Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juli 2006

4.3. Die inter- und transdisziplinären Verhältnisse kultureller Vermittlung
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Zoltán Zsávolya (Budapest, Győr)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Beckett and Descartes
(The influence of Descartes’ philosophy on the first part of Beckett’s Molloy)

Orsolya Kolozsi (Szeged)


In spite of the title of my abstract, which I gave earlier, the main part of this paper will be about Beckett’s novel. The work of Descartes, the Discourse on Method will be discussed only when it is connected to the novel, so naturally not all the parts of it will be interpreted. Although it will be quite a brief paper, I hope it will direct our attention to some of the main problems, which, beyond the interpretation of Beckett’s novel, will show us the benefits of reading literature and philosophy together. I think the subject is very actual now, because next year we will celebrate the centenary of Beckett’s birth and maybe it is also interesting to reread Descartes’ text and the main questions of Cartesian philosophy, which we almost use as an invective word in these days. Although it’s well-known that these texts were both written in French, my paper will use the English version of them. Molloy is translated by the author himself(1), and I will use F.E. Sutcliffe’s translation when I quote the Discourse(2).)

Before I begin to talk about my subject, it’s important to discuss Beckett’s relation to philosophy in general. Although the texts of Beckett are famous of their reduced language, they contain a great deal of allusions and intertextual insertions from literature and also from philosophy. For example the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Augustinus, Descartes, Geulincx, Berkeley, Spinoza, etc. In spite of the well-known, recognizable sentences and lines in his works, Beckett makes an interesting statement in an interview in 1961:

"Have contemporary philosophers had any influence on your thought?

I never read philosophers.

Why not?

I never understand anything they write.

All the same, people have wondered if the existentialists’ problem of being may afford a key to your works.

There’s no key or problem. I wouldn’t have had any reason to write my novels if I could have expressed their subject in philosophic terms."(3)

Of course the statements and interpretations of authors are not more relevant than any other, and in this case I don’t think we can give credence to his words. But this short dialogue can direct our attention on two important problems. One of these is his special relation to contemporary philosophers, like Camus or Sartre, whom he even knew personally, as they were both teachers of the famous École Normale Superieure (just like Paul Nizan and Merleau-Ponty). Besides many researchers find connections between his thoughts and the statements of the existentialists, even if he refuses them radically. This independent attitude seems to be very interesting, especially because we know that most of the representative writers of twentieth century were influenced by the ideas of Bergson, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Beckett was interested in the philosophy of the seventeenth-eighteenth century, especially rationalism and empiricism, almost the only important exception is Schopenhauer. The piece of the cited interview can, on the other hand, point to the mistake which is is made by those who confuse literature with philosophy. The last sentence makes it obvious that Beckett is a writer and not a philosopher, even if it easy to get confused, because of his evident ontological and epistemological interest. Beckett didn’t write philosophical essays (like Camus or Sartre), only dramas, novels, short stories, poems. His works are always fictions and don’t attempt to adjust to the requirements of scholarly texts. Examining Beckett’s philosophical allusions, David Hesla added: "...the critic may spend so much time talking about philosophy that he loses sight of the artist and his work."(4) He shows us the danger of confusing the two. While talking about my subject I will try to avoid this trap.

Up to this point we could see some of the important authors, who influenced Beckett. Maybe Descartes is not the most important of them, but certainly one of them. Deidre Bair’s lengthy Beckett-biography makes it clear that the Irish author knew very well the works of the French rationalist philosopher. He filled more notebooks with notes on Descartes (especially the Discourse) as a student and his first published work, Whoroscope (whore and horoscope) was an avant-garde poem about the philosopher’s life. He knew the story of Descartes’ life because he was studying Baillet’s book, called La vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes. Not only his ideas, but his eccentric life is very interesting and important for the young Beckett. After Whoroscope, two novels (Murphy and Watt) are influenced by Descartes, now not because of his life, but his ideas and thoughts. Unfortunately I don’t have time to talk about these novels, I have to focus on Beckett’s trilogy, especially its first text, Molloy.

