Blog Post

Shortest Distance... (1 of 2)

One of the challenges of reading the works of Samuel Beckett, novelist, versus seeing the works of Samuel Beckett, dramatist, is, in fact, seeing. Or envisioning what you’re reading. Bruce Nauman’s film, Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968), both reminded and relieved me of that difficulty.  

The hourlong film is currently on-view—fittingly, on a loop—at apexart.

For all of the patterns, permutations, and distortions to which Beckett submits human bodies on stage, and for all of the contortions to which one might submit one’s own critical prose to explicate Beckett’s radical depiction of embodiment (for one example of said contortions), it's difficult to envision how the characters in Beckett’s novels look in their bodies. It’s not that you’re wondering what color Watt’s eyes are or whether Murphy’s hair is curly. It’s rather that it requires work to envision how they move in space. You often have to work hard through prose that, elaborating on protocols of its own, describes movement while hardly seeming to move itself.

When you meet Murphy, the eponymous character of Beckett’s funny—funny serious and funny ha-ha—novel (1938), he is strapped naked into a rocking chair.  Seven scarves bind his body at strategic points to the charir, so that "only the most local movements were possible.” How did he get into this, for him, desirable bind? Best not to ask…

When Watt walks into Watt (first published in 1953), he doesn’t walk at all. He flings and jerks and heaves; his movement, like Murphy’s, aims at the limits of the possible.

Watt's way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south, and at the same time fling out his left leg as far as possible to north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south … and so on , over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down.  (30)

I want to sit down myself at that point, and all I’m doing is transcribing.

Just when you think, “Ok, I can imagine how Watt moves”—like, as Beckett alone could gloss it, “a headlong tardigrade, in a straight line”—you get a further qualification that makes you go back and re-envision Watt's "way of advancing."  Watt's knees don't bend; his legs are stick-straight, rigid through this whole procedure. His feet fall “heel and sole together, flat upon the ground” and leave the ground again “with manifest repugnancy.” It’s not that Watt can’t bend his knees—“no knees could bend better.”   Instead, when Watt is “out walking they did not bend, for some obscure reason.”

As a literary critic, it’s my job to consider the “obscure reason” for Watt’s “way of advancing.”  Handily, an internal reader comes into the narrative to evaluate how the “movements of the legs could be accounted for.” This reader, Lady McCann, crosses off drunkenness.)  It would not be wrong, exactly, to describe Watt’s walk as a literary instantiation of—or incursion on—a mathematical distance function. Watt’s walk riffs, both syntactically and physically, on the straight line that charts the shortest distance between two points in space. In Watt, Beckett makes a straight line itself “as far as possible;” he makes advancing along it take “as long as possible.” The narrative questions the notions of points or “destination” at all. What’s at stake in Watt’s “way of advancing” is movement between.

Even as I write that, I want, again, to sit down: to reassess my own critical habits when confronting Beckett on the page or in the classroom. And that's where Nauman's film comes in...

 Samuel Beckett, Watt.  1953.  New York: Grove, 1959.

Assistant Professor of English, Dickinson College
Claire Seiler's research and teaching focus on modern and contemporary literature and culture in the U.S., England, and Ireland. Her work makes an inquiry of inconspicuous terms that inform twentieth-century literary criticism, among them "midcentury" (which she investigates in her first-book-in-progress, titled "Midcentury Suspension") and the "generation" (the problematic category that organizes her next project, on twentieth-century poetics). Her work has been published in Twentieth-Century Literature, Comparative Literature, Modernism/Modernity, and elsewhere.