To and Fro in Shadow: Not I

By Tia Ballantine

"To and Fro in Shadow: NOT I" describes how Samuel Beckett carefully orders the theatrical elements, including setting or lack thereof, of his short one-act play, Not I, to transform text -- a series of signs -- to active communication that effectively alters the viewer's metaphysical and intellectual understanding of "self" by using the unwritten symbols of Dark and Mouth both metaphorically and metonymically to evoke an awareness of the intense isolation necessary for the emergence of a "self" that knows the impossibility of singular existence at the very moment that existence is recognized.

When I first saw Not I performed, I was alone in an empty theatre, sitting to the back, lucky enough to be watching a run-through of the entire play. Without the reassurance of other bodies breathing and coughing, I was perhaps more intensely conscious of the intentional isolation of visual metaphor on the stage and of my own peculiarly transformative response to that isolation, but I trusted that response as real. After the voice had ceased, I sat alone in the dark, my mind racing, aware perhaps for the first time that "I" was not "me," that the only "self" I could claim was the communicative energy I had just experienced as activity -- outside my body and moving away from any identity that I had previously thought mine. I still trust that response. Now, every time I see Not I performed, either on video or on the stage, I collide with the same feeling of being in the presence of the unspeakably sublime that I felt that late afternoon in 1972.
When played on stage, Not I requires a nearly naked and unnaturally dark stage set that bleeds into the undisguised dark of the auditorium. The solitary actress is cloaked, boxed, and elevated above the black painted stage with only her mouth opening and closing, cleanly and clearly, against the dark, teeth visible and disturbingly white, lit by a single spotlight. Located downstage from the Mouth, a tall figure, the Listener, cloaked from head to toe in black, hands and face covered with fabric, stands also elevated above the stage platform. This wordless figure is turned obliquely from the audience so that s/he may look directly on the moving Mouth. Both figures are fixed with an uncomfortable permanence to the stage and the space between them vibrates with an electric absence.
Even before the first word was spoken that afternoon in the emptied theatre, I was overwhelmed by an awareness of loneliness so acute that it felt as if attached to my skin with invisible barbs. I was both separated yet incomprehensibly linked to the two fixed figures on the stage -- the cloaked standing shadow man and the moving Mouth. I felt the weight of the space between performers and empty seats settle as marked distance on my spine. My bones itched, and by the end of the performance, my mind was melting as if thawed by unexpected winter warmth. I was as speechless as the solitary Mouth had been overrun with rapid overflow of words. In less than one-half hour, I had collided with a complete life compressed into an explosive energy that, when released, flooded the surrounding dark and entered my every pore. Somehow, that released life belonged with me but not to me.
Today, nearly thirty years later, I can think about Not I as separated from that volley of silence and word I felt that afternoon, and try to understand how Beckett carefully ordered his play to transform text -- a series of signs -- to unfailing agency and how he used the unwritten symbols of Dark and Mouth both metaphorically and metonymically to evoke an awareness of the intense isolation necessary for the emergence of a "self" that knows the impossibility of its own existence at the very moment that existence is recognized. Stripped of excess and filed to spareness, Not I unveils the painful yet exquisite core of human experience: the knowledge that the very characteristic that grants human beings their unique position on the planet -- the singular ability to identify the "self" as separate, thinking, and individual -- is, after all is said and done, an artificial construction. To abandon possession of the "self" as a marker of being human is to lose a sense of grounding, but if at the same time that the "self" as possessed "self" disintegrates, we also discover ourselves as connected to others, we then find new moorings more various and numerous that are, ultimately, more stable and useful.
Watching Not I, we are disconnected from the conventional and the familiar and as a consequence, we become hyper-sensitive to our need for connections; our minds substitute the desired for that which has been preternaturally removed. Using the power inherent both in the confrontation of opposites (silence against sound, light against dark) and in the representation of isolation (mouth separated from body, viewer separated by dark from conventional response), Beckett focuses our awareness of multiple connections. We hunger for human interaction because the lack of activity on stage denies us such interaction. We are conscious of presence because of absence, sense light because we are in the dark, and feel our bodies because the Mouth on stage has lost its frame.
Accepting these transformative substitutions based on the experience of seeing the play is easy, but analyzing how the transformation occurs is another story. I believe that Beckett crosses and "folds" visual metaphor into verbal metonym in a manner that Roman Jakobson recognizes with his theories concerning both binary opposition and metaphoric/metonymic competition as essential to effective poetic communication. Roman Jakobson suggests that we have a tendency to analyze imagery and meaning using either metaphor or metonym, deciding whether "the symbols and the temporal sequences used are based on contiguity . . . or on similarity" (95) and further suggests that the poetic function of language is foregrounded when metaphoric dimensions are projected on -- and somehow entangled with -- metonymic functions. I would agree, and I would also suggest that the most effective art, such as Beckett's Not I, depends on such dynamic intersection of metaphor with metonymy for an effective delivery of transformative message. This "folding" of metaphor and metonym dissolves the expected and juxtaposes the unexpected, and we respond emotionally and intellectually to both metaphoric and metonymic substitutions without privileging either, thus entering into a fresh philosophical dialogue unimpeded by conventional expectation either of cause and effect or of plot design.
Both metaphor and metonymy construct meaning through an imaginative reconstruction of the familiar world, and both require a trust of psycho-social and historical signifiers within the language, but as a conceptual process that uses likeness or analogy between actual object and its signifier, metaphor is perhaps more visually oriented than metonymy. Because of its associative quality, defining (often through cause and effect) logical relationships between objects, metonymy includes time -- and the vagaries of time -- as an essential element in the construction of new meaning (Scholes 20). If we consider metaphor and metonymy thusly, we understand how the Mouth both as a metaphor for sexual orifices and as a synecdoche for the human body can serve as an icon for the producer and the consumer of words while simultaneously acting as a metonymy for the ongoing processes of entry and exit, birth and death. Such an intersection of metaphor with metonym alters the initial metaphor and causes conceptual and even metaphysical transformation.