Although later, in 1969, Samuel Beckett has won the Literary Nobel Award, for a long time he wasn’t a popular writer. He became really famous by his drama Waiting for Godot. Most people still think of him as a playwright (for example in my country there are only three or four studies on his prose, but a great deal about his dramas), although he usually talked about himself as a writer, not a dramatist. He wrote his principal novels in the forties, which - in the opinion of the author and of literary history - make up a trilogy. The first novel is Molloy, the second is Malone dies, and the third, the most radical is called The Unnameable. I’ve chosen Molloy because I found it the most interesting and easiest to understand of the three. I agree with most of the novels’ interpreters, like John Fletcher, who says: "...Molloy seems Beckett’s most sustained achievement, one that almost summarizes his whole work: it is certainly the most forceful statement of his fundamental preoccupations, and one of his best narratives...(...)... Molloy stands apart from the rest of Beckett’s oeuvre, a book which can, in terms of scope and power, be considered a great novel."(5) And Maurice Nadeau adds: "It has been heaped with praise and learned comment, and such diverse meanings have been attributed to it, that the more people talk about it, the more obscure it seems. One person sees it as a masterpiece of humour, another as an epic disaster. (...) In fact, everyone sees in it what he wants to see, which is proof at once of the book’s richness and of its ambiguity."(6) This paper of course, will focus only on its connections and allusions to the Discourse and Cartesian philosophy.

The first and very important thing, which is the same, or at least parallel in the two texts, can’t be found in the motifs, but in the narrating, in the fundamental structuring principle in the texts. Vivian Mercier points out in his Beckett-monograph, that Beckett’s relation to philosophy not only influenced or directed by the theme, the subject, but also by the form. Beckett adds: "I take no sides. I am interested in the shape of ideas. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine: Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned. That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters."(7) It’s easy to see, that Beckett is drawn towards philosophical aphorism. Geulincx’s "Ubi nihil vales ibi nihil velis", Spinoza’s "Amor intellectualis quo Deus se ipsum amat", Descartes’ "Cogito ergo sum", Berkeley’s "Esse est percipi", Locke’s "Nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu" are all very important and inspirative for him. (These sentences are not connected to the same philosophical structure or model, they have very little in common, except their intention to define the essence of existence and their returning expression "nihil".) Beckett prefers to use almost commonplace expressions, torn from their its context, but I think the reason is not his superficial knowledge. The reason is, in my opinion, that these common expressions are fit into his reductive style which is mostly based on the rubble and used up panels of language. And these short expressions are more abstract than their expanded versions and allow more potential for interpretation. So, as we can see, form is at least as important for him, as its essence. Molloy and the other novels of the trilogy have almost the same narrative structure as Descartes’ Discourse. And they even share the situation and attitude of the narrator. Molloy is sitting in his mother’s room and writing down his story on the order of an unknown man. Moran is writing a report about his investigation in a dark room, Malone near his end, lying in a bed and and with a tiny pencil, is writing down his life with obsession. The Unnameable protagonist can’t write, because he is unable to move, but he is talking, unable to stop. We know from the biography of Descartes, that he wrote his work withdrawn in a room for many years (one of his biographers called the forties in Beckett’s life the "siege in the room", for the same reasons.). Besides his Discourse content there are confessional elements, just like the narrative of Molloy and the other cited protagonists. The use of the first person singular and of the monologue (the first time, that Beckett uses this form is in the trilogy, earlier he uses omniscient narrators) also date these texts. The image of the subject sitting in his room alone, remembering and putting down his memories is clearly connected to the narrator of Discourse. This narrator - just as Molloy - is trying to set his chaotic life in order. The work of Descartes, written in 1637 could be the model of an autobiographical text for Beckett, who preferred reading philosophical works. The remark of Hugh Kenner also refers: "Beckett would seem to be the first to have read the Discourse on Method as what it is, a work of fiction."(8) There are a lot of places in the Discourse which confirm that the text is not only a philosophical essay, but can be read as fictional literary work:

"But I shall be very happy to reveal in this discourse the paths I have taken, and to present my life as in a picture..." (10.p.)


"But, putting forward this essay as nothing more than an historical account, or, if you prefer, a fable..." (10.p.)

The Discourse can be read as a fiction, which is not about an interesting story or an interesting plot, but about the story of the mind, the change of the mind’s conditions, just as in the novels which we later call consciousness novels. The very best evidence for this is from F. E. Sutcliffe’s introduction: "As for Chapter I, it is almost certainly a final draft of a work which, according to Guez de Balzac, Descartes sent to him in 1628, and entitled a History of My Mind."(9)

If the novel of Beckett and Descartes’ work has the same essence, the travel and change of mind (both narrators uses the road, being on the road, travelling, wandering expressions as metaphors to describe their own situation), then it is worth looking for the starting-point, where these mental trips or journeys begin. At this point we can find a new analogue. In the Discourse, Descartes used the method of doubt in order to find an absolutely certain starting point for building up his knowledge. He set out that he would never accept anything about which he can entertain any doubt (even when he was a student of the Jesuit college of La Fleche, one of the most famous schools in Europe). By this method of doubt Descartes shows us how uncertain our knowledge is, even of what seems most obvious to us. His only foundation is his ability to doubt:

"I was brought up from childhood on letters, and, because I had been led to believe that by this means one could acquire clear and positive knowledge of everything useful in life, I was extremely anxious to learn them. But, as soon as I had completed this whole course of study, at the end of which it is usual to be received into the ranks of the learned, I completely changed my opinion. For I was assailed by so many doubts and errors that the only profit I appeared to have drawn from trying to be educated, was progressively to have discovered my ignorance." (14.p.)

