Slow Going

Slow Going

Steven Connor

This paper was written for and first given at the Critical Beckett conference organised by the School of French Studies of the University of Birmingham, 26 September 1998.

The stage directions for Beckett’s television play Ghost Trio specify that the door which leads off the room to a tunnel stage right and the window to stage left should be `imperceptibly ajar’, an instruction that gave the set designer for the first production agonies of scruple. This stage direction might suggest an exquisite variation on the whiskery old gag: `When can’t you tell that a door is not a door? When it’s imperceptibly ajar’. This is the aspect of slowness which interests me most of all in Beckett; the slowness of things happening, as it is put repeatedly in The Lost Ones, `by insensible degrees’. No other writer has joined his rhythm so unflinchingly to the rhythm, and duration of insensible elapse, to the ordinary mystery of what Beckett in his notes on Winnie’s forgetfulness calls the `incomprehensible transport’ from one moment to another, the inability either to coincide with the passing of time, nor to be able to arrest it. Again and again, I will have to keep coming back to this point, in the face of my own attempts to make slowness apprehensible and comprehensible. An academic paper is one of many devices that we have for gathering up time, and making an artefact of it. In order to say what it is I want to say, I will have to keep pointing to the underlying conditions in which that artefact is constructed, namely the conditions of time passing.

But very largely, this paper will end up being about little more than what it sounds like, alas. It will be about the experience of slowness. What I mean to try to get at, but will be happy to have managed merely to get amid, is the experience of going slowly, of slowly going.

Let me attempt to distinguish the two: going slowly and slow going. Going slowly has a good reputation. It can connote care, attentiveness and a fullness of response, a refusal to be rushed past or deflected from one’s purpose. Going slowly is at the heart of that that process of delaying, holding back from immediate gratification, which is at the foundation of selfhood and of culture; the toleration of frustration in the interests of a greater yield of pleasure or value. Going slowly has traditionally been associated with the possibility of being able to be, as opposed to the modern forms of becoming. Slowness has traditionally meant the examined life; it has meant culture itself. The impulse to slow down, to linger, to retard, is there throughout Beckett’s work: for example in the section of Company which follows the movement of a second hand around a watch face. It’s there, too, in those recommendations to pause, or hold back, which are found throughout that text: `Gently…Doucement’. Slow and steady wins the race. Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Going slowly ought to give us time to keep pace with our lives, ought to allow us to watch our step, to hear the feet however faint they fall. Slowness has the reputation of allowing us to take control over our lives, to take our time.

But in the condition I am going to keep on calling slow going, there can be no convergence of the one who undergoes and the one who perceives the time of elapsing. There can be no deliberation. We cannot live at the rate at which we nevertheless must live. Life, and the exceptional moments of a life, the moments after which nothing was ever the same again, will all in the end be `come and gone in no time’. No time means the immeasurable, unexperiencable drift of accretion and degradation, the insensible process, that one cannot live slowly enough to live knowingly, because then one would be getting ahead of oneself, living more quickly than the process which lives itself out in our living. Going slowly is something we attempt to do to time; slow going is what time does to us, through us. The metaphor Beckett offers for this process in Proust is decantation.

This word going is itself often at the intersection of the two kinds of duration. Going slowly implies a kind of going on: persistence, or progress. Slow going will always turn out to have been a going out. (`How goes it? Thanks, it’s going.’) Beckett’s work allows, even seems to require of me, some acknowledgement of this slow going. But it does not see round the question of its own slowness, is not in charge of the meaning of its slowness. It does not thematise its slow going, or when it does, it cannot itself any more be or be undergoing the process of slow going (except of course, and necessarily, unknowingly). Slowly going on, in a way that will be more than a slowing down, but will turn out to have been `darkward bound’, a slow and sure going out. We cannot apply a measure to this movement of slow going, because it is itself the only scale against which to measure the refusals and remissions of elapsing time of which the hectic interval of human life is composed.

