World without setting: Beckett’s The Lost Ones

(The Cosmic Impulse in Literature, part II)

Among the tasks that fiction writers usually set for themselves is to craft some depiction of place. There are, for example, the settings for stories: along with character, theme, and plot, one among the standard list of particulars that readers expect writers to provide. However, a fictional place need not be a setting. That is, a setting is always a setting for. It’s made up of the location or locations where the story takes place. As such, it’s given the lower billing. It functions as the stage on which the main attraction—usually some drama of human affairs—unfolds. Of course, writers often take great care constructing their settings. However, the same is true of set designers for films and plays. Such efforts, magnificent as their fruits might be, don’t detract from the point. Fictional places, when they take the form of settings, are containers: vessels for delivering the heart of the fiction to the reader.

Beckett’s The Lost Ones is among the best examples I’ve read of a fiction that has no setting in this sense. It’s devoted to the near exhaustive description of its world—a cosmology, presented with careful, almost mathematical exactitude. The reason that so short a text can pull off such a feat is that its world is nothing but a fragment: a flattened cylinder fifty meters around and sixteen high inhabited by some two hundred figures, “each in search of its lost one.” It is uniformly lit by a dim yellow light, and its temperature oscillates with nearly exceptionless regularity between 5 and 25 degrees over intervals of around 10 seconds. Its inner surface is like rubber, and its walls are adorned only by cavities arranged in irregular quincunxes, into and out of which the inhabitants circulate using fifteen ladders: the only objects in the entire cylinder, except for the handful of rungs that have broken off of them.

This and the featured image above it are two of Charles S. Klabunde‘s illustrations from the 1984 edition of The Lost Ones from The New Overbrook Press.

And, that’s it: so far as the text is concerned, this is the world. Besides certain unconfirmed rumors among the cylinder’s inhabitants, there’s nothing to suggest that anything exists outside it. It’s a closed system, headed in the end toward total entropy. There is no story, nor are there characters as we usually think of them: just these figures, most of them anonymous, circulating through the cylinder in simple patterns. Beckett recounts these patterns in his characteristic way: using language that is stunning in its economy, and with a detachment more horrifying than the purplest Lovecraftian prose. And yet, despite the barren simplicity of the text’s world, it contains endless riches: the sublime fascination of an arctic ice plain extending as far as the eye can see. In this way, the text lacks a setting: the place it depicts is the thing.

I first encountered The Lost Ones as a young teen. Along with Finnegans Wake, it was the text that began my lifelong love affair with modernist literature. At that point, I’d been been immersed in fantasy literature for a while, and thus was transfixed by literary worldbuilding. Fiction writers often talk about worldbuilding. However, for reasons that escape me, readers of mainstream fiction often roll their eyes at the creation of imaginary worlds. Of course, mainstream works create imaginary places often enough. Usually, though, they situate them in actual locations and times familiar from the world around us: an imaginary courthouse in the New York of today, an imaginary county in Mississippi, or an imaginary street in Victorian London.

What fascinated me more, though, was the attempt to create an imaginary world. First of all, I was interested in portraits of places more than those simply of people. Of course, works that do this can be found in mainstream fiction: any work, really, in which the setting could be considered the main character. However, in fantasy literature, I found, not simply place-portraits, but world-portraits.

The example that dominated my childhood imagination was Tolkien’s legendarium: his attempt, over many decades, to recount the history and nature of his fictional cosmos Eä from creation on until its twilight. Many people, I expect, who’ve been raised as devout Christians have come to Tolkien’s work in a similar way. That is, the stories that were dominant in my childhood by a very wide margin came from the most influential world-portrait in western culture: the Bible. Even as a young teen, I was growing ever distant from the religious conviction in the literal truth of that world-portrait that I’d been reared to treat as a basic presupposition of living. However, I remained fascinated by the Bible’s over-arching literary project as I conceived of it: the Bible as the story of an entire cosmos, from creation on until its culmination in the eschaton. Tolkien’s work had the same quality, without, however, imposing the burden of literal truth.

When I randomly picked up The Lost Ones from off a public library shelf one day, I went home and read it in one sitting. On the one hand, it was utterly unlike anything I’d ever read. Yet, in my youthful ignorance of the iron curtains people often set up between the marketing categories we call genres, I thought I’d discovered another Tolkien. Here was another writer presenting me with the portrait of an entire cosmos, but in a completely different way from Tolkien.

It took me many years to understand the difference. Tolkien’s legendarium is vast and synoptic in accordance with the enormity of his fictional cosmos. Eä is an entire universe, with its own pantheon of divinities. And, though Tolkien’s portrait of Eä focuses most on one tiny island within it—the world of Arda—this portrait recounts the latter’s history over hundreds of thousands of years.

