“Ping” was first written in French (titled “Bing”) in 1966 and was translated by the author in 1967. It came at a time when Samuel Beckett was pushing the boundaries of what was possible in both prose and drama and creating radically challenging texts. As such, “Ping” is undoubtedly a difficult story to read and interpret, yet experiencing the text can be thrilling and even strangely moving.
Beckett’s extreme minimalist style creates a text of 1,030 words with an entire vocabulary of just 120 words, of which just 7 words appear only once. The density of repetition is the first thing the reader encounters. Key words or word groups, such as “all known,” “bare white body fixed,” or “legs joined like sewn,” are repeated again and again, often with slight variations or subtly different orders. The effect can often be that the words swim before the eyes, or that certain rare words—such as “unover” or “haught”—suddenly grab the attention. This repetition is further heightened by Beckett removing many of the nuts, bolts, and punctuation marks of grammar, as in the first sentence: “All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn.” However, while the language seems impenetrable, a syntactical rhythm begins to emerge that limits the relationships among words while maintaining the possibility of other relationships that, in turn, can create other possible interpretations.
Beckett has reduced elements such as setting, character, and plot to an absolute minimum. The setting is a white box, one yard square and two high. In the box is a white body, apparently fixed, its legs and heels together “like sewn” with the palms of the hands hanging forward; the only sign of color is “the eyes only just light blue almost white,” which are the only things still “unover.”
The third element is that of the title: “ping.” Many commentators have seen the “ping” as an external noise, part of a mechanism that rings slight changes in the box, as in the following sentence, in which the “ping” seems to alter the apparently fixed body: “Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere.” Quite where or how the body might be fixed elsewhere is not said. This interpretation gains credibility from the association of “ping” with “murmur,” which also seems to be an external sound and might offer the hope of a world beyond the box: “Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a way out . . . Ping murmur perhaps a nature” If the “ping” is a sound external to the box, then it at least admits of some hope; there is something “out there,” if only the remains of a mechanism. The second possibility is that “ping” is allied to the consciousness of the figure in the box. In this reading, the “ping” rings mental changes, such as the intrusion of images and memories, however brief, into the otherwise narrow field of the consciousness’s perspective, which is primarily concerned with stating the “all known” of the situation in the box.
Given the difficulties of arriving at a stable interpretation, the following description of what might be said to occur in the story must be taken as extremely tentative. A figure is trapped within a white box. This figure, through an impersonal narration, attempts to state the “all known” of the situation in the box. The obsessive repetition of these elements suggests that the figure cannot finally state all that is known and thus bring the attempts at statement to an end. The desire to state “all known,” all that is here and now, is frustrated by the intrusion, heralded by the “ping,” of an elsewhere that is “known not.” This elsewhere is at first imagined spatially as if there were “a nature” beyond the box. Yet the murmurs and images increasingly become a question of memory rather than place. The dominant recurring memory, no more than a trace, is of “blue and white in the wind.” These traces “of old” are “unover,” as if they have to be suppressed in order for the figure to live within the “all known” of the box. Memory ultimately focuses on a second pair of imploring black and white eyes. The figure manages to quash the memory of the blue and white in the wind and resolves that “that much memory henceforth never” before, in the final sentence, quashing the memory of the black eyes, thus allowing the figure’s consciousness to be no longer elsewhere but here and now within the known. Only then, finally fixed, can the obsessive voice come to a close and all come to an end: “Head haught eyes white fixed front old ping last murmur one second perhaps not alone eye unlustrous black and white half closed long lashes imploring ping silence ping over.”
Multiple different readings are possible: that the figure is struggling to recall rather than to suppress memory, that the final black eyes are those of some interrogator, that the word ping comes to mean or even name the figure itself, that references to the palms and torn flesh create associations with Christ. This list is by no means exhaustive. These equally plausible interpretations point to one of the story’s major achievements. The reader is tantalized by images or traces that seem to offer hope of a coherent interpretation. On second glance, these traces are replaced by others that offer a different and no less coherent interpretation. In this way, the reader is placed in a situation similar to that of the figure in the box, desperately trying to make the “not known” into the “known,” to make the words that slide into one another on the page come together and finally settle into a stable meaning. The result is that we do not read about something but rather that something happens to us as we read.
Beckett, Samuel. Six Residua. London: J. Calder, 1978.
Lodge, David. “Some ‘Ping’ Understood,” Encounter 30, no. 2 (1968): 85–89.