- The Sadly Rejoycing Slave:Beckett, Joyce, and Destructive Parody
In what is generally taken to be his most explicit formulation of a personal aesthetic, Samuel Beckett envisions and endorses an art that would be "the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express" (Disjecta 139). Beckett sees in the paintings of his contemporary Bram Van Velde not only the first authentic attempt to undermine representational art but also the first effort to assert the impossibility of artistic expression in general.1 In his own work Beckett has consistently striven for the literary equivalent of Van Velde's painting. But just as Van Velde has necessarily employed the most basic tools and techniques of his own medium, so also Beckett has relied upon time-honored literary forms and conventions in his tireless efforts to break completely with the tradition of literary expression. [End Page 659] Arguably the most prominent artistic device Beckett makes use of is parody. In his trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, Beckett employs a new form of parody that has as its end the systematic "destruction" of the conventions of the novel. With particular attention to The Unnamable, I hope to suggest the central importance of what I have termed "destructive parody" for Beckett's prose fiction in particular and his larger aesthetic aims in general.
M. M. Bakhtin has suggested that the novel "parodies other genres (precisely in their role as genres); it exposes the conventionality of their forms and their language" (5). By means of parody, the novel can demonstrate that earlier or contemporary literary conventions are "something historically relative, delimited and incomplete" (45). Bakhtin furthermore suggests that over the years the novel has subjected itself to parodic self-criticism:
it is characteristic that the novel does not permit any of [the] various individual manifestations of itself to stabilize. Throughout its entire history there is a consistent parodying or travestying of dominant or fashionable novels that attempt to become models for the genre.(6)
This is the sort of parody practiced not only by Beckett's more distant novelistic precursors (Fielding, for example) but also by Joyce, whom Beckett recognizes as one of the two novelists who have had the most profound influence upon his writing.2 Considering the close personal and professional relationship Beckett maintained with Joyce for many years, it comes as no surprise that the most immediate progenitors of the trilogy are Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Acknowledging his indebtedness, Beckett refers to himself obliquely and punningly in Molloy as "a sadly rejoicing slave" (italics added), "on the black boat of Ulysses," who follows with his eyes "the proud and futile wake" (51).3 Beckett adopts for his own purposes not only the more traditional forms of parody in Ulysses but also the most revolutionary literary techniques of Finnegans Wake. By radicalizing these techniques even further, Beckett, unlike Joyce, sets out to parody no particular narrative or novel, but the novel form itself.
With relentless and remorseless logic, the principles of Beckett's artistic enterprise gradually emerge over the course of the trilogy. Early in the trilogy, Beckett makes use of those more familiar and traditional modes of parody to which Bakhtin refers. In Molloy, for example, Beckett achieves a parodic effect by appropriating the opening lines of Keats's Endymion and placing them in an alien context. After having failed to complete a long, mysterious, and apparently pointless mission assigned to him by Youdi, Moran questions his superior's messenger, Gaber, in hopes of discovering the meaning of his absurd quest. Gaber stands over [End Page 660] the prostrate Moran, who, having lost his son as well as his physical and mental health in the course of a futile expedition, is naturally anxious for some profound revelation that might justify his fallen state:
What did he [Youdi] tell you? I said. I don't understand, said Gaber. You were saying a minute ago that he had told you something, I said, then I cut you short. Short? said Gaber. Do you...