Chapter 3 – Beckett’s Smokers Hands

‘Close inspection namely detail by detail all over to add up finally to this whole not still at all but trembling all over. But casually in this failing light impression dead still even the hands clearly trembling and the breast faint rise and fall.’

–          Samuel Beckett[1]

Chapter 3 – Beckett’s Smokers Hands: the embodied, rough ontological textures of Beckett’s work found within the Beckett Studies canon.

In this chapter we will use the terms defined and gathered in Chapter 2, alongside critical literary studies of Beckett’s oeuvre, to find the haptically focused, rough ontological textures felt from Beckett’s works. Before we begin critiquing the critics, I’d like to briefly take a walk through what’s been written about Beckett’s personal experiences of roughness.

In looking at Beckett’s personal experiences, both his letters and James Knowlson’s authorized biography, Damned to Fame[2], are valuable sources of information. Working chronologically backwards, we will take a look at some experiences of Beckett’s that are significant to our phenomenological focus.

In a chapter of Damned to Fame detailing Beckett’s experiences of World War II[3], we read how at most turns after escaping the occupation of Paris, Beckett was ‘tired and hungry’[4], so much so that Beckett would later write that the last time he ‘…wept was in Cahors, in 1940.’ Here, as much as on his return to live in occupied Paris[5] or his time with the French Resistance[6], Beckett’s body would have been knocked with rough, urgent travel with his skin tingling for fear of Nazi aggression as well as sleeping on hard floors and understanding through his whole body just how rough Being is.

Before the war, in a letter dated March 30th, 1937, Beckett tells Gunter Albrecht that he has been given Karl Ballmer’s Aber Herr Heidegger [But Mr. Heidegger] to read[7] – far before he was to write Film and with plenty of time to develop a further interest in Heidegger’s works through reading and his aforementioned war experiences.

Much of what is interesting and valuable about Beckett’s letters are that they reveal the people he met and felt compelled to write to in his life. Jean Beaufret studied in 1930 at the Ecole Normal Superieure as a philosophy student while Beckett studied, and eventually taught, there. The two would later write many engaging letters to other on many topics. Beaufret’s focus was on German philosophers and he later ‘…engaged Heidegger in dialogue about French existentials and Greek philosophy, publishing Dialogue avec Heidegger (in four volumes)’.[8] From this we can see that Beckett would have encountered Heidegger from a very early point and would have probably been engaged in in-depth debates. Beckett also wrote frequently, before and after the war, to Percival Arland Ussher[9]; Ussher published Journey Through Dread (1955) which referenced Heidegger among others. Of Beckett’s personal, physical history, Steven Connor writes:

Didier Anzieu has suggested that Beckett’s [physically personal] sufferings took the form of a ‘toxic skin’, in which the phantasmal epidermis that should serve as a model of containment and communication between self and world was both itself lacerated and acted as a suffocating constriction on the self[10]

From this quote, we can see Connor stating Beckett’s struggle with ‘communication between self and world’ in his texts; Beckett was once told that he had ‘Barber’s Itch’[11] [Sycosis Vulgaris – or vulgar skin, if you will] after he had contracted an infection and this difficulty in communication, this barrier, would have been literally represented on and to Beckett at that time. Having rough skin must have added to his personal experience of roughened Being.

Though rough, Constance Classen points out the ‘perfection’ of excited, roughened and different skin when she quotes the Futurists in her book, The Book of Touch:

“On the other hand, diseased sensibilities, which derive their excitability and their apparent perfection from their bodies’ very weakness, achieve the great tactile faculty less easily, more haphazardly and unreliably”[12]

So even those cold mechanics the Futurists saw the importance of ‘diseased [roughened] sensibilities’ and the ‘great tactile faculty’ – this I have included because Beckett’s involvement in the war may have alerted him to their ideas at the time but their cultural effect after the war would definitely have been in his awareness and so the quote is apt both to his understanding and experience of roughened personal experiences, not to mention reminiscent of many of the characters in his later works.

From personal experiences of roughened Being, we can now move on to see how rough, embodied, cutaneous and tactile studies in literature have found Beckett’s work. Steven Connor’s essay in Beckett and Phenomenology[13], while briefly pointing out that ‘Beckett and Sartre’ discussions have been worn out and need reinvigorating, discusses Beckett and Sartre’s rough, struggling understanding of the body. Connor works throughout his essay to reinstate Sartre’s place – a place of slimy haptic struggle – in the body of phenomenology and therefore its relevance to Beckett and the problematic body, all as ‘a project of striving’[14]. Striving then is a form of continued, roughened Being.

