restricted access Beckett's Measures: Principles of Pleasure in Molloy and "First Love"
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 246-260



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Beckett's Measures:
Principles of Pleasure in Molloy and "First Love"

Daniel Katz


Toward the beginning of the first part of Samuel Beckett's Molloy, Molloy utters the following words concerning the object of his endless discourse: "My life, my life, now I speak of it as of something over, now as of a joke which still goes on, and it is neither, for at the same time it is over and it goes on, and is there any tense for that?" (Three Novels 36). This passage is one of the very many in Beckett in which life, or at least a particular life, is seen as so utterly given over to stasis and the death drive, so entirely dominated by a closed circle of potential permutations of behavior, sentiment, ratiocination, and expression, that it is always already "over," despite the contingency that it may in fact seem to be continuing in time. In similar fashion, when Beckett's characters claim to be speaking from beyond the grave, they speak from a death equally beyond that of the tomb, the latter allegorizing the burgeoning dying of their continual living. If the question of death is pervasive in Beckett's work, this is precisely because it is not a death that could be simply and formally opposed to something that would be called life. In Beckett, as is well known, we are consistently confronted with living as a modality of dying. Beckett's work often troubles the distinction between life and death, progress and regression, pleasure and unpleasure, in a manner that, as we shall see, seems not unrelated to some of the interrogations of Sigmund Freud. For the moment, however, it is crucial [End Page 246] to examine the place of language in relation to these questions. For in the phrase cited above, if Beckett does indeed point to the inadequacies of language, it is not in any absolute metaphysical sense but only regarding a contingent technicality: that of finding a tense or mood that could at once englobe the completive and non-completive aspects, a tense that would not insist on establishing an absolute difference between what is "over" and what "goes on." Beckett here appeals to a tense that could chart this infinitude of finality which is Molloy's life, certainly; but in addition to that, a tense such as the one Beckett envisions would also tend to destroy the deictic present, the simultaneity of utterance and reference upon which all effects of subjective presence depend. Beckett's linguistic dismantling of deictic and subjective temporality will be led to its conclusion in The Unnamable and the Texts for Nothing, foreshadowed in this passage and many others in Molloy. 1 But let us also turn our attention to the manner—more consonant, perhaps, with the traditions of lyric poetry than of the novel—in which Beckett here explicitly searches for a new measure or space of inscription, a mark and a marker. Such a measure, of course, would be asked not simply to "represent" the oscillations, permutations, and rhythms that Beckett's works recount, but also to take its place among them, to become itself one of the many pendular movements through which the Beckettian economy writes itself. Not only a measure in the sense of a standard for representing or charting, Beckett's measures are also acts—and measuring is one of the actions most frequently taken within the Beckettian scene of writing.

The question to be asked, then, is just what sort of measure is this well-known Beckettian measuring, within and outside of what we habitually mean by "language"? To ask this question in these terms is to attempt to skirt, at least provisionally, one of the commonplaces of Beckettian criticism: the assertion that the myriad mathematical calculations in his work have the function of providing an objective reality and certainty of the sort denied to a language viewed as necessarily falsifying. 2 On the contrary, I would like to suggest that the pseudo...


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