The sublime of magnitude has been converted in our era to a breathless sublime of speed. Speed accomplishes the attentuation of mass and extended substance. The rule seems to be, the smaller, the faster. Modernity marvelled at itself in the form of the Great Eastern; postmodernity has the nano-engineered processor based on a single molecule. Samuel Beckett participates in this miniaturisation; instead of epics and monuments – A la Recherche du temps perdu, Finnegans Wake, Beckett scaled down. But miniaturisation is not accompanied by lightness and speed in Beckett’s work. He is perhaps the most important inaugurator of a mode of aesthetic defection from speed. It seems to be precisely the uninterpretability of slowness that has made it so important in the art of that – what is the wrong word exactly? – rearguard, that avant-garde which, finding itself humiliatingly outstripped by a culture in which acceleration has become the dominant value, began to look for ways of turning from speed or promptness, or punctuality; an art that wanted to try to stop being on time; hence musical minimalism, and especially the excruciating phase-experiments of Steve Reich, and the rent, discontinuous fabric of the work of John Cage and Morton Feldman, and the confrontation with slowness of Michael Snow’s Wavelength. Slowness is not representable. Representation is an effect of punctuality, or promptness, of the ravelling or puckering of time. Slowness testifies to asynchrony, a failure to meet up, or come together. Speed is inflammatory, infectious. It makes demands of me, it tugs me out of my time and into its time, its more than time. It calls me into its synchronicity, telling me I will be able to be able to be at speed, to be at one with what breaks exultantly with mere being, to be merged with its ecstatic going out from the mere condition of going on. Slow going is always the failure to be there, to have been there, in that condition of slow going that will have been going on, as we so serenely say, all the time.

Slowness is slow by comparison with the right speed; slowness is, always, of course, relative slowness: slowness relative to expected or desired promptness or despatch; relaxed slowness relative to hurry or pressure to speed up. We mistake the experience of slowness as a simple negative measure; if only things could go more quickly, in the queue, during pain or unhappiness. But slow going is not quite this. It is the experience of a loss of temporal relativity; when things are going slowly, the scale of measurement itself begins to elongate, to attenuate, to dissolve. The extreme sense of measure, the inhuman measuredness of much of Beckett’s work, its quality of calculated slowness, is itself perhaps a protest against the erosion of measure that begins when slowness gathers. It is a protest of going slowly against the process of slowly going.

For even to explicate slowness is of course to speed it up; to save one the necessity in future of going through it all again, so intolerably slowly. It is to summarise: as B says to A in Rough for Theatre II, summing up `is all we ever do’. Two words repeatedly scratch that itch to economy, the desire for summary in Beckett’s work: `so on’. These words answer the need to pucker up the agony of unrelieved elapse into something calculable and roughly predictable: `So on infinitely until towards the unthinkable end if this notion is maintained…’

Brief respite. Where are we in this paper? Somewhere near the beginning, to be sure, but already with intimations of what it will be like to be in the middle, and where we are going to be by the end. As I sit typing these words, I am both before and ahead of this moment (this moment being in point of fact 6.25 am on Friday 25th September). Actually it is not; I decided to tell you the time at which I wrote these words a minute or so after I had actually written them. In fact, I can tell you exactly when the thought occurred to me to go back to what I had already written and record the time I had written it, because I made a note of it. It was just after having typed the phrase (wait, I’m just popping to the end of the paragraph to find it again, OK, I’m back) what was then envisaged as the first sentences. These words were first written two minutes later at about 6.27. So, by the time we get to that phrase it will be about 6.27, though in fact as I write these words (these actual words `these words’), it is already 6.32). So, then, let us finally strike out towards the past that this parenthesis has now strewn in its own path: I asked where are we in this paper? I have a pretty good idea of how I will get to this point and what will succeed it (actually I have stopped the clock several times in order to visit what was then envisaged as the first sentences, and to play around with what I have in mind as its end.

