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Beckett’s DantesIntertextuality in the Fiction and Criticism$

Daniela Caselli

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780719071560

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719071560.001.0001

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Staging the Inferno in How It Is

Staging the Inferno in How It Is

Chapter:
(p.148) 7 Staging the Inferno in How It Is
Source:
Beckett’s Dantes
Author(s):

Daniela Caselli

Publisher:
Manchester University Press
DOI:10.7228/manchester/9780719071560.003.0008

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter addresses the argument that How It Is mobilises Inferno VII to produce a notion of reality as the unreliable outcome of repetition. It studies the canto where Virgil translates the incomprehensible gurgling that is coming from the bubbles on the surface of the river Styx into the ‘hymn’ sung by the invisible slothful damned. This discussion shows that this illustrates how ‘credence’ for the reality of such scenes is taken from the quickly diminishing ‘incontrovertibility’ of Virgil's authority. This chapter also shows that the mud in How It Is is what allows the passing of the murmuring and what prevents it.

Keywords:   repetition, notion of reality, Virgil, canto, slothful damned, hymn, incontrovertibility, How It Is, Inferno VII

E fango è il mondo (Giacomo Leopardi, ‘A se stesso’)

In How It Is/Comment c’est a creature panting in the mud murmurs ‘his “life” as he hears it obscurely uttered by a voice inside him’ while he journeys from left to right.1 Scholars have often seen Dante lurking behind the ‘I’’s dreams of places ‘above’ and ‘below’ the mud, and they have argued that the Comedy mediates this spatially oriented tripartite narrative.2 The text appears in print as a series of versets of various lengths, which have been visually compared to Dante’s terza rima, a poetic form that uses repetition according to the spiral movement of ‘unceasing forward motion and recurrent backward glances’.3 The predominant role of mud, the name of Belacqua, and a number of allusions to the Inferno have secured that the name of Dante is often evoked in relation to How It Is/Comment c’est.

Things, however, are more complicated than this: the creature crawling and panting in the mud is far from being a character, and although geometry and spatial arrangements play an important role, How It Is/Comment c’est is remarkable for its intractability rather than for its geometrical clarity. Transparency is not what this muddy text is about. The main fiction of How It Is/Comment c’est is that of constructing itself as voice (communication in progress) while being a written text.4 The text plays with its structure of presence and its literary status of communication in absence.

Reading Dante as an auctoritas in How It Is/Comment c’est does not mean to foist upon the text a deeper or additional layer of meaning in order to reduce its opacity, but rather to view Dante as part of the text’s critique of depth and originality. The voice is paradoxically both an utterance and a quotation, and Dante is the intractable source which oscillates between being located ‘within’ and ‘without’.5

Dante is also part of the textual cycle of absorption and expulsion: in How It Is/Comment c’est writing (‘from left to right’) becomes ‘ruins’ and ‘dejections’ through a process of digestion (‘from top to bottom’). Discarding is also part of the interpretative process elicited by How It Is/Comment c’est; the absence of punctuation and the syntax maximise the process of choosing between alternative meanings and following different associative patterns. The chosen version is constantly haunted by the abandoned combinations, leading us to (p.149) establish hierarchies and to acknowledge the instability of the text, which can be thought of as the impossible sum of the various patterns. This is further complicated by the coexistence of the English and the French versions. How It Is/Comment c’est therefore offers itself as the impossible sum of all the possible syntactical combinations which the text allows in both languages.

The ‘scraps’ of voice and ‘script’ which make up this text are signs to which different meanings can be assigned, and yet they also resist the production of meaning, playing with the opposition between language and matter, between voice and mud. Dante stands for the ‘light above’ while also being the stuff of which this muddy text is made.

A voice comes to one in the dark

how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it

comment c’était je cite avant Pim avec Pim après Pim comment c’est trois parties je le dis comme je l’entends6

For Bersani and Dutoit this first paragraph announces ‘the entire work as an act of quotation’. ‘I say it as I hear it’, they argue, ‘initiates an infinite regression of sources. A speech act that posits itself as a dictation immediately attributes this reference to the dictating source itself, thus reversing the direction of language’s referentiality from the world (where the response might stop) to the chimerical origins of a speech that is never begun but always heard, never initiated but always repeated.’7 By presenting itself as orality, How It Is/Comment c’est lends itself to a reading of the ‘I quote’ and ‘I hear it as I say it’ as both marks of the non-originality of what is being said (everything is being repeated) and as pointing towards an infinitely regressive chain of (pseudo-)sources, unable to indicate the division between what is being reproduced and what (if anything) added. From the very first paragraph the text questions notions of origin, beginning, and presence, as the French title also does by punning on the homophony between ‘comment c’est’ and ‘commencer’. The voice is neither original, since it is quoting, and might even be quoting ‘I say it as I hear it’, nor is it originary, since its origin is infinitely regressive. Its presence is the result of repetition; it is an ‘invocation’ of a presence and a present which can be called such only when it no longer is: How It Is/‘how it is’ can only be about ‘how it was’, can only occur after ‘how it was’ and ‘after Pim’. From its very beginning, How It Is/Comment c’est also problematises the unity of the voice, which in the text cannot be taken as a sign of the existence of an individual. The ‘saying’ and ‘hearing’ are articulated around a grammatical ‘I’, which, although a ‘subject’, (p.150) is also ‘a kind of stopping point for voices, an intersection of extortionary speech acts, a collecting depot for all the words whose source of transmission remains uncertain’.8 The voice is multiple (‘quaqua on all sides’) and does not belong to a unitary self (‘in me not mine’).

The disunity of the self and the notions of source, origin, and beginning can be scrutinised further through the familiar figure of Belacqua, who appears in the text as:

knees drawn up back bent in a hoop I clasp the sack to my belly I see me now on my side I clutch it the sack we’re talking of the sack with one hand behind my back I slip it under my head without letting it go I never let it go (10)

genoux remontés dos en cerceau je serre le sac contre mon ventre là alors je me vois sur le flanc je le tiens le sac on parle du sac d’une main derrière le dos je le glisse sous ma tête sans le lâcher je ne le lâche jamais (14)

Belacqua appears again a few pages later, and his name is mentioned:

asleep I see me asleep on my side or on my face it’s one or the other on my side it’s preferable which side the right it’s preferable the sack under my head or clasped to my belly clasped to my belly the knees drawn up the back bent in a hoop the tiny head near the knees curled round the sack Belacqua fallen over on his side tired of waiting forgotten of the hearts where grace abides asleep (24)

endormi je me vois endormi sur le flanc ou sur le ventre c’est l’un ou l’autre sur le flanc lequel le droit c’est mieux le sac sous la tête ou serré contre le ventre serré contre le ventre les genoux remontés le dos en cerceau la tête minuscule près des genoux enroulé autour du sac Belacqua basculé sur le côté las d’attendre oublié des cœurs où vit la grâce endormi (36–37)

In both passages we encounter the ‘Belacqua posture’ occurring in many other Beckett texts; however, the knee-and-elbow position is in this text ‘fallen over on his side’ and is one of the ways in which the ‘speaking I’ chooses to ‘see’ himself (‘on my side or on my face it’s one or the other’).9 Belacqua thus negotiates an idea of the self as being capable of ‘seeing’ itself only by splitting itself.

Belacqua is also the ‘I’’s fantasy of sleep, and it works as both his memory and as intertextual memory. However, the truth value attached to the notion of memory in part one (which oscillates between a memory of ‘how it was’, a memory of the ‘journey’, and a dream) is questioned and disrupted by terms such as ‘figure’, ‘fancy’, or ‘fantasy’ used in relation to the ‘images’ (probably three) occurring to the ‘I’. Belacqua, the figure who informs Dante through few mocking and lapidary statements that he is waiting in order to be saved, has fallen on his side; he has also forgotten about the people (those who abide in (p.151) grace) praying for him in order to shorten his waiting time, and is dreamt, or imagined, to be asleep. This modification of the ‘Belacqua episode’ is reproduced in Beckett’s letter to Kay Boyle on 29 August 1960: ‘Belacqua for me is no more than a kind of fetish. In the work I have finished he appears “basculé sur le côté las d’attendre oublié des cœurs où vit la grâce endormi” (cor che in grazia vive), and I hope that’s the end of him.’10 This is not the end of Belacqua, however: he is also referred to in part two of How It Is/Comment c’est, and ‘the old lutist’ is still able to wrench a ‘wan smile’ from Dante in The Lost Ones/Le dépeupleur and Company/Compagnie.11 Belacqua first is evoked in relation to the ‘fable’ of the ‘eastern sage’ who, ‘having clenched his fists from the tenderest age … was enabled to see them emerging at last on the other side’:

the curtains parted part one I saw his friends come to visit him where squatting in the deep shade of a tomb or a bo his fist clenched on his knees he lived thus

… I saw him dreaming the mud parted the light went on I saw him dreaming (53)

les rideaux s’écartaient première partie je voyais les amis venus le voir où accroupi à l’ombre profonde d’une tombe ou d’un bo les poings serrés sur les genoux il vivait ainsi

… je le voyais rêvant la boue s’écartait ça s’allumait je le voyais rêvant (83)

These images can be read as variations on the Belacqua theme, especially from an intratextual perspective; ‘squatting’ is the verb describing in Dream and Murphy the ‘old lutist’, but in How It Is it also applies to the scribe ‘squatting on the little stool old style’ (81). This ‘character’ is squatting in the shade of a ‘tomb’ and can be read as a variation of Belacqua lying in the ‘lee’ of a ‘rock’ in Murphy.12 The image of the friends coming to visit him can also be read in intertextual perspective, painting a homely picture of Dante and Virgil visiting Belacqua.13 This Belacqua is a dream of a figure dreaming, thus creating a similarity both with the previous images of Belacqua asleep and with the Belacqua fantasised by Murphy, who covets the possibility to ‘have a long time lying there dreaming, watching the dayspring run through its zodiac, before the toil up hill to Paradise’.14

The numerous theatrical metaphors – ‘nails’ which ‘play a part’, ‘curtains’ and ‘mud’ which ‘part’, alternating darkness and light – make of the Belacqua episode a ‘light intermission’.15 Lights go on and the ‘little scene’ acts as a diversion, providing a degree of familiar comic relief. The mud with its darkness is the space of representation, and the anecdote, which merges the figure of the ‘extreme eastern sage’ with that of Belacqua, is an intermission.

(p.152) Belacqua is characterised by not only his posture (‘in the deep shade of a tomb’) but also his lapidary statements: he again appears in the second part of How It Is/Comment c’est in relation to the issue of voice:

a human voice there within an inch or two my dream perhaps even a human mind if I have to learn Italian obviously it will be less amusing (56)

une voix humaine là à quelques centimètres mon rêve voire peut-être une pensée humaine si je dois apprendre l’italien évidemment ce sera moins drôle (88)

In the second part of How It Is/Comment c’est, which is devoted to the time ‘I’ spends with Pim, Belacqua is ‘company’, as a ‘voice [which] comes to one in the dark’. This can be read as a variation of the role that Belacqua’s voice plays in Dream, in which he is a humorous figure of unlocatable source. Since this ‘little scene’ is framed as ‘my dream perhaps’, it can be read as yet another ‘invocation’ of the ‘Murphy fantasy’: this ‘human voice’ speaking Italian can be read as ‘scraps of an ancient voice in me not mine’. The voice is ‘in me’ but ‘not mine’, it is ‘with/out’, thus articulating that the notion of within and togetherness can be observed only from outside. Belacqua, the voice speaking Italian, mediates the idea of the self; in order to hear his voice, it splits into self and non-self. To be heard as ‘in him’ the voice has to be no longer ‘his’.

