Samuel Beckett: From the Talking Cure to the Walking Cure

Author: Andre Furlani (Concordia University)

 “Lovely walk this morning with Father,” Beckett wrote to Thomas McGreevy on April 23, 1933. “I’ll never have anyone like him.”[1] There was grim clairvoyance in that prospect, for William Beckett’s fatal heart attack two months later terminated their Sunday tramps to the Dublin mountains. “I can’t write about him,” Beckett wrote to McGreevy a week afterwards, “I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him.”[2] His father’s death exacerbated the symptoms of hysteria Beckett had been suffering since returning from Paris in 1932: “After my father’s death I had trouble psychologically,” he told James Knowlson.[3] “I was walking down Dawson Street. And I felt I couldn’t go on. […] I found I couldn’t go on moving.” Almost twenty years later, Beckett would begin to write about his father in earnest, in the first of the Texts for Nothing, combining the father and the walk after him: “we walked together, hand in hand, silent, sunk in our worlds, each in his world, the hands forgotten in each other.”[4] This would see him through, and it would be reprised in one of his last and greatest stories, Worstward Ho. Home forgotten, destination none, the image describes the convivial gress or, more precisely, literal con-gress: shared passage, stepping along together, contact not at a location but along a direction. In Beckett’s late work, the image is conflated with that of Dante’s circles—down Hell and up Mount Purgatory, in Virgil’s paternal care—in the Divine Comedy. In his later work, I wish to show, Beckett’s desublimated reimagining of the Romantic pedestrian archetype transforms the regressive narcissism palpable in his early fiction into a congressive instantiation of transitory being.


In the terse 1934 elegy, “Echo’s Bones,” Beckett links mourning to walking and to a death-wish: “asylum under my tread all this day.”[5] On the advice of Geoffrey Thompson Beckett began psychoanalysis in London in late 1933, presenting to Wilfred Bion with severe anxiety symptoms: “a bursting, apparently arrhythmic heart, night sweats, shudders, panic, breathlessness, and, when his condition was at its most severe, total paralysis.”[6] Ulrika Maude notes that, ironically, the symptoms of hysteria followed completion of his translation of André Breton and Louis Aragon’s, “The Fiftieth Anniversary of Hysteria,” for This Quarter in 1932. Maude compares Beckett’s detailed notes on hysteria during his psychotherapy to the involuntary tics and ambulatory automatism pervasive in his subsequent work, linking his cast of deadbeat dromomaniacs as well to the hysterics in vaudeville and German Expressionist cinema.[7] Loss of will, motor disturbances, delirium, amnesia, dyskinesia, fixed ideas, and speech defects afflict many of Beckett’s characters, but it is the walk specifically that eventually becomes a preferred means by which Beckett situates his characters irreducibly in the world. By it he will eventually affirm finite, transitory, vulnerable embodiment: a spectral yet shared embodiment. Perhaps the single enduring emancipating gesture in Beckett proves to be errancy itself, life as meshwork of ways rather than network of stations—coming and going as the ineradicable fact of life, paths rather than destinations. The destination may be the void, but journey is not the laborious interval between departure and arrival; rather, it is the place itself, a passage revealed by the father and, in the late story Worstward Ho, ultimately walked as well with the mother.


Seán Kennedy suggests that such scenes function in Beckett’s work as a synecdoche for an Ireland he refuses to mourn but cannot exorcise: “memories of the father are sustained by memories of the landscape, just as memories of the landscape are inseparable from memories of the father.”[8] The conjured filial walks belong to “an ongoing need to identify with this Irish father/land,” such that “the Irish father/land is one of the few recurring themes to escape Beckett’s ironic self-cancelling rhetoric.”[9] The walk, in Beckett, provides one of the few untraumatic, non-falsifying acts for reverting to the otherwise repudiated bonds of country and kinship. These were the very bonds that had once paralyzed his gait precisely because of their intimate, indeed corporeal, associations—through the soles of the feet, held hands, and shared sightlines—with the early treks across that land with his dearest kin.