None of these games have meaning except by virtue of the fundamental condition, as unseizable as it is inescapable, of elapsing. No matter how I limp or sprint, or no matter what complex origami I effect on the sequence of its composition, time will have passed, quickly or slowly, quickly and slowly. I cannot get in step with this elapsing for which I am always too fast or slow, and which is neither the time of writing, nor the time of reading. All I can do, and cannot anyway but do, is to disclose it as the geologically shifting ground of all my fidgettings of protention and retention. I wanted, sitting at my desk, to predict what the speed of that passing might be (it’s 6.37 now, by the way), but I couldn’t. Its condition of taking place is its horizon of possibility, an horizon that, no matter how I struggle to watch myself, to write the time in which my writing (and then, when I gave this paper, my speaking, and then again, as I marked the paper up for the web, and now, again, as I revise that version for print publication, my writing again), to get in step with the time of my speech, I cannot get myself into the field of my vision, any more than Winnie can see her own face. I seem always to be out of step with the time that not only passes, but passes away (passes away from and through me).

Here is Jean-Fran‡ois Lyotard reflecting on the difficulty of conceiving what he calls a phenomenology of elementary time. Like Beckett, he is interested in trying to grasp what it would be like simply to be, in time, without any attempt to grasp, hold, or reserve the experience for later use or contemplation. The French word maintenant, he says, recalls to us `how much maintenance there is in the least instant’. Lyotard goes on to suggest that time must be apprehended, which is to say minimally represented, or held in memory, in order to be experienced:

The constitution of the present instant…already demands a retention, even a minimal one, of various elements together, their `constitution’ precisely. This microscopic synthesis is already necessary for the slightest appearing. For plunging into the pure manifold and letting oneself be carried along by it would allow nothing to appear to consciousness, nor to disappear from it for that matter, appearing not even taking `place’. This place is due to a synthesis, that of apprehension, which as it were hems the edges of the pure flow and makes discontinuous the pure continuum of the flow while making continue the pure discontinuity of its supposed elements. In short the river needs a bank if it is to flow. An immobile observatory to make the movement apparent. {2}

One could reverse that final judgement: Lyotard says that we need to pinch time to perceive its passage. We need to put our hand into the current, to feel its onward pressure from the resulting turbulence. There needs to be something nontemporal inserted into the flow of time for temporality to come into being. But we might as well say that the hand recognises that it is stationary only because there is passage, because of the difficulty of holding its position against the current. We can only ever stop time because of its passage. The static observatory does not create the passage; the passage creates the possibility of the observatory that can never be in the right place at the right time. I spent some considerable time in a book I wrote millions of years ago reflecting on the ways in which Beckett gathered, folded over and resynthesised time, especially in the Trilogy. I was tempted then to see atemporal repetition as a triumph over the tyrannical fantasy of present time or linear passage. The book and the querulous young person who wrote it, were both in the grip of a Bergsonian attitude towards time, which had perhaps transmitted itself through the work of that most loyal of Bergsonians, Gilles Deleuze. Bergsonian was my desire to track and preserve the building continuities, and unarrestable accumulations and recurrences of time in Beckett’s work. When no time is wholly distinct from any other time, there is, to be sure no static presence, but time nevertheless seems to form an ideal plenitude. I am committing myself here to apprehend the force in Beckett’s work of what could be called a dissociative rather than an accretive duration, of the tense we could call the present discontinuous; the ordinary, fundamental, terrifying topple of Time’s slow foot into the next moment, the disfazione (unfolding, unworking, working out, falling out, dissolution, decomposition) of sheer elapse that is nothing as dramatic and determinate as collapse or relapse, the pitiless passing away, in soft and imperceptible torrent, that passes understanding.

