Lessness: Randomness, Consciousness and Meaning

Elizabeth Drew and Mads Haahr

This paper was presented at the 4th International CAiiA-STAR Research Conference ‘Consciousness Reframed’ in Perth, Australia, 1-4 August 2002. A PDF version is also available. The tool described in the paper is still online but has been renamed Possible Lessnesses.


Lessness is a prose piece by Samuel Beckett in which he used random permutation to order sentences. Although Lessness is linear prose, its orderly disorder calls for a reading process in which the reader works to untangle the threads of sameness and difference to discern the underlying structure, becoming aware of the usually unconscious processes of interpretation. Tightly interwoven contradictory perspectives drive the reader’s attempts at reconciliation. The two halves of Lessness are two of the 8.3 x 1081 possible orderings of Beckett’s 60 sentences. The authors have developed a web site that generates alternate arrangements of the sentences in Lessness.


Whether we are aware of it or not, a function of our minds is to take in raw sensory input and discern patterns in it from which meaning can be derived. Art takes place in the space between raw perception and automatic interpretation and wakes us to fresh ways of seeing. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning is produced by the one who perceives, although under the guidance of clues embedded in the work (Iser 1989). The interaction between the reader and the literary work is prompted and maintained by successive gaps or incongruities in the narrative structure which make interpretation necessary and grant the space in which to interpret the relation of the elements in the work. Artworks constructed to reflect focus back on the role of the viewer in making sense of the work and the world allow the reader to experience the unconscious processes of understanding. Many of Samuel Beckett’s literary artworks are engineered to make their readers aware of their own interpretive strategies and the extent to which all art is essentially interactive.

This paper is based on Lessness, an innovative piece of prose that Beckett reportedly composed using an aleatoric method to arrange the sentences.1 The sense of aural patterning in the chaotic sequence of sentences entices the reader to untangle the random arrangement and attempt to piece together an elusive storyline from a series of contradictory echoes. The complex contradictions prompt a need for reconciliation and direct focus away from the text itself towards the reader’s efforts of forming a satisfactory interpretation. The fact that the published version of Lessness is one of the 1.9 x 10176 possible arrangements of its sentences indicates the underlying complexity of this four-page text and implies that the actual is a simplified subset of the vast multitude of possibilities. The ‘Variations on Lessness’ web site serves up alternative versions of the text with the click of a mouse button.2 The ease of producing alternative versions of the actual parallels some of the counterintuitive challenges imposed by the use of computational power in art.

Streams of Unconsciousness

Lessness depicts a small grey upright body standing among the ruins of a refuge in an endless grey expanse. There are memories of a past which are denied or effaced, and declarations of a future which are strongly asserted. The reader is presented with a series of sentences that – although highly resonant due to the dense repetition of phonemes, rhythms, words and phrases – have no logical relation to explain the progression from one sentence to the next. The following excerpt, the first paragraph of the piece, is given here to exemplify the sense of order in chaos in the piece:

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 upright. Blacked out fallen open four walls over backwards true refuge issueless (I).3

Although some textual analyses have raised doubts about the extent to which the organisation of the composition relies upon pure chance, most critics accept that there is a limited element of chance in the composition method of this highly structured work. Some critics have discerned patterns in the text that might indicate that Beckett determined the order of the sentences to some extent. However, because the phrases contain such repetitive and resonant sounds, such patterns are likely to appear in any ordering of the sentences. Indeed, whether Beckett shaped the flow of the work or whether the ordering of the sentences is actually random is less significant than the appearance of randomness. In either case, the form of the published piece is set against all the other potential forms, causing the projection beyond the limits of the actual.