Beckett's dark theatre and black stage, for example, alarm us at first because such darkness metaphorically signifies death and dissolution. We are culturally aware of that particular metaphor, and instinctually, we feel threatened when we are abruptly confronted by such unyielding dark, but as the play progresses, the intrusion both of narrative voice and of the notion of time passing remind us of the metonymic significance of Dark both as night and as a necessary complement to light. By overlaying the paradigmatic functions of Dark as Death with the metonymic, or syntagmatic, function of Dark as Passage, the Mouth's non-stop narration overrides the static and symbolic structuring of the stage set, permitting us to revise the visual metaphors for death and for isolation that confront us as the play begins. As the disconnected and slightly threatening Mouth discusses the ineffectiveness of light, the viewer turns to the Dark for comfort. The Mouth tells us that the moon comes and goes, "always shrouded" and that April morning is experienced with the Mouth's disconnected "face in the grass." Initial spoken "sudden flashes" are followed by the repetition of the word "foolish," and the slant rhyme of "flash" and "foolish" erases, or at least confuses, any impulse to understand "sudden flash" as enlightening, so when later "sudden flashes" are followed by expressions of negativity -- "even more awful," "it can't go on," "not that either" -- we accept this rejection of light in favor of the dark. Describing the Dark through the inadequacy of light highlights the metonymic functioning of Dark in Not I as positive and progressive, thus eroding the powerful and emotionally affective metaphor of Dark as Death.
When the Mouth tells us that words come like a sudden unexpected thaw in winter months during "days of darkness," we understand intellectually that speech, and consequently poetry, is born not of gathered light but of gathered dark, and because that understanding comes at the very moment that we are physically experiencing the dark for the first time as embracing, rather than threatening, Mouth and Dark, essential to the visual setting of Not I, lose their ability to terrify. Another transformation of visual metaphor then occurs as the Mouth, initially encountered as an isolated metaphor for sex (the vagina with teeth or the "mouth" of the anus), is transformed through the narration from menace to a symbol having a metonymic relationship with speech and thus with history. Grappling with its staged isolation as metaphoric threat, highlighted in darkness, the Mouth speaks to have its histories heard -- by the dark, by the watchers in the dark beyond the fourth wall, and by the dark-dressed listener, standing yards away elevated on a platform just high enough to preclude any movement towards or away from the Mouth.
When those histories are heard, the visual metaphor recedes in importance as the verbal reasserts its power. Speech itself acquires its own metaphoric existence that projects neatly on its own metonymic agency. Signifying the gate between life and death, the portal of sex and verbal intercourse, when limits are erased, when silence gains volumes, when dark moves to light, the Mouth spills words in bursts as metaphoric of the "little death" of orgasm, primary for the continuance of life, as they are metonymic of poetry, that spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling, primary for the continuance of the creative life. Then, as the disconnected Mouth tells stories in floods of words collapsed into an all embracing dark, the stark misery of those stories told collides with the captured status of the voice, boxed and removed from human gesture. As a result of that confrontation, viewers inevitably experience a compassion birthed by an awareness of the obvious physical imprisonment of voice and of the psychological imprisonment of the incomplete narrated histories of isolation and abandonment. With the emergence of that compassion, the terrifying metaphor of mouth as toothed vagina is banished and an open embrace of the metonymic relationship of the Mouth to open passage occurs. Once again, metaphor folds into metonym, and a clear transformation occurs.
This transformation of metaphor -- Dark as Death, Mouth as Dangerous Sex -- through an intersection with metonymic function creates an open environment that permits that redefinition of the "self" that I experienced that late afternoon in 1972 when "I" shifted to "not I," and I realized that I only existed because of my connectivity. Not I opens with the mouth forming words that cannot be heard, and we first see those moving lips as iconic of the human possessed of a "self" grounded by language. Isolated from both head and body, the Mouth serves both as a visual signifier of the "word" -- an essential marker of the human -- symbolizing speech as clearly as it symbolizes the human who speaks the words, but then, speaking in the Dark, the mouth is stripped of its metaphoric threat by its own narration. Listening, we are acutely conscious at first of ourselves as being isolated and in the dark, but when the narration shifts both Mouth and Dark from being zones of danger to being zones of comfort, we become aware of ourselves first as listeners, individuals, and then unexpectedly, as beings connected to Dark as Passage, Mouth as History. One repeatedly performed gesture, the raising and lowering of the silent Listener's arms, accomplishes this transformation.
"What? . . . Who? . . . No . . . She!" the Mouth demands again and again, first acknowledging herself and then isolating herself in the third person as the generic "she." That deliberate isolation nearly always draws a response from the on-stage Listener who raises and drops masked hands in a gesture of "helpless compassion," suggesting the inevitability of setting aside the "I" in favor of the "she," of moving from "self" to "unself" in order to discover the "self," of knowing that the "self" exists neither as narrated nor remembered, and of knowing the utter surrender required to accomplish any of that. The single repeated gesture of the Listener interrupts the current of words, ceaselessly delivered by the Mouth, and that interruption reintroduces the palpable loneliness of the wordless opening of the play. Re-experiencing that loneliness as the mouth narrates a tale of moving from silence to speech focuses the audience on the "self" as separated exactly at the moment when an awareness emerges of the existence of "self" as dependent on communication, on being heard at a time when the "self" must move closer to the "unself" and recognize itself as wholly dependent for its existence on knowing not the "self," but the space that exists between the "self" and others -- the active space of creative communication.
In conversation with Morton Feldman, an American composer, Beckett once said that that there was only "one theme in his life." When pressed by Feldman to reveal that theme, Beckett wrote this on a musical score Feldman handed him: "To and fro in shadow, from outer shadow to inner shadow. To and fro, between unattainable self and unattainable non-self." After scribbling those words, Beckett promised to write Feldman if he thought of anything he might add. Several weeks later, Feldman received a postcard with the following revision penciled on the back:

