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Beckett in purgatory: "unspeakable" Watt and the Second World War.

In Canto III of the Inferno, just outside the gates of Hell, Dante is overwhelmed by a cacophony of cries, "such a commotion of groans and wails of woe ... outlandish tongues, and accents doloroso" that he weeps "from sheer bewilderment." "Master, what noise is this?" the overwhelmed poet asks (Carson 2002, 23-25). These, Virgil tells him, are the neutral souls who chose their own good rather than a side when it came to conflict. Their punishment is eternal envy of the decisive ones, eternal babble, and eternal censorship (not to speak of hornet stings).The neutral souls are scorned by both mercy and justice, and though they will cry out interminably, Virgil says, they are not to be spoken of again.

Dante's work is an important point of reference for Samuel Beckett. As Daniela Caselli has shown, references to the Divine Comedy pepper the Beckett canon, creating an important intertextual conversation that expands our understanding of each (2006, 2-3). Most recently, the 2014 Faber publication of Echo's Bones, the final episode of Belacqua Shua's career, has taken readers into the afterlife of the protagonist of More Pricks than Kicks (1934)."Echo's Bones"" is a nightmare," Charles Prentice wrote to Beckett in 1933, rejecting the story from the volume: "Just too terribly persuasive. It gives me the jim-jams" (quoted in Nixon 2014, xii). At the end of the story, the Alba, commanding a submarine of the dead, gives Belacqua up "to hell," and Beckett gives him up to indolence, to his ante-purgatory of literal fence-sitting: neutral, going nowhere (Beckett 2014, 51). (1)

But Beckett's engagement with purgatory also plays out in an earlier nightmare narrative, Watt (1953).Trying to read it may well give you the jim-jams, and it's unlikely that anyone since the typesetter has actually read every single word. The novel is so riddled with lists and repetitions--for example, the two-page catalog devoted to the daily alterations in Mr Knott's physical appearance, in which "one day" he is "tall, fat, pale and dark, and the next thin, small, flushed and fair," on and on through each possible permutation, "to mention only the figure, stature, skin and hair"--that even the most devoted reader might be tempted to skim (Beckett [1953] 2011, 209, 211). (2) In format alone, that is, the book is very nearly unreadable, and, like Dante in Canto III, one is tempted to weep from bewilderment at the cacophonic text. (3) To read Watt, then, is to be aware of reading as particularly difficult work, a sort of purgatorial quest that must be suffered through in order to come out the other side, at the end of the book.

This quest has long extended to the critical industry's attempts to make sense of this problem novel in the Beckett canon. Unlike Murphy (1938) and Molloy (1951), Beckett's major prose works written immediately before and after it, Watt is rarely even found on a course syllabus (what instructor would dare?). It appears in the Beckett oeuvre like a missed step: the last novel he wrote in English, the first he wrote in France. Confusing its position further is the fact that Watt, though written during the Second World War, was not published until 1953, and so appeared to the public after Godot (1952) and the first two novels in the Trilogy had already begun to shape the author's critical reception. Writing to George Reavey in 1947 when he was seeking help getting the novel published, Beckett described Watt as "an unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs, but it has its part in the series, as will perhaps appear in time" (Beckett 2009, 55).

If Watt is an unsatisfactory book, in this essay I offer a way to approach its unreadability as a deliberate attempt to articulate the unspeakable trauma of World War II. (4) Becketts caution that Watt's "place" would "appear in time" has a stronger resonance when one considers that the novel's own historical time is often left unacknowledged by those who attempt to "place" it. Critical studies of Watt typically offer post-structural interpretations that don't consider it as a novel of the Second World War, and as an Irish novel in particular. Such readings, reflecting a longstanding critical tendency to universalize the characters and settings of Beckett's late work, seem mismatched with Watt, a wartime novel that, embodying the transition between Beckett's more "Irish" prewar fiction and his postwar writing in French, insists on its localized setting (in the end, an addendum jokes, "For all the good that frequent departures out of Ireland had done him, he might just as well have stayed there" [IT 217]).

Offering a compelling reading of Watt as a traumatic text, a "doubled testimony of an impossible event," Jonathan Boulter, for example, universalizes the text nearly to the point that it becomes more, rather than less, perplexing (2008, 106). He writes, " Watt, finally, is a deeply melancholic story about the impossibility of knowing the Other and the effects on the self of the recognition that events and people may always exceed one's interpretive grasp" (107). Perhaps because his major focus is Beckett's postwar writing, Boulter reads Watt as entirely detached from historical circumstance. But where later texts like The Unnamable (1958) may offer themselves more easily to such interpretations, Watt is insistent on and even mimetic of its setting's place and time. Tellingly, Boulter ends his discussion of Watt by stating that in it, "Beckett's true task--to find ... a 'literature of the unword'--is partially realized" (2008, 107), an indication that, like so many readers, Boulter is really reading Watt just to establish "its part in the series" of Beckett's philosophy (Beckett 2009, 55). Working in a similar vein, Stan Gontarski argues that Watt's "textual anomalies and signals of incompletion . . . suggest irresolution and negation, textual and aesthetic, and so anticipate the epistemological crises that dominate Beckett's subsequent work" (2010, 9). In contrast, I see Watt not so much as anticipating epistemological crisis as enacting it. Read in its historical context, Watt becomes not only an exercise in the development of the mature Beckett but an attempt to enact the impossibility of wartime epistemology. If it is a "doubled testimony of an impossible event," that impossible event is World War II, and its impossible witnessing maps onto its Irish setting: the country that missed the war.

