Dickens, Beckett, Domesticity, and Modernism

February 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished: Malone Dies and The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett; Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.

Reading now: A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, by Mac Wellman.

Reading next: Dubliners, by James Joyce.

It is an exaggeration, but an interesting one, to say that modernist literature is a reaction to Dickens.  In his massive popularity (and desire to be and remain popular), his embrace of transparent plot and familiar character, his omnipresent sentimentality, and his fastidious avoidance of any mention of sex, he represents a nicely dialectical figure for the modernist authors. From Henry James to Woolf and Joyce, the modernists found Dickens ridiculous and bourgeois.

Read the Victorian fabulist/realist master Dickens in close proximity to the modernist/postmodernist master Samuel Beckett and you can feel like these two men inhabited completely different universes, completely different ways of experiencing and translating the experience of being in the world.  But as I was reading Malone Dies, I found myself thinking of Dickens, and seeing the text as a kind of unwitting reply to one of the dominant themes in his work (as in much of Victorian literature): belief in domestic bliss, in the comforts of home.

It was the story of the Lamberts, especially, that brought this to mind.  All of Malone Dies — and, to a lesser degree, all of Molloy, and to a greater and more overt degree, all of The Unnamable — is self-conscious of the creation of fictions and exposure of the mechanisms by which narrative is produced.  The Lamberts are one of the many attempts by Malone to distract himself, to tell a story, this one about a farming family for whom the young creation of Malone named Saposcat is boarding.  Malone introduces the family by saying, “There was the man, the woman, and two children, a boy and a girl.  There at least is something that admits of no controversy.”  But this quick, self-consciously “normal” nuclear family is immediately made weird: “Big Lambert” has married his “young cousin.”  Nothing all that weird about that, according to Victorian/Dickensian mores; after all, there is the bizarre (to us) engagement of Esther and Jarndyce in Bleak House.  But Lambert has also been married two or three times before, with children from these past marriages now grown.  And Lambert is a butcher, of both animals and his family, with an omnipresent threat of violence hanging over his wife and children.  Beckett also brings sex to the foreground of the domestic situation, in the crudest possible terms.

Sapo’s place in the family is as the hard-working unfortunate lad, the Copperfield of the narrative.  But Mrs. Lambert is no kind caregiver; instead, she often pauses in her hard work to give voice to “angry unanswerable questions, such as, What’s the use?”  And Sapo cannot stay with the family, but flees.  There are faint, faint echoes of Copperfield’s trek to Betsey Trotwood’s house in Saposcat’s journey.  But the quality of despair in Saposcat’s journey is so very different than in Copperfield’s irrepressible optimism:

My bed at night was under another haystack, where I rested comfortably, after having washed my blistered feet in a stream, and dressed them as well as I was able, with some cool leaves.  When I took the road again next morning, I found that it lay through a succession of hopgrounds and orchards…. I thought it all extremely beautiful, and made up my mind to sleep among the hops that night: imagining some cheerful companionship in the long perspectives of poles, with the graceful leaves twining around them.  -David Copperfield, chapter 13

But the face of Sapo as he stumbled away, now in the shadow of the venerable trees he could not name, now in the brightness of the waving meadow, so erratic was his course, the face of Sapo was always grave, or rather expressionless.  And when he halted it was not the better to think, or the closer to pore upon his dream, but simply because the voice had ceased that told him to go on.  Then with his pale eyes he stared down at the earth, blind to its beauty, and to its utility, and to the little wild many-coloured flowers happy among the crops and weeds. -Malone Dies

Beyond that, Beckett (through Malone) continually points to how “traditional” narratives are constructed, with such asides by Malone to himself as, “That’s it, reminisce” and hesitant corrections of the course of the narrative.  It does seem that Beckett and Dickens would find in each other perspectives on the world that the other could not possibly countenance.  The experience of the twentieth century makes it hard for any of us to fully participate in the Dickensian comedy, as much as we love and aspire to it.  Beckett could not write the family as a utopia any more than Dickens could imagine an irredeemably dystopian and solitary world.

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.

