Wolf Kittler
Search for other papers by Wolf Kittler in
Current site
Google Scholar
In search of times gone by
Stimuli, signals and wireless telegraphy in Beckett’s novel Watt

In a scathing critique, Beckett diagnosed Marcel Proust’s fabled term of memoire involontaire as a conditioned reflex in the strict Pavlovian sense, pure habit. His response: absolute, and potentially self-destructive freedom. In his novel Watt, he explores this possibility in a long series of experiments involving a man’s leftover food and a dog that is supposed to consume it if and whenever it becomes available. The question is: how to bring the food and the dog together. Answering this question Beckett shows that, under the condition of freedom, there is no such thing as a conditioned reflex. Dog and food can only be brought together via signals, and signals only operate within systems of coercion potentially bordering on torture. Constructing such a signifying system from its most basic level, Beckett replicates, as it were, the history of signals from optical telegraphy to railway and traffic signals up to wireless telegraphy.

‘Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit’, Beckett writes in his essay on Proust, published in 1931 (1965, 19). Each element of this metaphor, even the vomit, is a quote from Ivan Pavlov's studies on the digestive glands of dogs. Only their combination is Beckett's invention. The parameters of a typical experiment conducted at the Imperial Institute for Experimental Psychology in St Petersburg under Pavlov's direction are described in the following paragraph:

We come now to consider the precise conditions under which new conditioned reflexes or new connections of nervous paths are established. The fundamental requisite is that any external stimulus which is to become the signal in a conditioned reflex must overlap in point of time with the action of an unconditioned stimulus. In the experiment which I chose as my example the unconditioned stimulus was food. Now if the intake of food by the animal takes place simultaneously with the action of a neutral stimulus which has been hitherto in no way related to food, the neutral stimulus readily acquires the property of eliciting the same reaction in the animal as would food itself. This was the case with the dog employed in our experiment with the metronome. On several occasions this animal had been stimulated by the sound of the metronome and immediately presented with food – i.e. a stimulus which was neutral of itself had been superimposed upon the action of the inborn alimentary reflex. We observed that, after several repetitions of the combined stimulation, the sounds from the metronome had acquired the property of stimulating salivary secretion and of evoking the motor reactions characteristic of the alimentary reflex.

(Pavlov, 1927, 26)

During the experiments, the dogs were chained to a scaffold. 1 In one of them they were repeatedly injected with morphine, which, as Pavlov explains, produces ‘nausea with profuse secretion of saliva, followed by vomiting, and then profound sleep’ (Pavlov, 1927, 35). And in the end, Pavlov could formulate a simple law: ‘It is obvious that the different kinds of habits based on training, education and discipline of any sort are nothing but a long chain of conditioned reflexes’ (395).

In Beckett's reading, ‘the action of involuntary memory’, which, in Proust's novel À la recherche du temps perdu, ‘is stimulated by the negligence or agony of Habit’, is as ‘persistent and monotonous’ (Beckett, 1965, 35–9) as the repetitive pattern of Pavlov's experiments on conditioned reflexes.

About two decades later, in his novel Watt, 2 Beckett returns to the problem of memory and habit, but under a different name and under different conditions. What was called habit is now a set of rigid rules, and the food to which the dog is chained is not his vomit, but a certain Mr Knott's leftover food, which does, however, have the consistency of vomit, as we will see. Among the title character's duties in Mr Knott's service are the following tasks. Every Saturday, he must prepare and cook a sufficient quantity of food ‘to carry Mr Knott through the week’. This dish is to be ‘served to Mr Knott, at twelve o’clock noon sharp and at seven p.m. exactly all year round’ (Beckett, 1970, 88). Watt's instructions are ‘to give what Mr Knott left of this dish, on the days that he did not eat it all, to the dog’ (91). And that dog's attendance is, finally, ‘required, not at any odd hour of the day or night that it might fancy to drop in, no, but between certain definite limiting hours, and these were, eight o’clock p.m. and ten o’clock p.m.’ (92).

While it may be true, as the first sentence of the whole passage states, that ‘Mr Knott's meals gave very little trouble’ (87), the disposal of his leftovers turns out to be a nightmare of complications for two reasons. First, there is ‘no dog in the house, that is to say, no house-dog, to which the food could be given, on the days that Mr Knott did not require it’ (91). Second, it is impossible to predict whether there will be leftover food on any given day, and if any, how much. Confronted with the randomness, or shall we, in reference to one of Beckett's earliest works, call it the ἐλευϑερία, 3 the absolute freedom of Mr Knott's eating ‘habits’, the dog has no chance of ever forming a habit regarding the consumption of the former's leftover food. Thus, instead of asking how a dog would respond to a series of identical stimuli, Beckett invents a scenario that comes remarkably close to the thought experiments which telecommunication engineers were conducting between the 1920s and 1940s, the time when Beckett started his book on Proust and finished his novel Watt. In a paper on ‘The Transmission of Information’, published in 1928, the radio engineer Ralph Hartley suggested that in order ‘to establish a measure of information in terms of purely physical quantities’, it was ‘desirable […] to eliminate the psychological factors involved’, and he continued as follows:

To illustrate how this may be done consider a hand-operated submarine telegraph cable system in which an oscillographic recorder traces the received messages on a photosensitive tape. Suppose the sending operator has at his disposal three positions of a sending key which correspond to applied voltages of the two polarities and to no applied voltage. In making a selection he decides to direct attention to one of the three voltage conditions or symbols by throwing the key to the position corresponding to that symbol. The disturbance transmitted over the cable is then the result of a series of conscious selections. However, a similar sequence of arbitrarily chosen symbols might have been sent by an automatic mechanism which controlled the positions of the key in accordance with the results of a series of chance operations such as a ball rolling into one of three pockets.