Set in a recognizable facsimile of south County Dublin, Watt at first glance might appear unconcerned with the war that raged during its composition, in which Ireland was declared neutral. Such an appearance, though, depends on the dubious common notion that, as Edna Longley puts it, the experience of the Second World War was "alien" to Irish literature, that Ireland's wartime neutrality somehow neutralized war content for Irish writers (1988, xiii). In fact, like much of Ireland's literature written between 1939 and 1945, Watt is intensely concerned with wartime epistemology, to the point that, with its historical position elided, many of its major concerns are rendered illegible. Watt is a problematic book--formally and critically--because it reflects a problematic condition: the impossibility of witnessing trauma, from both within and without. When it is read as a purely philosophical text or a logic game, the result is unsatisfying: bits of the novel are illuminated, but the text as a whole remains a puzzle. But considered as a purgatorial allegory of neutral Ireland, the design of the book becomes clear. In Watt, Beckett's long-standing intertextual relationship with Dante and Purgatory meets a cultural moment in which Purgatory became a trope for imagining "the Emergency," the Irish government's euphemism for a war it was so committed to avoiding that it scorned to call it by name. (5) With the "hell" of real war just across the sea, Ireland's Emergency would always remain purgatory by comparison. If, as Beckett puts it in his essay, "Dante ... Bruno. Vico ... Joyce," "Hell is the static lifelessness of unrelieved viciousness" and "Paradise is the static lifelessness of unrelieved immaculation," then "Purgatory," a figure for Ireland's Emergency, would be "a flood of movement and vitality released by the conjunction of these two elements" (1983,22). A decade after these comments on Work in Progress, Beckett's concept of a "non-directional" purgatory made it a productive space in which to experiment with language in wartime (33). Accounting for Watt's historical situation, then, reveals it as not only an experimental precursor to Beckett's great works of the 1950s but as a key text in the late-modernist literature of war.

Keeping in mind Beckett's caution in that same essay, that "the danger is in the neatness of identifications" (1983, 19), I suggest that Purgatory offers a paradigm through which to productively read Watt. (6) If Dante is the poet of trauma, par excellence, a witness, who, though he may weep, produces a legible report of ultimate suffering, Watt is left at the gates of hell, lost in cacophony. Moreover, while Watt is distinctly purgatorial, thinking of it in relation to Canto III of the Inferno also illuminates the novel's historical frame: just as the neutral souls are present but unspoken of in Dante's text, there are clear traces of the war in Watt, yet, as in the Ireland of its setting, the war is also muted, hidden from view--just what the Irish Free State's policies of neutrality and censorship intended to accomplish. (7) It is thus not that Watt ignores the Second World War but that it enacts the Irish experience of it, as if observing Virgil's admonition about neutral souls: "Let's not speak of them; but let us look, and go from hence" (Carson 2002, 50-51).The failures of Watt's structural elements and its sabotage of readability work together, reflecting the suffering of those forced to wait in silence for a war to end, and critiquing the policy of transparent "neutral language" adopted by the Emergency-era Irish Free State. (8)

Unlike Dante, however, who travels down to hell and back up through Paradise, emerging to tell the tale, the unreadable Mr Watt makes no progress. If the novel's aim is to tell the story of Watt's service in the home of Mr Knott--his arrival, his work below stairs, and his term as Knott's upstairs valet--then the telling is most unsatisfactory. What elements of plot appear are related out of order, and character development is denied.

Though privy to an endless series of lists and conjectures, the reader is left continually in the dark as to why, for example, Watt is there in the first place, who Knott is, for what duration Watt remains, and where, exactly, he goes upon leaving. Again and again, the reader is told, "Watt did not know what had happened" (W 74). He cannot interpret Knott or his home, and all the incidents that occur in the book seem to him "incidents that is to say of great formal brilliance and indeterminable purport--not unlike the novel itself. Where Mr Watt fails, Watt fails also, in the sense that it does not provide what is easily recognized as a satisfactory novelistic experience. As Beckett writes of Joyce's "non-directional" purgatory in Work in Progress, in Watt there is "neither prize nor penalty; simply a series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail" (1983, 33). One of the effects of this purgatorial stimulus is the strange language of Watt, always on an interminable chase for meaning. The language games in Watt are more than ludic Cartesianism: they are traces of Beckett's own experience of the war.

Famously preferring "France in war to Ireland in peace," Beckett intended to spend the war in Paris, but through his translation work in the Resistance cell Gloria SMH, he found himself (along with his partner, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil) on the run from the Nazis when his cell was betrayed (quoted in Shenker [1956] 1999, 161). Written, as Beckett told Reavey, "in dribs and drabs, first on the run, then of an evening after the clodhopping, during the occupation," Watt is very much a product of war and disjuncture (2009, 55). Stan Gontarski has called the resulting manuscript "the white whale of Beckett studies, a mass of documentation that defies attempts to make sense of it" (2010, xi). The same might be said of the published novel itself, a disarranged, or deranged, text that constitutes a trace of Beckett's war experience. As I will hope to demonstrate, then, if Watt's unreadability and encodedness are the languages of Irish neutrality, they are also the languages of post-traumatic stress and the Resistance spy.

Two critics have compellingly historicized Watt's "resistant" language as a product of Beckett's engagement with the war. In a chapter titled "Witt-Watt: The Language of Resistance / The Resistance of Language," Maijorie Perloff connects Watt and Sam's bizarre conversations with the code system used by Beckett's cell in the French Resistance: "The furtive meetings between Sam and Watt," Perloff suggests, "recall the meetings ... where the 'cut-outs' exchanged coded information" (1996, 137). Beckett's job in Gloria SMH was to facilitate the transmission of knowledge from spies in France to military intelligence in London. Speaking both perfect French and native English, the Irishman was brought in to translate the scraps and bits of "cut-out" intelligence and transcribe it into English prose for transportation to Britain (Knowlson 1996, 282). Considering this, it is difficult not to see the connection between the translation work of the Resistance agent "Sam Irlandais" (9) and that of Watt's narrator Sam, who translates Watt's cryptic and broken-up utterances into the English-language narrative of Watt. With its long, often pages-long, sentences composed of seemingly endless dependent clauses, Watt appears burdened by a syntax of endless deferral, a language that seems self-censored, unwilling to speak. Also historicizing Watt to explore its resistant language, James McNaughton reads the novel as "a critique of Irish neutrality" (2010, 51). Arguing that the novel contains "traces" of the war encoded in its language, such as the phrase, "a day's march," McNaughton proposes that "Beckett's quirky methods of containing European war generate what might be called the propaganda of apathy" (52, 51). Reading Watt alongside the diaries and notebooks Beckett made during his time in 1930s Nazi Germany, McNaughton sees its linguistic contortions as evincing the bourgeois search for comfort in lieu of truth (50). In considering Watt's resistant language in relation to the Second World War, Perloff and McNaughton thus introduce important readings of the novel, though neither accounts for that resistant language's relation to trauma. Certainly, Watt's fraught language is a response to the strange pressures war puts on language, opening space (as George Orwell and Theodor Adorno have argued) for a seductive propaganda that, like espionage and code, requires special reading skills. (10) But just as it alters language, war also alters the people who survive it, and Watt's resistant language--Mr Watt's search for "semantic succour"--is also a trace or scar of wartime trauma (W 83).

