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Great Virtue in Linoleum: Objects, Subjects and Things in the Work of Harold Pinter

Les vertus du linoleum: objets, sujets et choses dans l’œuvre de Harold Pinter
Ann Lecercle


Après avoir étudié les principales stratégies grâce auxquelles Pinter manipule, modifie, métamorphose les objets dans ses pièces, l’articles propose une analyse approfondie d’un seul: le linoleum du titre. Comme signifié, il cristallise les tensions conflictuelles, scéniques, sociales, culturelles de la conjoncture; comme signifiant, déréalisé, il en vient à orchestrer autour de lui une étrange logique de représentation typique de la vision pintérienne.

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The Part in all its Glory (Balls 1)

  • 1 Cited by S. Gublik, Magritte, London: Thames & Hudson, 1985, in Alberto Manguel Le Livre d’images, (...)

1The artist responsible, in the twentieth century, for perhaps the most original re-apprehension of the object qua object in the initial immediacy with which it presents itself, namely the visual—René Magritte—argued that re-appraisal of the object as such was, for him, predicated upon a form of triangulation: “Mes investigations”, wrote Magritte, “ressemblent à la recherche de la solution d’un problème à trois données: (1) l’objet, (2) une chose qui lui est liée dans l’ombre de ma conscience, et (3) la lumière dans laquelle cette chose deviendrait apparente”.1 The edition brought out in London by Eyre/Methuen in 1977 of Pinter’s Complete Plays is, by now famously, illustrated by works from this artist’s corpus. Since not only scholars but the reading public at large (one hesitates nowadays to say the general public) is interpellated by this collocation, it furnishes at least one cogent as well as contingent reason for looking more closely into the status and the sense of the object in the works of the playwright.

2The pertinence of Magritte for Pinter, is, it seems to me, less at the level of a spectacular strangeness which, in the case of the painter, is predicated on logical subversion of a flaunted and flamboyant kind, than it is on the particular conception of the object in art which he outlines in his agenda of “un problème à trois données”. As for Pinter, his name, at least in Britain, most readily conjures up the image of banal banter bandied back and forth, with more or less conviction, to pass the time of day and, more to the point, warily skirt around any bugs and pitfalls that might otherwise bedevil intercourse of an irenic stamp by becoming points of fixation, possible festering and ultimate affray: in a word, a reconfigured version of the proverbial “airy fairy”, regenerated by the mooted intuition, or the material irruption, of the radically, which is to say asymptotically, inaccessible Real.

  • 2 All references to this play are to the above-cited Eyre/Methuen edition.

3For if banal banter there is in Pinter, then the airy fairy is seriously ballasted, in the first place by the role played by objects—the call of the Dumb Waiter that is a an indoor metallic mine shaft, being a good instance. Pinter’s theatre is not only inhabited but haunted by objects, like the hoover in the dark that scares the living daylights out of Davies in The Caretaker. For objects that found, in no little part, the playwright’s premiss, reiterated in both his own and his characters’ voice, that “What you are, or appear to be to, changes so quickly, so horrifyingly, [that one] can’t keep up with it, and I’m damn sure you can’t either” (The Dwarfs, 112).2 The point is that what you are is, to no inconsiderable extent, instantiated for Pinter in what, mentally and physically you do with things, in the context of a material universe intrinsically subtended, in its spatial and semantic organisation, by a rhetorical figure that has gone out of fashion, and hence favour, with all, it would seem—psychoanalysts apparently included—except those who work in the field of Renaissance theatre. I am referring to the polyptoton, for in Pinter’s dramatic universe it is not only what you do with things but what things do with, and even more so, to, you that is the real issue: the issue of the Real. Objects in Pinter’s world are defined, not to say declined, in a grammar where synecdoche in the realm of semantics is what polyptoton is to the domain of syntax.

4For convenience’s sake, and also because it is, I would argue, the blueprint of the way the object as “problème à trois données” is conceived in their respective fields by Magritte and Pinter alike, this parsing of Pinter’s parts—for objects, in the key places where they are foregrounded, where they may be said actually to take the stage, are parts—is best instantiated in the short play, first performed in 1959 ay the Lyric Opera House, Hammersmith, before moving to the West End, entitled Trouble in the Works.

  • 3 All references to A Slight Ache and Other Plays, London: Methuen, (1961), 1970. Passage cited p. 12 (...)