The inference of a human being attached to the voice implies a concept of the ‘human’ as owning a voice, but the voice cannot signal the ‘originary presence’ of ‘the being which is human’ because voice and humanity are demonstrated as being mutually dependent. Inferring is here a process of following pre-established patterns, which, however necessary, do not prove ontological existence. Origin and presence are thus notions deriving from the movement of repetition, as Bersani and Dutoit point out when writing: ‘How It Is diagrams a type of being (the being which is human) structured as the unending repetition of its own origination. As if the deepest structure of being could be anything but that: the beginning again of its own beginnings’ (59). Although Bersani and Dutoit convincingly argue against a humanist view of this ‘being which is human’, they then define it as the ‘deepest structure of being’, thus contradicting their own argument about origins. ‘Deepest’ suggests that Beckett has finally shown the truth about being, and therefore attributes ontological validity to a text that deconstructs the notion of ontology as the basis of truth. Rather, the text plays with Western and Christian notions of being, questioning the presuppositions on which their validity rests.

A third Belacqua passage also criticises the traditional rationalist equivalence between human person and human mind, by ironically stating ‘human voice there within an inch or two my dreams perhaps even a human mind’ (56). (p.153) By claiming ‘if I have to learn Italian obviously it will be less amusing’ (56), the text humorously draws attention to the materiality of the voice, to the fact that, in order to be recognised, the voice has to speak a language, and this might create problems. In order to be recognised as a voice, the sounds have first to be recognised as language, and then the language has to be understood, otherwise ‘it would be less amusing’. The Belacqua episode, which in Dream complicates the idea that the voice has an origin, in this text questions the cognitive relationship between presupposition and perception.16

Another voice from the Comedy, which has been already analysed in relation to Le calmant/The Calmative, is used in this text:

question if what he has said or rather I heard of that voice ruined from such long silence a third two fifths or every word question if there when it stops if somewhere there food for thought prayer without words against a stable-door long icy toil towards the too late all-forgiving what else night at dead water on the deep on the little sea poor in isles or else some other voyage (91)

question ce qu’il vient de dire plutôt moi d’entendre de cette voix ruinée de s’être si longtemps tue le tiers les deux cinquièmes ou alors tout chaque mot question si là quand elle s’arrête si là-dedans quelque part matière à réflexion prière sans paroles contre la porte d’une étable longue montée glacée vers la toute pardonnante trop tard quoi encore la nuit au large à la morte-eau sur la petite mer pauvre en îles ou alors quelque autre voyage (143)

The ‘voice ruined from such long silence’, ‘cette voix ruinée de s’être si longtemps tue’ is a reference to Inferno I, 63, which describes Virgil, appearing for the first time to a frightened Dante, as ‘chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco’ (‘one who seemed faint through long silence’). As I have already discussed in the previous chapter, the passage is also reproduced in the ‘Whoroscope’ notebook as ‘hoarse from long silence: Virgil to Dante / (chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco: Inf I)’.17

In The Calmative the image has a soothing, if faintly disturbing, quality, since the ‘rattle, unintelligible even to me who knew what was intended … was nothing, mere speechlessness due to long silence.’18 However, in How It Is the voice is ‘ruined’, thus joining the economy of the text, and the ‘rattle’ could be due either to the broken sound of the mouth clogged with mud or to the impaired hearing of the ‘I’. The paragraph is also sprinkled with words that have Dantean relevance in the Beckett canon, such as ‘icy’ and ‘toil’, a word used for the purgatorial ascent from Dream to The Calmative. In the French, the verb used in the sentence ‘quand elle s’arrête’, lead us, via Premier amour, ‘là où le verbe s’arrête, on dirait du Dante’ (44). Furthermore, the ‘dead water’, ‘morte-eau’, is the Dantean ‘morta gora’, which describes the Stygian bog, a central setting for this Beckett text.

(p.154) ‘E fango è il mondo’: the Inferno performed

Mud is the main Danteian element in How It Is/Comment c’est.19 Michael Robinson states that the narrator ‘exists in a landscape which is composed of a number of details from different circles of the Inferno. The mud through which he crawls is reminiscent of the fifth Circle, where the Wrathful are confined.’20 William Hutchings, Francesca Del Moro, John Fletcher, Neal Oxenhandler, Gabriele Frasca, and Philip Terry have also noticed the importance of canto VII.21 In Inferno VII Dante ‘sees many fighting and wrangling above the mud, and his guide assures him that there are as many sighing beneath it – and hence the many bubbles on the surface. All gurgle a piteous lament’, as Beckett put it in an early notebook which reproduces lines 121–124. Lines 121–123 appear also in the ‘Whoroscope’ notebook, which reads:

  • tristi fummo
  • nell’aere dolce che dal sol s’allegra,
  • portanto [sic] dentro accidioso fummo.
  • (Inf VII. 123)

we were sullen in the sweet air that is gladdened by the sun, bearing within us the sluggish fumes; now we are sullen in the black mire22

The sentence, omitted in the English, refers to the following lines in the Comedy:

  • L’acqua era buia assai più che persa;
  • e noi, in compagnia de l’onde bige,
  • intrammo giù per una via diversa.
  • In la palude va ch’ha nome Stige
  • questo tristo ruscel, quand’è disceso
  • al piè de le maligne piagge grige.
  • E io, che di mirare stava inteso,
  • vidi genti fangose in quel pantano,
  • ignude tutte, con sembiante offeso.
  • Queste si percotean non pur con mano,
  • ma con la testa e col petto e coi piedi,
  • troncandosi co’denti brano a brano.
  • Lo buon maestro disse: ‘Figlio, or vedi
  • l’anime di color cui vinse l’ira;
  • e anche vo’ che tu per certo credi
  • che sotto l’acqua è gente che sospira,
  • e fanno pullular quest’acqua al summo,
  • come l’occhio ti dice, u’ che s’aggira.
  • Fitti nel limo dicon: “Tristi fummo
  • (p.155) ne l’aere dolce che dal sol s’allegra,
  • portando dietro accidïoso fummo:
  • or ci attristiam ne la belletta negra”.
  • Quest’inno si gorgoglian ne la strozza,
  • ché dir nol posson con parola integra’.
  • Così girammo de la lorda pozza
  • grand’arco, tra la ripa secca e ’l mezzo,
  • con li occhi vòlti a chi del fango ingozza.
  • Venimmo al piè d’una torre al di sezzo.

The water was far darker than perse; and we, in company with the murky waves, entered down through a strange way. This dismal little stream, when it has descended to the foot of the malign grey slopes, flows into the marsh that is named Styx; and I, who standing intent to gaze, saw a muddy people in that bog, all naked and with looks of rage. They were smiting each other not with hand only, but with head and chest and feet, and tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.

The good master said, ‘Son, you see now the souls of those whose anger overcame; and I would also have you know for certain that down under the water are people who sigh and make it bubble at the surface, as your eye tells you wherever it turns. Fixed in the slime they say, “We were sullen in the sweet air that is gladdened by the sun, bearing within us the sluggish fumes; now we are sullen in the black mire.” This hymn they gurgle in their throats, for they cannot speak it in full words.’

Thus we compassed a great arc of that foul pond between the dry bank and the slough, with eyes turned on those that swallow the mire; and we came at length to the foot of a tower. (Inf. VII, 103–130)

In the passage from Dante the reality of the people immersed in the mud and the truthfulness of what they say are produced by the pilgrim’s faith in Virgil’s words. Not all the damned of this circle are visible, but the active wrathful souls can be seen by Virgil and Dante while ‘si percotean non pur con mano, / ma con la testa e col petto e coi piedi, / troncandosi tra loro a brano a brano’ (They were smiting each other not with hand only, but with head and chest and feet, and tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth). However, the slothful souls, structurally parallel to the slothful Belacqua in the Purgatorio, have a different torment inflicted on them. They are immersed under the ‘dead’ muddy water of the Stygian bog and create ‘bubbles’ on the surface of the water by ‘bubbling’ or ‘gurgling’ their hymn in their throats. These bubbles are all Dante’s moving eye can ‘tell’ him (‘come l’occhio ti dice, che s’aggira’) and are interpreted and translated by Virgil, who repeats the words of their hymn. This ‘hymn’, produced by their throats and mouths clogged with mud, cannot be ‘whole’.

(p.156) We encounter the mud on the first page of the text, in which ‘past moments old dreams back again or fresh like those that pass or things things always and memories I say them as I hear them murmur them in the mud’ (7). The mud is thus the setting of the exchange between the voice and the hearer who repeats it. The ‘I’’s ‘thirst for labials’ (108), his ‘murmuring in the mud’, is the figure of this broken (as opposed to ‘parola integra’ or whole word) and intermittent (as visually produced by the typographical blanks) ‘gurgling in the throat’ (gorgogli[arsi] nella strozza). The ‘I’ repeats what he hears in the mud, both in the sense of repeating it while being in the mud and hearing it in the mud. The mud is at once what permits the passing on of the murmuring and what hinders it, thus reproducing the situation of the slothful damned of the fifth circle, doomed to sing their ‘hymn’ of damnation.

The passage from the Comedy is therefore important both for the materiality of the text and for the issues of reproduction and repetition as constitutive of reality. Inferno VII is reconstructed in How It Is/Comment c’est’s painfully detailed exploration of the materiality of speech and in its investigation of how repetition and reproduction confer the status of reality upon invisibility. However, How It Is/Comment c’est not only thematises materiality but also constructs itself as the mud, as ‘bubbles’ in opposition to ‘meaning’: ‘such a bubble at such a time it bursts the day can’t do much more to me’ (41). The text creates a tension between non-meaning as residual materiality and the impossibility of avoiding meaning; the ‘scraps’ and ‘bubbles’, which constitute it, at once resist and enable meaning, while they also prevent the formation of a coherent self.

The Comedy generates a repetition of inaudibility, in order to testify to the presence of the damned; the bubbles’ visible materiality and the damned souls’ invisibility are transformed into presence by Virgil’s language. By presenting itself as repetition, Virgil’s words construct the originality and the presence of the hymn and of the damned themselves. In How It Is/Comment c’est, the ‘scraps of an ancient voice in me not mine’ (7), ‘bribes d’une voix ancienne en moi pas la mienne’ (9), cannot reproduce the presence of a unitary self. The voice is ‘in me’ but ‘not mine’, oscillating between self and non-self. Similarly, the hearing, which is necessary for the voice to exist – to be recognised as voice rather than noise – cannot constitute a unitary point of reception, nor can it guarantee a unified and coherent text.

The text thus fashions a reader/hearer who can be thought of neither as a unitary self nor as a final receiver. Forced to perform the endlessly repetitive task of extorting meaning from a language which constitutes itself as materiality, the reader/ear is plunged into the Hell of fragmentation of self and non-self.23 This movement is not devoid of humour: the text is Hell, reading it means to be (p.157) able to force neither a unity upon the text, nor a non-unity, ‘damned’ and ‘demon’ at once (36). The text can neither be reconstructed as a ‘hymn’ (as ‘parola integra’, whole word), nor apprehended as materiality (mud), since it oozes ‘broken’ meaning. In the words of Waiting for Godot: ‘V: “This is becoming really insignificant.” E: “Not enough.”’24

Inferno VII is therefore not a source in the traditional sense of the word; rather, it participates in the intractable economy of the text by being an ‘unthinkable beginning’, an already said/written which constitutes itself as the transcription of an already said. The voice can exist as voice only if it is heard and if it has been heard before, and therefore can be recognised as voice rather than indistinct sound or noise. Similarly, Dante is inscribed in Beckett’s text as what we can hear/read only if we have heard/seen it before. However, the existence of the voice does not coincide with the self; it cannot guarantee a unitary self-presence. Similarly, Dante cannot be thought of as a presence in the text. Rather than being located in hell, How It Is/Comment c’est enacts an inferno with Dante. The intertextual strategies of the text mirror its overall structure.

Mud and speech are further correlated in How It Is/Comment c’est by the ways in which the text explores in painful detail the deterioration of speech caused by the mud clogging the mouth. The mud is both what impairs speech and what abates the ‘I’’s thirst, although at first it remains in question if it would nourish when swallowed: ‘the tongue gets clogged with mud that can happen too only one remedy then pull it in and suck it and swallow the mud or spit it out … and question is it nourishing’ (28), ‘la langue se charge de boue ça arrive aussi un seul remède alors la rentrer et la tourner dans la bouche la boue l’avaler ou la rejeter question si elle est nourissante’ (42). The mud is also a source of ‘oral’ pleasure: when ‘the mouth opens the tongue comes out lolls in the mud that lasts a good moment they are good moments … the mouth open the mud in the mouth thirst abating humanity regained’ (27), ‘la bouche s’ouvre enfin la langue sort va dans la boue ça dure un bon moment ce sont des bons moments … la bouche ouverte la boue dans la bouche la soif qui se perd l’hu-manité reconquise’ (41).

The materiality of the production of speech is the pleasure of the mouth exploring the materiality of the mud, thus constituting an interminable movement between language as matter and matter as language: the clogged tongue and the mouth filled with mud are an attempt of the self to merge into the materiality of the mud. Parallel to this movement is the way in which the ‘I’ becomes part of a ‘vast imbrication of flesh’; the bodies are ‘glued together’ and negotiate the movement between self and non-self, between the impossibility of the individual’s self-presence in the text and the aspiration towards a materiality (p.158) ‘without breach or fissure’. The dynamic between tormentor and tormented visible in the figure of those ‘glued together like a single body in the dark the mud’ (122), ‘collés ensemble à ne faire qu’un seul corps dans le noir le boue’ (141) is part of this eroticised final judgement which makes use of Inferno XXXII, a canto which Watt adopted as one of its figures of inversion:

heads together necessarily my right shoulder overriding his left I’ve the upper everywhere but how together like two old jades harnessed together no but mine my head its face in the mud and his its right cheek in the mud his mouth against my ear our hairs tangled together impression that to separate us one would have to sever them good so much for the bodies the arms the hands the heads (91; emphasis mine)

tête contre tête fatalement mon épaule droite ayant grimpé sur sa gauche à lui j’ai le dessus partout mais contre comment comme deux vieux canassons attelés ensemble non mais la mienne ma tête la face dans la boue la sienne sur la joue droite sa bouche contre mon oreille nos poils emmêlés impression que pour nous séparer il aurait fallu les trancher bon voilà pour les corps les bras les mains les têtes (143; emphasis mine)

The Dantean ‘due sì stretti, / che ’l pel del capo avieno insieme misto’ (two who were pressed so close together that they had the hair of their head intermixed) (Inf. XXXII, 41–42), becomes in Comment c’est ‘nos poils emmêlés’, the obsessively repeated figure of the endless infernal genealogy: ‘in reality we are one and all from the unthinkable first to the no less unthinkable last glued together in a vast imbrication of flesh without breach or fissure’ (140), ‘mais qu’en réalité nous sommes tous depuis l’impensable premier jusqu’au non moins impensable dernier collés les uns aux autres dans une imbrication des chairs sans hiatus’ (217). Both the disintegration of speech caused by the mud clogging the mouth and the merging of the self in an inseparable continuum of flesh exist as the oscillation between self and non-self, between language and matter, and both are given an erotic and violent quality at once: ‘a hundred thousand prone glued two by two together’ (112), ‘cent mille gisant collés deux par deux’ (174).

The mud is a ‘resource’; it is nourishment, able to abate thirst, even a mark of ‘humanity’, and it can open up ‘vistas’. It is interesting to notice the function of the verb ‘to open’. It is used throughout the text as the action of the (can)-opener which gives the ‘I’ access to food (‘tunny’, ‘sardines’) and as the action of ‘opening’ Pim, which is ‘the can opened by this instrument [the can-opener], and his words are the sustenance that is disgorged’.25 The ‘warmth of primeval mud impenetrable dark’ is therefore ‘vomit’ and ‘shit’, the non-self of an already fragmented self:

(p.159) suddenly like all that was not then is I go not because of the shit and vomit something else not known not said whence preparatives sudden series subject object subject object quick succession and away (11)

soudain comme tout ce qui n’était pas puis est je m’en vais pas à cause des saletés autre chose on ne sait pas on ne dit pas d’où préparatifs brusque série sujet objet sujet objet coup sur coup et en avant (16)

The text is mud; it is discarded and digested materiality, which, however, is also ‘nourishment’ giving sustenance to these ‘perpetual revictuallings narrations and auditions’ (139). The mud is both an oral and an aural pleasure; the pleasure of the tongue lolling in it, sucking and swallowing is equated with the pleasure of hearing words – in their turn equivalent to food – and of disgorging, gurgling them in the mouth. The mud is also the pleasure of the text itself aspiring to become the materiality of the eroticised body without fissures, and the pleasure of the self looking at its ‘quaqua’/faeces, as its ‘voice in me not mine’, as both self and non-self.26

Occasionally, relief is provided from this amorphousness in the form of the mud opening to ‘vistas’, acting as a window, or, indeed, as a stage on which the text performs what part two nostalgically recalls as ‘little scenes’ when ‘the curtains parted the mud parted the light went on’ (73):

the scene is empty in the mud … find something else to last a little more questions who were they what beings what point of the earth that family whence this dumb show better nothing eat something (32)

la scène est vide sous la boue … trouver autre chose pour durer encore des questions de qui il s’agissait quels êtres quel point de la terre cette famille d’où me vient ce cinéma ce genre plutôt rien manger un morceau (49–50)

The mud is the stage, where the curtains part; as observed above in relation to Belacqua, the light goes on, rather than off, suggesting that the little scenes are ‘intermissions’ within the ongoing representation in/of the darkness of the mud. The ‘little scenes’ are more narrative than the rest, even when the scene is empty. Other theatrical metaphors are sprinkled throughout the text. In part two, part one is twice described as ‘the script’; the French equivalent ‘graphie’ stresses the meaning of ‘script’ as ‘inscription’ and ‘writing’ while sustaining its theatrical denotation by the use of a number of other words related to performance. The hellishly funny ‘table of basic stimuli’, in which a torment corresponds to a number and a mechanical action – ‘one sing nails in armpit two speak blade in arse three stop thump on skull four louder pestle on kidney five softer index in anus six’ (69), ‘un chante ongles dans l’aisselle deux parle fer de l’ouvre-boîte dans le cul trois stop coup de poing sur le crâne quatre plus fort (p.160) manche de l’ouvre-boîte dans le rein cinq moins fort index dans l’anus’ six (108–109) – is interrupted by a series of mock joyful exclamations (‘bravo clap’, ‘bravo claque’, and ‘encore’) from an imaginary public.

This cruel puppet theatre, recalling the importance that puppets have in Murphy, puns, as often in Beckett’s English oeuvre, on the double meaning of ‘quick’: ‘Pim never be but for me anything but a dumb limp lump flat for ever in the mud but I’ll quicken him you wait and see and how I can efface myself behind my creature when the fit takes me’ (52).27

William Colerick has read one of these ‘little scenes’ as a reference to the episode of Ulysses’s voyage as represented in the Comedy:

astern receding land of brothers dimming lights mountains if I turn water roughening he falls I fall on my knees crawl forward clink of chains perhaps it’s not me perhaps it’s another perhaps it’s another voyage confusion with another what isle what moon you say the thing you see the thoughts sometimes that go with it it disappears the voice goes on a few words it can stop it can go on depending on what it’s not known it’s not said (86)

If, with Colerick, we accept that the details of the ship, the mountain, the dimming light, and the roughening water refer to Ulysses’ tale in the Comedy,28 we can nevertheless read the passage differently. Rather than symbolising the ultimate salvation of the Purgatorio that neither Ulysses nor the narrator of How It Is will ever be able to reach, the excerpt is another example of the staging of an infernal ‘obligation to express’, to say ‘something … that’s what was needed seen something called it above said it was so said it was me’ (86). Since the ‘above’ is also the ‘above mentioned’, it can be read in an intertextual perspective, in which the ‘above mentioned’ is not only textual but also intertextual. This example shows how a number of scenes are not precise allusions, but rather a ‘familiar’ murmur, as what has already been said.29

Other references to the Inferno are to be found in part one, in which, within a context scattered with ‘souls in torment’ and ‘demons’, we encounter a reference to Paolo and Francesca and to the ‘banner’ reminiscent of Inferno III. Although Neal Oxenhandler has suggested that the ‘banner’ refers to Inferno XXXIV, where the Easter hymn ‘the royal banners forward go’ is modified as ‘the banners of hell go forth’, Katherine Travers Gross argues that it refers to Inferno III.30 Reading the poem ‘Enueg I’, she points out a number of Dantean references, among which are ‘the bright stiff banner of the hoarding’, ‘the banner of meat bleeding’, and the ‘secret things’, claiming that this image from Inferno III ‘is an obsessive image in Beckett’s canon’, as demonstrated by the narrator of How It Is who ‘envisions himself as a flagpole bearing the banner of Inferno III’ and by the 1935 ‘Enueg I’ in which the narrator tells again of ‘these secret (p.161) things … the heart’s outpourings day by day’.31 However, ‘banner’ is a word that in the Beckett canon suggests Rimbaud. Lawrence Harvey has pointed out that ‘Enueg I’ directly translates from ‘Barbare’ the line ‘Le pavillon en viande saignante sur la soie des mers et des fleurs arctiques; (elle n’existent pas)’ as ‘Ah the banner / the banner of meat bleeding / on the silk of the seas and the arctic flowers / that do not exist’.32 The ‘banner’ can also be found in Beckett’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Le bateau ivre’, in which ‘Ni traverser l’orgueil des drapeaux des flammes’ is translated as ‘Nor breast the arrogant oriflammes and banners’.33 Both in ‘Enueg I’ and in the passage from How It Is/Comment c’est, ‘banner’ is to be found in a context with Dantean elements, thus not excluding a possible coexistence of the references both to the Inferno and to Rimbaud.

