A quick comment on Beckett’s Malone Dies
In a previous post, I argued that, strictly speaking, there is no truth about what occurs in a work of art than what is shown or stated in the work itself. We may and indeed must fill in these gaps in order to interpret the work, and we may do so more or less correctly, but to do so we must go beyond the text, must say what is not strictly true. (Incidentally, I think this is a good example illustrating my earlier point that we sometimes need a norm of truth or rightness even where the strictest notion of ‘truth’ does not apply.)
Shifting gears, I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels—I’m now nearing the end of the second, Malone Dies. In my post on Molloy, “Beckett’s Sisyphean Recurrence”, one major theme I discussed was that of Beckett’s equivocation between retelling and reliving. In Molloy, there are two parts, one told by Molloy and one by Moran, each of whom offers an autobiography in which their retelling of their life story is indistinguishable from their reliving it. I plan to offer a similar style of analysis for Malone Dies when I complete it, but for now I want to make a brief note of a relation between this theme in Beckett’s trilogy and my earlier point about interpretation.
Malone Dies, like Molloy, has two central characters, not necessarily distinct. But instead of being in two parts, Malone Dies is one part, with the two characters intermingling. And whereas in Molloy the two characters tell their own stories, in Malone Dies Malone tells both his and Macmann’s story. I won’t detail it here, but there is ample evidence in Malone Dies that the retelling as reliving theme continues. There is no clear distinction—and potentially not even an unclear one—between Malone’s telling the story (his or Macmann’s) and the events actually occurring.
When this distinction between retelling and reliving is broken down in this way, it raises serious questions about the distinction between truth and fiction, and we (the readers) feel a deep uneasiness about what it might even be to tell the truth in a context like this. (As was no doubt Beckett’s intention: skepticism about the ability of language to capture truth is a paranoia underlying the entirety of the trilogy.) It also raises questions about the interpretation of life, since life is now effectively a story.
What I want to do here is to locate concerns similar to those I raised in “Constructive Empiricism and Interpretation” in the text of Beckett’s Malone Dies. As I said above, the novel is the intertwining of two stories, that of Malone and that of Macmann. Malone, on his deathbed, decides to “play”, and chooses his game that of telling three stories: one about a man and woman, one about an animal, and one about a stone. Up to the point I’ve read, he tells the story of a boy, Saposcat, nicknamed Sapo, later named (when he is an adult) Macmann. Interspersed with this are passages in which he wrenches himself out of the Macmann story to comment on his own current state.
I want particularly to focus on a particular passage of the Macmann story. The previous Macmann passage ended with Macmann lying on the ground in the rain. The passage ends in the middle of a sentence, which is never completed, as Malone is suddenly possessed by an urgent need to inventory his possessions. When Malone returns to Macmann, ten pages later, we are “much later” in the story.
Two things are interesting about this passage in the Macmann story. First, in the very first sentence, Malone writes, “One day, much later, to judge by his appearance, Macmann came to again, once again, in a kind of asylum” (p. 248). This sentence is quite remarkable. Particularly intriguing is the description of Macmann “coming to,” suggesting that he was not conscious for the entire (quite long) time that is not covered by Malone’s writing. (Tangent: compare this to the beginning and ending of Part I of Molloy.) This is striking, but perhaps more striking is that Malone, the author of this purportedly fictional story (that he is making up to “play”), has to infer (“to judge by his appearance”) how much time has passed. What Malone has not explicitly written, he must infer.
Later in the passage is an even more incredible bit. Malone notices an inconsistency in the story he is telling: Macmann had a hat, but he lost it in the field when he was lying down in the rain. In this new passage, Macmann again has a hat, which Malone infers to be “the selfsame hat”, judging by its great resemblance to the earlier hat (note the presence of inference again). This immediately raises doubt for Malone (p. 252):
Can it be then that it is not the same Macmann at all, after all, in spite of the great resemblance (for those who know the power of the passing years), both physical and otherwise. It is true the Macmanns are legion in the island and pride themselves, what is more, with few exceptions, on having one and all, in the last analysis, sprung from the same illustrious ball. It is therefore inevitable they should resemble one another, now and then, to the point of being confused even in the minds of those who wish them well and would like nothing better than to tell between them.
Here Malone comes to doubt that he is even talking about the same person as before—certainly the evidence underdetermines it. Perhaps it is the same Macmann, perhaps a different Macmann, for they are legion, and who can tell the difference. Malone eventually drops the question: “So long as it is what is called a living being you can’t go wrong, you have the guilty one.” The question loses any relevance, but more than that, it is not at all clear that there is any answer at all. Is it the same Macmann? Is it a different Macmann? There is no difference between either option, no possible evidence that would tell between the two—so I conclude that, within the world of Beckett’s novel, there simply can be no true (or false) answer to the question.
That is, as I am reading this passage, one issue Beckett confronts, in dissolving the distinction between retelling and reliving, is the same issue I identified in my post on interpretation. What is not in the text, does not exist. There are, I think, interesting ways that this connects with the Sisyphean recurrence that also characterizes Beckett’s novels—for instance, different retellings of the same story will differ in their details, just as will Sisyphus’ different trips up the hill—but a full elaboration of these connections will have to wait for another post.