Samuel Beckett on the Quantified Self

by Henry Farrell on April 13, 2016

We’ve already had Janice Rogers Brown on Samuel Beckett as feel-good self-help guru. Now (from a bit of Molloy I was reading last night), here’s Beckett on the quantified self movement, half a century before it was a movement.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.12.59 AM

Update: I hadn’t realized that today was the 100th anniversary of Beckett’s birth.



Jonathan 04.13.16 at 2:49 pm


Francis Spufford 04.13.16 at 3:09 pm

When am I ever, ever going to have a better excuse to post this.


cs 04.13.16 at 3:32 pm

Not even one fart every four minutes

Is that a math error, or a use of “not even” I’m not familiar with, or a joke I don’t appreciate?


LFC 04.13.16 at 4:06 pm

F. Spufford @2
that being a take-off on the whole genre of TV detective shows, or a specific one?


LFC 04.13.16 at 4:07 pm

p.s. someone has prob. written a thesis on flatulence in Beckett.


Francis Spufford 04.13.16 at 4:26 pm

LFC, I think of the particular breed of mid-70s cop shows that always had quirkily cool protagonists with highly stylised sidekicks, from Kojak to The Rockford Files by way of Colombo.


LFC 04.13.16 at 4:47 pm

Ah yes. I’m old enough to remember those from the original runs. The shows and the protagonists were often sort of winking at themselves, for lack of a better phrase, The Rockford Files in particular. The lead in that was quite good. Can’t remember his name offhand (cognitive overload and too long ago).

But we don’t want to take Henry’s literary OP and devolve it into a thread on TV, I suppose. I feel as if I should find some apposite quote from Endgame or something, but I don’t have time right now.


LFC 04.13.16 at 4:56 pm

Memory just clicked in: James Garner. Or James something at any rate.


NomadUK 04.13.16 at 5:06 pm

James Garner indeed. Great show. He was quite good in The Americanisation of Emily, too. Well, he was good in everything he did, actually.


The Temporary Name 04.13.16 at 5:27 pm

After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes.

It is unbelievably excessive, and I cannot imagine why self-proclaimed leftists should hang on this serial obfuscator’s every emission.


RNB 04.13.16 at 5:40 pm

Where would you put the fit-bit to count the number of farts? How and where would it fit? And how about a fit-bit that wraps around the penis to count the number of involuntary erections each night? Is that available yet? I claim copyright.


js. 04.13.16 at 5:49 pm

File under: Things not to read while eating lunch.


Garrulous 04.13.16 at 6:13 pm

@2 Surprisingly brisk and jaunty walk, hasn’t he? Somehow I was expecting a funereal shuffle.


TheSophist 04.13.16 at 6:52 pm

My favorite piece of trivia ever: For a couple of years while he was living in France, Beckett gave a neighbor kid a ride to school every morning. Why? Because the kid had been banned from the school bus. Why? Because he couldn’t fit comfortably into the seats. Why? Because he was Andre the Giant.


Bill Benzon 04.13.16 at 7:03 pm

FWIW, Huggy Bear was a character in a real 70s cop show, Starsky and Hutch, though he was black, played by Antonio Fargas.


RNB 04.13.16 at 10:03 pm

But the soundtrack in the video is not from “Starsky and Hutch” in which the grandiosely racist caricature Huggy Bear made special appearances but the from “The Streets of San Francisco” which featured a young Michael Douglas who would later become famous for his sensitive portrayal of Liberace.

At any rate, let’s think like Silicon Valley, Morzov would instruct us. The task is to find surface body space on which to put a new sensor. That is why the fart sensor is such a good idea: who thought of putting a sensor there, yet so much valuable information is revealed by the fart count per hour. And without a penile sensor for involuntary erections how do we know if someone really needs ED medicine.


RNB 04.13.16 at 10:10 pm

At any rate this is what we are always trying to teach our undergraduates. Be interdisciplinary, read literature. It could be from reading Beckett that you get the next great idea to take to the VC’s.


The Temporary Name 04.13.16 at 10:16 pm

Reading Beckett made me the go-getter that I am today!


Henry 04.14.16 at 2:16 am

LFC – You can’t be lowering the tone, no matter how hard you try. Fart jokes are fart jokes, whether told by Samuel Beckett or someone else.

Francis – it’s very good, isn’t it (and the Andre the Giant bit is the best).

The Temporary Name – the Janice Rogers Brown bit mentioned above:

Freedom requires us to have courage; to live with our own convictions; to question and struggle and strive. And to fail. To Fail. Recently, I saw a quote attributed to Samuel Beckett. He asks: “Ever tried? Ever failed?” Well, no matter. He says, “Try again. Fail better.” Trying to live as free people is always going to be a struggle. But we should commit ourselves to trying and failing, and trying again. To failing better until we really do become like that city on the hill, which offered the world salvation.


J-D 04.14.16 at 3:11 am

Francis Spufford @6

I didn’t watch Kojak or The Rockford Files; ‘quirkily cool’ is a fair description of Columbo as I remember him, but I don’t recall his having a regular sidekick, highly stylised or not.