After this, he begins to list different disciplines, which are all useless for his quest to find the truth, both about man and about the world. We can see that same sceptical behaviour in Molloy. Molloy’s "method" is absolutely sceptic. From his narration we can see that he also examined disciplines, but he also questions their validity:

"Yes, I once took an interest in astronomy, I don’t deny it. Then it was geology that killed a few years for me. The next pain in the balls was anthropology and the other disciplines, such as psychiatry, that are connected with it, disconnected, then connected again, according to the latest discoveries.(...) Oh I’ve tried everything. In the end it was magic that had the honour of my ruins, and still today, when I walk there, I find its vestiges."(34.o.)

Also the reader can find these vestiges in the monologue of Molloy. In the universe of Beckett, his absolutely disintegrated, physically sick and wrecked, usually disgusting protagonists often use expressions, which don’t fit the language and circumstances of these men. (In the Hungarian translation these words and expressions are very noticeable, because they are italicized, so they don’t fit in the text’s visual form.) For example the name of Galileo and Geulincx, expressions like oratio recta, nimis sero, homo mensura, axioma, ataraxy, etc. are quite unusual from a protagonist like Molloy. Also unusual in the style of the text, in its very reductive vocabulary. These expressions must be the rubble of an earlier knowledge. But this knowledge is not able to work, Molloy can’t use it, because it already exists only as a mosaic.

So, the starting point, where the narrators begin their wanderings are almost the same. They throw away (like Descartes) or loose (like Molloy) their knowledge, which they both had earlier. They both have doubt as an important principle or method. But even if the starting point and the guiding principle is the same, the direction is different. The text of Descartes starts from the situation of a "tabula rasa" and go forward to a clearly defined purpose: seeking the truth. The complete title of Discourse is Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking the Truth in Sciences. But it can be proved by a quotation from the text:

"And I had always had an extreme desire to learn to distinguish true from false in order to see clearly into my own actions and to walk with safety in this life."(8.p.)

The French philosopher has a defined purpose. From the radical doubt he would like to reach to absolute certainty with his method, which contains strict orders to determine an exact direction and we can see a teleological structure in the construction of the text. If we read it as an autobiography, then we can see that the narrator proceeds in a chronological fashion, from youth to the time, when the text is written. In the words of Michael M. Mooney: "Descartes divides the six discourses which comprise his autobiography into segments of linear time: section one recalls his childhood, schooldays, graduations and travels; section two (...) brings the narrative up to the age of twenty-three; section three announces his decision to travel again (...) section four presents Descartes’ return to his room for the next eight years, and section five and six review the discoveries he made."(10) From Molloy rambling, digressing narrative we can also reconstruct a linear structure of time, but the main difference is that in Molloy there isn’t final arrival. (no arrival, because no purpose). If the structure of time in the Discourse is like a straight line, than the structure in Molloy is like a circle, because the beginning situation and the final is the same (Molloy is sitting in his mother’s room). Michael E. Mooney writes: "In Molloy there is no beginning or ending, only absurd, infinite repetition without direction."(11) The Hungarian Tamás Bényei says almost the same: "The text is not going from somewhere to somewhere. To be more exact the text seems to direct always somewhere else. It doesn’t know if it has arrived somewhere. It is a permanent formation."(12) This feature is very important not just as a formal characteristic, but as an intereresting thematic feature. I mean, while Descartes was going on very resolutely in discussing his method, Beckett’s Molloy on the other hand is unable to be so resolute or conscious of his purpose, because during his mental and physical wanderings he can’t find undoubted answers for his returning questions. In accordance with that, Molloy’s narrative is full of reflections of uncertainty. Molloy can’t remember, is unable to find the right words and expressions, unable to understand a lot of things, so he always rewrites, corrects, censors and changes his statements. Molloy, this special kind of picaro, he is unable to know the world during his voyage and he can’t even become acquainted with himself. So his journey proves that the world is unknowable for us and we can’t give it any meaning. This idea is just the very opposite of the Cartesian epistemology. According to Descartes’ very optimistic idea, his emphasis was upon the rational capacity of human mind, which he considered the source of truth both about man and about the world. He did believe that the mind of an individual is structured in such a way that simply by operating according to the appropriate method it can discover the nature of the universe. Beckett seems to disagree with that, and also disagrees with Descartes’ idea about the self, as we will see later.