With all the clinical lore he gathered on awry locomotion, Beckett abandoned psychotherapy to take up again his walking stick. Along with his writing implement, the ferrule was the chief instrument for a healthy re-gression to father and fatherland. As has been noted by Gaby Hartel, upon his return from the London treatment he embarked on a kind of walking therapy, finding relief and inspiration along the paths he had traversed with his father.[10] He went into therapy because he could not walk, and therapy under Bion had helped to get him back onto his feet. In reducing the risk of paralysis, Beckett could revisit and revise afoot the little dramas of footloose filial passage so imprinted on his troubled memory. Psychoanalytical procedures could supply only a limited nostrum to his recuperation. The asymmetrical interrogative exchanges of psychoanalysis notably reappear in his work predominantly as goading, belligerence, and ordeal, as in Eleutheria, Rough for Radio II, Catastrophe, and What Where.


Beckett’s walkers meanwhile are liable to be contemplative, quiet, and sometimes even serene. Where there is talk, as in the story “Enough,” it is as digressive and inconsequential as the meandering walk itself. Sharing a view surpasses sharing an opinion, going on is better than getting somewhere. Leslie Stephen, an influential late Victorian advocate for the Sunday tramp, said: “The walks are the unobtrusive connecting thread of other memories, and yet each walk is a little drama in itself, with a definite plot with episodes and catastrophes.”[11] In a February 27, 1934 letter to Nuala Costello, Beckett extolled “this delicious conception of movement as gress, pure and mere gress,” defining it as “purity from destination and hence from schedule.”[12] In More Pricks than Kicks Beckett commends Belacqua’s walks:


Not the least charm of this pure blank movement, this “gress” or “gression,” was its aptness to receive, with or without the approval of the subject, in all their integrity the faint inscriptions of the outer world. Exempt from destination, it had not to shun the unforeseen nor turn aside from the agreeable odds and ends of vaudeville that are liable to crop up.[13]


Here, the privacy and refuge walking facilitates cannot be sustained, because Belacqua’s solipsism is far from impregnable. The hiker’s ramble parallels and potentially completes the work of psychoanalytical analysis. Although the former is ontological and the latter instrumental, Beckett’s walking cure is not entirely aimless. Even if he may have well recoiled from Kant’s formula of purposiveness without purpose, he found in walking a purposeless purposiveness. In directing his feet nowhere in particular, he arrived somewhere that could only be attained without intent. This has parallels in the psychoanalytic project, since, as Slavoj Žižek contends, its essence is to realize what can only be seized by indirection and without deliberate aim.[14] A key to this dynamic is the conversion of the desultory stroll into a correspondingly desultory text. Once this transposition occurs, the steps themselves are made to function as signifiers that constitute a subtext or subliminal language, one that, from a Lacanian perspective, is precisely the structure of the unconscious. The walking cure becomes, if not a talking cure, a species of writing when it models a textual dimension.


The hiker’s ramble ousts the verbal ramble of the analysand. The latter’s free associations have to get somewhere finally, which can be paradoxically an impediment to achieving satisfactory ends. Therapy is under an urgent mandate of progress whereas the gress is free from entelechies or purposiveness. In Beckett, one clinical sense of regression echoes in the word’s literal meaning of “walking back,” as when, in Worstward Ho, he walks back to the childhood tramps with his father. Like many melancholics before him, Beckett resorted to the proverbial pedestrian cure: solvitur ambulando, or “it is solved by walking.”[15] What could not be talked away might be walked away. Indeed, walking led Beckett to find words for what had immobilized him in the first place. Mark Nixon proposes that psychoanalysis provided an impetus for Beckett to keep the diary that records his September 1936-April 1937 sojourn in Germany: “In what is effectively a written ‘talking cure,’ the stable framework of the diary represents a space, a site in which a projection of inner processes and general preoccupations of the self can be situated.”[16] From the evidence, it is also clear that walking, which he foresaw was to become his modus operandi in Germany,[17] both supplemented and superseded psychoanalysis. As a writer, Beckett would need to combine melancholy reminiscence with the mechanics and indeed the rhetoric of bipedal locomotion, which became his preferred mode of composition. Nixon notes that, for Beckett, melancholy was less a crippling neurosis than a creative mood, one that, while in Germany, he hoped would inspire the composition of a projected, “Journal of a Melancholic.”[18] Instead, he suffered a writer’s block.