Alan White 04.14.16 at 3:32 am

Ok more thread derailing. I loved Columbo–he was the true master of deduction, cornering his suspects with irrefutable logic. The other so-called mater of deduction–Sherlock–actually was the master of induction, where he most often drew conclusions on the basis of trends and patterns. Just sayin’.


Alan White 04.14.16 at 3:36 am

And to the OP–at least Beckett evened-out the coarse triviality of his emissions at one end by those of the other. Unlike Trump and Cruz.


dr ngo 04.14.16 at 3:57 am

The target (of the video) is a whole genre, as has been noted, but in particular the work of prodigious producer Quinn Martin: “QM Productions produced a string of successful television series during the 1960s and 1970s, including The Fugitive, Twelve O’Clock High, The F.B.I., The Invaders, The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, and Barnaby Jones. . . . Series produced by the company were usually introduced with announcer Dick Wesson or Hank Sims announcing the title of the show and then saying, “A Quinn Martin Production”. Images of the stars of the show, followed by the guest stars for that week, were shown and their names announced, followed by the name of that night’s episode, and various to-black effects.” Wikipedia


LFC 04.14.16 at 4:25 am

Henry @19 : pt taken

Dr Ngo @23:
‘Cannon’ starred William Conrad, radio’s Matt Dillon (‘Gunsmoke’). I prefer to think of him that way, rather than as Cannon. (I’m not quite old enough to have listened to ‘Gunsmoke’ when originally broadcast, but one can still hear it on ‘oldies’ radio today.)


LFC 04.14.16 at 4:45 am

RNB @16
“The Streets of San Francisco” which featured a young Michael Douglas

I prob only saw it once but it wasn’t that good iirc. The backdrop, namely SF, was fine, but that’s about it, I think. Indeed my impression is the Quinn Martin-produced stuff from the ’70s, as listed by Dr Ngo above, is not v. good. ‘Cannon’ and ‘Barnaby Jones’ are basically endless shots of geriatric plain-clothes detectives clambering in and out of big gas-guzzling sedans. Those shows didn’t surreptitiously laugh at themselves the way The Rockford Files did, or at least not as winningly.


LFC 04.14.16 at 4:51 am

RNB @17
It could be from reading Beckett that you get the next great idea to take to the VC’s.

Took me a couple of seconds to figure out that VCs = venture capitalists. You must stop writing in Silicon Valley shorthand. You’ve clearly been teaching in the Bay Area too long. ;)


The Temporary Name 04.14.16 at 5:00 am

Recently, I saw a quote attributed to Samuel Beckett. He asks: “Ever tried? Ever failed?” Well, no matter. He says, “Try again. Fail better.”

I have faced up to not having the strength of Andre the Giant.


ZM 04.14.16 at 9:30 am

Francis Spufford,

“When am I ever, ever going to have a better excuse to post this.”

That is so awesome, it brings back the mid 90s rather than the 70s for me


Frederick 04.14.16 at 9:39 am

Speaking of boring old farts, the stage performer with the name Le Petomane was a very entertaining master farter.


Niall McAuley 04.14.16 at 11:10 am

That Quinn Martin Beckett looks good, but the title sequence is missing the voiceover.

Police Squad! parodies those titles back in the 80s:


John Garrett 04.14.16 at 2:18 pm

The French have always been the ultimate fartists: take a look at



jake the antisoshul soshulist 04.14.16 at 3:30 pm

Does Judge Brown oppose all forms of serfdom? Surprisingly, she did mention that there might be other roads to serfdom, but certainly did not elaborate on that.
I can’t help but think that definition of freedom is just some obfuscation of
freedom to look at the world the same way she does.


Suzanne 04.14.16 at 4:06 pm

@21: Further derailing, with apologies.

Columbo was/is awesome (at least in its seventies form; the show was brought back in the eighties but wasn’t the same), but I suggest respectfully that “irrefutable” logic was scarcely a cornerstone of the show. Inevitably Columbo would confront the killer with a spectacularly flimsy piece of evidence and inevitably the killer would cave immediately even though plainly the case would never hold up.

There were a couple of Columbo episodes where they seemed to be trying out a sidekick, but it never took, unless you count the occasional appearances by Columbo’s somnolent basset hound.

The show was created by Richard Levinson and William Link and is a great example of an R. Austin Freeman-type mystery updated. Levinson and Link also created another great show, the Ellery Queen series with Jim Hutton and David Wayne that lasted only one season.


CJColucci 04.14.16 at 6:30 pm

I was going to say the same thing about Columbo’s dog. I always wanted an episode based on Lt. Columbo’s last day on the job, where he grumbles about how, for all his success clearing cases, he never made Captain, and tells us why. I also wanted a Columbo-Murder She Wrote crossover where Jessica Fletcher goes to L.A., someone dies (imagine that) and the two of them solve the case combining their trademark approaches. The last scene is Jessica on the phone to her agent telling him she has a great idea for a new series character.
Speaking of Jessica Fletcher, I saw Angela Lansbury in a production of Blithe Spirit. In one scene, the wife of the leading man, a successful mystery writer, is talking to Lansbury, playing a slightly demented medium. The wife mentions that her husband is working on a new mystery in which a mystery writer gets involved in solving a crime. The audience waited with bated breath to see what Lansbury/Fletcher would do with this. She did what the old pros always do — nothing. After a perfectly timed pause, the audience cracked up and then the play went on.