(Hartley, 1928, 536–7)

Like Mr Knott's appetite, Hartley's ball produces a time series of absolute uncertainty, or, to phrase it in terms of Claude E. Shannon's ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’, published in 1948, 4 a series of maximum entropy. And just like the engineers, Beckett is testing the capacity of an information channel. But instead of using a random number generator in order to get rid of ‘psychological factors’, he eliminates these factors by introducing the unpredictability of a human being's freedom. Instead of ‘an oscillographic recorder’ which ‘traces the received messages on a photosensitive tape’, he imagines a Pavlovian dog at the other end of the channel. And the object that is to be transmitted over this channel is not a series of voltages, but a special dish which duplicates, so to speak, the randomness of Mr Knott's appetite. It consists not of a carefully chosen set of ingredients, but of a hotchpotch of heterogeneous components: all kinds of meat, beverages, medicines, preservatives, but no sweets. And instead of being divided into subsets, which, in the traditional European cuisine, are to be kept apart from each other either within the space of the table or over the course of the meal, all of these ingredients are ‘well mixed together […] and boiled for hours, until the consistence of a mess, or poss, was obtained’ (Beckett, 1970, 87). It is a recipe for culinary entropy, or, to phrase it more concretely, for a dish that has the consistency of vomit.

In Beckett's novel, this dish is one of three variations on the theme of food. There is, first, the ‘consecrated wafer’, at the beginning of the text, which, if eaten by a rat, opens a can of worms for Thomist theologians (Beckett, 1970, 28–9). At the other end is the occasional ‘plumb young rat’, which Watt and his friend, the narrator, after having first fed it with all kinds of ‘tidbits’, end up feeding, ‘after its repast’, ‘to its mother, or its father, or its brother, or its sister, or to some less fortunate relative’ (155–6). In each of these two scenarios, an animal breaks one of the fundamental dietary laws of Western European culture. One, only humans are allowed to eat a consecrated wafer. And two, thou shalt not eat thy own kind and kin. But if the Creed of Chalcedon was right in stating that Christ ‘must be acknowledged […] in two natures’  5 that ‘came together in one Person and one hypostasis’ (Denzinger, 2012, 109), 6 then rats and humans are not so different from each other as one might like to think. Rats eating their own relatives simply replicate what humans do when they celebrate the Eucharist, and humans celebrating the Eucharist are doing what rats tend to do.

Dogs, on the other hand, for whom Watt ‘had no love […], greatly preferring rats’ (115), stand for another dietary law that regulates the relation between humans and domestic animals. It is not about the restrictions on the use of food, but about its preparation: only animal feed can be indiscriminately mixed and mashed. And since this is exactly what happens to Mr Knott's food, it is only consequent that it ends up being served to the dog. And then, the following question arises:

By what means then were the dog and the food to be brought together, on those days on which, Mr Knott having left all or part of his food for the day, all or part of the food was available for the dog? (93)

Watt's answers to this question range between two extremes: a dog that would never find it ‘worth its while’ (94) to call regularly on Mr Knott's house because a random series of leftover food cannot trigger a conditioned reflex, and the prediction that ‘very likely very soon a real live famished dog as large as life was coming night after night as regular as clockwork’ (100), which Beckett, in a storyteller's sleight of hand, finally, fulfils. Between these extremes, that is, in the span between a probability of zero and one that the dog and the food will be brought together, Watt considers a series of intermediate solutions, each of which is characterised by an increase in complexity and hence countered by an increasing number of objections, and all of which are, finally, replaced by Mr Knott's own, radically different solution to the problem.

Solution number one: Find an ‘exceptional hungry or starving dog […] that for reasons best known to itself would have considered it worth its while to call at the house, in the manner required’ (94). Two objections: 1) ‘Chances of finding such a dog's existing were small’; 2) The likelihood of finding it, ‘if it did exist, were slight’ (94).

Solution number two: Select an ‘ill-nourished local dog […] to which with the consent of its proprietor all or part of Mr Knott's food might have been brought, by one of Mr Knott's men’ (75). Three objections: 1) Might this not be, for Mr Knott's men, too challenging a task?; 2) Was there ‘any guarantee of the dog's being in, when the man arrived?’ (75); 3) Was there any guarantee that the dog would be hungry at the exact moment of the man's arrival?

Solution number three: employ a messenger ‘to call at the house every evening at say eight fifteen o’clock in the evening on which food was available for the dog to take that food to the dog, to any dog, and to stand over that dog until it had eaten the food, and if it could not or would not finish the food to take what remained of the food to another dog’, etc. etc. (95). Four objections: 1) Was there ‘any guarantee that the messenger would indeed give the food to the dog’? (95); 2) What ‘would happen if the messenger […] failed to call on the house on an evening when food was available for the dog?’ (96); 3) Would the messenger be able to bring the pot back in time; 4) ‘But was a dog the same thing as the dog?’ (96).