One of the more telling traumatic traces in the text is Watt's comic encounter with the Galls, father and son, who come "all the way from town, to choon the piano" (70). The Galls' visit turns sinister after they depart, having concluded that "the piano is doomed.... The piano-tuner also.... The pianist also" (70, 72). (11) For, like a half-remembered tune, the incident of the Galls, or Watt's memory of it, persists. The incident "was not ended, when it was past, but continued to unfold, in Watt's head, from beginning to end, over and over again". (72). This is no simple matter of remembering an event; moreover, it distresses Watt intensely and, it seems to him, unreasonably:
   What distressed Watt ... was not so much that he did not know
   what had happened, for he did not care what had happened, that
   a thing that was nothing had happened, with the utmost formal
   distinctness, and that it continued to happen, in his mind... and
   [it] revisited him in such a way that he was forced to submit to it
   all over again, to hear the same sounds, see the same lights, touch
   the same surfaces, and so on.... If he had been able to accept
   it, then perhaps it would not have revisited him, and this would
   have been a great saving of vexation, to put it mildly. (76)

The visit of the Galls reads as a traumatic event. Their "fugitive penetration" into the Knott estate is something Watt cannot quite grasp, "so that he could neither think of [such events], nor speak of them, only suffer them, when they recurred" (70, 79). Consistent with Cathy Caruth's definition of trauma "as the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena" (1996,91), the experience of the Galls' galling visit slips away, impossible to witness. Watt's encoding of this visit from the piano tuner, something that really ought to seem like "nothing," exemplifies how the novel censors and subverts traumatic experience. But Beckett's customarily sardonic humor, in the tuner's proclamation of general "doom," hints at something much darker beneath the surface. Just as, as Caruth formulates it, trauma "simultaneously defies and demands our witness," Watt needs to tell the story in order to be "able to accept it," but he finds himself unable to speak (Caruth 1996, 5; W 76).

For Watt, the piano tuning itself was "nothing," both because of its essential banality and because it is impossible to retell and thus endlessly recurring. Likewise, Beckett's hiding in Roussillon from 1943 to 1945 was a time of nothing happening, years of nothing happening, but it was a terrifying nothing, scored by hunger, fear of discovery, physical discomfort, and boredom (Knowlson 1996, 291-309). That Watt experiences the Galls' visit as "nothing" thus suggests that even the "nothings" of wartime are traumatic, playing on and on in their own terrifying ways. With its perpetual march of dependent clauses, this section of Watt forces, clause after clause, near-nothingness upon the reader as well--an unfolding, grammatical near-nothing that keeps on happening. In this way, the defiant syntax of Watt literalizes what Caruth describes as the voice of trauma, "a language that defies, even as it claims, our understanding" (1996, 5).

During World War II, "nothing" is precisely what appeared to be happening in the neutral Irish Free State. The government's policy of censoring reports of persecution and cruelty from across occupied Europe "for fear of eliciting unneutral sympathy" (O Drisceoil 1996, 121) meant that in the Irish press, there were no concentration camps, no massacre at Katyn, no Bataan death march or Burma railway, no firebombing of civilian Dresden. (12) Experiencing the Second World War through the filter of Irish neutrality thus made Ireland's island isolation feel quite profound. In That Neutral Island, her 2007 cultural history of Emergency-era Ireland, Clair Wills portrays Irish wartime intellectuals as a "static generation, cut off from the real world," a remove "intensified by the strict censorship of printed news and other media" (2007, 8). As in the static Ireland of the Emergency, in Watt's story "nothing" appears to happen, and this nothing happens in a resolutely parochial world--full of gossip, verbal Hibernicisms, and markedly devoid of women, except as occasional sexual objects. Although, like those of Molloy and Godot, the setting of Watt appears both Irish and insistently ahistorical, traces of the Second World War do persist in Watt, as do strong indicators that its purgatorial otherworld is actually a veiled version of Ireland in the late thirties and early forties. While Beckett himself did not experience the Emergency firsthand, being in a real emergency of his own, Mr Watt appears to do so, and Beckett's years of hiding in Roussillon, spent at agricultural labor with little contact with the outside world, must have borne a strong resemblance to life in rural Emergency Ireland.

Watt's physical lameness is symptomatic of the general stagnation of his environment, and the novel, particularly its first and final sections, reads as a diagnosis of the decline of Anglo-Irish culture in the Free State, in which nearly everyone is afflicted by age or ailment. Mr. Knott's "terminal morbidity," for example, comments on the apparent demise of the foundational genre of Anglo-Irish literature, the big-house novel (Moynahan 1995, 224). In Watt, Mr Knott's big house appears appropriately gothic to the eyes of its future servant; his first sighting of the house fills Watt with "confidence and with awe also, for the chimneys of Mr Knott's house were visible at last, in the light, of the moon. The house was in darkness" (W 36). (13) But while Watt may in this way qualify as gothic, it fails to qualify properly as a traditional novel. Beckett's characters don't grow or develop, and his narrator falters at establishing suspense, resolution, and rapport with the reader. It is a novel without progress.

