Mind the Void, Please!

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A match of chess against death. Still from Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film “The Seventh Seal.”

The train of human progress has led us to many stumbling, anti-climactic, and conflicting waves of thought in recent centuries, and we are so buried within our own endless broadcast of information that it can be difficult to escape the nonsensical entity we know as reality. Even so, many have risen above this dark, heaping mess of a global society to speak loud and clear of their own bizarre unimportance. One of the most essential figureheads of unimportance is and was Samuel Beckett, an Irish writer whom I will attempt to extricate from his own individual world of narrative force and place within the context of the absurdist movement of the mid-20th century. Looking specifically at his 1938 novel Murphy (as it is necessary to tackle someone as legendary and mythical as Beckett one work at a time), one can discern a portion of Beckett’s worldview and build on it by drawing on the accumulated knowledge that surrounds modernism, absurd comedy, and the tragicomedy genre of the period.

Through the conduit of Murphy (the protagonist, and somewhat of an anti-hero, of the book) and his extensively ironic existence, Beckett portrays the human condition as something utterly ridiculous and laughable. The abstract and barren setting of the novel leaves the reader with nothing to grasp other than the machine-like and desperate cast of characters that attach themselves to Murphy and the fluctuating styles of language that flow between them. In doing so, Beckett continuously harps upon the idea that human interaction (with anything outside the self) is essential, but unavoidably fails due to the tremendous barrier that language and death pose to the individual.

Before delving into the nuances of Murphy, I find it pertinent to define what exactly existential comedy is and why Beckett must be associated with it for the purpose of this investigation. As discussed in Agnes Heller’s Immortal Comedy, existential and absurd comedy is deeply intertwined with irony and humor and thus perpetuate a “reflective comic attitude” (99). This particular type of comedy takes into account everything and nothing all at once: “just as everything can be the butt of a joke, so everything can be comic in an existential comedy” including “God, death, life, love, etc.” (96). What we end up with is a subgenre of comedy that becomes all-encompassing when seriously taken up and put into practice. As with most of Beckett’s work “paradoxes are dissolved in a joke, and… they remain unresolved… Whatever is ridiculed is also mourned” (Heller 97). Even the most pressing intellectual dilemmas of the time are brought down and thrown about in hilarious ways that lead to reflective thought afterwards. The style of comedy is not meant to be condescending or offensive, but to illuminate age-old questions of humanity and universally unsolvable problems in a new light. The genre is uniquely and unequivocally modern and home to both Beckett and Murphy.

In their diverse and intricate attempts to craft and create identities for themselves, the characters within Murphy and around Murphy come together once realizing they are unable to define themselves independently from one another. They must rely on each other to distract themselves from their own deeply infused fears of death and loneliness. It is because of this that Beckett’s somewhat dim characters and their consciousnesses often seem “suspended between being and non-being” and hopelessly cling to language that feels much more complicated than they themselves will ever be (Figlerowicz 76). Scholar Marta Figlerowicz explores these dense questions of Beckett’s construction of the self and makes a similar argument regarding poignant distance and coinciding closeness to each and every character: “Panic and numbness bring about a person’s loss of self, as well as, simultaneously, an inability to perceive others as fully human. Anxiety is what allows a person to see herself and those around her as independent, equal human beings” (77). This constantly pressing anxiety may drive some characters together, but eventually forces Murphy to abandon all connection to reality: he leaves behind conventional language and dialogue, he flees from his promises to Celia, and in doing so releases himself from the recurring panic brought on by death.

By focusing on the self as the central setting of his works, Beckett opens a pathway into a nearly incomprehensible void of man’s greatest conundrums in each and every one of his novels, beginning with Murphy. As a result, “readers of Beckett should be prone . . . to the sense of powerlessness that afflicts his characters as they sway tipsily on the edge of silence and inactivity” (Smith 198). This depressing feature pollutes and congests much of Murphy and offers proper cause for the central (internal) conflict of the novel: the battle between doing nothing and the repetition of task and work. Inactivity arises through the contemplation and negation of the self (death), and its opposite, sustained activity, ironically defaces itself and appears to be a death in its own right. Keren Smith, a lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington who specializes in theater and scenography, also writes of this tension between the reader, the author, and the content in Beckett’s craft. With a grand and “rigorous determination to avoid all platitude, all the clutter of what has been said and thought before about exiting and thinking and relating, and by attempting to reveal these things in their strange banality, [Beckett’s] work appears at times unapproachable” (Smith 200). Beckett’s work has risen to nearly a tangent point in literary history, forming his own empire, not unlike Kafka and few other modern writers. Consequentially, Beckett’s devotion to both reflecting on and crafting the human condition with the written word is already insane and should be approached with apprehension. The process by which the void seems to align itself behind an icon such as Beckett is perplexing, and throughout Murphy, one can detect signs of his eternal conflict with the faceless human consciousness, specifically during the series of chess games that build to the novel’s dénouement.

