McLuhan and Beckett: Through the vanishing point by way of neither

Managing The Ascent from the Maelstrom [McLuhan’s ‘odos ano kato play on Poe’s The Descent into the Maelstrom] today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going Through the Vanishing Point. (McLuhan)1

I want to bring poetry into drama, a poetry which has been through the void (das Nichts durchschritten hat) and makes a new start in a new space. I think in new dimensions and basically [im Grunde] am not very concerned whether someone can follow me in this. (Beckett)2

McLuhan is reported to have detested Beckett.3 But this is almost certainly a misunderstanding due to McLuhan presenting his thought in different ways depending on his audience, his mood, the particular topic he was developing, and so on. This is no different from anybody else, of course, but with McLuhan the danger of such oversimplified misunderstanding was acute on account of the unique multiplicity of his thought, combined with his equally unique unconcern with precise formulation. It may be guessed that he knew how little ‘precise formulation’ had achieved in the past and wanted to see what ‘imprecise formulation’ could do. Hence his attachment to probes and to the mining of ignorance.

In fact, as the above citations illustrate, the central preoccupation of both McLuhan and Beckett was ‘the same’ — what might be termed ‘mapping the unmappable’, speaking the “unspeakable”. 

Formulated in McLuhan’s terms, as soon as the essential plurality of media is admitted4, the question emerges: what lies between media such that they may be differentiated? how is this between navigated? where and when does this take place? who is involved? above all, why does this take place? on what strange basis? and what does this “flip” through “the vanishing point” between media have to do with human being and with its history, society and culture?

Over and over again, for more than 30 years from 1946 to 1980, this drama of metamorphosis that takes place in the “interior landscape” was described by McLuhan in terms of the mariner in Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom. Many of these repeated descriptions have been collected here.  The key point for McLuhan, as he expressed it already in 1946, lay in the mariner’s escape from the whirlpool through detachment, study and reprogramming:

The sailor in his story The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape. (Footprints in the Sands of Crime) 

Beckett, too, had been formulating the “quintessence” of his thought since ‘my way is in the sand’ from 1946, the same year as McLuhan’s ‘Footprints in the Sands of Crime’!  In that year Beckett published “Trois poèmes”, one of which, untitled, reads in his own translation:

my way is in the sand flowing
between the shingle and the dune
the summer rain rains on my life
on me my life harrying fleeing
to its beginning to its end

my peace is there in the receding mist
when I may cease from treading these long shifting thresholds
and live the space of a door
that opens and shuts5

Twenty years later, his 1966 ‘Pour Avigdor Arikha’ continued the effort of quintessential refinement (again in his own translation):

Siege laid again to the impregnable without. Eye and hand feverishly after the unself. By the hand it unceasingly changes the eye unceasingly changed. Back and forth the gaze beating against unseeable and unmakable. Truce for a space and the marks of what it is to be and be in face of. These deep marks to show.6

A decade later again, in 1976, when the composer Morton Feldman specifically asked him for “the quintessence” of his work7, Beckett gave him this:

TO AND FRO in shadow from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable nonself by way of neither
as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close,
once turned away from gently part again
beckoned back and forth and turned away
heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or the other
unheard footfalls only sound
till at last halt for good, absent for good from self and other
then no sound
then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither
unspeakable home 8

 This “way of neither” goes “through the vanishing point”. It is “the medium [that] is the message”.


  1. Take Today, 13.
  2. Samuel Beckett speaking to gymnasium students in Germany in February 1961.  Modified translation from Knowlson’s bio of Beckett, Damned to Fame, 427.  Original: “Ich will Poesie in das Drama bringen, eine Poesie, die das Nichts durchschritten hat und in einem neuen Raum einen neuen Anfang findet. Ich denke in neuen Dimensionen, und im Grunde kümmert es mich wenig, wer mir dabei folgen kann.” (Spectaculum 6, 1963, 319)
  3. See, eg, Marchand 106.
  4. McLuhan held that the essence of human being lies in language use. But every human begins as life as an in-fant, aka a non-speaker. A flip is required between the medium of in-fancy to that of speech. It therefore belongs to the very essence of human beings that media are plural.
  5. The French original: “je suis ce cours de sable qui glisse/entre le galet et la dune/la pluie d’eté pleut sur ma vie/sur moi ma vie qui me fuit me poursuit/et finira le jour de son commencement//cher instant je te vois/dans ce rideau de brume qui recule/où je n’aurai plus à fouler ces longs seuils mouvants/et vivrai le temps d’une porte qui s’ouvre et se referme”
  6. Disjecta, 152. The French original: “Siège remis devant le dehors imprenable. Fièvre oeilmain dans la soif du nonsoi. Oeil par la main sans cesse changé à l’instant même ou sans cesse il la change. Regard ne s’arrachant à l’invisible que pour s’asséner sur l’infaisable et retour éclair. Trêve à la navette et traces de ce que c’est que d’être et d’être devant. Traces profondes.”
  7. Knowlson, Damned to Fame: “I (Feldman) said that I was looking for the quintessence, something that just hovered.” (557). Beckett himself is recorded as observing to Martin Esslin, “I take away all the accidentals because I want to come down to the bedrock of the essentials, the archetypal.” (Beckett Remembering / Remembering Beckett, ed James and Elizabeth Knowlson, 2006, 47-48)
  8.  “Neither’, Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, ed S E Gontarski, 1996. The original draft (which Beckett wrote for Feldman in the middle of their conversation and later slightly altered) began: “To and fro in shadow, from outer shadow to inner shadow. To and fro, between unattainable self and unattainable non-self.” (Knowlson, Damned to Fame, 557) Although written out in the form of a poem, and although having a clear relation to the poem ‘my way is in the sand’, Beckett insisted that ‘Neither’ was prose, not poetry. This may have been a pointer to ‘Pour Avigdor Arikha’.