Solution number four: ‘A man possessed of a famished dog might have been sought out, whose business brought him, accompanied by his dog, past Mr Knott's house every evening of the year, between the hours of eight and ten.’ In this case, the situation could be signalled to the passing man by means of alternating lights – red, ‘or perhaps better green’, to indicate the presence, and violet, ‘or perhaps better no light at all’, to indicate the absence of food for the dog (96). Five objections: 1) Does such a man exist?; 2) Can he be found?; 3) Might he not confuse the different signals?; 4) Might not Knott's servant make mistakes when setting up these signals?; 5) Might this not be, for Mr Knott's men, too challenging a task?

The long and meticulous descriptions of the various solutions to ‘the problem of how to bring the dog and the food together’ (93), amount to a history of telecommunication media in nuce. At first, Watt assumes that a dog which has found food at Mr Knott's doorstep more than one time would acquire the habit of returning to that place again and again. Yet, since the rate at which Mr Knott's leftovers become available is too irregular to trigger a conditioned reflex, Watt considers another solution. Instead of expecting the dog to come looking for the food, one of Mr Knott's men is to seek out the dog and provide it with the food. Yet, since this may be too much of a burden for Mr Knott's men, Watt thinks of introducing a third party, a messenger who mediates between the food and the dog. While there is no doubt that this arrangement already meets the criteria of a telecommunication system, albeit a primitive one, it is important to note that rather than transferring information, this messenger would transport food, that is, a real object, or, in the terminology of economics, freight. And because it is uncertain what might happen to the food in this case, Watt finally decides to use signals instead of a messenger. As if building this system up from scratch, he envisions not one, but several possible options:

A man possessed of a famished dog might have been sought out, whose business brought him, accompanied by his dog, past Mr Knott's house every evening of the year, between the hours of eight and ten. Then on those evenings, on which food was available for the dog, in Mr Knott's window, or some other conspicuous window, a red light would be set, or perhaps better a green, and on all other evenings a violet light, or perhaps better no light at all, and then the man (and no doubt after a little time the dog too) would lift his eyes to the window as he passed, and seeing a red light, or a green light, would hasten to the housedoor and stand over his dog until his dog had eaten all the food that Mr Knott had left, but seeing a violet light, or no light at all, would not hasten to the door, with his dog, but continue on his way, down the road, with his dog, as though nothing had happened.

(Beckett, 1970, 96–7)

Both the man and the dog lift their eyes to the window where the light is displayed, but the dog takes a little longer because, for the animal, this light is neither a signal nor a symbol, but a stimulus that triggers a conditioned reflex only after having been repeatedly combined with the inborn alimentary reflex. The man, on the other hand, understands it immediately because, for him, the meaning of the light is defined arbitrarily, which implies that, instead of having a necessary or natural relation to its referent, the colour of this signal could be anything, red, green, violet, or no light at all. By considering all of these four options for a simple binary decision, and, thereby, rejecting the by now well-established convention of traffic signals, in which red means ‘stop’, and green means ‘go’, Beckett's Watt returns, as it were, to the origins of modern signalling systems, to a time in which the question of which colour should stand for which command was still undecided.

As Ernst Kapp notes in his Elements of a Philosophy of Technology, ‘the semaphore telegraph is now in service to the railway’ ([1877] 2018, 237). At around the time when the different versions of this early telecommunication medium were replaced by electrical systems, railway companies adopted the semaphore principle of optical telegraphy in order to facilitate the communication between the engine drivers and the signalmen in the stations and along the railroad tracks:

About 1841 Sir Charles Hutton Gregory designed and erected at New Cross Station on the Croydon Railway the first semaphore signal, an adaptation of the old semaphore used for telegraphy […], developed by Messrs. Chappe, the inventors of optical telegraphy.

(American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association, 1903, 283)

A signal of this type inspires Mr Tyler, a character in Beckett's radio play All That Fall, to a Shakespearean joke:

Then you have no cause for anxiety, Miss Fitt, for the twelve thirty has not yet arrived. Look. [Miss Fit looks.] No, Miss Fit, follow the direction of my index. [Miss Fit looks.] There. You see now. The signal. At the bawdy hour of nine. [In rueful afterthought.] Or three alas! [Mr Barrell stifles a guffaw.] Thank you Mr Barrell.

(Beckett, 1986, 186) 7

Yet, since semaphore signals are not visible at night, they had to be supplemented with oil lamps, which – depending on the position of the beam – would alternatively illuminate glass panels of distinctly different colours. The question was, which colours? I quote a compendium on telegraphy and signalling techniques from 1867:

Here they used red, there they used green, there they used white light for all clear, here they used red, there green, there white for stop signals, here they employed white, there green, there red light to call for reduced speed.

(Weber, 1867, 46; my translation) 8

There was an urgent need for clear and universal standards, and thus:

In February 1841, a conference of British railway technicians taking place in Birmingham passed resolutions concerning standardised regulations regarding signalling and the meaning of the signal colours, in particular. It was generally established that ‘red’ should mean danger, ‘green’ caution, and ‘white’ all clear. With respect to the fact that, in moments of danger, coloured objects would not be at hand, any waved object, any waved light should mean ‘stop’. These regulations were so simple and practical that they were adopted in the whole world and are still universally valid even if under the somehow changed terms that red should mean ‘stop’, and green ‘drive slowly’, so that the Birmingham conference has been fundamental for all of our signalling today.

(Kecke, 1893, 878; my translation) 9

Because white light tends to outshine coloured signals, and because a signal appears white when one of its coloured glass plates is broken, its use was abolished altogether:

When the block telegraph system was introduced in England, according to which a section of the tracks is either occupied and trains are not allowed to enter, or the section is all clear and trains can continue at full speed, the signal ‘caution’ was eliminated (879). 10

The requirements, which the British Board of Trade issued in 1892, ratified the elimination of white signals in a laconic clause: ‘On the new lines worked independently, the front signal lights to be green for all right, and red for danger; the back lights (visible only when the signals are at danger) to be white’ (Thomas Summerson & Sons, Ltd, 1904, 38). 11 From railway systems, signals moved into traffic-jammed cities. About a decade before Nikolaus Otto's construction of an internal combustion engine, 12 the railway engineer John Peake Knight installed the first traffic light in London to regulate the circulation of horse-drawn carriages:

By 12 December 1868, and with the support of the Metropolitan Police, the first parts of Knight's experimental semaphore signal had been erected at the intersection of Bridge Street and Parliament Street opposite Palace Yard of the newly rebuilt houses of parliament, Westminster. Constructed by the firm of Saxby and Farmer, who were responsible for the signals on the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway, the semaphore consisted of a pillar fitted with lights and arms on three sides indicating two positions: ‘Caution’ and ‘Stop’. The semaphore was operated by a constable who pulled a handlebar, which brought the arms (and lights at night) into either position, providing, at the constable's discretion, a new way of negotiating the flows off Westminster Bridge and those along Whitehall and Parliament Street going east or west. Although relatively successful in managing traffic, the semaphore was removed in January 1869 after a series of explosions caused by a leak in one of the gas mains supplying the pillar.

(López Galviz, 2013)

After Edison's incandescent light bulbs had eliminated such risks, and after the necessary infrastructure of electrical grids had been constructed, traffic signals had a comeback in the early decades of the twentieth century. A US patent for a ‘Municipal Traffic-Control System’, filed by James B. Hoge on 22 September 1913, but only granted on 1 January 1918, proposes, among several other signalling techniques, ‘a method of arranging lamps of different colors adapted to be displayed in sets, each set comprising one lamp of a distinct color for each intersecting street’. 13 ‘The signal’ of this system ‘may be of any of the well-known types of electrically controlled signals in use in railway signaling systems’. 14 And it is equipped with two circuit closers, one for ‘pedal operation’, and another one ‘for convenient manual operation’. 15 Only two years later, on 12 January 1915, William Ghiglieri filed a patent application for a ‘Traffic-Signal’, which, instead of being operated by foot or hand, would be ‘working through a definite cycle automatically’. 16 Granted on 1 May 1917, the ‘invention […] consists of a rectangular shell […] in which are placed the displays […], these displays being arranged in pairs, the upper signals […] being preferably green, and the lower signals […] being preferably red’. 17

Beckett, who was still a child when these patents were issued, belonged to a generation of people who witnessed the spread of traffic signals, as we know them today, all over the world in their lifetime. But the title character of his novel Watt goes even further back. Unlike the traffic lights invented during Beckett's early years, the light Watt ends up lighting for Art, Con, and the dogs Kate and Cis is not powered by electricity. It is a ‘standard oillamp’ (Beckett, 1970, 47, 115) of the type used in railway signalling systems from the mid-nineteenth well into the first decades of the twentieth century (Derr, 1897, 35–7). 18 And even the idea of using alternating lights is, finally, abandoned. If a single light, so Watt's conclusion, were to represent the presence of the food, then ‘no light at all’ would suffice to indicate its absence. The question of the signal's colour would be solved, any redundancy would be eliminated, the system would be stripped down to its most basic level, and the amount of information it would convey, measured in binary digits, would drop from one to zero:

But the light would still serve as a conventional sign for the man, and – after having been combined with the food often enough – as a stimulus for his dog.

Compared to Watt's reflections on the problem of how to bring the dog and the food together the ‘solution that seemed to have prevailed’ (Beckett, 1970, 98), according to Watt's investigations and conjectures, is even more convoluted. It involves not just one, but a whole kennel of dogs, and not just one, but a whole extended family of guardians ‘attached firmly for good’ to Mr Knott's house ‘by a handsome small initial lump sum’, ‘a liberal annual pension’, ‘occasional seasonal gifts’ and ‘well-timed affectionate words’ (99). The purpose of this institution is to guarantee a continuous stream of guardians and their dogs who and which, over generations, will call every evening at Mr Knott's house to take care of the food left over from his meals. While this is, without doubt, the most efficient and perfect solution of the problem, it is also the most brutal, if not to say totalitarian one. It is based on the fact that a whole ‘impoverished family’ (100) is ‘attached firmly for good and all in block, their children and their children's children, to Mr Knott's service’ (99), and that the dog is exposed to a treatment that is nothing less than torture. Seldom ‘left off the chain’ to prevent them from ruining their appetite somewhere else, and forced to either remain famished or to eat ‘a pot of food so nourishing, and so copious, that only a thoroughly famished dog could get it down’, the ‘dogs employed to eat Mr Knott's occasional remains were not long-lived, as a rule’ (112). If the brutality of Pavlov's experiments consists in the application of such painful stimuli as ‘acid’ or ‘very powerful electric shocks’ to the dog's skin (Pavlov, 1927, 252, 344), then Beckett's novel shows that the rigorous rituals of a deadening routine, on which such experiments are based, constitute another, and equally monstrous, form of cruelty.

What forces the dog to come ‘night after night as regular as clockwork to Mr Knott's backdoor’ (100), is neither a habit nor a conditioned reflex, but the arbitrary command that the leftovers of Mr Knott's food be given ‘to the dog’, and the elaborate coercive system of guardians and chains that had to be established in order to fulfil it. Thus, it is not the dog which, as Descartes had claimed for animals in general, operates ‘according to the disposition of [its] organs’, like ‘a clock’ (Descartes, 1985, 141), 19 but a human's tyrannical command that turns animals into ‘many kinds of automatons, or moving machines’ (139) – killing them along the way. From Descartes to Pavlov, and even in the novel À la recherche du temps perdu, ‘the Proustian Discours de la méthode’, ‘the erratic machinery of habit and memory’ (Beckett, 1965, 39) is not a natural given, but an effect of powerful human will. What Pavlov's experiments reveal is not the nature of the dog, but the result of its domestication, the trace of its having been subjected to the laws of a human house (domus) and the commands of its master (dominus).

While the rigorously structured organisation, by means of which the dog is, as it were, chained to the remains of Mr Knott's food, does not include a telecommunication system, a rudimentary form of signalling crops up within its context, nonetheless. It is a result of ‘Watt's refusal to be present when the dog ate the food, and of the measures he was obliged to take, as a consequence’ (Beckett, 1970, 115). As he puts the food ‘outside the door, on the doorstep, in the dog's dish’, he lights ‘a light in the passageway window, so that the doorstep would not be in darkness, even on the darkest night’ (114). Although not intended to serve this function, very dim, only visible from a short distance, and only displayed for ‘three quarters of the year’, because it is not needed ‘in the height of summer’ (114–15), this light indicates the presence of the food to the twins Art and Con, the guardians of the dog. A simple light, only meant to illuminate Mr Knott's back door, turns into a signal for the man, and, again, after having been repeated often enough, into a stimulus for the dog. Out of Watt's withdrawal from the scene, and his decision to put a light in the passageway window instead, emerges the first glimmer of a primordial telecommunication system.

Regarding the ‘general technique’ (Pavlov, 1927, 19) of his experiments, Pavlov explains:

It was evident that the experimental conditions had to be simplified, and that this simplification must consist in eliminating as far as possible any stimuli outside our control which might fall upon the animal, admitting only such stimuli as could be entirely controlled by the experimenter. […] To get over all these disturbing factors a special laboratory was built at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in Petrograd, the funds being provided by a keen and public-spirited Moscow business man. The primary task was the protection of the dogs from uncontrolled extraneous stimuli, and this was effected by surrounding the building with an isolating trench and employing other special structural devices. Inside the building all the research rooms (four to each floor) were isolated from one another by a cross-shaped corridor; the top and ground floors, where these rooms were situated, were separated by an intermediate floor. Each research room was carefully partitioned by the use of sound-proof materials into two compartments one for the animal, the other for the experimenter. For stimulating the animal, and for registering the corresponding reflex response, electrical methods or pneumatic transmission were used. By means of these arrangements it was possible to get something of that stability of environmental conditions so essential to the carrying out of a successful experiment.

(Pavlov, 1927, 19–21)

And describing the wide range of stimuli to which the dogs were exposed within this environment Pavlov writes: ‘Various conditioned alimentary reflexes were established in the dog, namely, to tactile stimuli, visual stimuli, and different auditory stimuli (sound of a buzzer, metronome, a noise, and numerous pure tones)’ (148–9). Other stimuli used in Pavlov's institute include a ‘whistle’ (77), ‘electric lamps’ (79) and ‘the loud buzzing of an electric bell’ (27, 34), which, in the English translation, is also called ‘a buzzer’ (27). 20 By being subjected to these stimuli, which are explicitly defined as ‘signals’ (23; emphasis in original), the dogs were literally hooked up to a telecommunication channel.

