- “Decorticated” Brains and “Steriliz[ed]” Minds: Samuel Beckett and Irish Censorship
Divided into two sections, Samuel Beckett’s 1951/551 novel Molloy traces the inner lives and actions of two figures: its crippled, eponymous protagonist as he tries to locate his mother, and Jacques Moran, a policeman tasked with apprehending Molloy. The connection between these figures has long mystified scholars. What is the nature of the relationship between Molloy and Moran? Are they distinct characters, as a literal reading of the text suggests? Or are they two manifestations of the same person, one suffering from (among other conditions) schizophrenia?2 Whereas Matthew Feldman is surely correct in asserting that “there is no single key capable of unlocking Molloy . . . using psychological (or any other) approaches,” Moran’s half of the narrative sheds light on the complicated political circumstances that bind him to Molloy (83). These circumstances open up the narrative to new interpretations and, as I will argue here, to a reading of the novel as an exploration of the Irish Free State’s (and later the Republic’s) censorship policies. As others have observed, although Molloy does not explicitly specify Ireland as its setting, its use of Irish names and images of “pastures” and “bog-land[s]” enable readings of “the Molloy country” as Beckett’s birthplace (134, 133).3 Ireland is also invoked, however, through the novel’s allusions to the “policing” of citizens whose behaviors and creative expressions deviate from the local order (133).
When explored through this Irish context, Molloy serves as a [End Page 188] companion piece to Beckett’s “Censorship and the Saorstat,” an earlier work that explicitly indicts the Irish Free State’s Censorship Act of 1929. In the essay Beckett asserts that censorship violates not only civil liberties but even more troublingly the well-being of Irish citizens’ brains and minds. Using neuroscientific and medical terminologies, he contends that censorship functions like brain surgery— or, as this essay suggests, like lobotomy—removing the vitality and awareness that Irish citizens require to function at full cognitive capacity. Despite its composition decades later, Molloy reaffirms this connection between public policy and a procedure now regarded as medical malpractice.4 The novel demonstrates that Molloy’s cognitive deficits mirror the potential figurative deficiencies of Irish citizens whose brains and minds have been altered by censorship. Molloy thus displays censorship’s “post-operative” outcomes, consequences that Beckett implies plague the postcolonial Irish condition. As Molloy’s account reveals, these effects include a destabilizing of intellect and embodiment, but even more disconcertingly, a thwarting of Irish subjectivity and self-determination. Inflicting holistic damage, censorship dangerously incapacitates subjects from participating in public and political demonstrations of difference and resistance. This essay proposes, however, that through both Molloy and “Censorship and the Saorstat” Beckett proffers unconventional interventions. These works not only investigate the repercussions of legislative censorship but also serve as vivid textual accounts—indeed, as testimonies—that speak on behalf of censorship’s victims: those Irish subjects whom Beckett perceives as unable to advocate adequately and freely for themselves.
The Backdrop: Ireland’s “Civic Obligation to Throttle Reason Itself”
Anthony Uhlmann argues that in Molloy “consciousness of surveillance is everywhere” (48). Moran “works for the oppressive order as a spy,” and Molloy is “conscious of being watched by the police,” Lousse, a shepherd, and even by a dog (48, 50). Beckett situates his [End Page 189] characters within this tense political backdrop as they strive to navigate a system that closely monitors its citizens. With cryptic phrases Moran explains his work:
For what I was doing I was doing neither for Molloy, who mattered nothing to me, nor for myself, of whom I despaired, but on behalf of a cause which, while having need of us to be accomplished, was in its essence anonymous, and would subsist, haunting the minds of men, when its miserable artisans should be no more. It will not be said, I think, that I did not take my work to heart. But rather, tenderly, Ah those old craftsmen, their race is extinct and the mould broken.(114–15)