5The “works” that contextualize the eponymous “trouble” materialize, in the first instance at least, in the form of a factory: “Well now, Wills, I hear there’s been a little trouble in the factory”, says the manager.3 This is not any factory, however, since no time is lost in apprizing the audience that the objects these works turn out are, very precisely, not wholes but parts: “We’ve got the reputation of having the finest machine part turnover in the country” (121). As for the “trouble”, it materializes in the following—apparently amicable—dialogue between the manager, Mr. Fibbs, and the foreman, Mr. Wills. There can be few places in modern theatre where objects, in their material reality as in their technical precision, hold centre stage to quite this extent. This is obviously a precision tool line (such things do actually exist, at least in part). I quote the relevant portion, here much abbreviated:

Fibbs: But […] I’ve never seen such beautiful products.
Wills: There it is, sir.
Fibbs: Which ones don’t they like?
Wills: Well, there’s the brass pet cock, for instance.
Fibbs: The brass pet cock? What’s the matter with the brass pet cock? But I tell you it’s perfection [...].
Wills: [...] They’ve gone right off it.
Fibbs: I’m flabbergasted.
Wills: It’s not only the brass pet cock, Mr. Fibbs.
Fibbs: What else?
Wills: There’s the hemi unibal spherical rod end.
Fibbs: The hemi unibal spherical rod end ? Where could you find a finer hemi unibal spherical rod end?
Wills: [...] They just don’t want to have anything more to do with it.
Fibbs: This is shattering. Shattering. What else ? Come on, There’s no point in hiding anything from me.
Wills: Well, I hate to say it, but they’ve gone very vicious about the high speed taper shank spiral flute reamers.
Fibbs: The high speed taper shank spiral flute reamers. But it’s absolutely ridiculous! What could they possibly have against the high speed taper shank spiral flute reamers?
Wills: All I can say is that they’re in a state of very bad agitation about them. And then there’s the gunmetal side outlet relief with handwheel [...]. (121-3)

  • 4 See A. Lecercle, Le Théâtre de Harold Pinter: stratégies de l’indicible, Paris: Klincksieck, 2006, (...)

6The materialization of the trouble on the production line is at one and the same time a dematerialization of the object produced. The process functions according to stages one and two of Magritte’s modus operandi, while the third element of Magritte’s list—namely, for the visual artist, light, is represented in the case of the verbal artist, Pinter—but an artist, remember, who always insisted on a picture-frame stage complete with curtain, it being a gross contresens, Pinter’s perspective,4 to do away with it (I shall return to this shortly)—, this third element, then, is supplied less by the light of day than by the illumination of desire, which works in classic mode via metonymy and metaphor, displacement and reconfiguration, the former being the gist of Magritte’s second step. As for the picture-frame, implicit in Magritte’s vision, explicit in Pinter’s, the most likely candidate for that is the stage of the East-End music-hall, gaudy at its best, grim at its worst, but there again, Pinter’s sketch could as readily be recast as a highly plausible candidate for that paroxysm of fin-de-siècle black comedy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, not least because of the chute: what the workers want to make is (quote) “brandy balls”.

  • 5 Edition cited, London: Chatto & Windus, n.d.
  • 6 Gargantua ch. III, Edition cited, Œuvres Complètes, Pierre Jourda, ed., Paris: Garnier, 1962, 253.
  • 7 From the Renaisance grotto which was conceived of as a theatre of the as yet inchoate manifestation (...)

