Monday, 10 August 2009

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

The eponymous anti-hero is a dysfunctional Irishman living in London with a prostitute. He is more obsessed with his inner self than with the reality and is barely able to function in society. He cuts himself off from the world best when he ties himself, naked, to a rocking chair and rocks himself into a transcendental meditative state. However, Murphy agrees to seek work so that his lover, Celia, can come off the streets.
Other characters come to London seeking Murphy, including a woman who believes she is engaged to him and that he is working hard to make a better life for them, and Murphy’s former teacher. These characters provide a slapstick element to the novel.
Murphy finds work in a mental institution where is in awe of the patients who he treats with “respect and unworthiness”. He admires them because they have cut themselves off from the absurdity of the modern world.
Beckett writes: “The nature of outer reality remained obscure… The definition of outer reality, or of reality short and simple, varied according to the sensibility of the definer. But all seemed agreed that contact with it, even the layman’s muzzy contact, was a rare privilege. On this basis the patients were described as ‘cut off’ from reality, from the rudimentary blessings of the layman’s reality, if not altogether in the severer cases, then in certain fundamental respects. The function of the treatment was to bridge the gulf, translate the sufferer from his own pernicious little private dungheap to the glorious world of discrete particles, where it would be his inestimable prerogative once again to wonder, love, hate, desire, rejoice and howl in a reasonable balanced manner, and comfort himself with the society of others in the same predicament.” (Murphy p101).
According to one of Beckett’s biographers, Deirdre Bair, he was struggling to find a direction for the novel until October 1935 when he attended a lecture by Carl Jung where the psychologist said that a poet had the capacity to dramatize and personify his mental contents
Quoting from Jung’s lecture Bair writes: “When he creates a character on a stage, or in his poems or drama or novel, he thinks it is merely a product of his imagination; but that character in a certain secret way has made itself. Any novelist or writer will deny that these characters have a psychological meaning, but as a matter of fact you know as well as I do that they have one. Therefore you can read a writer’s mind when you study the characters that he creates.”
(Samuel Beckett by Deirdre Bair (P181).
That could go a long way to explaining Beckett’s intense obsession in Murphy and more starkly in his later novels with the inner worlds of his characters who are alienated from society.
In Murphy it appears that Beckett wants to disguise his insights and darker preoccupations by padding them out with a series of slapstick set pieces and comic asides. A swami who cast’s Murphy’s horoscope for him is described as being “famous throughout the civilized world and the Irish Free State”.
And at the end, following Murphy’s death – by accident or suicide is never made clear – he leaves instructions that his ashes should be brought back to Dublin and flushed down the toilet in the Abbey Theatre. However, the man carrying his ashes instead goes to a pub and gets drunk and ends up throwing the ashes at someone during a brawl.
“By closing time, the body, mind and soul of Murphy were freely distributed over the floor of the saloon; and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit.”
(Murphy p154)
This early novel maybe suffers from having too many superfluous characters and smart-arse prose but at its core there is deeply disturbing insight into Beckett’s mind.


Fionnchú said...

Tony, I read this and "Watt," finally, a short time ago-- I even used the same cover photo you did for the illustration in my blog review, as I thought it fit best the garret in the asylum theme and the fatal rocking chair. I found it very very slow to read, if less so than the really dense "Watt," but I liked his earlier novel better for its relative wit, dry as it was and missing jokes as I did. In retrospect, Flann O'Brien can surely be seen ghosted here, and the inescapable long shadow of Joyce in the twilit era of the depression, London, and DeValera. I reckon a lively verbal reading of this work (I have seen it on CD sold) might bring out what on the page, to us seventy years on, may escape our intellect, unrarified cf. to SB as always and inevitably! There's very evocative prose amidst the banter and bewilderment and byways of this shaggy-dog tale.

Tony Bailie said...

I read your review at the time and I think that is what put me in mind to read this again. I agree with the future-echos of Flann and Joycean influences. There was a very throw-away line (but which struck me as mocking) about the landlady reading George (AE) Russell's The Candle of Vision, which sent me scurrying to the various biographies that I have to see if there was any animosity between them... but apart from Russell rejecting a poem submitted by Beckett and Samuel's post-modernism distrusting the whole Celtic Twilight scene AE only earned passing references. Probably not important but curious to know if you have any insights.

Mike Ballard said...

Just reading the passage you quote from MURPHY in the backyard on a sunny Perthian arvo.

It strikes me that this work from 1938 isn't as cynically subversive as his post-WWII MOLLOY. However, MURPHY reveals an already critical consciousness about the emptiness of bourgeois norms.

The quote points to a kind of "King of Hearts" moment where he takes the side of the insane over the insanity of daily life. During the Occupation of France by the Nazi power structure, this insanity of daily life took on a blacker tone ergo, MOLLOY.

Beckett's genius was that he could make humour out the absurdity of normalcy under the rule of Capital.