In Murphy, though we are allowed to experience the perspectives of many major characters from a universally removed standpoint, we can only really evaluate their importance through Murphy. Murphy’s strongest outside relationship comes in the form of his half-hearted commitment to Celia, a promise he himself knows he cannot uphold. Although she is not necessarily insignificant to him, as he seems to comprehend the value of a romantic relationship in the development of the self, he does not wish to participate in the madness of conventional love. It drives him to the point of insanity, and Celia questions the authenticity of his perseverance in returning home punctually: she wondered “how anyone so vague about time in every other way could achieve such inhuman regularity in this one instance” (43). He simply passes it off as the “product of love,” yet it seems more characteristically coherent to explain another way. The love in his life transcends traditional bounds and becomes his work, his repetitive task, through which he devotes himself to Celia with all of his being. Logically (at least according to his own logic), Murphy cannot possibly take up another job. Instead of dedication to inactivity and an elevated mental self, he has allocated his daily loyalty to Celia and from then on can no longer become anything but his love for Celia. Unfortunately, this is not the way things happen to continue, and his very noticeable punctuality soon after ends abruptly.

Meanwhile, other social developments in specified urban locations all lead back to and center themselves on the life of Murphy. Four extremely witty and humorous characters interact in a messy love and work triangle: Neary, a man Murphy holds in high regard because of his ability to stop his heart and technically die for periods of time; Wylie, an old friend of Neary’s and minor assistant who hilariously surpasses his mentor; Miss Counihan, a shared love interest of the aforementioned characters; and Cooper, a shady and shallow investigator and henchman of Neary. It is by chance that their fates all align simultaneously, resulting in their designation of Murphy as their collective target destination, yet never believably approaching this ridiculous goal. While Murphy has seemingly no interest in women, they quite ironically (to both the reader and the characters themselves) long for him. Neary even goes as far as to believe Miss Counihan “was set aside for Murphy, who had torn himself away to set up for his princess, in some desolate quarter of the globe” (32). Murphy exists as exactly what no women should want in a world that places so much importance on the ability to have and retain a job, yet somehow they all fall for him, even when he has fallen off the map. It promotes Murphy and his system of exacting idleness as something that should be sought after; the ability to separate the self from the society and world that surrounds it could bring these characters satisfaction, but it is to their dismay that they never again find Murphy. The wretched reality is that these characters exist to have their greatest desires unfulfilled. This impression can be seen in the men too, as everyone, other than Murphy, ultimately ends up incapable of knowingly attaining happiness.

For most of the novel, none of the characters have a clue where to locate Murphy, no one other than the vigilant, detective-like villain known only as Cooper, who exists as a near polar opposite of Murphy. No matter how unsuccessful Murphy attempts to be, every other character seeks in him the happiness they inevitably will never find. It is because they so strongly link themselves to each other and to the society that promotes seeking desire (rather than truly desiring) that they cannot complete their quest. Neary craves the company of Murphy and the mentoring relationship they once had; Wylie (and Neary in some ways), hopes to find out the reason as to why Miss Counihan and other females continually gravitate towards Murphy; Miss Counihan wishes to pursue Murphy and only Murphy romantically (no one else compares, not even the extraordinarily romantic Wylie, from which “a kiss . . . was like a breve tied, in a long slow amorous phrase, over bars’ times its equivalent in demi-semiquavers”); and finally Cooper discovers his livelihood in his great search for the man everybody hopes to find (71).

It is within this irreverently ironic and dramatic mess that at every corner and turn, we (the reader) are led back to Murphy in his existential crisis, one that precedes the meddling of Celia. The constant flow of locations and positions of other characters, as well as references to very specific cultural narratives and locales, manifest themselves as nothing more but distractions from the dilemma at hand and the more significant setting: the head and mind of Murphy himself. The only time Beckett clearly attempts to draw the reader into a place is a particular instance in which Murphy had just dawned upon his own conceivable (and probable) demise. As he lazily lies about in a remote field of sheep waiting for a decision to be made, an old woman wanders along tending to the mindless milling of the animals. Murphy himself had been too fixated on the scene as Miss Dew’s “touching little argonautic, and above all in the ecstatic demeanour of the sheep, to pay any attention to Nelly,” who becomes a shocking carrier of Murphy’s downfall (58). While Murphy is in the midst of considering a grouping of biscuits and very specifically ordering their consummation by his own preferences, Nelly eliminates his entirely inconsequential choice after chowing down on all but one, and pushes him to the brink. It seems that in this dog, fate and the written whim demonstrates itself as something both indefinable and untouchable, a boundless void of information that both acts and reacts without any concern for the protagonist. Whether random chance knows of the existence of random chance, it does not matter. Human beings still face the often chaotic and disorderly aftereffects of their own decisions and chance-based occurrences. All the same, it is at this point that Murphy realizes the acquisition of a job will be his own undoing and in this vast state of helplessness, he flees, leaving behind Celia, the one thing that he could have loved outside himself. With the sudden reestablishment of his incapacity to control the world around him, he is driven towards something that would allow him to impose structure on what otherwise would be chance: the game of chess.