Connor states clearly, at the start of his essay, that ‘Discussions of Sartre and Beckett have tended to emphasize the anguish of subjectivity rather than the lived condition of the body’[15] and then sets out to define what it is about Beckett’s works that are both related to Sartre and the way they both use the body. In the following quote, Connor highlights this connection well:

The list of examples Sartre provides of the way in which the world ubiquitously indicates the body which is my way of being in it (really, and more briefly, my way of being it) not only has Beckettian cast, it also employs some distinctively Beckettian properties.[16]

So not only is their shared conceptual usage similar but the way in which Sartre writes about the body is a little absurd, abstracted and ‘distinctively Beckettian’. This highlights not only what rough ontologies the Beckett Studies canon has found in Beckett but what roughness is found in one of our originary framework-definition-texts within this essay – thrusting us further toward a reevaluation of Film through the tactile eye of phenomenology.

This absurd, rough relationship to the body continues in Connor’s essay by taking on the oscillation of Beckett’s characters between being-in-the-world and spectrality:

The spectrality of Beckett’s later works, the quality…of not quite being there, has been the subject of much attention in recent years, by critics who have related it to the ‘ghosting’ of the body in technology and media. Sartre’s formulation helps us to grasp this spectrality in a different sense. They are spectral, not because the body is erased or made less manifest, but because they are ‘body-haunted’…they are ghostly because they disclose the haunting of the body that is characteristic of the living…[17]

In this, the Beckettian state of ‘not quite being there’ is equated with an internal disconnection with the body or, as is more fully explained in the following quote, Connor says, ‘The body is brought into existence by the way in which consciousness exists as embodied, which is to say, in both necessarily recognizing and refusing the body as itself.’[18] So the spectral nature of characters in Beckett’s work are not always ‘body-haunted’ – except when they are a Ghost Trio, one would imagine, possibly – but instead simply Being, when Being is both Dasein, through Dasein’s thrownness, and Nothingness through an absence of identity/body-identity/self-identification. Connor concludes these points succinctly when he says, ‘ For both Beckett and Sartre, embodiment takes the form of a nausea, a proximity-to-self which can neither be purged nor absorbed.’[19]

As editor of and essayist in Beckett and Phenomenology, Ulrika Maude pairs Beckett’s works with Merleau-Ponty’s approach to perceptual experience. She says of the pairing:

Merleau-Ponty evokes the sense of touch side by side with vision…vision itself becomes a kind of caress, a complete intermingling of the subject and the world…What Samuel Beckett shares with Merleau-Ponty is his…strikingly similar treatment of perceptual experience.[20]

In this quote, Maude has put Merleau-Ponty and Beckett side by side in their phenomenological as well as conceptual approach – the ‘intermingling of the subject and the world’ evident in Merleau-Ponty, and phenomenology in general, is key to our exploration of Film. Continuing from a general philosophical standpoint, Maude says ‘For Beckett….the object of representation resists representation… [-] a view that Beckett shares with Merleau-Ponty…’[21] and this too is reinforced by our earlier look at Beckett’s toxic skin/sycosis vulgaris; in having felt that resistance within and without himself, we can easily see – especially holding onto our immediately previous Maude quote – how objects would resist representation when Beckett resists representation himself.

Maude uses an excellent quote from Beckett’s letters to focus her essay. In its full context, Maude writes:

…somatic immediacy may finally be one of the ways in which Beckett’s work achieves that mourned for ‘integrity of the eyelids coming down before the brain knows of grit in the wind’.[22]

The quote at the end is taken from a letter Beckett wrote to Tom McGreevy in October 1932 criticizing his own writing for not having that integrity. However, Maude is right when she says his focus on somatic [bodily] immediacy helps Beckett achieve works of integrity and necessity. Beckett’s works have often been discussed in terms of concrete essentials and making only what is necessary to the theatrical event available on stage – this is also true of Film – and one of the main ways he achieves this is by being so focused on the body in his stage directions, directions and his approach.

Maude describes Beckett’s ‘fleshy nature’ and so constitutes a bodily, messy, rough reworking of ontology when she says ‘Beckett’s preoccupation with the embodied nature of vision persists throughout his career…’[23]. This is helpful to us when considering Film and the tactile eye. This fleshing out of vision is reinforced when we read that Maude thinks Beckett’s work also ‘…acknowledges the fleshy nature of vision in its realization that the senses eventually fail us and fade’[24] – more rough-edged somaticism.

On the body, but in light of what we just read of vision also, we can return to Maude’s reading of Beckett’s representation of object and subject. As seen in this quote and echoed from earlier, Beckett can be seen to have struggled through the creative process:

The challenge for Beckett’s writing would not only be to reimagine the relationship between subject and world, and hence to outline a new phenomenology of perception, but to create a mode of expression in which these reimaginings could be represented.[25]

The reimagining of subject and object while maintaining the resistance Beckett felt to representation is the challenge in Maude’s words. One suggestion from Maude would be blurring the two, after all ‘Blurring is also an ironic comment on the codes of mastery inherent in vision, a theme Beckett revisits in Film, where the effect is achieved through the use of a gauze filter…’[26] and in so mentioning, reinforces our investigation into a philosophy of touch in Film.