Compared to this level of technical sophistication and variation Watt's experiments are extremely primitive. The dog is only exposed to visual, not to auditory stimuli, and these signals are not powered by electricity, but by an old-fashioned oil lamp. Yet, the electric bell that is so blatantly absent from Watt's long meditations on the problem of establishing a firm and secure connection between the dog and Mr Knott's leftover food, returns, as if it had been repressed for too long, in the immediate aftermath of these meditations: ‘Sometimes in the night Mr Knott pressed a bell that sounded in Erskine's room, and then Erskine got up and went down’ (Beckett, 1970, 120). By shifting the focus from the dog to Mr Knott's servant Erskine, Beckett seems to replicate the argument that is formulated in the title of the last one of Pavlov's lectures on Conditioned Reflexes, ‘The experimental results obtained with animals in their application to man’ (1927, 395–411). But the bell whose location and purpose Watt is trying to determine is more appropriate for the stimulation of a dog than for the purpose of communicating with a man:

There was the telephone, to be sure, in a passage. But what sounded in Erskine's room, in the night, was not a telephone, Watt was sure of that, but a bell, a simple bell, a simple little probably white electric bell, of the kind that one presses until it sounds ting! and then lets spring back, to the position of silence. 21

(Beckett, 1970, 121)

According to this precise description, the bell in Erskine's room is neither a ‘trembling or vibrating bell’ (Allsop, 1889, 30–1) nor a ‘polarized bell’ (Shepardson, 1917, 318) of the type common in early telephones, but a ‘single tone bell’ (Allsop, 1889, 32–3), an old-fashioned device that only produces a short ‘ting!’, not the buzzing sound reported in Pavlov's lectures. And Watt's relation to this bell is not that of a Pavlovian experimenter who uses electrical methods or pneumatic transmission for stimulating the animal as well as for registering the corresponding reflex response, but rather that of such an experimenter who is cut off from these transmission channels and barred from entering the space of the objects he is trying to study. It is as if he were locked into one of the isolated research rooms of Pavlov's institute, unable to communicate with the objects of his investigations while, at the same time, being forced to witness the activities of one of his colleagues and not being able to make sense of them. All he knows is that, at the sound of the bell, Erskine gets up and goes down (Beckett, 1970, 120). Left with nothing but an auditory stimulus Watt can only speculate who is pressing the button of the bell. And since there are only two candidates, there are only two possibilities: either Mr Knott is calling Erskine, or Erskine is activating the bell himself, and if so, then he might be doing it in order to trick Watt into believing that his getting up at the sound of the bell is not a conditioned reflex, not a habit, but an act of his free will. It is as if Erskine were simulating the workings of a telecommunication system by sending signals down to ‘the kitchen chimney’ (119) for Watt to interpret. There is no way of knowing what the case might be, and when Watt, finally, gets into Erskine's room, he does not find a solution to the riddle, but a new enigma in its stead:

There was a bell in Erskine's room, but it was broken.

The only other object of note 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.

(Beckett, 1970, 128)

At the beginning of a long mediation on the relation between these two geometric objects 22 Watt wonders ‘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’ (129). In 1865, James Clerk Maxwell predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves that travel through space at the speed of light (Maxwell, 1865). In 1888, Heinrich Hertz proved their existence (Hertz, 1888). And on 27 March 1899, Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first wireless message across the English Channel, about seven years before Beckett was born. And Beckett was in his early teens when the first radio programmes were broadcast. He grew up and lived in a world in which signals could travel not only through and around the atmosphere of our tiny planet earth, but through ‘boundless space’ and ‘endless time’ (Beckett, 1970, 129), a world of universal connectivity. And thus, the long meditations on stimuli and signals in his novel Watt are a search for lost time, a time in which signals were just being invented and in which the absolute solitude of an Odysseus on his raft was still possible, a time in which radio, the medium that Beckett would soon use so efficiently to broadcast the soliloquies of his lonely characters, had not yet been invented.


