“No symbols where none intended”: Samuel Beckett’s Doodles
Doodles from the “Watt” notebooks by Samuel Beckett
Although popularly thought of as a rather dour and ascetic writer, there is a wonderfully playful aspect to Samuel Beckett’s creative output: the pictorial array of raggle-taggle characters and baroque broidery that scampers through his notebooks and manuscripts. Continuously—from decorating 1930s exercise books to embellishing the scraps of paper bearing his 1970s Mirlitonnades—doodling provided an amiable outlet when, yet again, he found himself up against the obduracy of words.
Beckett’s interest in the visual arts is well known. During his exhaustive travels around Germany in the 1930s he kept notes detailing his responses to the Old Master and more modern paintings that he had seen. More communally, throughout his life he formed close friendships with a number of artists including Jack B. Yeats, Bram Van Velde, Henri Hayden, and Avigdor Arikha. However, his appreciation of Fine Art seems to have had no discernibly direct effect on his own spontaneous drawings, which repeatedly appear to have earthier, and more mixed, antecedents.
Although Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Two Men Contemplating the Moon may have given rise to the setting for Waiting For Godot, Beckett also warmed to music hall routines and the silent cinema. He once wrote to Eisenstein asking for a job, and one of his favourite comedians, Buster Keaton, appeared as the central character in his 1964 film, Film. He enjoyed the German cabaret comic Karl Valentin, and borrowed the Marx Brothers’ “three hats for two heads” muddle to use in Godot. This varied visual diet gave him an ingested feeling for caricature that flourished as absent-minded glosses to his written texts.
Bill Prosser, Human Wishes Portrait, ballpoint pen on paper, (42cm. X 42cm.)
For instance, while none of the figurative drawings necessarily represents anyone in particular, the general iconographic mood of doodles on his Human Wishes manuscript (an unfinished drama about the fractious home life of Dr. Johnson written in the late 1930s) is one of comic strippery. Despite including three crucified figures, with all the obvious critical attention and interpretation that this might bring, his seventy tiny characters share the vibrancy of those found in comics and cartoons from the period, such as Comic Cuts and Felix the Cat.
Bill Prosser, Crucifixion No.1, 2009, ballpoint pen on paper,(100cm. x 70cm.)
Or to take a more comprehensive example, the six notebooks comprising his novel Watt, largely produced while Beckett was in hiding from the Gestapo during the war, exhibit a wider expanse of drawn imagery. This ranges from a small, gat-toting, swastika-like figure to other eccentrics who can be either exotically uniformed or barely clothed. One character might sport tattoos, while another gamely juggles. Occasionally, as if exiled from a medieval bestiary, animal bodies sprout human heads (and vice-versa), while around them geometric vegetations gestate into flowers and faces. Monkeys cavort, tumblers balance, and St. George spears the Dragon. There is even a tiny, prescient drawing that looks uncannily like eye-patched Buster Keaton as he appears, much later, in Film.
Common denominators abound too. For instance, a further monstrosity trawled from medieval imaginations—this time a bodiless head scurrying along on two legs—occurs frequently, as do large-nosed, looping profiles (usually facing left, the preferred orientation for right-handed doodlers) wearing bowlers, cloches, or skimmers. Curved stick-figures in animated poses, along with dangles of loops, spirals, and hooks in intricate combination, crop up recurrently. As a rule, shaded lines running diagonally downwards from right to left—again, the direction most natural for right-handers—give any additional tonality.
The later Watt drawings have a developing, balanced naturalism in the way figures walk and stand. But in the single notebook in which Beckett wrote what is certainly his best-known, if not his best, work, En Attendant Godot (1948/9), the doodles have become more complex and idiosyncratic, many with little of the directness and simplicity of their earlier counterparts. His more abstracted characters are now generally constructed by compacting geometrical and natural forms, often with rhyming variants of overall bracelet or hatched shading that together produce a matted, clogged aesthetic.
This congestion proved no drawback in the longer term, however, as for the next thirty years Beckett’s doodles repeat, and to some extent develop, his earlier themes. Simple arithmetical amoebae flourish, frequently with tonal or alphabetical decoration. More complex interactions between naturalistic, abstracted and organic forms coalesce into strange and occasionally beautiful configurations. The abundance of spikes, shards, forks and zigzags is counterbalanced by an equally resplendent number of domes, bows, arcs and billows. Diffusion is as likely as density, exuberance as laconicism.
Bill Prosser, Human Wishes No.8, 2008, graphite on paper, (60cm. x 42cm.)
It is often tempting to parse spontaneous drawings such as these looking for particular psychological meanings. At just about the time Beckett was embarking on Human Wishes three psychologists collected over nine thousand doodles submitted to a newspaper competition and spent several months subjecting them to aesthetic and statistical analysis. They came to the conclusion that no conclusions could be drawn over single pictures, as without specific comments from the artists concerned no psychological interpretation was possible. Just as in psychoanalysis more generally, it is the nuanced details of individual responses that matter.
As a result, no ready-made windows into Beckett’s complicated frames of mind are likely to be found in his drawings. Instead, we must be content with the pictures as we see them, in all their off-hand dexterity and muddled clarity. As he himself famously insisted in Watt, “no symbols where none intended.”
Far more interesting than futile attempts at psychological symbolism, however, is the relationship between the doodles’ topics and their material form. Beckett often used notebooks whose pages were divided into 5mm squares, and many of his geometric doodles begin by delineating one of these squares, then filling it in with vertical or diagonal lines before clustering several of them together. But as well as notebooks, Beckett sometimes wrote on cheap paper which, coupled with his unpredictable fountain-pen, produced an assortment of wayward results. His nib delivered its contents in fits and starts – here a blot, there a scratch – and its ink was of miscellaneous saturation. Such an unstable combination gives, particularly in Human Wishes, a rich diversity of line-weight, line-density, and bleed.
This can have unexpected blessings, where ink seeping from lines that both describe and decorate the central figure’s pullover gives it an unexpected yet entirely plausible woollen feel. But an even more remarkable and intimate legacy has been gifted from this document’s animated, accidental encounters. Free spillage from his pen fixes perhaps Beckett’s only surviving inky fingerprint—a digital reminder of the smudgy, yet sometimes advantageous, by-products inherent in the messier technology of a pre-digital age.
Bill Prosser is an artist, and has recently completed a three-year Leverhulme research project into Samuel Beckett’s doodles. A book showing a selection of this work, ‘Human Wishes’, was published by the University of Reading in 2008. He is currently a Research Fellow at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford.