Saturday, February 19, 2011

Molloy by Samuel Beckett

Edition: Molloy

Beckett's Molloy was originally written in French and published in 1951. For Beckett, writing in French first was a way of distancing himself from the works of English contemporaries like Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf. The English version did not come out until 1955, after the success of the world premiere of "Waiting for Godot" in 1953 (and even then, it was an English version in a French publication). The English version was written with the assistance of Patrick Bowles. and it was finally published in England in 1966. Molloy is the first of what became known as "The Beckett Trilogy" which also includes Malone Dies and The Unnamable.

Part I:
Molloy is divided into two parts. The first begins with a frame narrative - the narrator, Molloy, is being compelled by someone to write (it is unclear who, and for what purpose). At the end of the first paragraph, Molloy says: "Here's my beginning." This first paragraph is followed by a long paragraph which continues through the rest of the first part. Molloy's account of "what happens" isn't organized as narrative; in a way, Molloy is Beckett's portrait of what would happen if someone who didn't tell stories were compelled to tell one. He begins not even with the pseudo-quest of going to see his mother but with some observations of two people, A and C. From there, he tells of the pleasures of being on his bicycle, which he says he will not call a bike. It is after these accounts that he reveals a fraught relationship with his mother; he doesn't calls her mother but Mag, and she calls him Dan. When he loiters around on his bicycle Mollloy is arrested by a policeman. Molloy, who knows no names or geography, thwarts the officials' efforts to compile a report: "To apply the letter of the law to a creature like me is not an easy matter." At the station, he also encounters a social worker, who foists bad food on him which he resents having to fall into the social worker's narrative which would entail him expressing that he was grateful. He says that he learns some "points of detail" as far as such things go, but not "the essence of the system," in other words, he might learn some aspects of narrative to make his work seem like a narrative, but it isn't, as a whole. He tells of seeing a shepherd and his dog. His pseudo-quest is finally revealed, but no reason is given. On his bicycle, Molloy runs over a dog that its owner was going to have euthanized, and he is captured by the owner, a woman, who wants to engage Molloy to bury her dog. Molloy is unsure if her name is Sophie or Mrs. Loy or Lousse--she might even be a man because she is rather hairy. Since Molloy has a bad leg, he doesn't do much of the work of burying. Lousse contracts him into further obligations by feeding him, and washing his clothes--she reasons that this means he ought to stay with her. He thus stays with Lousse for a while but doesn't know for how long. While at Lousse's, he muses on an older woman named Ruth that he was "in love with" because that's what she told him. They met in a rubbish dump, she paid him for sex, and she died in a tub one day. He eventually leaves Lousse's place on his crutches (his bicycle has been taken away). On his way to his mother's again, he encounters a problem with some stones that he sucks on in his pockets ("sucking stones"): he can't figure out how to suck them evenly since he puts them back in his pocket and can't figure out which one he has sucked last. Molloy becomes obsessed with solving this problem, and he finds an "inelegant solution" which allows him to guarantee some measure of even sucking through the use of his four pockets. He feels some elation at discovering it. Molloy's leg (one is shorter than the other) starts to really bother him, but then the other leg gets stiff from his uneven walking. He encounters with a charcoal burner, whom Molloy says he might have loved, though not in the same way as he had loved Ruth. Molloy hits him with his crutches, though, in a moment of annoyance. At the end of the first part, Molloy finds himself in a forest, applying the logic that if he crawled around in a circle he would actually go straight. When he finally gets out of the forest, he falls into a ditch.

