Beckett’s Atmospheres

Beckett’s Atmospheres

Steven Connor

In what follows, I will want literally to to be taken up in the matter of Beckett, and in particular, by the appearances and etiology in it of what used to be thought of as the element of air. Though Beckett’s work is less well-ventilated than that of almost any other writer, air and breath are still everywhere in it, as they must be for any kind of life to be sustained. In its enterings into air, Beckett’s work seems to define for itself and work within the terms of an extreme materialism. My concern with air forms part of an exercise in understanding what Gaston Bachelard calls the ‘material imagination’ in Beckett, a phrase which names not only the way in which the material world is imagined, but the materiality of imagining itself, the way in which materiality must continue however obliquely and tenuously it may be to insist, through every effort to imagine what it would be like to be, as Heidegger says of the animal kingdom, ‘poor in world’.

That then is the proposition. Beckett’s work is sustained upon an imagination of air. What kind of imagination is this, so matter-riddled? A kind of its own? Not quite.

In English, French and other Romance languages which are heir to the Greek word ‘aer’, and all its manifold meanings, there are two distinct but conjoined accents of the airy. One concerns the life-sustaining substance drawn in and exhaled through the mouth and nostrils, the air we breathe and on which we subsist. In the humoralist theory which dominated medicine in Europe from the Hippocratic corpus long into the eighteenth century, the body was thought to be not only nourished by air but engaged in the production of air. The purpose of blood was not to convey air, but to refine it, into the etherial animal and intellectual spirits. The nerves were thought to be hollow channels for the conveyance of these attentuated spirits from the heart and liver to the brain and the soul.

The other dimension of air concerns the values signified by airinesss, values which include lightness, expansiveness, eminence, lift, luminosity, spirit. But air mediates between substance and value, because air is traditionally the element which embodies the threshold or transition between the elemental and the immaterial. For writers before Descartes and for plenty after him, the soul was not immaterial, but an infinitely fine state of matter. Perhaps some trace of this lingers in the bitter characterisation of the eyes in Ill Seen Ill Said not, as is traditionally as the windows which let the soul be seen, but the soul’s drain or valve: ‘fit ventholes for the soul that jakes’.

Murphy indulges himself in a cod etymology wich associates chaos, ‘superfine chaos’, with gas. When Beckett speaks of boring through language to let out the something or the nothing that lies behind it, he is perhaps committing himself to having to keep drawing on and drawing out some kind of similarly superfine, attenuated element. But air is never in this work, thin air. Beckett’s work has a strong sense of the materiality of air, which has the kind of substantiality as it did for some of the pre-Socratics of the Milesian School, especially Anaximenes, who made air the primary element. For Anaximenes, air was not merely the gap between things, but the substance of which all other substances were made, by a process of thickening and attenuation, notions which anticipate Boyle’s demonstrations in the 1640s on the elasticity of air. Light and darkness themselves were explained as thinnings and concentrations of air. This notion is carried forward into Stoic cosmology, in which spirit is recognised as a certain kind of etherial substance or vapour, the pneuma, which is taken up into Christian thought and, however relentlessly spiritualised it was, could never entirely free itself from the materiality of vapour or breath. Prompted by Deleuze’s attention, we can begin to see how close Beckett’s materialism is close to that of the Stoics and of their pre-Socratic ancestors. Everything in Beckett’s world can lapse or lift into matter, though, unlike Anaximenes, who proclaimed that the primary element was air, or Heraclitus, who thought it to be fire, the primary matter of Beckett’s work is usually thought of as earth or mud, rather than anything more aerial. But even in How It Is, we may imagine mud as itself a precipitate raher than primary substance, a kind of agglutination of murmurs and gasps churned into miry indifference.