This passage is ‘an old view’, which ‘has faded’ and which cannot be ‘believed’ (36); lights go on again and the ‘I’ ‘sees’ himself ‘arse bare on the summit of a muckheap’:

holding in my mouth the horizontal staff of a vast banner on which I read

in thy clemency now and then let the great damned sleep here something illegible in the folds then dream perhaps of the good time their naughtiness procured them what time the demons may rest ten seconds fifteen seconds … dream come of a sky an earth an under-earth where I am inconceivable aah no sound in the rectum a redhot spike that day we prayed no further (36–37)

entre les dents la hampe horizontale d’une vaste vexille où je lis

en ta clémence de temps à autre qu’ils dorment les grands damnés ici des mots illisibles dans les plis puis rêver peut-être du bon temps que leur valurent leurs errements pendant ce temps les démons se reposeront dix secondes quinze secondes … rêve viens d’un ciel d’une terre d’un sous-sol où je sois inconcevable aïe aucun son dans le cul un pal ardent ce jour-là nous ne priâmes pas plus avant (56–57)

This scene anticipates one of the torments which the ‘I’ inflicts on Pim and which in its turn he will later fall victim to: ‘take the opener in my right hand move it down along the spine and drive it into the arse’ (67), ‘prends l’oeuvre-boîte dans ma droite le descends le long de l’échine et le lui enforce dans le cul’ (105). The context of violent sodomy, involving the redhot spike from Marlowe’s Edward II and the position in which the ‘I’ sees himself, are later modified as: ‘drive it into the arse not the hole not such fool the cheek a cheek he cries I withdraw’ (67) and: ‘five softer index in anus’ (69).

Inferno III is also intratextually relevant through the term ‘naughtiness’ in the English version, a word which is quite conspicuous in this context. The passage ‘all this tenement of naught from top to bottom’ (36) leads me to read (p.162) ‘naughtiness’, which of course carries with it both a child-related and a sexual sense, primarily as a derivative of ‘naught’. We can thus read it as referring, to what the poem ‘Text’ calls the victims ‘of an ingenious damnation’ in canto III. ‘Coloro / che visser senza ’nfamia e senza lodo’ (those who lived without infamy and without praise) (Inf. III, 35–36) are not even accepted, owing to their ‘naughtiness’, within Inferno. This hypothesis is sustained by the phrase ‘great damned’, which refers back to ‘colui che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto’ (the shade of him who from cowardice made the great refusal) (Inf. III, 59–60) via ‘What a Misfortune’ and Eleuthéria.34 In ‘What a Misfortune’ Mrs bboggs (who ‘would probably have [been] disliked’ by Dante ‘on this account’) is ‘almost as non-partisan as Pope Celestine the fifth’ (126). The historical character whom the critical tradition has identified as the maker of the ‘gran rifiuto’, Celestino V, is linked to the ‘grand refus’ in Eleuthéria.35 The paradoxical juxtaposition of ‘greatness’ and ‘naughtiness’ can therefore be read against ‘Text’ and the pride of an ‘ingenious damnation’. The presence of ‘something illegible in the folds’, which in the French is specified as ‘des mots illisibles dans les plis’, can also be read in the context of canto III via the ‘ingenious damnation’. This canto withholds the identity of the neutrals, and does not name the soul who made ‘the great refusal’, who, however, is recognised (but not named) by Dante the character. How It Is/Comment c’est reproduces the reticence of Inferno III. Furthermore, the ‘dream perhaps of the good time their naughtiness procured them’ alludes to Belacqua dreaming, and to the ‘blissful’ state, which his sloth secured him.

As seen in other Beckett works analysed in this study, each text shapes its own idea of intertextuality, which coheres with its narrative strategies. This ‘trituration’ of Dante is a strategy coherent with that of the whole text, which at once appropriates and denies (‘in me not mine’) ‘scraps of an ancient voice’. The ‘Paolo-Francesca episode’, described in ‘Papini’s Dante’ as ‘the imperishable reference … to the incompatibility of the two operations [i.e. reading and loving]’ has fallen into the ‘muckheap’ too: ‘quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante’ (that day we read no further) (Inf. V, 138) becomes ‘that day we prayed no further’ (36), ‘ce jour-là nous ne priâmes pas plus avant’ (57).36 The ‘imperishable reference’ participates in the ‘interminable procession’ of ‘scraps’ of voices being heard and reproduced, an interpretive process of extorting meaning that is both violent and pleasurable.37

Geometries of passion

The opaque, dense, amorphous, impairing materiality of the mud is also the place of divisions. The mud is the only ‘surface’ in the text and constructs the (p.163) text’s spatiality. In part one, the ‘warmth of primeval mud impenetrable dark’ (11) is open to ‘vistas’ of the ‘light above’, ‘above if I were above the stars already’ (43), where one could ‘raise the eyes look for faces in the sky animals in the sky’ (45). The dark surface of the mud makes possible the hypothesis of a Dantean above, marked by the presence of the stars, which, as in The Calmative, are the ‘Bears’, thus ‘animals’.38

The mud is also ‘infernal’ by virtue of being ‘darkness below’, spatially opposed to an ‘above’, which is, similarly to Text 5, the place both of the visibility of the stars – ‘above if I were above the stars already’ (43) – and of the presence of light: ‘your life above YOUR LIFE pause my life ABOVE long pause above IN THE in the LIGHT pause light his life above in the light almost an octosyllable come to think of it a coincidence’ (72). The geometric division between above and below is also a temporal division between before and after. The passage from Inferno VII which appears in the ‘Whoroscope’ notebook, and which I have analysed earlier, is also functional to this division:

the people above whining about not living strange at such a time such a bubble in the head all dead now others for whom it is not a life and what follows very strange namely that I understand them (41)

les gents là-haut qui se lamentaient de ne pas vivre étrange à un tel moment une telle bulle dans la tête tous morts à présent d’autres à présent pour qui ce n’est pas une vie et la suite très étrange à savoir je les comprends (64)

The syntax suggests that people ‘whining about not living’ are ‘above’. This inverts the situation of canto VII, in which the people below, both in the sense of down in Hell and below the surface of the mud of the Styx, lament the ‘accidioso fummo’ (sluggish fumes). This has ruined their life above on earth, where the sun shines, and has condemned them to the mud (‘we were sullen in the sweet air that is gladdened by the sun, bearing within us the sluggish fumes; now we are sullen in the black mire’). What in canto VII was the effect of their speaking and the only visible sign of their existence, namely the bubbles produced by their voices, becomes in Beckett ‘such a bubble in the head’. The Dantean ‘scraps’ turn into ‘a bubble in the head’ of a light-headed ‘I’. The passage carries the parallel with canto VII further; the people above are all dead and others have taken their place, following an infernal economy of substitution and repetition. The final remark ‘very strange namely that I understand them’ goes against Dante’s need for Virgil’s interpretation as the place of unusual communicability.

The mud is not only the place of the division between above and below but also what has always been there, the ‘primeval’ warmth and the mass of human ‘de-jections’, at once ‘originelle’ and the place of ‘saletés’:

(p.164) vite une supposition si cette boue soi-disant n’était que notre merde à tous parfaitement tous si on n’est pas des billions en ce moment et pourquoi pas puisq’on voilà deux on le fut des billions à ramper et à chier dans leur merde en serrant comme un trésor dans leur bras de quoi ramper et chier encore main-tenant mes ongles (82)

quick a supposition if this so-called mud were nothing more than all our shit yes all if there are not billions of us at the moment and why not the moment there are two there were yes billions of us crawling and shitting in their shit hugging like a treasure in their arms the wherewithal to crawl and shit a little more now my nails (52)

William Hutchings has analysed the text’s prominent scatology in relation to Dante; he describes How It Is/Comment c’est as the ‘scatological eschatological’, comparing Dante’s journey and ‘passage through the literal bowels of the earth’ to the ‘intestinal odyssey of Beckett’s narrator’.39 Since, in another critic’s words, ‘Dante … makes his final hair-borne descent through the crevice near “the point where the thigh / Begins its swelling curve to meet the haunch” (Inf XXXIV, 72–73), and … emerges “seeking once more to return / Up to the world of light”’, Dante’s progress can be compared to the scatological being ‘shat into grace’ of How It Is/Comment c’est.40

The passage also goes back to the second bolgia of the eighth circle, namely Inferno XVIII, one of the most scatological passages of Dante’s poem, which is quoted in the following order in an undated Beckett card held at Trinity College Dublin:

  • Le ripe eran grommate d’una muffa,
  • Per l’alito di giù che vi s’appasta,
  • Che con gli occhi e col naso facea zuffa (106–108)

The banks were crusted over with a mold from the vapor below that sticks on them and that did battle with the eyes and with the nose

  • Vidi gente attuffata in uno sterco
  • Che dagli uman privadi parea mosso.
  • E mentre ch’io là giù con l’occhio cerco,
  • Vidi un col capo sí di merda lordo
  • Che non parea s’era laico o cherco. (113–117)

I saw down in the ditch a people plunged in filth that seemed to have come from human privies.

And while I was searching down there with my eyes, I beheld one whose head was so befouled with ordure that it did not appear whether he was layman or cleric.

  • (p.165) Quaggiù m’hanno sommerso le lusinghe
  • Ond’io non ebbi mai la lingua stucca. (125–126)

Down to this the flatteries wherewith my tongue was never cloyed have sunk me

  • Di quella sozza e scapigliata fante
  • Che là si graffia con le unghie merdose (130–131)

that fouled and disheveled wench who is scratching herself there with her filthy nails

In How It Is/Comment c’est scatology makes this text a ‘throwing away’ and ‘throwing down’ of words, which fall in the ‘muckheap’ made of previous (s)crap(s), residua, fragments, debris. Ingurgitating and disgorging, the text is the ‘abject’ ‘infinite loss without profit’ (112); time is described through a digestive metaphor (‘tracts of time’) and its scatological materiality constitutes the ‘primeval’ as the ‘already there’ and the ‘unthinkable beginning’.41

At once hindering and permitting speech and progress, a surface which makes possible a dream of ‘above’, the mud can retain ‘a few traces that’s all’ (103). The mud is a figure of the primeval as residual and of the impossibility of absolute amorphousness; there is no simple ‘nostalgie de la boue’ in this text, since mud is a figure of the impossibility both of a full and original self and of an absolute non-self. The ‘I’ in the text can be neither transparent meaning nor opaque materiality; it takes shape in the movement between the two.

The mud is subjected to internal unstable divisions. The infernal repetitiveness and the darkness of the mud can occasionally possess a reassuring quality: ‘safe places one after another infernal homes’ (95). However, this uniformity can also be subdivided: ‘B to C C to D from hell to home hell to home to hell always at night Z to A divine forgetting enough’ (79). Within the mud itself, which is infernal, the movement from the position of tormented to that of tormentor is rephrased as that from Hell to home. The text constitutes itself as the infernal fragmentariness of self and non-self, as the always already divided materiality of body parts, as the impossible complete amorphousness of the mud.

The text keeps positing divisions that are then eroded, crossed, and shifted. Its overall tripartite division follows this dynamic as well. The voice keeps subdividing the story into three phases and crossing those same limits, at once declaring the impossibility of doing without discriminations, and the impossibility for these divisions to be stable. Thus, the text recurrently ‘dreams’ that it might organise itself into the three neatly divided parts ‘of a sky an earth an under-earth where I am inconceivable’ (37) and wants to ‘divide into three a single eternity for the sake of clarity’ (24).