In general, not much has been written specifically on Beckett’s roughened ontological textures except in the last few years – and mainly spearheaded by Ulrika Maude and her work[27] – but critics have written on related matters over the course of the middle-to-end of the 20th century. David Pattie collates all the critical works published on Beckett in his book The Complete Critical Guide to Samuel Beckett[28] up until 1999. As well as critical and literary study receptions, Pattie discusses directorial interpretations and in one found a director who felt Beckett’s works to be touchingly humanistic by being at their most spare. This is evinced when Pattie says, ‘For [Ruby] Cohn, the plays themselves had increasingly become dramatizations of essential existence.’[29] Essential existence in that quote can be equated to human contingent-being interactions and Being itself.

Following on from that phenomenological approach, Pattie states:

For [Lance St. John] Butler, Beckett occupied the same territory as Heidegger and Sartre… [and Butler thought] Beckett’s writing expressed the inaccessible mystery of being; it described a via negativa, a rejection of the world in favour of the spiritual truth contained, inexpressibly, in Being.[30]

In Lance St John Butler, here we see another proponent of the phenomenological Beckett. Lance St. John Butler undertook a seminal, thorough investigation of phenomenology in Beckett’s oeuvre in his book Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being[31] however, since he doesn’t undertake a thorough analysis of Film, we will be returning to Butler in Chapter 5. Pattie’s usage of ‘rejection’ sits closely to Maude’s earlier stated resistance to representation much as ‘spiritual truth’ always will.

We see another connection between a work Pattie mentions and one of our previously used essayists in the following quote:

…Hwa Soon Kim, in a study influenced by Derrida, Lacan and Bakhtin, argued that Beckett’s work in the theatre enacted a dialogue between the characters’ sense of hope, their compulsive need to act, and their strongly expressed wish for extinction.[32]

The connection we have to Hwa Soon Kim is that Steven Connor, in his essay ‘Beckett’s Atmospherics’, states how ‘Beckett’s characters desire and aspire to the condition of expiry.’[33] This desire for expiration is a thrownness of Being, a wish for nothingness and a very rough ontological texture.

In his own words, Pattie tells us that Film ‘suggests that there is no escape from perception, because the self always perceives itself – that is, we regard ourselves both as subjects and as objects.’[34] Phenomenologically speaking, Merleau-Ponty could not have put it better himself. Pattie’s embodied understanding of the subject-object relationship in Film is an excellent starting point to Chapter 4 where we will unction our phenomenological-haptic-aesthetic theoretical framework and evidence of rough ontological textures into Film to evince their significance.

[1] Samuel Beckett, The Grove Centenary Edition IV. (USA: New York, Grove Press, 2006. p. 415)


[2] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996.)

[3] Ibid. (pp. 297-318)

[4] Ibid. (p. 299)

[5] Ibid. (p. 302)

[6] Ibid. (pp. 303-318)

[7] Martha Dow Fehsenfeld & Lois More Overbeck (eds.), The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929-1940. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. p. 480)

[8] Ibid. (p. 688)

[9] Ibid. (p. 717)

[10] Steven Connor, ‘Beckett’s Atmospheres’, Steven, (2002) <> [accessed 05th July, 2010]

[11] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame. (p. 118)

[12] F.T. Marinetti in Constance Classen, The Book of Touch. (Oxford: Berg, 2005. p. 330)

[13] Matthew Feldman and Ulrika Maude [eds.], Beckett and Phenomenology. (London: Continuum Literary Studies, 2009.)

[14] Ibid. (p. 60)

[15] Ibid. (p. 57)

[16] Ibid. (p. 59)

[17] Ibid. (pp. 62-63)

[18] Ibid. (p. 63)

[19] Ibid. (p. 74)

[20] Ibid. (p. 77)

[21] Ibid. (p. 80)

[22] Ibid. (p. 90)

[23] Ibid. (p. 89)

[24] Ibid. (pp. 89-90)

[25] Ibid. (p. 85)

[26] Ibid. (p. 87)

[27] See Ulrika Maude, Beckett, Technology and the Body.

[28] David Pattie, The Complete Critical Guide to Samuel Beckett. (London: Routledge, 2000)

[29] Ibid. (p. 180)

[30] Ibid. (p. 183)

[31] Lance St. John Butler, Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being. (London: Macmillan, 1984)

[32] Ibid. (p. 196)

[33] Steven Connor, ‘Beckett’s Atmospheres’, Steven, (2002) <> [accessed 05th July, 2010]

[34] David Pattie, The Complete Critical Guide to Samuel Beckett. (p. 94)


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