One can see Beckett’s work as suspended between the dream of an air of infinite lightness, and extensibility – the ‘pure plateau air’ of which Malone has a glimpse at the end of his narrative, the ‘air of the heights’ (TFN VII, CSP, 93), and a heavier, more oppressive kind of air that, while it makes breathing possible, is itself an impediment to breathing. This aura of breath can be both narcissistically sustaining, and toxic or oppressive. ‘Is this stuff air that permits you to suffocate still, almost audibly at times, it’s possible, a kind of air’ (TFN II, CSP, 76). In Beckett’s earliest work, a stagnant miasma of air that will not diffuse is the distinguishing feature of Dublin, which features as a sink of obnubilating suffocation:

For his native city had got him again, her miasmata already had all but laid him low, the yellow marsh fever that she keeps up her sleeve for her more distinguished sons had clapped its clammy honeymoon hands upon him, his moral temperature had gone sky-rocketing aloft, soon he would shudder and kindle in hourly ague. (DreamI, 169)

Beckett’s characters desire and aspire to the condition of expiry. We hear in the Texts For Nothing of ‘[t]he chest expanding and contracting unaided, panting towards the grand apnoea’ (TFN VIII, CSP, 98). Mr Kelly, who wishes to be lost as a mote in the immensity of the sky where air has become refined into light, shares in this aspiration. And yet there is also a kind of agoraphobia in Beckett, which dreads this exposure, and prefers murmuring immurement, prizes the thick, nourishing Irish Stew of an atmosphere to airlessness. Beckett wrote that the Irishman could not give ‘a fart in its corduroys’ for art, though Beckett is never quite able itself to relinquish that comfortable self-enclosure, evn if the reliable impermeability of the Times Literary Supplement takes the place of the corduroys..

The movement of Beckett’s work is from the searing mistral that blows through Dream, whirling everything away and apart in angry disfaction, ‘tattered starlings in the devil’s blizzard’ to the almost windless calm of the later works. Anthony Uhlmann reminded us yesterday of the ‘howling wind…the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller’ of the young Krapp’s vision on the jetty (CDW, 220). But that loud vision is wound forward into the quieter respiration of the scene in the punt, with the sound of the flags that ‘went down, sighing, before the stem’ (CDW, 221), and the broken-winded croaking of Krapp’s own vesperal hymn. We might say that Beckett’s work is between winds: the Romantic winds which signify expansion, inspiration, aspiration and interfusion, and the feebler kinds of sour hiccup, sulkily reluctant expulsion, foirade. ‘Not a breath’, we are assured repeatedly through How It Is. If there are stirrings still in his later works, they are rufflings of the tranquillity of decomposition by the actions of the most costive sort of pentecost. ‘Even so a great heap of sand sheltered from the wind lessened by three grains every second year and every following increased by two if this notion is maintained’ (Lost Ones, CSP, 167)

The young Beckett, whose psychosomatic crises of the early 1930s included spasms of breathlessness as well as paroxysms of palpitation, seems to have experienced air as an alien element, and to have sought relief from the occupation of breath in fantasies of absolute expiration. Derrida has analysed a similar phantasmic pattern in the he work of Artaud, in his essay ‘La parole soufflée’.

Wilfred Bion would write, some two decades after his experience of analysing Beckett of the attacks on the idea of bodily integrity and integument that characterised the thoughts and desires of psychotic patients, who would be consumed with the idea of being emptied out or vacuumed, with tears and sweat gushing through their ears, nostrils and the pores of their skins. Didier Anzieu has suggested that Beckett’s sufferings took the form of a ‘toxic skin’, in which the phantasmal epidermis that should serve as a model of containment and communication between self and world was both itself lacerated and acted as a suffocating constriction on the self.