(p.166) Although one of the possible meanings of the number three in the Beckett canon might well have a Dantean connotation (as suggested by ‘Dante… Bruno.Vico…Joyce’), I would prefer not to force correspondences between the two systems. Rather, I would suggest that the text’s tripartite division is part of a larger ‘critical’ reading of the notion of ‘critique’ in its etymological sense of ‘judging’ and ‘dividing’. That is to say, by positing these divisions, the text critically interrogates the presuppositions on which any division rests: divisions can neither be trusted nor avoided. The presence in the text of a number of institutional disciplines presiding over these critical practices can be read in this light. For example, the movements by which the ‘I’ advances are chopped up and schematised, in a mechanical parody reminiscent of Watt:

my arm bends therefore my right it’s preferable which reduces from very obtuse to very acute the angle between the humerus and the other the anatomy the geometry and my right hand seeks his lips let us try and see this pretty movement more clearly (55–56)

mon bras se plie donc le droit c’est mieux ce qui ramène de très obtus en très aigu l’angle entre l’humérus et l’autre l’anatomie la géométrie et ma main droite cherche ses lèvres tâchons de voir ce joli mouvement de plus près (87)

In order to ‘see’ this ironically ‘pretty’ movement we are offered geometry and ‘anatomy’ (54–56), ‘algebra’ (51), ‘arithmetic’ (37), ‘mathematics’, ‘astronomy’, ‘physics’, ‘history’, and ‘geography’ (41). Meaning needs to be produced through discriminations; and yet, the power that these discriminations have to create the real as given and a-temporal is suffocated and engulfed by the muddy materiality of meaning itself.

The text’s passion for geometry is part of the infernal torment of infinite fragmentation and repetition through which the spatiality of How It Is/Comment c’est is produced. At the same time, the text’s geometry is a figure of passion: the endless chain of tormented bodies ‘glued together’ is also a source of violent pleasure. ‘Passion’ thus refers to the relationship between tormentor and tormented, structured according to an alternating dynamic of activity and passivity. The victim is passive (Latin patire) but active in his speaking, while the tormentor acts but is confined to silence. ‘Passion’, for Jacques Derrida, connotes ‘toujours en mémoire de la signification christiano-romaine, le martyre, c’est-à-dire, comme son nom l’indique, le témoignage’.42 Both martyrdom and witnessing are important elements in the text; the ‘moderate’ ‘martyring and being martyred’ (127) is the specific figure of the closed structure of extorting and passing on ‘the story’ along the chain through the infliction of bodily pain, of torture. At the same time, both hearing and producing speech are pleasurable activities, identified with the opening of the can of food (p.167) and the ‘good moments’ experienced by the tongue lolling in mud and feeding itself with it. Furthermore, the fragmented body parts scattered through the text and constituting the fragmented self of the text are eroticised in the image of the ‘imbrication of flesh without fissures’: ‘sadism pure and simple no since I may not cry’ (63).

‘Passion’ also connotes ‘la passibilité, c’est-à-dire aussi l’imputabilité, la culpabilité, la responsabilité, un certain Schuldigsein, une dette originaire de l’être-devant-la-loi’.43 This is the situation of the beings in the text, tormentors and tormented; this is their condition of ‘being in justice’ (124) and their belonging to the infinite procession organised according to a geometric system. The term ‘passion’ is also suggestive of the text’s Christian imagery, since the organisation of the narrative flow of information is related to ‘God that old favourite’ (70), the ear who listens to the murmuring, the Love, the source of provisions. Therefore, to speak of ‘geometries of passion’ in relation to Dante means understanding how the text’s spatiality is mediated not only by explicitly Christian but also by specifically Dantean connotations.

As clarified by Bersani and Dutoit, the structure of the journey is organised as a geometric model, which allows a triadic series of relationships thanks to four elements. The movement from A to B is the ‘journey’, identified in the narration with part one, the tormenting of B by A is the ‘with Pim’, namely part two, and the abandonment of B by A, which waits for a tormentor to arrive, is part three. Bersani and Dutoit point out that A will only know B and D, never C, while ‘B will never have any other tormentor than A, no other victim but C’.44 This geometric structure explains why the text thus requires four elements in order to have three parts. This is why the text asserts that ‘in trying to present in three parts or episodes an affair which all things considered involves four one is in danger of being incomplete’, calls for a supplementary structure, ‘to this third part now ending at last a fourth should normally be appended’, and declares ‘our total life it states only three quarters’ (130).

In How It Is/Comment c’est, this structure is closely related not only to the idea of authority (as discussed in relation to Mercier and Camier and Watt), but also of time and autobiographical writing. The division ‘before Pim with Pim after Pim’ is continuously stated and continuously collapsed, outfaced by the impossibility of grasping the present, which can only be reformulated as present afterwards. In order to speak about his life – ‘it’s my life we’re speaking of, my life, what else’ – the ‘I’ always has to leave off the ‘last quarter’, in the ‘present formulation’. The division of time into ‘history prophesy and latest news’ (129) describes this impossibility, which is also the impossibility of the ‘I’ as self-presence.45 This structure is imagined according to two different ‘figures’, to adopt a term frequently occurring in the text: the ellipse around the earth, (p.168) which makes possible a finite number of ‘players’, and the straight line, for which an infinite number of players must be devised (116–117).

The reference to the elliptical movement, which embraces the girdle of the earth, brings us back to the etymological root of geo-metry, from the Greek ‘earth’ and ‘measurer’. The ‘equivalent’ of the girdle of the earth is the measure of the movement of the ‘being which is human’: ‘and so in the mud the dark on the belly in a straight line as near as no matter four hundred miles in other words in eight thousand years if I had not stopped the girdle of the earth meaning the equivalent’ (41). The hypothesis of the ellipses is at one point suggested as possible only ‘above in the light where their space is measured’, since ‘here the straight line the straight line eastward strange and death in the west as a rule’ (123). Thus, an above where space can be measured is hypothesised from a below in which the straight line is privileged since it entails either solitude or an infinite number of members (‘either I am alone … or else we are innumerable and no further problem either’), and cannot be measured: ‘a procession in a straight line with neither head nor tail in the dark the mud with all the various infinitudes that such a conception involves’ (124).

The distinctions between above and below and between the ellipsis and the straight line, are, however, not so ‘neat’. The procession both ‘advances from left to right’, ‘wends as we have seen from left to right or if you prefer from west to east’ (123)’, and ‘turns deasil’ (118). The ‘confused reckonings to the effect I can’t have deviated more than a second or so from the direction imparted to me’ obsessively reiterate how this direction, imparted ‘at the inconceivable outset’ (40), is ‘from left to right … from west to east … from left to right in the dark the mud’ (125).

‘Death’ is always assumed to be ‘in the west as a rule’, a ‘rule’ strongly connoted by centuries of Christian thought, and, possibly, by Dante too. The relevance of Dante in matters of directionality has been discussed in relation to other works, such as Le calmant/The Calmative, and it is explicitly stated in the first ‘Dante postcard’ and in Compagnie, in which the direction is the opposite of that of Comment c’est. While in the latter we read: ‘supposition qu’on tourne destrorsum’ (183), Compagnie states: ‘Senestrorsum … Comme aux enfers’ (68).46 In How It Is the ‘rumour [is] transmissible ad infinitum in either direction … from left to right … from right to left’ (120), but the direction is that described in the ‘first postcard’ as ‘in Purg. always to the right’.47 Thus, the Purgatorial direction of salvation, framed into the larger Christian ‘rule’ which prescribes that ‘death lies in the west’, can be read as one of the overdetermined meanings with which the text plays. This directionality conspicuously refers to another movement, that of writing; Leslie Hill has observed that ‘the theme of the journey, … which sustains the novel’s overall structure, is quite closely (p.169) exploited as a metaphor for the act of writing’.48 The movement of the pen from left to right is also the movement of the torturer inscribing painful words on the body of his victim, ‘from left to right and top to bottom as in our civilisation I carve my Roman capitals’ (70).49

If the Purgatorial winding movement from left to right, away from death, is framed by a logic which connotes the ‘above’ as the place of salvation, this is short-circuited by the more technical sense of ‘above’ as ‘above mentioned.’ The above becomes the already said, ‘my voice is going it will come back my first voice no voice above none there either’ (79), creating the textual loop: ‘so eternally I quote on’ (115). This endless repetition/repetitiveness is, as we have seen, the ‘infernal’ passion of the ‘beginning again of its own beginnings’. Furthermore, the above and below are also part of the ‘top to bottom’ digestive circularity of the text, in which shit and vomit are food and nourishment.

The witness and the scribe

How It Is/Comment c’est stages Inferno VII by enacting its hellish repetitiveness and playing with its muddy materiality. We have seen how in canto VII invisibility and inaudibility are transformed by Virgil’s persuasive rhetoric into testimonies of truth. Dante the witness reports the words of Virgil (whose ‘ornate word’ has been strongly questioned in the same canto), who, in his turn, is translating and assembling a hymn that cannot be sung in ‘full words’. In Watt, Virgil’s refusal to ‘add fair words’ (‘parole non ci appulcro’) questions the function of the ‘Addenda’. In How It Is/Comment c’est, the passage from invisibility and inaudibility to testimony operated by Virgil’s words questions the reality of the voice.

In other sections of this volume I have argued, with Teodolinda Barolini, that the Comedy’s ‘outrageously inauthentic devices’ construct the narrative as ‘truth’, and, using Singleton’s well-known definition, that ‘the fiction of the Comedy is that there is no fiction’.50 The episode of the sullen souls in canto VII is a good example of how a complex narrative strategy of passing on the ‘murmuring in the mud’ can become an act of witnessing the truth. How It Is/Comment c’est plays on this process: the ‘reality’ of the scene is based on what in the English text is the sequence ‘say what you hear see what you say say you see it’ (105), which elaborates on the succinct French ‘dire ce qu’on entend le voir’ (163). The ‘heard’ is made by the ‘saying’, the ‘saying’ by the ‘seeing’ and the ‘seeing’ by the ‘saying’, thus creating reality through the repetitiveness of the said.

The issue of testimony becomes a central one through the figures of the witness and of the scribe. Witness and scribe in How It Is/Comment c’est strongly (p.170) question vision and written recording in their traditional reifying roles.51 At the same time, these two figures of authority demand an ear in order for the voice to exist as fragmentary movement between self and non-self. We encounter the figure of the witness quite early in the text:

that’s the speech I’ve been given part one before Pim question do I use it freely it’s not said or I don’t hear it’s one or the other all I hear is that a witness I’d need a witness

he lives bent over me that’s the life he has been given all my visible surface bathing in the light of his lamps when I go he follows me bent in two (18)

voilà la parole qu’on m’a donnée première partie avant Pim question si j’en use beaucoup on ne dit pas ou je n’entends pas c’est l’un ou l’autre on dit qu’un témoin qu’il me faudrait un témoin

il vit penché sur moi voilà la vie qu’on lui a donnée toute ma surface visible plongée dans la lumière de ses lampes quand je m’en vais il me suit courbé en deux (26–27)

We can read the passage as the ‘invocation’ for the scribe coming from the ‘I’, in need of knowing if he either does not hear ‘it’, or if ‘it’ is not said. However, it can also be read as the ‘I’ hearing, and repeating, the voice from which he quotes declaring the need for a witness. The syntax reproduces the oscillation between undecidability and interpretation, and the invocation of a witness is an invocation for ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ within this framework. It is an ‘invocation’, a conjuring up of a voice, which would then be caught in the same need for a witness not only in order to be interpreted, but also to exist. In fact, the witness in the text is the figure of the ‘ear’; the voice cannot be a voice if there is nobody to hear it.

