From ‘ON’ to ‘NO’ in Samuel Beckett’s (N)-O-(N)- Narrative
v “What I need now is stories, it took me a long time to know that , and I’m not sure of it.” —————– Molloy in Molloy1
v “Stories, stories. I have not been able to tell them. I shall not be able to tell this one.” —————– Moran in Molloy2
First compulsion. Last extinction. Somewhere in the middle, caught in a narrative Bermuda triangle, is Samuel Beckett’s being or may be a non-being of sorts—a self, an other, moving towards unnamability. It is the imposed authority of a narrative performance & its pre-fabricated futility as the Beckett of Worstward Ho (1983) prescribes— “Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”3 So is Molloy (1950), a prior & better failure! “better-worse”4 so!
As it is said, Joyce expands while Beckett contracts. Joyce operates with omniscience while Beckett, in his own words, with ‘impotence’. As J.M. Coetzee remarks, Beckett truly represents writing at a zero-frame or the impossibility of it. But, what about reality? Its representation? What about Beckett then? Anthony Cronin’s ‘the last modernist’ or David Lodge’s ‘the first postmodernist’? No monolithic positions can ever be found in Beckett, especially when they are ideological; there survives only a toppling over to an elsewhere that flourishes as a narrative impossibility in Beckett. A perceptive reader? Right you are. I echoed Julia Kristeva on Beckett5. It is just like Beckett’s own narratives which only echo external narratives instead of external realities ,the extreme culmination of a technique we encounter in Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A traveler6 (1981) where all reality can ever be is narrative. Anthony Cronin comments on Molloy , Malone dies (1955) , The Unnamable (1955) — “…in these books there are fictions, within fictions, & fictions within them again.”7
... of flash backs or repeated scenes. Narrative in pulp fiction can be broken down into stories and ... The film pulp fiction does not follow a classical narrative structure of thesis, anti thesis ... of brain washing. Anti narrative is the opposite to linear narrative, linear narrative is where all the events ... and include repeated images and flash backs. Narrative can also be manipulated to lower the number ...
Molloy has a two-fold narrative & it follows (only to subvert) the classic quest-narrative. One has to be a regular reader of spy-thrillers & other catch-me-if-you-can narratives, in order to understand what is the precise element that Molloy lacks, in its journey towards being one such narrative. Here character is narrative only. And what we get at is a chase of one narrative to grasp another, only to realize that it needs to transform itself internally into that other narrative. There can only be a conversion of, & no connection among narratives. Like a typically postmodern text, it does pick up a ‘low art’ generic narrative & transfigure it into something more as well as else. By implying this internal unrelatability of narratives, Molloy also focalizes the postmodern problematic of the very process of narrativisation.
Molloy is more about the process of its own construction, than about anything that is real in any extra-narrative sense. It is not only self-reflexive (another postmodern criterion!) but almost auto-referential. The reader is acquainted with the textuality of both Molloy’s & Moran’s texts as they announce, right at the outset, that they are writing all this. Molloy , somehow restored to his ‘mother’s room’8 is compelled to write upon pages & give them out to an unknown man who comes every week. His whole narrative is one such bundle of pages. He has to write. Or else, it is the end. His problem lies in his beginning—“I began at the beginning, like an old ballocks, can you imagine that?”9 Yet, he has to begin somewhere—“Here’s my beginning. It must mean something, or they wouldn’t keep it. Here it is.”10 All these references re-inforce the constructedness of the narrative, at hand. Here, language does not represent reality; it constructs reality & that too at the face of hegemonic compulsion. Thus, ‘saying’ becomes ‘inventing’. Narration becomes simulation. Beckett operates from a ‘post-narrative’11 trajectory & plays with a typically postmodernist narrative-surface (sans any depth) where objects proliferate to yield to a free-play of signs—“I went on my way, that way of which I knew nothing, qua way, which was nothing more than a surface.”12 Even this ‘a surface’ is to complicate itself further in The Unnamable— “… I have two surfaces & no thickness.”13 And so on.