In its isolation Knott's big house at once characterizes its type and gestures toward the Free State's isolationism, which Prime Minister Eamon de Valera carefully framed as reflecting the right of the small nation not to interfere or be interfered with. Indeed, Watt's compassionate isolationism within Knott's estate (his decision, for instance, to stop interacting with the gardener and merely leave his shed key in a homemade key-sized blanket, under a stone) can be connected to his descent into linguistic chaos. Watt often wishes that he could discuss his linguistic predicament, but at the same time he isolates himself from conversation, preventing the outside dialogue that might engage him with the world. Again, we might recall the torment of the neutrals in Inferno Canto III, cast out of both heaven and hell, their isolation, as well as their sequestered position in the poem itself, essential to their punishment.

During the Emergency, Irish intellectuals accused their government of inflicting a similar punishment on its people. By turning its back to the conflict, as they saw it, the Free State was turning away from European culture and technological progress. From 1939 to 1945, Ireland felt culturally stagnant, and the deprivations of a war economy had to be endured without the solidifying concept of an enemy to rally against. If war was hell, then, neutrality felt like purgatory (14)--a condition to be suffered through until ended by an outside force--and the purgatorial setting critics have noted in Mr Knott's estate corresponds to the standard complaints of "stasis and immobilization" in neutral Ireland (Wills 2007, 264). Waiting is a dominant motif in World War II--era writing from Ireland to the battlefield, but particularly to educated Dubliners, hopes of someday reaching an end of wartime isolation meant that the experience was often expressed as a purgatory. (15)

Though written in occupied France, Beckett's Watt has much in common with other portrayals of neutral Ireland as a purgatory, particularly Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (1939) and Mairtin O Cadhain's Cre na Cille (1942), two anti-novels in which life in Ireland is represented as the equivalent to life beyond death--nasty, brutish, and cyclical. The pilgrimage site of St. Patrick's Purgatory at Lough Derg in northwest Ireland, one of Dante's source texts for the Purgatorio, is also the subject of two major Emergency-era poems, by Patrick Kavanagh and Denis Devlin. (16) During a 1938 visit to Ireland, Beckett himself attended the August 10 premiere of W. B. Yeats's final play, Purgatory, at the Abbey Theatre (Beckett 2009, 576). By the time the war began, and Ireland exempted itself from it, the idea of "this earth that is Purgatory" was waiting to be marshaled into the literature of the time (1983, 33).

Dantean nods in Watt, such as Watt's domestic movement from below stairs to above, and in Erskine the false promise of a Virgil-like guide ("And now for a little along the way that lies between you and me Erskine will go by your side, to be your guide, and then for the rest you will travel alone, or with only shades to keep you company" [W 63]), complement a reading of Mr Knott's gothic estate as a purgatorial space. But if purgatory can be read as a space in which one seeks enlightenment and suffers in exchange for expiation, the purgatory of this novel, and of the Irish experience of World War II, is always a failed one. Where Moynahan concludes that "the scheme of Purgatory in Watt, if it is there at all, turns out to be self-canceling" (1995, 251), I argue that Watt's purgatory is less self-canceling than it is a deliberate failure--a purgatory with no chance of purgation. As Arsene, Watt's predecessor and potential Virgil-figure, departs Mr Knott's big house as Watt arrives, he makes what could be a fitting comment on the novel as a whole:

And if I could begin it all over again, knowing what I know now, the result would be the same. And if I could begin again a third time, knowing what I would know then, the result would be the same. And if I could begin it all over again a hundred times, knowing each time a little more than the time before, the result would always be the same, and the hundredth life as the first, and the hundred lives as one. (W 47)

Indeed, such failed purgation entraps Beckett's postwar protagonists in general, for whom, Michael Robinson suggests, "there is no certitude ... no known end and no discernible path," and who thus occupy "a grimmer place than that imagined by Dante [in whose] Purgatorio eventual ascent, the toil uphill, was certain for even the most indolent of its inhabitants" (1979, 69-70). Like Belacqua, Watt occupies a space where "there is a continuous purgatorial process at work," but it is one that "excludes culmination" (Beckett 1983, 33).The cycle of trauma is stuck on repeat, and if the novel's repetitive syntax attempts to purge categories and experiences in Watt's narrative by enumerating all possibilities and events, it can never succeed.

Such linguistic failure constitutes a critique of various forms of wartime discourse. Watt makes nonsense, for instance, of assertions that the experience of war can lead to a purified world, that those who suffered in World War II, as rationalized by Allied propaganda, suffered in the service of a just war, one that in Britain particularly was justified by the promise of a more socially equable postwar state. The novel's setting in Emergency Ireland suggests how this justification was especially empty in Beckett's neutral homeland, where the concept of neutrality answered the promise of neither defeating fascism nor of an improved economy, nor even of a united Ireland. The Irish Free State's isolationism, cloaked as "sacred egoism," was essentially conservative, and Emergency-era policies left the nation culturally and economically stagnant for many years. (17) Watt's purgatory without purgation thus mocks the emptiness of the promise that either a world war, or exemption from it, can justify its means.

With its linguistic contortions and distortions, Watt also enacts an implicit criticism of the Irish government's wartime policy of "neutral language." This policy, the linchpin of Ireland's wartime neutrality, was based on the government's twinned mandates that public language could be neutered by refusing to name the war, and that it would function as a neutral medium by offering unbiased descriptors of a belligerent world. (18) The Free State's "neutral language" was enforced by a draconian censorship board, whose impact remains vivid in Ireland's literary history and cultural memory. (19) In the thoroughly peculiar language of Watt, Beckett demonstrates what happens when language's presumed neutrality is followed to a rational dead end. Every attempt to "neutrally" express what he has seen in Mr Knott's estate brings Watt closer to disintegration; his witnessing offers only a grammar of traumatic repetition. Because he imagines he can present the simple truth of a complex world, Watt's quest for enlightenment actually leaves him "dumb, numb, [and] blind." (20)

The professed aim of Ireland's "Emergency" press censorship, according to Frank Aiken, who oversaw it as minister for coordination of defensive measures, was to provide the Irish people with "a better and a clearer opportunity of getting all the news of this war in an unbiased manner" (Aiken 1944). A man so committed to euphemism that he referred to the Battle of Britain as "the air battle over Southern England and the Channel in 1940" (quoted in O Drisceoil 1996, 20), Aiken suggested that, by virtue of censorship, "we have allowed all the news to go through but we stopped the propaganda and we have enabled the Irish people to keep their balance during this disastrous war" (Aiken 1944). In Watt, however, Beckett suggests that wartime acts of reading can only be skeptical. Watt's attempts to "read" Mr Knott, like Sam's attempts to understand Watt, are, like the reader's relationship with the novel as a whole, fraught with difficulty and even (for Watt) with danger. The difficulty of reading Watt, and of reading in Watt, is part of a critique of wartime language use and reading practices--both of which, like Beckett's translation work in the Resistance, involve decoding, reordering, and combing for bias and for truth.