Even before the death of his walking companion, Beckett associated walking with reverie and recollection (he was sympathetic to Rousseau), as in a November 8, 1931 letter to McGreevy: “Walking,” he wrote, “the mind has a most pleasant & melancholy limpness, is a carrefour of memories, memories of childhood mostly, moulin à larmes.”[19] Nixon shows how a 1936 excursion to a cemetery outside Hamburg was plotted as a means to a poetic end.[20] It came, but a decade later in the story “Premier amour,” a paternity-fable of a promeneur solitaire who begins by strolling to his father’s grave and ends by walking away from the birth of his child. Beckett eventually transformed the “pure blank movement” of gress into a compositional principle (from the abortive Journal of a Melancholic to the later nouvelles and Comment c’est), a scenario for stage (Footfalls), screen (…but the clouds…), and radio (Embers), and a narrative theme (Molloy, “Enough,” “The Way,” and Worstward Ho). Throughout the “Mirlitonnades,” the deictic pace of the prosody seeks phatic and rhythmic coincidence with the speaker’s aimless (“allant sans but”) steps:




les mots

aux mots

sans mot

les pas

aux pas

un à



Six months of walks during his German Bildungsreise prompted Beckett to begin developing alternative premises of gression rather than progress. When, upon returning from Germany to Dublin, he wrote to McGreevy on March 26, 1937 that, “I like walking more & more, the less aim the better,”[22] he was beginning to perceive that in gress lay not a narrative structure merely but a master trope for being. Gress now becomes an absolute value. Beckett finds an enabling interdependence of flux and fixity; motiveless mobility secures a kind of camouflaged stasis. In the second entry in the “Whoroscope Notebook,” primarily compiled after the return from Germany in April 1937, Beckett conceives of a “dynamist ethic” governing what became the protagonist of Murphy: “Keep moving the only virtue.”[23] Murphy, Chris Ackerley notes, “is an image of peripatetic motion, the monad as nomad.”[24] As narrative principle, gressiveness undoes plot in favour of plod, wayfaring instead of navigation. Walking in Beckett is anoetic rather than ruminative, demonstrative, or inquisitive; not a coagulant of thought but its solvent.


Those Sunday tramps that William Beckett invited his son to join belong to a well-established Victorian custom. Like Woolf, Beckett had this legacy inculcated literally through the soles of his feet: “I didn’t dally or loiter in any way, just walked very slowly, little short steps and the feet very slow through the air.”[25] Loitering is, of course, literally flânerie (the story was Beckett’s first original English text in over a decade), be it in the sense of genteel sauntering or vagrancy. Although he walked almost daily the Paris of Arcades flânerie, of Dadaist and Surrealist déambulation, and of the Situationist dérive, Beckett practiced no such pedestrianism, nor do his characters. Leslie Stephen’s “In Praise of Walking,” remains closer to the aesthetic of William Beckett’s son than does Walter Benjamin’s “The Flâneur,” Philippe Soupault’s The Nights of Paris, or Guy Debord’s psychogeography, the latter initiated in Paris just as Beckett composed his story there.[26] The rural rounds that make up a month of Sundays in “From an Abandoned Work” compile three of those little dramas that, for Stephen, the walk can stage: “I have never in my life been on my way anywhere, but simply on my way,” declares the story’s prodigal son.[27] The flâneur is replaced by the vagrant and the fugitive, who is too visibly impecunious to achieve anonymous immersion in the crowd, too culturally indifferent to relish antiquities or atmospheres, and too cynical to register subliminal metaphysical constants or receive rapturous private epiphanies.


The Beckett walk is thus not an interpretative walk, elucidating material history, social customs, and private manners. There are no Joycean accretions of actuality, psychological formulae, and social contexture. His wanderers hardly know where they are, even who they are: “our town boasts two” canals in “First Love,” but Dublin is not identified and “I never knew which was which.”[28] So much for the champion of Ulysses. Perhaps the anxiety of influence could be walked off. Molloy is not collecting impressions or pursuing a quixotic streetwise gamine to the madhouse, as does Louis Aragon in Le Paysan de Paris, but is crawling back to his senile mother. He is not botanizing on the pavement: Paris, London, and Dublin are not palimpsests to be deciphered for clues to occult hidden orders of meaning. His characters are not psychogeographers scouting in the social margins for frissons of alterity, or for awakening subcultures, or obscured historical vestiges; they occupy that margin already.


“What possessed you to come?” the first of the Texts for Nothing asks itself:


To change, to see, no, there’s no more to see, I’ve seen it all, till my eyes are blear, nor to get away from harm, the harm is done, one day the harm was done, the day my feet dragged me out that must go their ways, that I let go their ways and drag me here, that’s what possessed me to come.[29]


The atavistic locomotive compulsion overrides ratiocination, just as the foetus initiates bipedal motions before the cerebral cortex has even formed. Breach-birth and foot first birth are common themes in Beckett. Over time, the feet become a uniquely expressive medium, scoring audible traces of a “withershins” (counter-clockwise) ethos which, David Tucker shows, has one source in the Ethica: “For every Obligation of man is concerned with either coming hither, being here, or departing hence; in short, with hither, here, and hence.”[30] Beckett transcribed Geulincx’s claim that the essence of being lay in flux: “in coming hither, acting here, departing hence.”[31] He also transcribed: “I have my whole being in coming hither, acting here, departing hence.” He approved a recording of Endgame that captures “Clov’s feet.”[32] Ruby Cohn recalls of their West Berlin ambles in 1975: “In the street, in a museum, in various buildings, he would sometimes stop stock still and listen to people’s footsteps.”[33] In Footfalls, May’s step imprints an otherwise precarious existence: “Steps: Clearly audible rhythmic tread,” notes a stage direction.[34] She tells her invalid mother that “the motion alone is not enough, I must hear the feet, however faint they fall.”[35] As her steps slow over the course of the play, the light fades and the chime rings more faintly, until in the fourth and final interval she disappears. For his 1976 production of the German version, Tritte, at the Schiller-Theatre Werkstatt, Beckett further modified the steps, turns, and pauses in symmetrical relation to the duration of the chime and the glow in order to reinforce May’s evanescence between gleams. As her pace, so her being ebbs.[36]


Most of Beckett’s determinedly immobile characters are sitting ducks for sunlight (Happy Days), spotlights (Play), disapproving family (Eleutheria), demanding lovers (Murphy and Molloy), lids (Endgame), and old voices and ghostly accusers (Krapp’s Last Tape and Eh Joe). By contrast, for all their apparent abjection, and perhaps even because of it, Beckett’s aimless wanderers, including the companions in “Enough,” the cloistered comitatus of Quad, the Heraclitian cortège of “The Way,” and the plodding family in Worstward Ho, come closest to that vision of humility, simplicity, and truth he recommended to Arland Ussher in a March 25, 1936 letter: “contemptus negatives sui ipsius [one must deny oneself]. Humiliter, Simpliciter, Fideliter.”[37] Beckett’s motiveless meander combines Geulincx with Bunyan, as well as with the walking cure in The Anatomy of Melancholy and the Romantic promenade solitaire. It is not a progress from question to answer, from complaint to cure, or from damnation to salvation. The vient-et-va pattern that he embodied in Come and Go is not remedial or soteriological but ontological: pilgrim’s gress. It is not a footloose amble into well-being but amble as being, a governing condition of possibility and limit. Beckett’s characters are vulnerable to an effacement that walking forestalls. Their tread individuates even the unnamed, faceless four players of Quad: “Footsteps: Each has his own particular sound,” he indicates.[38] “One should hear Vladimir’s feet,” Beckett signalled to a director of Waiting for Godot.[39] “The number of steps paced is again enumerated in …but the clouds…: “He advances five steps…advances fives steps.”[40] In the German diary for October 25, 1936, after taking a necromantic stroll among the graves of Ohlsdorf cemetery outside Hamburg to inspire the poems that did not come, Beckett notes that “the noise of my steps in the leaves reminds me of something, but can’t find what.”[41] Later he realized that it reminded him of kicking up leaves in childhood.


