned all his creatures into clockwork cabbages… The whole thing from beginning to end, takes place in a spellbound backwash. (Beckett cited in Ben-Zvi 1980: 186)

Realist novelists travel along, what Beckett described in a conversation with art critic George Duthuit as ‘the dreary road’ (1965: 103), often reflecting life against a backdrop which possesses a solidity absent in life. What Beckett attempts to achieve in the trilogy is an escape from this ‘backwash’, this ‘dreary road’. He wishes to write a self-reflexive fiction. Only a Fiction that reflects the limits of language and accepts its own failings can be mimetic of the reality we live in. This is why, often on a very basic level, Beckett’s characters struggle to communicate with each other:

Is it your mother’s name? Said the sergeant, it must have been a sergeant. Molloy, I cried, my name is Molloy. Is that your mother’s name? Said the sergeant. Yes I said, now I remember. And your mother? Said the sergeant. I didn’t follow. (Beckett: 1955: 19).

This encounter, though comical, serves to highlight the difficulty with which Beckett’s characters attempt to communicate. This exchange early on in Molloy manages to reveal to the reader the lack of clarity that is to follow throughout the trilogy. If the protagonist of our tale is unable to answer such elementary questions such as this, then there is no hope for any kind of coherent narrative. A sense of confusion seems to underlie all interactions between Beckett’s characters. There are even points in the text when Moran struggles to communicate with the reader. For instance when he is describing his encounter in the woods where he murders the charcoal burner. He apologizes for his inarticulation: ‘I am sorry I cannot indicate more clearly how this result was obtained, it would have been something worth reading’ (Beckett 1955: 145).

I have tried to adopt this scepticism of language in Chartacre and create a similar sense of confusion. The position Johnnie is in, where imperceptible sound filters through to him from two opposite walls, can be read as an allegory for this struggle to communicate; the anecdote about the father trying to explain perspective to his son is another clear example.

This attempt to escape from realist conventions in the trilogy and adopt a scepticism of language can be linked to Wittgenstein’s theory of language, which I believe had an enormous influence on Beckett. In his text Tractatus Logico – philosophicus (1969) Wittgenstein argues that ‘all philosophy is a critique of language’ (37). What Wittgenstein is claiming is that when philosophers discuss theories and encounter problems they are merely exposing the limited system of communication within which they are confined, that of language. And any philosophical ‘truths’ are merely an act of sophistry, linguistic tricks which may seem logically plausible but in fact are based upon the unreliable foundations of language. This may go some way to explaining the motivation behind some of what must be the most highly repetitive, interminable passages of literature ever penned. The famous section of Molloy where the protagonist is sucking stones comes to mind:

I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes on this occasion I laid in considerable store. I distributed them equally among my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I solved in the following way. I had sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two of my greatcoat… (1947: 63 -64)

And so continues the narrative in this way for nine pages, describing our protagonist’s meticulous process of stone sucking making sure that he does not suck one stone more than once. This is an attempt by Beckett not only to reveal the unsound mind of Molloy, but more importantly to ‘render language useless by reducing [it] to meaningless sounds’ (Skerl 1974: 480). The repetitions become completely nonsensical and the words achieve a merely rhythmic function. For me, this section becomes a broader statement on the use of language in general. The extensive passage ends as would seem only appropriate in a contradictory anti-climax: ‘But deep down, I didn’t give a fiddlers curse’ (69). This typically Beckettian punch line underlines that through this long discussion almost nothing had been achieved or communicated. This kind of punch line is employed on a much larger scale during the second part of Molloy, which is the story of Moran. The story written from Moran’s perspective is a report on his search for Molloy. The first line of this report reads: ‘It is Midnight. The rain is beating on the windows’ (Beckett 1947: 87) and when Moran returns home and the story closes it ends; ‘it was not midnight, it was not raining’ (170). With this conclusion the entire report is completely undone. ‘Molloy is not a novel; rather it is an account of the way in which an ‘author’ (Moran) failed again in his effort to write’ (Hesla 1971: 102). Beckett presents us with a narrator who tells a story, then at the very end in just eight words admits that it was all an act of deception. Or, if not an active attempt at deception, then merely a failure to communicate. Chartacre adopts a similar circular structure to the one in Molloy, Johnnie ends back where he starts in his bed with the narrator admitting ‘the day had been a Mobius strip’. I hope some readers may interpret the tale as a Beckettian style joke such as the one employed in Molloy. Throughout most of Chartacre readers will be kept in suspense, waiting for Johnnie to leave the room. He expresses his wish to from the outset and attempts to do so a number of times. Readers may be curious as to whether Johnnie will have an encounter with Mrs. Slapp or perhaps hoping that the source of the noises coming through the walls will be revealed. The punch line comes when readers realise that Johnnie will never leave the room and all his talk and preparation has been meaningless.

Less well known but of equal importance to Beckett was Fritz Mauthner, a precursor to Wittgenstein. We know Beckett was familiar with Mauthner’s work, Richard Ellman reveals that in 1932 the nearly blind James Joyce would ask Beckett to read him excerpts from his work (Ben-Zvi 1980: 183). Mauthner posits in his short publication Contributions toward a Critique of Language that philosophers have; ‘Failed to question the very premises on which their metaphysical speculations were based, because they did not analyse language itself’ (Cited in Ben-Zvi 1980: 184). In his critique Mauthner asserts that the meaning of a word is created merely through social consensus and that fundamentally there is no relationship between a word and the thing it describes. Jennie Skerl believes that Mauthner’s critique shows that:

Reality cannot be known through language as there is no one to one relationship between words and things and the existence of a word did not establish the existence of a corresponding entity (1974: 476).

So if we consider the discrepancy between language and reality that philosophy seems to have ignored up to this point we realise that no outer reality can be known or can be discussed. True discussion of reality has been rendered ineffable as we are confined within language to exchange ideas and learn about the world. In this respect philosophical questions can be viewed as questions without content (Ben-Zvi 1980: 184) and metaphysical propositions are nonsense because they attempt to say something that cannot be said.

Beckett adheres to the propositions of Wittgenstein and Mauthner and writes with the belief that all language is a catachresis (Katz 1999: 11). Literature is a fraud. Words are seen to adopt a symbolic role in the Yeatsian sense where ‘dumb things [are given] voices and bodiless things bodies’ (Yeats cited in Katz 1999: 11). Writers attempt to transfer information to the reader, but the reader will never truly understand the expression of the writer because their system of communication is based on language. This theory is echoed almost word for word in Molloy when the protagonist claims that there are; ‘No things but nameless things, no names but thingless names’ (Beckett 1955: 27). What Beckett wants to engage with in his texts is the impossibility of sharing subjective experience with another individual. In the trilogy this issue is discussed and toyed with from the outset. Chaos is king and the chances of a singular, clear reading are slim to say the least. This reflects what Patricia Waugh describes as the post modern attitude to language; ‘Language is not simply a set of empty words filled with meaning, it actually dictates and circumscribes what can be said and therefore perceived’ (Waugh 1984: 25). For Beckett to communicate his ideas and characters to us to us as readers we must consider that our interpretation of his texts will be tarnished by Beckett’s ability to express himself within the constraints of language, as well as our ability to interpret his writing; ‘The simple notion that language passively reflects a coherent, meaningful and objective world is no longer tenable’ (Waugh 1984: 3). The words we use to try and attempt to communicate with another individual are merely labels and have no real connection with the things they describe.

The scepticism of language can have far reaching consequences. If a knowledge of external reality cannot be known then what of the inner reality? Within the trilogy we can see a deconstruction of what is arguably the basis of western philosophy: Descartes’ Cogito and the concept of a unitary ‘self’ or ‘I’.

Man's inner self is equally unknowable through language. Since all words originate in observation of the physical world and are designed to describe external reality, there is no language with which to describe the inner world. (Skerl 1974: 477)

Fundamental in Descartes’ famous cogito is the assertion of a unitary self. The steady constant ‘I’ which lays foundation for his famous claim: ‘I think therefore I am’. The theory is nullified by Mauthner who believed: ‘there is no psyche or self to be perceived or found; the "self" does not refer to anything real’ (Skerl 1974: 477). So according to Mauthner this ‘self’, like all other language, is merely an adjectival term and has no relation to the actual workings of the mind.

