Thursday, December 3, 2009

From Void to Violence: An Analysis of Holes in Beckett’s Molloy

“It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm.”–lyrics from the song "Keep Yourself Warm” by Frightened Rabbit

Much of the violence in Beckett’s Molloy derives from the nature of voids, including the void created by the insurmountable distance between “I” and “Other.” Voids or holes, as Sartre points out in Being and Nothingness, are originally presented to man as “a nothingness ‘to be filled’” and that “holes in the sand and in the earth, caves, the light, the night, etc.—all reveal…modes of pre-psychic and pre-sexual being which he will spend the rest of his life explaining” (Sartre 781). We are helpless to resist the pull of holes; they represent problems to be solved by a filling. The hole “presents itself to me as an empty image of myself. I have only to crawl into it in order to make myself exist in the world which awaits me” (Sartre 781). In Molloy, it is apparent that holes are not only essential to the text’s structure (what is left out of the narrative, the text’s negative space, is as important as all the elements present within the text) but essential to understanding a certain violence that manifests itself in solving the unfulfilled need that exists in the idea of the hole.

It is important to consider the forms of holes; it is imperative to understand the many manifestations and functions of holes in order to understand the violence they provoke. If, for example, you have a keyhole preventing you from accessing the other side of a door, you must obtain a key in order to pass through to the other side. The blockage of the doorway presents itself as an obstacle that can only be surmounted through the use of some kind of force, whether it is to insert the key into the keyhole and turn, (thereby filling the hole and “solving” the keyhole’s problem) or simply by the literally forceful, violent act of breaking the door down. Holes may simply be perpetual voids, such as the one we experience inside our body in the form of our digestive system. No matter what we eat, we can never fill the void that goes from the top of our bodies to the bottom; it is literally a bottomless pit. It is a negative space that exists only to nourish the filled space that encircles it. And furthermore, eating “is to appropriate by destruction; it is at the same time to be filled up with a certain being” (Sartre 783). This destruction gives us our nourishment, but the hole inside of us provides an eternal problem; we can never completely satisfy our hunger or sustain ourselves no matter how much we eat, thus our bodies are inherently violent because they require that we constantly destroy things; our bodies exist only to consume nourishment in order to sustain themselves as long as they can. Holes, I will argue, can also be in the form of insurmountable distances. Take, for example, the void created between two people—the asymptotic relationship between “I” and “Other”—the idea that two people cannot share a consciousness. In this essay, I will consider holes, voids, and distances as interchangeable terms.

In Molloy, all of the aforementioned voids are apparent as instigators of both symbolic and literal violence. Take, for example the seemingly incomprehensible passage at the beginning of the novel where Molloy watches someone he calls “A” and someone called “C” approach each other. “They looked alike, but no more than others do. At first a wide space lay between them” (Beckett 9). The passage reads as an existential parable, with the two entities approaching each other unaware of one another, but then finally “meeting” in a trough—or, as I read it, this “meeting in a trough” simply signifies death, one of only two true undifferentiating human experiences (the other being birth) where differentiation simply cannot exist or is rendered inert; this—death—is the asymptote just beneath the curve where “I” and “the Other” would hope to merge. The violence here is only apparent if we consider the frustration one feels in not being able to apprehend the Other—one’s complete isolation within one’s own consciousness and body is made explicit when confronted by the Other.

Sartre understands the difficulties this insurmountable distance between “I” and “Other” creates and discusses it in Being and Nothingness. He says

if after grasping “my” consciousness...I then seek to unite it with a certain living object composed of a nervous system, a brain, glands, digestive, respiratory, and circulatory organs…I am going to encounter insurmountable difficulties. But these difficulties all stem from the fact that I try to unite my consciousness not with my body, but with the body of others.” (Sartre 401)

In Beckett’s novel, Molloy is faced with the problem of distances almost immediately. He spends almost half of the novel searching for his mother, wandering in circles searching for a town whose name he cannot remember. At the end of the first part of the novel Molloy is literally on the ground slithering, crawling on his belly back towards his mother. This slowness of movement indicates the way he in which he reaches the bottom of the curve. Molloy’s journey ends as he falls into a ditch while in his last throes of locomotion toward his mother. His quest for perfect communion with another ends in the same way that everyone’s does—slowly, and in a ditch. Molloy notices that his journey has perhaps come to an end:

The forest ended in a ditch, I don’t know why, and it was in this ditch that I became aware of what had happened to me. I suppose it was the fall into the ditch that opened my eyes, for why would they have opened otherwise? (Beckett 91)

This passage could easily be misread as Molloy’s journey through life coming to a halt, but that would be an oversimplification. Molloy’s final tumble into the ditch signifies the futility of trying to perfectly communicate with the Other. His violent journey, complete with sucking stones, killing a dog, and killing a man, leads him to this particular hole in the forest—a haven that allows him to complete the landscape’s puzzle, where “Molloy could stay, where he happened to be” (Beckett 91).