Through these events, and through multiple deaths that take place over the course of the novel, there is an effective separation between the characters, the emotions they express, the language they use to express them, and the reality portrayed in Murphy. I find this most efficiently illustrated by the death of Murphy himself, but his death happens after the fact of his disappearance, much after he has left Celia to fend for herself. In this scene, Beckett depicts both the irrelevance of death outside the self and the ultimate disregard of another’s suffering. Worrying that Murphy has fled (and he has), Celia convinces the landlord, “the virgin Miss Carridge,” to check the one room apartment upstairs. There they discover that “the old boy lay curled up in meanders of blood on her expensive lino, a cut-throat razor clutched in his hand and his throat cut in effect,” yet they both remain disrespectfully calm and unaffected (82). The only complications that arise from this nonsense are covered by the police, removing even financial ties to the dead body and former occupant, and severing all emotional attachment to a victim of suicide. Beckett extracts from what would conventionally be seen as tragic the most logical and grounding aspects of this horrific death, and in doing so forces the reader to question the importance of such a life. One cannot help but reflect on the chaos that consumes all of so-called ‘ordinary’ existence.

It’s exactly this lack of order that Murphy intends to escape through his devotion to a highly structured system of mental combat, one that is composed of choices and their immediate causes and effects. Chess becomes his livelihood, his fate, and his only chance at happiness and freedom from the anxiety of death, but it was also meant to be his destruction. Even the name, like many of the names in Murphy, “Mr. Endon” seems perfectly characteristic of an impending demise. As Murphy continues to find his undoing in his defeat to Mr. Endon, Murphy becomes more and more relieved and able to rest. In his final moments, he unpacks and unloads memories that were supposedly buried deep beneath him. Once again, “most things under the moon got slower and slower and then stopped, a rock got faster and faster and then stopped. Soon his body would be quiet, soon he would be free” (151). The repetition of this particular phrase, which also figures at the beginning of the novel, supports the argument of Murphy’s struggle as universally important and able to transcend the rest of the novel, as no one else in the book references that they are experiencing a similar internal conflict. “Murphy’s death, although entirely accidental, is also in character. That his ashes end up incidentally on the floor of a pub is also in character” (Heller 108). Heller explains here exactly how it is fated for Murphy to die, and essentially expected of him. His physical remains permeate the abstract physical space of the novel even after he is officially gone. Even so, his spiritual and mental remains do not meet “Murphy’s own ambition to raise his egocentrism to cosmic heights” and in the end, he is essentially remembered as the quintessential “existential failure” (Heller 108). Murphy does everything he sets out to do, and inevitably succeeds at failing. This aspect of the novel that is so utterly absurd allows for the reader to fully embrace the truths about death which Beckett shares.

Whether we like it or not, we cannot consciously exist outside ourselves and we will most likely never meet our ambitions of immortality. Arthur P. Hinchliffe, author of a number of books involving criticism of modern and absurd literature, writes that “chance and absurdity rule human action, and this the hero recognizes, knowing that reality is another name for chaos” (Hinchliffe 95). Murphy clearly demonstrates the coinciding nature of chaos and reality throughout its convoluted and segmented narrative. Specifically in Murphy’s choice to flee daily work does he align himself with the absurdist hero: “Whether the rebel or victim, the hero is at odds with society, his motives are forever mixed, his perception of the situation remains limited and relative, and his actions cut across lines conventionally drawn between good and evil” (Hinchliffe 95). Murphy completely surpasses attachment to any societal or cultural norms and exists on a plane of grotesque and inhuman ambition of becoming a cosmic entity, something reality would have us avoid at all costs as it transcends death itself. It is in his insanity that Murphy finds sanity and in the repetitive and menial nature of work that he sees the burgeoning chaos of our world and the overarching fear of death that exists ubiquitously. By completely shedding any lingering human companions and failing even at doing nothing, Murphy splits from the greatest anxiety of all: the apprehension that death is approaching. Through him, Beckett has slain his own anti-hero and accomplished what Murphy could not: he has immortalized himself in his work.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Murphy. New York: Grove, 1957. Print.

Figlerowicz, Marta. “Bounding the Self: Ethics, Anxiety and Territories of Personhood in

Samuel Beckett’s Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature. Winter 34.2 (2011): 76-96. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.

Heller, Agnes. “Existential Comedy.” Immortal Comedy: The Comic Phenomenon in Art,

Literature, and Life. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2005. 94-124. Print.

Hinchliffe, Arnold P. The Absurd. Norfolk: Cox & Wyman, 1969. Print.

Smith, Keren M. “Mad-hatting in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.” European Tragedy

From Homer to Beckett. Vol. 26. Dunedin: Otago German Studies, 2011. 198-217. Print.