Like Beckett’s 1972 play Not I, Lessness works on the nerves rather than the intellect of its readers (Beckett 1986). It is a piece that seems on many counts to fulfil Samuel Beckett’s ideal of ‘accommodating the chaos’ of consciousness in linguistic form. Random numbers are irreducible to simpler forms. They are rich in information because it requires many bits to communicate them. The succession of sentences in Lessness is rich in information because as far as anyone is aware, it is not possible to predict the next sentence in the sequence. (Irreducibility in the piece is also reflected in the interesting fact that each half of the piece contains exactly 769 words. 769 is a prime number.4) There are certain rules that seem to govern the arrangement of phrases within sentences. For example, in sentence family D, ‘all gone from mind’ appears at the end of each sentence. Furthermore, the pronounced aural patterning alludes to an ordering principle within the aleatory sequence of sentences. Meaning emerges in the perceived space between order and randomness, and is derived from the work the reader does in sorting through the randomness and patterns in the text: ‘Complexity or meaning is a measure of the production process rather than the product, the work time rather than the work result. The information discarded rather than the information remaining’ (Nørretranders 1998). Of course Beckett put work into creating the complexity of Lessness, but his work is only half the story. Like many works in new media, Lessness, when constituted by the reader’s attempts to unravel it, prompts an art process that takes precedence over the work’s status as an art object. Beckett composed it to be taken apart by the reader’s activity of creating meaning, and the piece only really comes into play in the process of dismantling.

The absence of an obvious determinism guiding the flow opens a gap in understanding that spurs the reader’s interaction with the piece. This process of engagement is not exclusive to Lessness or to experimental fiction; provoking the need to fill narrative gaps and make sense of a story is a quality of any literary text. According to Wolfgang Iser, ‘the blank in the fictional text induces and guides the reader’s constitutive activity. As a suspension of connectability between textual perspective and perspective segments, it marks the need for an equivalence’ (1974). Lessness is distinctive in part because the attention of a reader confronting it is frequently drawn away from the text toward her own attempts to comprehend it. Through interacting with this text, the reader becomes consciously aware of the usually unconscious processes of perception, pattern recognition and interpretation. Beckett’s project of attempting to express the unconscious elements of the self in literary form is manifest in this work not only through the split narrative voice, but through the internal awareness it prompts in the readers. Beckett’s work strives paradoxically to make contact with the elements of thought and perception that are omitted from conscious awareness. Hugh Culik relates the relationship between the unconscious and conscious self to that of irrational numbers to the Pythagorean paradigm: ‘the self exists only as a series of discrete moments, its continuity interrupted as surely as the flow of rational numbers seemed interrupted by irrational numbers’ (1993).

The structure of Lessness works like a prism, refracting consciousness into six perspectives that are interwoven so that they are perceived as if simultaneous and fixed rather than in linear, temporal progression. The contradictions between sentences of different families, particularly those that relate to the affirmation and denial of the flow of time in the present scene of ‘endlessness’ parallels the conflict between cyclical theories of recurrence and degeneration.

Never but dream the days and nights made of dreams of other nights better days. He will live again the space of a step it will be day and night again over him the endlessness (VII).

In this passage the denial that diurnal cycles ever existed is juxtaposed with the strong assertion that they will exist again as they once did. This contradiction sets the linear progression of time, cyclical renewal and eternal stasis into paradoxical counterpoint. This conflict has an interesting correlative in scientific thought, where the thermodynamic notion of continual progression toward entropy contrasts with the reversible laws of classical physics. ‘Thermodynamics ends in the heat death of the universe: Everything is heading for gray on gray and a huge mass of entropy’ (Nørretranders 1998). There is an obvious correlation between this description and the undifferentiated grey imagery of Lessness: ‘Grey air timeless earth sky as one same grey as the ruins flatness endless’ (XI, XIV). At the same time as the scene is heading irrevocably toward sameness and stasis, there is the promise that life will emerge again, that ‘unhappiness will reign again.’ The irreconcilability of these perspectives prompts a leap beyond the mutually exclusive concepts into a field where one imagines that a new, wider perspective could unite them.

Variations on Lessness

The ‘Variations on Lessness’ project, a web site developed by Mads Haahr, links Lessness to his true random number service www.random.org to render other possible orderings according to Beckett’s rules.5 The random numbers used in most computer programs are produced deterministically via algorithms called pseudo-random number generators (PRNGs). In contrast, true random number generators (TRNGs) rely on a physical source of entropy outside the computer, such as atmospheric noise or radioactive decay. What separates the two approaches is determinacy. Whereas the best PRNGs produce numbers that are virtually indistinguishable from those generated by TRNGs, any string of numbers produced by the former is essentially predetermined and can be replayed given the starting conditions. The randomness generated by TRNGs originates in physical processes and is akin to rolling a die or drawing tickets out of a hat. A string of numbers generated by such processes cannot be reconstructed because it depends on physical processes that we cannot simulate. Whether this is because the physical processes themselves are non-deterministic or because the full set of starting conditions is unknown is a philosophical question beyond the scope of this paper.

The random numbers used in the ‘Variations on Lessness’ project are generated with atmospheric noise. A radio receiver is tuned to an open frequency and the signal fed into a computer. A computer program analyses the signal and extracts little variations in the signal's amplitude. These variations are gathered to form an endless stream of bits: 0110001010110011. . . . Next, the stream is processed in order to correct for any skew towards 0 or 1 in the data, i.e., to insure an approximately even distribution of 0s and 1s. The skew-corrected bit stream forms a basic form of randomness that can be processed into more useful forms, such as randomised sequences or random integers within configurable intervals. A series of random integers is comparable to a series of coin flips or dice rolls: the numbers are picked independently of each other, and each number can occur several times. In comparison, a randomised sequence consists of all integers in a given interval arranged in a random order. Every integer in the interval occurs exactly once in the sequence. Generating a randomised sequence is comparable to drawing lottery tickets out of a hat.

The computer program that implements ‘Variations on Lessness’ uses a random sequence of size 60 to simulate the process used by Beckett to determine the order of the sentences. Each sentence composed by Beckett is assigned a number between 1-60, and a randomised sequence is produced using the method described above. This determines the order of the sentences. Next, a sequence of size 12 is constructed and the values 3, 3, 4, 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7 (corresponding to the lengths of the paragraphs as decided by Beckett) are associated with the numbers in the sequence. This sequence is then randomised, yielding the paragraph boundaries for the first half (12 paragraphs, 60 sentences) of the piece. The entire procedure is repeated to yield the latter half. This system can be used as a research tool to allow researchers to trace the shifts in the patterns of the text in alternative orderings of Beckett’s sentences. The site also calls into play in a palpable way the human orientation towards possibilities over the actual. Some critics infer that Beckett’s compositional method implies that any of the possible re-orderings of the text are equally valid as the published version. Although Beckett’s process – and more so that of ‘Variations on Lessness’ – blur the distinction between the actual and the possible by making us aware of our continual projection toward the possible, the fact remains that Beckett wrote only one Lessness. In Heideggerian terms:

The realization of the possible is, as thing-in-itself, a restriction of the universe of the possible. Each determination is a negation, but a negation not of the actual, but rather of the totality of the possible. Each entity is thus revealed as being by its very nature insufficient or deficient. It is deficient, however, not in relation to a plenitude of being, but rather in relation to a surplus of possibilities (Motzkin 1989).

In Lessness, the ‘totality of the possible’ provides the context for the actual piece. Lessness is a reduction of the bewildering multitude of bewilderingly similar forms that it could have taken. As Beckett himself put it: ‘Two birds in the bush are of infinitely greater value than one in the hand’ (1931).



Biographical Profile

Mads Haahr lectures in Computer Science at the University of Dublin, Trinity College and edits a multidisciplinary academic journal called Crossings: Electronic Journal of Art and Technology (crossings.tcd.ie). He holds BSc and MSc degrees in Computer Science and English from the University of Copenhagen and is currently writing up his PhD thesis on the topic of mobile computing. He also gives away random numbers for free on the Internet (www.random.org).

Elizabeth Drew is a research student in English at the University of Dublin, Trinity College. Her BA in English and International Affairs is from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and she holds an M.Phil in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College, Dublin. Her PhD is on the late prose works of Samuel Beckett. Elizabeth is also Managing Editor of Crossings: Electronic Journal of Art and Technology (crossings.tcd.ie).