In the first half of the novel, holes act as soothing outlets for Molloy (a creature, it would seem, that embodies the notion of man’s inevitable dilapidation and eventual collapse into himself—Molloy is a walking void, to be sure); the holes provide Molloy a temporary escape from his incompleteness and his own deterioration. There are many prime examples (all violent in different ways) that demonstrate Molloy’s temporary sanctuary in holes. The first comes in the form of Ruth (who is later referred to as Edith), an entity who, Molloy claims, is the first to make him

acquainted with love…She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. (Beckett 56)

Not only does Molloy confuse Ruth with Edith, he is unable to differentiate between Ruth/Edith’s anus and vagina; he is even indifferent to whether or not Ruth/Edith was a man or a woman. Molloy’s indifference toward orifices speaks to the nature of voids, as though all holes provide the same kind of existential refuge.

Sartre discusses the philosophy and “existential psychology” of the hole, declaring it

an excavation which can be carefully moulded about my flesh in such a manner that by squeezing myself into it and fitting myself tightly inside it, I shall contribute to making a fullness of being exist in the world…to plug up a hole means originally to make a sacrifice of my body in order that the plenitude of being may exist; that is, to subject the passion of the For-itself so as to shape, to perfect, and to preserve the totality of the In-itself. (Sartre 781)

Molloy further adds the violence of confusion to Ruth/Edith’s orifices—he is unable to determine whether or not his physiological interactions with Ruth/Edith’s anus/vagina actually constitute love. Looking back on his experiences, he wonders

Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn’t tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? (Beckett 57)

Molloy discusses his complete indifference towards orifices, since they all seem to provide him the same kind of satisfaction; Molloy “would have made love to a goat, to know what love was” (Beckett 57). These passages offer a critique of the simplistic and seemingly absurd views of love that humans seem to carry with them—humans place the concept of love as an ideal we should all strive for, but why, then, would we seek to find it in the orifices of one another? Orifices require a violent inhabitance, not tender, abstract notions of congruity between multiple conscious beings. The most one can hope to gain from a hole is a momentary approximation of undifferentiation. In the act of sexual congress, for example, the consciousness of each party remains wholly different and removed from the Other.

Molloy, having discussed love and orifices discusses his first encounter with Ruth/Edith.

I was bent over a heap of muck, in the hope of finding something to disgust me forever with eating, when she, undertaking me from behind, thrust her stick between my legs and began to titillate my privates. (Beckett 57)

This passage juxtaposes previous discussions of sex and love with one of food and disgust, but both point to the same violent goal: eradication of desire, be it symbolic desire (sex) or literal desire (hunger). Molloy goes on to sarcastically describe his realization of love’s true nature saying

love is no doubt above such base contingencies. And not when you are comfortable, but when your frantic member casts about for a rubbing-place, and the unction of a little mucous membrane, and meeting with none does not beat in retreat, but retains its tumefaction, it is then no doubt that true love comes to pass, and wings away, high above the tight fit and the loose. (Beckett 58)

Above all in the search for truth to fill an impalpable void, the truth is, love is a violent contingency that cannot be found in holes. Holes are undifferentiating sanctuaries that approximate death and must be entered violently.

The obstacles (holes, voids, insurmountable distances) in Molloy coincide with René Girard’s assertion that “modern society aspires to equality among men and tends instinctively to regard all differences, even those unrelated to the economic or social status of men, as obstacles in the path of human happiness” (Girard 49). Differences among men are complex, wily things that resist undifferentiation or homogeneity. However, in the model of a hole, it is easy to see moments of undifferentiation. When a hole is filled, there is a sense of restored equilibrium, though the equilibrium created by the filling of a hole takes a violent act (literal or symbolic), whether it’s intercourse, eating, or simply the symbolic act of covering one’s holes in clothing. In Molloy, the characters know this all to well. Moran tells Jacques to “wash himself, to straighten his clothes, in a word to get ready to appear in public” (Beckett 94). Moran’s request to his son brings further illumination of the nature holes; they are private spaces.

Molloy also deals with the symbolic voids that we try to fill with the divine. In the second half of the novel the narrator, Moran, needs the Eucharist, a symbolic food, in order to fill a spiritual void. When his priest, Father Ambrose, gives him communion, he says at first that his soul is appeased, but yet he is “ravenous” for real food (Beckett 101). Moran thanks Father Ambrose for communion, but Father Ambrose’s reply begins to unsettle Moran. “Pah! he said, it’s nothing” (Beckett 101). Father Ambrose’s dismissal of Moran’s need of the Eucharist as “nothing” destroys the ceremony of the sacrament, rendering the symbolic food trivial and unfulfilling. It is from this point that we see Moran’s deterioration, both spiritually and physically—the spiritual hunger inside him rendered an unappeasable void.

In Being and Nothingness Sartre states, “a good part of our life is passed in plugging up holes, in filling empty places, in realizing and symbolically establishing a plenitude” (Sartre 780). We can see the human attraction to holes very clearly in children—they are constantly exploring their own orifices. Though, as Sartre points out, it is impossible that the child “apprehends a particular part of his body as an objective structure of the universe,” and that it is only to the Other that “the anus appears as an orifice,” and yet again only through another that the child “learns that his anus is a hole” (Sartre 781).