Beckett wants to test this premise with his writing. In all of Beckett’s texts that I have read the notion of a unitary self is contemplated and discussed in an almost obsessive way; Fletcher claims that ‘the “Descartes myth”, it is no exaggeration to say, underlies the whole of Beckett’s work’ (1965: 50). The characters in the trilogy are presented as an amalgamation of different voices and what you might call ‘vice-characters’. As previously mentioned, at times it is very difficult to decipher who is talking. For instance, the relationship between Molloy and Moran in Molloy is extremely ambiguous. Molloy is split into two parts, the first of which is from the point of view of Molloy written from his mother’s bedroom and the second half is told from the point of view of Moran. Moran is hired by the mysterious Youdi (whom we never meet) to locate the missing Molloy. However, he never finds his charge and instead comes to resemble more and more the subject of his pursuit to the point where the two characters would seem interchangeable. A number of critics have offered theories as to what the link between the two characters is. Hugh Kenner asserts that ‘Molloy is what Moran turns into when he goes looking for Molloy’ (Hesla 1971: 96), suggesting that the two characters are both part of the same psyche. Read in this way Molloy can be seen to be a story where we have an image of ‘utter dispossession from consciousness of one’s own memory, experiences and even name’ (Katz 1999: 74). Beckett introduces us to fragmented characters to question the idea of a unified self. Arguably, considering an individual as constantly fluctuating, changing with time and experience, is a more realistic presentation of the self than the unitary self forwarded by Descartes. This belief is explored in some of Beckett’s earliest writing, such as his study on Proust first published in 1931. Although the following passage is on the subject of ‘attainment’, the act of achieving something one desires, it goes some way to elucidating Beckett’s view of the transforming psyche:

The aspirations of yesterday were valid for yesterday’s ego, not for today’s. We are disappointed at the nullity of what we are pleased to call attainment But what is attainment? The identification of the subject with the object of his desire. The subject has died – and perhaps many times along the way. For subject B to be disappointed by the banality of an object chosen by subject A is as illogical as to expect one’s hunger to be dissipated by the spectacle of Uncle eating his dinner (Beckett 1999: 13-14).

When we realise Beckett’s view of the ever changing ‘self’ a clearer image is seen of the characters in the trilogy. Beckett’s characters are the expression of a mutating psyche, with numerous voices and thoughts vying for attention. It could even be argued that all these characters are the same being merely presented at different times or under different circumstances. This may go some way to explain the downwardly spiralling structure of the trilogy. Molloy and Moran show a certain ability to articulate themselves, they are physically able and have definitive spatial settings (in and around the town of Bally). In Malone dies we are presented with a character that cannot move very much and he is unsure where he is: ‘this room seems to be mine. I can find no other explanation for being left in it….this is a plain, private room, in what appears to be a plain, ordinary house’ (Beckett 1956: 175-176). Finally, in The Unnameable we have a character that has no clue where he is and is a model of almost complete inertia. In this respect Beckett seems to be employing a theme that would be expanded upon by Thomas Pynchon in the 1960’s and 70’s; the theme of entropy. Entropy in its original sense is a term associated with thermodynamics; ‘the irreversible tendency of a system, including the universe, toward increasing disorder and inertness’ (Tanner 1971: 141). In all Pynchon’s texts we encounter characters occupying a world succumbing to entropy (Tanner 1971:153). So in every sense the trilogy adopts the structure of an entropic system, of running down. His figures slowly lose their physical faculties and finally they lose a sense of self. Clear parallels can be drawn here with Chartacre whose protagonist Johnnie, as the day progresses, is clearly enacting some entropic process. At the end of my piece, I have treated this somewhat ironically by speeding up the narrative as Johnnie slows down physically and mentally.