The problem of accessing truth in wartime is compounded by the problem of how to articulate it. This is made spectacularly evident for the reader of Watt when confronting the novel's failure of narrative authority. Only midway through the novel does Sam suddenly introduce himself as the narrator, upsetting the reader's assumption of a more plausible third-person omniscient narrator, and disclaiming, "For all that I know on the subject of Mr Knott, and of all that touched Mr Knott, and on the subject of Watt, and of all that touched Watt, came from Watt, and from Watt alone.... And this does not mean either that I may not have left out some of the things that Watt told me, or foisted in others that Watt never told me" (IV 125-26). Sam, moreover, acknowledges the inaccuracy of the material provided by Watt--particularly Arsene's 24-page monologue, now retold third-hand--while Sam's position as narrator is itself made impossible by the novel's opening and closing pages. Because Watt could not have seen and heard Mr Hackett in the opening scene or the railway employees in the closing one, Sam's narrative of them is doubly dubious. (21) The fact that the narrator of Watt "both knows too little and too much" (Mooney 2006, 15) is underscored by the narrator's frequent admissions of ignorance ("But when out walking [Watt's knees] did not bend, for some obscure reason"), by replacing some words with question marks, and by the "Hiatus in MS" frustratingly left at the novel's end (W 30, 238). Holes in the narrative, like the "Hiatus" and the novel's restless lists, occur, exasperatingly, at moments of highest suspense. Furthermore, the end of the novel is followed by eight pages of "Addenda," introduced by the remark, "The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation" (247). In these and other ways, the novel works to undermine the traditional bond between reader and narrator, frustrating the processes by which readers make sense of a novelistic text.

In the face of such confusion, if one attempt to rationalize the meaning of the text is to reread it, Watt mocks such rationalism by enacting its own rereading. In part 3, the reader witnesses Sam's difficulty in translating Watt's inverted speech into recognizable English. As the section begins, Sam acknowledges that in reporting Watt's strange tale of life in Mr Knott's service, he must struggle with Watt's belabored manner of self-expression:

When Watt spoke, he spoke in a low and rapid voice.... Watt spoke also with scant regard for grammar, for syntax, for pronunciation, for enunciation, and very likely, if the truth were known, for spelling too, as these are generally received.... Watt spoke as one speaking to dictation, or reciting, parrot-like, a text, by long repetition become familiar. Of this impetuous murmur much fell in vain on my imperfect hearing and understanding, and much by the rushing wind was carried away. (W 156)

That Watt himself seems to be reciting from a text continues the motif of translation through which the novel is composed: Watt translating his experiences with Knott, Sam translating Watt's disordered story into Watt, and the reader translating Watt into novelistic sense. This translational imperative is explicitly featured when Watt, relating the time he spent in the direct presence of Mr Knott, begins to invert his speech. Sam relates:
   The following is an example of Watt's manner, at this period:

     Day of most, night of part, Knott with now. Now till up,
     little seen so oh, little heard so oh. Night till morning from.
     Heard I this, saw I this then what. Thing quiet, dim. Ears,
     eyes, failing now also. Hush in, mist in, moved I so.

   From this it will perhaps be suspected:

     that the inversion affected, not the order of the sentences,
   but that of the words only;

     that the inversion was imperfect;
     that ellipse was frequent;
     that euphony was a preoccupation;
     that spontaneity was perhaps not absent;
     that there was perhaps more than a reversal of discourse;
     that the thought was perhaps inverted....

   But soon I grew used to these sounds, and then I understood as
   well as before, that is to say a great part of what I heard. (165)

Like Sam, at this point the reader can understand a great part of what Watt says, by quickly reversing the words in the clauses. And as Watt's thought becomes more garbled and his inversions become more complicated, the reader's skill improves along with Sam's. Phrases like Watt's "geb nodrap" for "beg pardon" soon become as familiar as real words to the reader (167). But Watt's most complex inversions require increasingly complex reading skills. By the end of his story, Watt inverts
   the letters in the word together with that of the words in the
   sentence together with that of the sentences in the period.

       For example:

       Dis yb dis, nem owt.Yad la, tinfo trap. Skin, skin, skin. Od su
   did ned taw? On. Taw ot klat tonk? On. Tonk ot klat taw? On. Tonk ta
   kool taw? On. Taw ta kool tonk? Nilb, mun, mud. Tin fo trap, yad
   la. Nem owt, dis yb dis. (168)

Most readers (if the present author's experience is an indication) will find themselves either fighting the impulse to skip the text as unreadable, or making provisional translations in the margin. For example, my rendering of the above passage reads: "Side by side, two men. All day, part of night. Dumb, numb, blind. Knott look at Watt? No. Watt look at Knott? No. Watt talk to Knott? No. Knott talk to Watt? No. What then did us do? Niks, niks, niks. Part of night, all day. Two men, side by side." Taking into account Watt's known "scant regard" for grammar, syntax, pronunciation, and spelling, adapting these passages into English requires actual translation rather than mere transliteration. The novel itself--prophetically, perhaps, as this was Beckett's last novel not written in French--is a work in translation.