7Perhaps, however, if the écriture of Trouble in the Works recalls anything in the history of English literature it is perhaps nothing so much as Sir Thomas Urquhart’s prodigious and justly celebrated translation of the Rabelais5 in the way the entire field of objective reference, though copiously called upon, is notwithstanding short-circuited less by slippage on the paradigmatic axis of language than by prostethic elongation on the syntactic. Thus, when Rabelais writes of Gargantua’s lament for his spouse who has just departed this life in childbirth, “Ha, Badebec, ma mignonne, mamye, mon petit con (toutesfois elle en avoit bien troys arpens et deux sesterées), ma tendrette, ma braguette, ma savate, ma pantofle, jamais je ne te verray !” (Urquhart 198), Urquhart the aristocrat writes, with a verve ressurrected by Wills the workman: “Ah Badebec, Badebec, my minion, my dear heart, my sugar, my sweeting, my honey, my little C ... (yet it had in circumference full six acres, three rods, five poles, four yards, two foot, one inche and half of good woodland measure) my tender peggie, my Codpiece darling, my bob and hit, my slipshoe-lovie, never shall I see thee more”.6 In both cases, for the literati of 1653, as for the mini comedy of menace of 1959, the object is not only the part, it is par excellence the partial object—a partial object not only in that it aligns an array of fantasized fetiches but in that it patently fulfills, not to say flaunts, its function as such, namely to adumbrate the absent-present Phallus for which it is a substitute—which is why, in Gargantua, the object is not only prosthetic but apotropaic, conjuring up in the Imaginary so as to conjure away the Real of death and disempowerment. In both scenes cathexis of the object is grotesquely suspended in—the original sense of the grotesque (what is half made-up)7—between the phallic and the oral: blubbering Rabelaisian patriarch is offset and soon occulted by bawling baby son greeting for the breast, a bawl which famously begets him a name in lieu of liquid nourishment, a signifier in lieu of substance. Likewise, in the skit, Pinter’s work force really want to deal with in lieu of such objects as hemi unibal spherical rod ends are “Brandy balls”, the last words of Pinter’s text (i.e. cognac truffles). In a word, they want, like Lear, to go back to the cradle.

  • 8 See G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Paris: Minuit, 1980, notably ch. 6, passim.

8To conclude with a theoretical paradox, there can rarely have been, on the English stage, or any stage for that matter, such a perfect instantiation of Deleuze’s body as machine désirante, CSO, corps sans organes.8 It is now time, however, to move on: from the shifting sands of semantics to a syntax that sutures.

Suture and Visagéité (Balls 2)

  • 9 See in Mille Plateaux, ch. entitled “Visageité”, passim.
  • 10 “The Black and White”, in Poems and Prose 1949-1977, London: Eyre/Methuen, 1978, 55-58.
  • 11 This article, “La Suture”, was stretched over two issues of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, numbers 211 and (...)

9Balls return with a vengeance in Pinter. In Trouble in the Works, the significance of the object is generated by a semantic shift along the paradigmatic axis of language towards Magritte’s ‘objet qui est liée dans l’ombre de ma conscience”, a shift cathected from the interface of the oral and the phallic. But in a much longer play, like Tea Party, written for British television and which I vividly remember seeing it on its first—European—performance on the 25thMarch 1965, if balls are crucial, this is true less of the shifting and slippery sands of semantics than of the extraordinary syntactical volte- face which encapsulates the drama. In Tea Party balls are no less agonistic for being not alimentary but scopic, not brandy balls nor even the blood-red cricket balls the playwright so affects both on- and offstage, but ping pong balls which, in this play, increasingly come to occupy the space less of the scene than of the screen. Semantic shifting there is, for ping pong balls are white, and so are the balls of the eyes; and as the brash, overbearing hero, played by the Leo McKern, gradually sank into what was presented as a form of blindness, the diminutive, initially playful white balls loom ever larger, until the sudden, startling epiphanic moment of the play. This I still recall with recoil, for these two white globes, hugely magnified by proximity, suddenly leapt up from the dark screen centre and forward, on either side of it and as if out of it, at the spectator’s face, blinding the latter and suturing the split between subject of vision (me) and the object (blank, blind globes), transforming the space of the screen with the two white balls coming up, on either side, as if eyes, at my eyes. This was a photographic negative, a canny, dynamic, dramatic reversal, of Deleuze’s visagéité: “mur blanc, trou noir”9 in that the PInterian epiphany on screen was “mur noir, trou blanc”. As a result, the scene, thanks to the balls, became what I would like to call Pinter’s Mad Batter’s Tea Part y (they are ping pong balls after all). In this way the screen itself, for the space of a startling moment, became visage, which, of course, could only work in the wonderful old early television of black and white—the title, incidentally, of one of Pinter’s short stories.10 The screen became visage, the face within, the face without, nobody’s face, the screen as suture before Jean-Pierre Oudart ever wrote his seminal essay on that subject in the cinematographic arts.11 This is what happens too in Pinter’s untitled poem “they kissed I turned they stared” which ends “and I their blind kiss formed”. Thanks to its two ping pong balls, the Mad Batter’s Tea Party stages visageité as volte-face: a volte-face of which the fantasy in the fiction literalizes the very concept. Indeed, the vault is here literal, for that is precisely what the two balls did: vault (“vault” and “volte” are themselves (thus the OED) the two faces of one original, the Latin volvere, turning: turning from “they kissed I turned they stared”, to “and I their blind kiss formed”.

