Samuel Beckett – Watt,1953

The only other object in Erskine’s room was a picture, hanging on the wall, from a nail. A circle, obviously described by a compass, and broken at its lowest point, occupied the middle foreground, of this picture. Was it receding? Watt had that impression. In the eastern background appeared a point, or dot. The circumference was black. The point was blue, but blue! The rest was white. How the effect of perspective was obtained Watt did not know. But it was obtained. By what means the illusion of movement in space and, it almost seemed, in time was given, Watt could not say. But it was given. Watt wondered how long it would be before the point and the circle entered together upon the same plane.

Or had they not done so already, or almost? And was it not rather the circle that was in the background, and the point that was in the foreground? Watt wondered if they had sighted each other, or were blindly flying thus, harried by some force of merely mechanical mutual attraction, or the playthings of chance. He wondered if they would eventually pause and converse, and perhaps even mingle, or keep steadfast on their ways, like ships in the night, prior to the invention of wireless telegraphy. Who knows, they might even collide.

And he wondered what the artist had intended to represent (Watt knew nothing about painting), perhaps a circle and its centre in search of each other, or a circle and its centre in search of a centre and a circle respectively, or a circle and its centre in search of its centre and a circle respectively, or a circle and its centre in search of a centre and its circle respectively, or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of its centre and its circle respectively, or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a centre and a circle respectively, or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of its centre and a circle respectively, or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a centre and its circle respectively, in boundless space, in endless time (Watt knew nothing about physics), and at the thought that it was perhaps this, a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a centre and its circle respectively, in boundless space, in endless time, then Watt’s eyes filled with tears that he could not stem, and they flowed down his fluted cheeks unchecked, in a steady flow, refreshing him greatly.

Watt wondered how this picture would look upside down, with the point west and the breach north, or on its right side, with the point north and the breach east, or on its left side, with the point south and the breach west.

So he took it from its hook and held it before his eyes, at arm’s length, upside down, and on its right side, and on its left side.

But in these positions the picture pleased Watt less than it had when on the wall. And the reason for that was perhaps this, that the breach ceased to be below. And the thought of the point slipping in from below at last, when it came home at last, or to its new home, and the thoughts, to please Watt as they did, required the breach to be below, and nowhere else. It is by the nadir that we come, said Watt, and by the nadir that we go, whatever that means. And the artist must have felt something of this kind too, for the circle did not turn, as circles will, but sailed steadfast in its white skies, with its patient breach for ever below. So Watt put it back on its hook, in the position in which he had found it.

Watt did not of course wonder all these things at the time, but some he wondered at the time, and others subsequently. But those that he wondered at the time, he again wondered subsequently, together with those that he did not wonder at the time, over and over again. And many other things in this connexion also, of which some at the time, and the others subsequently, Watt wondered subsequently also, time without number.

One of these had to with the property. Did the picture belong to Erskine, or had it been brought and left behind by some other servant, or was it part and parcel of Mr Knott’s establishment?

Prolonged and irksome meditations forced Watt to the conclusion that the picture was part and parcel of Mr Knott’s establishment.

The question to this answer was the following, of great importance in Watt’s opinion: Was the picture a fixed and stable member of the edifice, like Mr Knott’s bed, for example, or was it simply a manner of paradigm, here to-day and gone to-morrow, a term in a series, like the series of Mr Knott’s dogs, or the series of Mr Knott’s men, or like the centuries that fall, from the pod of eternity?

A moment’s reflexion satisfied Watt that the picture had not been long in the house, and that it would not remain long in the house, and that was one of a series.

There were times when Watt could reason almost as rapidly as Mr Nackybal. And there were other times when his thought moved with such extreme slowness that it seemed not to move at all, but to be at a standstill. And yet it moved, like Galileo’s cradle. Watt was greatly worried by this disparity. And indeed it contained cause for worry.

Watt had more and more the impression, as time passed, that nothing could be added to Mr Knott’s establishment, and from it nothing taken away, but that as it is now, so had it been in the beginning, and so it would remain to the end, in all essential respects, any significant presence, at any time, and here all presence was significant, even though it was impossible to say of what, proving that presence at all times, or an equivalent presence, and only the face changing, but perhaps the face ever changing, even as perhaps even Mr Knott’s face ever slowly changed.

The supposition, as far as the picture was concerned, was to be strikingly confirmed, before long. And of the numberless suppositions elaborated by Watt, during his stay in Mr Knott’s house, this was the only one to be confirmed, or for that matter infirmed, by events (if one may speak here of events), or rather the only passage to be confirmed, the only passage of the long supposition, the long dwindling supposition, that constituted Watt’s experience in Mr Knott’s house, and of course grounds, to be confirmed.

Yes, nothing changed, in Mr Knott’s establishment, because nothing remained, and nothing came or went, because all was a coming and a going.

Watt seemed highly pleased with this tenth rate xenium. Spoken as he spoke it, back to front, it had a certain air, it is true.

Samuel Beckett, 1906-1989   –  Watt, 1943-45, published 1953

Editors Note: Watt was written in English 1942-45, and published as a novel by the Olympia Press in 1953, and performed as a play. It was translated into French in 1968. The abstract painting, which might describe a pure constructivist image is a painting containing ‘boundless space and endless time’.


Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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