... convey meaning through plot, characters, setting and contrastive narrative elements. Gilman’ The Yellow Wallpaper is told from ... the way in which she is treated and represented by society. Maupassant’s Boule de Suif ... , showing the hypocrisy of his characters. The narrative elements that he uses serve to heighten the ... having a voice and thinking, and therefore is silence. The wall-paper is on the other ...
Jacques Moran, the man in search of Molloy, too has a narrative situation at hand. He has had a quest for Molloy & now has to write its report for Youdi & Gaber, the mysterious people of the mysterious organization for which he works. His narrative is thus a modus to exercise & sustain his power-position (narrative with power—another postmodern coupling?).
His narrative is set in an analeptic mode but Molloy has already said that all things seem to take place in a ‘mythological present’14 which is hardly a present or a past or a future. It is timelessness. Remember Levi Strauss! Remember his concept of the ‘mythological time’15 that is synchronic & diachronic at the same time, i. e. it is both reversible & non-reversible simultaneously. That is what Ruby Cohn thinks about Molloy. According to him, the two narratives in the novel are temporally inverted. Moran’s narrative happens first. Then Molloy’s, unlike their chronology in the text. To him, it is one single narrative of one single self, cut up into two fragments. To him, Molloy & Moran are the two sides of the same cogito. To me, they are all silence. John Barth was right, I believe, in his essay Literature of Exhaustion (1967).
Beckett indeed pushes narrative to its absolute antithesis— silence. Modifying Ihab Hassan’s dictum, ‘literature of silence’16, I would call it a movement from literature to silence. It is the undoing of narrative right in to the lap of its only friend & enemy, which is the non-narrative of silence. But is it an anti-narrative too ? Yes. And yet, no. This paradox is deftly explored by Eric. P. Levy in his essay on the Molloy trilogy—“… silence is the material & final cause of narration; it is that from which a story is shaped & that to which it tends.”17 There has to be a silence to give birth to stories. There has to be an-other to strangulate them.
... through the interlacement of the West Egg streets. Daisy kept silence, hoping that Tom would feel, how angry and hurt she ... could hear her own heart beating. After few moments of silence she began to distinguish some other sounds, except for her ...
Molloy says—“To restore silence is the role of objects.”18 This is what Jean Baudrillard in Cool Memories (1987) calls “the silence of pure objectality”.19 Here the objects do not represent. They exist as themselves. Things are thingified rather than symbolified. The emphasis is upon the objectness of an object rather than what it may represent. They do tend to represent ideas, abstractions ; they do overlap, they do seduce, but, then again, they recede to their ‘objectality’, that is strictly non-linguistic & also unnarrativisable, perhaps. Molloy is primarily about things & objects— Molloy’s bicycle, his crutches, his sucking-stones, his knife, his hat, a tiny cross he carries & so on. Beckett does not make the sucking-stones represent any life-truth, but act as objects leading to Molloy’s sucking-performance(in the actual, physical sense) & its intended optimization. These objects allure us into the promise of some metaphysical meaning like fetish-objects & then defer that meaning altogether. The whole narrative of Molloy subverts the quest-model of narratives in terms of what Baudrillard implies by the term ‘object system’. Here, it is the subject which is captured by the object. Moran, the seeker of Molloy, becomes a Molloy from within. So, it is Molloy who finds a place in Moran. It is Molloy who effects & climaxes the seeking which was set forth by Moran. This is what Baudrillard optionalises in The Perfect Crime (1995) —“…what if it were the object which discovered us in all this?”20
All these objects, sheerly celebrating their condition of being so, flesh out a hyper-real world. There, reality is maximized beyond a point, where it destroys itself. One such hint is there in Theodor Adorno’s remarks on Beckett in his book Aesthetic theory (1970) —“…the surplus of reality amounts to its collapse, by striking the subject dead, reality itself becomes deathly, this transition is the artfulness of all antiart & in Beckett, it is pushed to the point of the manifest annihilation of reality.”21 The objects become all the more real, not being representational anymore. They cancel linguistic representation. That is how they restore the silence, that is always whirled by human subjects & their narratives. Reality is rendered unreal, if not anti-real, by being too real. This is how Alain Robbe Grillet outlines the new direction necessary in the novel of the coming times in A Future for the Novel—“Around us, defying the noisy pack of our animistic or protective adjectives; things are there. Their surfaces are distinct & smooth, intact, neither suspiciously brilliant nor transparent. All our literature has not yet succeeded in eroding their smallest corner, in flattening their slightest curve (all italics author’s).
... only to discover the fantasy is actually the reality of the adult world; Beckett, through Vladimir and Estragon present the readers with ... , Lewis Carroll, Samuel Beckett, and C.S. Lewis are able to create their own perception of reality through the manipulation of ... Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. 2.Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press Inc, ...
” Is it this ‘future’ that Beckett reaches out towards in Molloy? Kevin J. H. Dettmar’s essay on Molloy explores the ‘assault on metaphor’22 in the novel in the sense that what Beckett rejects is figural language & what he embraces is a language literal, leaving out metaphors completely. This only strengthens my case in point that language hardly represents in Molloy. Objects do not do so, either.
Let some examples be suggested to show how Molloy, the text of the novel, more & more immerses into its own narrative ontology so that it only deflects whatever realism it might have fostered & refers to its own meta-textual status. What we witness throughout the novel, is a continuous deferral of the narrative subject, to narrate which, the whole narrative needs to be seen from an outside, that which is an ‘aufhebung’ to experience. But that never exists for Derrida, nor does it ever exist for Beckett. Molloy starts to tell stories concerning figures A & C but fails to do so, as they turn in upon him. The two alphabetical markers could well have been A & B in linearity. But, Beckett makes the B ( B for Beckett?) absent, which may imply his own positioning as the author-narrator in between A & C i.e. his own inclusion within the narrative subject, & therefore the demolition of the ‘aufhebung’ that would have made the narration possible. Other deferments of the narrative subject & carnivalesque proposals of returning to their narration later on, something which never happens ultimately, are as follows———-
Ø “But it is neither of my hat nor of my greatcoat that I hope to speak at present, it would be premature.”23
Ø “Shall I describe the room? No. I shall have occasion to do so later perhaps.”24
Ø “ And of that life too I shall tell you perhaps one day,…”25
Ø “Must I describe it? I don’t think so. I won’t, that’s all I know for the moment. Perhaps later on, if I get to know it.”26
... autobiography was first published in 1789. It was published in two volumes and was entitled “The Interesting Narrative of the Life ... up in slavery resulted to be a wonderful author, publisher, producer and political figure. He showed how an ordinary ... Equiano (British Library: African Collections) Extract from: The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written ...
Ø “And if I deal at such length with this knife, it is because I have it somewhere still I think, among my possessions, & because having dealt with it here at such length I shall not have to deal with it again,…”27
Ø “Don’t talk to me about the chambermaid, I should never have mentioned her,…”28
Ø “That my ureters—- no, not a word on that subject.”29
All these narrative references also open up a subtextual dialogue, in straightforward terms, between the author & the reader. Both Molloy & Moran are authors, compelled to authorship by different kinds of readers. Molloy is writing for that mysterious man who comes every week. He is not just a passive image of a reader. He returns Molloy’s texts with changes made, to which Molloy then becomes a reader, & a failed one at that— “They are marked with signs I don’t understand.”30 Even Moran writes his report for Gaber & Youdi— prospective readers in mind. The novel, in all its spirality, yokes an infinitely interlocked web of readership, where everything submerges into the other. At another level, even Jacques Moran, the Molloy-seeker, is a reader, reading experientially through the Molloy-narrative to come to terms with the strongly developing likeness between it & his own narrative-situations. He is like a reader who suddenly finds out that he is also the author of the text, he is reading. And then there is further agony in terms of a double-irony, perhaps when he also realizes that his authorial status is constructed by another author—Molloy, who is his (Moran’s) own creation. This is where the character creates the author & becomes one in the process & thus subjected to creation & undercutting by yet another character-author. The logocentric author is the casualty in this endgame-turn!
