I’m rereading Samuel Becket’s novel Watt, while also listening to Dermot Crowley voice the Singing Master’s words on Audiobook. In the opening pages, we do not meet Watt directly but through Mr. Hackett and Mr. and Mrs. Nixon who sit at a bus stop and observe someone or something disembark from a tram, variously described as “motionless,” “a solitary figure” something “scarcely to be distinguished from the dim wall behind it” and as “man or woman,” or “a roll of tarpaulin, wrapped up in dark paper and tied about the middle with a cord.” This, of course, turns out to be Watt. As to his personality, we read,
But a milder, more inoffensive creature does not exist, said Mr. Nixon. He would literally turn the other cheek, I honestly believe, if he had the energy.
“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” observes Nell from her trash can next to her husband’s trash can in Beckett’s play Endgame; and for Beckett, nothing’s more philosophical and comedic than unhappiness. Hackett and the Nixons continue their contemplation of Watt, dissembling on exactly what they know of Watt, which appears to be he has “a huge big red noose and no fixed address,” who Mr. Nixon came upon one day, barefoot and need of money for a boot, and, of course, “he is a university man.” They then conclude this study by asserting Watt means nothing to them.
Or what he does, said Mr. Nixon. Or how he lives. Or where he comes from. Or where he is going to. Or what he looks like. What can it possibly matter to us?
After which, our narrator concerns himself exclusively with Watt as we follow this walking carpet on his train ride through the countryside to Mr. Knott’s house where he will take over caretaker duties from a man who in turn had taken over caretaker duties from someone before him, and so on and so on. When he disembarks, we witness Watt’s mode of locomotion.
Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south, and then to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible toward s the north . . . and so on.
This extraordinary method of walking meets with a rock thrown by Lady McCann who has been watching Watt for some time, becoming impressed, puzzled, and finally revolted. Upon entering Mr. Knott’s house and listening to a long monologue from the departing caretaker, an uproariously funny and philosophical monologue, he comes upon a cooking pot.
Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr. Knott’s pots, of one of Mr. Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt, said Pot, pot.
What is a pot? What does the word pot mean? How does the word pot connect to the thing in itself, the pot? How do I know that the pot exists? How do I know anything related to the word pot? What does a pot do? What is it supposed to do? How different am I from a pot? What do I mean? How does the word “I” or “me” connect to actually who or what I am? How do I know I exist? And so on. And onto the stew which Watt makes for Mr. Knott in the pot on the stove.
This dish contained foods of various kinds, such as soup of various kinds, fish, eggs, game, poultry, meat, cheese, fruit, all of various kinds, and of course bread and butter, and it contained also the more usual beverages, such as absinthe, mineral water, tea, coffee, milk, stout, beer, whiskey, brandy, wine and water, and it contained also many things to take for the good of the health, such as insulin, digitalin, calomel, iodine, laudanum, mercury, coal, iron, camomile and worm powder, and of course salt and mustard, pepper and sugar, and of course a little salicylic acid, to delay fermentation.
Here’s the deliciousness of lists–the kind of tasty treat you may read in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Alexander Theroux’s The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors, as well as in “The Catalogue of Ships” from Homer’s Iliad, select passages in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, and of course in recipes from Auguste Escoffier to Julia Child. Item after item piling up in a cauldron of ingredients begging credulity and that’s all part of the enjoyment and humor. There’s more.
All these things, and many others too numerous to mention, were well mixed together in the famous pot and boiled for four hours, until the consistency of a mess, or poss, was obtained, and all the good things to eat, and all the good things to drink, and all the good things to take for the good of the health were inextricably mingled and transformed into a single good thing that was neither food, nor drink, nor physic, but quite a new good thing . . . .
Thrill to the balance and logic, parallel structure and compound-complex sentences marking the author’s skill while also inviting the reader to revel, smile and smirk at this well-mannered voice covering over an impossible mess of a porridge hardly to be taken as good or even digestible. And yet, there’s more.
This dish was served to Mr. Knott, cold, in a bowl, at twelve o’clock noon sharp and at seven p.m. exactly, all the year round.
That is to say that Watt carried in the bowl, full, to the dining room at those hours, and left it on the table. An hour later he went back and took it away, in whatever state Mr. Knott had left it. If the bowl still contained food, then Watt transferred this food to the dog’s dish. But if it was empty, then Watt washed it up, in readiness for the next meal.
Imagine a pot of the ten thousand things of the world to drink and eat in one large pot bubbling like mud pots in the Salton Sea. Lunch and dinner in Beckett’s Watt hardly counts as a culinary delight, and yet the amazing technology of water + pot + fire = a stew, soup, gruel, porridge, brew, goulash, hash, gumbo, mélange, pot-au-feu, and so on. Such a magical alchemical process certainly heralds the philosopher’s stone, or in this case, the philosopher’s hodgepodge where everything is utterly transformed. Hence, what is the ontological status of the ten thousand things of the world if they may all be mashed and mixed in a pot? And again, what about that pot? Bon Appétit!