“In A Zed & Two Noughts, the child had gained one year and changed sex to become a well-mannered little girl named Beta after the second letter of the Greek alphabet”.
– Peter Greenaway, Fear Of Drowning By Numbers
“I wanted twenty-six children. Beta wasn’t the first. The first one died”.
Beta is the only child of Alba Bewick; her father is unknown. It is possible that the combination of twin brothers Oliver and Oswald constitute that missing role, create a ‘surrogate’ father.
Alba is having a sexual relationship with both Oliver and Oswald, and this could provide a sufficient background for any adoption fantasies that a child might have, searching for that missing father figure – particularly a little girl like Beta, whose main location is a zoo – a place where sexual relationships between animals are very much male-female orientated. And it would have to be a fusion of both brothers activating this position because as separate entities, they feel incomplete – and as the film unfolds, we are eventually aware of the brothers’ desire to merge as Siamese twins. Even Beta has difficulty in distinguishing them: “Now you look so alike, I can’t tell the difference between you anymore”. And there is a conversation between Beta and Oswald on another occasion which seems reminiscent of this, and perhaps is even a provocation:
Beta (Looking at a picture of paired birds): They look like twins. Could they fly like that, do you think? Joined together like that?
Oswald: They could learn.
However, this could also suggest a prediction in the making. Beta is observant in an almost uncanny way: “… wisdom beyond her years”, and just as Shakespeare’s Fool’s seemingly inane remarks were either parallels or forecasts to situations, Beta’s apparently innocent words may very well contain prophetic visions. In this case, sensing Oliver and Oswald’s desire to be joined as one.
Like Augustus in The Draughtsman’s Contract, Beta has no friends of her own age group and it is among adults where ‘company’ is found, although this does not completely nurture the need for a peer. Instead, an eccentric assortment of grown-ups surround her: “… the zoo is staffed by the equivalents of the characters from Mount Olympus. Venus de Milo is the zoo prostitute, the gatekeeper is a lightly disguised Mercury. Pluto, God of the Underworld, is the Keeper of Reptiles…” This mechanism is used to try to comprehend the myths of creation: “… is Genesis or Darwin the most likely myth; what other myth-systems try and answer the question?” The aberrant combination of these adults also tends to pose questions regarding the cages that dominate the zoo. On which side does the human-being exist? Homo sapiens are so bizarre that perhaps we too are behind ‘bars’ for scrutiny. Conversely, the grown-ups’ eccentricity might illustrate how people are inclined to exaggerate their childhood. After all, the concept of a zoo prostitute is certainly questionable.
These adults present Beta – appropriately named, with chronological letters from the alphabet – for which she provides the name of an animal with each initial. She is an authority – an attribute that the adults respect:
Arc en Ciel: ‘X’ is for –
Beta: There aren’t any animals beginning with ‘X’.
Arc en Ciel: ‘Y’ is for –
Arc en Ciel does not question her about the ‘X’. For once, the roles are reversed – in contrast to the dictating uncle in The Draughtsman’s Contract, the child is offered the opportunity to produce knowledge for an adult; the adult listening, undoubting. But the alphabet has other purposes too. One of these is to provide a sense of destiny – a device which is even more pivotal in Drowning By Numbers: “… Drowning By Numbers… is propelled by both a narrative and number count which are often interchangeable – the narrative indicating the characters’ so-called ‘free choice’ and the numbers representing some sense of destiny. At the end, narrative and number count complement one another, the action has been completed and the film is over”. Perhaps Greenaway is using the alphabet in the same way – Beta’s animal vocabulary dispersed periodically throughout the film, a rigid grid in which to tabulate the action. When the letter ‘Z’ for zebra is announced, it is hinted at that the film is approaching its end. Lists provide a superficial meaning and structure to our lives which are largely abstract, just like a belief in fate: “In all my films there is… violent, absurd, bizarre subject matter treated with a severe sense of control… detail regimented into numerical grids and structures – which I would like to think shows a wish… to create a rational view of the world out of all its chaotic parts”. It is possible that in the event of providing animal names for the initial letters, Beta is metaphorically supplying the notion of ‘meaning’ in parallel to the way in which many pregnant women assess the birth of a child; a child producing a sense of purpose for the parent: “Among the narcissistic motives that fuel the wish for a child are… the wish to fulfill one’s ideals… One of the basic postulates of the psychoanalytic theory of narcissism is that there is a tendency to gratify… fantasies of completeness and omnipotence, and that on this gratification is built a human being’s ultimate sense of self”.
It seems likely that Beta’s own mother – Alba Bewick, is a victim of this ‘narcissism’ – with her exaggerated desire for twenty-six children: “pregnancy offers an opportunity to be full, to be complete, to experience the body as potent, productive. Pregnancy makes up for feelings of emptiness and for concerns about the body’s being incomplete”. These observations – together with Alba Bewick’s complex over her amputated leg, her feelings of being flawed and unfurnished: “I have yet to work out my greater loss… but I know that I want another leg and another child…” make her a qualified candidate for these fantasies. And Beta’s own birth implies that to be born is a sad prospect for many children, especially as her existence is not sufficient enough to complete her mother’s demands for fulfillment.
