Beckett’s Sisyphean Recurrence
Yesterday saw the passing of two important eras of my life: my first year of graduate school, and my first reading of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. Anything I could say about the former would be the most unendurable sort of autobiography, so I’ll concentrate here on the latter. In numerous previous posts on this blog, I’ve made reference to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, a piece of poetry/metaphysics that will not leave my thoughts for any extended period of time. But this interest in Nietzsche has also made me sensitive to other views of recurrence. My post on Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice explored one of these, though I got rather sidetracked into a discussion of Kierkegaard there. Here I wish to explore a conception of recurrence put forward in (and exemplified by) Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. I can hardly claim to understand the work well enough to present a comprehensive theory, but I hope to at least indicate some areas where fruitful questions might be asked. [All citations are to Molloy, in the Grove Press edition of Three Novels. Additionally, there are spoilers, insofar as a book like Molloy can have spoilers.]
Molloy, roughly speaking, is the autobiographical tales of one man, or two men, or two halves of the same man. It is split into two parts, one told from the perspective of Molloy, one from the perspective of Jacques Moran. They are not distinct people, not fully, at least. Each gives a report of his movements, Molloy in one nearly 85-page paragraph (with a brief introduction) and Moran in the more formal style of a “report.” I don’t wish to speculate on their exact relation here (except insofar as I have to, below), but what is clear is this: as Moran’s report goes on, he becomes more and more similar to Molloy.
A persistent theme of the novel (and, I am told, the two that come after it in the trilogy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable) is the (in)ability of language to capture the truth of things. Molloy speaks of “a passion for truth like mine” (30), and Moran goes to great pains to make it clear both what he will include and exclude in his report. But truth is elusive, and it isn’t far into the novel that the reader loses whatever sense of the meaning of ‘truth’ she brought going in. I take as my jumping off point one passage on this theme, from roughly midway through Moran’s report:
And in the silence of my room, and all over as far as I am concerned, I know scarcely any better where I am going and what awaits me than the night I clung to the wicket, beside my idiot of a son, in the lane. And it would not surprise me if I deviated, in the pages to follow, from the true and exact succession of events. But I do not think even Sisyphus is required to scratch himself, or to groan, or to rejoice, as the fashion is now, always at the same appointed places. And it may even be they are not too particular about the route he takes provided it gets him to his destination safely and on time. And perhaps he thinks each journey is the first. This would keep hope alive, would it not, hellish hope. Whereas to see yourself doing the same thing endlessly over and over again fills you with satisfaction. (128)
The Sisyphus myth is a favorite of the existentialists. Camus, of course, famously wrote that we must consider Sisyphus happy—it is perhaps this essay (published 1942) that Beckett refers to when he says that rejoicing is the current fashion (Molloy was written between 1946 and 1950). My interest here is the vision of recurrence set out in this passage, which is implicitly expanded by the novel itself, which in many respects exemplifies it.
Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is a good foil to get the discussion started, because the point Nietzsche emphasizes with respect to his recurrence—that every detail is exactly the same, that Sisyphus must take the same route each time, and each time scratch, groan, and rejoice at “the same appointed places”—is exactly what Beckett denies in his recurrence. As the first few sentences of the Beckett quote indicate, Moran invokes Sisyphus in order to justify his inevitable deviance from “the true and exact succession of events.” Moran likens his task of giving a report of his year of wandering to Sisyphus’ task of rolling a rock up a hill.
This is more than just a reference: it is a very telling analysis of just what Moran is doing in writing his report. Retelling his story is, for Moran, a form of reliving it, not in that metaphorical sense in which we “relive” events in our heads, but in a very real, literal sense. This is established at various points in the novel. Unfortunately, I did not mark them down, so I can only give slight indication of the evidence for this point, but it includes the way tense is used in the book, the temporal paradox established at the beginning of the book, and various other clues. (This all applies every bit as much to Molloy as to Moran.) Molloy and Moran tell their stories and, equally so, they relive them. But they relive them with differences.
Writing itself is thus a Sisyphean task, a rolling yet again of the old stone up the old hill. What is the effect of this repetition? Moran again has an answer. He gives two possibilities. If one does not know one’s situation, if one believes that this is the first (and only) time, then one has a “hellish hope”. Success is perceived as an option. But what if one recognizes that one’s task is unending, ever renewing? What if Sisyphus, rolling his rock up the hill, knows that when he reaches the top, it will roll back to the bottom? Well, if Moran is to be believed, this fills him with satisfaction. (And if I use ‘one’ too frequently in this paragraph, it is in Kafka’s sense: “One works so feverishly at the office that afterwards one is too tired even to enjoy one’s holidays properly. But even all that work does not give one a claim to be treated lovingly by everyone; on the contrary, one is alone, a total stranger and only an object of curiosity. And so long as you say ‘one’ instead of ‘I,’ there’s nothing in it and one can easily tell the story; but as soon as you admit to yourself that it is you yourself, you feel as though transfixed and are horrified.” From his unfinished short story, “Wedding Preparations in the Country”.)
I think the novel exemplifies this in several ways. (I remember Moran’s half better, so I will focus there.) Very shortly into his report, Moran explains his satisfaction that the “slightly libertarian view” that work on Sunday “was not of necessity reprehensible” has been “gaining ground” (87). As becomes increasingly clear, religion for Moran is a matter of habit, but certainly not of spirituality. (Moran’s relationship with the mysterious Youdi is another matter.) This pattern of crosses becoming habits also recurs later in the work, when Moran’s leg begins to stiffen painfully: “My leg was no better, but it was no worse either. That is to say it was perhaps a little worse, without my being in a condition to realize it, for the simple reason that this leg was becoming a habit, mercifully” (141). To bear a cross is painful, but allows hope. When that cross becomes a habit, however, it is no longer a burden. Satisfaction is then possible, but not hope.
This satisfaction is connected with another theme of the novel, the loss of will. Molloy begins his report by telling the truth: “the truth is I haven’t much will left.” Moran’s report, which is I believe temporally prior to Molloy’s, though it comes later in the novel, is to a great extent the story of how Moran gradually loses his will. (As I read, I went back and forth on whether Moran and Molloy’s tales are two different relivings of the same events, or whether they are distinct. I now lean fairly strongly toward the latter.) So, once the novel is arranged in its proper temporal sequence, it shows a basically linearly decreasing will. Hold that thought.
At one point toward the end of Moran’s report, he brings up the subject of hope again:
And on and off, for fun, and the better to scatter them to the winds, I dallied with the hopes that spring eternal, childish hopes, as for example that my son, his anger spent, would have pity on me and come back to me! Or that Molloy, whose country this was, would come to me, who had not been able to go to him, and grow to be a friend, and like a father to me, and help me do what I had to do, so that Youdi would not be angry with me and would not punish me! Yes, I let them spring within me and grow in strength, brighten and charm me with a thousand fancies, and then I swept them away, with a great disgusted sweep of all my being, I swept myself clean of them and surveyed with satisfaction the void they had polluted. (156)
For he who is convinced of his Sisyphean nature of his task in living, hopes may be dallied with as a form of amusement, but ultimately they must be swept away. Here we see explicitly that Moran is dispensing with hope; he recognizes the nature of his task. But Moran cannot be said to be satisfied, for he lives in fear of the retribution of the mysterious Youdi.
Now pick up the thought left hanging: the linear decrease of Moran/Molloy’s will as the book goes on (temporally speaking). I want to suggest that the mechanism by which recognizing the Sisyphean nature of one’s task makes (Beckettian) satisfaction possible is by diminishing one’s will. When one knows the starting point and destination, and knows that one will be looping through them endlessly, the only room for the will in Beckettian recurrence is in matters of detail: where one scratches or groans. And as one carries out the task, again and again, I suggest that these details start to matter less and less. Satisfaction is achieved when one relinquishes control even over these details. It is no accident that Beckett illustrates this point by the example of scratching an itch, a largely meaningless gesture that is more a response to an urge than to deliberation or volition generally conceived.
We have seen hope (if only as a plaything), but is there any image of satisfaction in the book? There is, but only at the very end of Molloy’s section. There he writes, in his finally three sentences, “I longed to go back into the forest. Oh not a real longing. Molloy could stay, where he happened to be.” By going back into the forest, Molloy would be in effect scratching an itch. He does not crawl back, however, and says that his longing is “not a real longing.” Instead, he can stay where he is, and let happen whatever may happen. In this act I think we see the final remnants of Molloy’s will vanish, voluntarily ceded. He has achieved a sort of Beckettian amor fati. Molloy is satisfied.
When I wrote this sentence—“It is no accident that Beckett illustrates this point by the example of scratching an itch, a largely meaningless gesture that is more a response to an urge than to deliberation or volition generally conceived”—I had a thought that does not fit into the rest of this post, but which I wanted to write down lest I forget it. At numerous points in the book, especially in Moran’s section, religion (which of course emphasizes the importance of free will) is connected to a horror of the body. Moran even at one point openly admits to wanting to impart such a horror to his son. Beckett I think follows Nietzsche in associating Christianity with revulsion of what is bodily, with its base urges and lusts. The will is thus supposed to command and suppress the desires, along the model of Plato’s chariot. Beckett, in choosing scratching an itch as his example of where one has freedom in life, is connecting the will to control over one’s reactions to such bodily urges and longings. Moran begins the novel with a very strict set of rules for what such reactions he will tolerate, but as he loses his will, these deteriorate, until at least he can say, “And when I passed my hands over my face, in a characteristic and now more than ever pardonable gesture…” The gesture was, I am fairly sure, one that was explicitly listed as unpardonable before. I do not recall the exact place where this happened and could not find it on a quick search. But if I am wrong that it was explicitly mentioned, nonetheless, “now more than ever pardonable” indicates fairly clearly that it was previously at least less pardonable.