The ideas of integument and of breath come together in the notion of an atmosphere. Indeed, the links between breath and the skin exist elsewhere than in psychoanalysis. Hippocrates believed, like other ancient physicians, that human beings respired through their skins, and was one of many in the ancient world who reported the case of a woman who lived for three days without drawing breath, apparently because she was breathing through her skin. This idea seems to be necessary to the conception of the aura as an ‘atmosphere’, a sort of cadence of glory, a perspiration of breath. The idea of the human aura, which began to be popularised in Theosophy, spiritualism and other forms of popular occultism of the late nineteeth century, resembles the etheric or phantasmal body, versions of which are to be found in many mystical systems. But, where the etheric body is a second, as it were three-dimensional body which doubles the body’s volume; the auric body doubles the body’s contour. It is the outside of the outside, the higher skin breathed out by the skin itself.

The idea of an aura, or visible emanation of light, from divine or human creatures, may also have received some impetus from Epicurean atomism, which imagined visibility itself to be achieved by means of the shedding from the skin of filmy casts of atoms, in the form of second skins, called, variously, species, simulacrae, eidola and effigies. To this day, we call things specious which have this filmy, insubstantial quality.

Breath is a kind of skin: in its ideal form it is a magic atmosphere that can sustain one without the need for respiration, a contour of solid air, at once nutriment and support. But in the form in which it appears in Beckett it is tattered, held together in mere flitters like the cobwebby scraps of spitstuck black paper of All Strange Away.

Returning to Dublin suffering from an unpleasant rash affecting his face and scalp, Beckett said that he looked like ‘a scrofulous gargoyle’ (Knowlson, 119). Malone’s ‘gurgles of outflow’ can be heard in the gargoyle, while the scrofula provides an image of the skin torn as the cry is lacerated. Belacqua’s indisposition as extravagantly enlarged in Dream combines disturbances of the skin and the breath:

the Muttering Delirium and the Summer Diarrhoea and confluent noli me tangere rodent ulcers lancinating his venter, incubating the nits what nits bloody well you in the scarf of his cuticle, the black spots encrimsoned on his sacrum, his mouth a clot of sordes, his clubbed digits pluckiing at the counterpane, his rhonchi not to mention his inspirating (there’s no call to labour this particular aspect of his malaise) crepitus mucous sonorous sibilant crackling whistling wheezing crowing and would you believe it stridulous, strangled with the waterbrash and a plumjuice sputum, the big slob of a catamite, dear oh dear how did he ever get himself into such a state (Dream, 85)

Consumption, the disease of which Beckett’s cousin Peggy Sinclair died in 1931, which is so named because in its commonest form it consumes the membrane of the lungs, seems to provide another link between the tearing or giving way of physical fabric and the choked utterance: through the many coughs from which Beckett characters suffer. The speaker of Texts for Nothing III imagines a coughing companion for himself:

He’s gone in the wind, I in the prostate rather. We envy each other. I envy him, he envies me, occasionally. I catheterize myself, unaided, with trembling hand, bent double in the public pisshouse, under cover of my cloak, people take me for a dirty old man. He waits for me to finish, sitting on a bench, coughing up his guts, spitting it into a snuffbox which no sooner overflows than he empties it into the canal, out of civic-mindedness. (TFN III, CSP, 80)

The one exception to the prevailing problem in Dream, that none of the characters will pipe their assigned notes, is the figure of the postman, with his ‘keen loud whistling: The Roses are Blooming in Picardy… No man had ever whistled like that and of course women can’t’ (Dream, 146). The paragraph is set off by itself as a mark of reverence, says the narrator, for the postman is now dead. We learn the cause of his death in Arsene’s evocation of ‘the consumptive postman whistling The Roses are Blooming in Picardy’, but we might perhaps have guessed it from the epitaph Beckett forges: ‘The dead fart, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities, and the quick whistle.’ (Dream, 146)

Take Into the Air

Beckett’s alternating sense of the desperate craving for air and air’s equally desperate oppression is focussed upon a phrase from Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ which recurs in his writing in the 1930s.

for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;