It is in The Unnameable, the final book of the trilogy, where the theories of Wittgenstein and Mauthner are pushed furthest,where the dissolution of selfhood is the sole narrative. The story opens:

Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on… I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me… (Beckett 1958: 285)

The narrative continues like this for over one hundred and thirty pages, one hundred of which make up a single monolithic of a paragraph. Unrelenting, barely pausing. Perhaps as close as you could get to an unmediated stream of consciousness. In fact the last four pages of the book are one continuous sentence. This is a character merely trying to talk above a silence; ‘to fill a vacuum left by the crumbling away of movement’ (Robinson 1969: 197). Strange, grotesque anecdotes are told about characters called ‘Mahood’ and ‘Worm’. The story about Mahood’s journey home for instance; Mahood travels in ever decreasing spirals to his family home, where his family are watching his progress. But before he reaches his destination his family all die, ‘carried off by sausage poisoning, in great agony’ (Beckett 1958: 316). But the characters in these stories seem always to end up blending with the protagonist of The Unnameable, and ultimately the identity of the narrator is indecipherable. He comments at one point: ‘Perhaps it’s by trying to be Worm that I’ll succeed in being Mahood’ (Beckett 1958: 333). These characters are merely different facets of the same psyche. Notice that I am careful not to call the protagonist of The Unnameable, the Unnameable. This term should not be used as the name of Beckett’s character. Rather it is a term used to show that the definition of this figure is outside language.The confusion of self and mind pushed to these extremes creates an extremely uncomfortable reading experience. Katz believes that ‘it is no doubt due to the logocentric investments in the conception of voice in Western metaphysics that Beckett’s handling of it in the trilogy is so disturbing’ (1999: 84). When we are presented with a figure that cannot define himself and cannot express himself in one clear voice it upsets us on a very elemental level.

I certainly would not like to inflict a reading experience such as this on a reader. But the concept of this piece is very appealing to me: the belief in the human mind as ever changing and ineffable, as something outside language. In Chartacre I have tried to imitate this unstable and inexpressible self. I hope that while Johnnie works his way through the stories he finds in his trunk and tells his anecdotes readers will see similarities between the different characters and question what their relationship could be. For instance the father in the park has poor eyesight, as does Johnnie: ‘[He] ogled into the white sheet for a long while. He had to squint, his eyes had never been good.’ Chartacre is ambiguous as to whether the stories Johnnie tells and finds in the trunk are personal experiences of his own, events he had been witness to or even fictions he has made up.

What I would like to make clear as I conclude this essay is that Beckett’s texts are confusing. This may seem a brazenly obvious point to make at first glance, but consider that this confusion is part of their function. The texts of Beckett’s trilogy are not simply esoteric works, mazes that can only be comprehended by an individual with a firm grounding in philosophy of language. When writing about the dissolution of self-hood, ambiguity and confusion is arguably the only appropriate atmosphere in which to write. Beckett attempts to write about the ineffable nature of experience, so as McDonald asserts: ‘to engage fruitfully with Beckett’s work does not necessarily mean to decode them’ (McDonald 2006: 3). It is worthwhile remembering that Beckett said himself: ‘danger is in the neatness of identifications’ (cited in Brater 1978: 249). So perhaps the innumerable critical responses to his work are an example of what Mauthner believes is one of the worst human attributes, ‘the desire to know and speak with absolute certainty’ (cited in Skerl 1974: 479). Personally I find it somewhat comforting to know that the human psyche is inexpressible and that not all can be explained through critical analysis. Arguably we should welcome the confusion that the trilogy brings and I hope the ambiguities of Chartacre will go some way to making this point also.

I could not finish this essay without mentioning the glaring paradox that underlies Beckett, Wittgenstein and Mauthner’s work. That of using language to discuss the inadequacies of language. Initially, this may seem an absurd and illogical process somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Cretans paradox’: ‘Cretan says: “All Cretans are liars”’ (Katz 1999: 76). But it may be worthwhile considering the penultimate entry of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually realizes them as nonsensical, when he had used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) (Wittgenstein 1969: 151).

So Wittgenstein understands that his claims are effectively nonsensical as he is confined within language to make his critique. All he asks is that we are aware of the ineffability of reality both inner and outer and are not naïve and pompous enough to make metaphysical propositions without considering the limitations of language. Once this is done and a reader has, as Wittgenstein puts it, ‘thrown away the ladder after he has climbed up it’, a more accurate view of reality can be achieved.

Perhaps it may be useful to consider the trilogy with its unrelenting, nonsensical study of language as Beckett’s own ladder.

Word count: 4973


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Ben Westlake


brightONLINE student literary journal

06 Oct 2011