‘Samuel Beckett: Physics and Poetics’ by Nikolai Duffy

9 Nov 2012

 Nikolai Duffy


This essay addresses the influence of Beckett’s engagement with physics, particularly during the 1930s but also more broadly throughout his career, on the development of his own writing style and mature poetics.

In conversation with Georges Duthuit, Beckett famously remarked ‘there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’ Over the years, this statement has been read in numerous ways, and it is arguable that it has in fact been over-read as an aesthetic manifesto that casts interpretative light on Beckett’s project as a whole. Irrespective of the complexities or problems that underpin such an over-determined reading, however, what is of particular interest about this statement for my purposes here is simply that, for Beckett, language in its common form is not fit for purpose. As Beckett puts it in the famous ‘German Letter of 1937’, language is increasingly ‘a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind.’ And as Beckett continues in the same letter, his task is to experiment with ‘grammar and style’ in order that he might ‘drill one hole after another into [language] until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through – I cannot,’ Beckett adds, ‘imagine a higher goal for today’s writer.’[1] In interview with Israel Shenker in 1956 Beckett implicitly recalls this task of the writer when he remarked how he considered himself working with impotence, ignorance. More often than not such a rhetoric of ignorance or impotence tends to be read in the context of Beckett’s reading of Geulincx, Bruno and Berkeley, particularly the latter’s sense that objects of sense perception have no existence outside the mind that perceives them (as expressed in shorthand by his famous dictum so central to Beckett’s work, esse est percipi). More to the point, such ‘ignorance’ or ‘impotence’ is most frequently understood as being directly continuous with Beckett’s avowed aim to excavate the something or nothing of language and which has been referred to variously by critics as indicative of Beckett’s poetics of unknowing, ignorance and residua, as well as an intersected ‘poetics of exhaustion and a poetics of persistence’, but which might equally be thought of as a ‘poetics of particles,’ that is, a poetics of discrete parts, bottom lines, the tiny stuff of things, groundings.[2] The problem for Beckett, though, is that such ‘stuff – language’s something or nothing – is practically impossible to realise. Language, that is to say, is never still, never stalled: still here, still stilling, still going on. There is always a word too many and any line of observation is ineluctably unbalanced by interference. Thus the methodological question of how best to drill into language to bring about this exposure becomes the cornerstone of the writer’s motivation and practice.

It is this preoccupation with exposure which also steers Beckett’s repeated interest in the history of physics. As David Bohm once remarked, ‘Revolutionary changes in physics have always involved the perception of a new order and attention to the development of new ways of using language that are appropriate to the communication of such order.’[3] Equally, Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, first published in 1927, states how it is not possible to know the exact position and motion of something at the same time. For Heisenberg, the subatomic world of quantum mechanics goes against the grain of common sense. Throwing into question classical concepts such as mass, location and velocity, it demands a departure from the standard language and imagery of physics. Thus Heisenberg argued that events in space-time at the subatomic level could not be conveyed in ordinary language or imagery because their effects are not perceived by our senses. Crucially, for Heisenberg uncertainty is not to be understood so much as an epistemic lack but rather as a deficiency in scientific description. As Heisenberg put it in an interview:

the point is we are bound up with a language, we are hanging in the language. If we want to do physics, we must describe our experiments and the results to other physicists, so that they can be verified or checked by others. At the same time, we know that the words we use to describe the experiments have only a limited range of applicability. That is a fundamental paradox which we have to confront. We cannot avoid it; we have simply to cope with it, to find what is the best thing we can do about it.[4]

Beckett’s task, I would like to suggest, is little different.

Since donation in 1988 to James Knowlson of the so-called ‘Whoroscope’ notebook, with its 7 ½ pages of notes on modern physics largely drawn from Henri Poincaré’s La Valeur de Science (1902), interest in Beckett’s engagement with the new physics has been steadily increasing and a number of studies have emerged over the last 20 or so years exploring this area of Beckett’s writing. The majority of these studies, though, have tended to work at the level of content rather than form, identifying direct or allusive references to modern physics in a number of Beckett’s works. To a large extent, the Whorscope notebook encourages this approach: the Poincaré notes are labelled by Beckett ‘FOR INTERPOLATION’, which is to say, they are notes to be included, in various guises, in his own writing.

My main point here, though, is simply that a re-consideration of Beckett’s creative response to developments in modern physics provides one very specific ground for understanding the particular development and underlying trajectory of Beckett’s poetics: the way he wrote and why he chose to write quite like that. Such an understanding, I would like to suggest, opens up interesting ways for thinking about new and innovative methods of writing which both reflect and structurally incorporate some of the central ideas which define the contemporary period. What I would like to suggest is that, like Beckett’s texts – in particular the late prose works but also more broadly across all his writings – in its language, imagery, syntax and structure, quantum physics trembles precariously at the edge of life, an interplay of falling and forming, and as such functions as both critical context and corollary for approaching Beckett’s late writings and experimental poetics more generally.

Various examples from Beckett’s texts could be chosen to illustrate the proximity between developments in quantum physics and Beckett’s aesthetic landscape. In Dream of Fair to Middling Women, for example, Belacqua passes comment on the ‘incoherent continuum’ he sees explored by Rimbaud, Holderlin and especially the later Beethoven, specifically in relation to the nothing and the incoherence that lurks behind language and all empirical systems. As Belacqua puts it, Beethoven’s art is ‘a blizzard of electrons; then vespertine compositions eaten away with terrible silences.[5]’  Or as Beckett puts it in the celebrated letter of 9th July 1937 to Axel Kaun regarding the ways in which ‘the sound surface of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that […] we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence.’[6] ‘Of course, for the time being,’ Beckett continues, ‘one makes do with little. At first, it can only be a matter of somehow inventing a method of verbally demonstrating this scornful attitude vis-à-vis the word. In this dissonance of instrument and usage perhaps one will already be able to sense a whispering of the end-music or of the silence underlying all.’[7] In other terms, it is a search for beginnings, for a world free of semantic layerings, conventions, habits; a world stripped back, bare. It is not dissimilar to the physicist’s aim to see the world as it is, outside fields and forces, exposed in a very literal sense.

The particular concern of physics in Beckett’s work is also a concern with first principles, laws, and systems. In opposition to the Epicurean principle that equilibrium holds sway and that the sum of things is and will be always the same, Beckett inhabits a physics which challenges each and any notion of a stable universe. In part, this stems from his reading of the Greek atomists with their sense of the Plenum, the Void, and a universe always shifting and changing; but it also stems from the influence of the quantum world of subatomic particles where gravity does not hold. Space is immense, and split, neither quite mapped nor understood, what Molloy terms the ‘namelessness’ of ‘waves and particles.’[8] From this perspective the range of Beckett’s works which might be said to reflect, whether directly or indirectly, the same concerns in terms of poetics might include the calcified voice of the poems in Echo’s Bones, the third zone of Murphy’s mind, Lucky’s soliloquy in Godot, the unimaginable zero towards which Endgame appears inevitably to steer, the grammatical disjunctions and ellipses of Not I, the simultaneously self-propelling and self-annihilating syntax of The Unnamable, the non-assemblage fragments in How It Is, the mathematically precise and over-determined spatial precision of The Lost Ones, Quad, and All Strange Away, the reverberating landscape of Still, and the non-representational landscape of Worstward Ho! with its recourse to notational ‘blanks’ and, ultimately, dashes.

In fact, Worstward Ho! is a particularly striking and apposite example here. As Ruud Hisgen and Adriaan van der Weel have commented, Worstward Homight be read as ‘an exercise in establishing to what extent it is possible to disconnect the representational ties that bind language to our shared knowledge of the world.’[9] As Ackerley and Gontarski have noted, ‘the closer to emptying the void of man, boy, woman, skull, the closer void comes to an entity imagined in language. The desire to worsen language and its images generates an expansion of imaginative activity in its attempt to order experience.’[10]

Such an attempt to order experience, along with failure to do so, also lies at the centre of Beckett’s 1972 text, ‘Still,’ which begins with the scene of a body sitting bolt upright in a chair, looking out of a window, and watching the sun set. It is ‘quite dark’, ‘quite quiet’, ‘quite still’, but also, therefore, not quite fully any of these: neither this nor that but hesitant, uncertain, something among other things, still life, or life still, as in the persistence of the body, despite itself, ‘trembling all over’. Stillness is never still enough. Just as Maurice Blanchot knew how there is something like a word which cannot be pronounced, so there is always a trembling which neither stills nor stalls. And, anyway, even if it were possible to talk oneself into silence, ‘to be silent is still to speak.’[11] Or as John Cage put it, ‘there is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.’[12] Equally, as Susan Sontag has developed, neither is there any such thing as empty space. ‘As long as a human eye is looking there is always something to see. To look at something that’s “empty” is still to be looking, still to be seeing something – if only the ghosts of one’s own expectations.’[13]

Beckett’s text is the record of a body in a room, sat at a window and trembling. As with notions such as absolute zero, stillness is an impossible state to attain. Even stripped back there is still too much, too much breathing, too much trembling, too much of an eye that opens and closes, that watches the light go down and the night fall. Properly speaking, stillness is a site between spaces, movements, definitions. It resists category. In many senses, faced with this impossibility, ‘Still’ turns around half-formed questions of vision, notation, movement, and space, taken frame by frame, still by still. Indeed, as with Beckett’s so-called ‘syntax of weakness’ the intonation of ‘still’ corresponds to a double movement, an oscillating movement back and forth between here and there, trembling and still, unravelling, receding, starting over, both a duration and a waiting, and finally, Beckett writes, ‘not still at all, but trembling all over.’

In his 1721 essay, ‘De Motu’, Bishop George Berkeley claims that ‘the physicist studies the series or successions of sensible things, noting by what laws they are connected, and in what order, what precedes as cause, and what follows as effect’.[14] Throughout that essay, Berkeley contends that notions of absolute space and time are, in themselves, without meaning. For Berkeley only sense experience may underwrite meaning. Since neither space nor time has any foundation in sense experience, Berkeley argues, there is no reason to accept them as meaningful words. As Berkeley goes on to develop, rather, all empirical signification is entirely conditional on effects . Writing nearly two hundred years later, Ernst Mach remarked how ‘the intuition of space is bound up with the organisation of the senses […] We are not justified,’ Mach goes on, ‘in ascribing spatial properties to things which are not perceived by the senses.’[15] Similarly, theories of metric expansion suggest the opening out of the universe is intrinsic: it is defined, simply, as the relative separation of its own parts rather than any motion outward into something else. It is also possible for a distance to exceed the speed of light multiplied by the age of the universe, which means that light from one part of space might still be arriving at distant locations. As the universe expands and the scale of what is observable contracts, the distance to the edge of what can be seen gets closer and closer. While this may sound potentially instructive, when the edge of what is observable becomes smaller than a body, gravitation is unbound and falling away becomes scattering. All this said, however, and where, for instance, various critical responses have read this trajectory in Beckett as indicative of a narrative which provides ‘the tools [which] implement its own abolition’,[16] it is worth stating that there is no absolute necessity to correlate empirical limits and unknowability with narrative futility or possibility as, arguably, they most frequently are in Beckett Studies. It is to be understood, rather, as potentially something less loaded, less essentially meaningful, more matter of fact, just ‘how it is’, or at the very least, just how it feels to be.

In Beckett’s text, and across his work more generally, language slips; it screens a spacing of movement that, like the incoherent continuum, excepts identity, that turns inside out the common structures of reference and designation and leaves them hanging. As with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, it can be heard, but not located, or vice versa. As Nikki Santilli notes, ‘the loss of prepositions and punctuation marks serve to invite a reasoning rather than a reading of the text, despite the fact that [the] result may be more “atomistic” than associative.’[17] H. Porter Abbott labels such sites in Beckett ‘egregious gaps’. For Abbott, these gaps are essentially what might be termed a ‘felt empiricism’, a loose, idiosyncratic version, perhaps of Berkeley’s notion of empirical signification. As Abbott comments, ‘this art of the egregious gap has less to do with signifying nothing there than nothing known – less to do with nothingness as an actual void, empirical or metaphysical, than with creating a felt conviction of the inability to know whether there is an actual void out there or something else, of whatever degree of strangeness.’[18] In ‘Still’ the disproportion between the unspeakable and the specificity of textual notation marks out the question of how to get from ‘silence’ to ‘resting place’, highlighting less the hesitancy of description than the inability to remain still, silent, the rift of the look that turns back and stares and sounds. In doing so, Beckett precipitates the course of the world within the folds of what escapes, of what emerges.