Ambulo ergo sum: in Beckett, to be is to beat a path. Although his characters are chiefly regarded as Cartesian solipsists who yearn for seclusion in a hushed theater of consciousness or within the dim recesses of a Leibnizian monad, Beckett reinforces at every turn the poignant exposure of his bare, forked animals and, quite literally, the steps that these ungainly creatures must take in order to sustain the precarious poise of their finite human embodiment. Taking steps in Beckett is no mere trope of tactics and precaution, for he recovers, in the age of the internal combustion engine, the primitive grandeur of bipedal mobility, and does so without recourse to the exhausted tropes of flânerie or pastoral. Meanwhile, the perishable imprint of his characters’ footsoles on the sand and dust and mud is elevated to the perdurable dignity of print, a secondary circulation and literary supplement to the sound of a tread that, for Beckett, spites the void and reverberates with human perseverance.


The anthropologist Tim Ingold proposes a gressive ontology that distinguishes wayfaring from navigation. Wayfaring is an autotelic way of being in a mesh-worked world of lines in which cognition is distributed palpably over the body. In navigation, by contrast, passages are transitions merely between nodes of a fixed teleological network, where the human is reduced to a passenger, sedentary even at the controls of the capsule, the path he or she follows a mere relay between stations. The wayfarer travels not across a territory but along it, part of the world’s restless coming into being:


the path of the wayfarer wends hither and thither, and may even pause here and there before moving on. But it has no beginning or end. While on the trail the wayfarer is always somewhere, yet every “somewhere” is on the way to somewhere else. The inhabited world is a reticulated meshwork of such trails, which is continually being woven as life goes on along them.”[42]


The navigator plots a course in advance with an abstract cartographic representation that the journey properly replicates. By contrast, in wayfaring one follows in footsteps, and reconstructs the itinerary as one goes along.[43] The literary parallel is apparent to Ingold who, drawing on de Certeau and on the mechanics of the ductus, makes walk and text homologous. “Every text, story or trip, in short, is a journey made rather than an object found,” each an original performance regardless of the familiarity of the trail.[44] Beckett’s later texts combine a predominant image of pedestrian passage with a rhetorical organization that strives, above all, to suggest not a plot closely navigated but a passage uncertainly opened. Atelic deviation is the norm, yielding a walking style that, Gaby Hartel notes, is “subjectively oriented and desultory, unheroic, fragmentary, associative, unhierarchical, alogical.”[45] Typical of this is the story “Enough,” which begins in the middle of things, a refractory, taciturn mentor guiding an obedient acolyte on a circuit without inception or conclusion, the pair oblivious to landmarks and landscapes, their pointless peregrination without moral uplift or turpitude, the tale organized on the hoof, in the form of a tentative first draft.


Company, composed a few years later, is the imaginative reconstruction of the stages in a filial itinerary that begins beside the father, then with his spirit “at my elbow,” and finally without “father’s shade.” In the last walk through the snow he wanders off his “beeline” path in a “swerve” that freezes him in the snow.[46] The footsteps receive Beckett’s customarily exact analysis, in part because, as so often in his work, the foot plays an independent role, indeed does some of the crucial thinking on behalf of a mind too abstracted and self-afflicting: “The foot falls unbidden in midstep or next for lift cleaves to the ground bringing the body to a stand. Then speechlessness whereof the gist, Can they go on? Or better, Shall they go on? The barest gist. Stilled when finally as always hitherto they do.”[47] The stillness once sought by Murphy and the narrator of “The Calmative” is registered in his late fictions as physical or moral paralysis. “A great swerve. Withershins. Almost as if all at once the heart too heavy. In the end too heavy.”[48] Can’t go on? He doesn’t, for an ellipsis implies that he never budged again.


In Company, the enumerated paces along a straight path to the pastures is drained of any bucolic bewitchment. The narrator navigates a habitual, strictly-plotted “beeline,” but the compensatory mechanism of a computational mania is doomed. The legs and the spirit lead him off course, a “swerve” that brings him to a halt, the deviation imprinted in the snow. “Withershins on account of the heart.”[49] Company thus transposes the paralysis in Dawson Street that Beckett recalled for Knowlson. Presumably without having submitted to therapy, and thereby without having acquired the corresponding capacity to walk away from it, the character, prone in a Miltonic “darkness visible,”[50] is permanently immobilized.