One of Tolkien’s own sketches of Arda, as published in The Shaping of Middle-Earth

On the other hand, the cosmos of The Lost Ones is suffocatingly small. Like the Joycean writing from which Beckett struggled to distinguish his own into his late 30s, Tolkien’s writing is baroque. However, Joyce’s baroqueness lies in the sheer semantic density and syntactic disorientation of his prose. In contrast, Tolkien’s lies in the encyclopedic scope of his world-portrait. Using all of his considerable scholarly skills as a literary critic, historian, and philologist, he invented languages, drew up fictional geographies, races, and histories, all embroiled in a single drama that takes place over ages. Hence, the many thousands of pages he uses to do so. Beckett can describe the structure of his world in just 8,200 or so words, because it’s a kind of micro-cosmos. Further, Tolkien’s expansive granular detail is irrelevant to the special quality of Beckett’s text. The Lost Ones instead recalls the later portions of Descartes’s Meditations: a world-portrait laid out with succinct, crystalline elegance. Because of these differences, Beckett is, so to speak, the Mondrian of world-portraiture, whereas Tolkien is its Bosch.

Beckett’s penchant for world-portraiture shows up more and more in his later works. Its development was part of what he called the ‘subtractive’ trajectory of his writing. That is, his world-portraits became more and more barren, and the worlds he depicted in them ever smaller and simpler. For example, in “Ping”, which he considered to be a ‘miniaturization’ of The Lost Ones, we find a world comprised of one body standing on a single square yard of floor with walls and a ceiling, all of them white. The starkness of the text can be seen from its opening sentences:

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white.

Samuel Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, p,193.

Or, consider “Not I”, a play that was originally intended for performance on stage, but is most well-known from Billie Whitelaw’s 1973 performance on film. The world of “Not I” is comprised of a single mouth surrounded by a seemingly endless black void, delivering a rapid, frantic monologue. Perhaps, as Billie Whitelaw thought, the piece is a portrait of a state of mind—of an inner scream, as she described it. However, if this is so, the expression of this scream by a partial body—nothing but a mouth—is all there is in an otherwise empty cosmos. There are things about which the mouth babbles: about being a woman of seventy, standing in a field, overcome by a buzzing in her skull, and by disjointed memories—of being a “speechless infant” born to unknown parents in an unknown place; of a man who left; of a life spared the burden of love; of an April morning she spent “in the dark”, and so on. However, all of these are recounted in the past tense. If such things had ever been there at all, they’re now gone: everything else has been vacated from her peculiar cosmos, leaving only her mouth and its speech.

Billie Whitelaw performing “Not I” for the BBC

As pristine as “Not I” is, it could still seem like the portrait of a single character—albeit of a remarkably unusual sort. “Quad”, though, lends itself to no such reading. Beckett wrote this piece, not for the stage, but specifically for German television. The world of “Quad” is a single empty square of floor, through which four robed figures circulate in geometrical patterns: always only along its edges, and diagonally from corner to corner; and always avoiding the center. Although Beckett’s ill-conceived reputation as a ‘nihilistic’ writer has led some to view the piece as a cheap allegory for the repetitiveness of human life, I see it quite differently. It’s a cosmological work, presenting us with a world whose ‘physics’ is exhausted by the simple movements of four bodies on a tiny surface, and whose ‘history’ consists entirely in two brief phases of such movement (“Quad I” and “Quad II”), separated, as Beckett conceived of it, by a caesura of one hundred thousand years.

A 1981 filmed performance of “Quad” directed by Beckett himself, and originally broadcast on Süddeutscher Rundfunk in Germany

M. John Harrison, in a now infamous 2007 blog post, criticized the impulse toward the kind of encyclopedic worldbuilding that has gripped science fiction and fantasy ever since Tolkien:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

“Very afraid,” by M. John Harrison

By reading other pieces, we can clarify the thrust of Harrison’s comments. What he intended to criticize wasn’t the creation of imaginary worlds—the practice that makes the more philistine among mainstream readers roll their eyes. Rather, his target was “immersive fiction, in any medium, in which an attempt is made to rationalise the fiction by exhaustive grounding.” In such writing, “[r]epresentational techniques are used to validate the invention, with the idea of providing a secondary creation for the reader to ‘inhabit’; but also, in a sense, as an excuse or alibi for the act of making things up, as if to legitimise an otherwise questionable activity.” The worldbuilding writer becomes a kind of ‘human demiurge’ crafted in the image of the God purported to have written the Bible through prophetic inspiration. They attempt, that is, to create a world in its totality with total mastery, and deliver it up to readers as if to faithful acolytes, who can then fancy themselves as aspirants to being masters of its cosmology themselves.

In his own writing, Harrison has attempted to flout the ‘clomping foot of nerdism’. For example, there’s his city of Viriconium, a kind of Heraclitean city—one, in other words, that is never the same place twice. However, Beckett’s worlds, I contend, offer another alternative. His portraits of them are in a certain sense synoptic. However, because of their sparseness, they induce a sense, not of mastery, but rather of mystery—a mystery made bottomless by the fact that they contain no more than what he provides in his brief texts. As we observe them over an uncrossable distance, his worlds just sit there: alien, fragmentary, and mostly void—evacuated of all the kinds or order that we fancy we can grasp to master our own.

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