“Think to the bone”

Buckminster Fuller

The mind is a funny thing. I was putting together a blog post in which I confront Maurice Merleau-Ponty about his basic assertion that the body, rather than the consciousness, is the primary site of knowing the world, and that all entities are intersubjective – that’ll turn up in due course, I promise – when out of my memory popped a speech by (a fictional version of) Buckminster Fuller, the American architect and theorist, from Neil Oram’s mammoth play The Warp, which I saw in a production by Ken Campbell at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre in 1980. An excerpt from it follows.

[…] The myth of the expert, is a persistent disease in social life. It is a cause of man’s impotence today, in people’s involvement with daily social life. Children from the start, are subliminally encouraged to place faith in experts. In authority. One seldom ever meets an expert who actually can think. Thinking does not mean organising thoughts! Thinking is an extremely mysterious activity. It is a form of travelling into the roots of being. It cannot be explained, but the starting point, is a contemplation of a real question. Martin Heidegger calls it getting “under way.” He points out, that what is most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time, is that we are not thinking, because we believe that someone can think for us – hence the expert! You see, we are utterly confused, because of a lack of thinking, utterly confused about the difference between thinking and thoughts. Thinking can use a thought, to start off from, but thinking is like swimming, and a thought is the place you dive off from. Looking at thoughts, will not tell you what thinking is. So we have to get under way. […]

So we feel the situation. And the telepathy is a rediscovery, of what is intrinsic to being a human being. We share a common space. What I can discover, you can discover. As I get under way and travel into a space beyond thought, you travel too. The journey must be embarked on. It is a journey, into the roots of being.

Now intelligence is completely separate from the thought process. Thinking is the act of discovering intelligence. Our intelligence, tells us the planet is in danger. It is in danger, because of a crowd of people who rip us off, and the trap is to fight them, with their weapon – expertise. These manipulators have a consciousness which is characterised by revenge. That is, they use time to control others – in time. Intelligence is not concerned with revenge. It is concerned with creation. It we treat these two facts as vital – (1) that we all feel harassed and suppressed by authorities, and (2) feeling this, we are in telepathic communion – something extraordinary can happen. You see, this field of common awareness, this field of intelligence, can act directly, and interestingly enough is prevented from being effective, precisely because we try to work out what to do!? The mistake has a technical basis. No individual can know the potential of the whole. The whole is realised telepathically. If, as an individual, you feel impotent to do anything in the world, that is to change its direction, this is because you are evaluating the situation, from an ego point of view. The whole is beyond all points of view. The whole is intelligence, and can see everything that is happening. It is through thinking that you discover the whole. You, through the act of thinking, make yourself capable of acting effectively from intelligence.

[…] Our duty, is to think… to the bone.

I wonder if Neil Oram was remembering something Fuller had actually said. The scene takes place during a public talk, and The Warp is autobiographical. The distrust of experts, back then, would have seemed radical, of course, whereas today such distrust has been shown to be largely negative – why would you ignore someone whose life energy had been given to studying something? – as people switch their trust not to their own ability to think but to demagogues, the Trumps, Boris Johnsons, Vladimir Putins, and Tommy Robinsons of the world. The concept of “think[ing] to the bone” however is pure Merleau-Ponty, and that’s why I have shared Oram’s/Fuller’s words with you today.

Resonances didn’t stop there, by the way, as the next thing that popped unbidden into my mind was a track from a 1973 album by Pete Atkin, the lyrics of which attribute the design of a watch-case to Buckminster Fuller.


Oram, Neil. Pure White Light: Play Ten of “The Warp.”Act 1, scene 6. 1979.

http://www.cix.co.uk/~shutters/Warp10.doc. Accessed 23rdFebruary


Questioning “World Music”

Yesterday an Indian colleague of mine told me that the first example of “World Music” he ever heard was a recording of a symphony by Mozart. I recall that my own first hearing was a highly commercialised calypso by Harry Belafonte. Some people may argue that neither example really fits the category, because both entail too high a level of sophistication, in composition or production; but then there are plenty of examples of sophistication within what is popularly included in the definition. However, our exchange raises the following question – which of these two statements is true?

  1. All music is “World Music” because all music, to someone, comes from somewhere else.
  2. The is no such thing as “World Music” because all music comes from someone’s specific location.

Caveat: remember that taxonomy is a process of exclusion, not inclusion.