Just as every act of translation must in some essential way represent a failure, the processes of reading described in Watt fail. The failures of the protagonist and the narrator to read the world are rooted in the twin fallacies of believing both that the world makes rational sense and that language is capable of expressing that sense. In this, Beckett's novel functions as a critique of Ireland's claim of neutrality and "neutral language" as based on the fallacious premise that the political world--and its "rules" of war--is rationally governed and that language can neutrally or transparently express that world. "Sabotaging] language in a deliberately antirational way," as Benjamin Keatinge observes, the novel demonstrates this fallacy by making "the rational faculties appear as their obverse--insanity" (2004,92).The result is what Hugh Kenner memorably calls Watt:"a raid of syntax upon chaos" (1973, 77).

Any information about Mr Knott a reader might glean through Watt's chaos of syntax is reached tendentiously, and third-hand. For, as the reader's failure to translate Sam's repeats Sam's failure to translate Watt's dialogue, so Watt fails at interpreting what he sees in Knott's house. By the time he replaces Erskine as the first-floor servant, Watt has tailed to acquire any of the knowledge one might associate with moving up a level in purgatory:
   Watt was now tired of the ground floor, the ground floor had
   tired Watt out.
   What had he learnt? Nothing.
   What did he know of Mr Knott? Nothing.
   Of his anxiety to improve, of his anxiety to understand, of his
   anxiety to get well, what remained? Nothing. (W 148)

By this point, Watt has read and reread the episode of the Galls in his mind, to no effect but vexation. He has presented "doubly erroneous" miscalculations of the Lynches' ages (104). He has been brought to tears by his inability to discern whether the painting in Erskine's room depicts "a circle and its centre in search of each other" or any of eight variations on this theme (129). But just as he cannot interpret the painting, Watt cannot interpret Mr Knott's world. He searches for the center of his experience, but it remains traumatically inaccessible.

The most painful manifestation of misreading in Watt is the novel's endless lists, many of which at their completion prove completely pointless. For example, readers are subjected to eight pages of Mr Watt's speculations about the arrangement for how "the dog" (nonresident at the estate) might be summoned to eat Mr Knott's leftovers, including a chart listing four possible "solutions" to the dog problem and thirty objections to them (97-98). But Knott's solution to the dog problem was set in place before Watt's arrival at the estate, rendering his elaborate calculations superfluous. Absurd and exhausting lists such as these make up the bulk of the novel's text, in which, as John Wall puts it, "language exists in a permanent state of deferral, the meaning of a proposition always only explicable by reference to a second opinion, and so on, to infinity" (2002, 547). (22) For Moynahan, this rhetoric of infinite deferral is essentially catechistical, a discourse in which "the question [is] 'What is it?' and the answer, invariably and relentlessly, is 'It is not that'" (1995, 246). (23)

The search for the "true name" for Knott's pot, or for the exact meaning of Erskine's painting, is forever inconclusive, to the point that words themselves begin to shed their meaning (W 82). Formally, the endless lists function to delay the narrative, frustrating any traditionally linear novelistic sense of development. Just as such lists might madden the reader, they have maddening consequences for Watt, whose inversions in part 3 manifest a lost grip on language. "In the end," Stephen Connor suggests of the lists' rhetorical effect, "such extreme consciousness of the shape and sound of language leads to the ... draining of meaning from the words, so that they do indeed become simply inert noises or shapes" (1988, 32). As meaning drains from words for Watt, Watt's words are drained of meaning for its reader. At the same time, the repetitiveness of Watt's syntax suggests that something in the nature of the truth they fail to witness is traumatic. With truth traumatically inaccessible, maddening repetition is all that's left.

Toward the end of his long monologue, Arsene says to Watt, "What we know partakes in no small measure 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" (W 62). In this remark, Arsene foreshadows the next forty years of Beckett's philosophy of writing, in which silence would become preferable to words, but words would still march across pages in the attempt to "fail better" (Beckett 1999, 8). But he also foreshadows what will happen to Watt, in the purgatory of Knott's house, as words increasingly become purged of their meaning. The more Watt thinks about the words he utters, the more they are doomed to fail him. Watt's encounter with the pot is a painfully funny example:

For Watt now found himself in the midst of things which, if they consented to be named, did so as it were with reluctance.... Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr Knott's pots, of one of Mr Knott's pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted.... For he could always hope, of a thing of which he had never known the name, that he would learn the name, some day, and so be tranquilized. (W 81-82)

Watt undergoes a process by which the "true names" of all things cease to exist. Their essence cannot be grasped in language in a world where language itself has become skeptical. For Watt, this shattering of

the imagined bond between signified and signifier is as painful as it is confusing:
   And Watt's need of semantic succour was at times so great that
   he would set to trying names on things, and on himself, almost
   as a woman hats.... As for himself, though he could no longer
   call it a man, as he had used to do, with the intuition that he was
   perhaps not talking nonsense, yet he could not imagine what else
   to call it, if not a man.... So he continued to think of himself as
   a man.... But for all the relief that this afforded him, he might
   just as well have thought of himself as a box, or an urn. (83)

If the premise of the narrative is that Watt tells his story to Sam, then his story is the narrative enactment of his linguistic breakdown in the face of his attempt to find "semantic succour" in explaining himself to another. But testimony, by its nature, is always censored, always doubtful, and Watt's traumatic experiences even led him to doubt his own humanity. (24) His predicament echoes Mr Fiackett's wonderment, early in the novel, that Watt is a man, rather than a roll of carpet, or a "tarpaulin, wrapped up in dark paper and tied about the middle with a cord" (16), so that Watt's humanity is in doubt from the first time the reader "sees" him, and perhaps has already been diminished by hard living before his service at Knott's. Watt's ontological problem thus encodes trauma (he could be a man-or the remains of one: a box, an urn) just as it hints at the semantic problems to which such trauma gives rise. It is, of course, equally possible that the words "box," "urn," "carpet," "tarpaulin" could describe Watt as well as "man," man being as arbitrary a signifier as any. But without the trust that words and their meanings are connected, "Watt's world," Sam explains, becomes "unspeakable" (85).

