Wow, what happened to the past two weeks? The last thing I remember it was two Sundays ago and I was thinking to myself, "Huh, the next few days will be pretty bus—" and the next thing I knew I was waking up in a ditch by the metaphorical tracks while a bullet train composed of book signings, broken computers, early-morning and late-evening meetings, social calls and looming deadlines, raced past my throbbing head. In the far distance, receding all the time, I could just make out the tiny shapes of overlooked blogging commitments I had passed somewhere along the way.

My commitment, for example, to re-read Beckett's could-be-called-a-Trilogy with blogging friend Anthony, who has by this late date posted his thoughts on both the first and second books. I can barely distinguish this commitment, way back last Wednesday, waving forlornly to me from a distant platform. I knew, though, that I wanted to take my time with this post even if it meant delaying, because Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable are among those books in my personal canon—the ones which sustain me, which arrived in my life at a key moment and changed my ideas about what's possible in literature and even in life. The ones whose lines and rhythms and bizarrely beautiful narrative voices reverberate in my brain as I go about my days. This, for example:

And I said, with rapture, Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand.

Or this:

And I myself will never lend myself to such a perversion (of the truth), until such time as I am compelled or find it convenient to do so. And I knew this swamp a little, having risked my life in it, cautiously, on several occasions, at a period of my life richer in illusions than the one I am trying to patch together here, I mean richer in certain illusions, in others poorer.

This re-read of Molloy, hurried and fragmented as it was, lived up to all my memories. A two-part, cyclical work, it has the most plot of any of these three books, which incidentally is not very much. We get two sections, both narrated in first-person by two different (but not all that different) men: the first is the ancient Molloy, who recalls his own name with difficulty; the second is Moran, who believes he is an agent sent to track down Molloy. Both men set forth, one after the other, on torturous, convoluted journeys—in many ways the same journey, since Moran attempts to follow in Molloy's footsteps—in which they persevere in spite of mental vagueness and rapid, inexplicable physical deterioration. Both men become obsessed along the way by seemingly irrelevant details—the best manner in which to suck sixteen stones in succession without sucking the same stone twice, for example. In the end both men, somehow, return to what we assume is their beginning point, although in both cases much has changed and this change exceeds their understanding.

This is the classic Beckettian "pointless journey," much like Mercier and Camier and Waiting for Godot. These are journeys in which a character seeks fiercely yet intermittently after something that never appears; something of which the traveler often loses sight or memory, which the reader suspects may not exist in the first place, and which the traveler would probably not reach even if it did.

Yes, I was straining towards those spurious deeps, their lying promise of gravity and peace, from all my old poisons I struggled towards them, safely bound.

I must admit that I find this construct oddly comforting, this idea that the objects of our obsessions are irrelevant to our overall experience—or, if not irrelevant, they are related in ways not immediately obvious, especially as they often go unexamined for long periods of time and our minds and bodies do not cooperate with our stated aims. Molloy knows, although he sometimes forgets, that he is trying to visit his mother: an ostensibly simple task. But he is unable to remember why he wants to visit her; he can barely remember his own name and doesn't recall if hers is the same; he can't ascertain whether the town in which he finds himself is the one where he (and she) live, and he is prone to getting distracted for months or possibly years at a time, being taken in by batty old ladies, or washing up on the seashore for months, perplexed by the stone-sucking dilemma. Likewise, private detective Moran believes that he's pursuing Molloy: a straightforward tail job. However, he's not even sure if his object's name is Molloy or Mollose: most of his "facts" on the case originate in his own imagination; he devotes most of his energy to bullying his son and housekeeper rather than constructing a plan; and in the end none of it matters anyway, as his legs inexplicably become stiffer and stiffer until he can barely move at all, and he abandons the search for Molloy in favor of dispatching his son for a used bicycle. Nothing is accomplished and nothing is known. And yet in the midst of the despair and laughter at this futility there are glimpses of an abiding attachment to human life.

I went on my way, that way of which I knew nothing, qua way, which was nothing more than a surface, bright or dark, smooth or rough, and always dear to me, in spite of all, and the dear sound of that which goes and is gone, with a brief dust, when the weather is dry.