In Beckett, the walk is performance, not intellectual foraging but very nearly its reverse, as he wrote in a February 8, 1952 letter to Aidan Higgins: he now realized that his work was not the expression of “the nothing, it seems rather to have been a journey, irreversible, in gathering thinglessness towards it.”[51] The stillness and stirring that was Beckett’s customary mode of composition (ruminative walks preceding drafting at a desk) structures his late prose texts. In them an immobile creator devises a pedestrian tableau vivant in a saccadic language that strives to coincide with the pedestrian image conjured, one that finally ebbs from representation. It is the zenith of Beckett’s own “dynamic ethic.” “An oscillation is not solved by its coming to rest,” he wrote in his diary at the end of his German Bildungsreise in 1937.[52] He learned finally that the oscillation could be a kind of rest, indeed not mere inertia or paralysis. Movement becomes rest, as he had sensed decades earlier when repeating to McGreevy a cherished Italian maxim: “Have been walking feverishly, with [his brother] Frank & alone. Quando il piede cammina, il cuore gode [when the foot walks the heart rejoices.]”[53] This melancholy victim of an arrhythmic heart however adds: “‘Gode’ is rather strong. ‘Posa’ would be better.” That is: when the foot walks, the heart rests.[54] In Worstward Ho, pacing and rest will finally coincide, the now-aged son in step with parental shades: “at rest plodding on.”[55] Here this metaphysical quest for an inversion of Novalis’s “blue flower” is pursued to the very “evermost almost void.”[56]


When the foot walks the heart…rests, rests in plodding on: in this culminating late text Beckett resumes the childhood walks with his father that he had been retracing on foot and revolving in his mind for decades. Worstward Ho painstakingly assembles, then surrenders, an image of tender abidance in a panting yet propulsive language. The paternal figure here assumes the role almost of Psychopompos. The father permits the son an approach to the abyss, but in the role of Virgil, the father guides the child’s Dante through the Inferno in order to ensure distance from it. Memory and text meanwhile preserve the father from it. Despite and even by means of the instability of language and erosion of memory, Beckett constructs this elementary tableau vivant.


Hand in hand with equal plod they go. In the free hands—no. Free empty hands. Backs turned both bowed with equal plod they go. The child hand raised to reach the holding hand. Hold the old holding hand. Hold and be held. Plod on and never recede. Slowly and with never a pause plod on and never recede. Backs turned. Both bowed. Joined by held holding hands. Plod on as one. One shade. Another shade.[57]


It is a literal congress or stepping in accord—father, mother and child reunion: “The as one plodding train.”[58] The old man’s “black greatcoat cut off midthigh”[59] summons the seasoned Edwardian rambler, the heraldic garment of the memorialized father. It gets retailored, “cut off higher,”[60] but not discarded. Footwear is discarded, suggesting not abstraction into an idealized space or indigence but liberty and elemental contact with the ground: “The boots. Better worse bootless. Bare heels.”[61]


In Matthew Arnold’s “Rugby Chapel,” the poet’s journeying father Thomas Arnold hectors the wanderers to “Strengthen the wavering line, | Stablish, continue our march, | On, to the bound of the waste, | On, to the city of God.”[62] In Beckett’s “little drama” of a Sunday tramp, this father is mercifully silent.[63] The hortatory striving of the Victorian progressive had already been chastened in the culminating contradiction of The Unnamable: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”[64] In the unpublished poems Beckett drafted on the manuscript of Worstward Ho, Beckett continues to twin the preposition with its palindrome: “on whence no sense | but on | to whence | no sense.”[65] “So on,” groans the terminal “Stirrings Still”: “Was he then now to press on regardless now in one direction and now in another.”[66] As Pozzo’s last word in Waiting for Godot, so too the first line of Embers: “On.”[67] Textuality proceeds under the sign and impetus of gress. “Gently gently,” proceeds Ill Seen, Ill Said. “On. Careful.”[68] “On” in Beckett is a prepositional pedestrian imperative governing writing and reading as well as walking. It is an instruction to cover the ground and cover the page. In the same way “on” is also “upon,” a term of contiguity; writing on paper and walking on path.


