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?
March 5, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.
The strangest thing about this very strange book is the mystery of Schreber’s mental state as he wrote it: clearly still mentally ill, but lucid and intelligent enough to write a tract which makes his insanity seem utterly sane, even dull. It is, mostly, the evidence and procedure of a courtroom, not an asylum. Schreber explicitly states that he’s writing the book both to disseminate the important information he’s received about the universe and to prove his sanity — to show the evidence for his brain’s perfect functioning, but also for the truth of the universe he’s had revealed to him.
It veers so close to self-parody, while remaining utterly in earnest. The most stunningly forthright passage is at the beginning of chapter 20, when Schreber comes right out and says what every paranoid thinks, but shows that he’s aware of how this might sound and explicates his reasons for believing it nonetheless:
…everything that happens is in reference to me. Writing this sentence, I am fully aware that other people may be tempted to think that I am pathologically conceited; I know very well that this very tendency to relate everything to oneself, to bring everything that happens into connection with one’s own person, is a common phenomenon among mental patients. But in my case the very reverse obtains. Since God entered into nerve-contact with me exclusively, I became in a way for God the only human being, or simply the human being around whom everything turns, to whom everything that happens must be related and who therefore, from his own point of view, must also relate all things to himself.
It’s truly baffling how he, veteran of the asylum and respected legal authority, can make this kind of flimsy claim for his exemption from the monstrous egocentricity of his view of reality. It is shocking how real it must have all come to be, for him; how he’d worked it all out in his head, had told himself the story to make sense of his pain and confusion and isolation, and therefore made it true.
There are a number of moments in the book when one can get a glimpse of Schreber against the grain of his narration, or especially in the reports of Dr. Weber, the head of the asylum, in the Addenda section at the end of the book. The most compelling such moments involve Schreber’s “states of bellowing,” times when he feels he must let out an animalistic bellow or roar as a reaction to the voices he hears. He talks of the great release he feels in this state, and how he loves going for walks in the country when he can just let it rip, but has also learned to control the bellowing in polite company, restraining it to little peeps or yelps. Schreber presents this as little more than a perfectly understandable quirk, a trait of his that should simply be accepted and ignored by those he meets once they know about the reasons for it. And yet, it’s clearly one of the main physical symptoms of his illness. Isn’t it somewhat horrifying to imagine meeting a man, presented to you as a “respected jurist,” whose face twitches and trembles until he finally lets loose with first a yip, then a yelp, then great bovine bellows of mixed relief and rage? (Hasn’t David Lynch made a career of horrifying people with scenes just like this?)
Further, in one of his reports on Schreber’s progress, Dr. Weber confirms Schreber’s report that he was allowed to join Weber’s family at dinner occasionally. Weber also mentions that Schreber would sometimes stay to play the piano or converse with Weber’s wife and daughter. This sounds, to me, like a Robert Olin Butler story waiting to happen: at the time of Freud’s great discoveries, mental patient with highly developed, extremely idiosyncratic worldview, who believes himself to be turning into a woman/earth-goddess, plays sonatas with German bourgeoisie , occasionally giving vent to animal sounds in the parlor.
March 1, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.
Reading next: VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.
A brief note about one of the most affecting touches in this deeply alienated book: Schreber’s discussion of his “compulsive thinking” and the “not-thinking-of-anything-thought” which he used to combat it. He introduces the concept in chapter 5:
The nature of compulsive thinking lies in a human being having to think incessantly; in other words, man’s natural right to give the nerves of his mind their necessary rest from time to time by thinking nothing (as occurs most markedly during sleep) was from the beginning denied me by the rays in contact with me; they continually wanted to know what I was thinking about.
This leads to arcane and obscure attempts by Schreber to “falsify” his thoughts, and to use a kind of mental “static” to block out the voices he heard: counting, recitation of names, etc. His only real relief comes from the few activities during which he is actually able to forget about the voices incessantly bothering him. These are playing chess, playing the piano, and exercising. From chapter 12:
The feelings aroused in me when I resumed this occupation [playing the piano]… I can best describe with a quotation from Tannhauser:
“Total forgetting descended between today and yesterday. All my memories vanished rapidly and I could only remember that I had lost all hope of ever seeing you again or ever raising my eyes to you.”…
I must confess that I find it difficult to imagine how I could have borne the compulsive thinking and all that goes with it during these five years had I not been able to play the piano. During piano-playing the nonsensical twaddle of the voices which talk to me is drowned.
Schreber is describing the necessity of getting out of one’s own head. When he plays the piano, he feels, he does not think; when he plays chess, he thinks only of the moves of the game, not the cosmic battle he believes he is fighting with God. The quotation he uses above is touching, isn’t it? How wonderful it feels to forget, and how glad he is to have some preoccupation from his hellish life in the asylum?