1 This is shown in the photograph on the page between pp. 33 and 34 (fig. 4). The picture, which bears the caption ‘The animal's section of the double chamber’, shows a dog chained to a scaffold not only by its neck in the front, but also by its hindquarters in the back.
2 According to a note in the first of six notebooks containing the manuscript, ‘Watt was written in France during the war 1940–45 and published in 1953 by the Olympia Press’ (qtd. in Ackerley, 2006, 321).
3 The split stage that serves to isolate Victor Krap from the rest of his family in this drama (Beckett, 1995) recurs in Watt, in the successive allocation of a specific floor to each one of the characters in Mr Knott's house.
4 Beckett finished his novel Watt three years before Shannon's essay was published. And there is no reason to assume, and certainly no evidence, that he knew of Hartley's paper. That there are nonetheless remarkable parallels between Beckett's work and the theories developed by telecommunication engineers in the first half of the twentieth century is due to the fact that their reflections are at least partially based on the same sources. Beckett had read Henri Poincaré's book La valeur de la science, which traces the history of statistical mechanics from Sadi Carnot to James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann, but places particular emphasis on the work of Josiah Willard Gibbs, without, however, mentioning the term ‘entropy’. What Beckett learned from Poincaré is the term ‘démon de Maxwell’ (Poincaré, 183–4; Beckett, 1983, 56). For Beckett's relation to statistical mechanics and its application to information theory, see Salisbury (2010). Shannon never quotes Gibbs, but there is no doubt that his concept of entropy is influenced by his friend Norbert Wiener's book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, whose second chapter ‘On Groups and Statistical Mechanics’ (45–59) contains a long discussion of Henri Lebesgue's and Gibbs's work, and of the latter's concept of entropy in particular (56). Shannon's essay and Wiener's book appeared in the same year, 1948, but it is safe to assume that they knew of each other's work before their publication.
5 ‘ἐν δύο φύσεσιν.’
6 ‘εἰς ἕν πρόσοπων καὶ μίαν ὑπόστασιν.’
7 According to Dirk Van Hulle, ‘the bawdy hour of nine’ is ‘a reference to the classic example of sexual innuendo from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio points out to the ‘nurse’ that ‘the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick [of noon]’ (Shakespeare [Romeo and Juliet, II, iv, 114–5]). […] Unlike Shakespeare's ‘bawdy hand’ the signal Mr Tyler's index points at is merely half-erect, not on the way up, but on the way down, like ‘all that fall’ – which is how Beckett explained the sexual innuendo to Jacoba van Velde when she was working on the Dutch translation’ (Van Hulle, 2010). For the reference to Jacoba van Velde, see Van Hulle (2009, 12).
8 ‘Hier galt rothes, dort grünes, dort weisses Licht für das Ordnunsgzeichen, hier wurde roth, dort grün, dort weiss für Haltesignale verwendet, hier bediente man sich des weissen, dort des grünen, dort des rothen Lichtes um “Langsamfahren” zu rufen’.
9 ‘Im Februar 1841 fand zu Birmingham eine Versammlung englischer Eisenbahntechniker statt, welche über einheitliche Bestimmungen in Bezug auf das Signalwesen und namentlich auch über die Bedeutung der Signalfarben Beschlüsse faßte. Es wurde allgemein bestimmt, daß roth “Gefahr”, grün “Achtung”, “Vorsicht” und weiß “Ordnung” bedeuten solle. Mit Rücksicht darauf, daß im Augenblicke der Gefahr farbige Gegenstände nicht immer zur Hand seien, solle jeder geschwungene Gegenstand, jedes geschwungene Licht “Halt” bedeuten. Diese Bestimmungen waren so einfach und praktisch, daß sie in der ganzen Welt angenommen wurden und, wenn auch unter den etwas veränderten Begriffen, daß roth “Halt” und, [sic] grün “Langsamfahren” bedeuten solle, noch allgemein Gültigkeit haben, und so ist diese Versammlung zu Birmingham grundlegend gewesen für unser ganzes heutiges Signalwesen’.
10 ‘Als daher in England das Blocksystem eingeführt wurde, bei welchem ein Bahnabschnitt entweder besetzt und die Einfahrt in denselben verboten ist, oder bei freier Bahn die Fahrt mit unverminderter Geschwindigkeit fortgesetzt werden kann, kam das Signal “Vorsicht” in Fortfall’.
11 For the date, see Wilson, n.d.
12 Patentschrift No. 352: Gasmotor, 4. August 1877.
13 US Patent 1,251,666, pp. 1, lines 111–2, and pp. 2, lines 1–3.
14 Ibid., pp. 2, lines 18–21.
15 Ibid., pp. 5, lines 97–101.
16 US Patent 1,224,632, pp. 1, lines 52–3.
17 Ibid., pp. 2, lines 29–35.
18 Chapter IV (‘The Signal Lamps’) still gives detailed instructions on ‘some of the points that should be observed in the care’ of such an oil lamp, and only briefly mentions the improvements associated with ‘electric light’. And a paper by L. C. Porter and F. C. Stallknecht on ‘The Electric Lighting of Railroad Signals’, given on 11 March 1920, before the New York section of the Illuminating Engineering Society, describes an adapter, by means of which the filament of an electric light bulb can be placed ‘at the exact focal point of the lens […] in any standard oil lamp’ (1920, 239). See also Russell and Hudson (2019, 105).
19 ‘C’est aussi une chose fort remarquable’, Descartes writes, ‘que bien qu’il y ait plusieurs animaux qui tesmoignent plus d’industrie que nous en quelques unes de leurs actions, on voit toutefois que les mesmes n’en tesmoignent point du tout en beaucoup d’autres: De façon que ce qu’ils font mieux que nous, ne prouve pas qu’ils ont de l’esprit, car a ce conte ils en auroient plus qu’aucun de nous, & feroient mieux en toute autre chose; Mais plustost qu’ils n’en ont point, & que c’est la Nature qui agist en eux selon la disposition de leurs organes: Ainsi qu’on voit qu’un horologe, qui n’est composé que de rouës & de ressors, peut conter les heures, & mesurer le tems, plus iustement que nous avec toute nostre prudence’ (Descartes, 1637, 59).
20 Summarising his findings regarding Pavlov's use of an electric bell, Roger K. Thomas observes that ‘Pavlov's use of a bell as CS [i.e. Conditioned Stimulus] was reported in English-language journals as early as 1906, and the bell's effectiveness as a CS was reported widely in well-known English-language publications in the 1920s’ (Thomas, 1997, 118).
21 The telephone, which is mentioned here for the second time, seems to fulfil the exact opposite of the function that is usually ascribed to telecommunication media. It indicates the absence rather than the existence of a connection to the outside world: ‘The telephone seldom rang, and when it did it was about some indifferent matter touching the plumbing, or the roof, or the food supplies, that Erskine could deal with, or even Watt, without troubling their master. Mr Knott saw nobody, heard from nobody, as far as Watt could see’ (Beckett, 1970, 69).
22 For Beckett's attempts to determine this relationship by means of a truth table, see Ackerley (2006, 324–5). And for a discussion of references to the distinction between ground and figure in gestalt psychology, see Salisbury (2010, 356–8).

