Modern Fiction Studies 46.3 (2000) 772-785
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"No More Than Ghosts Make": The Hauntology and Gothic Minimalism of Beckett's Late Work
III. The Gothic and Language
At first glance, the late fiction and drama of Samuel Beckett might appear to be the very opposite of what is typically considered Gothic. Beckett's work is austerely and minimally formalist, stripped of emotion and plot, syntactically difficult, and relentlessly avant-garde. Nevertheless, Beckett's writing has always exhibited characteristics that seem to invite, yet resist, being taken for Gothic. From the late 1940s on, Beckett often employed posthumous narrators haunted by disembodied voices and bizarrely tormented, confined figures and used forms, such as repetition, ambiguity, and narratorial anxiety or dread, that appear in more traditional Gothic literature.
Beckett's late works, however, become increasingly and explicitly ghostly. Beckett himself emphasizes the word in several of his later works, titling one late play Ghost Trio, for instance, and having the speaker of A Piece of Monologue sum up his life as "[t]hirty thousand nights of ghosts beyond. Beyond that black beyond. Ghost light. Ghost nights. Ghost rooms. Ghost graves. Ghost . . . he all but said ghost loved ones" [End Page 772] (269). In the 1973 short text "Sounds," the protagonist concludes by sitting at a table in the dark and silence, listening for "no such thing no more than ghosts make [. . .] no such thing as a sound" (268).
While Beckett's ghostly, Gothic preoccupations pervade all his late texts, they are nowhere more evident than in Ill Seen Ill Said, a novella which self-consciously illustrates the principles and practices of the late Beckettian Gothic. So strong are the Gothic elements in Ill Seen Ill Said, in fact, that it reads like a distilled, high modernist pastiche of the Gothic novel. The situation of the novel is simple: a disembodied, hovering eye inspects a circular, barren landscape, following the movements of an immaterial old woman as she paces between the ramshackle cabin which is her "abode" (44) and a "distant tomb" (16) at the margins of the scene.
The text opens on a barren landscape: flat, "rather more circular than otherwise finally," and littered with "meagre pastures" eroding away into chalkstones, "as if doomed to spread," gleaming white under the moonlight (8-9). In this world, the narrator tells us, "It will always be evening. When not night" (24). At the center of the rings of stone and pasture stands a dilapidated cabin, described as being "[a]t the inexistent centre of a formless place" (8). The narrator speculates as to the history of the cabin, but finds only mystery: "How come a cabin in such a place? How came? Careful. Before replying that in the far past at the time of its building there was clover growing to its very walls. Implying furthermore that it the culprit. And from it as from an evil core that the what is the wrong word the evil spread" (8-9). Beckett's landscapes are often bleak and his buildings often ramshackle, but the unusually strong word "evil" and the sense that the cabin's evil is animate, consuming the natural world around it, clearly intrudes into the Gothic. What the narrator presents, in essence, is a haunted house, a staple of Gothic fiction. Its roof slates, we are told, were brought from "a ruined mansion," suggesting a connection to a more Gothic manor. "What tales had they tongues to tell" the narrator remarks (43), deepening the mystery while also hinting at a returning narrative past, a notion which, it will be seen, is crucial to Beckett's Gothic practice. The cabin itself is furnished with the props of the Gothic home: "a pallet and a ghostly chair" (14), later described as "the skeleton chair death paler than life" (40), an "antique coffer" (34) containing an illegible scrap of a diary, and a mysterious trapdoor, which remains unopened. The cabin also exhibits a ghostly instability in its own architecture. The eye sees the [End Page 773...