When Gaber visits Moran to deliver his orders, Moran dismisses his son, who is watching. “Jacques went away grumbling with his finger in his mouth, a detestable and unhygienic habit, but preferable all things considered… If putting his finger in his mouth prevented my son from putting it in his nose, or elsewhere, he was right to do it, in a sense” (Beckett 94). When Jacques puts his finger in his mouth, he is trying “to wall up the holes in his face; he expects that his finger will merge with his lips and the roof of his mouth and block up the buccal orifice as one fills the crack in a wall with cement” (Sartre 782). In this instance, Moran’s dismissive attitude towards his son creates in Jacques confusion—a void that Jacques cannot hope to understand. Thus, the boy plugs his mouth (a known hole) with his hand in order to gain a temporary reprieve from the void created by his father’s repudiation. The boy does not know why he is unwelcome in his father’s presence and seeks immediate sanctuary in his own mouth.

Molloy, too, uses his holes to apprehend the world. He encounters a man walking his dog who “is kind, tells me of this and that and other things…I believe him, I know it’s my only chance to—my only chance, I believe all I’m told, I’ve disbelieved only too much in my long life, now I swallow everything, greedily” (Beckett 13). Molloy’s “swallowing” speaks to the nature of belief and the way we internalize truth as well as our desire to “swallow” anything—our desire to believe everything is true. We hunger for it because truth, like a finger in the mouth, fills a void for us.

For Moran, holes have practical applications. Keys and keyholes in particular seem to provide Moran a great deal of relief—an ideology with which to structure his life. In the first part of Moran’s narrative, he describes his fastidious maintenance of keys and locks. “I have a huge bunch of keys, it weighs over a pound. Not a door, not a drawer in my house but the key to it goes with me, wherever I go” (Beckett 126). Though later, at the end of the novel when Moran is unable to fill the keyholes with keys, it causes him great distress. When Moran returns to his home, he tries to get through the gate. “It was locked. Very properly. But I could not open it. The key went in the hole, but would not turn. Long disuse? A new lock? I burst it open. I drew back to the other side of the lane and hurled myself at it” (Beckett 174). Once again Moran is faced with an inadequately filled void and confronts it with frustration, literally flinging himself at the gate from across the street in order to overcome it.

The violence of the void is outside the realm of legitimate or illegitimate violence. It is not violence as “merely the means to secure directly whatever happens to be sought,” and as such, does not “fulfill its end as predatory violence” (Benjamin 282). Holes, especially in Molloy, are invitations to enact violence for a metaphysical benefit. The ditch Molloy lies in near the beginning of the novel offers gentle indifference toward his body, yet lets him fill a void, much like the child sticking his finger in his mouth. Molloy goes further, however, even eating grass from the ditch while lying in the ditch—this is, as Sartre might say, Molloy’s “appeal to being” (Beckett 27). In this example, the hole renders Molloy’s entire body as its plug. Molloy is content to sacrifice his body to create a fullness in the world. This same desire for a fullness becomes more explicit when Molloy discusses freedom, pronouncing us “free…free to do what, to do nothing,” and that we would “do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts…to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery” (Beckett 13). What texts Molloy is speaking of is unclear, but while reading Molloy one may conceive that the text in hand may be one such text to be obliterated, if it is not in some way already an obliterated crater of a text. Disrepair and disintegration are such key elements of the narratives in Molloy that it is impossible to overlook the possibility that the conceit behind the novel may be just that: disintegration. That is not to say that the novel is incoherent, far from it. It packages itself as an ordinary novel; it has a first page, it has a last page, and looks like a “standard” novel. However, it uses these conventions in order to frame an unconventional, challenging text that denies the reader the satisfaction of filling a hole. It is important to note, too, (at the risk of seeming reductionistic) that Molloy is, after all, a fiction, a fabrication, a nothingness.

At its heart, the novel Molloy is a void. It reads as a conceptual text that is, itself, disintegrating and in disrepair—it nips at the reader as an unsolved problem, daring the reader to resolve its parts, much in the same way an unfed stomach gurgles to be filled. It is more than a difficult text—it is nearly an abyss. Much of the time characters in Molloy are completely unable to articulate themselves to other characters, providing an exaggerated model of the impossibility of language—the arbitrary nature of linguistic signs and the impossibility of perfectly conveying a thought to the Other. The narrators disintegrate before us, becoming more incoherent. Becoming more like stars on the verge of collapsing in on themselves. In discussing Beckett’s oeuvre, Theodor Adorno states that it “gives the frightful answer to art that, by its starting point, by its distance from any praxis, art in the face of mortal threat becomes ideology through the harmlessness of its mere form, regardless of its content” (Adorno 250). With its dilapidation and crumbly narrative, the form of the novel Molloy posits the ideology of the hole.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. New York: Grove, 1994. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. Reflections : essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, [c.1978]. Print.

Frightened Rabbit. "Keep Yourself warm." The Midnight Organ Fight. Fat Cat Records, 2008. MP3.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1979. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square, 1992. Print.


Mike Young said...

i like this

you should read Martin Buber's I and Thou, or at least the first part

Bryan Coffelt said...

thanks man, i'll check it out!

juanehair said...