"Unspeakable" is, of course, an adjective regularly associated with attempts to describe war, particularly the mass atrocities of World War II. Today, the Holocaust, the Katyn Massacre, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still "unspeakable" events, in the sense that just as no one can witness one's own death, no words can be commensurate with what occurred. In neutral Ireland, these events were also "unspeakable" in another sense, censored out of news reports. In Watt's case, the quest for "effable" knowledge is "doomed to fail," and the closer he gets to Knott, the less he can know or meaningfully speak, as his progressive inversions in part 3 indicate ([1953] 2011, 62).

The trauma of the unknowable Mr Knott parallels the traumatic nature of Irish neutrality in World War II. While those in Ireland suffered terribly from shortages in food, fuel, and income, they suffered too from an absence of information about the war outside, from which state censorship mandated they remain detached. The fact that Ireland's Emergency legislation was constitutionally dependent on the vicissitudes of the war it was designed to avoid (a 1939 amendment to the Irish constitution redefined "time of war" to "include a time when there is taking place an armed conflict in which the State is not a participant" [Republic of Ireland 1939]) meant that Ireland's state of Emergency was not really its own.

In heightening Watts's (and the reader's) discomfort in moments of violence or suspense, Watt enacts the uncomfortable waiting that Beckett experienced during the Second World War, but it insistently enacts the Irish Emergency, too. Theorizing history as trauma, Caruth writes, "For history to be a history of trauma means that it is referential precisely to the extent that it is not fully perceived as it occurs; or to put it somewhat differently, that a history can be grasped only in the very inaccessibility of its occurrence" (1996, 18).This is the problem both for Watt's testimony about Mr Knott's house and for the Irish experience of World War II as something immense, immediate, but inaccessible. Watt is a decidedly referential novel in Caruth's sense, then: a purgatorial story set in a purgatorial place, it references Watt's failure to grasp his own history.

At the same time, as a site of purgatorial failure, Watt's Irish purgatory is a privileged site for linguistic experiment, where language proves as protean as Mr Knott's appearance. The text plays diabolical tricks with language, just as Knott does with his appearance. In shattering the novel form (and perhaps its readers' nerves), Watt shatters the conventions of language use, leaving a "mirthless" laughter in its wake-what Arsene calls "the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs-silence please-at that which is unhappy" (W 48). Repeating "laugh" to the point of meaninglessness, Arsene sounds the loud, repetitive tic of the witness who, unable to express his trauma in words, laughs at the black joke that suffering through war, or suffering through wartime neutrality, has a promise of recompense. There is no room for neutral language in Watt, no room for neutrality, and, like Dante's neutrals, we are left chasing the whirling banners of Watt's words, a kitten that cannot catch its tail. Just as, for Caruth, "the traumatic nature of history means that events are only historical to the extent that they implicate others" (1996, 18), Watt suggests that no one is exempt from the trauma of history. But to hear that suggestion, we must disobey Virgil. We must speak of the neutrals to understand what Watt is failing to say.

DOI 10.1215/0041462X-3654191

Anna Teekell is assistant professor of English at Christopher Newport University and treasurer of the American Conference for Irish Studies. She has published essays in New Hibernia Review and Crosscurrents in Irish and Scottish Studies. Her first book, Emergency Writing: Irish Literature and the Second World War, is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in the series "Cultural Expressions of World War II: Interwar Preludes, Responses, Memory."


For their insight and help with this essay, I'd like to thank Katie Muth, Marshall Brown, Dillon Johnston, Guinn Batten, Natalie Spar, and the editors and anonymous reviewers for Twentieth-Century Literature. For research assistance, I thank the Washington University Special Collections Department (which houses the manuscript of Watt), Janice McDonnell at Lincoln Memorial University's Carnegie-Vincent Library, Andrew Frayn, and Tarah Demant. A version of this essay was first presented as a conference paper at the American Conference for Irish Studies in 2012.


(1.) "Echo's Bones" finds Beckett's Dantean protagonist Belacqua "bent double" on a fence, in mimicry of the indolent lute-maker in Dante's ante-purgatory, after whom he is named. Like his namesake, Beckett's Belacqua exhibits no effort to move from his position, happy to sit on the fence rather than decide what to do with his afterlife.

(2.) Watt will be cited as W.

(3.) In his introduction to the 2009 Faber reissue of Watt, editor Chris Ackerley notes several places where he intentionally retained obvious textual errors, illustrating "the extent to which error in Watt is deeply rooted" (2009, xvii). As Ackerley notes of the famous "mess" of Watt's text, "if no distinction can be drawn between deliberate and inadvertent error then all interpretation is fraught" (viii). Acknowledging the text's insistence on its own errors, I have chosen to cite from the original 1953 Grove edition (Ackerley's parent text) in this essay.

(4.) Surprisingly little has been published on Beckett and trauma, though David Houston Jones remarks that Beckett is so frequently alluded to in trauma studies that "Beckett's work has become, or is becoming, a cipher for unspeakability within the field of Holocaust Studies itself" (2011,3). Jones writes that, "for all that Beckett's work contains muted echoes of atrocity, and its key period of composition is the aftermath of the Second World War, it is impossible to recover identifiable historical references" (2).This is true enough for Beckett's postwar work, but Watt is notably both a traumatic text and a text with identifiable historical references. Because there is often a critical split between early and postwar Beckett, Watt's key position has been ignored. Boulter's 2004 essay "Does Mourning Require a Subject? Samuel Beckett's Texts for Nothing" is one of the first explorations of trauma in Beckett, and trauma studies is mentioned in Mark Byron's Samuel Beckett's Endgame (2007), as well as in Katherine Weiss's The Plays of Samuel Beckett, with reference to Happy Days (2013, 40-43), while Jones's Samuel Beckett and Testimony (2011) draws on trauma to offer a reading of the late fiction.

(5.) Key purgatorial texts of the Emergency include W. B. Yeats's play Purgatory (1939), Denis Devlin's "Lough Derg" (1942), and Patrick Kavanagh's long poems The Great Hunger (1942) and "Lough Derg" (written in 1942, published posthumously), along with the prosopoetic anti-novels TheThird Policeman by Flann O'Brien (written 1939, published posthumously) and the Irish-language Cre na Cille by Mairtin O Cadhain (1949). For more on the "purgatorial" gloom of the Emergency, see Wills 2007 and Lee 1989.

