Sunday, March 2, 2008

Molloy and Malone Dies, by Samuel Beckett

samuel beckett trilogy molloy malone dies unnameableA blurb on the back of the edition you see at the left states, " In the trilogy, Beckett is creating his own death in prose, quarrying right down to the subterranean country of his heart. . . What remains is a terminal vision, a terminal style and, from the point of view of possible development, a work at least as aesthetically terminal as Finnegan's Wake."

The word "terminal" is the modernist's plaudit par excellence, though it is a strange thing to praise something for coming to an end. The term neatly captures the ambivalence of a society in the grip of thanatos; its employment demonstrates a contempt for construction and a passion for depletion.

But if it attests to the death-drive prevalent particularly in the arts, the ambiguity inherent in the word also illuminates other facets of the modernist sensibility. For "terminal" is not just an adjective—think also of the noun. One cannot have a solitary terminal, but only a series, a system of disjunctures in a path. A terminal is the endpoint of a journey, but systemic motion continues. The distinction of creating a terminal point comes not from one's effect on the direction of the larger system, but from the demonstration of the impossibility of further movement in any direction other than the main one. You may always pass through to the next terminal and the next, but there is no chance of progress once you pause and set your foot tangential to that path. The Lost Generation, for example, proved to no one that American life was exhausted, but that expatriation—a divagation from the mainline of American life—was a dead end, was terminal.

It would be easy to read Beckett's famous, frequently quoted expressions of resignation ("I can't go on. I'll go on" "
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.") as an affirmation of this latter sense of terminality. But I do not think that is the case. Neither Beckett's skepticism nor his resignation are derived from a sense that all tangents from life's mainline are fruitless and doomed to failure, but rather from the recognition of how weak that mainline is. For Beckett, language, the most crucial element of the human being, is the expression of that weakness.

Language represents for Beckett the inevitability of persistence—the key characteristic of it is that it goes on, often indifferent to our desires for dynamics and drama, always at pace with itself and its inertia. This is persistence not in an active sense of perpetual effort, but in the passive sense of modest continuance. Sisyphus is not the right myth for humanity, nor Atlas—the defining characteristic of life is not, as we would like to believe, heroic struggle, but rather the fact that it continues, as long as it continues. That is a tautology, but I do not think Beckett much cares. Simple persistence in the face of the slow attrition of living—that is Beckett's core truth, and one that excludes the modernist glee in the face of "terminality."

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