Of Milk and Men, or Going the Whole Hog

  • 12 All references to Pinter Plays: Two, (London: Eyre/Methuen, 1961, 1967).
  • 13 See Pinter’s essay in memoriam entitled simply Mac, in Pinter, 1978, 77ff.

10A post-Alice Tea Party is perhaps necessarily mad. And all Pinter’s plays are doubtless Mad Batter’s Tea Parties. Be that as it may, a Tea Party is what starts off the play in which Pinter claims that this time he actually “went the whole hog”, namely The Dwarfs.12 Here the dominant drive reverts from the scopic to the oral, indeed all the way back to milk, but nineteen fifties’ milk in its quotidian guise of the now fast disappearing milk bottle delivered on the doorstep for breakfast by the milk boy on his milk float to the inimitable music of the latter’s little electric engine. But, true to form, Pinter’s milk is nonetheless milk with a difference, for going the whole hog with ye olde English milk bottle also takes Pinter himself­and us—immediately back to his cradle—to his beginnings on a stage that was predominantly Elizabethan (touring with the troupe of Anew MacMaster).13

11Being initially, but only initially, destined for radio, The Dwarfs is all the more remarkable for the fact that objects, the objects of everyday life, like milk bottles, are as much the protagonists as the persons called upon to address them. In The Dwarfs,—and that is why I have chosen it here—Pinter virtually spells out what is embedded or embroiled in the rest of his opus; and to follow Pinter in his own terms and go the whole hog “from the word go”: in The Dwarfs, you can, for instance, not only eat cheese, it (polyptoton oblige) can also eat you—though, not being a skit but more attuned to a double-bill, The Dwarfs draws a line at taking this as far as the literality Monty Python was about to stage before our bemused eyes.

12In The Dwarfs, the scene is initially set with all the objects requisite for what T.S. Eliot, in Prufrock, famously calls “the taking of a toast and tea”, a phrase whose archness already makes the intimate alien. Pinter’s stage directions read “Two cups and saucers, a sugar-bowl and a tea-pot are on a tray on the coffee-table” with Eliot’s toast indeed making its appearance in a couple of ticks—once, that is, the crying lack in the layout—the milk—has been duly addressed—duly if not properly, for, true to Pinterian type, it is approached, like Magritte’s object, tangentially. The play opens thus:

LEN is playing a recorder. The sound is fragmentary.
LEN: Pete.
PETE: What?
LEN: [...] What’s the matter with this recorder? He pulls it in half, looks down, blows, taps.] There’s something wrong with this recorder.
PETE: Let’s have some tea.
LEN: I can’t do a thing with it. [Reassembles recorder. Another attempt to play] Where’s the milk? He puts recorder on tray]
PETE: You were going to bring it [...]
LEN: [...] Wait a minute. Here we are. I knew he’d have a pint laid on. [Pressing the top] Uuh!...Uuuhh!... It’s stiff.
PETE. I wouldn’t open that.
LEN: [...] Why not? [...] It won’t come out of the bottle.
PETE: It’s been in there two weeks, why should it come out?
LEN: Two weeks? [...] It’s stuck in the bottle.
After the entrance of the toasting fork, the recorder returns:
PETE: What’s the matter with that thing?
LEN: Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with it. But it must be broken. It’s a year since I played it. [He sneezes] Aah! I’ve got the most shocking blasted cold I’ve ever had in my life. [He blows his nose] Still, it’s not much of a nuisance really. (92-4)

13The Dwarfs thus begins with what is Pinter’s re-writing of Hamlet, in which he began an acting career in secondary roles to Anew MacMaster’s heros. In Shakespeare’s pivotal Act 3 scene 2, in the immediate aftermath of the play-with-in- the-play, Guildenstern, like Len, cannot play a recorder. It is not the syntax that sutures here: the recorder that refuses to emit sound, the milk bottle that refuses to expell milk and the nose that is blocked like the bottle, are all subsumed under the final “it”. As in Shakespeare’s Urtext, spoken object is speaking subject:

HAMLET: “Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me. You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops [...], you would sound me from my lowest note to the very top of my compass. [...] Call me what instrument you will, though you fret me, you cannot play upon me.” (3.2. 354-361)

  • 14 All references to the Arden edition, Harold Jenkins, ed., London: Methuen, 1982.