Towards the end of his narrative, Moran says that the people he had captured in the past for his organization were never seen anywhere after that. This may well be yet another key that unlocks another textual principle, as it were. When an object is completely narrativised, it is dead. It ceases to exist in the real world. Here, narrative does not reflect reality, it consumes reality & ends the object’s real existence, by turning it into a narrative-subject. This can be seen again as a characteristically postmodern underpinning of the non-mimetic process of textualisation. But, Molloy can not be written out of reality as his writer (ouster!), Moran, himself becomes a Molloy & resultantly has to write himself out of reality. This process is to turn Moran’s whole narrative into a kind of self-falsification. This is what, the rest of this paper would try to examine.
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Derrida, in one of his late interviews, explaining why he had not written , at length, about his favorite Samuel Beckett, had to say that all Beckett-texts are auto-deconstructive & hence immune to external deconstruction by him.31 In Molloy, we have two narratives posited as mutually facing mirrors that destroy their respective representational images. The two narratives, situationally, temporally as well as spatially subsume each other & what remains is a Beckettian blank-page— a post-textual void, as it were. Beckett once said— “My last work, would be a blank piece of paper.” That is what Molloy is—- a paper, blank, but not virgin, rather penetrated by words which have cancelled each other in a simultaneously constructive & deconstructive process. Christopher Ricks said, Beckett killed the word ‘interview’ just by saying ‘I have no view to inter.’32 Beckett kills all words in Molloy by neutralizing as well as supplementing them with their others, right into silence, that is strongly post-linguistic & post-narrative in character. The end of Molloy is just like that— auto-destructive.
The narrative of Jacques Moran began— “It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows.”33 The Moran-narrative, & with it the novel, ends — “Then I went back into the house & wrote, it is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining. ”34 Here, Beckett employs what in postmodern narratives would be called ‘metalepsis’, i.e. a blurring of the gaps among the various textual levels & even the gap that distinguishes the textual & the extra-textual. In these closing lines of the novel, Beckett locates the textual—“It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows” (These were the words with which the whole narrative had commenced.) & the extra-textual—“It was not midnight. It was not raining” side by side, blurring their internal gulf & positing them both within the text. This is exactly what Baudrillard would have called the ‘fourth order’35 of the simulacra where language will stop hiding the absence of its corresponding reality & thus start announcing the void within & thereby its own failure to represent reality, as well. By denying the realistic referentiality of the opening lines of the narrative, right at its end, Beckett seems to imply a complete undoing of the whole narrative from within.
This narrative strategy is veiled in these lines, one smells—“…to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is black & flat & the whole business looks like, what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.”36 Beckett wrote in a 1937-letter to a close friend—“…Language is most efficiently used when it is most efficiently misused. As we can not eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it— be it something or nothing— begins to seep through.” Beckett, in Molloy, returns to these more than decade-old words in another time, within another world.
All images of depth disappear from the novel, one by one. Even Molloy’s & Moran’s vertical movement vanishes as they take to crawling, their legs being incapacitated. This transition from the vertical to the horizontal may also signalize an impairment in their linguistic pole of ‘selection’ with a relative retention of the pole that ‘combines’ ( the words ‘selection’ & ‘combination’ are used as per Jakobson).37 This characterizes them with ‘similarity disorder’, a certain kind of aphasia, a language-disturbance. The aphasic subtext, in Molloy, is operated as an helping hand to the pervasive propensity towards anti-language & post-narrative silence which the text engenders. The narrative ‘on’ trans-substantiates itself into its own transposed identity, that of the ‘no’( ‘no’s knife’, to use Beckett’s own expression) and we arrive at a narrative telos, that has to be forsaken in a postmodern world. We can say, say on, at the end that the first compulsion thus becomes the last extinction. That is how it is, how it ends. A whimper?
Or a quaquaqua?…the word unworded… the unsayable…the dimmost dim’38…
1. Beckett, Samuel, Molloy (English) translated by the author along with Patrick Bowles. First published in Great Britain by John Calder(publishers) Ltd in 1959. First published as a Calder book in 1976 by John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London. p.13.