RNB 04.14.16 at 8:04 pm

Exactly what is being derailed here?


Alan White 04.15.16 at 12:22 am

Suzanne (if I may) @ 33–

Thanks so much for that. I DO strongly agree that the 80s restart was pretty lame–and in part because it didn’t reproduce the deductive-style methods. (So, I’m also respectfully disagreeing with you as well!) I think of the Ross Martin episode where he was an art expert, and Columbo, suspecting him, reaches in a folio to touch what’s in there, only for Martin’s character to jerk it away. Later Columbo orders that the (supposedly recovered) art be dusted for fingerprints–and Martin’s character protests that his prints would be all over the work and ridicules Columbo for that–but then the Lieutenant says something like–“Not your fingerprints–*my* fingerprints”–because he could never have touched them except for the folio incident. Other episodes: Columbo “forcing” a murderer to dispose of a body in a concrete footing of a building by convincing authorities to dig up that footing (knowing that there was no body there) and thus allowing the killer to infer that that location was the safest place to dispose of the corpse, and surprising the killer at the site when doing so (one instance where Columbo uses the killer’s logical powers of deduction to trap him!). Placing another killer (Robert Culp?–a multi–guest-star killer–I refuse to Google every questioned part of my memory) in the situation of identifying a camera that only the killer could have known about, etc. etc. I think Columbo was in fact (originally) based on the idea that appearances are deceptive, and in ways that professional philosophers should heartily endorse as all too familiar: someone who appears odd, eccentric, and even slow at first glance, but who is extremely sharp and devises (largely) deductive strategies to entrap opponents.

But again I’m with you–starting in ’66 and though much of the 70s–Columbo is the best media detective ever.

“Sorry, pardon me, just one more question, something’s bothering me . . .”


Alan White 04.15.16 at 12:39 am

After posting now I have the impression the photographer -murderer was Dick van Dyke. Still refuse to use the external mind of the Internet to say one way or another.

(Have friends who check out every claim you make on smartphones? Hate that.)


Tom Slee 04.15.16 at 2:34 am

I like this essay on “Fail Again”, which has no time for cities on hills: Fail Worse.


js. 04.15.16 at 3:19 am

Francis Spufford @2 — Thank you! That is fantastic, I don’t know the genre nearly as well as several people on here, but loved every second of that.

(And ZM — “Sabotage” is probably one of my favorite music videos of all time, Spike Jonez-directed, if memory serves.)


js. 04.15.16 at 3:33 am

I suspect there’s some joke to be made about Krapp’s bananas and Molloy’s farts, but it’s going to take someone wittier than me to make it.


Jim Buck 04.15.16 at 7:32 am

I hate to be unfashionable but did not Dylan boil better than Beckett when he wrote “There’s no success like failure” ?


Suzanne 04.15.16 at 7:10 pm

@37: Yes, it was Van Dyke. My recollection is fairly sharp because my father likes

Points taken. I’m thinking of episodes like the one where Columbo made a very big production about Robert Conrad knowing or not knowing when his victim had changed his gym clothes, and another one where The Missing Boutonniere causes John Cassavetes’ superstar conductor to collapse before Columbo’s powers of deduction. These guys are not only clever, ruthless killers, they’re also men of means (Columbo episodes always taking place in posh surroundings), and I still have no idea why they just don’t say, “An interesting theory, Lieutenant. Good luck proving it in court and I’m not talking till my costly legal team gets here.”

I do remember that show about the architect. It’s a nice moment when those floodlights go on.

I’d say Peak Columbo was the first five years of the series’ seventies run. Toward the end of the first run the plots really did get a bit out of hand – thinking specifically of the one where Nicol Williamson trains his dogs to rip apart anyone who says “Rosebud.” But even that was a fun episode, because the byplay between Williamson and Falk was sharp.


Alan White 04.16.16 at 12:48 am

Good memory Suzanne! I’d forgotten about the Williamson episode and agree it was not the best–also the one with Johnny Cash. Thanks so much for going into the WayBack machine with me!


ben wolfson 04.19.16 at 3:02 am

“Counting Farts in Japanese and Irish Literatures: The Cases of Sōseki and Beckett”
Whereas for Beckett, the counting of farts is a way to gain self-knowledge and clarity, perhaps even freedom from vexing concerns, the imagined detective in Sōseki’s Grass Pillow is an agent of societal control, whose determination to count the protagonist’s farts serves to undermine his ability to freely follow his calling. Yet despite this surface dissimilarity, the two cases have a deep kinship, for Molloy’s self-observation is nothing more than the internalization of the detective and his operation of control, put, perhaps, to a novel use.

(must be something in the air)

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