When Lyotard says, commenting on his evocation of the synthesising apprehension of time, `you see that we have got into phenomenology’, he is acknowledging the ways in which phenomenology has helped to explicate the ecstatic nature of temporality, the way in which the comportment to a future and the relation to a past tugs at the instantaneous present, thus both dividing being from itself and giving it its emergent unity in division. `I project myself toward the Future in order to merge there with what I lack; that is, with that which, if synthetically added to my Present would make me be what I am’, writes Sartre. {4} Living in time thus both draws us out of and into ourselves. This ecstatic relation to time, this being in and out of time, is one of Heidegger’s equiprimordial conditions. We are all, and all of the time, in and out of time, our inability to be thoroughly in time our way of being in it. Such ecstatic projections of being into becoming however depend upon speed, by which I mean upon variations in speed; to be ahead of yourself is to go faster than you are in fact going. Even to slow things down is really to live faster than one is living: since, to slow down, to apply the brakes on living, one must get ahead of oneself, take the measure of one’s headlong plunge into futurity, in order to rein it in and hold it back. Speed and slowness have new possibilities and poignancies in a world of storable and reproducible time, such as film and music, which allow us simultaneously to preserve stretches of time (we may never know the tempo of Mozart’s symphonies, but we know exactly the speed at which Billie Whitelaw performed Not I, alas) and to manipulate these recorded stretches, speeding them up and slowing them down. In fact, recording is a kind of master-mechanism for Beckett’s work in prose and drama after the Trilogy. For recording allows a certain kind of play between actual and possible speeds and durations. Recording allows one both to reproduce and to change the speed of a playback. It suggests the possibility of going both faster and more slowly – Krapp winding through to the place he wants in his tapes, and, once there, lingering on it in fond longing. This possibility is enacted in what Krapp does with the word which embodies this possibility, the word `spool’. There is no better picturing of the regular process of at once going on and going out than the spool of tape unreeling itself at the end of Krapp’s Last Tape. As the tape is played, it is transferred from the left hand spool to the right. The more one has gathered on the right, the less remains on the left. Going on can only be accomplished by going out, winding on by reeling off. After all the complex envelopings and pocketings of times within times, all the topological loopings together of past and present in Krapp’s Last Tape, the play exposes us to the pure elapsing of moments. The unspooling tape is Beckett’s answer to the accretive rhythm of the fort-da. In these moments of unspooling, we seem to be brought into the immediate experience of something going on, of a time both losing momentum, and gathering it as it runs out. But this is not in reality pure exposure to elapsing. It is itself a kind of turbulence: a painful imposition of slowness that interrupts the continuum of ordinary time, delays the return to non-theatrical time that will come at the end of the performance. It is at once the collapse of representation – nothing is here being represented except what is happening, the slow reeling away of the seconds; and yet it is still a kind of staging of time, which is to say the introduction of a complication, or turbulence into slow going. A pinch of time is taken up between finger and thumb, though we recognise that time has been taken in this experience of being exposed to the pure elapsing of time only after it has finished.

One of the most striking responses in Beckett’s work to this apprehension of elapse is in the attempt to control and determine its own speed, the aim being partly to resist the corrosive effects of pure passage, to trick duration into rhythm, and partly to ensure that the work had a chance of staying as close as possible to a pure and unmediated process of taking place. The issue that preoccupied Beckett most of all in his direction was not characterisation, or setting, or even tone, but speed of delivery. The director has an opportunity to synchronise the time of the work with the time of its performance that is not available to the writer of prose, of the writer of drama whose works are primarily read rather than seen.

But Beckett’s prose writing can also be observed attempting to control its own pace, to synchronise itself with its own (not really its own, that’s the point) time of taking place:

Ah, says I, punctually, if only I could say. There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, then all would be said, it would be the first step on the long travellable road, destination tomb, to be trod without a word, tramp tramp, little heavy irrevocable steps, down the long tunnels at first, then under the mortal skies, through the days and nights, faster and faster, no, slower and slower, for obvious reasons, and at the same time faster and faster, for other obvious reasons, or the same, obvious in a different way, or in the same way, but at a different moment of time, a moment earlier, a moment later, or at the same moment, there is no such thing, there would be no such thing, I recapitulate, impossible. {1}

