Sunday 18 March 2018

Molloy Again

Having just finished reading Beckett's Molloy again, I realise that it's now 50 years since I first read it. In 1968, when I was just finishing school, I was aware of Waiting for Godot – I could hardly not be – but knew nothing of Beckett's other writings. Then, one fateful day, I was browsing the shelves of my local branch library when I spotted a muddy blue library-bound volume the spine of which was lettered 'Molloy. S. Beckett'. I took it home and was instantly drawn in, reading through it enthralled, from that famous opening –
'I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there...'
to the equally famous ending –
'Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.'
  From then on, I read every Beckett text I could get my hands on, and, 50 years on, my admiration for Beckett has never dwindled (unlike my admiration for many others I was reading at this time). I guess I must have read Molloy five or six times now, and every time something new comes to the surface. A passage that brought me up short this time was this, in Part I:

'I who had loved the image of old Geulincx, dead young, who left me free, on the black boat of Ulysses, to crawl towards the East, along the deck. That is a great measure of freedom, for him who has not the pioneering spirit. And from the poop, poring upon the wave, a sadly rejoicing slave, I follow with my eyes the proud and futile wake. Which, as it bears me from no fatherland away, bears me onward to no shipwreck.'

Geulincx rang a faint bell. He was, I (re?)discovered, a 17th-century philosopher much influenced by Descartes, and Beckett's imagery here derives partly from Dante's account of the doomed second voyage of Ulysses, and partly from an image in which Geulincx delineates the extent of human freedom. In Beckett's annotations to Geulincx's Ethics he paraphrased it thus:

'Just as a ship carrying a passenger with all speed towards the West in no way prevents the passenger from walking towards the East, so the will of God, carrying all things, impelling all things with inexorable force, in no way prevents us from resisting his will (as much as is in our power) with complete freedom.'

It's easy enough to see why this idea of freedom-in-slavery should have appealed to Beckett and fed into his fiction, populated as it is with sadly rejoicing slaves, all too aware that their freedom is simply that of walking the short walk from prow to stern of the boat that is bearing them inexorably onward in the opposite direction. It is indeed 'a great measure of freedom, for him who has not the pioneering spirit'. It might even be taken for a reasonable image of life itself, or rather living itself, carried on in the face of the certainty that we will all die. It feels like freedom, and that seems good enough.

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