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Samuel Beckett's 'Ping'

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In 1966, playwright Samuel Beckett1 published the poem 'Bing', written in French. The poem was translated into English by Beckett the following year as part of No's Knife2 (a collection of his works) and retitled 'Ping'. This entry concerns itself with the translation rather than the French original.

The poem was written as part of Beckett's 'cylinder works' as an analysis of the way text - as a function of language - works with and against itself. It is not centred around a philosophical or ideological belief, but rather on a desire on the part of the author/narrator to defamiliarise (ie, 'make strange') certain objects and concepts in order that he might draw attention to them, and that he might also reveal the absurdity of language, through the distortion of the signified in the text. To this end, the text is open to numerous interpretations.

One Interpretation...

The narrator's use of a free-flowing form of consciousness in the text repeats itself regularly to summarise as well as to distort meaning. The fight within the text to establish constants and a sense of reality produces irregular sentences sparsely punctuated with little or no superficially coherent meaning, and leaves the reader distanced from the subject and forces them to examine more closely the surroundings that the narrator finds him/her/itself in.

The piece is not segmented into paragraphs, it is one continuous minimalist description of the surroundings and location of the narrator. Short sentences become longer through the duration of the text to suggest a heightened awareness of despair in the narration, as if the narrator is aware of being trapped in a short-term memory cycle and is desperately trying to re-establish a sense of location and existence before the memory clouds again.

We begin with a rushed summary of all that is known to the narrator - the white bare body, placed in conjunction with a few specific measurements, a right-angle, one yard and one second. We therefore get an immediate impression of some restricting influence, 'legs joined like sewn' suggesting an artificial constraint, like the language used to describe it. The 'hands hanging palms front' and the 'eyes... fixed front' also add to this idea of a passive or suppressed figure.

White is used to describe all; The white bare body, the rectangular white box - white floor and ceiling each covering a square yard, the walls one yard by two - and all colours, even black, are a vague 'almost white'. These descriptions are repeated in various sequences, each image reappearing as part of a cycle. By the end of the piece, the narrator is hurriedly repeating the factors he/she/it has collated, shown in the longer sentences:

Ping of old only just perhaps a meaning a nature one second almost never blue and white in the wind that much memory henceforth never.

The specific measurements of time, space and size are in contrast with the vague nature of other details. The repetition of the word 'perhaps' heightens uncertainty in the text by questioning the nature and location of Ping:

Ping perhaps a nature one second with image same time a little less blue and white in the wind... perhaps a way out there... Ping perhaps not alone.... Ping of old only just perhaps a meaning a nature...

The language that the narrator uses is the only form of expression available, yet it fails to convey satisfactory meaning. The frustration that the narrator conveys is shown in the violence in the mood swings of the language; frantic inquisitive curiosity and need for companionship ('perhaps not alone'); a need for escape ('perhaps a way out'); verbal violence ('White scars invisible same white as flesh torn of old'); and despair with the end in sight ('imploring ping silence ping over').

The defamiliarisation is further strengthened by descriptions of the presence of absence; a 'square yard never seen'; the inability to see 'white on white' and other things that are 'invisible'; the 'right angle' which can be seen by the positioning of other objects but which cannot actually be seen on its own. Beckett here uses his narrator to draw attention to abstract concepts that we take for granted as having some form of existence (such as the angles) but which remain abstract in nature.

It is also important to note that the narrator of the text remains nameless and without a recognisable identity - is he/she/it the central character in the piece? Is this an object, an animal, a human or an abstract like a state of mind? This leaves the reader feeling alienated from the subject and distanced from the meaning in the text.

The reader may be faced with the question of whether the defamiliarisation in the text is a product of its translation from French into English - certainly there are differences in the two language variations of the text. The fact that Beckett employed this method to write the piece gives weight to arguments that language is artificial - that it has no meaning outside of its cultural significance. The sentence structure and its inherent meaning is distorted by the different sentence construction of another language and through this method, Beckett is able to force the reader to question the reality and fallibility of language as a tool.

1Dublin-born writer, 1906-1989.2No's Knife: Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1966 (includes 'Stories and Texts for Nothing'; 'From an Abandoned Work'; 'Enough'; 'Imagination Dead Imagine'; 'Ping'). 1967.

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