to and fro in shadow
from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself
by way of neither
(Knowlson 631-2)

The unattainable becomes the impenetrable, and the non-self becomes the unself while self and unself remain separated yet linked by their mutual essential "not"ness -- not attainable, not penetrable, not in full light, not free of shadow, not stable. Always in motion, as trajectory, as agency, this struggling "self" of "Neither" resembles the self/unself of Not I. The Mouth of Not I moves rapidly from being mutely unconscious of self to an acute speaking awareness of Self. "What?. . . Who? . . . No . . . She!"
The possession of existence, the claiming of the "I," is of no consequence whatsoever. What creates the Self may not be our ability to speak, to remember, to create stories, but rather the fact that to really speak -- to really be ourselves -- we must be understood by at least one other human being. When the Mouth speaks, it addresses no one except the watcher -- inside the Dark and away from light, the real flesh and blood person, who can reply only with a gesture of helpless compassion.

Sometimes people whistle for no reason at all. Not I.
--Beckett, Molloy (171)

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Molloy. NY: Grove P, 1955.

Eakin, Emily. "Penetrating the Mind by Metaphor." New York Times on the Web 23 February 2002.

Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.

Jakobson Roman and Morris Halle. Fundamentals of Language. The Hague: Janua Linguarum, Mouton: 1956.

Scholes, Robert. Structuralism in Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

Return to Beckett Papers

Email Tia Ballantine