All Kinds of Trouble (Gender and Otherwise)
November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
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?