(6.) Tyrus Miller privileges Watt in his book Late Modernism (1999) and borrows from it the term "mirthless laughter" to describe the disruptive black comedy characteristic of late-modernist fiction (W 48). Millers framing of late modernism as a unique body of literature written between the periods we call modernism and postmodernism helps to place Beckett s wartime novel in perspective, both literarily and historically. For if, according to Miller, late-modernist texts "bear the marks of an author without determinate social, moral, political, and even narrative location," they are also conscious products of the meeting between their "historical circumstances" and modernist poetics (1999, 63).

(7.) Michael Robinsons reminder in "From Purgatory to Inferno: Beckett and Dante Revisited" is salutary here: "Since they are taken from both the Inferno and the Purgatorio, the multiplicity of references to the Divina commedia [in Beckett] frequently provokes a desire to identify individual works with one realm or the other. And yet, if only because references to both realms may coexist in a single work, no direct and consistent parallel can be maintained" (1979, 1-2). Attempting to align any of Beckett's allusive texts with a particular moment from Dante, or to claim he is rewriting Dante, is reductive.

(8.) See O Drisceoil 1996 for the Irish government's conceptualization of "neutral language," and Aiken n.d.

(9.) Beckett's resistance code name was the astonishingly uncreative "Sam Irlandais,""Irish Sam."

(10.) See Orwell (1946) 2008 and Adorno 1973 for foundational articulations of this problem. More recently, in The Great War and the Language of Modernism (2003), Vincent Sherry demonstrates how the "high" modernism of the twenties is a response to the breakdown of the liberal political rhetoric used to justify the First World War. Extending similar critiques to the midcentury, the new modernist studies has taken war's alteration of language as axiomatic. See, in particular, MacKay 2007 and Rawlinson 2000.

(11.) The Galls' name puns on "Gaels," reminding the reader that the entrance of outsiders into the closed world of the Anglo-Irish big house often did, in fact, prove to be the house's "doom." The name is shared by Haemo Gall, the big-house owner in "Echo's Bones," whose impotence dooms his bloodline.

(12.) For more on what events were censored, see O Drisceoil 1996.The recently opened Frank Aiken Papers at University College Dublin Archives (Aiken n.d.) contain complete lists of known and censored events.

(13.) Multiple critics have noted the resemblance of Mr Knott's establishment to the Beckett family home, Cooldrinagh. See, in particular, Moynahan 1995, 224-52.

(14.) The Oxford English Dictionary defines "purgatory" first as "a condition or place of spiritual cleansing and purification"; the Roman Catholic connotation follows. It is worth noting that the OED's definition lb. is St. Patrick's Purgatory at Lough Derg in Ireland. Definition 2 is figurative: "A place or state having the characteristics ascribed to purgatory; a place of temporary suffering or expiation." In this essay I invoke purgatory in both its religious and more figurative senses, and while the Catholic Purgatory surely underlies any Irish-imagined purgatory, the Anglo-Irish Beckett was not working with a specifically religious definition.

(15.) In Britain, too, the war was often depicted as purgatory. Sebastian Knowles explains that "the paralyzed waiting suffered throughout Britain during the war pervades its literature [and finds] its most common literary expression in the metaphor of purgatory," but he adds that "the Second World War is always both hell and purgatory" (1990, 16, 20).

(16.) The literature on Lough Derg is prodigious; see recent studies by Peggy O'Brien (2006) and Terence Dewsnap (2008). See also note 3.

(17.) In a 1937 article in Ireland Today, Michael Tierney summarized what would become the prominent rationale for the Free State's isolationism and neutrality: "We must be implicated, as far as in us lies, in no more wars to end wars or wars for democracy or for any of the other high-sounding ideals in which war-propaganda is so fruitful. Our course, above all in war-time, must be one of 'sacred egoism'" (1937, 14). While "sacred egoism," a phrase long connected with Sinn Fein, became a byword for neutrality, it's exactly what Dante saw the neutrals as being punished for.

(18.) As head of the Fianna Fail party, Eamon de Valera spearheaded the drafting of the 1937 Constitution and of the Emergency Powers Act of 1939, which established Ireland's wartime neutrality as a state of emergency and effectively allowed de Valera to legislate by decree until 1946. The Emergency Powers Act of 1939 provided for censorship of any means of communication, printed or aired, as well as postal and telegraph communication. Political expediencies aside, the professed goal of this censorship was to uphold neutrality through the exclusive use of "neutral language."

(19.) Beckett's 1935 essay "Censorship in the Saorstat" excoriated the government's policy as "sterilization of the mind," and called the Register of Prohibited Publications an "advertisement of those books and periodicals in which ... inheres the a priori excellence that they have annoyed the specialist in common sense" (1983, 86)."My own registered number," he notes with a swagger, "is 465" (88). In a January 1940 letter to Joyce, Beckett enclosed--by request--the latest censored list. Enhanced by the Emergency Powers Act of 1939, the wartime censorship managed to squash political dissent while enforcing a Catholic, nationalist aesthetic autonomy favored by Fianna Fail. Beckett mercilessly mocks such Gaelic pieties in Watt's tale of the "Gaelic" savant, Nackybal.

(20.) Because Watt explains this while speaking backward, he is technically left "Nilb, mun, mud" (W 168).

(21.) As Jones reminds readers, "Testimony is doubly belated: not only is the listener receiving a post-hoc account, that account originates in an experience from which the witness is effectively absent" (2011, 6).

(22.) Even Sam tires of narrating these lists from time to time, as when he interjects, "(tired of underlining this cursed preposition)," after a long list of "because of's" (W 134).

(23.) If Watt is the question "what?" Knott is both the knot of the problem and the frustrating "not" of the answer.

(24.) See Jones 2011 and Boulter 2008 for more on Beckett and the critical category of the inhuman.

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Title Annotation:Samuel Beckett
Author:Teekell, Anna
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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