Another function of the alphabet could be to illustrate communication issues that have yet to be resolved between adult and child. It might act in a similar vein to the game of ‘I Spy’ – ‘I spy something beginning with ‘H’…’ Games are often played to engulf awkward silences when there is a lack of rapport between people – or in this case, when an adult is attempting to occupy a child’s mind. It is a convenient if unimaginative way of blotting out either genuine expression or tedium.
On another note, Beta is too worldly to be tested with mere letters. The ABC is a child’s first contact with written speech – a child becoming socialised, and Beta is certainly ‘socialised’: “wisdom beyond her years…” and moreover, she is shrewd enough to trick “…adults into ridiculing themselves”.
Common to most human-beings is the taboo of admitting to ignorance – particularly in the adult-child relationship. Age is a designer label to dictate to others how much understanding of the world has been grasped; the fallacy of equating intelligence with years of life. This creates problems. The adult feels embarrassed if they do not know the answer to the child’s question – and in turn, a child looking to an adult as its mentor loses faith in its guide if a correct answer is not given. Beta plays on this idea with Oliver and Oswald at the zoo cafeteria, mocking the twins’ intelligence:
Oliver: … and the elephant lives to be a hundred.
Oswald: … and never forgets a face.
Oliver: … So you see that between us, we know everything.
Beta: You don’t know everything.
Oswald: Between us we do.
Beta: All right then. You see that woman over there. What colour knickers is she wearing?
Oliver: Well… red ones to match her hat.
Beta: No she isn’t.
Oswald: How do you know?
Beta: I know.
Eventually Oliver is prompted to ask the woman herself. Apparently she is wearing black and white striped knickers and as an audience, we feel inclined to believe her – having seen her male accomplice lift her skirt and reveal them in front of Beta during a previous scene. Then, just as Oliver and Beta are satisfied with the woman’s reply and return to their seats at the cafeteria, the woman approaches Oliver – insisting that he accompany her to the ladies’ cloakroom. He obliges, and is led before a row of washbasins where the woman directs him to raise her dress. He complies and is surprised to find himself staring at a naked crotch. The woman slaps his face – a slap in the face, literally.
This is reminiscent of the “Draw what you can see and not what you know” concept in The Draughtsman’s Contract. Where the draughtsman is “ripe for exploitation by the female members” – being so intent on focussing on images he can see at a superficial level; Oliver and Oswald are easy prey for Beta, as their only knowledge stems from listing the ‘proven’ such as biological statistics. Beta ‘draws’ what she knows to mock the twins’ knowledge. She is witty enough to understand an adult’s predicament with admitting to ignorance; that life is essentially abstract, and to pretend to know what colour knickers someone is wearing merely confirms the stupidity of claiming to understand the intangible.
Beta’s role here recalls Shakespeare’s court fool once again: “… an ‘all-licensed’ critic who sees and speaks the real truth about the people around him. His business, however, is not to deal out satirical commonplaces, but to emphasize one peculiarly dreadful instance of the reversal of position between the wise man and the fool…”
In much the same way, is Beta’s unembarrassed delight at increasing and exploring her knowledge capacity, yet to be told by adults that it is ‘rude to point’. The child is fresh for learning and if it is candid, the adult retorts: ‘they’re only a child’. A feeble excuse for fear of the truth; the adult is made to look ignorant in denying a need to enrich the sense of the metaphysical.
In A Zed & Two Noughts, the child’s ‘innocence’ has become more diluted still. The Draughtsman’s Contract illustrated the suppression of child-like instincts such as ‘scribbling, and although Beta has toys – such as a jigsaw and an miniature giraffe in A Zed & Two Noughts, she is exposed to conversations of sex, death, and the horror of her mother’s leg amputation.
There is a scene in which Oliver and Oswald are in bed with Alba, and these topics occur. Beta is present, playing with her jigsaw in the foreground – a strange, contradictory juxtaposition of the toys of childhood and the sexual dilemmas of the adult world; it would seem that both subjects are set to accentuate the other – a lost innocence. Beta puts on the record ‘An Elephant Never Forgets’ on her record player – perhaps a ploy to block herself from hearing the discussion between her mother and the twins, to protect the ‘innocence’ of childhood – perhaps it is even a hint that Beta will never forget the dramas that adults create. As her mother cries towards the end of the scene; heart-rending sobs, Beta gets up – her toy giraffe under her arm, and watches expressionless; forced to face the perverted tragedies of adulthood at an early age. Her giraffe functions as a security blanket – clutching a last segment of youth. This exposure to various taboos opposes a mother’s nurturing abilities; sexual coupling behind Beta’s back, yet potentially uncovered – Beta is a witness, a wordless education in sexuality.
Beta’s unemotional facial expression illustrates a child so well-versed with trauma that it has become blasé. She appears more mature, more mentally stable than her own mother, and scenes with Beta pushing Alba’s wheelchair, even suggest that the role of nurturer has been inverted. “Parentification is described by family therapists as a process through which children are used as a replacement for the parents’ own parents… parents require that infants act in an adult way… Either they actively care for the parent, or, more generally, they develop a precociously undemanding behaviour, so as not to burden the depressed parent”.
Alba Bewick is never illustrated as being maternal – too self-obsessed with her leg amputations and love affairs. She does not even sit with Beta and test her knowledge of the zoo alphabet – that role is occupied by the other adults who inhabit the zoo – a mass of surrogate ‘parents’. Such is the stuff post-Freudian nightmares are made of.