The Space of Dying in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Worstward Ho’.

Derrida asked ‘What is it to pass the term of one’s life? (…) The ‘I enter’, crossing the threshold, this ‘I pass’ puts us on the path’, a path which is an ‘impossible passage, the refused, denied or prohibited passage, indeed the nonpassage’[1]. Derrida’s ‘nonpassage’ can be regarded as a space of dying similar to that represented by Beckett, if we consider death as an aporetic experience – one that is impossible but necessary. The narrator of The Unnamable asks ‘What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed? By aporia pure and simple?’[2]. The oxymoron of putting ‘aporia’ with ‘simple’ succinctly signifies the root of Beckett’s approach. In Very Little…Almost Nothing, Simon Critchley describes this as an ‘aporetic description of aporia’ and that we, the reader, ‘proceed by aporia, that is, the path to be followed is a pathless path’[3]. Daniel Katz suggests an approach to Beckettian aporia which follows the claim that ‘for aporia to be valid, one must not only doubt, but alternate between doubting, and doubting that one doubts. Our task is to avoid letting ourselves be fixed on either side of the oscillation’[4]. The following discussion will examine how Beckett creates a literary space of dying that allows his attempts to express both the impossibility and necessity of death.

In barest terms, life can be considered as a passage, beginning with birth and ending with death – thus requiring transitions from non-being, to being, and back into non-being. The transition explored here is the final one – from life into death: the Derridian ‘nonpassage’. This non does not mean that we do not die, but that we lack the sureness of knowing death as the experience is inaccessible, denied. Derrida defines the aporia of death as ‘what cannot pass or come to pass: it is not even the non-pas, the not-step, but rather the deprivation of the pas[5]. Emphasis here should be placed on the idea of the ‘nonpassage’ as a space, albeit one without tangible boundaries, that can be interpreted through these writers.

The narrator of Worstward Ho speaks of their surroundings as an “Unmoreable unlessable unworseable evermost almost void’[6]. This ‘almost’ embodies the narrator’s perpetual frustration, as they remain situated before a void that they cannot access in order to achieve the nonexistence they desire. If we regard this ‘boundless’ void as the space of dying, then it is neither closed nor open – there remains a distance between the speaker and the space, with no door to walk through or threshold to cross. The movement into death is a nonpassage because the space of death, lacking a threshold, cannot be actively passed into. To further complicate things, however, the void can be envisioned as a non-space that the narrator is inside as well as outside of. They speak of ‘The dim. Far and wide the same’ [7] and a ‘Dim light source unknown’ which seems practically inseparable from the void, suggesting that the spaces are indistinguishable. One imagines a dull light coming from all directions, with no corners, edges or horizons, a light so consistent that it is impossible to tell where it comes from and where it leads. Critchley puts it well when he says ‘we do not proceed, but stay on the same spot, even if we are not quite at a standstill, although this is the voice’s desire’[8]. Although referring to Malone Dies, I believe his description of a ‘pathless path’ could easily be applied to Worstward Ho – a pathless path akin to the nonpassage, or boundless void.

Within Beckett’s space of dying, any movement lacks progression, for the ‘goals’ of his texts are defined by absence – the non-arrival of Godot being the most famous and clear example. Beckett uses the notion of a void to represent absence, but enables some kind of access to that absence by speaking of what is not there and how we cannot reach it. The narrator of Worstward Ho is human, but barely described beyond mention of eyes to stare with and legs with which to kneel or stand, although at one point there is ‘Nothing from pelvis down’ and that which speaks is just a ‘hindtrunk’[9]. Their sensory experience of the void is visual – a ‘Worsening stare. For the nothing to be seen. At the nothing to be seen’[10]. Here, experience is negated, becoming non-experience that results from an encounter with the absence. Corresponding with the ‘almost void’, this is ‘almost experience’, one of which both they and we ‘Know minimum. Know nothing no…At most mere minimum’[11]. Beckett’s application of awkward negations such as ‘unmoreable’, ‘unlessable’ and ‘unworseable’ to the ultimate negation – death – stress its nature as ‘prohibited passage’[12] by emphasising indescribability. The narratorconstantly emphasises the absence of any ultimate subjective source, essence, or locus’ but also ‘paradoxically insists on the…need to witness, testify to and perhaps sign this absence. This witnessing, of course, necessitates the erasure of the very absence it is meant to establish’[13]. Absence of an experience of death is written as an absence of description, saying what it is not, rather than what it could be, but nevertheless saying something of the nothing.