The posture of the witness bent over the ‘I’, following him everywhere, illuminating him with the lamp, indicates that he is at once his double and a variation on the theme of closeness between tormentor and tormented, between self and non-self. The necessity for ‘good eyes’ and a ‘good lamp’ points to light and vision as topoi of knowledge and reason in Western culture.52

he would need good eyes the witness if there were a witness good eyes a good lamp he would have them the witness the good eyes the good lamp

to the scribe sitting aloof he’d announce midnight no two in the morning three in the morning Ballast Office brief movements of the lower face no sound it’s my words cause them it’s they cause my words it’s one or the other I’ll fall asleep within humanity again just barely (44–45)

il lui faudrait de bonne yeux au témoin s’il y avait un témoin de bons yeux une bonne lampe il les aurait les bons yeux la bonne lampe

(p.171) au scribe assis à l’écart il annoncerait minuit non deux heures trois heures heure du Ballast Office brefs mouvements du bas du visage aucun son c’est mes mots qui font ça ça qui fait mes mots je m’endormirai encore dans l’humanité tout juste (69)53

The lamp is both what allows the witness to see, thus making him a witness, and an instrument for extorting confessions, similar to the function of the spot in Play. To see is to extort; the act of witnessing as martyr ‘makes reality’ or, as Derrida points out, amounts to ‘faire la vérité, selon l’expression d’Augustin’. The link between witnessing and martyrdom, on which How It Is/Comment c’est elaborates, is also linked to the constant possibility that witnessing could turn into perjury: ‘Si le témoignage est passion, c’est aussi parce qu’il souffrira toujours et d’avoir indécidablement partie liée avec la fiction, le parjure ou le mensonge et de ne jamais pouvoir ni devoir, faute de cesser de témoigner, devenir une preuve.’54

Judiciary figures, as in Text 5, the witness and the scribe are part of the system of justice based on the endless ‘moderate’ martyrdom, caught between the impossibility of repetition (the possibility of fiction) and the construction of truth through repetition:

wrong for never twice the same unless time vast tracts aged out of recognition no for often fresher stronger after than before unless sickness sorrow they sometimes pass one feels better less wretched after than before

unless recordings on ebonite or suchlike a whole life generations on ebonite one can imagine it nothing to prevent one mix it all up change the natural order play about with that (107)

attention jamais deux fois la même ou alors le temps des temps énormes vieillie méconnaissable non car souvent plus fraîche plus forte après qu’avant à moins que la maladie les malheurs quelquefois ça passe on est mieux moins mal après qu’avant

ou alors enregistrements sur ébonite ou similaire toute une vie des générations sur ébonite on peut l’imaginer rien ne vous en empêche mélanger changer l’ordre naturel jouer avec ça (166)

The ebonite recording does not bear witness to life’s ‘natural order’, and repetition can never be absolutely self-coinciding, cannot guarantee the truthfulness of memories, which are eroded, modified, used as cathartic instruments, as Krapp’s Last Tape illustrates too. On the other hand, repetition ‘makes reality’, reifies discourse into history. I would read in this light the families and dynasties in which witness and scribe, named Kram and Krim (a pun on ‘the German Krimskrams or junk’), are inserted:55

(p.172) all alone and the witness bending over me name Kram bending over us father to son to grandson yes or no and the scribe name Krim generations of scribes keeping the record a little aloof sitting standing it’s not said yes or no samples extracts (80)

tout seul et le témoin penché sur moi nom Kram penché sur nous de père en fils en petit-fils oui ou non et le scribe nom Krim générations de scribes tenant le greffe un peu à l’écart assis debout on ne dit pas oui ou non échantillons extraits (125)

what’s the use of that Krim (81)

à quoi ça sert Krim (127)

Krim dead are you mad one doesn’t die here (93)

Krim morts tu est malade on ne meurt pas ici (146)

Kram who listens Krim who notes or Kram alone one is enough Kram alone witness and scribe his lamps their light upon me Kram with me bending over me till the age-limit then his son his son’s son so on (133)

pour Kram qui écoute Krim qui note ou Kram seul un seul suffit Kram seul témoin et scribe ses feux qui m’éclairent Kram avec moi penché sur moi jusqu’à la limite d’âge puis son fils son petit-fils ainsi de suite (207)

Just as the witness duplicates the ‘I’, the scribe duplicates the witness. Inscribed in a written text that claims to be an oral/aural communication, the witness and the scribe are the two figures of authority that mirror this double aspect of narration. The scribe is a reduplication of the witness; the ‘three books’ are a ‘rich testimony’ (83):

little private book these secret things little book all my own the heart’s outpourings day by day it’s forbidden one big book and everything there Krim imagines I am drawing what then places faces loved forgotten

that’s enough end of extracts yes or no yes or no no no no witness no scribe all alone and yet I hear it murmur it all alone in the dark the mud and yet (84)

petit calepin à part ces notes intimes petit calepin à moi effusions de l’âme au jour le jour c’est défendu un seul grand livre et tout dedans Krim s’imagine que je dessine quoi paysages visages aimés oubliés

assez fin des extraits oui ou non oui ou non non non pas de témoin pas de scribe tout seul et cependant je l’entends le murmure tout seul dans le noir la boue et cependant (131)

(p.173) In the English text ‘secret things’ refer to the ‘secrete cose’, mentioned above in relation to ‘Enueg I’; Dante calls ‘secrete cose’ the other world he will discover after he has gone through the gate announcing the end of hope:

  • E poi che la sua mano a la mia puose
  • con lieto volto, ond’io mi confortai,
  • mi mise dentro a le secrete cose. (Inf. III, 19–21)

And when he had placed his hand on mine, with a cheerful look from which I took comfort, he led me among the secret things.

The ‘secret things’ in this context are the ‘I’’s confessions in his ‘little book’. The scribe watches and imagines what he is ‘drawing’ in the book/diary. But this sentimental outburst of expression is itself made by ‘extracts’ from other books. Following Travers Gross, we can read these ‘heart’s outpourings’ against ‘my darling’s red sputum’ of ‘Enueg I’. The ‘extracts’ can be read as referring to the confessional early poem, once again metamorphosising passages from previous books into other texts belonging to the Beckett canon. In line with a practice already observed in Watt and the Three Novels, the text transforms the whole canon into what How It Is calls a ‘perpetual revictuallings, narrations and auditions’ (139).

The figure of the witness and the scribe are figures of authority not only because they are parallel to the originating movement of the text’s claim to a simultaneous oral and written status but also because they question the possibility of infinitude, absolute non-hierarchical transmission of indistinct murmuring. In other words, the witness and the scribe point to the necessarily ‘aloof ’ position of the one who writes the story. The attempt ‘to present in three parts or episodes an affair which all things considered involves four one is in danger of being incomplete … in the present formulation’, ‘qu’à vouloir présenter en trois parties ou épisodes un affaire qui à bien y regarder en comporte quatre on risque d’être incomplet … dans la présente rédaction’, is the need of a ‘fourth part to be appended’ (130), ‘s’ajouter une quatrième’ (201–202). The ‘affair’ can be regarded as concluded only from an outside, aloof position; it can be reified only by an appendix, by a supplement, which its own external status makes into the ‘impossible last’. In Mercier et/and Camier the narration of the couple can exist only insofar as it depends on a third observer, and Dante is a figure of this problem of authority. In How It Is/Comment c’est, the witness and the scribe have a similar function; they are the necessary hypothesis for the voice to be called voice, for the text to exist. Their collapsing first into one single figure, then into God, and later into the ‘I’, sketches how the text cannot possibly state the absolute absence of teleology, cannot deny its being a written piece of work, even when its genealogy coincides with the German word for junk.

(p.174) In Dante, the figure of the scribe is one of the loci classici of the Comedy, in which his self-definition is both a declaration of humility and of supreme authority:

  • Or ti riman, lettor, sovra ’l tuo banco,
  • dietro pensando a ciò che si preliba,
  • s’esser vuoi lieto assai prima che stanco.
  • Messo t’ho innanzi: omai per te ti ciba;
  • ché a sé torce tutta la mia cura
  • quella materia ond’io son fatto scriba. (Par. X, 22–27)

Now remain, reader, upon your desk, reflecting on this of which you have a foretaste, if you would be glad far sooner than weary. I have set before you; now feed yourself, because that matter of which I am made the scribe wrests to itself all my care.56

The self-definition as scribe is within an address to the reader, who is pictured as sitting at his desk, transformed into a student of Dante by Dante. However, thinking is also a movement; as in Paradiso II, 3, the reader has to follow behind Dante’s ship ‘that singing makes her way’ (‘seguiti / dietro al mio legno che cantando varca’), here he has to ‘think behind’ what he has been offered. The scribe can no longer help him to feed himself; he will have to do it on his own, because the ‘matter of which [he is] made scribe’ absorbs all his energies. Dante terms himself as scribe while his reader cannot demand any more help and has to realise the difficulty of a tëodia (divine song).57

The image can be related to a no less famous passage of the Comedy, in which Dante places himself at the receiving end of a dictation:

  • E io a lui: ‘I’ mi son un che, quando
  • Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo
  • Ch’e’ ditta dentro vo significando’.

(Purg. XXIV, 52–54)

And I to him: ‘I am one who, when Love inspires me, takes note, and goes setting it forth after the fashion which he dictates within me.’58

The passage from canto XXIV illustrates the ‘dolce stil novo’ (mentioned in line 57), or, as Beckett puts it in ‘Home Olga’, ‘the sweet noo style.’ Love is the dictator, and Dante can ‘take’ his ‘new rhymes’ from being a perfect scribe, noting what Love dictates and reproducing it faithfully in the process of signifying. If in the Purgatorio Dante retrospectively creates a poetic school and a genre through the image of the ‘dittator d’Amore’, in the Paradiso the writer is still a scribe, but his dictator is no longer Love, but rather God himself. From being Love’s scribe the poet has become the Divine Love’s scribe, able to ‘faithfully reproduce’ the ‘secret things’ of life beyond life. Dante appropriates the scribe’s (p.175) power of ‘reproducing’ in order to create his own ‘tëodia’ and to speak as ‘scriba Dei’. He thus invests himself with an authority ‘at least equal to that of the author of the Apocalypse (John agrees with him on a visionary detail in Purgatorio XXIX – not the other way around!)’.59

Rather than seeing Beckett’s work as a denial or a reversal of the Dantean teleology, I would argue that the witness and the scribe are figures of the necessary ‘auditor’ for the voice to exist. This ‘ear’ is gradually transformed into the ‘love’ which guarantees provisions, justice, and ultimately narration itself, thus impersonating the problem of authority. Witness and scribe are collapsed into one single figure:

cumulation of offices most understandable if it will be kindly considered that to hear and note one of our murmurs is to hear and note them all (138)

cumul d’emplois facile à admettre si l’on veut bien considérer que l’écoute d’un seul de nos murmures et sa rédaction sont l’écoute et la rédaction de tous (215)

The killing off of Kram results in the hypothesis of ‘the ear, we’re talking of an ear above in the light’ (134–135):

the panting stops I hear it my life I have it murmur it it’s preferable more logical for Kram to note and if we are innumerable then Krams innumerable if you like or one alone my Kram mine alone he’s enough here where justice reigns one life all life not two lives our justice one Kram not one of us there’s reason in me yet his son begets his son leaves the light Kram goes back up into the light to end his days

or no Kram that too when the panting stops an ear above somewhere above and unto it the murmur ascending (134)

ça cesse de haleter je l’entends ma vie je l’ai la murmure c’est mieux plus logique pour Kram qui peut noter et si nous sommes sans nombre des Kram sans nombre si l’on veut ou un seul le mien mon Kram à moi il suffit ici où la justice regne une seule vie toute la vie pas deux vies notre justice Kram n’est pas des nôtres de la raison il m’en reste son fils fait son fils quitte la lumière Kram y remonte finir ses jours

ou pas de Kram ça aussi quand ça cesse de haleter une oreille quelque part là-haut et jusqu’à elle le murmure qui s’éleve (208)

The ear is given transcendental characteristics, since it is the place to which the ‘fallen words’ – ‘scraps of other scraps of other scraps of an antique rigmarole’ (134), ‘ces bribes d’autres bribes d’un antique cafouillis’ (209) – can ascend. This transcendental ear, a fragment of the body, becomes not only the absolute hearer/writer, thus duplicating the witness/scribe couple, but also the source of (p.176) provisions: ‘the gift of understanding the care for us the means of noting what does it matter … whose his charge of the sacks’ (135), ‘le don de comprendre le souci de nous les moyens de noter … à qui au préposé aux sacs’ (210). ‘He’ is even called ‘a love’ (138), ‘un amour’ (214), which guarantees justice. This witness/scribe, who hears and notes, is necessary for the narration to exist and thus becomes the author. This does not mean, however, that either ‘narrations’ or ‘auditions’ can be reconstructed as ‘whole’; the hellish fragmentariness persists in the ‘ill-inspired ill-told and so ancient so forgotten at each telling’ stories, which are ‘the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit’.60

Witness and the scribe first merge, then are transcendentally transformed, and they ultimately collapse into the figure of a God-author: ‘there he is then at last that not one of us … when he lends his ear to our murmur does no more than lend it to a story of his own devising ill-inspired ill-told and so ancient so forgotten at each telling that ours may seem faithful that we murmur to the mud to him’ (139), ‘le voilà donc ce pas des nôtres … en prêtant l’oreille à notre murmure ne fait que la prêter à une histoire de son cru mal inspirée mal dite et chaque fois si ancienne si oubliée que peut lui paraître conforme celle qu’à la boue nous lui murmurons’ (215). To him the procession of murmuring voices is ‘indebted’, not only because only through his ear they exist as voices and through his notes they can exist as text but also because he is the ‘source’ of food, the love which guarantees the ‘victuals’. The source of both narration and food, which are equated, is the end point of these ‘perpetual revictuallings narrations and auditions’ (139). To him the power of ending is allocated: ‘God knows who could blame him’ for wanting to ‘put an end’ to this inferno. However, this God-ear, which can also be read as referring to the Old Testament tradition of God as voice, cannot be the ultimate closing point. The text is the process of digestion: it feeds, regurgitates, and expels language as matter and matter as language.61

God-ear, this figure of authority, presiding over the ‘infinite loss without profit’ (112), is disposed of through a move which is at once the beginning of the end and the assumption of authority on the ‘I’’s part:

has he not staring him in the face I quote on a solution more simple by far and by far more radical

a formulation that would eliminate him completely and so admit him to that peace at least while rendering me in the same breath sole responsible for this unqualifiable murmur of which consequently here the last scraps at last very last (144)

n’a-t-il pas sous la main je cite toujours une solution plus simple de beaucoup et plus radicale

(p.177) une formulation qui en même temps qu’elle le supprimerait tout à fait et lui ouvrirait le voie de ce repos-là au moins me rendrait moi seul responsable de cet inqualifiable murmure dont voici par conséquent enfin les dernières bribes tout à fait (223–224)

The ‘I’ takes up ‘sole responsibility’, legally admits his guilt, confesses, states that ‘the whole story from beginning to end yes completely false yes … yes all balls only one voice here yes mine yes’ (144–145), ‘toute l’histoire d’un bout à l’autre oui complètement faux oui … oui de la foutaise oui qu’une voix ici oui la mienne oui’ (224).

However, the text’s critique of the notions of absolutely reliable reproduction or absolute betrayal, of matter as amorphousness or language as transparent, does not allow any stable conclusion, not even a negative one. Looking for ‘proof ’ and meaning amounts to continuing the ‘infinite’ passion of ingestion and de-jection: ‘stab him simply in the arse that is to say speak and he will say anything what he can whereas proof I need proof so stab him in a certain way signifying answer once and for all which I do therefore what an improvement how I’ve improved’ (71), ‘le piquer simplement au cul c’est-à-dire parle il dira n’importe quoi ce qu’il peut alors que la prevue il me faut la prevue donc le piquer de façon spéciale signifiant une fois pour toutes réponds c’est donc ce que je fais quel mieux comme j’ai gagné’ (111–112).

Dante, we have seen, plays a number of different roles in How It Is/Comment c’est: Belacqua is a familiar memory and his mocking lapidary quality has ‘fallen over on his side’ (‘basculé sur le côté’), providing, yet again, a brief comic relief. Inferno VII does not just question the reality of How It Is/Comment c’est’s incessantly repeated murmurings; it also performs the textual negotiation between language and materiality. The witness and the scribe are How It Is/Comment c’est’s translation of the Comedy’s take on authority, and the purgatorially oriented circular movement pralleled by the chain of imbricated bodies explores the necessary teleological structure of the narrative. This problem, first encountered in Dream, assumes global proportions in How It Is/Comment c’est, in which it is extended to an endless procession, ‘from next mortal to the next leading nowhere’, ‘de mortel suivant en mortel suivant ne menant nulle part sans autre’. The material and the literary (and the violent and the pleasurable) are inextricably joined by the tormentor’s injunction to ‘cleave’ to the tormented and to ‘give him a name train him up bloody him all over with Roman capitals gorge on his fables unite for life in stoic love to the last shrimp and a little longer’ (62), ‘le nommer le dresser le couvrir jusq’au sang de majuscules romaines me gaver de ses fables nous unir pour la vie dans l’amour stoïque jusq’au dernier hareng gai et un peu plus’ (97).

(p.178) In How It Is/Comment c’est Dante is one of the murmured voices both ‘within’ and ‘without’ the text and one of its flickering ‘figures’. ‘Figure’, as Erich Auerbach points out, shares its grammatical root with ‘fingere’, ‘figulus’, ‘fictor’, and ‘effiges’;62 the word oscillates between the mathematical reassuring power of the ‘dear figures when all fails a few figures’ (47) and fiction.

The figures of Belacqua and of the witness and the scribe, and the algebraic figures trying to account for the constantly redrawn and collapsed divisions of mud and bodies indicate that How It Is/Comment c’est rewrites an inferno with Dante, enacting the problems of visibility and audibility present in Inferno VII and turning them into questions about the reality of fiction, performing the muddy materiality of the canto, and staging the problems of directionality and testimony which haunt the Purgatorio through a repetitiveness which is tormenting, unavoidable, and, at times, hellishly funny.

Notes

Notes:

(1) Letter to Donald McWhinnie, 6 April 1960 (RUL) quoted in James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), pp. 461–462.

(2) Ruby Cohn, A Beckett Canon (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), pp. 256–257.

(3) Teodolinda Barolini, The Undivine Comedy. Detheologizing Dante (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 25. Neal Oxenhandler, ‘Seeing and believing in Dante and Beckett’, in Mary Ann Caws (ed.), Writing in a Modern Temper: Essays on French Literature and Thought in Honor of Henri Peyre (Saratoga: Anma Libri, 1984), pp. 214–223, p. 218.

(4) On the notion of literature as communication in the absence of speaker and listener see Carla Locatelli, ‘“My life natural order more or less in the present more or less”: textual immanence as the textual impossible in Beckett’s works’, in Lois Oppenheim and Marius Buning (eds), Beckett On and On … (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), pp. 127–147, p. 128. See also Marcello Pagnini, Pragmatica della letteratura (Palermo: Sellerio, 1980).

(5) Cohn, A Beckett Canon, p. 256.

(6) Samuel Beckett, How It Is (New York: Grove Press, 1964), p. 7; Samuel Beckett, Comment c’est (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1961), p. 9. Subsequent references are given in the text.

(7) Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 59–60. On the infinitely regressive movement started by the ‘I quote’ see also Peter Boxall, ‘Beckett’s negative geography: fictional space in Beckett’s prose’, Ph.D. thesis, University of Sussex, 1996, p. 146.

(8) Bersani and Dutoit, Arts of Impoverishment, p. 60.

(9) See Beckett, Dream of Fair to Middling Woman (New York: Arcade, 1992), p. 66; More Pricks Than Kicks (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1972), pp. 38–39 and 47; Murphy (London: Picador, 1973), p. 48; Molloy, The Beckett Trilogy (London: Picador, 1979), p. 12; Waiting for Godot (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), p. 70; All Strange Away, The Complete Short Prose 1929–1989 ed. S. E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 1995), (p.179) p. 171; The Lost Ones (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1972), p. 56; Company (London: Calder, 1980), p. 85.

(10) Letter to Kay Boyle, 29 August 1960, HRHRC, University of Texas, Austin.

(11) Beckett, The Lost Ones, p. 14, Le dépeupleur, p. 13, Company, p. 85, Compagnie (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985), p. 84.

(12) Murphy ‘renounced the lee of Belacqua’s rock and his embryonal repose.’ Beckett, Murphy, p. 48.

(13) Francesca Del Moro interprets ‘no callers’ (12), ‘ni de visiteurs’ (17) as a reference to Dante and Virgil visiting the damned. Francesca Del Moro, ‘“The Divine Florentine”: Dante nell’opera di Samuel Beckett’, dissertation, University of Pisa, 1996, p. 194.

(14) Beckett, Murphy, p. 48.

(15) Ruby Cohn has pointed out that ‘curtains open on a scene, as in the theatre, and images vanish through “brief void” or “brief black”, like cinematic blackouts’. Cohn, Back to Beckett (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 232.

(16) See Carla Locatelli, Unwording the World: Samuel Beckett’s Prose Works After the Nobel Prize (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), pp. 112–154 and 188–224.

(17) RUL MS 3000.

(18) Beckett, The Calmative, in Stories and Texts for Nothing, p. 33.

(19) Ruby Cohn notices that the mud appears in the Leopardi epigraph to the 1931 edition of Proust: ‘e fango è il mondo’ (and mud is the world). Cohn, Back to Beckett, p. 232. William Hutchings, too, draws attention to Leopardi’s A se stesso in Proust (79), “‘Shat into grace” or, a tale of a turd: why it is how it is in Samuel Beckett’s How It Is’, Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, 21:1 (Winter 1985), 64–87. Many others establish the connection between the mud of How It Is/Comment c’est and Dante’s Inferno; see for instance Francesca Del Moro, ‘The Divine Florentine’, p. 194; Kateryna Arthur, ‘T. S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, and Dante’, Ph.D. thesis, University of Sussex, 1982, p. 228; John Fletcher, Samuel Beckett’s Art (London: Chatto & Windus, 1971), p. 118; Gabriele Frasca, Cascando: Tre studi su Samuel Beckett (Naples: Liguori, 1988), pp. 18–19; Oxenhandler, ‘Seeing and believing in Dante and Beckett’, pp. 214–223; Michael Robinson, ‘From purgatory to inferno: Beckett and Dante revisited’, Journal of Beckett Studies, 5 (Autumn 1979), 79; Jean-Pierre Ferrini, Dante et Beckett (Paris: Hermann, 2003).