Beckett wrote to Tom McGreevy of his unsophisticated pleasure in the poems of Keats, conflating significantly the Autumn and Nightingale odes in evoking

that crouching broding quality in Keats – squatting on the moss, crushing a petal, licking his lips and rubbing his hands ‘counting the last oozings, hours by hours.’ I like him the best of them all, because he doesn’t beat his fists on the table. I like that awful sweetness and thick soft damp green richness. And weariness: ‘Take into the air my quiet breath.’ (quoted Knowlson, 117)

When he evokes the same passage from the ‘Ode to Autumn’ in Proust, it is more complicated, for panic has joined with the voluptuous languor, and odour has been added too: ‘the terrible panic-stricken stasis of Keats, crouched in a mossy thicket, annulled, like a bee in sweetness, ‘drowsed with the fume of poppies’ and watching ‘the last oozings, hours by hours’ (PTD, 90-1)

The bubbling, gurgling, aromatic atmosphere of the Ode, in which odour and murmur brew and thicken together becomes the eroded atmosphere of breath in Beckett’s work, in which the air will be panted rather than poured out. The ‘pouring forth’ of the nightingale’s voice become Malone’s ‘gurgles of outflow’, and the sucking of the sea at the end of Embers, conjoined with and interpreted by Henry’s recall of the plumber’s visit to deal with the ‘waste’, or drainpipe (CDW, 264). Keats imagines himself in ‘embalmèd darkness’. The word is apt, for he is not merely wrapped as well as enraptured in the sound, he is also surrounded by odours. Unbearably slavered over by the Smeraldina, all Belacqua wants is to ‘to know a good few prods of compunction and consider how best his quiet breath, or, better still, his and hers mingled, might be taken into the air’ (Dream, 107). Belacqua’s ‘prods of compunction’ may be a transformation of the fourteenth-century Ayenbite of Inwit, or Remorse of Conscience, as well of course as an anticipation of the title, More Pricks Than Kicks and its wry reangling of Acts 9.5 and 26.14: ‘And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks’.

The association of air and lacerated skin recurs in the torment to which the lobster will be subject at the end of ‘Dante and the Lobster’, in which Keats’s words are once again evoked, but contorted into cruel incongruity: ‘Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath’ (MPTK, 21). Even the boiling seems to have reference to Keats’s Ode, with the stintless ebullition of the birdsong, and the ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’ of the analgesic Hippocrene for which it prompts desire (though we remember that nightingales traditionally sing from the pain of a heart pierced with thorns). The air in question is more than the stuff snuffed and puffed by the lungs; since an air is a song as well as the breath from which it is shaped. If Keats is looking for blissful midnight surcease in asking that his quiet breath to be taken into the air, he may also presumably be asking for his words to be taken up into the bird’s song.

Fiasco of Oscillation

Not only does air permeate the thought of the spiritual, which is to say the imagination of the material, the symbolism of breathing suffuses Western and Eastern cultures. Breath is not only a substance, it is also an action, the most primary action. If the imagination of air is always involved in the imagination of value, the twofold action of breathing establishes an unresolvable dualism at the heart of life and matter.

Though breathing itself may not be named or represented directly in Beckett’s work, it has become a commonplace to make out the breath’s periodicity in the characteristic alternating currents of his work, the ‘dreary fiasco of oscillation’ spoken of in Dream (121): the synchronised fluctuations of light and heat in The Lost Ones, the clenched and unclenched hands, the weary succession of left and right, the pushemepullyou of the heart, the alternation of dish and pot of Malone Dies, and all the patterns of coming and going which come and go throughout his work. The secret ministry of breath peeps out in the discussion of the synchronicity of the ‘two storms’ of light and temperature in The Lost Ones: ‘The two storms have this in common that when one is cut off as though by magic then in the same breath the other also as though again the two were connected somewhere to a single commutator’ ( Lost Ones,CSP 171). Breath is indeed the ‘commutator’, the switch. For the taking of breath is a continual switching across. Breath is of life, but is also the immanence of death to life, since there is a little death in every breath. Breath is matter temporised, chronical stuff.