The late texts are syntactically and lexically as provisional and cautious as the uncertain step of its characters. Composition and fable are made coextensive, like the “straying” gait of the widow in “One Evening” whose foot strikes against the prostate, moribund body of a wanderer.[69] The wary, meandering mode of inscription entails editorial asides, revisions, retractions, and redactions, as though the text were unedited sketchbook notations made along the way—the draft that stays draft. Beckett adheres to an excursive rhetoric that preserves, as residues, the peripatetic condition of its subject and its production. The many homologies between writing and walking were influentially theorized in this very era, most notably by Michel de Certeau, who in The Practice of Everyday Life proposed “a preliminary definition of walking as a space of enunciation.”[70] “There is a rhetoric of walking. The art of ‘turning’ phrases finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path (tourner un parcours).”[71] In the 1971 novella Going, Thomas Bernhard, Beckett’s stable-mate at the German publishing house Suhrkamp, attempted to produce a fusion of physical and mental pacing in the story of two Vienna strollers reflecting on the passage of a suicidal peripatetic philosopher. “Going and thinking stand in an uninterrupted relationship of intimacy to one another, says Oehler. The science of going and the science of thinking are basically a single science.”[72] Like Going, Beckett’s later work harnesses the pedestrian speech act to unite the psychoanalytic talking cure with the primitive regimen of the walking cure.


Like the disintegrating limbs of Alberto Giacometti’s charcoal walker illustrating the first American edition of the Worstward Ho, Beckett’s language plods towards its own dissolution, eroded against the negative force of the void it would affront. Such decay is the paradoxical condition of the prose’s vitality. Phonemes collide to form novel conjunctions, no sooner compounded than atomized. Adapting a Romantic lyric trope, Beckett uses the walk to naturalize literary procedures. The expository detail and mimetic informality ensures deixis, the language assimilating itself to the specific situation of the utterance. The walk is a desublimated bipedal instantiation of life lived along paths, of the hither-here-hence. Beckett seizes on the phatic and rhythmic possibilities as well as the representational limitations of the equation of pedestrian and textual operations, rendering overt the act of composition and the presence of an aesthetic and perceptual frame. The walk undergoes reiteration, revision, and even recantation. Bound by the instability of the signifier, the aesthetic construction is not transcended; the way is shared silently and narration is staccato. No talking cure here. Consciousness cannot contain the immemorial filial walk, memory cannot retrieve its details impartially, and language cannot order it definitively. Yet this place is nevertheless an ineffable congress, covered on foot and partially recoverable upon the page, which reproduces and performs the shared sightlines that, as text, Worstward Ho invites the reader to follow.


Walking in Beckett is the malady, is dromomania or fugue or hysteria, but it is also the cure. He had lost his cherished walking companion yet could reach him on foot and on the page, along parallel lines of path and print. The bereft Beckett told McGreevy that he could not write about his father, only walk after him, but in walking after his father, Beckett could indeed write about him, and by writing the walk, he was able to walk off the potentially paralyzing effects of mourning and melancholia.


[1] Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume One: 1929-1940, ed. Martha Dow Fesenfeld and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 154.

[2] Ibid, 165.

[3] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 167.

[4] Samuel Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, ed. S.E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 103-4.

[5] Samuel Beckett, The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett, ed. Seán Lawlor and John Pilling (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 23.

[6] Knowlson, Damned to Fame, 169.

[7] Ulrika Maude, “Beckett, der expressionistische Film und Kleists Marionetten,” Samuel Beckett und die deutsche Literatur, ed. Jan Wilm und Mark Nixon (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2013), 89-104.

[8] Seán Kennedy, “Does Beckett Studies Require a Subject? Mourning Ireland in Texts for Nothing,” in Samuel Beckett: History, Memory, Archive, ed. Seán Kennedy and Katherine Weiss (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 25.

[9] Ibid., 25, 23.

[10] Gaby Hartel, “‘Punkt in Bewegung’: Schreiben und Gehen bei Beckett und Hadnke. Eine Skizze,” in Samuel Beckett und die deutsche Literatur, ed. Wilm and Nixon (2013), 159-62.

[11] Leslie Stephen, “In Praise of Walking,” in The Pleasures of Walking, ed. E.V. Mitchell (1934; New York: Vanguard Press, 1979), 18-38.

[12] Samuel Beckett, The Letters, Volume One, 186.

[13] Beckett, More Pricks Than Kicks (London: Picador, 1974), 36-7.