Walking and telling are always closely articulated in Beckett’s work, and this passage tells s brief story of a story told through the taking of steps. If only, the narrator says, there could be a first step, a first word, in the direction of a destination, then the whole thing, the whole journey, the whole story, would become available to be travelled and told. The narrator would like there to be a way out of time through the storying of time, through the projection of a perspective according to which the first of a sequence of steps could be visible as, and known in advance to be, the first. If a particular punctual moment could be seen in this way, it might be possible to match the time of the telling to the time of the passage told of. Indeed the passage that unbuds from this apprehension magically begins to deliver the very sense of measure or metre that the narrator requires; `faster and faster, no, slower and slower, for obvious reasons, and at the same time faster and faster, for other obvious reasons, or the same, obvious in a different way, or in the same way’. Beckett seems to have drawn the time told and the time of the telling into simultaneity; but the telling is always out of step with what it tells. When the narrative pulls itself up with that first `no’ (`faster and faster, no, slower and slower’), is it because it has got ahead of itself, or because it is lagging behind itself? Something pulls the narrative back, requiring it to acknowledge that what seems like acceleration is in fact deceleration, and then that both of them are effects of perspective. The reader is invited to move at the same pace as the words, measuring slowness and speed against each other. The same moment can be experienced as both slow and fast, because it is always possible to view the moment from the perspective of before and after (with so many steps already taken, each new step will seem slow; with so few left to take, it will seem fast). What allows the weaving of this rhythmic ecstasy is a necessary averting from the elementary elapsing which is always, like the tortoise in the fable, too slow either to be outstripped or caught up with. `The same moment, there is no such thing, there would be no such thing, I recapitulate, impossible.’ Is this a recapitulation of the judgement that there is no such thing as the `same moment’, or a self-demonstrating statement of the impossibility even of recapitulating? In the tiny gap between the alternative readings `I recapitulate that it is impossible’ and `it is impossible for me to recapitulate’ lies all the force of time’s negligible, ineluctable passage, for which narrative will always have been too quick and too slow. The narrative prefers to show us this noncoincidence rather than to tell us of it, but cannot show it except by its very inability to show it, by its disclosure of the time that will slowly have built, or wasted, as the narrative is taking place. No matter how Beckett’s elementary narratives attempt to live in and live out the tense of the present discontinuous, that time can never be got into the narrative.

The literalising of temporal ecstasis has become the norm for us, in a world in which the dream of a permanent now is carried by the collapsing together of live transmission and recording, in the maintenance of the maintenant through technologies which ensure that nothing slips out of date and everything is for ever. Our capacity to inhabit a permanent, undecaying instantaneousness is the mark of the otherworldliness of our world. Beckett’s convoluted temporalities, in which nothing is ever over and done with, everything can recur or be revived, and in which past, present and future are looped inextricably together, anticipate and mirror the refusal of narrative typical of this world. I once suggested that narrative is always phenomenologically conditioned by the fact that it occupies and is exposed to `real time’, and therefore must always cope with the danger of interruptedness, with the possibility, which it can never fully legislate, that reading can be broken off, or broken into by other concerns (boredom, hunder, sexual desire, death). To cope with the contemporary culture of interruptions, narrative has generated its own syntax of interruptions, taking the condition of its exposure to temporal contingency and making it a necessary part of its being. Thus hypertext, while seeming to surrender itself to the discontinuities introduced into the reading by the choices of the reader, in fact weaves interruptedness into its own fabric, making chance into its choice, and making accident its own.

If hypertext, anticipated as it is by the temporal convolutions of writers like Proust, Joyce and Beckett, is an attempt to find in discontinuity itself a higher, more stable form of continuity, then the opening of Beckett’s work out of this continuity into the condition of slow going represents a breaking open of discontinuity itself; not the breaking of the familiar continuity of time by the familiar kinds of modernist and postmodernist discontinuity and temporal paradox, but the rupture of discontinuity by the principle of continuous elapsing.