Invigorating air is air we take in to us. The air we give out is in varying degrees, waste, or noxious. We breathe in oxygen and produce carbon dioxide: trees and plants take up carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. ‘Breathe on me, breath of God’, goes the hymn. Medieval devils were known by their sulphurous stench and break intemperate wind in imagery and drama – their association with the vulgar, visceral-looking bagpipe also expresses their windiness. Incense and sweet odours come to be thought of as the most appropriate offering to the nostrils of the gods. Even Christianity, which began by turning its nose up fastidiously at the incenses used by Greeks and Jews, eventually developed its own traditions of the odour of sanctity, with its many stories of fragrant saints, and of bodies, like those of St.Isidore and St. Francis Xavier, miraculously preserved in a freshly-laundered condition. St Paul refers to the sweet fragrance (osme) of the diffused word of God. .

Indeed, Beckett connects with this olfactory tradition of conceiving divinity, when in Company he imagines apprehending his creator through the office of the nose:

Smell? His own? Long since dulled. And a barrier to others if any. Such as might have once emitted a rat long dead. Or some other carrion. Yet to be imagined. Unless the creator smell. Aha! The crawling creator. Might the crawling creator be reasonably imagined [pp] to smell? Even fouler than his creature. Stirring now and then to wonder that mind so lost to wonder. To wonder what in the world can be making that alien smell. Whence in the world those wafts of villainous smell. How much more companionable could his creator but smell. (Company, 51-2).

In most of the theological systems in which life or sanctity is conferred through divine breath, God appears to have a vegetable conformation, in that the breath of life which he inspires is in fact respired. The Catholic liturgy retains the rite of ‘insufflation’, in which the priest’s breath acts as a benediction; the blowing on cards or dice, that is part of a magician’s repertoire, preserves this sense of the emanative power that inheres in what is exhaled.


Breathing is laboured in Beckett’s work, and breathing is part of the labour of that work. If drawing breath is an agony, then releasing it is often a relief. The speaker in ‘From An Abandoned Work’ insists that he must have been ‘quite one of the fastest runners the world has ever seen, over a short distance, five or ten yards, in a second I was there’, but that he could not sustain the pace, though this is, he insists, ‘not for breathlessness, it was mental, all is mental’ (CSP, 131). The point of these surging ‘flashes, or gushes’ is perhaps to allow him to ‘vent the pent, vent the pent’. Beckett seems to have been attentive to the crossroads in that word. Giving vent means opening out, letting in the wind and letting it out. But giving vent in Beckett is as likely to come from the lower man of the viscera, the venter which gives the word ‘ventriloquist’, as from the upper man of the heart or chest. We have heard that even eyes are excretory ventholes at times. A vent is the conventional abbreviation of a ventriloquist. This derives from the Latin ventriloquism, itself a translation of the Greek engastrimythos, both of which mean the word, or the voice, in the belly. There is no etymological warrant for it, but we nevertheless hear the gas in the gastric, and the wind in the bellows and the belly.

In my book Dumbstruck (2000), I tracked the history of conceptions of the profane voice, issuing either from the genitals, the anus, or from other non-oral regions. The vagitus itself can be thought of as a kind of speaking out from the belly, and prmpted the author of the entry ‘engastrimism’ in the Encylopédie to discourse about the possibility of a child crying audibly within the womb. One of the most oddest of the many odd explanations for ventriloquism was that it was effected by speaking on the inbreath, or through literal inspiration, or backwards breathing. The idea of speaking while breathing in belongs to the diabolical economy of saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards and other such demonic shifts. Belly-talk was profane because it disprupted or bypassed the normal system by which breath was lifted in speech through respiration. Instead of refining breath into logos, it degraded logos into stench and slaver. Beckett’s desire for a language that could so to speak dispose of itself in the same breath it took to express itself draws on this economy of inversion.