14The spiral into suture is both syntactic and semantic: it not only entails Hamlet’s being recorder; at the same time, the recorder, here, realizes the literal in the figurative that determined the critical moment when he defines himself—something he never does again except in loathing—as recorder, that is, as he who has wiped away (quote) “all trivial fond records: [...] My tables. Meet it is I set it down” (1.5.99; 1.5.111).14

15The difference is that in the all-male theatre of Hamlet, the dominant cathexis is genital, a covert figuration of male rape, where in Pinter’s universe the prism operated by the the milk bottle on the recorder is oral. The sucking away Pinter sees as structuring every moment of our life so that we don’t know what is happening is not any fantasy. And it is this orality that surfaces with a vengeance in the final apocalyptic tableau of the mysterious Dwarfs themselves, who, just like the men in Trouble in the Works, lord it over a universe of objects that are specifically partial objects:

LEN: They’ve stopped eating. [...] I’m left in the lurch. Not even a stale frankfurter, a slice of bacon rind, a leaf of cabbage, not even a moudly piece of salami [...]. And this change. All about me the change. The yard as I know it is littered with scraps of cat’s meat, pig bollocks, tin cans, bird brains, spare parts of all the little animals, a squelching squealing carpet, all the dwarfs’ leavings spittled in the muck, worms stuck in the poisoned shit heaps, the alleys a whirlpool of piss, slime, blood and fruit juice. Now all is bare. There is a lawn. There is a shrub. There is a flower (117; emphasis added).

  • 15 “The Task”, in Harold Pinter: Poems, London: Enitharmon Press, 1968, 14.

16This last state is what Pinter in one of his poems15 calls “the tailormaking of the room”, not the suturing effected by the whirlpool, but the whirlpool itself sutured, in other words, the lack that causes it. This explains the funereal quality of the final chute of The Dwarfs (“There is... There is... etc.”), for this state only obtains, is but another name for, the Real that is tantamount to death, beyond the pale.

17Pinter actually wrote a poem about the suture. In “The Anaesthetist’s Pin” (Pinter 1968, 8), Pinter talks about “the bawl of pain”, the cry of a deformed mouth, as in Munch’s celebrated rendering of the thing. This bawl, says Pinter, has to be “bound up”. “Bawl”, however, is Pinterian idiolect for in “bawl” there is always already the “awl”, the gross needle specifically for hide or skin, of which the eponymous “pin” is the diminutive. This is not only significant, it is signature, for in turn it is contained in the playwright’s own name, the son of the tailor father.

*        *

18There is a rider to all this. I am not sure to what extent one thing has been pointed out. It is something that The Dwarfs makes explicit. What I would call the “quicksilver slipperiness” and the ensuing spiral into suture in Pinter has a necessary correlate: the common denominator of bottle, nose and recorder, is the hole—paradoxically named “stop” in the instrument. Pinter’s objects exist in a space, but in a space that is crucially and critically holed. The Dumb Waiter not only magnifies, it actually titularizes this representation as a mouth that opens and closes (rooms open and close, says Len in The Dwarfs; The Birthday Part y has its notorious kitchen hatch over which reigns the female dragon who dreams of (I quote) “succulent” afternoons. The Caretaker sets the scene thus: “A room. A window in the back wall, the bottom half covered by a sack” (which is itself something of a slippery phrase, meaning either the bottom half is covered, or the bottom half-covered”, not the same thing at all). It is against this disposition that the junk of disparate objects (bed, cupboard, Buddha, etc.) is placed. For the collectivity of these objects Pinter comes up with a word with a twist, with a built-in bias: “To the right of the window a mound”—not heap or pile, but mound. For an array of eclectic objects, what this term calls up is the “funeral mound” or tumulus, and should interpellate the stage manager; in Pinterian idiolect, it virtually inscribes absence in already presence, the end in the beginning, suggesting the final expulsion of Davies before he has entered.