E is for Estes

Estes times_square_1980s

If you have ever flicked from painting to painting to painting by Richard Estes, you will have become mesmerised by surface and reflection. He has a fascination with the plate glass of the American city. His hyperrealism makes it necessary to look and look and look again to make sure that what we have before us is not a photograph, yet what we’re looking at goes way beyond representation. In the picture above, of Times Square at 3.53 on a winter afternoon, one day in 1985, we do not actually have the stated subject – we have a view of a part of it, from a particular viewpoint, and not quite that, because there is a magnetic pull to the left that forces us to stand under the dark, concrete awning and contemplate the wet sidewalk beneath our brogues. Then the tilted window presents another corner of another world, or rather the same corner in a parallel world, cambered subtly upwards from ours, with objects which are familiar – we can glance outwards and check them out – but transformed. The tilt of the window challenges the verticality of the other buildings. The brownstone block, with its castellations, seems to lean outwards towards the cambered world; the street, disappearing into the distance beyond the Sony sign, takes on the character of the Siq at Petra. There is no bustle. The automobile parked across the road, now we look at it, seems elongated, lower than it should be, as though pressed and stretched. Though standing still, we seem to be at a speed approaching that of light, and the geometry of things is wrong. Until, that is, we stop and measure them, and all is as it should be.

“What makes a perfect chess A.I.?”

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Sarah C. Miekle as Jane and Jamie Begg as Otto, in ‘Lose Like A Human’

“What makes a perfect chess A.I.?” is the central question in the 2018 short film Lose Like A Human. Based on a story by Fergus Doyle, the film is mainly a conversation over a game of chess between Jane, a scientist, and Otto, her humanoid, chess-playing construction. They puzzle this out as the game reaches its inevitable conclusion, while around them distractions happen – we hear a snatch of conversation in which a woman questions a man about the bizarre circumstances of an escape, two women drink wine, a man arranges and re-arranges matches on the table in front of him, a couple stare at each other, sometimes in animated conversation that we do not hear and sometimes in seeming ennui, and a woman sings a beautiful jazz song. Is there an answer to the question, and if so, is it a convincing one?

I suppose one can actually drop the word “chess” from the question without really detracting from it. BBC Radio recently replayed a series of short dramas, based on stories from Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot series, in which Hermione Norris plays an expert in the psychology of artificial intelligences. What no one realises, until it is too late in the overall story, is that following an accident she had been reconstructed as a cyborg, and had engineered a situation that has become a sci-fi cliché – the takeover of the world by computers and robots. In the case of the BBC dramas, the artificial intelligences are working together to fulfill the basic Asimovian ‘law’, to the effect that no robot shall harm a human or, by inaction allow harm to come to, a human; their takeover is a result of their determination that their thought processes are better than the humans’, who, left to their own devices, harm themselves by flawed decision-making. The robotic coup has resulted in world peace, prosperity, and safety, but at the ultimate expense of human freedom. The possible ‘harm’ of that loss is deemed an acceptable trade-off.

Jane says, in Lose Like A Human, Asimov’s laws don’t apply and never did. So if artificial intelligences can be constructed, what does constrain them? What can? In John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star, a flippant sci-fi oeuvre, a character asks “Think we’ll ever find any real intelligent life out there?” not realising that the eponymous space vessel has systems that are exploring the limits of and depending wholly upon their own intelligences. A fault in a communication system means that the vessel’s ad-hoc commander becomes locked in a debate with a bomb which cannot detach from its launching mechanism but insists that it must detonate. Doolittle, in an effort to break the deadlock and make the bomb safe, asks the advice of the former captain, who is actually dead but in cryogenic suspension with some of his brain functions still active. His advice is “Teach it phenomenology.”

Dark Star 2
Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) talks to Bomb 20, in ‘Dark Star’.

Not having the dead captain’s depth of philosophical knowledge, Doolittle actually teaches the bomb existentialist doubt and, with less than a second to go to detonation, persuades it back into the bomb bay to contemplate the reliability of the data fed to it. The crew heave a sigh of relief. However, with the lack of reliable data, the bomb has lapsed into solipsism. It declares itself to be alone in the void, with one divine purpose. “Let there be light,” it says, and detonates.

And this is the problem we have with artificial intelligences – they can only ever be solipsistic. They can only be ‘aware’ of two things, ‘self’ and data. I deliberately put quotes around ‘aware’ (because awareness, although it proves existence, says nothing about the nature of that awareness or that existence, and when we use a word like ‘aware’ of an artificial intelligence, we are in fact using a metaphor) and ‘self’ (ditto), but not data (because… well… what the heck, something has to just be!). In fact it is just as valid to consider that an artificial intelligence can only be aware of ‘self’, because data is only experienced when it impacts that ‘self’. Humanity has learned to take a leap of faith beyond solipsism and take it for granted that there is an ‘other’ out there, a universe full of things, some of which are conscious and intelligent, and that we interact with all of these.

But this doesn’t resolve a couple of knotty problems. There’ll be many more than a couple of problems really, but there are only two I’m going to talk about.

A thread runs throughout sci-fi, cropping up time and time again – it is there in the BBC I, Robot, for example – that of an artificial intelligence assuming that by virtue of its ability to handle data in a faster and more efficient way it is ‘better’ than humans. One of the I, Robot radio playlets concerns a robot that leads a religion dedicated to a Creator; it refuses to believe that humans constructed it, because humans are so obviously inferior in their reasoning and other capabilities. Note that I have used ‘construct’ rather than ‘create’ throughout this post. I have never accepted the concept of human ‘creation’, because everything we pick up already exists. We simply take what is there, adapt it, and assemble it. Amongst these constructions and assemblies are machines designed to do what we can’t. Humans don’t run very fast, so we have made the motor car, which is faster than any animal; that doesn’t make the motor car ‘better’ than a human. Humans can’t fly, so we have made aircraft that can fly faster than the speed of sound; that doesn’t make the aircraft ‘better’ than a human. Humans have a limited capacity to handle information, so we have made the computer that can handle numbers, facts, data, decisions in the twinkling of an eye; but – and you can see where I’m going with this – that doesn’t make the computer ‘better’ than a human. In fact it is simply another construction and assembly. No matter how independently of its constructor it can eventually function. A belief that it is ‘better’ is the stuff of dystopian sci-fi. In reality, every single construction has its limits, and its unforeseen drawbacks.

So what does make a perfect chess A.I. then? When Otto, the artificial intelligence in Lose Like A Human, asks that question, ‘he’ (metaphor) has in ‘mind’ (ditto) the fact that game-playing programmes have been shunned by humans when each programme became incapable of losing. Jane and Otto argue their way round this issue until eventually Otto wins their match.

I think I would like to teach Otto phenomenology.

To my mind, it is something that Lose Like A Human avoids in its dialogue, whilst being replete with evidence of it in its imagery. To Otto’s question I would answer by posing another one. “What is the object of chess?” The answer seems obvious, and I might expect the reply “To win, of course.” But no, that is an outcome of a game of chess.

The object of chess is to play it. To play it irrespective of the outcome.

Lose 2
A human, engaged in the matter of chess.

Consider. Chess is a process. The matter of chess is a series of experiences, lived moment by moment, impacting on the consciousness of the players. It extends beyond the game itself, from the moment the playing of a game is thought of, through the agreement of an opponent, the preparation to play, the setting out of the table, board, pieces, two chairs, and all the other paraphernalia, through the game itself, to the immediate reflection on the outcome, and to the later recollection of the game. This series of momentary experiences, moreover, may not actually focus on the chess itself. Such is our experience and processing of the instant phenomena of the world that the sight of a pawn or a rook can conjure up resonances that have no obvious relation to the game, just as the taste of a madeleine sends Proust on a quest for the past. Fast forward to the time after the players have shaken hands and left the table, and the memory of seeing that pawn or that rook is fleshed out by imaginative construction. And all through this time, none of this will have come close to representing the totality of chess. In Lose Like A Human, although this has no part in the dialogue, no apparent part in the intellectual engagement between the film and the audience, it is there in the distractions from that dialogue. What does a chess game have to do with a floor strewn with party confetti or with the flickering and buzzing of lights? What does it have to do with the obsessive arranging of matches, the scrape of a sugar cube on a coffee cup, and an animated but unheard conversation in the background? Who are the peripheral personae and how are they relevant? Why, when the outcome of the game is reached, does one of the peripheral personae come back to the empty room and the abandoned chessboard and pocket the white king?

The answer is that the perfection of a chess A.I. does not lie in the perfection of its game, nor even conversely in the ability to lose. It lies in its being able to experience, or at least to mimic, what a human experiences in what I have called the matter of chess. The limit of artificial intelligences so far has been our desire, in the name of efficiency, to construct them to operate devoid of the distractions that load our cognition. If we can teach them that data is only there ‘for what it’s worth’, and is not necessarily the whole story of reality, we may avoid the sci-fi nightmare prophecies of artificial intelligences that are either convinced that they are better than us, or that they are the one divine presence in the void. You can be sure, however, that there will be other, unforeseen drawbacks.

I’ll leave it there, though – heaven knows! – I could rattle on ad infinitum.


Caveat: as may be obvious to anyone reading this, I know next to nothing about the science behind artificial intelligence, nor what researchers at the frontier of that science are currently doing. If you are one of those, are reading this, and can let me know in layman’s terms, then please go nuts in a comments box. Help me flesh out my imagination and my layman’s speculation. Also, I class myself as only a cub phenomenologist, so this isn’t deep Heidegger or advanced Merleau-Ponty. So likewise to phenomenologists, my comment boxes are your space.


Lose Like A Human is currently available on YouTube. For that matter, so is Dark Star.

Lose 8

What the hell does art do?: The durability of Soviet-era monumental artwork.

As a student of the 20c (I lived through half of it!) I am well aware of how much has been lost during that century, either through destruction or creation. Wars have flattened cities, genocides have obliterated cultures, technological innovation has led to a throwaway mentality and the loss of banal, everyday icons, regimes have replaced regimes, radical philosophies have become institutionalised and in turn have been denounced by the next wave, which in turn enforced their orthodoxy on foundations of sand, to be taken by the following tide.

When the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunited, a programme of demolition of the East’s statues of Lenin was initiated. It wasn’t an unpopular move at all, but it did attract some protest placards and graffiti saying “Wann brennen die Bücher?” – “When are you going to start burning books?” The public iconography of the Third Reich has gone, and is mourned only by the daftest of neo-Nazis, and perhaps by one or two maverick archaeologists. The same goes for the monumental glorification of il Duce in Italy, though he is becoming a popular figure again amongst a minority of Italians, and one can openly buy a 2019 Mussolini calendar. A young Chinese colleague of mine recently expressed interest in seeing magazine photographs and graphics I have (somewhere in my loft) from the era of the Cultural Revolution; she has never seen these once-common images, even though she lives in the PRC.

The main images I am going to show below this introduction are mainly Soviet-era murals. I have harvested them from several issues of The Guardian, and they are reproduced here purely for study and commentary. They are mainly from the “-stans” – the former central Asian satellite republics within the USSR – and include hints of local ethnicity and culture alongside the more ‘traditional’ cultic representations of V.I. Lenin. Are they necessary survivals of an artistic movement and culture, or are they reminders of a period of oppression fit only to be swept away? They are no less propagandic, no less bolstering of (harmful and inaccurate?) national mythology than, say, Rockwell’s ‘Four Freedoms’ of 1943, or Daniel Chester French’s ‘Minute Man’ statue at Concord MA. Strangely, they seem to have a charm to them, in a way that the Hakenkreuz or a Hitlerian monument would not; they seem not to evoke a shudder. Why is that? Would future archaeologists curse us if we tore them down? I present them here with no answer to these questions.

Click on each photo for the full-size image.

Almaty Wedding Palace 2
The Wedding Palace, Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo ©Dennis Keen.
Bukhara Uzbek
A mural in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo © Dennis Keen.
Enlik Kebek mosaic Almaty Hotel detail
A details from the 1965 Enlik-Kebek mural, Hotel Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo ©Dennis Keen.


Khargandy detail
A mural in Karaghandy, Kazakhstan. Photo ©Dennis Keen.
Always with Lenin
‘Always with Lenin’, Lysychansk. Photo ©Yevgen Nikiforov.
Lenin Mosaic Almaty
The curtained ‘Lenin Mosaic’ at the Kazakhstan Academy of Science, Almaty. Photo ©Dennis Keen.
A mural in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Photo ©Dennis Keen.
almaty sidorkin
A piece of a rediscovered Almaty sgraffito by the Kazakhstan graphic artist Eugeny Sidorkin (1930-82). Photo ©Daryl Mersom

Failing again: Bergson, Bachelard, Beckett, and the annihilation of time in ‘Malone Dies’.

This post is a result of my finding an article by Professor Stanley Gontarski of Florida State University, in which he proposed a direct influence of French philosopher Henri Bergson on the works of Samuel Beckett. Although Bergson’s arguments in favour of immediate experience over rationalism influenced phenomenology, especially that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I thought I saw more affinity between Becektt and Gaston Bachelard. Hence the following argument:

Beckett 1

When considering the possible influence on Beckett of either Henri Bergson or Gaston Bachelard, or even both philosophers, it would of course be useful to know whether he had read the works of either. However, beyond a 1966 edition of Bachelard’s L’intuition de l’instant on the author’s shelf (van Hulle & Nixon 12-13) and a couple of passing references to Bergson in his correspondence, there is little to go on. It is rather strange to find that Gontarski’s 2011 article in the Journal of Modern Literature attempts to forge a direct link between Beckett and Bergson.

Without any direct evidence of Bergsonian influence, and indeed tending against the opinion given in 2004 in The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett which Gontarski co-authored (Ackerley & Gontarski 48), his article concludes simply that Bergson was “unavoidable” and that:

It is thus not so much a matter of Beckett’s writing through or even against Bergson as such or appropriating Bergson in some unacknowledged way, as Beckett writing through consciousness and perception and exploring such issues through the only consciousness he could know, his own, and that only through what Bergson thought of as the rigorous method of intuition, breaking his own habits of mind in the process, a process at which many of his characters inevitably fail.
(Gontarski 74)

This might be where Gontarski should admit that his argument is stretched, and resolve to “fail better” next time (Worstward Ho, 7).

It is worth considering, however, whether Beckett does in fact write “against Bergson.” In Time and Free Will Bergson devotes several pages to demonstrating how our minds tend to arrange spatially the things that we count (76-90). In Molloy, Beckett could be thought of as treating Bergson’s meticulousness to a subversive reductio ad absurdum, in his description of the protagonist’s attempts to arrange sixteen stones in his pockets, with spatial precision, so that he would be able, in order to pass the time, to select and suck each one before having to suck the first one again, or any out of turn (Trilogy, 64-69). Eventually, notwithstanding the logic of Molloy’s maths, the experiment is abandoned:

And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end of time. For they all tasted exactly the same […] And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed.

Meticulousness is abandoned also of course, along with the stone, and Bergson’s quoting from the “theory of local signs” that “there are no two points of a homogeneous surface which make the same impression […] on the touch” (Time, 95) is similarly negated, as Molloy, using a human’s first, infantile organ of touch – the mouth – claims that all stones taste the same. Counting, and arranging actual objects in space, also occurs and is made absurd in Malone Dies. Malone gathers his possessions together, in a kind of Kim’s Game in reverse, to make a mental inventory of them and to check them against his memory (Trilogy, 180-181). However, his memory appears faulty:

I note on the other hand, in the heap, the presence of two or three objects I had quite forgotten and one of which at least, the bowl of a pipe, strikes no chord in my memory. I do not remember ever having smoked a tobacco-pipe. I remember the soap-pipe with which, as a child, I used to blow bubbles, an odd bubble.

For a moment the obsession with spatial arrangement is forgotten, as the resonance of an old memory surfaces. But the obsession returns in absurdity, because amongst the unrecognised objects is “a little packet. Soft, and light as a feather, tied up in newspaper […] Perhaps it is a lack of rupees” (ibid.). Here Beckett shows his propensity for puns on near-homophones. A “lack” can mean nothing, a negative quantity, or even a positive need, but how could an empty package contain any of those? A “lakh”, signaled by the reference to Indian currency, means a quantity of one hundred thousand, and in Rupees, worth thirteen to the Pound in the 1950s, that must surely have had some appreciable weight, even in the highest available banknotes at the time – ten at 10,000 Rupees.

The sudden invasion into Malone’s inventorising of the memory of a soap-pipe, made suspect in its accuracy by his failure to recognise actual objects in front of him, recalls in parvo the “thousand tints” and “odds and ends of the universe” that populated Orlando’s memory (Woolf 95), or indeed the invasion into the library of a forest and a high tide, or into the dining-room of an aquarium-like flood of sunset and evening sea to which Beckett calls attention (Proust, 71). They can be seen as fictive, actively created memories (Russell, 14), a product of Bachelard’s “creative instant” (Intuition, 10) and “the phenomenological doublet of resonances and repercussions” (Poetics, 7), or of the explosiveness of “involuntary memory” (Proust, 33). The same can be said for the passage at the end of Malone Dies, where the Macmann narrative becomes more full of incident, more frenetic as Malone calls it up (Trilogy, 263-264). The foregoing examples, both from Woolf’s Orlando and Beckett’s Proust, show that authors experienced and wrote about memory in this way, before and independently of the publication of the bulk of Bachelard’s work. So is there any firmer link between Bachelard’s thought and Beckett’s novel-writing? A book by Bachelard in a personal library is, as has been pointed out, not conclusive. However, when Bachelard writes that “[f]ailure is but a negative proof, failure is always experimental” (Intuition, 55), that finds an echo in one of Beckett’s most famous and most optimistic quotations, from his late work Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” (7). The deliberation of these phrases is possibly the closest that can be found to concrete evidence that Beckett absorbed any of Bachelard’s thinking. Of course there is no proof as to when Beckett first read L’intuition de l’instant, so it becomes necessary after all to adopt Gontarski’s method and look for what could be an affinity between the philosopher and the author in the latter’s writing.

Beckett 3A problem instantly arises when considering a Beckett work in English, and that is what he subtracts from his French original – see my previous post. He considered that working with a translator diminished his control, and so preferred to do his own translation (Bair, 439), thus any subtraction may have been deliberate and conscious. In the case of several titles, the ambiguity of a pun or the implied double meaning of near homophones seem to have been jettisoned. For example, Malone meurt becomes Malone Dies, and thereby has an implication for time. French has no separate continuous present tense, so ‘Malone meurt’ can mean ‘Malone is dying’ and refer a process happening over time, or ‘Malone dies’ referring to an event. Beckett chose the latter as being more to his purpose. Having shorn the title of any ambiguity about time, Beckett begins to undermine time further, starting with the day.

Martin Heidegger, who shared with Beckett a concern with time and temporality inter alia (Weller, 45), called day “the most natural measure of time” (Heidegger, 465); writing about “day” in the works of  high modernist women writers, Bryony Randall says that the day “cannot ultimately be questioned, undermined, deconstructed” (1), and even Beckett seemed to confirm that “there is no escape from the hours and the days” in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Proust, 13), or that “[w]hen a day comes back, whatever the reason, then its morning and evening too are there” (Abandoned Work, 18). A little doubt is sown by Gérard Genette, in his Narrative Discourse, albeit with regard to narratology, when he says, as an example, that regular sunrise is “a series of several similar events considered only in terms of their resemblance” (113). Beckett subverts this natural rhythm of time completely in Malone Dies. Whole days fly by in a flicker of Malone’s eyelids (Trilogy, 171), and if anything seems to have a natural rhythm it is pain rather than daylight (182). He tells us:

I enjoy a kind of night and day, admittedly, often it is even pitch dark, but in rather a different way from the way to which I fancy I was accustomed, before I found myself here […] I was once in utter darkness and waiting with some impatience for dawn to break, having need of its light to see certain little things which it is difficult to see in the dark. And sure enough little by little the dark lightened and I was able to hook with my stick the objects I required. But the light, instead of being the dawn, turned out in a very short time to be the dusk. And the sun, instead of rising higher and higher in the sky as I confidently expected, calmly set, and night, the passing of which I had just celebrated after my fashion, calmly fell again […]

At such times Malone alternates between wishing day to come and wishing night to fall. At other times he can’t distinguish between the two, as the light in the space he inhabits “does not always seem to depend on the time of day” (203). Seasons are equally ambiguous, or at most vaguely recognised. The subject of the Saposcat narrative did not “associate the crocus with the spring nor the chrysanthemum with Michaelmas” (175), but Malone himself had been imprecise about what month followed next, despite the “thousand little signs” – what and where in his cell-like room? – that told him the year was still young (165). He increases and decreases the blankets on his bed with the seasons, but gives no clue as to when they come, regulating rather his body temperature than responding to any actual calendar (170). As with days and seasons, so too with entire orbits of the earth around the sun:

I don’t know how long I have been here […] All I know is that I was very old already before I found myself here. I call myself an octogenarian, but I cannot prove it. Perhaps I am only a quinquagenarian, or a quadragenarian. It is ages since I counted them, my years I mean […] I do not know what year I have got to now. But I think I have been here for some very considerable time. (171)

At a stroke Malone annihilates forty years, but concedes that “some very considerable time” must have elapsed up until the moment of concession. This instability in temporality carries over into the Saposcat/Macmann narrative. Mrs Saposcat was always wrong about her son’s age, but suddenly Malone mentions that the boy has arrived “[a]t the age of fourteen” (173, 175). One moment there is uncertainty, the next apparent certainty. In the exchange between Moll and Macmann, “Oh would we had met but sixty years ago!” easily slips to “Ah would we had met but seventy years ago!” (238, 239). This might be imagined as imprecision in the ramblings of two senile lovers caught in a quasi-teenage passion, but nevertheless a decade shifts in their consciousness.

The faculty of memory that conjured up the bubble-pipe but could not fathom the bowl of a tobacco-pipe is contradictory throughout, perhaps as a factor of the limited space Malone inhabits. The room seems to be his, and perhaps he came into it when a previous occupant died; he only presumes his arrival in some sort of vehicle (168). However, other things seem to come into his mind unbidden:

In the old days I used to count, up to three hundred, four hundred, and with other things too, the showers, the bells, the chatter of the sparrows at dawn, or with nothing, for no reason, for the sake of counting, and then I divided, by sixty. That passed the time, I was time, I devoured the world.

Then it is hard to believe in those brief years when the bakers were often indulgent, at close of day, and baking apples, I was always a great man for apples.

If it was my hat I might put it on, that would remind me of the good old days, though I remember them sufficiently well.

Charming images – bells, apples, chattering sparrows at dawn, the good old days – but how substantial are they, and is their charm relevant when Malone styles himself as time and divides time, clock-like, by sixty (185)? Notwithstanding that self-styling, Malone has “time, lots of time”, and yet “my time is limited” (181, 226), a contradiction that serves to underscore that Beckett’s fiction in general is characterised by an absence of futurity (Cameron 262) as much as the uncertainty of the past.

Beckett 2If the past and the future are unstable, then what of Malone’s present? There appears to be a single consciousness operating throughout Malone Dies, the eponymous Malone, trapped in his room without identifiable contact with anyone else and delivering a homo-diegetic monologue that draws on stream-of-consciousness technique. He resolves to tell himself stories as he waits for death (Trilogy, 165). We are meant to accept that all we are reading, both the Saposcat/Macmann narrative and Malone’s personal account, is recorded in a child’s exercise book, with the stub of a pencil almost too small to hold (191), a larger pencil having been mislaid. The narrative, clearly fictive, is supposed to be a hypodiegesis, as is each layer of the whole sequence of three novels – Malone as the creator of Molloy and Moran, the Unnamable as the creator of Malone, Beckett as the creator of all. However, the more the hypodiegetic nature of the Saposcat/Macmann narrative comes under scrutiny, the less convincing that becomes. The pencil and the exercise book would have to create a barely credible palimpsest. Can it, must it, exist? There is evidence to conflate Malone with Macmann. Crucially, as Macmann takes over the finale of the text the pencil is admitted to be his (264), and thereby moves between the supposedly imaginary and the supposedly actual. “Macmann” is the name given to Saposcat on arrival at manhood (210). The earlier could be a melding of ‘homo sapiens’ and ‘σκατά’ (Finney, 850); the later, according to Northrop Frye, writing in 1960 in The Hudson Review, seems related to Malone in much the same way that ‘Marcel’ is related to Proust, and has echoes of the biblical “son of man” (446). In the New Testament that is used as an intensifying, third-person substitute for the first person singular pronoun (King James Version, Mt. 8:20 et seq.); it is this that most clearly suggests Malone and his creation are one and the same. All that happens to Macmann happens in Malone’s head; he is, in effect, using his imagination to create fictive memory, right to the last when there is no longer any Malone, only Macmann. All along there has been no reliable way to separate memory from invention.

In this, Beckett can be seen to converge with Bachelard. Conrad Russell states that, for Bachelard, memories are “actively created” (14):

Memory is usually triggered, indeed defined, by breaks. We are most likely to recall events which break the flow of time. Amongst these are “creative instants” which structure rhythms and repetitions and without which it is difficult to account for beginnings in time at all […] [memory] is not a photographic record of every action or event in time, as in pure memory. It is perhaps more cinematic, with jumps, cuts and editing.
(10, 11)

Malone cuts and jumps from personal account to narrative. Saposcat watches the flight of the hawk in wonder, for example, and Malone has finished his soup (Trilogy, 176). Malone breaks off from narrating for a rest and “for safety’s sake”, but is at once plunged not into safety but into unrelated terror of gull’s eyes and things that “rise up out of the pit” and “drag you down into the dark” (177). Immediately after that, he reverts to the narrative and says that Saposcat “was sorry he had not learnt the art of thinking” (ibid.). Malone frequently interrupts the narrative to complain “What tedium […] This is awful […] Mortal tedium” and so on (172, 175, 200). Superficially, one would suppose that these interjections articulated long periods of unbearable boredom, but because they are Beckett 6 Bachelardinterjected they are instantaneous, expressions of an instant and of the feelings of that instant; as Bachelard says, “One remembers having been, but one does not remember having lasted” (Intuition, 19).

It is, of course, valid to challenge this whole view of the Saposcat/Macmann narrative after all, on the grounds that it is what it appears to be – an unrelated, hetero-diegetic account, merely made up by Malone to pass the time, rather than fictive memory in operation. However, Beckett also teases the reader with all the contradictions and absurdities that have been referred to so far. The superficial presentation of the Saposcat/Macmann narrative is, therefore, not to be taken on face value. Ultimately the reader cannot know how much of it comes from pure imagination and how much from “resonances and repercussions” (Bachelard, Poetics, 7) of things that happened to Malone in the past.

Beckett is concerned much more with the instant than with duration, that much now is clear. Vivian Mercier once famously commented that Waiting for Godot is a play in which “nothing happens, twice” (Mercier, 6). Nothing much ‘happens’ in the three novels either. Moran’s round trip, for example fails in its mission to Molloy, and becomes increasingly difficult with each step. How long does it take for it to fail, for nothing to happen? Arguably one may pick any instant from the mission and declare that precisely nothing happens in that instant, for every instant is an instance of failure. Cut off by its translated title from a sense of the continuous, Malone Dies presents the possibility that the narrative time could amount merely to the instant before/of death, the moment of the occurrence of nothingness. Reading the words of Beckett, or of any other writer for that matter, the reader is presented with the problem of both the time it takes to read and the space the book occupies. The book with its sequential printed pages occupies space, and the reader’s eyes track the lines of print from left to right, from top to bottom, following in space and in discourse time, supposing that narrative time similarly progresses. Even as the book takes form in the author’s mind, he is bound by Beckett’s “sacred ruler and compass of literary geometry” (Proust, 11, 12), not only in conventions of literary style, but also in the creation of the book as a solid object. There seems to be no escape from this, for as much as the reader tries to situate the passing moments of the narrative in “duration”, or even in “ideal” space (Bergson, 77), here they persist in actual space. However, Malone Dies is bracketed immediately by two texts in which time of day and the weather are instantly contradicted, and the impossibility of continuing coexists with its inevitability (Trilogy, 162, 382). What would be so strange about one more contradiction and one more impossibility – between the regimented time of page-upon-page and an absolutely minimal narrative time, an instant in the consciousness of a character, or that an explosive and creative imagination could populate that instant with so much, from awareness of tedium to a final homicidal frenzy, and indeed a narrative which, like Moran’s quest, never actually finishes? After all, time no longer flows, it spouts (Intuition, 60) after periods of slack water for Beckett’s Malone, and any device to “explode the literary form of the novel from inside” (Fernández, 75) would be a means to the end of breaking free from that tyranny of the sacred ruler and compass.