All this is rife with the hilarity and horror of being a) such a rickety contraption as a human, who must b) glean your understanding of the world through flawed sense perceptions, and your reality is moreover c) divorced from standard assumptions about cause, effect, and continuity, but you must nevertheless d) shape your experience into some kind of coherent narrative, or else cease to speak at all. Beckett's work is often called "absurdist," but in my experience it's actually less absurd than most of us might like to believe. Instead, it seems to me an accurate picture of life without the mental filtering mechanisms we use to stay sane. The systems of habit and filtration we use to make sense of our world are so delicate and complex, and can veer off the rails with surprising ease—yet we take them for granted out of necessity, because otherwise even the simplest task would be impossible. We pretend, for example, that we are the same person from moment to moment, when our reality may be more fragmented and unpredictable ("A little dog followed him, a pomeranian I think, but I don't think so."). Or that we perceive the world and then narrate based on what we perceive, rather than creating or half-creating the world via our acts of perception and narration ("I resumed my inspection of the room and was on the point of endowing it with other properties when the valet came back..."). In the absence of these trusty shorthands, the task of communication, even with oneself, becomes daunting.

I felt more or less the same as usual, that is to say, if I may give myself away, so terror-stricken that I was virtually bereft of feeling, not to say of consciousness, and drowned in a deep and merciful torpor shot with brief abominable gleams, I give you my word.

Yet there is something in us which spurs us onward, so that we continue attempting until the very end, despite our inevitable failures and detours along the way. Despite the lack of externally-imposed meaning, and the gaping holes in any system we create to understand the world around us, we are compelled to continue trying, to continue shaping our narratives however we can, incorporating the contradictions and random-seeming obstacles that rise before and within us.

And of myself, all my life, I think I had been going to my mother, with the purpose of establishing our relations on a less precarious footing. And when I was with her, and I often succeeded, I left her without having done anything. And when I was no longer with her I was again on my way to her, hoping to do better next time. And when I appeared to give up and to busy myself with something else, or with nothing at all any more, in reality I was hatching my plans and seeking the way to her house.

Notes on Disgust
(For more information on the disgust project, see here.)

The subject of disgust in this novel would take another long post all on its own, and I have to admit that I often found myself swept away with the beauty and hilarity of Beckett's language to such an extent that I forgot to examine the sections that deal in disgust. They are there, though, and plenty of them. On my first read, I remember being struck by the repugnance of Moran's character, his cruelty to his son, and in particular the scene in which he gives his son an enema. There's also Molloy's allusions to the fact that he may have had sex with his ancient crone of a mother. On top of this is the obvious disintegration of both men's bodies throughout the course of their journeys; Molloy is elderly and Moran appears simply to be inexplicably disabled, but both are falling to pieces, and mixed up sexually and otherwise with other human bodies which are falling to pieces, such as the old whore who may or may not have been Molloy's one experience of "love" (whatever he means by that). At the time she approaches him,

I was bent double over a heap of muck, in the hope of finding something to disgust me for ever with eating...

If I were to hazard a hypothesis on not very careful analysis, it might be that disgust here is something unavoidable which must be accepted, no more or less "meaningful" than anything else in life (unless we make it so) and something which we are all bound to both feel, and to occasion in others. Molloy depicts an undifferentiated world, where questions and observations we normally filter out of our stories and our thoughts (why a person is not a landmark; whether we truly recognize our home towns) instead get dwelt upon compulsively and become ordering principles, substitutes for meaning. As such, the disgusting, which normally dwells in that undifferentiated mass outside normal boundaries, can be found wherever you look and is neither a sign of any particular quality, nor a deterrent to finding meaning there.

And if ever I'm reduced to looking for a meaning to my life, you never can tell, it's in that old mess I'll stick my nose to begin with, the mess of that poor old uniparous whore and myself the last of my foul brood, neither man nor beast.


  • [Bah. I knew as I posted the last comment it had disappeared into the etherweb. Being without broadband is a precarious existence. I'll read your post again when I can do so on my computer, rather than iPad.]

    The disgust aspect I found most curious is explored by Nussbaum in an essay in the Love's Knowledge collection. She writes of Beckett's interweaving of the birth-shit-religion themes, and I think suggests the narrator's hatred of women. I tend to agree with Simon Critchley that Nussbaum has fallen into a Beckettian trap, by employing an all too obvious psychoanalytic reading.

    I gather Beckett disliked the 'absurdist' tag, and I agree with you that it is all too easy to imagine an interpretation of reality every bit as confused and disconbobulated as Molloy/Malone. Perhaps old age grants us that.

    Your thoughts on the precariousness of identity and perception are fascinating. I must have them to hand on a subsequent reading.