19The set for The Dwarfs actually has a rift right down the middle, with one side or other of the stage being lit, while the very furniture on one is specified as “middle European”. Against this abyme, virtual or veritable, the dramatic syntax with which Pinter conjugates his objects espouse the logic Lacan’s matheme for the structure of the fantasy: the partial object—the lozenge (lack, opening, peephole, what have you)—and the barred S. Pinter has always stressed that his primary concern is to “get the structure right”. Indeed The Dwarfs itself proposes this paradoxical link between theatre and mathematics:

LEN: It [acting] is a time-honoured profession – it’s time-honoured. [Pause] But what does it do? Does it please you when you walk onto a stage [...]? [...] You should follow my example and take up mathematics [...]. There’s nothing like a bit of calculus to cheer you up. (98)

Great Virtue in Linoleum: Real and Ream

  • 16 “Writing for Myself”, in Pinter Plays: Two, London: Eyre/Methuen, 1977, 11-12.

20Finally, rather than multiply instances, I thought of looking at just one thing. For Pinter, a poem, play, novel is all the same thing.16 The Dwarfs has been all of these at one time or another. For the sake of ready comprehension I have therefore chosen an object from Later, an indeterminate text of 1974 whose brief starkness conveniently highlights what I have been saying.

Later. I look out at the moon.
I lived here once.
I remember the song.
Later. No sound here.
Moon on linoleum.
A child frowning.
Later. A voice singing.
I open the back door.
I lived here once.
Later. I open the back door.
Light gone. Dead trees.
Dead linoleum. Later
Later. Blackness moving very fast.
I live here now. (Pinter 1978, 40)

21In this minature monologue—Pinter’s Chambre claire / chambre noire, so to speak—with its minimalist stage set for the originary absence/presence, Fort/Da, of the speaking subject, there are two instances of what Barthes would call a punctum: the one belongs to the realm of the concrete object – indeed an object for concrete—, the second to the metaphorical, not to say allegorical, leeway in language. Of the second, “fatly”, I have already written elsewhere (Lecercle 97ff), but it is only recently that my attention attached itself to the first.

22I am talking about linoleum. In the post-war years, for myself as much as for Pinter—linoleum is an object that not only encapsulates a key moment in time but an entire way of life—which is also why the dreadful stuff virtually no longer exists. Invented by Frederick Walton in the 1860s, it veritably came into its own in the years of Pinter’s budding maturity. For it goes, above all, in the context of British theatre, with the grim drab years of skimping and scrounging, of ration books and ration stamps (which lasted far longer in England than in France) of the crimped and cramped nineteen fifties. Which is why, in the theatre of the Angry Young Men, it was a must on the stage/floor that was “looked back on” in the genesis of the genre. Pinter is not only one who writes for a picture-frame: within that picture frame, there is the orchestration of space. So much so that, in the architecture of Later, it bodies forth—and indeed, in view of the later “fatly” bellies forth—the horizontal axis (or matrix)—as opposed to the pair of verticals provided by the trees, outside, and the door, inside, with its uprights or jambs (its legs). That this is not reading into, but simply reading, the text is attested by The Dwarfs. Does not one of the characters, after all, talk about the “horizontal personalities of these places” (there, hospitals).

23In a word, linoleum was the nineteen fifties’ epitome of Ersatz and trompe- l’oeil. It was the substitute for a lack—the lack of the real thing, be it rugs or rush mats. In the poem, however, linoleum sticks out, all the more so as it is gratified in extremis with the epithet “dead”, hitherto applied to what, in the normal way of things, is capable of living and dying, namely trees, its drab nineteen-fifties domesticity turning conspicuously unheimlich. For deadness here is first of all of language, in the signifier, in the word itself as object: rather than the quotidian, homely lino, the dead language of the Latin (linum + oleum) that furnished its Victorian inventor with his coinage for what was (usually) jute woven and overlaid with a coating of linseed oil. But in turn, in its idiosyncracy, the dead language confers on what is represented here its own spatiality, a spatiality less fictional than fantasmatic, one with its own specific logic, its own jambs and lacks.

