Sa­muel Beck­ett’s Watt

JM Coet­zee on Sa­muel Beck­ett’s Watt

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In June 1940 Paris was oc­cu­pied by Ger­man forces. Although he was a cit­i­zen of a neu­tral coun­try, Beck­ett of­fered his ser­vices to the French Re­sis­tance. In 1942, fear­ing im­mi­nent ar­rest by the Gestapo, he and his wife fled Paris and found refuge on a farm near Rous­sil­lon in Provence.

Although Beck­ett had al­ready been at work on Watt when they left Paris, the bulk of the book was writ­ten in Rous­sil­lon. In 1945, after the war had ended, he submitted it to a se­ries of Bri­tish pub­lish­ers, with­out suc­cess (one de­scribed it as too “wild and un­in­tel­li­gi­ble” to pub­lish). Grad­u­ally, as he threw him­self into new projects, he lost in­ter­est in the fate of Watt. In a let­ter to a friend he dis­missed it as “an un­sat­is­fac­tory book, writ­ten in dribs and drabs, first on the run, then of an evening after the clod­hop­ping [i.e., farm labour], dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion”.

In part be­cause the Bri­tish public had shown so lit­tle in­ter­est in his work, in part be­cause he had come to feel that what he called “of­fi­cial” English was frus­trat­ing his am­bi­tion to write “a lit­er­a­ture of the non-word”, but mainly be­cause he had de­cided that his fu­ture lay in France, Beck­ett be­gan to com­pose in French. “I do not think I shall write very much in English in the fu­ture,” he con­fided to the same friend.

Watt was even­tu­ally pub­lished, in 1953, by an English­language lit­er­ary re­view based in Paris, in as­so­ci­a­tion with a French pub­lisher of erotic lit­er­a­ture (Olympia Press, later to pub­lish Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita). Its dis­tri­bu­tion in Ire­land was banned by the au­thor­i­ties.

After he had be­come fa­mous, and the an­glo­phone world had wo­ken up to his ex­is­tence, Beck­ett rou­tinely pre­pared English trans­la­tions of his works. Watt was an ex­cep­tion: he did not want the book to be trans­lated at all. Un­der pres­sure from his pub­lish­ers, he at last agreed to per­mit a French edi­tion. How­ever, the job was (in his eyes) so poorly done that he re­vised the trans­la­tion him­self, mak­ing a num­ber of changes to the text in the process. There is thus some ques­tion whether the English or the French ver­sion should be re­garded as de­fin­i­tive.

The am­biva­lence of Beck­ett’s feel­ings about the book can to an ex­tent be at­trib­uted to the cir­cum­stances of its com­po­si­tion, in the re­mote coun­try­side, in en­forced and weari­some iso­la­tion. It is hard to be­lieve at any other time in his life Beck­ett would have had the en­ergy or the in­ter­est to list la­bo­ri­ously the eighty dif­fer­ent ways in which four items of fur­ni­ture can be ar­ranged in a room over the course of twenty days, or to de­scribe the twenty in­di­vid­ual glances that have to be passed be­fore the five mem­bers of a com­mit­tee can be sure that each has glanced at each of the oth­ers. Beck­ett was right to claim that there is a cer­tain mad­ness in the Carte­sian project of metho­d­is­ing the op­er­a­tions of the hu­man in­tel­lect; but there was also a cer­tain mad­ness in the form that his satire of methodised rea­son took.

Watt, the epony­mous hero, is – at first sight – a clown­ish man with a strange method of walk­ing, which he seems to have learned out of a book, and not even the most rudi­men­tary so­cial graces. We ob­serve him catch a train from the city of Dublin to the sub­urb of Foxrock, where he makes his way to the home of one Mr Knott, for whom he has been en­gaged as a manser­vant. In a lengthy mono­logue, Arsene, the ser­vant whom he will be re­plac­ing, ex­plains the work­ings of the Knott house­hold: there are al­ways two ser­vants on the premises, he says, of whom only the se­nior or greater has di­rect ac­cess to the mas­ter.

Watt spends a pe­riod (a year?) as the lesser ser­vant, then a pe­riod as the greater ser­vant, then in turn de­parts. After an un­spec­i­fied in­ter­val we come upon him again in an asy­lum for the in­sane, where he is be­friended by a pa­tient named Sam. To Sam he re­lates in gar­bled form the story of his time in the Knott house­hold. This Sam in turn re­lates to us, in the form of a book ti­tled Watt.

Watt’s years with Mr Knott (as re­lated by Sam) may have been un­event­ful, yet the ex­pe­ri­ence must have been dis­turb­ing enough (we in­fer) to ren­der him in­sane. He has lost his mind be­cause, de­spite his most stren­u­ous ef­forts, he failed to un­der­stand Mr Knott (and his house­hold) – more specif­i­cally, failed to know Mr Knott in his full­ness. Ev­ery­thing that Mr Knott did, ev­ery­thing that hap­pened in his house­hold, he sub­jected to ex­haus­tive ra­tio­nal anal­y­sis, yet in ev­ery in­stance the anal­y­sis failed to re­veal with cer­tainty the truth of Mr Knott. At the end of Watt’s stay Mr Knott was as much of a mys­tery as he was on the day when Watt ar­rived.

To the reader, view­ing Mr Knott and his house­hold from the out­side, there is noth­ing mys­te­ri­ous go­ing on, noth­ing wor­thy of pro­longed in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Mr Knott is sim­ply an ec­cen­tric old man who lives in a big house in Foxrock which he never leaves. But – though the fi­nal words of the book, “no sym­bols where none in­tended”, con­sti­tute an au­tho­rial warn­ing against over-in­ter­pre­ta­tion – the book has no rai­son d’être if we do not (pro­vi­sion­ally) ac­cede to Watt’s inar­tic­u­late and un­ex­pressed vi­sion of the house­hold: that Mr Knott

is in some sense the De­ity and that he, Watt, has been sum­moned to serve Him. In this in­ter­pre­ta­tion, Watt’s fail­ure to know God re­sults from a fail­ure of the in­tel­lect, a fail­ure of hu­man rea­son, a fail­ure of the method (learned, like walk­ing, out of a book) that he em­ploys in or­der to ar­rive at knowl­edge of the divine.

The method in ques­tion de­rives from René Descartes. It was set down by Descartes in 1637 in his Dis­course on the Method of Rightly Con­duct­ing the Rea­son, since when it has been the or­tho­doxy of the sci­en­tific en­ter­prise:

1. To ac­cept noth­ing as true which I do not clearly recog­nise to be so; that is to say, to ac­cept noth­ing un­less pre­sented to my mind so clearly and dis­tinctly that I can have no oc­ca­sion to doubt it.

2. To di­vide up each of the dif­fi­cul­ties which I ex­am­ine into as many parts as pos­si­ble.

3. To carry on my re­flec­tions in due or­der, com­menc­ing with ob­jects that are the most sim­ple and easy to un­der­stand, in or­der to rise lit­tle by lit­tle … to knowl­edge of the most com­plex.

4. In all cases to make enu­mer­a­tions so com­plete and re­views so gen­eral that I shall be cer­tain of hav­ing omit­ted noth­ing.

This is the method that Watt ap­plies to all phe­nom­ena that present them­selves to his senses, from the visit of the pi­ano tuners to the ac­tiv­i­ties of Mr Knott him­self. The sober, un­ques­tion­ing ap­pli­ca­tion of the Carte­sian method, the method of sci­ence, to events in the Knott house­hold re­sults in the in­tel­lec­tual com­edy that makes up the bulk of Watt.

Watt is a philo­soph­i­cal satire in the tra­di­tion of François Ra­belais and (closer to home) of Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne. But the im­pulse be­hind it is not merely scep­ti­cal (scep­ti­cal of the arch-ad­vo­cate of the cul­ti­va­tion of scep­ti­cism as a habit of mind, Descartes). If we de­code the cryp­tic, back-to-front ut­ter­ances of Watt in the asy­lum, we ar­rive at a clue as to what that im­pulse is:

Of nought. To the source. To the teacher. To the tem­ple. To him I brought. This emp­tied heart. These emp­tied hands. This mind ig­nor­ing. This body home­less. To love him my lit­tle re­viled. My lit­tle re­jected to have him. My lit­tle to learn him for­got. Aban­doned my lit­tle to find him.

[Re­viled my lit­tle to love him; re­jected my lit­tle to have him; for­got my lit­tle to learn him; aban­doned my lit­tle to find him. To him I brought this emp­tied heart, these emp­tied hands, this ig­nor­ing mind, this home­less body: to the tem­ple, to the teacher, to the source of nought.]

Watt seeks to know God or “God”, for whom Knott/ Not stands as a to­ken. He un­der­takes his quest in a spirit of hu­mil­ity, with­out pre­con­cep­tions; but Knott proves to be un­know­able – un­know­able not only to the ra­tio­nal in­tel­lect but ul­ti­mately un­know­able too. As St Au­gus­tine could have told Watt, we can never know what God is, we can only know what He is not. In­deed, on the very first day of his ser­vice Arsene had given him a warn­ing to the same ef­fect: “What we [ser­vants] know par­takes in no small mea­sure of the na­ture of what has so hap­pily been called the un­ut­ter­able or in­ef­fa­ble, so that any at­tempt to ut­ter or eff it is doomed to fail, doomed, doomed to fail”.

Arsene is here evok­ing a pas­sage from Geulincx’s Ethics that Beck­ett had thought im­por­tant enough to copy into one of his notebooks: “In­ef­fa­bile … id est dic­i­tur, non quod cog­itare aut ef­fari non pos­sumus (noc [nec?] enim ni­hil es­set: num ni­hil et non cog­itabile idem sunt)” [“In­ef­fa­ble ... is that which we can­not un­der­stand and grasp (which is noth­ing: in fact, noth­ing and not think­able are the same thing)”].

It is this deeper layer be­neath the sur­face com­edy of Watt’s be­hav­iour, his dogged meta­phys­i­cal quest to know the un­know­able, think the un­think­able, ex­press the in­ex­press­ible, in the face of fail­ure after fail­ure, that lends him his pathos, makes him more than just a clown of the in­tel­lect.

As a piece of writ­ing, Watt is un­even in qual­ity. In his early sto­ries, col­lected in More Pricks than Kicks, Beck­ett had a ten­dency to show off his learn­ing in a rather ju­ve­nile way, to mix high and low ver­bal reg­is­ters and in­dulge in facile word­play. The open­ing pages of Watt ex­hibit some of the same fea­tures. It is only when Watt reaches Knott’s res­i­dence that Beck­ett be­gins to achieve the kind of sus­tained prose he has been search­ing for, the blend of lyri­cism and par­ody unique to Watt. Some of the episodes that make up a fun­da­men­tally episodic book main­tain the qual­ity of a high comic aria from be­gin­ning to end (one thinks here not only of Arsene’s mono­logue but of the visit of the Galls, fa­ther and son; of Mr Knott’s eat­ing ar­range­ments; of the fam­ished dog re­quired to con­sume the left­overs of his meal, and the Lynch fam­ily whose duty it is to main­tain the dog). Other episodes lack in­spi­ra­tion: the vis­its of Mrs Gor­man the fish-woman, for in­stance. The pages-long listings of per­mu­ta­tions and com­bi­na­tions of ob­jects are te­dious but their te­dium is part of the con­cep­tion of the book, a fa­ble cum trea­tise that for long stretches man­ages to be hyp­not­i­cally fas­ci­nat­ing.

© JM Coet­zee, taken from Late Es­says: 2006–2017, pub­lished by Knopf Aus­tralia on 28 Au­gust 2017.

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