Part II:
Another first person narrator (Moran) begins this part. Moran is some kind of agent, and he accepts a commission from a messenger named Gaber; this is the Molloy Affair. He accepts the mission in part because he is flattered that Youdi, the boss, has supposedly said that "he wants it to be [him]." It is Sunday when the message is delivered, so Moran is forced to skips church. He is a methodical, and principled man, as he calls himself, and so he goes to get communion afterwards. Moran has a son, whom he has orders to take with him. Moran tells him to prepare to leave, giving him strict instructions that he can bring one album of stamps. When his son tries to transfer stamps from another album to the one he was bringing, Moran tells him he can't bring either album. A principled man, Moran wants his son to learn a sense of "sollst entbehren" ("thou shalt abstain," Goethe). Moran tells us that Molloy is somehow already in Moran's head before Gaber mentioned it to him. He's unsure about the ending of the name; this is one of the first clues that the Moran and Molloy character might be one and the same. Moran reasons though that there are five Molloys: the one that "inhabited" him, his "caricature of the same," Gaber's, Youdi's, and the man of flesh. Before the journey, his son gets sick with some kind of stomach complaint. Moran's gruff style of taking care of him involves telling him to take his own temperature (sneaking in a joke about where he ought to put the thermometer), giving his son an enema, and forcing him to eat. They soon begin the journey. Moran doesn't let Martha (the housekeeper) know when they'll be back. Like Molloy, Moran is  "scrivening" because he is "obeying orders," he says. Father and son are then off to "Molloy Country." During this quest, he doesn't remember or didn't get directions from Gaber about what to do with Molloy after finding him. As the quest progresses, Moran becomes more and more like Molloy as his narrative unravels and his "method" gets more and more nonsensical. It is also revealed that Moran has knee problems, much as Molloy had leg problems. Unable to walk, he instructs son to go buy a bicycle from a town called Hole (fourteen miles away), giving him four shillings, ten pence to spend on it. While his son is gone, he meets a foreign-looking man who asks for bread. Moran obliges and asks to look at his walking stick. Another man comes later, who kind of resembles Moran. This man asks if the old man passed by, and annoyed at him, Moran beats him up (and possibly kills him). His son finally returns after being gone for three days. It is clear that he is tired and weak, but Moran makes his son pedal him around on the bicycle. They come at last to "Ballyba," the heart of "Molloy Country" where they see a shepherd and a dog. Ostensibly because he can't take it anymore, Moran's son abandons him, and Moran is kind of touched that his son leaves him 15 shillings. Moran's health declines, his legs are further crippled, and finally Gaber arrives but doesn't really help Moran. Moran asks for a message from Youdi, who said that "life is a thing of beauty...and a joy for ever." Moran is ordered home so he does his best to head home. He reaches home in the spring, even though he was ordered home by the fall. The second part closes with some of Moran's nonsensical theological questions, which are ordered numerically but don't offer much of a clue as far as content goes. By the end, he really seems like Molloy, and even has crutches.

In Waiting for Godot, narrative is repeatedly thwarted. Molloy (the character) functions similarly as the play, in that he is a person who is unable to narrate according to acceptable models for living. Moran, who begins as a methodical, principled man, eventually becomes more and more like Molloy, signaling the inevitability of this kind of system-breakdown. Molloy is "passionate about truth," he says, so it seems that the doing away with all of the models or systems by which lives are lived is a way of getting at what is real at bottom. Of his journey, Molloy also asserts: "Yes, my progress reduced me to stopping more and more often, it was the only way to progress, to stop." Progress in the realm of true existence outside of narrative teleology (and any and all signs and systems of life representation) requires one to stop the kinds of progress driven by narrative teleology.

Yet, there is a way, just as in "Godot," in which there seem to be moments of narrative potentiality. In Molloy, these moments (the sucking stones episode, Moran's theological principles) are shown to be shams, however. There isn't anything approaching purpose in any narrative sense in Molloy's logic while figuring out his "inelegant solution" to the sucking stones problem; we feel that there's no point to the logic beyond Molloy's own elation over performing this logic. For Moran, the organization of his theological principles at the end of the book seems more pathological, and while Molloy's sucking stones logic actually does make sense mathematically, Moran's words do not make sense (perhaps because mathematical systems are different from the kinds of systems whereby we organize life narrratives--they seem outside of the human, in some other realm of the real). Thus, it seems that Beckett doesn't reject all systems altogether: mathematical systems that seem to have some deeper connection to ontological reality    (than sign and referent) are okay.

It might seem that Molloy's mode of living, and finally Moran's disintegration into the same state, seems formal in the artistic sense, especially in the context of modernist artists focusing at the level of form to escape narratives of meaning and significance that tend to pour into art objects. But Molloy rejects this too: "I saw it in a way inordinately formal, though I was far from being an aesthete, or an artist." He admits to the "formal" focus he has (when he thwarts the policeman's report, he says that he does focus on "points of detail" but not systems, almost like how a painter might focus on the colors and shapes but not what the picture as a whole might signify) but also goes a step further than the artist, in a way, to escape artistic purpose as well. In other words, Molloy also discards the purpose of focusing on form in order to escape meanings because that is a significant purpose in itself.

Thus, finally, to try to ascribe historical contexts to Beckett seems almost sacrilegious but here goes anyways: after the traumatic experiences of WWII, people's faith in literature as a moral or ethical force severely declined (e.g., the Germans had Beethoven, and yet the Holocaust could happen). Beckett's new kind of literature conveys the notion that literature may be worthless and pointless but nevertheless we keep doing it. (SOURCE: Notes from a lecture, Prof. Michael North).

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