Usually, when reading a short story, we imagine it and follow it. But what if there is no story to follow and the story is somehow unimaginable? This might be close to what Samuel Beckett insists upon in Ping. Many will claim that they find something unreadable but this is usually no more than a term of abuse; not a condition of the work. It is readable enough but not very interesting; the story doesn't engage, the characters are flat and the description bland. Beckett's story really is unreadable and yet it would seem an error of comprehension to insist it is so because the story doesn't engage (there isn't one), that the characters are flat (there are no characters), and the description bland (it counters the logical coordinates that would allow the reader to see what Beckett shows).
It is as though it is a story in the process of cancelling itself out in the process of its production. At the beginning, the space is described as "Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen" Beckett has delineated a space negatively. It seems to be both there and not there, described but not seen. There seems to be a creature in this space: "All known all white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn...Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just." We might be able to imagine tentatively a small body tied up in a box and wonder if the ping, first introduced sixteen lines into the story, comes from within the box or is from outside. Nasrullah Mambrol reckons that "the result is that we do not read about something but rather that something happens to us as we read." (Literariness.org) S. E. Gontarski notes that some have tried to read the story within realistic coordinates, including David Lodge, who sees an "expiring consciousness in search of meaning." (Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose) Yet there is also, Gontarski says, "the reader's focus...not only on a figure in a closed space, but on another figure and a narrator imagining them. We have, then, not just the psychologically complex but a narratologically transparent image of a self imagining itself often suspecting that it is being imagined itself." One could see this as the height of post-modern reflexivity, or a spiritual comprehension of death: that the person is seeing themselves as themselves when they are no longer a body in space but a body in spirit, looking over themselves. But this would be interpretation, a determined need to return the story to comprehensibility when the story presents itself incomprehensibly. If we insist on turning Beckett into a test of one's IQ, to see who can spot the meaning of what is initially presented abstractly, then that might make someone feel clever. But Beckett's work is maybe closer to the dumb, to asking questions of ourselves and of language that tries to go beyond the smart artifices we have created for our being.
Gilles Deleuze reckons "Beckett became less and less tolerant of words. And he knew from the outset the reason he became increasingly intolerant of them: the exceptional difficulty of 'boring holes' in the surface of language so that what 'lurks behind it might at last appear...to allow for the emergence of the void or the visible initself." ('The Exhausted') When we work out a complicated problem, meaningfulness becomes all the more apparent in resolution, but what happens if the irresolute is the condition of the problem and not its solution? Many might struggle for hours, days, weeks, trying to solve a Rubik's cube, but in their failure to do so we wouldn't expect a void to open up and this might be for two main reasons. The first is that it has been presented idly as a game to fiddle around with. It concentrates the mind but doesn't ask questions of the person trying to solve it beyond the solution the puzzle contains. Secondly, it can be resolved and many people have done so, and now plenty of videos online that will show you how it can be achieved. It is difficult but not impossible. Someone might give up saying the attempt is futile but that isn't saying the same thing as insisting a Rubik's cube is about futility. Beckett's work might be.
However, if Deleuze is correct, Beckett seeks the void to emerge, as if the purpose isn't to solve a problem but to generate resolve. One tries to understand not something but nothing, and then tries to give form to the nothingness that has been sought. When Deleuze says Beckett became less and less tolerant of words, we can contextualise this within the problem with language that isn't much of a problem for most of us, most of the time. But it is lurking there all the time. As structural linguists well understand, when we use language we don't name things, we agree on them. A cat isn't a cat because there is a cat; it is a cat because it isn't a bat and isn't a cap. The change in the phoneme alters the subject or object but nobody is going to search for a cat to lift up to their interlocutor rather than changing the phoneme. If language were predicated on a direct association with what linguists call the signifier and the signified, with the words used and how our minds understand them, maybe the problem wouldn't arise, or at least not this one. Imagine a language based entirely on onomatopoeia, where all words were linked acoustically to the things they describe. The arbitrary gap between the signifier and signified would be narrowed. Japanese has many such words, but at around a thousand, they still represent only one in every 500. It would be hardly enough to keep the anxiety at bay.
One way of looking at Ping is to view it as exploring the meaningfulness of the meaningless and passing through nothing to arrive at something. If we bypass that process, if we insist on meaning before passing through the meaningless, then we have approached it a little like the Rubik's cube. We have solved the puzzle we assume it has presented itself as being. Many stories are a bit like puzzles to be solved, and one of the pleasures of crime thrillers for many a reader (and Beckett loved French detective fiction) is that you get to work out the plot and to reveal how clever you are as if the plot isn't just there to reveal the killer. It is there to reveal one's cleverness as well. What it isn't expected to reveal is the problem of being and the problem of form. Opening his essay on Beckett's Endgame, Stanley Cavell says, "Endgame is a term of chess; the name Hamm is shared by Noah's cursed son, it titles a kind of actor, it starts recalling Hamlet. But no interpretation I have seen details the textual evidence for these relations nor shows how the play's meaning opens with them." Instead we get vague philosophical ideas, "impositions from an impression of fashionable philosophy." (Must We Mean What We Say?) Maybe this essay is another example.