    • Hm, I would have to read the Nussbaum essay, but my strong gut reaction is to agree with you and disagree with her. If only because the malfunctioning/decaying bodies belong to everyone of both genders, it doesn't really make sense to me to take the shit/birth thing and extrapolate it into misogyny. Misanthropy, maybe. :-) But I also think there's a shred of love for ridiculous humanity in Beckett, buried admittedly deep down.

      The issue of gender is interesting, because despite the amount of (gross) sex and references to genitals, etc., I find that most of the characters come across as fairly neuter. People of all genders dwell in the muck - it's just the baseline of human existence, there's no getting away from it. It's not like it derives from a particularly female source.

      Thanks for spurring me into this re-read, Anthony!

  • Oh I loved Molloy when I first read it at university and it was always a book I loved to teach (when I could persuade my students to read it). It's the entropy that gets to me, underlying both journeys and Moran's early specious discipline and control, which sees them both headed towards the collapse of both their physical states and their mental certainties.

    Have you ever read Zizek? He can be quite fun. I recall an example he was once using from a film (alas I can't recall the name) with a sci-fi bent in which the characters were shown eating off plates of muck above which were suspended coloured pictures of delicious meals. That made me think of Beckett - his characters can't help but return to that original state of muck underneath the images of a constructed life.

    • I love the image of the piles of muck with images of meals above them! Very Beckett, I agree. And then you're left with the question, why not admit that the muck is muck, rather than pretending it looks like the picture? I haven't read Zizek, but he's now on my radar - thanks for the tip.

      And yes, the inevitable and quick-acting entropy. I think it's pretty amazing how repugnant Beckett can make Moran, yet by the end of the novel even his strivings seem somehow universal and even faintly admirable. It's a remarkable book.

  • "Instead, it seems to me an accurate picture of life without the mental filtering mechanisms we use to stay sane."

    Excellent point, Emily. I've always felt that way about Waiting for Godot. That if you got bogged down in every detail, it might be absurd, but if you allowed it to happen freely (I guess, without putting it through a filter), it felt comfortable and familiar somehow. Thanks for calling our attention to these. I am always interested in the books that change people; and though I am aware that time and circumstance play a huge role in the change-making, if a book has that kind of legs, I want to know more.

    • Yes, it's interesting which books those life-changers are for different people, isn't it? I can pretty much guarantee that Beckett is not that book for everyone, but legs, definitely. These books have them.

  • This is really interesting. I've not read Beckett, I think. I can't remember if I've read Waiting for Godot or not. It seems like I have read it but it is also one of those works that have worked their way into the culture so it is entirely possible I know enough about it to make me think I have read it without my actually having done so. Would Beckett find humor in that I wonder?

    • Ha, definitely a sense of Beckettian irony there in your inability to remember. Regardless of whether you've actually read it or not, Waiting for Godot would probably be worth revisiting - it's so bizarrely delightful.

  • Loved your a-b-c-d breakdown toward the end, Emily, and your admission that Beckett is too disgust-laden to treat so cavalierly in a single post! A friend lent me some sort of Beckett omnibus not too long ago, so maybe I can cross him off tghe never-read list before the year's out. P.S. Thanks to you and Frances for un-retiring from your respective blogging retirements this week!

    • It was an early and unexpected retirement, so I'm glad to be back. :-)

      And in all seriousness, Richard, if there's anyone to whom I feel totally confident in recommending Beckett, it's you. I know you will love him when you do pick up that omnibus.

  • "I must admit that I find this construct oddly comforting, this idea that the objects of our obsessions are irrelevant to our overall experience—or, if not irrelevant, they are related in ways not immediately obvious, especially as they often go unexamined for long periods of time and our minds and bodies do not cooperate with our stated aims."

    Agreed. And I also find your statement that Beckett is perhaps less absurdist than usually thought agreeable. And for whatever reason, your disgust notes reminded me of Sartre's Nausea and that unrelenting accumulation of details that permits no escape rout for the reader. Sigh. Wish I had time to read with you and Anthony.

  • "an accurate picture of life without the mental filtering mechanisms we use to stay sane" -- nice! Thank God for filtering mechanisms, right? :) I agree there is a sense in which Beckett gets down to what really is -- the truth about life, which you might say is inherently absurd. If he's absurdist, it's because life is absurdist!

    • Yes indeed, life without the filtering mechanisms is not a pretty sight! And I think it's good to be reminded every once in a while that there's a difference between reality and our filtered perceptions of reality, since sometimes we expect that the one will follow the rules we've made up via the other. Excellent stuff!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography