Samuel Beckett’s works emerge as a collection of incredibly unique fiction in the twentieth century, breaking the mold of traditional form and setting new precedents in the creation of narrative. Beckett downplayed the role of character and plot in much of his fiction and gave much more attention to image and setting. One work in particular, Ill Seen Ill Said, does very little to tell a story, but instead constructs a vivid and haunting landscape as seen through the eyes of a paranoid, tortured narrator. Throughout the piece, the narrator urges himself to be careful but to move on in the description, which is heightened poetic language with frequent repetition and rhyme. The narrator constructs a world that is barren and desolate, a cabin surrounded by landscape in which an old, dying woman is monitored closely by twelve watchmen around the perimeter. Beckett has a strong tendency toward solipsism, especially apparent in Company, and that solipsism would suggest that the world he creates in Ill Seen Ill Said is not a place for the punishment of an other, but a place for the containment of something within Beckett himself. Beckett’s unresolved issues with his mother and some unspeakable cruelty or injustice to which she subjected him seem to have been among the prime sources of his inspiration for writing, and this piece creates a world that serves as a home for the pain with which he so strongly identifies himself.
Ill Seen Ill Said opens in a manner that sets the tone for the rest of the piece, introducing a disembodied voice that speaks of an old woman in repetitious, poetic language. “From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun” (Beckett 49). Immediately Beckett engages the narrative tone of a speaker who must consistently implore himself to continue in his creation of this world. This insistence that he must carefully go on indicates that the subject matter is deeply discouraging and wrought with elements that pose some threat. As in that first paragraph, Beckett’s narrator likely reminds himself to move on in places where the subject matter of what he’s just said or is about to say is particularly threatening or emotionally turbulent, whether as a reminder not to dwell too long on the things he’s just said or as encouragement to move along into what follows. On page 58, for example, when speaking of confusion, Beckett ends a paragraph with such a reminder: “If only all could be pure figment. Neither be nor been nor by any shift to be. Gently. Gently. On. Careful.” In this instance, Beckett’s narrator seems to be admonishing himself to be careful not where he goes, but with what he’s just said. He forces himself to move forward instead of dwelling on an idea—the idea that it could all be imaginary. Dwelling on that idea could be dangerous for one of at least two reasons; either he refuses to dwell on the idea because it is all imaginary, and he cannot take pressure of having to recognize himself as the creator, or he refuses to consider this idea much because the world is real and he is powerless to change it. But on pages 50 and 51, there are two paragraphs in which “Careful” is the second or third sentence. The first of these begins, “The Cabin. Its situation.” This cabin being the source of the evil, Beckett’s narrator is understandably hesitant to tell its story. On 51, then, when describing the layout of the grounds, Beckett’s narrator says, “As though outlined by a trembling hand.” He then urges himself onward, again, leaving presumably two possible readings: the outlining to which he referred may have been done by the narrator himself, and by mentioning it, he might be giving himself away as having conjured the entire idea, or he is warning himself to be careful about what he is preparing to say, which is further description of this world. Whatever the reason, Beckett intermittently draws attention, by way of urging himself onward in this prose to the difficult business, emotionally, of creating this piece.
Beckett focuses through the piece on the old woman, presumably his mother. Much of his work includes his mother, whose presence in his psyche, much like in his work, proved to play an incredibly strong role. And while it might be tempting to say that this piece is about his mother, because the entire story revolves around a woman trapped in this strange world, it seems more realistic that writing about her was a means to another end for Beckett. Adelman writes in Naming the Unnamable, “. . . the fictional status of Beckett himself . . . suspects that there is no way to liberate the prince whom he would believe is inside him. Needing to know may be the deepest motive of a creative drive” (Adelman 37). If Beckett is creating this world in order to learn something about himself—whether or not he can liberate the “prince” within—then his extensive discussion of his mother must only be a way to learn something more about himself.
Ill Seen Ill Said makes frequent references to an evil that haunts the world that Beckett creates, an evil whose center seems to be in the room that Beckett refuses to explore. “Another pillar of Beckett’s solipsism seems to arise from his artistic minimalism that directly lends to the last, minimal, and actually non-reducible residue of all subjectivity: the ego” (Gontarski 216). The world that Beckett creates here, then, is a projection of his psychological status, a projection of his subconscious. Simplifying and reducing the elements of himself, Beckett managed in this work to strive for an understanding of himself. “The quest for the real ‘I’ parodically strips away all that which informs the minds of ordinary people” (Adelman 37). Beckett is far from ordinary, and in his quest for the real ‘I’, he finds, in a cabin inhabited by his mother, a room that he does not enter. This room is an embodiment, it seems, of the very evil to which he refers continually—”what the wrong word”—and he refuses to enter. It would seem that he is afraid of confronting or remembering this horrible evil, or that he is not prepared to deal with it. I strongly suspect, however, that he cannot enter that room because he does not know what lies in there; he has no way of knowing. The great evil, for Beckett, is a suspicion, something that he cannot remember because it happened before he was capable of creating memories. And yet by building this world, he has captured it; he has contained it in a single room in a cabin surrounded by watchmen.
It is important to note, at this point, that Beckett’s tendency is toward solipsism in his writing. Essentially, solipsism is the idea that nothing really exists outside of one’s mind. “But if philosophical solipsism is no more than a provisional, ephemeral, almost fictional stage in the development of an argument, it appears in Beckett’s work as one of the leitmotifs that stamp his artistic construct with the indelible emblem of an impossible wager” (Gontarski 215). But what is Beckett wagering here? With the cabin, the woods, his mother, the watchmen, the room; what wager is made? If it can be said to be a win or lose situation, then perhaps success for Beckett is simply the successful creation of this world. Or perhaps, by imprisoning some part of himself, he hopes to destroy a part of himself. Marcoulesco goes on to say that “[Beckett’s] version of cosmic pessimism is coupled with an abhorrence of self and the sheer mystical bent to destroy it whenever feasible” (Gontarski 220-21). Perhaps this world is meant to destroy that part of himself that he is capturing. The room, the cabin, his mother—all captured in this world to wither and die, and the watchmen to ensure that it all happens as it should.
This brings up another issue. Ill Seen Ill Said creates a world of paranoia—embodied in the very least by the watchmen—and painful preoccupation with the past. According to Beckett’s narrator, the old woman seems to glance out at the watchmen frequently, and yet they remain at adistance. “She never once saw one come toward her. Or she forgets. She forgets” (Beckett 52). These menacing watchmen, and this woman’s resigned loneliness at their hands, flavors the atmosphere in this story with a sense of fearfulness. That fearfulness is also characterized by the references to a mysterious past. At one point, on page 62, we are told, “Lashes jet black remains of the brunette she was. Perhaps once was. When yet a lass. Yet brunette.” This is an almost sympathetic treatment of the old woman, whose past and the idea of a better life seem to flash before us momentarily. Instead, now the woman is described differently: “The long white hair stares in a fan. Above and about the impassive face. Stares as if shocked still by some ancient horror.” This description of the woman makes her seem ghostly, and it leaves open the idea that perhaps she herself is haunted. What could terrify her so that she would not try to find some relief or escape? “On its yellowed face in barely legible ink two letters followed by a number. Tu 17. Or Th. Tu or Th 17” (Beckett 71). This woman seems to exist in a timeless sort of world, and so it begs the question, What has brought her here? What happened in this cabin? And when? One might think that the men watching her would provide answers or sort of explanation. Who are these guys, anyway?
It has been suggested that the watchmen in Ill Seen Ill Said are copies of Beckett, who must monitor this world, keeping his mother in captivity, and preserve the world so that Beckett can return to it as a source of comfort or as a reminder. But are these watchmen really guarding Beckett’s mother? “What then if not her do they ring around?” (Beckett 61). It is possible that these men form a ring, not around the woman but around the room. This room serves as Beckett’s muse, his inspiration. The painful secret locked inside that room is not only captured by this piece and held stable by the watchmen, it is kept as a source of Beckett’s entire identity. In his solipsism, that room becomes a central element in existence, but also, this entire world created in Ill Seen Ill Said is but a function of Beckett’s mind, and all of its characters only aspects of Beckett’s own psyche. The watchmen, then, are another part of Beckett, perhaps a vantage point from which he is able to return to this world and soak it in through the eyes of observers at all sides. This world is Beckett’s and these watchmen reinforce that, serving as sentries, so that none can enter this world but through the words that Beckett provides us.
Ill Seen Ill Said is not a prison for Beckett’s mother, but instead is the culmination of his work, a place to contain his torment to which he can return for inspiration, comfort, and release. “impotent as he is against Omnipotence, he goes on embellishing, searching, weaving the colossal fabric that is the story of his persecutions. The punishers cannot make him live in the world of their creation” (Adelman 84). Beckett might be helpless to do anything about the omnipotent forces in his life, but he has creative control over the worlds he creates as a thinker and a writer. And while solipsism might suggest that the universe simply exists in Beckett’s mind, and he should therefore be able to exert complete control over that. An answer for that would be that even in writing, we cannot always do exactly what we set out to do. With much time and practice, Beckett has had an opportunity to increase his relative control of the field of words and the feel of the language. He lived in a world in which he felt there was no meaning and nothing worthwhile, and so he created instead in a world of his own, and this world put forth by Ill Seen Ill Said is a place to which he can comfortably return and delight in the idea that his mother is trapped, the room in which she so greatly wronged him is cut off from the world, and the watchmen keep guard to ensure that things stay as they are. Beckett’s pain and torment are captured in this piece and redirected at his mother, who wanders aimlessly, pondering why she has not yet died. And though Beckett seems to take some pleasure in her suffering, that suffering does not seem to be the purpose for her presence. She is there as a reminder to Beckett, a consolation to Beckett, for the wrongs to which she subjected him, wrongs that might simply have been the fact that she gave birth to him, bringing him into a world in which language struggles to force meaning onto what Beckett believes is pointless and futile, a “void.” Or perhaps she attempted to abort him and failed, and the scars of being unwanted even by his mother are too deep to escape. Or perhaps he simply never felt that she loved him as he needed to be loved. Whatever it was, his mother is inextricably tied to the torture he experiences in life, and Ill Seen Ill Said serves to capture that pain and give it a home.
Beckett’s solipsism and a preoccupation with some evil that has been done to him by his mother, something that he is incapable of remembering that haunts him nevertheless, ultimately produced this work, Ill Seen Ill Said. Where Beckett tends to approach his art and perhaps his perspective on life with general solipsism—as though the entire Universe is simply a function of his mind, this piece emerges as a corner of that mind that holds significant psychological factors that affected his state of mind and sense of well being. As he approaches the end of the piece, his attitude takes on an upbeat tone as he seems to have finally created a place for that pain to remain, and his rejoice is not at having to never revisit his thoughts and feelings about his mother, but he rejoices that he will know exactly where to go in order to dwell on those issues. Beckett may have finally captured his mother in a world from which she cannot escape with his highly poetic language and bleak, vivid description. Somewhere in reading the piece, a sense emerges that Beckett is no longer practicing the skill of writing with Ill Seen Ill Said, he’s fine-tuned his style to such a point that he is able, finally, not only to capture his mother, but to create a place where he himself can live, truly alone as his solipsism calls for. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.