September 2017

Arts & Letters

A certain madness

By JM Coetzee

Samuel Beckett on the set of his movie, Film (1965). © Steve Schapiro / Corbis via Getty Images

Beneath the surface comedy of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Watt’ lies a metaphysical quest to know the unknowable

In June 1940 Paris was occupied by German forces. Although he was a citizen of a neutral country, Beckett offered his services to the French Resistance. In 1942, fearing imminent arrest by the Gestapo, he and his wife fled Paris and found refuge on a farm near Roussillon in Provence.

Although Beckett had already been at work on Watt when they left Paris, the bulk of the book was written in Roussillon. In 1945, after the war had ended, he submitted it to a series of British publishers, without success (one described it as too “wild and unintelligible” to publish). Gradually, as he threw himself into new projects, he lost interest in the fate of Watt. In a letter to a friend he dismissed it as “an unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs, first on the run, then of an evening after the clodhopping [i.e., farm labour], during the occupation”.

In part because the British public had shown so little interest in his work, in part because he had come to feel that what he called “official” English was frustrating his ambition to write “a literature of the non-word”, but mainly because he had decided that his future lay in France, Beckett began to compose in French. “I do not think I shall write very much in English in the future,” he confided to the same friend.

Watt was eventually published, in 1953, by an English-language literary review based in Paris, in association with a French publisher of erotic literature (Olympia Press, later to publish Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita). Its distribution in Ireland was banned by the authorities.

After he had become famous, and the anglophone world had woken up to his existence, Beckett routinely prepared English translations of his works. Watt was an exception: he did not want the book to be translated at all. Under pressure from his publishers, he at last agreed to permit a French edition. However, the job was (in his eyes) so poorly done that he revised the translation himself, making a number of changes to the text in the process. There is thus some question whether the English or the French version should be regarded as definitive.

The ambivalence of Beckett’s feelings about the book can to an extent be attributed to the circumstances of its composition, in the remote countryside, in enforced and wearisome isolation. It is hard to believe at any other time in his life Beckett would have had the energy or the interest to list laboriously the eighty different ways in which four items of furniture can be arranged in a room over the course of twenty days, or to describe the twenty individual glances that have to be passed before the five members of a committee can be sure that each has glanced at each of the others. Beckett was right to claim that there is a certain madness in the Cartesian project of methodising the operations of the human intellect; but there was also a certain madness in the form that his satire of methodised reason took.


Watt, the eponymous hero, is – at first sight – a clownish man with a strange method of walking, which he seems to have learned out of a book, and not even the most rudimentary social graces. We observe him catch a train from the city of Dublin to the suburb of Foxrock, where he makes his way to the home of one Mr Knott, for whom he has been engaged as a manservant. In a lengthy monologue, Arsene, the servant whom he will be replacing, explains the workings of the Knott household: there are always two servants on the premises, he says, of whom only the senior or greater has direct access to the master.

Watt spends a period (a year?) as the lesser servant, then a period as the greater servant, then in turn departs. After an unspecified interval we come upon him again in an asylum for the insane, where he is befriended by a patient named Sam. To Sam he relates in garbled form the story of his time in the Knott household. This Sam in turn relates to us, in the form of a book titled Watt.

Watt’s years with Mr Knott (as related by Sam) may have been uneventful, yet the experience must have been disturbing enough (we infer) to render him insane. He has lost his mind because, despite his most strenuous efforts, he failed to understand Mr Knott (and his household) – more specifically, failed to know Mr Knott in his fullness. Everything that Mr Knott did, everything that happened in his household, he subjected to exhaustive rational analysis, yet in every instance the analysis failed to reveal with certainty the truth of Mr Knott. At the end of Watt’s stay Mr Knott was as much of a mystery as he was on the day when Watt arrived.

To the reader, viewing Mr Knott and his household from the outside, there is nothing mysterious going on, nothing worthy of prolonged investigation. Mr Knott is simply an eccentric old man who lives in a big house in Foxrock which he never leaves. But – though the final words of the book, “no symbols where none intended”, constitute an authorial warning against over-interpretation – the book has no raison d’être if we do not (provisionally) accede to Watt’s inarticulate and unexpressed vision of the household: that Mr Knott is in some sense the Deity and that he, Watt, has been summoned to serve Him. In this interpretation, Watt’s failure to know God results from a failure of the intellect, a failure of human reason, a failure of the method (learned, like walking, out of a book) that he employs in order to arrive at knowledge of the divine.

The method in question derives from René Descartes. It was set down by Descartes in 1637 in his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, since when it has been the orthodoxy of the scientific enterprise:

1. To accept nothing as true which I do not clearly recognise to be so; that is to say, to accept nothing unless presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I can have no occasion to doubt it.

2. To divide up each of the difficulties which I examine into as many parts as possible.

3. To carry on my reflections in due order, commencing with objects that are the most simple and easy to understand, in order to rise little by little … to knowledge of the most complex.

4. In all cases to make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I shall be certain of having omitted nothing.

This is the method that Watt applies to all phenomena that present themselves to his senses, from the visit of the piano tuners to the activities of Mr Knott himself. The sober, unquestioning application of the Cartesian method, the method of science, to events in the Knott household results in the intellectual comedy that makes up the bulk of Watt.

Watt is a philosophical satire in the tradition of François Rabelais and (closer to home) of Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne. But the impulse behind it is not merely sceptical (sceptical of the arch-advocate of the cultivation of scepticism as a habit of mind, Descartes). If we decode the cryptic, back-to-front utterances of Watt in the asylum, we arrive at a clue as to what that impulse is:

Of nought. To the source. To the teacher. To the temple. To him I brought. This emptied heart. These emptied hands. This mind ignoring. This body homeless. To love him my little reviled. My little rejected to have him. My little to learn him forgot. Abandoned my little to find him.

[Reviled my little to love him; rejected my little to have him; forgot my little to learn him; abandoned my little to find him. To him I brought this emptied heart, these emptied hands, this ignoring mind, this homeless body: to the temple, to the teacher, to the source of nought.]

Watt seeks to know God or “God”, for whom Knott/Not stands as a token. He undertakes his quest in a spirit of humility, without preconceptions; but Knott proves to be unknowable – unknowable not only to the rational intellect but ultimately unknowable too. As St Augustine could have told Watt, we can never know what God is, we can only know what He is not. Indeed, on the very first day of his service Arsene had given him a warning to the same effect: “What we [servants] know partakes in no small measure of the nature of what has so happily been called the unutterable or ineffable, so that any attempt to utter or eff it is doomed to fail, doomed, doomed to fail”.

Arsene is here evoking a passage from Geulincx’s Ethics that Beckett had thought important enough to copy into one of his notebooks: “Ineffabile … id est dicitur, non quod cogitare aut effari non possumus (noc [nec?] enim nihil esset: num nihil et non cogitabile idem sunt)” [“Ineffable ... is that which we cannot understand and grasp (which is nothing: in fact, nothing and not thinkable are the same thing)”].

It is this deeper layer beneath the surface comedy of Watt’s behaviour, his dogged metaphysical quest to know the unknowable, think the unthinkable, express the inexpressible, in the face of failure after failure, that lends him his pathos, makes him more than just a clown of the intellect.

As a piece of writing, Watt is uneven in quality. In his early stories, collected in More Pricks than Kicks, Beckett had a tendency to show off his learning in a rather juvenile way, to mix high and low verbal registers and indulge in facile wordplay. The opening pages of Watt exhibit some of the same features. It is only when Watt reaches Knott’s residence that Beckett begins to achieve the kind of sustained prose he has been searching for, the blend of lyricism and parody unique to Watt. Some of the episodes that make up a fundamentally episodic book maintain the quality of a high comic aria from beginning to end (one thinks here not only of Arsene’s monologue but of the visit of the Galls, father and son; of Mr Knott’s eating arrangements; of the famished dog required to consume the leftovers of his meal, and the Lynch family whose duty it is to maintain the dog). Other episodes lack inspiration: the visits of Mrs Gorman the fish-woman, for instance. The pages-long listings of permutations and combinations of objects are tedious but their tedium is part of the conception of the book, a fable cum treatise that for long stretches manages to be hypnotically fascinating.

© JM Coetzee, taken from Late Essays: 2006–2017, published by Knopf Australia on 28 August 2017.

JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. His books include Disgrace and The Schooldays of Jesus.

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