The Courage to Know Thyself: Beckett’s Malone Dies
Imagine a pencil, not one of the fancy mechanical pencils of today, but a standard pencil: a bit of wood surrounding a lead core. As you write, it gradually diminishes to nothing. First the point dulls, eventually to the point where you need to re-sharpen the pencil, one way or another. Gradually there is less and less pencil, until there is barely enough left to hold as you write. But the pencil never does fully diminish to nothing, for eventually it becomes too small to write with, and then you must take up another pencil. A pencil thus gets close to becoming nothing, but never quite arrives.
This, I think, is Beckett’s model of human life. I previously wrote about two intertwined themes in Molloy, the first of Beckett’s trilogy of novels: (a) retelling a story as reliving it, and (b) the notion of Sisyphean recurrence. Malone Dies, the second novel in the trilogy, picks up both of these themes. The image of the pencil connects to both of them. As a writing implement, it is the means by which Malone retells (relives) his stories. It also embodies the impossibility of the Sisyphean task. Just as Sisyphus cannot get the rock to stay at the top of the hill, Malone cannot use up his pencil. The sense is that, if he could use up his pencil, he would finish dying, would become nothing. But he cannot: his pencil runs out before he finishes dying, and since his retelling is his reliving, that he cannot finish writing means he cannot finish dying, either. [Procedural note: This post assumes familiarity with the novel, and may contain “spoilers” insofar as spoilers can exist for a Beckett novel. I am using the edition of Three Novels published by Grove Press. All page references are to that edition.]
Though Sisyphus himself does not appear in Malone Dies, the Sisyphean nature of his task does not escape Malone. He reflects on his pencil and remarks frequently about how little is left. Hidden in his bed somewhere is a second pencil, much larger, though this is never recovered and used. Malone instead faithfully records events and stories (if these are distinct) in his exercise book. (For those keeping score at home, the exercise book is Gaber’s, from Molloy.) About this exercise book, Malone tellingly remarks, “This exercise-book is my life, this big child’s exercise-book, it has taken me a long time to resign myself to that” (267). Insofar as telling the story of his life and living his life are not distinct, it is true that his exercise book is his life. Thus when he has a mysterious visitor (Lemuel), he can say, “he could easily have taken my exercise-book if he had wished” (263), and we should read this as equivalent to: “he could easily have taken my life if he had wished.”
That his exercise book is his life is also reflected in the sense of danger surrounding language throughout the book. For one thing, there is the ever-present sense that language is simply not adequate to its task, namely, telling the truth. This worry metastasized at the end of Molloy, when the final sentence of the Moran section directly contradicted the first two sentences of that section. And indeed, even earlier in that novel, the sense of truth that both Moran and Molloy professed to uphold was slippery and difficult to grasp. Malone Dies only furthers this worry. If retelling is reliving, then one has authorial control over the events of one’s life. But, if just by saying “it is so” one can make it so, what is left of truth? If truth is achieved by default, truth is no achievement. (In my most recent post on objectivity in aesthetic judgment, I talked about Huw Price’s paper “Truth as Convenient Friction”. One way to see why, in the Beckettian universe, truth loses its value is that there can be no friction.) There can be disagreement of sorts, in that there can be conflicting version of the same story/life—just as Malone and Macmann have different stories than Molloy and Moran, and yet are in another sense the same story—but there is no definitive version to settle the matter. And in any case, as Moran reflects in Molloy, such disagreement doesn’t really matter. For Sisyphus may scratch and groan in different places, and even take a different road, so long as his starting point and destination are the same.
Beyond eroding the very concept of truth, the equivocation between retelling and reliving creates a great danger. What happens, for instance, if an important point is left obscure?