Works cited

Ackerley, Chris (2006), ‘An ‘Other Object of Note’: Circle and Point in Samuel Beckett's Watt’, Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui, 16, pp. 319–32.

Allsop, F. C. (1889), Practical Electric Bell Fitting: A Treatise on the Fitting-Up and Maintenance of Electric Bells and All the Necessary Apparatus, London and New York: E. & F. Spon.

American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (1903), ‘Report of the Committee No. X. – On Signaling and Interlocking’, in Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Convention of the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association, March 17–19, Chicago: The Association, pp. 283–91.

Beckett, Samuel (1965), Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, London: John Calder.

Beckett, Samuel (1970), Watt, New York: Grove Press.

Beckett, Samuel (1983), ‘Les Deux Besoins’, in Samuel Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn, London: John Calder.

Beckett, Samuel (1986), ‘All That Fall’, in Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works, London: Faber & Faber, pp. 169–99.

Beckett, Samuel (1995), Eleutheria, Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

Denzinger, Heinrich (2012), ‘Chalcedonian Creed, October 22, 451’, in Peter Hünemann, Robert Fastiggi and Anne Englund Nash (eds), Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations in Matters of Faith and Morals, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, pp. 108–10, no. 300–3.

Derr, William Lloyd (1897), Block Signal Operation: A Practical Manual, New York: D. van Nostrand.

Descartes, René [1637] (1985), ‘Discourse on the Method’, in René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 111–51.

Descartes, René (1637), Discours de la Méthode pour bien conduire sa raison & chercher la verité dans les sciences. Plus La dioptrique, Les Météores et la Géométrie, Leyden: Jan Maire.

Hartley, Ralph Vinton Lyon (1928), ‘Transmission of Information’, Bell Systems Technical Journal, 7:3, pp. 536–7.

Hertz, Heinrich (1888), ‘Über die Einwirkung einer geradlinigen electrischen Schwingung auf eine benachbarte Strombahn’, Annalen der Physik, 270:5, pp. 155–70.

Kapp, Ernst [1877] (2018), Elements of a Philosophy of Technology: On the Evolutionary History of Culture, trans. Lauren K. Wolfe, eds Jeffrey West Kirkwood and Leif Weatherby , Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kecke, G. (1893) ‘Eisenbahnsignalwesen’, Archiv für Eisenbahnwesen, 16, pp. 873–900, 1039–70.

López Galviz, Carlos (2013), ‘Knight, John Peake (1828–1886), Railway Manager and Promoter of Traffic Signals’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2013, www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-103405 (accessed 30 October 2019).

Maxwell, James Clerk (1865), A Dynamical Theory of the Electric Field, London: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Pavlov, Ivan Petrovich (1927), Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex, trans. G. V. Anrep, London: Oxford University Press.

Poincaré, Henri (1911), La valeur de la science, Paris: Ernest Flammarion.

Porter, L. C. and F. C. Stallknecht (1920), ‘The Electric Lighting of Railroad Signals’, Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society, 15:4, pp. 223–42.

Russell, Colin Archibald and John A. Hudson (2019), Early Railway Chemistry and its Legacy, Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Salisbury, Laura (2010), ‘Art of Noise: Beckett's Language in a Culture of Information’, in Erik Tonning, Matthew Feldman and Matthijs Engelberts (eds), ‘Samuel Beckett: Debts and Legacies’, Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui, 22, pp. 355–71.

Shannon, Claude E. (1948), ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’, The Bell System Technical Journal, 27, pp. 379–423, 623–56.

Shepardson, George Defrees (1917), Telephone Apparatus: An Introduction to the Development and Theory, London: D. Appleton and Co.

Thomas Summerson & Sons, Ltd (1904), Platelayers Guide with Tables and Diagrams of Switches and Crossings, Darlington: Thomas Summerson & Sons.

Thomas, Roger K. (1997), ‘Correcting Some Pavloviana Regarding “Pavlov's Bell” and Pavlov's “Mugging”’, The American Journal of Psychology, 110:1, pp. 115–25.

Van Hulle, Dirk (2009), ‘De Beckett van Hugo Claus. Genese, zelfreceptie en “wat hem aan rede restte”’, Spiegel der Letteren, 51:1, pp. 3–21.

Van Hulle, Dirk (2010), ‘Beckett and Shakespeare, or, Whatever Lurks Behind the Veil’, Limit(e) Beckett, 1, www.limitebeckett.paris-sorbonne.fr/one/vanhulle.html (accessed 25 October 2019).

Weber, Max Maria von (1867), Das Telegraphen- und Signalwesen der Eisenbahnen: Geschichte und Technik derselben, Weimar: Bernhard Friedrich Voigt.

Wiener, Norbert [1948] (1985), Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wilson, Raynar (n.d.), Railway Signalling, London: Publishers of the ‘Railway Engineer’.

  • Collapse
  • Expand

All of MUP's digital content including Open Access books and journals is now available on manchesterhive.



All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 523 251 21
PDF Downloads 325 113 4