Beckett’s prose fiction attempts at once to score, or to stage time, and to expose itself to this disarticulating continuity of elapse. These temporal agonistics centre upon punctuation. There are, we may say, four epochs of punctuation in Beckett’s work. There is the classical or traditional epoch, in which all the resources of punctuation are used. This extends from Dream of Fair to Middling Women to Murphy. With Watt comes Beckett’s discovery of the extraordinary capacities of the comma, to create a kind of counterpoint between the sheer going on of the sentence, with no awareness of its likely end, and the interruptions, resumptions and folding over that the comma gives. This is followed, most notably in How It Is and the `cylinder pieces’, by a suppression of any punctuation at all. It may seem as though the attempt here is to deliver us to a pure flux, or temporal manifold, by suspending the effort at filtering or articulation of time. In fact, however, the effect is to highlight the immanent temporality of syntax itself; as in `Penelope’, for which similarly extravagant claims have sometimes been made, we take responsibility for punctuating the unpunctuated prose, for gathering, stretching and releasing the fabric of time. In recoiling from the condition of unpunctuated duration, however, we must always disclose it. The feeling that many have of an opening out or flowering in Beckett’s late prose – the so-called second trilogy, for example – is due very largely to the resuscitation of syntax, and of the verb in particular, and the consequent relief at the possibility of knitting together the gaps which yawn and claw in earlier work: `And now here, what now here, one enormous second, as in Paradise,, and the mind slow, slow, nearly stopped…The words too, slow, slow, the subject dies before it comes to the verb’ (CSP, 76).

The question of punctuation is in fact thematised in The Lost Ones, Beckett’s definitive evocation of slow going. What is it that is most inhuman about The Lost Ones? It is the absence of any events. What we are given is a process in the frequentative mode. Nothing that we see, or hear reported of life in the cylinder is actually happening, or can be ascribed to a particular occasion. Everything has happened in just the same way, and will continue to happen in just the same way as it is now surmised to be happening. There are no absolute, unique or once and for all events. Everything, it appears, can be undone, or qualified. What counts is only the slow going – slow going on, slow going out – of the cylinder and the report that could be given of it, seen in the long run. At the same time, narrative strains to come into being, strains to congeal into punctual moments; the unequivocal first and last moments in a putative sequence. We know that there must be such moments in any sequence. There must be a first tiny tremor in the earth that produces the earthquake, a first uncountermanded malignity from which the fatal carcinoma blooms. These events are absolutely punctual, epochal, marking an absolute break from what has come before, and a microscopic enunciation of an enormous and irrevocable change. But they can never be known in themselves, they have no here and now, since their meaning is inundated by what they portend or, in the case of last events, begin to conclude. They are events that will have been the first and will have been the last, seen from the perspective that both belongs and does not belong to them. The narrative is held together by the tension between the merely stochastic nature of the phenomena, and our desire for there to have been a definable beginning and end: was it that time, or was it another time?

The Lost Ones is the most explicitly scientific work of a writer who we know (from the `Whoroscope’ notebook kept in the early 1930s, and now in the University of Reading Beckett Archive) familiarised himself in early life with certain developments in contemporary physics. It is a work which painfully brings together the unrepresentable dimension of entropic decay, the process whereby, in a closed thermodynamic system, the random differences of speed and location which make the energy of the molecules available for work, will inevitably tend to equalise, leaving the system inert and functionless. In one kind of model, the universe is no more than such a closed thermodynamic system. Not only is it bound to end in time, the fact of time only has meaning in terms of the slow approach to the condition of heat death. As is well known, James Clark Maxwell, posited a universe consisting of two chambers, connected only by a trap-door. He imagined a being, or demon who, merely by operating the trap door to separate positively charged particles from negative, would preserve infinitely the capacity of the system to generate electrical potential, and therefore work. Human beings have cast themselves in the role of that demon; as the alien element in the system that makes it possible negentropically to hold time back. The demon presence in The Lost Ones is the narrating voice, or even, since we’re in a hurry here, as usual, narrative itself, which is at once the unconscious and unjudging witness of the phenomena of the cylinder, and the agemcy which, by positing purpose, movement and outcome in the cylinder, seems to hold back the movement of time towards the ending of time, seems to bend pure succession into a swirl of persistence, a kind of rhythm or temporal shape other than that of coming apart. It is narrative itself which constitutes what Ilya Prigogine has called a `dissipative structure’ in the otherwise chaotic succession of events. In one crucial episode, the narrating consciousness postulates the idea of a way out of the cylinder. The 2nd law of thermodynamics applies only to closed thermodynamic systems. If a new source of energy could be introduced into the system, or the system revealed as a sub-system of some larger system, the inexorable progress towards decay could be halted; the river could flow upstream. If there could exist a way out of the cylinder, then there would be the possibility of some new source of life and variation in it, something to hold together its slow unravelling.

