All Kinds of Trouble (Gender and Otherwise)

November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Molloy.

Reading Molloy gave me that uncommon feeling — half exhilarating, half unsettling — of knowing I wasn’t getting it all, and enjoying it.  (A lot of “known unknowns” here, as well as the inevitable “unknown unknowns,” to be Rumsfeldian about it.)  It’s as layered, dense, and fecund as the soil in a very old graveyard.  As Beckett/Molloy himself puts it, in a typically metafictional moment, “That movements of an extreme complexity were taking place seemed certain, and yet what a simple thing it seemed…”

In my last post I mentioned the insanity in the book as well as its “moments of clarity.”  But — and I’m correcting myself here — this simplifying sane/insane dichotomy is precisely the kind that Molloy exists to complicate.  Both Molloy and Moran exhibit signs of mental illness or at least temporary bouts of madness, but as in Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, the telling of the tale complicates these signs, especially in Moran’s case.  (See here for the first of my series of posts on Schreber’s book.)  The lucidity with which the tale is told confuses the reader, who expects his narrator either honest and invisible or duplicitous and foregrounded, but not confused about his/her own state of mind, not carefully recollecting a deranged state of mind.  In the case of Molloy, Beckett inserts an authorial meta-narrative, especially in the case of Molloy’s monologue, to further complicate matters.

As with Schreber’s Memoirs, difficulty in identifying objects and events as one kind of thing or another is a key sign of the protagonist’s illness — or, to view it from another angle, is the distinguishing characteristic that elevates the supposedly mad to a higher level of understanding.  That nature resides on a continuum, rather than exclusively in the socially constructed either/or relationships to which we relegate it: this is Beckett’s point, and also something that would have struck, say, Victorians as the kind of thing you’d say before they cart you off to Bedlam.

There’s trouble with gender, of course.  Moran at one point says his kneecap feels “like a clitoris”; Molloy finds himself dressed in a woman’s nightgown at one point, and confuses the gender even of his sexual partners.  The body is a site of great confusion, as it is to Schreber: it really is “the body’s long madness,” as Molloy puts it, and it is unclear how much of the trouble that goes on here with toes, legs, eyes, and just about anything else is mental and how much physical.

But beyond that, Beckett muddles other dichotomies such as living/dead, conscious/dreaming, truth/lie, and self/other, as well as playing with tense to disrupt our sense of past, present, and future time within the narratives.  It’s as yet unknown to me whether Beckett read and was fascinated by Schreber’s case, or if the resemblance between the books is an accident.  I tend to think that Beckett must have read Schreber, what with the references to Moran’s “bellowing” here, a distinctive symptom from Schreber’s work.  It is amazing how the material of Schreber’s tortured mental state is transmuted, though: some of the most beautiful, oneiric passages of Molloy could be seen as based on Schreber’s waking nightmare of God’s confusion of living and dead.

Molloy is a dream-book of sorts, taking part in dreams’ malleability and endless possibility but also in their maddening anxiety, tension, and relentless desire.  Dreams make themselves up as they go along, just as Molloy seems to; and just as in dreams, it is never in fact clear who the “I” of the story is, or if there is an “I” at all.  Are Molloy and Moran aspects of the same person on different quests, or opposing sides of a single archetype, or what?  Do their tales simply simply partake of similar images and symbols as dreams tend to do? Or is the central false dichotomy author/reader — do we fail to recognize ourselves as the protagonists and joint creators, and the narrative our shared dream with the author?

Molloy and the News

November 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Molloy, by Samuel Beckett.

Reading next: Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.

Molloy felt like the perfect book for one of the most disturbing, confusing months in recent American history.  After a while, it began to sink in that part of Beckett’s point was that it’s always one of the most disturbing, confusing months in recent human history. We’re messed up.

Later I will write about the book’s insanity, which reminds me so much of Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.  For now I want to focus on its sanity, its stunning moments of clarity.

Molloy is a drifter.  A vagrant.  A bum, okay?  And he’s maybe dead, or maybe it’s just that everyone treats him like he’s dead.  He has some trouble with the police.

Molloy: And now enough of this boulevard, it must have been a boulevard, of all these righteous ones, these guardians of the peace, all these feet and hands, stamping, clutching, clenched in vain, these bawling mouths that never bawl out of season, this sky beginning to drip, enough of being abroad, trapped, visible.  Someone was poking the dog, with a malacca…. His death must have hurt him less than my fall me.  And he at least was dead.

Moran, on the other hand, is an “agent” of a shadowy organization, a detective or some such figure.  He is an authoritarian, a megalomaniac.  He is also possibly Molloy, or contains Molloy within himself.  The word violence recurs, over and over, in his report.

Moran: When I can give pleasure, without doing violence to my principles, I do so gladly.

Plot and narration — the fiction and the metafiction — are constantly mingled in Molloy, in both Molloy’s monologue and the report of Jacques Moran.  It’s a story that calls attention to the fact that it is being created; a story of creation and creation’s immediate, inevitable decay.  “Saying is inventing,” Molloy says.

Molloy: And truly it little matters what I say, this, this or that or any other thing.  Saying is inventing.  Wrong, very rightly wrong.  You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson…

Moran: It is midnight.  The rain is beating on the windows.  It was not midnight.  It was not raining.

Some lessons are recited much more often, and much more loudly, than others.  We get lessons on the trustworthiness of authority figures like police officers, teachers, and football coaches from a very early age.  We hear less about economic inequality, or excessive use of force by American public servants on the citizenry to which they are ostensibly accountable.

Molloy: Can it be we are not free?  It might be worth looking into.

Moran: The servant wishes to rest?  Let her retire to her room.  In the kitchen all must be of wood, white and rigid.  I should mention that Martha had insisted, before entering my service, that I permit her to keep her rocking-chair in the kitchen.  I had refused, indignantly.  Then, seeing she was inflexible, I had yielded.  I was too kind-hearted.

It is almost as though we have forgotten that people who are inconvenient remain people.  It is almost as though we have allowed (or even encouraged) institutions to see themselves as the real people, now, the ones to be protected against illnesses and abuses such as dissent, protest, scandal, free access to information, outsiders.

Molloy: Morning is the time to hide.  They wake up, hale and hearty, their tongues hanging out for order, beauty, and justice, baying for their due.  Yes, from eight or nine till noon is the dangerous time.  But towards noon things quiet down, the most implacable are sated, they go home, it might have been better but they’ve done a good job, there have been a few survivors but they’ll give no more trouble, each man counts his rats.

Moran: If there is one question I dread, to which I have never been able to invent a satisfactory reply, it is the question what am I doing.  And on someone else’s land to make things worse!  And at night!  And in weather not fit for a dog!

But there’s astonishing beauty, too, and astonishing humor, and a grasp of what we are capable of.

Molloy: And that night there was no question of moon, nor any other light, but it was a night of listening, a night given to the faint soughing and sighing stirring at night in little pleasure gardens, the shy sabbath of leaves and petals in the air that eddies there as it does not in other places, where there is less constraint, and as it does not during the day, when there is more vigilance, and then something else that is not clear, being neither the air nor what it moves, perhaps the far unchanging noise the earth makes and which other noises cover, but not for long.  For they do not account for that noise you hear when you really listen, when all seems hushed.  And there was another noise, that of my life become the life of this garden as it rode the earth of deeps and wildernesses.  Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be.  Then I was no longer that sealed jar to which I owed my being so well preserved, but a wall gave way and I filled with roots and tame stems…

I wish for all of us such a moment.  This is a contribution to the People’s Library.

To him who has nothing it is forbidden not to relish filth.

Where Am I?

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