- The Pornographic Imagination in All Strange Away
On first looking into All Strange Away, one is struck by the change in tone between this and Beckett’s other texts of the period. Rather than the measured rhythms of Imagination Dead Imagine, the dispassionate pseudo-empiricism of The Lost Ones, or the abstract patternings of Ping and Lessness, the reader is confronted with an intrusive, hasty, and humorless narrative imagination—and with a narrative which contains surprising passages of a coarsely sexual nature. This unusual quality has been located by critics in the voyeuristic or sexual concerns of the narrator and has on occasion been termed “pornographic” (Murphy 86, Pilling 139). And indeed, All Strange Away creates a climate of sexual tension and fascination which does not inform Beckett’s other works. But the presence of naked, sweating bodies (common to all the “rotunda works” 1 of the ‘60s) and the occasional passage of crude sexual reverie are alone not enough to account for the unusual texture of this work. The sexual theme is not uppermost in All Strange Away, and the pornographic imagination which informs it is essentially asexual, or rather, its sexual component is secondary to its other concerns. All Strange Away, like the other rotunda texts of the ‘60s, is a reflexive assessment of the imagining narrator’s own imagination. The [End Page 515] box or rotunda is a projection of the narrator’s own skull, a displacement of his own imaginative space, which he can use to explore the dynamics of his own imagination. 2 Thus the climate and goings-on within the rotunda illustrate (and occasionally subvert) the imaginative aesthetics which inform their very narration. In doing this, however, the narrator’s imagination functions in a manner formally similar to the pornographic narrative imagination. If there is a pornographic sexual element, it is because there is a pornographic imaginative dynamic to the text. The sexual elements are not privileged, but all aspects of “a place” and the “someone in it” (117) are considered in a manner “conventional” pornography usually reserves for the erotic.
The mental function which dominates All Strange Away is not Imagination but Fancy. Although “fancy” is apparently used in the text as synonym for “imagination,” viewing Fancy and Imagination in light of the distinction drawn between them by the Romantics suggests that Beckett is actually using the term to indicate the specific mode of mental activity which underlies the narration. Coleridge defined Fancy as a permutative power which “has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites,” contrasting with the higher power of Imagination, which takes the units of experience organized by Fancy and “dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates [them] in order to re-create” poetically or metaphorically (Barfield 86).
Pornography, as a visual or narrative genre, makes heavy use of repetition and permutation. De Sade provides the quintessential example, assembling a cast of characters and running them through a gamut of sexual conjunctions until the combinations, if not the sexual energies of the characters, are exhausted. Roland Barthes, in his essay on Bataille’s Story of the Eye, notes that this permutative drive is “the beginning and end of Sadean narrative. In Sade there is no appeal to the metaphorical or metonymical imagination, his eroticism being purely combinatory” (126). De Sade’s is an eroticism of Fancy, then, rather than of the Imagination. More astutely still, Barthes notes that in Sade the permutative drive is as prominent as the sexual: “[Sade’s] eroticism is encyclopedic, sharing the same accounting spirit as prompted Newton and Fourier. For Sade it is a question of tallying erotic combinations, an undertaking that (technically) does not involve any transgression of the sexual” (126). The permutative impulse is equally strong in [End Page 516] All Strange Away, where it functions as an end—a need—in itself, a principle which holds for the narrator the urgency of a sexual obsession.
The play of Fancy in All Strange Away is expressed in the narrator’s obsessive manipulation of his material—repeatedly returning to an ever-diminishing pool of “fixities and definites.” Repetition has always been a vital narrative strategy for Beckett, and there are more...