24For of the succinct brush-strokes that here sketch the erstwhile homescape, it is the linoleum that ushers in, not without a certain sonorous, almost ceremonial solemnity, the volte face, the reversal into the contrary, in which Freud sees the fulcrum on which the infinitely devious syntax of desire is predicated. Its Latin alterity in a text of markedly anglo-saxon stamp points up, is a symptom of, a double otherness, where, thanks to the very materiality of its signs, the symbolic Other forms and frames the imaginary other, and in so doing sets up the paradoxical pulsation of Fort und Da, Lacan’s battement, which is precisely what the text is about.

  • 17 Culture and the Real, London & N.Y.: Routledge, 2005, 74.
  • 18 For a discussion of this whole topos, see C. Belsey, Culture and the Real, London & N.Y.: Routledge (...)

25How does this work? Like lino itself, as referent—rug and not rug, rush and not rush—the poem is punctuated by something you find in Anglo-Saxon poetry, a play on the same and the other, at the level of sound, which function as relays or echoes, here: song, sound, frown; back, black; fast, fat. Linoleum is the jewel in the crown in this respect, not least because it is endowed with a scriptural architecture which articulates the same and the other: I am here referring to its central sign, the letter O, flanked, on either side, by what is phonemically both the same and other, notably the jambs of this aperture, the l sound, followed by one or other of the versions of the i sound in English (i / i:), with one or other of the frontal nasal consonants (m / n) bringing up the rear. “Architecture takes form by encircling emptiness” (Catherine Belsey).17 Linoleum as scripted object is Heidegger’s potter’s pot as referent. It creates space by making a word to surround a central void. What holds the liquid in a pot, Heidegger famously asks? Not, as it might appear, the sides and the base of the object. On the contrary, what is indispensable is the hole at the centre. The emptiness, the void, is what is operative in making the pot a pot. As Heidegger puts it, the potter “shapes the void”.18

  • 19 “Between the Lines”, The Sunday Times, 4 March 1962, Review section, 1.

26With two differences, however: in the Pinterian universe, the walls and the bottom are not motionless, so the void is not static. On the contrary, both the whole (with w) and the hole (with h), in space, are quintessentially and constantly reconfigured in accordance with the crucial temporal principle: “A moment is sucked away and distorted, even at the moment of its birth”.19 As scripted signifier, around its central O, linoleum is the whirlpool that twists “lin” into “leum”, precisely via suction, for l, of course, is the Ur-phoneme, the one which, tongue against palate, most closely mimes the action of suction.

  • 20 Ei, Nuoro : Il Maestrale, 2002, 45-6.
  • 21 Translation mine.

27Finally, linoleum is not a word I recall having encountered much, if at all, of late. And I was wondering whether the way it interpellated me was quixotic to the point of disqualification. I would like to suggest not, however. As I was writing this I came across a scenario in a context far removed from that of Pinter’s work which struck me as instantiating the same fantasmatic logic. This scenario occurs in a recent novel by the Italian novelist of Sardinian origin, Giorgio Todde, entitled simply Ei, the Greek for “if” inscribed over the entrance to the oracle of Delphi deemed to link the nether with the upper echelons of being. Todde’s scene is a funicular railway at the moment the two cable cars, one going up, the other down, meet half way down the precipice (precipizio) between the città bassa and the città alta of an unnamed town. Suffice it to say that, against such a backdrop, the space of the scene, in Pinterian terms, has a crucially, not to say critically, vertical “personality”. The personage in the novel engaged by the vertical personality of the place is a young woman, the appositely named Medina, of whom virtually all we then know is her name and that she has slept in the cot of her dead son every day since his death—until, that is, the day she decides to uncloister herself and take the funicular down to the città bassa and nearby sea. On the return journey, after immersion in the marine, at the moment the two cable cars, launched on their vertical trajectory, cross, there occurs a momentary phenomenon of succion: the doors open with the pressure of the passage, and the woman is sucked out, or rather, like The Caretaker’s window, half sucked out. At this point we read, in a brutal paragraph of one short line, “Sbattè la faccia sul linoleum e mori” (She fell flat on her face on the linoleum and died). For the purposes of the narrative the text could have stopped here but goes on to re-inscribe linoleum against the ambient verticality—as in Pinter—now as a tree, now in pivotal position that spirals birth into death, death into birth. Like Pinter’s recorder, she is pulled in two halves “Il bacino e le gambe di Medina caddero alle pendici delle mura impigliandosi a un bel pino. La parte inferiore di Medina spetto al quartiere più basso. […] Era verde come un germoglio”20 (pelvis and legs plunged down the precipitous town walls, getting caught on a great pine tree. The lower part of the town got the lower half of Medina. [...] It/She was as green as a tender bud).21Medina’s trajectory is literally from the cradle to the grave; Pinter’s text is, perhaps, from the grave to the cradle, but with a suggestion that this too is an unending spiral, a kind of Moebius band. In Todde, linoleum not only bars, and in so doing debars, the there perfectly oiled uprights, it lies itself out literally, and, so to speak, letterally, with its pivotal signifier iconizing the irruption of the real.