The seventeenth century Jesuit priest, mathematician and physicist, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, theorised that diffraction is the bending of waves around obstacles and the spreading out of waves past small openings. The effects of diffraction are most definite where the wavelength is of a similar size to the diffracting object. Small particles in the air can cause a bright ring to be visible around a bright light source such as the sun or a halogen lamp. The word “diffraction” comes from the Latin diffringere, meaning “to break into pieces”.

In 1783 the English natural philosopher John Michell wrote a letter to Henry Cavendish, in which he set out the expected properties of what he termed ‘dark stars’. Michell calculated that when the escape velocity at the surface of a star was equal to or greater than the speed of light, the generated light would be gravitationally trapped, so that the star would not itself be directly visible. Dark stars, like the black holes they prefigure, can be understood as sites of silence, places where language fails or, perhaps more properly, ‘breaks free’.

Dark energy is a more modern way of filling in the blanks. In other words, dark energy is nothing less than the cost of having empty space. The way things are is the way they were when light left them and the present is the experience of light’s past. For Beckett, such myriad displacements are not to be explained in writing but represented as fathom, literally, as that which embraces what falls through the cracks.

Nikolai Duffy’s first chapbook, the little shed of various lamps, was published by The Red Ceilings Press in 2011. His poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Blackbox ManifoldInk Sweat & TearsJacketMosaicShearsman, and Stride. He is the founding editor of Like This Press (www.likethispress.co.uk). He teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University.


[1] Lois Overbeck et. Al (eds.), The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. 1: 1929-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p.518.

[2] Mark Nixon, Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936-7 (London: Continuum, 2011) p.82; Dirk Van Hulle, ‘Samuel Beckett’s Faust Notes,’ Notes Divers Holo (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006) p.291; Daniela Caselli, Beckett’s Dantes: Intertextuality in the Fiction and Criticism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005) p.249.  ‘Exhaustion and persistence’ is a quote from Peter Boxall, Since Beckett: Contemporary Writing in the Wake of Modernism (London: Continuum, 2009) p.1. As Gerhard Hoffman puts it, ‘Beckett is famous for repetition as a compositional matrix that signifies exhaustion.’ See Gerhard Hoffman, From Modernism to Postmodernism: Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005) p.330.

[3] Quoted by Matthew Feldman, Beckett’s Books: A Cultural History of the Interwar Period (London: Continuum, 2006) p.17

[4] David Peat and Paul Buckley, ‘Interview with Werner Heisenberg’ in Glimpsing Reality: Ideas in Physics and the Link to Biology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996) p.7.

[5] Samuel Beckett, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (London: Faber, 2010) pp.138-9.

[6] The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940, pp.518-9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Samuel Beckett, Three Novels: Molloy Malone Dies, The Unnamable (New York: Grove Press, 2009) p.31.

[9] ‘A Brief Look at the Genesis of the text,’ Samuel Beckett: Crossroads and Borderlines, p.243

[10] C.J. Ackerley and S.E. Gontarski, The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Press, 2004) p.653.

[11] Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, Nebraska, and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986) p.11.

[12] John Cage, Silence (Hanover, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973) p.16.

[13] Susan Sontag, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence,’ Styles of Radical Will (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969) p.10.

[14] Bishop George Berkeley, ‘De Motu,’ quoted in Arthur D. Ritchie, George Berkeley: A Reappraisal (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967) p.84.

[15] Ernst Mach, History and Root of the Principle of the Conservation of Energy (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1911) p.87.

[16] Paul Sheehan, Modernism, Narrative and Humanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p.184

[17] Nikki Santilli, Such Rare Citings: The Prose Poem in English Literature (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003) p.173.

[18] H. Porter Abbott, ‘Narrative’ in Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) p.21.

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