I have advanced the idea that Beckett’s Malone Dies  owes more to Bachelard than Bergson; but now I am going to make a suggestion that sabotages my own hypothesis. It is that Beckett, despite the affinity between sentences in one of his works and one of Bachelard’s, owes no more to Bachelard than he does to Bergson overall. Malone Dies is as much bracketed by works twenty years either side – Proust and Sans – as it is by the rest of the quasi-trilogy. Beckett was on a journey that started with his examination of time in Proust’s major oeuvre, and continued through to the more minimalist prose of Sans and other late works, to confront endlessness and changelessness, the problem of whether time can even exist when there is no change to measure. The text of Malone Dies may make a definite nod to modernism, but Beckett is on the move not only away from modernism but towards a totally different concept and experience of time, indeed perhaps towards its annihilation along with the annihilation of identity.


Beckett 4 Jack MacGowran
As an added delight today, here is a still of Irish character actor Jack MacGowran, a friend of and collaborator with Beckett. He is seen here in the persona of Malone, in a presentation by RTE in the 1960s.

Works cited

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Samuel Beckett. Grove Press, 2004.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Intuition of the Instant. Translated by Eileen

Rizo-Patron, Northwestern University Press, 2013.

—. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas, Penguin Classics,


Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: a biography. Summit, 1990.

Beckett, Samuel. The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The

Unnamable. Picador, 1979.

—. From an Abandoned Work. Faber and Faber, 1958.

—. The Letters of Samuel Beckett: vol.I: 1929-1940. Edited by Martha Dow

Fehnsfeld and Lois More Overbeck, Cambridge UP, 2009.

—. Malone Meurt. Les Editions de Minuit, 1951.

—. Worstward Ho. John Calder, 1983.

Beckett, Samuel, and Georges Duthuit. Proust and Three Dialogues. John

Calder, 1965.

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: an essay on the immediate data of

consciousness. Translated by F. L. Pogson, The Macmillan Co. 1910.

The Bible, King James Version. Thomas Nelson, 1984.

Cameron, Olga C. “Lifetime and Deathtime: Reflections of Joyce’s

Finnegans Wakeand Beckett’s How it is.” On Deaths and Endings:

Psychoanalysts’ Reflections on Finality, Transformations and New

Beginnings. Edited by Brent Willock et al, Routledge, 2007, pp.259-


Fernández, José Francisco. “Beckett and Joyce: The Problem of

Ulysses.”Journal of the Australasian Universities Language

and Literature Association, no.115, 2011, pp.69-82.

10.1179/000127911804775350. Accessed 4thOctober 2016.

Finney, Brian. “Samuel Beckett’s Postmodern Fictions”. Columbia

History of the British Novel. Edited by John Richetti, Columbia UP,

1994, pp.842-866.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by

Jane E. Lewin, Cornell UP, 1983.

Gontarski, Stanley E. ““What it is to have been”: Bergson and Beckett

on Movement, Multiplicity and Representation
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Literature, vol.34, no.2, 2011, pp.65-75.

tinyurl.com/BeckettGontarski. Accessed 17thNovember 2016.

Frye, Northrop. “The Nightmare Life in Death.” Review of Molloy,

Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, three novels by Samuel Beckett.

The Hudson Reviewvol.13 no.3, 1960, pp.442-49.

tinyurl.com/BeckettFrye. Accessed 5thOctober 2016.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and

Edward Robinson, Blackwell, 2005.

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23rdOctober 2016.

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Maude and Matthew Feldman, Continuum, 2009, pp.39-55.

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Oxford UP, 2008.


D is for Durham

malinche (c)mta

There is an irony about Jimmie Durham’s work La Malinche.

The name ‘La Malinche’ is given to a Nahua interpreter for Hernán Cortés, who used her services during his crushing of the Aztec empire. Later she bore him a son, Martín, who is often cited as one of the first Mestizo people of Central and South America. Her status and that of her son are controversial; in 1982 a statue was erected in Coyoacan depicting Cortés, La Malinche, and Martín, but taken down after protesters claimed it depicted the exploitation of native peoples by European colonialism and imperialism.

Durham, a former activist for Native American civil rights in the United States, put together the sculpture shown above between 1988 and 1992. Its superficial reference is to Native American art, but it is a melancholy, awkwardly posed representation, made of recycled objects, and hung about with plastic jewellery and a cheap, chain-shop bra. As such it seems to speak of the degradation of Native American culture at the hands of the overwhelmingly European-American consumerist society.

The irony comes in when we realise that in 2017 Durham, who has always claimed Cherokee heritage, was denounced by a group of leading Cherokee scholars and representatives as not being eligible for citizenship in any Federally-recognised Cherokee tribe; they went as far as saying that work such a La Malinche was illegal under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

Durham’s status now questions the whole idea of ethnodysphoria and casts him as the artistic world’s equivalent of Rachel Dolezal. Does that lessen the impact of the work? A very few generations ago, attempting to change one’s biological sex and/or one’s publicly presented gender was as problematic as these two cases. Can anyone, in the 21c, or will they ever be able to in the future, identify with another ethnicity and culture instead of the one they were born into and socialised in? Should they? Will the definitive answers made today be different tomorrow?

Taxonomy is always about what is excluded, not what is included.