[14] Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan (London: Granta, 2006).

[15] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, vol. 2, trans. R.D. Hicks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1972), vi. 39.

[16] Mark Nixon, Beckett’s German Diaries, 1936-1937 (New York: Continuum, 2011), 47.

[17] “Tired of walking around,” Beckett wrote in the diary as he set off. “But what will Germany be, for 6 months, but walking around, mainly?”; see ibid., 16.

[18] Ibid., 44.

[19] Beckett, The Letters, Volume One, 93.

[20] Nixon, Beckett’s German Diaries, 112-15.

[21] Beckett, Selected Poems, 1930-1989, ed. David Wheatley (London: Faber, 2009), 74.

[22] Beckett, The Letters, Volume One, 489.

[23] Beckett, “Whoroscope” Notebook, MS 3000, Beckett International Foundation Archives, University of Reading Library; see also Chris Ackerley, “Monadology: Samuel Beckett and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz,” in Beckett/Philosophy, ed. Matthew Feldman and Karim Mamdani (Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2012), 145.

[24] Ackerley, “Monadology,” 149.

[25] Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, ed. S.E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 157.

[26] See Walter Benjamin, “Der Flâneur,” Abhandlungen, Gesammelte Schriften Band I-2 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991), 537-69; Philippe Soupault, Last Nights of Paris, trans. William Carlos Williams (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 1992); and Ken Knabb, ed. and trans., The Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006).

[27] Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, 156.

[28] Ibid., 30.

[29] Ibid., 101-2.

[30] David Tucker, Samuel Beckett and Arnold Geulincx (London: Continuum, 2012), 159.

[31] Ibid., 84.

[32] Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume Three: 1957-1965, ed. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014), 229.

[33] Ruby Cohn, “Ruby Cohn on the Godot Circle,” in Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett, ed. James and Elizabeth Knowlson (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 130.

[34] Samuel Beckett, The Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1984), 239.

[35] Ibid., 241.

[36] See Beckett, The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett IV: The Shorter Plays, ed. S.E Gontarski (London: Faber 1999).

[37] Beckett, The Letters, Volume One, 329.

[38] Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays, 292.

[39] Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume Two: 1941-1956, ed. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011), 586.

[40] Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays, 261, 262.

[41] Beckett, “German Diaries,” (six notebooks), Beckett International Foundation Archives, University of Reading Library.

[42] Tim Ingold, Lines: A Short History (London: Routledge, 2007), 81-4.

[43] Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (London: Routledge, 2011), 15-16.

[44] Ibid., 16.

[45] Hartel, “‘Punkt in Bewegung,” 159.

[46] Beckett, Nohow On (New York: Grove, 1996), 28.

[47] Ibid., 27.

[48] Ibid., 28.

[49] Ibid., 36.

[50] Ibid., 8.

[51] Beckett, The Letters, Volume Two, 319.

[52] Nixon, Beckett’s German Diaries, 191.

[53] Beckett, The Letters, Volume One, 313.

[54]See ibid., 265. Beckett so cherished the axiom that he had already quoted it to MacGreevy nine months previously. In a May 5, 1935 letter he reports being “pretty well”: “Also walking enormously. Quando il piede cammina il cuore gode.”

[55] Beckett, Nohow On, 105.

[56] Ibid., 113.

[57] Beckett, Nohow On, 93.

[58] Ibid., 98.

[59] Ibid., 95.

[60] Ibid., 99.

[61] Ibid., 100.

[62] Matthew Arnold, “Rugby Chapel,” Poetical Works (London: Oxford UP, 1950), 292, ll. 205-8.

[63] Beckett, Nohow On, 110.

[64] Beckett, The Unnamable (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 179.

[65] Beckett, The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett, ed. Seán Lawlor and John Pilling (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 222.

[66] Beckett, The Complete Short Prose, 264.

[67] Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1982), 103; Beckett, Embers, in The Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1984), 93.

[68] Beckett, Nohow On, 58.

[69] Beckett, “One Evening” The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, ed. S.E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 253.

[70] Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Stephen Rendall (Berkeley CA: U of California Press, 1988), 98.

[71] Ibid., 100.

[72] Thomas Bernhard, Gehen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1971), 86.