Knowledge Exchange Facilitator (Humanities) Cleo Hanaway-Oakley at the University of Oxford writes:
Cry, inspire, expire, and cry. This single short sentence provides a synopsis of Samuel Beckett’s play, Breath (1969). The full play script – which is, in its entirety, a mere 124 words long – can be read here, or a version by Damien Hirst can be found on Youtube. When performed, the play normally lasts around thirty-five seconds.
Despite its brevity, Breath is brimming with significance. Its minimalism allows room for readers of the script and viewers of the play to create their own meanings, to put flesh on Beckett’s bare bones. Given its title and content, the play provides an ideal starting point for explorations of the cultural meanings and philosophical dimensions of breath and breathing. Beckett’s script poses more questions than it answers; the queries thrown up by the text create fertile ground for investigation. This post briefly considers a couple of these queries, raising – somewhat inevitably – further questions along the way.
Why should the breaths be recorded rather than live?
In his script, Beckett specifies that each breath should be an amplified recording. Recorded breath is different to live breath in two important ways: it is not directly connected to a body and it is not visible (only audible). But is live breath really connected to a body? And can we see it?
By using recorded breath, Beckett makes philosophical issues concerning live breath more apparent than they might have otherwise been – more apparent than if the breaths had been breathed by an on-stage actor. Whilst breath obviously exists in our lungs, it also exists outside of us, in the atmosphere. So breath is both embodied and disembodied, inside and outside. Also, by not tying the breaths to an individual (an actor or a named character), Beckett raises the point that breath is not the preserve of a single subject; it is exhaled by one person and inhaled by another ad infinitum, possibly (see ‘Your Breath and Julius Caesar’s’).
Despite there being at least a couple of commonly acknowledged ways of seeing breath (in the air on a cold day and when we exhale on a mirror), the problem of representing breath visually has intrigued artists for centuries. If, for example, we try to represent breath by depicting a person breathing (their diaphragm contracting and relaxing), we leave out the ‘outside’ aspect of breath (the exhalation’s existence outside the body, in the atmosphere). And would we really be representing breath, as opposed to the movement of a person’s diaphragm? An intriguing and fairly recent artistic attempt to depict breath is George Khut and John Tonkin’s interactive work, Drawing Breath (2004-2006); the artists transformed the participants’ chest movements into computer generated visual and aural patterns, through the use of a ‘breath-sensing’ belt.
Why use ‘inspiration’ and ‘expiration’?
Beckett’s script specifies ‘inspiration’ and ‘expiration’ rather than ‘inhalation’ and ‘exhalation’ or ‘in breath’ and ‘out breath’. These words are not visible to the play’s audience, of course, but they must be appraised by the play’s director.
As well as pertaining to the act of breathing in, ‘inspiration’ is connected to creativity. The link between breath and creative inspiration can be traced back to The Bible (and probably further), to when God created human life: ‘And the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul’ (‘Genesis’ 2.7).
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Romantic poets attributed their creativity to divine breath delivered via the winds of inspiration. The words ‘wind’ and ‘breath’ (and ‘soul’) share a single Latin derivation: ‘spiritus’. And the three words – ‘wind’, ‘breath’, and ‘soul’ (or ‘being’) – are explicitly linked in the opening line of Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1820): ‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being’. In The Prelude (1798-1850), Wordsworth depicts a similar inspiring breeze: the spirit of primal nature – the ‘ghostly language of the ancient earth’ – makes its ‘dim abode in distant winds’ and this wind, this ‘spirit’, is ‘friendly to the Poet’s task’ (Book 2, 328-9, and Book 7, 48); the spiritual wind breathes life into the poet’s work. The idiom ‘breathe life into’ is still in common parlance, but we now use it more broadly, to express our desire to renovate our worn-out kitchen as well as our need to bring fresh ideas to failing artistic endeavours.
One intriguing thing about creative ‘inspiration’, in relation to breath, is the fact that it is actually closer, in meaning, to ‘expiration’; God exhales into the nostrils of the first man and the mystical winds exhale into the poets’ minds (though the poets inspire – breath in – the expirations of the winds). Even if creative expiration makes more sense, it would be senseless to rename the concept, as ‘expiration’ has connotations of death: ‘expiration’ can mean the ‘fact of coming to an end; termination, end, close’. To ‘breathe life into’, to inspire creative outputs, is a beginning rather than an end; it is the opposite of expiration. Piero Manzoni plays with these differing meanings in his 1960 artwork, Artist’s Breath: a series of inflated balloons attached to wooden bases inscribed ‘Piero Manzoni – Fiato d’artista’. In 1960, aligning himself with God and the mystical winds rather than the poets, Manzoni declared: ‘When I blow up a balloon, I am breathing my soul into an object that becomes eternal’. Again we have the linking of breath and soul: he expires into balloon, giving it spirit, and inspiring those who view his art. However, the breath-filled balloon is not eternal; it will expire. After a while, the balloon will deflate and deteriorate, and the artist’s breath will dissipate into the atmosphere.
Like a balloon being inflated, this post shows how quickly one can move from the small and specific to the large and multivalent. By focusing on Beckett’s stage directions for just ten seconds of his play, one can begin to understand the great significance of breath in Western culture. As someone who suffered breathlessness as a symptom of anxiety, Beckett was, perhaps, more accurately aware than most of the medical, therapeutic, and metaphorical importance of breath. As stated by one of the voices in Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, ‘To breathe is all that is required’.
 See the work of Life of Breath project member Jayne Wilton, which includes COPD patients breathing onto copper plates, light-sensitive paper and other substances, as well as capturing the breath in various visual formats.
 Piero Manzoni, exhibition catalogue (London: Serpentine Gallery, 1998), p.1 44.
 Beckett, Samuel, ‘IV’, Texts for Nothing and Other Shorter Prose, 1950-1976, (London: Faber & Faber, 2010), p. 19.