Samuel Beckett: Imagination Dead Imagine. Calder and Boyars. 8s. 6d.

In Beckett’s recent writing, the subject becomes increasingly anonymous and disembodied. Malone’s body was decrepit and paralyzed; in The Unnamable the body is reduced to a deformed, shapeless lump. At the end of How it is there remains only a voice; though the subject still has feelings and confused memories, and speaks in the first person, his identity has become indistinct. In Imagination Dead Imagine the subject has no identity. He is addressed, or addresses himself, in a timeless imperative. There is no indicative verb, and no personal pronoun except the implied ‘you’. In this way a total anonymity is achieved. There are no extraneous memories or dreams (‘Islands, waters, azure, verdure. . . omit’.). Somewhere in an endless white void, a white rotunda; inside two bodies, back to back in foetal postures, immobile in the confined space; they breathe and sweat, open and close their left eyes. Light and heat rise and fall in ever varying patterns, from darkness to light, cold to warmth, through the intervening greys—a reductio ad absurdum of the cycle of day and night, summer and winter. The extremes, whiteness and blackness, are moments of calm, the rise and fall restless, and interrupted by agitated vibration. The bodies seem indifferent to the changes; only the anonymous subject experiences, or perhaps merely observes the alternating calm and stress, before receding into the white void outside. Of anguish, there is only a residual flicker (‘the infinitesimal shudder instantaneously suppressed’). In this image of silence and emptiness, indifference and anonymity, Beckett seems to express the inside of a totally depersonalized consciousness.

Beckett’s later work is often called nihilist and anti-human. Its negative vision certainly contains no element of optimism or consolation. Nor does it seem to suggest that despair is anything other than an essential and unavoidable part of the human condition. This absolute view is an inverted religious one: human degradation and guilt are relics of Christianity, despair is the obverse of religious belief. But taken as a series his novels also suggest, more fruitfully, the social derivation of subjective despair. The earlier novels are concerned with social predicaments—refusal to work, exile, etc—and include overt satire on social values (e.g. Murphy’s search for a job; the proliferation of useless work in Watt; Malloy’s encounter with the police). The later work, asocial and solipsistic though it is, is a logical continuation: loss of individual identity is shown to be an ultimate derivation from loss of social identity.

Finally it is not the diagnosis which interests Beckett but the condition itself. This fragment defines and illuminates, using language which approaches in its spacing and repetition of words a purely formal abstraction, a consciousness so empty and blank as almost to defy definition. This is enough to make it worth reading.

For eight pages of text the price is excessive; all the savage and absurd humour of, for example, Molloy is obtainable from the same publishers for a shilling less.