But even if one were to make much of the reference to Noah's son and see how often Beckett invokes God in the play ("what in God's name", "for the love of God") it won't solve anything unless it passes through the resolve we have discussed and the meaningfulness of the meaningless first. It might invoke God's absence. But would we too hurriedly be returning the deity to the text by saying this is what it is about? God would still have no meaning but that is sort of okay because Beckett's text has meaning, and what matters is what is in front of us and not what is for another day. We can worry about God another time; in the meantime, we have to fret over what the Beckett text means. Cavell says that "Positivism said that statements about God are meaningless; Beckett shows that they mean too damned much." (Must We Mean What We Say?) In other words, if philosophy insisted that if one couldn't understand a problem logically or empirically, then it was nonsense, and thus God was nonsense, a non-question, Cavell says his presence is there all the time, even if much more commonly in vain than in belief. The curse becomes far more frequent than the prayer and Beckett's plays often offer a prosaic God, an idiomatic deity to be found throughout the writer's work. "God rest his soul" ('First Love') "without having seen a soul" ('The Calmative'), "and God reward you" ('The End'), "My God I can't complain." ('Texts for Nothing') We needn't pretend God as a more religious presence isn't there in Murphy and Malone Dies, for example, but we may wonder if Beckett's work is about how far he could get away from the Lord.
Beckett was after all a man saturated in faith, brought up an Anglican in an Ireland that was far more religious than many other countries in Europe. He escaped into existentialism and relocated to Paris, knew Sartre throughout the forties, wore black turtlenecks and eventually found himself buried in the same cemetery as Sartre and De Beauvoir at Montparnasse. It may sound facetious to describe him in this way but our point can be a serious one: how does a writer remove the traces of faith from their existence that includes, and maybe more especially concerns, the work itself. If Deleuze reckoned that Beckett became less and less tolerant of words it might have been for their divine connotations since they are so full of old, dead, meanings. Deleuze says, "they are so burdened with calculations and significations, with intentions and personal memories, with old habits that cement them together, that one can scarcely bore into the surface before it closes up again." ('The Exhausted')
Nothing will allow the surface to close up more than words of faith, whether used in hushed awe or cussed irritation. To curse God is still to acknowledge a presence but how to acknowledge an absence, and does a retreat from language, or a resistance to its signification help us to discover the emptiness that can be filled with any number of other things? This includes perhaps a faith that doesn't sit behind a presumption but instead insists on a belief that is contingent and personal, a provisional claim that cannot be tested against evidence or logically insisted upon, but will demand the self's presence in front of the text.
Is this partly what Mambrol means when he says with 'Ping' we do not read about something but rather that something happens to us as we read. Whatever happens to us as we read 'Ping' is not happening to us when we read stories with characters, story and categorical description. That doesn't make them better or worse than Beckett's but part of their readability rests on their legibility. We could say this makes Beckett's work more impressive than Hesse's Steppenwolf, Camus' The Outsider, and Sartre's Nausea (or worse), but that would be to ignore how they open up the void, how their distrust takes a different form. The form 'Ping' takes is the obliteration of the traditional aspects of fiction all the better to reveal what might be a fiction.
Cavell proposes that "not every object will raise this question of art, ie raise the question "What is art?" by raising the question, "is this, eg music?" ('A Matter of Meaning It?') But 'Ping' manages to raise both questions. If it is art, which some might dispute, what art is it? Maybe it isn't a story at all but a piece of music (it has been performed instrumentally), a work of theatre (Beckett is most famously a playwright), or a painting using words rather than pigment. John Banville notes that, "in the summer vacations he [Beckett] traveled for long periods not only in France but in Germany and Italy also, where in the great galleries he could indulge his passionate love of painting." (The New York Review of Books)
It is as though 'Ping' raises questions that the work itself cannot answer, as a detective story can answer its inquiries, as a Rubik's cube contains its solution within its problem. Maybe a work like 'Ping' strikes us dumb, not as dumb; it reduces us to a silence that its words paradoxically provoke, and then asks us to speak from out of a silence the words have passed through. If the words seem so strange we must remember that words usually are and, in that remembering, which we will no doubt quickly forget, move on to more words.
© Tony McKibbin