From time immemorial rumour has it or better still the rumour is abroad that there exists a way out. Those who no longer believe so are not immune from believing so again in accordanced with the notion requiring as long as it holds that here all should die but in so gradual and to put it plainly so fluctuant a manner as to escape the notice even of a visitor. Regarding the nature of this way out and of its location two opinions divide without opposing all those still loyal to that old belief. One school swears by a secret passage branching from one of the tunnels and leading in the words of the poet to nature’s sanctuaries. The other dreams of a trapdoor hidden in the hub of the ceiling giving access to a flue at the end of which the sun and other stars would still be shining. Conversion is frequent either way and such a one who at a given moment would hear of nothing but the tunnel may well a moment later hear of nothing but the trapdoor and a moment later still give himself the lie again. The fact remains none the less that of the two persuasions the former is declining in favour of the latter but in a maner so desultory and slow and of course with so little effect on the comportment of either sect that to perceive it one must be in the secret of the gods. (CSP, 162)

The story goes that, watching technicians testing the image quality of Quad, the most hectic and raucous piece that Beckett ever wrote, for reception by monochrome receivers, and running the tape through in slow motion and in black and white, Beckett suddenly exclaimed: `My God, it’s a hundred thousand years later!’ Seeing the hectic bustle of the performance he had already recorded transformed into the slow, dim shuffle, suggested to Beckett a fast-forward to a time when everything will have nearly gone. What this story captures is what it must allow to escape, namely the condition of pure elapse, the great oxymoron of temporal existence, which is to say all existence, of progression into degradation. The thing that has always surprised me about this story is Beckett’s surprise at his own discovery. How could he not have realised that the stuttering hurry of the choreographic system he had set up in Quad would have exactly the same outcome as in the cylinder of The Lost Ones? How could he not have anticipated from the beginning the idea of a slow decay of the system he had set up, just as in Play, for which he suggests an exact repeat in performance, only slower and more diminished in energy. One answer might be simply that, amid all the complex repetitions, the loopings together of beginning and end that makes of Beckett’s work a kind of dynamic entirety, there is a dimension of unknowingness, of being merely amidst the process of going on, that cannot finally retard or accelerate. There are knowledge, memory, struggle and resistance, not to mention the miniature convulsions of time caused by laughter; but there is no accumulation of these goods, in the midst of the unpausing going on, and going out.

The Lost Ones may perhaps be taken as a proleptic summary of the whole of Beckett’s work, considered as a system closed upon itself, and therefore inexorably, but by insensible degrees, proceeding towards exhaustion and saturation. If the entire effect of that work is to act as a kind of interval, a turbulent suspension in the senseless and insensible unspooling of things in general, it also acknowledges that unfolding, that unrepresentable background from which turbulence derives its energy, and which it may be, in the end, its larger end to have assisted.

And what have we been about here, rereading and replaying that work so obsessively? Passing the time, which would have passed anyway.


1. Texts for Nothing, Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980 (London: John Calder, 1984), p. 101. References hereafter to CSP in the body of my text. Back to Text

2. Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Conversations on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), p. 159. Back to Text

3. Steven Connor, Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988). Back to Text

4. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology trans. Hazel E. Barnes (London: Methuen, 1958), p. 127. Back to Text