The first time an exasperated master threatened him with a cane, Sapo snatched it from his hand and threw it out of the window, which was closed, for it was winter. This was enough to justify his expulsion. But Sapo was not expelled, either then or later. I must try and discover, when I have time to think about it quietly, why Sapo was not expelled when he so richly deserved to be. For I want as little as possible of darkness in his story. A little darkness, in itself, at the time, is nothing. You think no more about it and you go on. But I know what darkness is, it accumulates, thickens, then suddenly bursts and drowns everything. (184)
Allowing a little darkness, a small hole, a slight inconsistency, is the start of a snowball effect of accumulating darkness, until eventually all is darkness. And, ominously, Malone goes on, “I have not been able to find out why Sapo was not expelled.” The story of Sapo (later called Macmann) is one that Malone is making up, for the sake of playing, yet even with such authorial control over events, the danger of such explicitly recognized inconsistencies remains, and darkness gets a foothold. The same danger also arises a few pages later, after Malone describes Sapo as having gull’s eyes:
I don’t like those gull’s eyes. They remind me of an old shipwreck, I forget which. I know it is a small thing. But I am easily frightened now. I know those little phrases that seem innocuous and, once you let them in, pollute the whole of speech. Nothing is more real than nothing. They rise up out of the pit and know no rest until they drag you down into its dark. But I am on my guard now. (192-193)
Both Molloy and Malone have a strange obsession with inventorying their possessions before they die, but neither succeeds. Molloy never even begins, though he makes passing references. Malone, toward the end of Malone Dies, makes an attempt, but does not complete it, and later his effort is rendered unsuitable. In a way, this attempt to inventory one’s possessions is the ultimate Sisyphean task. Malone defines his possessions as follows: “For only those things are mine the whereabouts of which I know well enough to be able to lay hold of them, if necessary, that is the definition I have adopted to define my possessions” (242). He lies in bed with a stick, grabbing various items as necessary. When he attempts to inventory his possessions, he still has his stick, but later he loses it. In losing it, he loses possession of his pile of objects—thus his work is undone.
But this is only a contingent failure. There is a deeper impossibility to the task. For the possessions themselves are not stable. He has authorial control over them: whatever he needs among his possessions, he can find, just as an author can introduce any element into a story she pleases. Perhaps she does so poorly and forcedly, but the power nonetheless remains. Thus there is an inherent instability to Malone’s possessions, and as such he cannot inventory them definitively. Only once he stops having needs and wants would such an inventory be possible, but someone who lacks needs and wants cannot act, and so cannot inventory. When he is capable of inventorying his possessions, the task is impossible, and it only becomes possible when he is incapable of completing it.
So here is our situation: we tell the stories of our lives, living them over as we do, hoping to reach a point where, finally, we can inventory our possessions. But this task proves impossible. We can never complete the inventory, for our possessions are shifting, and we cannot complete the story, for the pencil becomes unusable before it diminishes to nothing. So what do we do, put in this situation? I often like to recall David Foster Wallace’s magnificent description of the task of the artist as that of locating and resuscitating the possibilities for being human, even in dark times. Beckett has painted a bleak picture of human existence—do any possibilities remain? If not, then Beckett has evaded his task as an artist—or perhaps revealed the most terrible of truths… What, then, is Beckett’s response to the horrible truth about our situation that he has detailed—if he has any?
The most truthful answer is that I don’t know. What I am sure of, however, is that Beckett has not evaded his task, that he has a solution. So I’ll try to grope a bit, and hope I might pull myself in the right direction. Late in the novel, Malone, contemplating his task, wonders:
I cannot account in any other way for the changing aspect of my possessions. So that, strictly speaking, it is impossible for me to know, from one moment to the next, what is mine and what is not, according to my definition. So I wonder if I should go on, I mean go on drawing up an inventory corresponding perhaps but faintly to the facts, and if I should not rather cut it short and devote myself to some other form of distraction, of less consequence, or simply wait, doing nothing, or counting perhaps, one, two, three and so on, until all danger to myself from myself is past at last. (244)
Here we see three options. Malone recognizes the impossibility of his task, and considers whether he should (a) go on, (b) distract himself, or (c) wait, either doing nothing or counting. After some further contemplation, he doesn’t so much make a choice as simply slip, as if by accident, back into inventorying his possessions: “My photograph. It is not a photograph of me, but I am perhaps at hand” (244).
All three options are, I think, variously embodied in the text. At the beginning, Malone decides, “While waiting I shall tell myself stories, if I can” (174). He conceives himself as waiting for the point when he can inventory his possessions, which is “a thing I must leave to the very last moment, so as to be sure of not having made a mistake” (175). In the meantime, he tells himself the story of Sapo/Macmann. In fact, he says he’ll tell three stories (there’s counting), but he only ever gets to the Sapo/Macmann story (more on this later). In a way, this storytelling is not just a form of waiting, but also a means of distracting himself. The two options are not really distinct. But, finally, we must consider how frequently, in the context of telling this story, Malone agonizes about whether or not to go on, whether or not he can go on, and then—goes on. All three options, in a way, collapse into a single option. We may be distracting ourselves and waiting, but this is not nothing. It is a form of going on.
In this context I think there is an intriguing dialogue with Plato. Plato, of course, is famous for linking words to eternal, immutable forms, and in a way it is precisely this lofty vision of language of which Beckett is so thoroughly skeptical. At two points, I think there are clear references to Plato. Around the midpoint of the novel, Malone begins again his story of Sapo, only now “I can’t call him that any more, and I even wonder how I was able to stomach such a name till now. So then for, let me see, for Macmann, that’s not much better but there is no time to lose…” (222). In this talk of Macmann, Malone writes, “And it is a pleasure to find oneself again in the presence of one of those immutable relations between harmoniously perishing terms and the effect of which is this, that when weary to death one is almost resigned to—I was going to say to the immortality of the soul, but I don’t see the connexion” (222).
This seems clearly to refer to the dialogue in which Plato has Socrates, about to die, defend the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Malone sees this doctrine as the doctrine of one that someone who is “weary to death” must “resign” himself to. But, in fact, Malone denies the connection. Malone, who himself seems to be weary to death, does not in the end become tempted by the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. So here is one rejection of the Platonic vision.
Much earlier in the novel, there is an even more striking reference. Malone is describing Sapo, and of his attempts to master language, and writes:
Then he was sorry he had not learnt the art of thinking, beginning by folding back the second and third fingers the better to put the index on the subject and the little finger on the verb, in the way his teacher had shown him, and sorry he could make no meaning of the babel raging in his head, the doubts, desires, imaginings and dreads. And a little less well endowed with strength and courage he too would have abandoned and despaired of ever knowing what manner of being he was, and how he was going to live, and lived vanquished, blindly, in a mad world, in the midst of strangers. (187)
Striking in this passage is the description of words themselves as tangible, graspable. Words are not connected to Platonic ideal forms, but are messy, earthly things, and possibly insufficient to make a meaning of the babel raging in our heads. Confronted with this difficulty, we have two options. We can have the strength and courage to know ourselves, or we can live vanquished and blind.
In some ways, we can see the novel as a progression from the courageous Sapo to the vanquished Malone. At one point, while sucking on a pillow, Malone writes, “The search for myself is ended. I am buried in the world, I knew I would find my place there one day” (193). And he then says that he is not wise, for if he were wise he would “let go, at this instant of happiness” (193). Instead, however, he goes back “again to the light, to the fields I so longed to love” (193).
Wisdom is letting go, but Malone cannot let go—he is not fully vanquished. Malone at numerous points likens death to birth: “for already from the world that parts at last its labia and lets me go” (183). And later, as he is dying, feet first, he says, “The feet are clear already, of the great cunt of existence” (276). And indeed, becoming fully vanquished is, in a way, impossible. For Malone is dying feet first, leaving the womb of existence, but that means his hands will die before his head, and he will have to stop writing before all is completed. And since his writing is his life, his story and his life will never reach an end. He says the search for himself has come to an end, but perhaps not. Some courage and strength seem to live on.
The notion of recurrence plays a central role in this. At various points, both in Molloy and Malone Dies, occasions come in sets of three. Molloy writes early on, “This time, then once more I think, then perhaps a last time, then I think it’ll be over, with that world too” (4). Malone wants to tell three stories (about a man and a woman, about an animal, and about a stone), and later wants to tell of Macmann’s three phases in the House of Saint John of God. In each case, however, there is only the first time, and no more.
And it is no surprise, for we have seen that no task can be completed, and so there can be no next time, no next task. Malone addresses this specifically:
To know you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with. (247)
And this is because our position is Sisyphean. Sisyphus who recognizes his position realizes he can’t do better next time, for in reality there isn’t a next time, but only this time, repeated again and again. The details may differ but the starting and ending point is no different. As depressing as it may seem, this is a “thought to be going on with”, and Malone does go on, as Molloy goes on, and Moran goes on, and Macmann goes on. The Platonic task of knowing oneself may seem an absurdity and an impossibility, a futile endeavor for which we lack the tools we need—words that can capture truth neatly, and an immortal soul that can recollect true information—and we go on, futilely but courageously. Perhaps in doing so we make a mockery of ourselves; perhaps human life is something to mock. But we go on, against all tedium.