The Cruelty of Comedy

January 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

Reading next: Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic.

Snowbound in Nebraska on Christmas night, we watched Funny People.  Underrated movie, great performance by Adam Sandler, a nice peek into the craft of stand-up performance and comedy writing.

It’s a dark movie, though, and not a lot of people like their dark and their light mixed.  But it is a commonplace to point out that comedy comes from dark, weird, even ugly places; that comedy is often cruel.  (One of my favorite scenes in Funny People is when Sandler’s character sings a song in a comedy club about how everyone will miss him when he’s dead and there’s no one left to make them laugh — it’s a funny song, but there are also layers of mock- and non-mock egomania, ironic posturing, Kaufmanesque comedy of the nervous audience, and genuine terror, sadness, and self-hatred involved.  It’s cruel to himself and to the audience to sing the song — and somehow, he finds this funny; and somehow, he is right.)

Here’s how this connects to Dickens: while every Dickens novel includes comic interludes and tragic (or potentially tragic) storylines, Dickens is usually careful to keep the comic and tragic scenes separate, with very different tones for each, at least until the ending, when the comic overcomes the tragic.  But there is, nevertheless, a lot of darkness and cruelty in Dickens’ comedy, however unintentional.  In Dombey, I find his treatment of Mr. Toots rather cruel.

Mr. Toots is a typical secondary comic-relief character: an older classmate to Paul Dombey Jr. at Dr. Blimber’s house, he is regarded as something of a simpleton but befriends Paul, becomes enamored of Florence, and begins to kindly and gently… well… stalk her, I suppose, once he’s come of age and received his inheritance.  His dominant trait is his cheerful self-deprecation, expressed in his constant chuckling and the catchphrase “it’s of no consequence,” with which he typically ends any statement of his desire or feeling.

Toots is incapable of wooing, too nervous to engage in any sort of direct courtship of Florence, instead hanging around to do whatever kindness he might for her and hoping to catch a glimpse of her beauty.  He’s quite funny, in his weird mannerisms and foppish love of tailored clothes and selfless devotion to whomever will befriend him.  But somewhere in the last third of the book, for some reason, I stopped thinking of Toots as merely a comic character and started rooting for him to win Florence’s heart.

But of course, that is an impossibility in Dickens.  The characters he represents as ridiculous do not marry the main characters; they marry maids, servants, other members of the comic-relief portion of the cast.  What I find cruel about the treatment of Toots is that he is handled so deterministically; that his serious devotion for Florence is dismissed so casually, so lightly, by both Dickens and by her; that he is seen, in his comic behaviors, so unworthy of the love of someone less odd, though he has the means and the passion to marry and provide for her; that he is kept in his place as firmly as any Untouchable.  Dickens’s cast, in other words, can function as a caste.

I suppose this would be the opposite of how Dickens would like to think of his characters, that they are locked into their certain roles and must perform them as required by the book’s fictional society.  Certainly Dickens saw much of the cruelty of the Victorian class system, and in Dombey there’s the obvious commentary on the evil of loveless marriage for class status and wealth.  And yet there’s “the Native,” Joe Bagstock’s dark-skinned servant, scarcely a tertiary character, rumored a Prince in his (undefined) homeland, frequently beaten and abused as nothing more than a commentary on Bagstock’s core rottenness and hypocrisy and, yes, I’m afraid, as comic relief.

And yet there’s also Mr. Toots, whose insistence on his inconsequence becomes very sad, to me at least, after many repetitions.  After he repeats his “it’s [read: I’m] of no consequence” catchphrase so many times, throughout the book, in virtually every appearance, you can come to think of it as a kind of metafictional mantra: that Toots knows his role in the novel is unimportant, in the grand scheme of the plot, like a Beckett character in a Dickens novel.  I do not know yet whether Toots gets paired off with Florence’s servant, Susan Nipper, or stays a bachelor, or what (I’d bet on marriage to Nipper, though); I just know that the experience of seeing this character, so much more vivid and alive to the reader than Florence or her long-lost beloved Walter or nearly any other character in the book, so easily dismissed is rather tragicomic.

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