BECKETT BETWEEN THE WORDS: Punctuation and the Body in the English Prose

By Williams, James | Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

BECKETT BETWEEN THE WORDS: Punctuation and the Body in the English Prose


Williams, James, Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui


This essay considers how some of Beckett's most important concerns are explored or expressed through his use of punctuation. Focusing on the English prose, the problems of starting and stopping, the representation of silence, and the individuation and disintegration of voices are considered. In particular it is argued that punctuation, by remembering the physical presence of absent speakers, is important to the way Beckett's writing situates itself ambiguously between the abstract and the bodily. Beckett's practice is examined through close readings, and set against a theoretical backdrop going back to Aristotle.

To start with, punctuation is concerned with stops. If the function of punctuation is, among other things, "the division of text," or "the [...] articulation of appropriate pauses" (OED), one can view the beginning and end of the text, where it starts and stops, as the most radical and unavoidable of punctuational conventions. Here, what is the text is divided from what is not the text; the silence itself is punctuated, and the words heard against the pauses which precede and follow. Viewed this way, beginnings and endings are much alike. To abbreviate (violently) Eliot's "Little Gidding": "In my beginning is my end. [...] In my end is my beginning" (21, 27). The poem's beginning and its end are almost - only almost - interchangeable. Each contains and resembles the other, and the text of the poem sits between them as books between two book ends.

Samuel Beckett knew Four Quartets well, as Endgame makes clear: "The end is in the beginning and yet you go on" (1986, 126). Hamm's remark, stage-directed to be spoken calmly, is both a gesture of resignation, and an expression of unwillingness to resign (one of the ways in which an endgame in chess can be concluded). This double regret is a local embodiment of Beckett's perennial ambivalence about beginnings and endings. Whether or not to stop, or go on: this was for Beckett of a piece with the corollary questions of where to start, how to start, and whether one should start at all.1 "All writing is a sin against speechlessness," he once remarked (qtd. in Atik, 95), and his friends and biographers recall the difficulty both Beckett and those around him faced in trying to break the long silences into which he was prone to lapse (see Atik, 7). Perhaps Beckett valued silence most in the company of those with whom he most deeply shared insights into language. When Beckett knew Joyce in Paris, so their biographers relate, their conversations "consisted often of silences directed towards each other" (Ellmann, 648), sometimes gliding together along the Allée des Cygnes in swan-like silence (see Knowlson, 101).

Punctuation is, as my title suggests, that which falls between the words - and perhaps also around them, pressing in on them. This is, of course, to employ a wider conception of punctuation than is commonly held by most ordinary literate speakers of English or French. For most people, 'punctuation' denotes a set of essentially conventional marks; but texts are also punctuated by the spaces between the words, and in their mise en page, mark-up, and forms of division and sub-division. Where such complex and largely automatic conventions exist, there is potential for their creative exploitation, subversion, or reapplication. John Lennard, whose work has done a great deal to make punctuation a serious concern for literary critics, identifies eight levels on which a text can be said to be punctuated, from the letterforms themselves which punctuate the blank page, to word division, pagination, chapters, and finally the book itself, "as a complete object punctuating space" (2005, HO).2

Ancient manuscripts were largely written in continuous letters without word division, a form called scriptio (or scriptum) continua. The introduction of spaces between words in the seventh century was an Irish response to the problem of disambiguating and clarifying Latin for a non-Latinate readership accustomed to the visual reception of texts through silent reading (see Parkes, 23; and Cordingley, 5-6). …

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