Friday, December 23, 2011

Epistemology with Samuel Beckett

I'm reading the third book in Samuel Beckett's "Molloy" trilogy, The Unnameable. What can I possibly say about a book with no plot, no characters, no conflict to be resolved except that it's a great book?

The Unnameable is a first-person monologue given by a voice, possibly disembodied, possibly deceased, possibly enshrined in a funerary urn in a graveyard or possibly somewhere else. Possibly this is the afterlife musings of an author, for the narrator mentions characters encountered in the first two books of the trilogy, and implies that they are fictitious characters. Though it's impossible to say for sure what's "fiction" and what's "real" here.

This is an epistemological novel. The narrator is compelled to speak, because he has the power to speak (indeed, possibly he must speak because he is the creation of language), but what can he say? How does he know what is true? How does he know what he knows? Does he trust the evidence of his senses, and if so, why?

This is also an ontological novel. The narrator attempts to define categories of things but abandons the attempt over and over. How can he be sure of any of it? Almost all the things he "knows" are in the form of received wisdom and he's seen how many of the truths learned in school turn out to be lies, so why trust any of it? How can you trust any of it?

This is a philosophical novel. The narrator tells you what he remembers, tries to assign meaning to those events, and then realizes that in the end he has no real idea what any of it signified, if any of it mattered beyond the moment.

So what is the narrative like? Most of it is in the form of a single unbroken paragraph that carries the narrator's thoughts from subject to subject, looping back after digressions to the subjects he's trying to think about, but there is nothing more important in his primary subjects than in his digressions and he knows it. Everything is equally unimportant. Being and nothingness, God and godlessness, life and death: it's all the same in the end. As Tom Stoppard might say, for all the points of the compass there is but one destination and you end up, after all the fuss, dead in a box. What can you possibly say about that?

The only way Beckett (or anyone) could carry this off, this existentialist stream of consciousness, is by leavening the bleak realization that there is nothing to say because there is nothing worth saying, with a healthy stream of humor. Like Chekhov and Kafka, Beckett realizes that the absurdity of existence isn't just tragic, it's funny as well. Or perhaps it's like Byron said: "If I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I shall not weep." Hard to say.

On knowledge:

To tell the truth, let us be honest at least, it is some considerable time since I last knew what I was talking about.

On God:

My master then, assuming he is solitary, in my image, wishes me well, poor devil, wishes my good, and if he does not seem to do very much in order not to be disappointed it is because there is not very much to be done or, better still, because there is nothing to be done, otherwise he would have done it, my great and good master, that must be it, long ago, poor devil. [...] A little more explicitness on his part, since the initiative belongs to him, might be a help, as well from his point of view as from the one he attributes to me. [...] Let him enlighten me, that's all I ask, so that I may at least have the satisfaction of knowing in what sense I leave to be desired.

That's good stuff, if you're me anyway. Through a glass darkly, with a sense of humor. There is no "story." But the prose is surprising, alternately absurdist and beautiful. If Modernism is your thing and you've never read Beckett, get thee to a bookstore. I'm reading the 1997 Everyman's Library edition, which is a gorgeous volume that I got last Christmas.


  1. Mmm, thanks for this post! I read parts of The Unnameable in college, and I remember being extremely confused until my professor helped us understand the point of it all (from his POV anyway). Mostly, I remember, we focused on Happy Days and Endgame. I'm your enjoying your reading!

  2. I mean I'm HAPPY you're enjoying your reading. Sigh. Is it bedtime yet?

  3. I've only ever read Waiting for Godot.

    I can't honestly say that I liked it but something about it stuck with me. I've never forgotten it and there's a lot to be said for that.

  4. Cynthia, I'm not sure anyone really likes Godot, but it's an undeniably influential play. If you look, you can see Beckett's fingerprints all over the place. The Malloy trilogy, of which The Unnamable is the final book, is essentially the same thematic stuff as Godot, but in the form of monologues.

    Book II of Malloy has some funny riffing on detectives that I stole for my own detective novel. Or, rather, I allowed myself to be influenced by.