Leslie Hill has pointed to the consonantal system in Beckett that associates mammiferous ‘m’s with the enclosure of the womb and the cacophonous, expectorant ‘c’s, ‘g’s and ‘k’s, which seem to cough up the very vocality of which they are made. One can add a function of sufflation to that of expectoration. The ejaculations which pepper Beckett’s work are full of more or less violent expirations of air: ‘phew'; ‘pah'; ‘hah'; ‘shhhh’ and the remarkable, mysterious ‘aha’ of All Strange Away and Company. This kind of much in evidence in Beckett, in the many evocations of the fart.



A philosopher French named Descartes
Was explaining himself to a tart
‘When I think, I exist’,
He remarked, as he pissed:
‘But what does it mean when I fart?’

Farting is an example of a bodily quasi-speech, an inversion of the logos, or breath of God. The fart resembles the cough. Aristotle defines a ‘voice as a sound with soul in it, but also makes it clear that not all the sounds made by ensouled creatures have soul in them – he instances coughing and sneezing, and might have included farting.

Beckett has an extraordinarily highly-developed sense of the density or materiality of words. Murphy feels spattered by words that are half dead. Farting converts language into smell – which has not always been thought of as profane, as is the tendency in our deodorised times. Unlike speaking, which transfigures bodily sound into meaning, farting seems to transfigure language downwards, in a belly-speech which materialises words as a kind of aery, odorous semi-vapour. In the case of the particular kind of fart known in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a fizzle, or in Beckett’s French version, a foirade, the breath does not become properly distinct. Rather it clings noxiously but narcissistically to its point of issue, ‘like something almost being said’ (to borrow a phrase from Philip Larkin). ‘Breaking without fear or favour wind’, we read in the poem ‘Echo’s Bones’. The wind that fails to break, to become audible, aptly evokes the broken-winded lingering of so many of Beckett’s undead, or uncertifiably quasi-deceased. It is there in the tuneless barrel-organ which accompanies and joins with the wheezy craic of the two old codgers in The Old Tune, Beckett’s rendering of Pinget’s La Manivelle.

I mst wind this up, or down, not with crack, but a fizzle. The eighteenth-century word ‘fizzle’ perfectly embodies the failed emanation: an utterance that is doubly unconsummated, first of all in that it comes from the wrong orifice and secondly in that it fails to leave the body, but cleaves to it in a dankly autistic atmosphere. The Swiftian logic seems to be elaborately staged in the opening poem of a popular pamphlet entitled The Benefit of Farting Explain’d, which was once and for all I know by some still is, attributed to Swift:


On Miss V___e’s F–T.

Lovely Babe of Maid of Honour,
Every Grace shall smile upon her,
Sweetest Warbler of the Tail,
Soft as Breeze of Southern Gale;
Or the fanning Zephyrs Blast,
Over Beds of Spices past;
Gentle Puff of fragrant Air,
Squeez’d from Breech of Virgin Fair;
‘Tis by Thee the Fair discover,
Proof of Vigour in a Lover;
Silent Fizzle; or Speaking Fart,
Easily both Ease impart;
Sweet Fore-boder, joyful Sound,
To the Belly that’s hard bound;
Cure of Cholick, Cure of Gripes,
Tuneful Drone of lower Pipes.
Thus the Winds in Cavern pent,
Widen Holes, and force a Vent;
Stealing Whisper, ‘scape of Bum,
Soft as Flute, or loud as Drum;
Downwards breathing, backwards sigh,
Happy Smock that lies so nigh;
Happy she that can this Way,
Shut her Mouth, but loudly Bray.

The pamphlet literally conflates the traditions of prophecy and ventriloquism. Twenty years later Diderot would elaborate them again in his Les Bijoux indiscrets, an obscene fable about a magic ring that could endow the genitals of society ladies with the power of speech.


I finish with a text in which the alternatives of the open air and the closed atmosphere are particularly apparent.