(20) Michael Robinson quotes from canto VII, 109–111, 112–125, and 125–126.

(21) William Hutchings also quotes canto VII, 118–126. Hutchings’s first parallel between the Dantean passage and How It Is is based on a close reading of a 1948 English translation (by Thomas G. Bergin) of the Comedy, and it is quite misleading. Philip Terry, ‘Waiting for God to go: How It Is and Inferno VII–VIII’, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourdhui: Beckett Versus Beckett, 7 (1998), 349–360.

(22) TCD 10963, fols 18–19. RUL MS 3000. Foirade IV also has a reference in Italian to the same passage from the Comedy: ‘Je rentre à la nuit, ils s’envolent, ils lâchent mon petit chêne et s’en vont, gavés, dans les ombres. Tristi fummo ne l’aere dolce. Je rentre, lève le bras, saisis la branche, me met debout et rentre dans la maison.’ Samuel Beckett, Pour finir encore et autres foirades (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1976), p. 45.

(23) This is parallel to what What Where does through the last sentence ‘make sense who may’, thus explicitly placing the reader in the position of the next tormentor/tormented. See Samuel Beckett, What Where, in Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber & Faber, 1984), pp. 307–313, p. 313.

(p.180) (24) Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), p. 68.

(25) Cohn, Back to Beckett, p. 238.

(26) ‘The masochist body: it is poorly understood in terms of pain; it is fundamentally a question of the BwO [Body without Organs]. It has its sadist or whore sew it up; the eyes, anus, urethra, breasts, and nose are sewn shut. It has itself strung up to stop the organs from working; flayed, as if the organs clung to the skin; sodomized, smothered, to make sure everything is sealed tight.’ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Athlone, 1988), vol. 2, p. 150; the authors’ emphasis.

(27) In Murphy all the characters but Murphy are called ‘puppets’. The French version reads instead: ‘Pim à tout jamais qu’une carcasse inerte et muette à jamais alatie dans la boue sans moi mais comment que je vais l’animer vous allez voir et si je sais m’effacer derrière ma creature quand ça m’arrive’ (82).

(28) ‘e volta nostra poppa nel mattino, / de’ remi facemmo ali al folle vole, / sempre acquistando dal lato mancino. / Tutte le stelle già dell’altro polo / vedea la notte, e ’l nostro tanto basso, / che non surgea fuor del marin suolo. / … quando n’apparve una montagna, bruna / per la distanza, e parvemi alta tanto / quanto veduta non avëa alcuna. / Noi ci allegrammo, e tosto tornò in pianto; / ché de la nova terra un turbo nacque / e percosse del legno il primo canto. / Tre volte il fé girar con tutte l’acque; / a la quarta levar la poppa in suso / e la prora ire in giù, com’altrui piacque, / infin che ’l mar fu sovra noi richiuso’ (And turning our stern to the morning, we made of our oars wings for the mad flight, always gaining on the left. The night now saw the other pole and all its stars, and ours so low that it did not rise from the ocean floor … when there appeared to us a mountain dark in the distance, and to me it seemed the highest I had ever seen. We rejoiced, but soon our joy was turned to grief, for from the new land a whirlwind rose and struck the forepart of the ship. Three times it whirled her round with all the waters, and the fourth time it lifted the stern aloft and plunged the prow below, as pleased Another, till the sea closed over us) (Inf. XXVI, 124–129 and 133–142).

(29) The term ‘family’ occurs in the text in the sense of ‘category’, which in the French appears as ‘genre’. Beckett, How It Is, pp. 9 and 12, Comment c’est, pp. 13 and 17. It also occurs in relation to the ‘dynasty’ of Kram, How It Is, p. 83.

(30) This hypothesis accounts for the correspondence between the French ‘vexille’ in Comment c’est and the Latin ‘vexilla’ in canto XXXIV; Neal Oxenhandler, ‘Seeing and believing’, p. 222.

(31) Katherine Travers Gross, ‘In other words: Samuel Beckett’s art of poetry’, Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 1972, p. 167. Christopher Ricks also writes of ‘the Dantesque “abandon hope”’ Christopher Ricks, Beckett’s Dying Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 145.

(32) Lawrence E. Harvey, Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 72.

(33) Samuel Beckett, Collected Poems 1930–1978 (London: John Calder, 1984), p. 137.

(34) Francesca Del Moro, ‘“The Divine Florentine”’, p. 86.

(35) ‘Dr. Piouk: … Allez! Le grand refus, pas le petit, le grand, ce que seul l’homme peut, ce qu’il peut de plus glorieux, le refus de l’être! (s’essuie le front)’ and ‘Mme Krap – Ne faites pas attention. Il se croit au cercle. M. Krap – Je suis. Au neuvième.’ Samuel Beckett, Eleuthéria (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1995), pp. 159 and 29–30.

(36) Samuel Beckett, ‘Papini’s Dante’, in Ruby Cohn (ed.), Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (New York: Grove Press, 1984), pp. 80–81, p. 81.

(p.181) (37) The connection between the ‘interminable processions’ and digested materiality is made in Watt, in which pleasure can be derived by the bathetic outcome: ‘And the poor old lousy old earth, my earth and my father’s and my mother’s and my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s and my father’s mother’s father’s and my father’s mother’s mother’s … and mothers’ mothers’ mothers’. An excrement. The crocuses and the larch turning green every year a week before the others and the pastures red with uneaten sheep’s placentas and the long summer days … and then the whole bloody business starting all over again. A turd.’ Samuel Beckett, Watt, (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1959), pp. 46–47.

(38) ‘But in vain I raised without hope my eyes to the sky to look for the Bears.’ Beckett, The Calmative, p. 46. The reference is to Purgatorio I, 28–30.

(39) Hutchings, “‘Shat into Grace’”, 75. On scatology in Beckett and its ‘hellish’ connotation, see Keir Elam, ‘World’s End: West Brompton, Turdy and other godforsaken holes’, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, 6 (1997), 165–180.

(40) Elam, ‘World’s End’, 170.

(41) A similar connection between Inferno XVIII, 17 and ‘mud’ can be found in Watt: ‘My friend call me Dum, said Mr Spiro, I am so bright and cheerful. D-U-M. Anagram of mud … Our advertisements are extraordinary. We keep our tonsure above water.’ How it Is/Comment c’est expands upon the suggestion of equivalence between mud and excrement, which in Wattis also made through the allusion to Dante’s Alessio Interminelli da Lucca, ‘so befouled with ordure that it did not appear whether he was layman or cleric’. Beckett, Watt, p. 27.

(42) Jacques Derrida, ‘Demeure: fiction et témoignage’, in Michel Lisse (ed.), Passions de la littérature: avec Jacques Derrida (Paris: Galilée, 1996), pp. 13–73, pp. 21–22.

(43) Derrida, ‘Demeure’, p. 21.

(44) Bersani and Dutoit, Arts of Impoverishment, p. 56.

(45) See Beckett, How It Is, p. 129.

(46) Company reads: ‘withershins’. The adverb comes ‘from Middle Low German weddersins, from Middle High German widersinnes, from wider “against” + sin “direction”; the second element was associated with Scots “sun”’ (OED). In the English text the explicit reference to Hell is lost, although implicitly suggested by the adverb. In the ‘romantic picnic’ scene of How it Is/Comment c’est, we read: ‘we let go our hands and turn about I dextrogyre she sinistro’ (29), ‘nous nous lâchons la main et faisons demi-tour moi dextrorsum elle senestro’ (45).

(47) See the first of the three ‘Dante postcards’, RUL MS 4123.

(48) Leslie Hill, Beckett’s Fiction in Different Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 137.

(49) The ‘Roman capitals’ are inscribed in the body of the text itself; the capitalisation, used in part two during the torture (How It Is, pp. 90 and 96), appears again at the very end of the text (pp. 144–147). I am indebted to Dr Steven Barfield for this observation made during a meeting of the London Beckett Seminar, held at Birkbeck College in 1999.

(50) Charles S. Singleton, Commedia: Elements of Structure (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954), p. 90. See also Teodolinda Barolini, Dante’s Poets: Textuality and Truth in the Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 90, and The Undivine Comedy, p. 18.

(51) On witness and scribe as figures of repetition in How It Is see Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, The Rhetoric of Failure: Deconstruction of Skepticism, Reinvention of Modernism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), pp. 157–199, p. 178.

(p.182) (52) In How It Is, the relationship between light and reason is made quite clear: ‘this voice yes the sad truth is there are moments when I fancy I can hear it and my lamps that my lamps are going out Krim says I’m mad’ (p. 83) and ‘under the ideal observer’s lamp’ (p. 95) and ‘no knowing our senses our lights what do they amount to’ (p. 83). See also Watt: ‘But what kind of witness was Watt, weak now of eye, hard of hearing, and with even more intimate senses greatly below par? A needy witness, an imperfect witness. The better to witness, the worse to witness. That with his need he might witness its absence. That imperfect he might witness it ill’, p. 203.

(53) ‘Time on the ballastoffice is down.’ ‘Mr Bloom smile O rocks at two window of the ballastoffice’, and ‘the flags of the Ballast office and Custom House were dipped in salute as were also those of the electrical power station at the Pigeonhouse and the Poolbeg Light.’ James Joyce, Ulysses, eds Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp. 126 and 280.

(54) Jacques Derrida, ‘Demeure’, pp. 21–22.

(55) Cohn, A Beckett Canon, p. 258.

(56) I substitute ‘desk’ for Singleton’s ‘bench’; the Italian ‘banco’ (‘desk’, but also ‘schooldesk’) creates the reader as student.

(57) Teodolinda Barolini, discussing the use of ‘tëodia’ in the Comedy, states that Paradiso XXV is ‘the canto in which Dante implicitly aligns his poetry with David’s by calling his poem a poema sacro; here, as part of his examination on hope, Dante translates word from word from David’s ninth (now tenth) Psalm: “Sperino in te”, ne la sua tëodia / dice, “color che sanno il nome tuo” (“Let them hope in thee,” he says in his tëodia, “who know Thy name”, 73–74). The term tëodia, “divine song” coined to describe the Psalms, is easily tranferred to Dante’s own poema sacro: needing a new descriptive term for his new genre, Dante invents it with the rest of the Comedy’s basic poetic baggage … True to his fundamental procedural principles of appropriation and revision, he first appropriates a standard rhetorical term, comedìa, and then – having redefined it from within as a poema sacro – replaces the original term with a new one: tëodia.’ Barolini, Dante’s Poets, p. 277.

(58) Philip Terry, also, establishes the parallel between Purgatorio XXIV and the dictation taking place in How It Is. Terry, ‘Waiting for God’, 350.

(59) Barolini, The Undivine Comedy, p. 8. See also the entry ‘dittare’ in Enciclopedia dantesca, by Bruno Basile, who points out some auctoritates in which a similar use of ‘dittare’ can be found, most notably in Richard of Saint Victor and Guido Cavalcanti. Philip Terry points out (via David H. Higgins) that ‘Alcuin of York saw God as the “dictator” under whom holy men write’. Terry, ‘Waiting for God’, 350.

(60) Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York: Grove Press, 1957), p. 8.

(61) This does not mean that the text configures itself as ‘body’, as the container of the digestive process. Rather, as I have observed above, the text is made of body fragments, severed from a thus-already-fragmented self.

(62) Erich Auerbach, Studi su Dante (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1989 [1963]), pp. 176–226.