In light of Schreber’s reinvention of the Christian cosmology, it’s interesting how Buddhist this idea is: a defense of oblivion, of the “not-thinking-of-anything-thought” as Schreber’s own demons put it, against the incessant Western pressure to do, build, accumulate, think, be. If I’m understanding some of the wonkier aspects of Schreber’s universe (and I may not be), it would also be better for God and the spirits that harass Schreber if they could also accept his right not to think constantly. God is attracted to Schreber the living being whom he does not understand as he does the dead; God’s “rays” are irritated when Schreber is not thinking, because they think him dead, and so they curse and speak in half-sentences to make him think and come alive. If Schreber could just be left alone, not to think, perhaps God could withdraw back to his rightful place in the universe.
February 19, 2009 § 4 Comments
Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.
Schreber’s book was introduced to me by Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, probably the coolest piece of criticism I’ve ever read. It sounded wild at second hand; at first hand, it is wild indeed. The backstory is byzantine, as evidenced by the layers upon layers of commentary, addenda, notes, and postscripts in this edition (the New York Review of Books translation by Ida Macalpine and Richard A. Hunter); the memoirs themselves are mind-bogglingly complex, in a number of ways. One of these ways is the problem of figuring out the relationship of Schreber to his story and the state of his mind as he writes — which I hope to deal with in my next post.
Another is the more straightforward challenge of keeping up with the bizarre cosmology which was revealed to/invented by him during his stay at an asylum in the 1890s. It is a universe dazzling for its originality, its solipsism, its psychological and symbological insight, and its nightmarish detail. To inadequately summarize my incomplete comprehension of this universe: Schreber has come to realize that there is a crisis in the universe, based on God’s being trapped by a human soul, that of Schreber’s doctor, Dr. Flechsig. Schreber has come into contact both with the voice of God and with spirits of the dead (but also the living) in the form of “rays” which commune with his soul (which resides in the nerves which run throughout the human body). He’s come to understand that this crisis has led the rest of humankind to be replaced by phantasms, “fleeting-improvised-men” (in this translation) who exist solely to help him along in his, Schreber’s work: to repopulate the earth with actual humans by transforming into a woman.
Got that? Yes. Well. It is helpful (and incredible) to remember that this was not willfully invented as a fiction, in which case it surely would have been much less opaque, much less ornate, unless Schreber truly were a kind of extremely avant-garde science fiction writer, the preincarnation of Philip K. Dick: Schreber believed this, as a divine revelation he was continually receiving as he was recovered from a nervous breakdown (which was also related to this divine plan). Incidentally, the book is central to the woefully underrated film Dark City.
There are a zillion things to talk about in this highly evocative cosmology, but I’m fascinated by the God Schreber has created, which he is careful to point out bears little resemblance to the Judeo-Christian God except that he is the only God. Schreber’s God is marvelous: Chapters 2 and 5 contain a huge amount of detail on his complicated structure and place in the universe. God’s functioning in the world is intimately connected to — and limited by — something Schreber calls “The Order of the World”: in other words, the normal functioning of the universe, to which even God is subservient.
Chapter 5 contains a remarkable section in which Schreber discusses God’s lack of omniscience — his fallability, his incomplete knowledge, and the ability, in fact, to tempt him. As a theodicy, or explanation for the existence of evil, it is quite something. Schreber explains that, “…within the Order of the World, God did not really understand the living human being and had no need to understand him, because, according to the Order of the World, He dealt only with corpses.” (Italics Schreber’s.) This idea — that God may have started or even created the universe and life, but does not necessarily understand it — is quite compelling, I think. After all, how could God understand life? Having no beginning and no end, and his realms being those of the dead, how could he understand what it meant to be alive?
Because of this lack of understanding, Dr. Flechsig was somehow able to attract and trap God. And this leads to a remarkable, 4-page paragraph in which Schreber attempts to explain why God was, in fact, responsible for trying to “commit soul murder” on him. Because Flechsig has violated the Order of the World by trapping God with his seductive, living nerves, God is motivated by
“that instinct of self-preservation, as natural in God as in every other living being — an instinct which as mentioned in another context … forced God in special circumstances to contemplate the destruction not only of individual human beings, but perhaps of whole stars with all the created beings upon them…. wherever the Order of the World is broken, power alone counts, and the right of the stronger is decisive. In my case, moral obliquity lay in God placing Himself outside the Order of the World by which He Himself must be guided; although not exactly forced, He was nevertheless induced to do this by a temptation very difficult for souls to resist, which was brought about by the presence of Professor Flechsig’s impure (“tested”) soul in heaven.”
Schreber concludes that he has defeated the plans of God and Flechsig to murder his soul, because “the Order of the World is on my side.”
Impossible as it probably is to make any sense of out of context, it is a remarkable argument. God seduced by the vitality of a living human soul, unable to resist making contact with that dangerous “other”!
You can see Schreber, a respected scholar of the law before his mental illness, working out the moral ramifications of the universe imposed on him by the voices he hears in his head. Heartbreaking. And yet there’s a kernel of artistic greatness there, too. The God presented here reminds me an awful lot of the God in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books: a monster of self-interest, clinging to life and desperate to make the world believe in him and the unjust order he’s imposed on it. But Schreber is much more sympathetic to his God: incapable of understanding humans, even when he’s fallen just like them.