Doubling Down on Less(ness)

In 1969, the year in which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett (pictured above) published a short piece of experimental prose entitled Sans in French. He then rewrote the piece in English and called it Lessness. It begins this way:

Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind. All sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir. Grey face two pale blue little body heart beating only up right. Blacked out fallen open four walls over backwards true refuge issueless.

Scattered ruins same grey as the sand ash grey true refuge. Four square all light sheer white blank planes all gone from mind. Never was but grey air timeless no sound figment the passing light. No sound no stir ash grey sky mirrored earth mirrored sky. Never but this changelessness dream the passing hour.

The seemingly chaotic nature of the narrative (you can read the whole thing HERE) actually has a great deal of order and symmetry to it, and my bet is that your brain is furiously trying to find the pattern and meaning in just these two short paragraphs. What makes Lessness so interesting (to me, anyway) is that Beckett used a few simple rules to randomly generate the sentences.

Beckett was actually quite precise in creating a sense of ambiguity. Yale University Library has on file a document in which Beckett offers a few keys to deciphering the meaning of Lessness. The whole piece is based on six “statement groups” of ten sentences each. These sixty sentences are presented twice, each time in a different order and paragraph structure. The paragraphs all have between three and seven sentences.

Without making his overall themes explicit, Beckett gave each of the six statement groups a particular thematic element and used a formal structure, some scholars believe, to convey the arbitrary way in which we structure time (60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, 12 months in a year, etc.).

Beckett told renowned theater scholar Ruby Cohn how he did it, and in her 1973 book Back to Beckett, she revealed the code:

He wrote his sixty different sentences in six families, each family arising from an image. Beckett wrote each of these sixty sentences on a separate piece of paper, mixed them all in a container, and then drew them out in random order twice. This became the order of the hundred twenty sentences in Sans.

Beckett then wrote the number 3 on four separate pieces of paper, the number 4 on six pieces of paper, the number 5 on four pieces, the number 6 on six pieces, and the number 7 on four pieces of paper. Again drawing randomly, he ordered the sentences into paragraphs, according to the number drawn, finally totalling one hundred twenty.

The important point is that, irrespective of whether or not Lessness is in fact random and chaotic, to the reader it appears to be so. It’s the absence of obvious symmetry and clear order that engages the reader. You cannot predict what comes next, and you cannot reduce the text to a succinct, simple message. Nonetheless, you keep trying to! The intrigue produced by a lack of apparent order engages your imagination.

Interesting, some mathematicians have determined that Beckett may have been telling readers not to attempt to reduce apparent chaos, but to accommodate it. They point to the fact that each half of Lessness contains 769 words, a prime number, irreducible to factors other than itself and the number 1.

In their paper Lessness—Randomness, Consciousness and Meaning, University of Dublin professors Elizabeth Drew and Mads Haahr wrote that “The absence of an obvious determinism guiding the flow provides a gap in understanding that spurs the reader’s interaction with the piece. The sense of patterning in the chaotic sequence of sentences entices the reader to untangle the random arrangement and attempt to piece together an elusive storyline.”

Exactly. That’s Law of Subtraction #3 (Limiting Information Engages the Imagination) par excellence. It’s also antifragility (thank you messr. Taleb) up close…Beckett’s piece gains from its disorder.

Why do I bring up Lessness? Because, after experimenting all last year with various titles for this blog, and contemplating no title at all, I’ve chosen Lessness for its ability to capture the essential nature of my focus…the ultimate outcome of intelligent subtraction. Hundreds of blogs are dedicated to creativity, innovation, and design, but few are published from the “less is best” perspective.

As I plow into what looks to be an exciting 2013, I’m doubling down on lessness. For my first act, I’ve reduced my OPEN Forum involvement to one article per month (most likely a book review or entrepreneur interview), down from four…all to make room for new endeavors with other outlets, and refocusing this blog.