Beckett’s Doubles

No doubt about it. There were two of them
Chris Tysh, Molloy: The Flip Side

Hear the unbearable voices bloodily erupting out of Mouth, trace the dark and dismal death of Malone, cross the checkerboard landscape of Watt, the desolate outskirts of the Godot Estate and the gentle hills, damp valleys and lonely rooms of Molloy. You will not be alone. There will always be another—implied, sought after, haunted by or recalled. This is Beckett Country, land of tramps, vagabonds, orphans and assorted displaced beings, land of doubles.

I called, Zulu! Little Zulu! and he would come and talk to me, through the railings. But I had to be feeling gay. I don’t like animals. It’s a strange thing, I don’t like men and I don’t like animals. As for God, he is beginning to disgust me. Crouching down I would stroke his ears, through the railings, and utter wheedling words. He did not realize he disgusted me. He reared up on his hind legs and pressed his chest against the bars. Then I could see his little black penis ending in a thin wisp of wetted hair. He felt insecure, his hams trembled, his little paws fumbled for purchase, one after the other. I too wobbled, squatting on my heels. With my free hand I held on to the railings. Perhaps I disgusted him too. I found it hard to tear myself away from these vain thoughts.
—Samuel Beckett, Molloy

Molloy is divided into two equal parts. In part II a strange character by the name of Jacques Moran is charged with the task of ‘seeing about Molloy’, an even stranger character we’ve encountered in part I. Molloy is old and decrepit, confused and possibly delusional. He could be lying in a ditch, thinking his last thoughts, memories and fancies clamoring in his head. Moran apparently comes from the practical world to clear up the matter and possibly to lend Molloy a hand. We soon find, however, that Moran is as unreliable as Molloy. The detective’s situation is further complicated by the fact that he has a son by the same name, standing in for the endlessly repeating figure of the double.

It is lying down, in the warmth, in the gloom, that I best pierce the outer turmoil’s veil, discern my quarry, sense what course to follow, find peace in another’s ludicrous distress. Far from the world, its clamours, frenzies, bitterness and dingy light, I pass judgment on it and on those, like me, who are plunged in it beyond recall, and on him who has no need of me to be delivered, who cannot deliver myself. All is dark, but with that simple darkness that follows like a balm upon the great dismemberings. From their places masses move, stark as laws. Masses of what? One does not ask. There somewhere man is too, vast conglomerate of all of nature’s kingdoms, as lonely and as bound. And in that block the prey is lodged and thinks himself a being apart. Anyone would serve. But I am paid to seek. I arrive, he comes away. His life has been nothing but a waiting for this, to see himself preferred, to fancy himself damned, blessed, to fancy himself everyman, above all others.
—Samuel Beckett, Molloy

As soon as Moran arrives, Molloy comes away. It is only in the darkness that Molloy can be imagined, because awake, outside in the light of the world, Moran

searches in vain for two things alike, each pinpoint of skin screams a different message, I drown in the spray of phenomena. It is at the mercy of these sensations, which happily I know to be illusory, that I have to live and work. It is thanks to them I find myself a meaning.
—Samuel Beckett, Molloy

Moran is a medium between darkness and light. Far from being the kind of guide who can inspire confidence, Moran seems utterly and inescapably perplexed. He is a part of the vast conglomerate of man known as artists, bending over his subject, Molloy, who is an artist too who imagines himself a being apart, while he is in fact lodged inexorably in the marble. Moran bends over Molloy by contemplating him, by going to him in imagination, in the ditch, merging with him and eclipsing him in that place where neither could be, for the image of Moran bending over the desk wrestling out the image of Molloy is the double of Beckett bending over his desk wrestling Molloy, the novel, into existence.

In Malone Dies Beckett launches himself from the platform created by Molloy. The doubling process becomes rapid and close to the surface, approaching the condition of The Unnamable, in which he writes, “One may experience the need of such creatures, assuming they are twain.” They begin that way, an echo of the writer’s relationship with himself, but soon, as the process becomes entangled in the individual’s relationship with the world, the doubling device shatters under the pressure of so many competing selves, and comes to seem like any other literary trick designed to rob the universe of its complexity. At this point the doubling process, although Beckett’s specialty, comes to be thrown together with all the other tricks on the rubbish heap. And Samuel Beckett seems to have left himself precious little room to move. This is the so-called impasse he is supposed to have written himself into and tried to work himself out of with various texts, shorter now.

But Beckett began with doubles and never finished with them. Take the late play Ohio Impromptu, in which a man reads to another man. The play calls for the men to be as alike in appearance as possible. In the film version by Charles Sturridge Jeremy Irons plays both roles. I saw a live version once that had the men in hooded cloaks which obscured their features. In either case one is meant to see a strong bond between the two: reader and writer. The text that is read tells of a man who comes and goes periodically to read to another man, to comfort him.

And so it is
the book that lies dormant
whether mine or another’s
to be pulled down and opened
and gently replaced
until another time
or another reader
pulls the book
or another
down again
and the story
or another
is told
again

A version of this article first appeared on The Bricoleur

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