2. ibid. p.147.
3. Beckett, Samuel, Worstward Ho. John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London.1983. p.01
4. ibid. p.10.
5. Kristeva, Julia, The Father, Love, And Banishment. First published in Cahiers de l’ Herne. 1976.
6. Calvino, Italo, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. Vintage Classics. London. 1998.
7. Cronin, Anthony, Samuel Beckett : The Last Modernist. London : Harper Collins, 1996.
8. Beckett, Samuel, Molloy (English) translated by the author along with Patrick Bowles. First published in Great Britain by John Calder(publishers) Ltd in 1959. First published as a Calder book in 1976 by John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London. p.07
9. ibid. p.08.
10. ibid. p. 08
11. Pilling, John.(ed.).
The Cambridge Companion to Beckett. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press. 1994.
12. Beckett, Samuel, Molloy (English) translated by the author along with Patrick Bowles. First published in Great Britain by John Calder(publishers) Ltd in 1959. First published as a Calder book in 1976 by John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London. p.27.
13. Beckett, Samuel, The Unnamable (English) translated by the author. First published in Great Britain in 1958 by John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London.
14. Beckett, Samuel, Molloy (English) translated by the author along with Patrick Bowles. First published in Great Britain by John Calder(publishers) Ltd in 1959. First published as a Calder book in 1976 by John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London. p.27.
15. Strauss, Levy,The Structural Study of Myth. Routledge. London & New York.1955.
16. Hassan, Ihab, The Literature of Silence : Henry Miller & Samuel Beckett. New York : Alfred a. Knopf, 1967.
17. Levy, Eric P. Beckett and the Voice of Species : a Study of the Prose Fiction. New York : Barnes & Noble, 1980.
18. Beckett, Samuel, Molloy (English) translated by the author along with Patrick Bowles. First published in Great Britain by John Calder(publishers) Ltd in 1959. First published as a Calder book in 1976 by John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London. p.14.
19. Baudrillard, Jean, Cool Memories (English) translated by Chris Turner. London & New York. Verso Publishers. 1990.
20. Baudrillard, Jean, The Perfect Crime (English) translated by Chris Turner. London & New York. Verso Publishers. 1996.
21. Adorno, Theodor, Aesthetic Theory. Routledge. London & New York. 1970.
22. Dettmar, Kevin J. H. The Figure in Beckett’s Carpet : Molloy and the Assault on Metaphor. Published in Rethinking Beckett : a Collection of Critical Essays. London : Macmillan(now Palgrave Macmillan), 1988.
23. . Beckett, Samuel, Molloy (English) translated by the author along with Patrick Bowles. First published in Great Britain by John Calder(publishers) Ltd in 1959. First published as a Calder book in 1976 by John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London. p.14.
24. ibid. p.20.
25. ibid. p.26.
26. ibid. p.37.
27. ibid. p.48.
28. ibid. p.62.
29. ibid. p.86.
30. ibid. p.07.
31. Derrida, Jacques, Writing & Difference. Routledge. London & New York.2001.
32. Ricks, Christopher, Beckett’s Dying Words. Oxford. : Claredon Press, 1993.
33. Beckett, Samuel, Molloy (English) translated by the author along with Patrick Bowles. First published in Great Britain by John Calder(publishers) Ltd in 1959. First published as a Calder book in 1976 by John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London. p.99.
34. ibid. p.189.
35. Baudrillard, Jean, Simulations & Simulacra. From Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster. Stanford University Press. 1998.
36. Beckett, Samuel, Molloy (English) translated by the author along with Patrick Bowles. First published in Great Britain by John Calder(publishers) Ltd in 1959. First published as a Calder book in 1976 by John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London. p.13.
37. Jakobson, Roman, Fundamentals of Language. Mouton Publishers. The Hague & Parris, 1956.
38. Beckett, Samuel, Worstward Ho. John Calder (publishers) Ltd. London. 1983. p.20.