Samuel Beckett – Watt (1953)

In section 1, Watt replaces Arsene as a servant in Mr. Knott’s house. Arsene give a huge farewell speech that describes his time while in the employment of Mr. Knott. Along with Erskine, who covers the first floor duties, Knott begins working for Mr. Knott  (though, working on the ground floor, he never sees him), preparing a big pot of highly mediated food (87),maintaining the charitable relationship to the famished dog (including keeping other famished dogs in a Kennel),  etc. Most of the text focuses on the paradoxes of knowing–insignificant events trigger arbitrarily terminated series of repetition, such as the 12 ways Watt attempts explain Knott’s alimentary contentment.  “But in the first week Watt’s words had not yet begun to fail him, or Watt’s world to become unspeakable” (85). This looks forward to the next two chapters, but not before an extended description of the Lynch family, which maintains the kennel. They are one of the many impoverished families all around, all of them dysfunctional in some way (the twin sons are Con and Art). Later on, Murphy mysteriously breaks into Erskine’s room, where he finds  a broken bell and a painting. Watt eventually runs in Knott but they simply look at a worm in the ground for a while. The third chapter switches to a different narrator (Sam). Here we hear some of Watt’s tortured locutions: “Of nought. To the source. To the teacher. To the temple. To him I brought. This emptied heart. These emptied hands. This mind ignoring”, etc. We also get series of iterations spiraling out of control…as if the narrative has become subjected to mathematical functions intent on churning out every possible variation. Exhaustion begins to pervade the text. Chapter 4 recounts Watt’s journey to Mr. Knott’s house, thus screwing up the temporality of the novel. He watches a sunset. The final addenda includes scraps that were supposedly meant to be a part of the story, ending, famously, with “No symbols where none intended.”


In contrast to the many novels and poems that have their reference to grounding historical events, psychological trauma, and other transcendental signifiers, Watt seems to reverse this by giving us too much. Rather than sparseness of image, richness of symbol (however fractured), Beckett trivializes the idea of referentiality all together by taking the Signifier and twisting and contorting it until it longer functions. [Interesting in terms of the contrast between Freud and Lacan…the latter taking the Signified as that which produces something like the It…] The final line, “No symbols where none intended” takes on a certain ethical force; could be read as “No violence where none intended.” Thus the “over-production” of prepositions, participles, conjunctive combinations, etc subverts what would normally be thought of as literature’s productive, metaphoric function: the symbol.

A caged beast born of cages beasts born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born in a cage and dead in a cage, born and then dead, born in a cage and then dead in a cage, in a word like a beast.

Such a formulation displays what it takes to make a simile work–and by showing this, the simile both functions and dysfunctions. Carrying language’s “possibility” to absurd extremes dramatizes language’s self-closure.

Also interesting is the epistemological limits set by the modes of transmission: Arsene tells Watt, Watt will someone else, and all of this will be relayed to this by way of Sam (the name of the author should not be missed, since Sam is always making excuses for his incomplete and imperfect portrayal of Watt):

And so always, when the impossibility of my knowing, of Watt’s having known, what i know, what Watt knew, seems absolute, and insurmountable, and undeniable, and uncoercible, and it should be know that I know, because Watt told me, and that Watt knew, because some told him, or because he found out for himself. For I know nothing, in this connexion, but what Watt told me. And Watt knew nothing, on this subject, but he was told, ot found for himself, in one way or another. (128)

In other words, when all the secrets out, the function of the secret is shown to be arbitrary, constructed, fabricated, unreal. The secret has secreted, taken on a form, and dissipated (cf. Deleuze, Henry James).



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