In his essay on Endgame, Adorno describes the play’s setting as a ‘zone of indifference, between interiority and exteriority’[14]. I believe this can also be applied effectively to Worstward Ho. If ‘zone’ is replaced with ‘void’, then ‘dying’ can be perceived as a borderless space that embodies absence in its purest form. Adorno believed that Beckett alone was capable of writing after the Holocaust because he refused to name the atrocity, and ‘Only in silence can the catastrophe be pronounced’[15]. Beckett’s frequent refusal to explicitly name or represent death could make him more able to speak of it, because he does not rely on the frailty of language to express that which exists outside of experience; as Adorno puts it, ‘That which is incommensurable to all experience can only be spoken of in euphemisms’[16]. Worstward Ho is a text full of awkward rewordings and negations of words such as ‘more’, ‘less’ and ‘worse’ to emphasise the incapacity of language to describe the void. Critchley proposes that Beckett’s language ‘den(ies) access to the void’[17], so the importance of Beckett’s linguistic navigation around the void is what exemplifies his communication of absence.

Beckett and Blanchot were contemporaries, the latter writing specifically on the former’s work[18]. While I do not claim to know if the two were aware of the similarity in their philosophical propositions, the mere fact of such a parallel leads me to believe that their desire to write death as absence, coupled with the compulsion to write, was a strong influence on both writer’s representations of a space of dying. In the 1949 essay, Three Dialogues with George Duthuit, Beckett speaks of ‘an art turning from (the realms of the possible) in disgust…weary of pretending to be able, of being able…of going a little further along a dreary road’, followed by the much-quoted fragment where he hopes for art that embraces ‘The expression that there is nothing to express…together with the obligation to express’[19]. Blanchot’s proposal that the writer must both say nothing and something was published in the same year[20]. Beckett’s space is closed, yet borderless; absent, yet present. It is a paradoxical, aporetic space that he attempts to communicate by turning away from the realm of the possible and entering the impossible and incommunicable.

In the same essay, Blanchot imagines a conversation between a writer and his inner voices, which conflict in their instructions on how to write; the first commands ‘You will not write, you will remain nothingness, you will keep silent, you will not know words’ while another ‘Know nothing but words’, and yet another ‘Write to say nothing’, and last but not least the order to ‘Write to say something’[21]. This internal dialogue encapsulates rather well the struggle to communicate absence through writing while being forced to say something, even only because a word cannot be nothing. This can be compared to the struggle of writing an experience of dying – one that is something and nothing at the same time. Kathryn White claims that works such as Worstward Ho focus on ‘exploring the void where silence must logically reign supreme…(but) the silence that one expects to uncover at the end of these texts remains elusive, as termination is inevitability denied’[22]. The text’s narrator asks:

‘What when words gone? None for what then. But say by way of somehow on somehow with sight to do. With less of sight. Still dim and yet – No. Nohow so on. Say better worse words gone when nohow on. What words for what then? None for what then. No words for what when words gone.’[23]

These questions ask what are we to do when there are no words for whatever follows the loss of language. However, the speaker does go on, much like the narrator of this text’s predecessor, The Unnamable. This suggests that ‘nohow on’ embodies space without language, the space of death perhaps, an impasse comparable to Derrida’s ‘nonpassage’. The narrator claims there are no words for that space, but yet they speak of it. This is an excellent example of communicating absence through self-negation of language; writing to say something and writing to say nothing at the same time. In this way, the narrator of Worstward Ho represents the literary struggles of Beckett himself.


[1] Derrida, Jacques, Aporias, p. 8

[2] Beckett, Samuel, The Unnamable in Three Novels, p. 287. Further references shall be abbreviated to TN

[3] Critchley, Simon Very Little…Almost Nothing, p. 166. Further references shall be abbreviated to VL

[4] Katz, Daniel, Saying ‘I’ No More: Subjectivity and Consciousness in the Prose of Samuel Beckett, p. 101

[5] ibid, p.23. This aporia involves a large amount of work, not least Heidegger’s Being and Time, but in the context of this discussion I will limit my reference to Derrida’s text.

[6] Beckett, Samuel, Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, Stirrings Still, p. 101. Further references shall be abbreviated to C.

[7] ibid, p. 86

[8] VL, 166

[9] C, p. 89

[10] ibid, p. 92

[11] ibid, p. 82

[12] Aporias, p. 8

[13] Katz, p. 95

[14] Adorno, Theodore W., Towards an Understanding of Endgame, p. 91

[15] ibid, p. 89

[16] ibid, p. 86

[17] VL, p. 153

[18] Where now? Who now? in The Book to Come, for example

[19] Beckett, Samuel, Three Dialogues in Disjecta, p. 139

[20] Literature and the Right to Death, p. 312

[21] ibid, p. 312

[22] White, Kathryn, Beckett and Decay, p. 53

[23] C, p. 93

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