The reported discourse of Company, like that of How It Is, appears breathless. Where the words in How It Is are only audible ‘when the panting stops’, in Company, the fact that the sound of breath is audible at the same time as the voice seems to be an indication that the voice is not the hearer’s own: ‘Apart from the voice and the faint sound of his breath there is no sound. None at least that he can hear. This he can tell by the faint sound of his breath’ (Company, 8). Breath here functions as a kind of audible silence. Yet there is one moment at which the faint gust of breath in the reported voice becomes audible and even tangible: ‘Let the hearer be named H. Aspirate. Haitch. You Haitch are on your back in the dark. And let him know his name. No longer any question of his overhearing. Of his not being meant’ (Company, 31). The possibility has no sooner been floated than it is rejected as offering no gain in companionability, perhaps because it dispenses with the ‘faint hope’ (Company, 32) that the hearer might not be the intended addressee of the voice. But once signalled in this way, this aspiration proves to be a feature of the text more generally.

The huff and puff of this ‘haitch’ lends the English version of the text a dimension which the French, with its absence of aspirate sounds, must lack. It allows us to hear a kind of panting, or insufflation through the text, as the noise of the breath allows itself to be heard as a primary substance, for example through the words ‘hope’, ‘hearer’, ‘home’. The memories on which the hearer attempts to subsist are themselves airy (‘Bloom of adulthood. Try a whiff of that’,Company, 38). But, just as the seventy-mile prospect of the sea shrinks to the narrow compass of the indeterminate space in which the feeble, fabled hearer lies, so the open perspective of memory curdles horrifyingly in the abortive outcome of the remembered good deed, the narration of which is so full of haitches: ‘hedgehog’, ‘hatbox’, ‘hutch’ and of course, the lingering memory of what it becomes: ‘The mush. The stench’ (Company, 31).

Michel Serres has suggested that in every epoch, there is a physics which underlies its prevailing metaphysics: the solidity of the classical, Newtonian world; the turbulence of the fluid mechanics which modern physics remembers from the work of Lucretius, and, most recently, and in our era, the birth of a thought governed by a physics of the gaseous or the volatile. Beckett’s climate, his atmospherics, fold together ancient and modern. His work strives to live on itself, even as it, to borrow Freud’s phrase from Beyond the Pleasure Principle, lives itself off. The atmosphere of his work, sustained through a kind of artificial respiration forms an autistic sort of aura, which I cannot always like, or altogether abide. And yet in its imagination of air, Beckett’s work must inevitably find itself evacuated to some degree from itself, disturbed by other atmospherics. If one asks, what kind of of imagination is this, so matter-riddled, the answer cannot be ‘a kind of its own’, not quite. For the work of breath is never complete, until it is suspended entirely, and the tenure of air is never entire.

One reading of How It Is is that everything we read is to be imagined as overheard in the intervals of the panting, in the baiting or abatement of breath.

All that once without scraps in me when the panting stops ten seconds fifteen seconds all that fainter weaker less clear but the purport in me when it abates the breath we’re talking of a breath token of life when it abates like a last in the light then resumes a hundred and ten fifteen to the minute when it abates ten seconds fifteen seconds (How It Is, 145)

Breathing is endless intermission. Beckett’s work lives hereafter in the kind of renewed interval which that work itself intimates through its enterings into air. In its continuing hereafter, in which it may increasingly be exposed to different kinds of weather, disturbed by different kinds of atmospherics – the second nature of a logosphere that enlarges its biosphere – it must live not in immanence, but imminence. Like the Emily Dickinson poem, it is a work that must ‘dwell in possibility’ and, like the old Irish joke, ‘expecting every breath to be its next’.


Beckett, Samuel. How It Is. London: Calder.
——————–. Collected Shorter Prose. London: Calder.
——————–. Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1993). Ed. Eoin O’Brien and Edith Fournier. London and Paris: Calder.
——————–.More Pricks Than Kicks. London: Calder and Boyars.

Knowlson, James (1996). Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. London: Bloomsbury.