Materiality and Hope in Beckett’s Molloy: #1951 Club

Beckett - TrilogyI post this piece as part of the #1951 Club. I hope the organisers won’t mind: Molloy was originally published in its original French in that year. The piece below was part of something I wrote over 10 years ago but never used for anything.


The following is an examination of the ending of Molloy and how we might receive the call of hope from Beckett’s materiality. I turn for some help to Emmanuel Levinas. To start with, I want to acknowledge Beckett’s contribution to a peculiarly modern form of stoicism that can ultimately be seen as a view that an existential abandonment to a Godless universe is no reason to suspend all hope, but is rather the very precondition for any meaningful affirmation of our stubborn will to ‘go on’, and to persevere even in the face of utter desolation. This materialist-ethical reading is derivable in that Beckett backs up a certain notion of ethics which we could describe as an entirely non-Christian form of asceticism, in the sense that it incorporates a certain acceptance of materialism, and demonstrates a certain lack of hatred for the body or flesh.

These elements certainly appear in Molloy. There is the sex in the dump, the slow poisoning, the anal and excremental, and the interminable agonies:

“For I no longer had one bad leg plus another more or less good, but now both were equally bad … the suffering of the leg at rest was constant and monotonous. Whereas the leg condemned to the increase of pain inflicted by work knew the decrease of pain dispensed by work suspended, the space of an instant.”

But there is something else in the material anguish, something abruptly attested to at the ending:

“Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”

This closing statement closes the novel by reopening it with a disparity between the word and the thing that seems to deconstruct itself (we will return to this with the help of Levinas). For example, it could be the impossibility to the words ever hoping to pin down the temporality they live in regardless of any remaining hope to do so, in that there is no reliable guarantor of what ‘was’ or ‘is’. One possibility from this is that the last two sentences are part of what Moran wrote rather than part of his narrated claim about the state of affairs in the novel Molloy (Beckett’s avoidance of quotation marks imply deliberation on this). What is more intriguing is how these closing words underline the lie that is the novel by drawing attention to how what was written may not have been despite any truth contained therein.

In this sense, the closing words annihilate the possibility of the novel preceding them, however, and at the same time, their inclusion in that novel leaves us to doubt any annihilation, to find a renewal of possibility in them, a final hope after all that has happened that in death something transcends the deathly silence brought by the vanquishing epitaph. Molloy, as the testimony to its own life, undoes itself in its dying breath by breathing life back into itself as though there were something supplementary to the materiality of the novel in the words that form it.

I said earlier that Beckett’s closing statement closes the novel by reopening it with a disparity between the word and the thing that seems to deconstruct itself. We can examine this with some help from Levinas. Firstly, to remind ourselves of the end of Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”

How material was the materiality that was the novel called Molloy? It was before us as a phenomena, then, in an enigmatic about-turn, one of its characters, Moran, calls it(and thereby him)self into question; the thing dematerialises in an instant into the words it is composed of. Yet Beckett somehow bridges the gap to form things with words and, in turn, those words dissolve them again. The love and hope he presents is fragile, calls us, then retreats. How are we to receive this call? How can we be assured it is there to receive? Perhaps we cannot. It is as though Beckett’s hope in a godless world is as spectral as any attempt at finding that god.

In ‘Enigma and Phenomenon’, Levinas questioned the phenomenological presupposition that the other is necessarily revealed as presence. “To appear”, he wrote

“is forthwith to resemble terms of an already familiar order, to compromise oneself with them, to be assimilated to them. Does not the invisibility of God belong to another game, to an approach which does not polarize into a subject-object correlation but is deployed as a drama with several personages?”

Here, Levinas makes one of his characteristic moves away from the primacy of ontology; in this instance, towards a ‘trace’ suggestive of presence through its withdrawal into absence in a movement which disturbs an order without compromising it. The presence of the other thus becomes that which is insinuated: like the ringing of a doorbell, we might wonder if anyone is really there, and it is for us to take up the call. What I would suggest here is that Beckett poses this question over the materiality and hope he constructs in Molloy at its end. Was it midnight? Was it raining? This is a disturbance we must answer to.


Posted as part of the 1951 Club:

1951-club

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9 Responses to Materiality and Hope in Beckett’s Molloy: #1951 Club

  1. If it was published in 1951, whatever the language, it counts in my view! And thank you for bringing something different to the table – I confess to never having read any Beckett but I am intrigued.

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    • Jeff says:

      I thought it might bring something post-graddy, which has its place. It also means that in my currently incapacitated state, I don’t need to spend too long sitting down on a post! I hope the edit leaves it coherent. There was a load of stuff in the original about Badiou which I thought would make it too long for a blog post and deviate too much from Beckett’s materiality and language.
      Now I think of it, do I need to submit the URL to a #1951club page?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jonathan says:

    The Beckett Trilogy is one of my favourite books and one that I hope to re-read once again soon. I recently read The Expelled/The Calmative/The End with First Love which was almost a draft for Molloy/Malone Dies but with more emphasis on the physical. It’s short but worth a read.

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    • Jeff says:

      I remember enjoying The Unnameable, but it was all a long time ago, and I was a student immersed in just about everything, so one day I shall build a ramp for the re-approach. I’ve never used any Beckett as source for generating anything, which is another possibility of course. But what to mash it in with?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Simon T says:

    It’s great to have books published in other languages in 1951 – thank you! I’ve only read tiny bits of Beckett, on my master’s, and have always shied away from him since…

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    • Jeff says:

      I haven’t returned to Beckett, and I’m feeling a bit drawn on account of his fragmentary structures and my AI coding for narrative output. I did once generate and edit a song from, I think, Waiting for Godot. Maybe I should post it some time? It was an electronic industrial track that a friend of my partner’s kindly did the vocals on. Odd thing to do really!

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  4. Pingback: A #1951Club wrap-up (and where next?) – Stuck in a Book

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