28The real . . . via the ream. For in the last analysis, it is Pinter’s text itself that is the high speed taper spiral flute reamer . . . that abuts on to death. “Ream”: to enlarge or widen (a hole)” (v3.1, OED).

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Armstrong, Tim, Modernism, Technology and the Body: A cultural study, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Beckett, Samuel, The Complete Dramatic Works, London: Faber & F., 1986.

Beckett, Samuel, Collected Shorter Prose, London: Calder, 1984.

Belsey, Catherine, Culture and the Real, London & N.Y.: Routledge, 2005.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Paris: Minuit, 1980.

Lecercle, Ann, Le Théâtre de Harold Pinter: stratégies de l’indicible, Paris: Klincksieck, 2006.

ManguelANGUEL, Alberto, Le Livre d’images, Paris: Actes Sud/Léméac, 2000.

Oudart, J.-P., “La Suture”, Les Cahiers du Cinéma 211 and 212 (April and May 1969).

Pinter, Harold, Complete Plays, London: Eyre/Methuen, 1977.

Pinter, Harold, Harold Pinter: Poems, London: Enitharmon Press, 1968.

Rabelais, François, Œuvres Complètes, Pierre Jourda, ed., Paris: Garnier, 1962.

Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Harold Jenkins, ed., London: Methuen, Coll. ‘Arden”, 1982.

Todde, Giorgio, Ei, Nuoro: Il Maestrale, 2002.

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1 Cited by S. Gublik, Magritte, London: Thames & Hudson, 1985, in Alberto Manguel Le Livre d’images, Paris: Actes Sud/Léméac, 2000, 152-3.

2 All references to this play are to the above-cited Eyre/Methuen edition.

3 All references to A Slight Ache and Other Plays, London: Methuen, (1961), 1970. Passage cited p. 121.

4 See A. Lecercle, Le Théâtre de Harold Pinter: stratégies de l’indicible, Paris: Klincksieck, 2006, 73-4.

5 Edition cited, London: Chatto & Windus, n.d.

6 Gargantua ch. III, Edition cited, Œuvres Complètes, Pierre Jourda, ed., Paris: Garnier, 1962, 253.

7 From the Renaisance grotto which was conceived of as a theatre of the as yet inchoate manifestations of natura naturans.

8 See G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Paris: Minuit, 1980, notably ch. 6, passim.

9 See in Mille Plateaux, ch. entitled “Visageité”, passim.

10 “The Black and White”, in Poems and Prose 1949-1977, London: Eyre/Methuen, 1978, 55-58.

11 This article, “La Suture”, was stretched over two issues of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, numbers 211 and 212.

12 All references to Pinter Plays: Two, (London: Eyre/Methuen, 1961, 1967).

13 See Pinter’s essay in memoriam entitled simply Mac, in Pinter, 1978, 77ff.

14 All references to the Arden edition, Harold Jenkins, ed., London: Methuen, 1982.

15 “The Task”, in Harold Pinter: Poems, London: Enitharmon Press, 1968, 14.

16 “Writing for Myself”, in Pinter Plays: Two, London: Eyre/Methuen, 1977, 11-12.

17 Culture and the Real, London & N.Y.: Routledge, 2005, 74.

18 For a discussion of this whole topos, see C. Belsey, Culture and the Real, London & N.Y.: Routledge, 2005, 74 (sentence quoted) and following.

19 “Between the Lines”, The Sunday Times, 4 March 1962, Review section, 1.

20 Ei, Nuoro : Il Maestrale, 2002, 45-6.

21 Translation mine.

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Ann Lecercle, « Great Virtue in Linoleum: Objects, Subjects and Things in the Work of Harold Pinter »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 18 mars 2019, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Ann Lecercle

Université Paris 10-Nanterre

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