Beckett finds himself face to face with Descartes and, as a result of the confrontation, he doesn’t agree with him. Beckett doesn’t want to advocate Descartes’ ideas. He would like to question them, to debate with them. As Tamás Bényei adds: "...The trilogy of Beckett was always the provocation of philosophy, even in its etymological meaning, as it is always called, summoned and developed, and this way it calls philosophy to account."(13) He is talking about this relation in general, but I think this statement is right if we think about his relation to the ideas of Cartesian philosophy. According to the main tendencies in the twentieth century, Beckett refuses both the Cartesian ontology and epistemology.

In spite of this, Descartes’ importance is a giant, since Beckett needs him to build the opposing view. This attitude shows the general features of Descartes’ importance in the European cultural tradition. The French philosopher becomes more and more important in this area. The more other philosophers or scientists refute him, the stronger his importance will become. His ideas, as pointed out, built a position, which is still the base of our questions. Maybe his ideas are wrong, maybe we already laugh at them, but we still can’t answer his questions, which are still actual. We can deny and refuse his answers, but we can’t find new ones. Nor could Beckett. So if in Molloy he is laughing at Descartes, he is laughing at himself, too. The movement of engaging with him didn’t erase him from the history of philosophy, but made his position more and more important even in the post-modern discourses. Beckett builds his world and ideology by refuting Descartes. He can present his own message, if he refutes the French philosopher’s ideas. The best way for him is to make a fool of Descartes. He imagines and creates a protagonist who would like to lead his life by practicing the Cartesian ideas, and its necessary failure can produce a parodistic and humorous effect. Molloy, living his life according to Descartes maxims is not a tragic hero, in spite of his fall. He is rather a comical, miserable tramp; very similar to the burlesque (which Beckett liked so much) protagonists. So the Cartesian spirit isn’t victorious, it does not even fall tragically, but will be the laughing stock in Beckett’s fiction. But to make this obvious, Beckett has to show clearly which philosophical system he is opposing. So he can’t leave out the typical motives and elements of Descartes’ world. And he has to turn it inside out. In the next part of my paper I would like to show a few of these obviously recognizable fragments. I try to show how these references and allusions in the text of Beckett change the original concept of Descartes.

I think the main problem in Molloy is the self and one’s knowledge about his/her own identity. In my opinion Beckett would like to destroy the western civilisation’s image of personality, which is mostly rooted in the Cartesian idea of the self. Beckett would like to overwrite this rational idea. Molloy’s journey can be interpreted as a search for the self. During his wanderings, Molloy would like to return to his mother, which can be the metaphor for the search for his origin. His deformed and strange Odyssey can’t build up a complete and constant identity, nor even the disintegration or destruction of a once existing completeness. The beginning and the end are just the same. Molloy never used to be an integrated, complete person, so we can’t see any kind of change in his condition.

This conception is completely the opposite of Descartes’. While doubting everything, Descartes finds something, which he thinks can’t be doubted: the self. As he writes in Chapter IV:

"I resolved to pretend that nothing which has ever entered my mind was any more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately afterwards I became aware that, while I decided thus to think that everything was false, it followed necessarily that I who thought thus must be something; and observing that this truth: I think, therefore I am, was so certain and so evident that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were not capable of shaking it, I judged that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking."(21.p.)

And this cogito ergo sum, this consciousness will be the foundation, on which he will build all his ideas. Descartes employed this basic truth for reversing his doubts about the self, things, true ideas, and God. The Cartesian self doesn’t depend on anything which it doesn’t contain. It’s a constant and fixed and permanent thing, which can’t be influenced from outside. In spite of that, the journey of Molloy is a useless attempt at constituting the self. There are a plenty of pieces in Molloy's monologue, which refer to this problem:

"....drifting past the window, carrying me back to other nights, other moons, this moon I had just seen, I had forgotten who I was (excusably) and spoken of myself as I would have of another, if I had been compelled to speak of another. Yes it sometimes happens and will sometimes happen again that I forget who I am and strut before my eyes, like a stranger."(23.p.)

At another place:

"Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be. Then I was no longer that sealed jar to which I owed my being so well preserved, but a wall gave way and I filled with roots and tame stems..." (33.p.)

So the individual is unable to know himself, it’s not a fixed entity, it’s not the fundament or the source of knowing the world or knowing anything or observe the "outside" world. It’s rather a scattered entity, always changing and altering, un indefinable concept. The inability of one having any sure knowledge about oneself is expressed in a very humorous and sarcastic way in the next quotation:

"I can’t help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext, it’s hard not to mention it now and then, however great my distaste. One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should have never mentioned it. Extraordinary how mathematics help you to know yourself."(50.p.)

The quotation is clearly ironic, as it ties the act of knowing ourselves to a quite vulgar act. Moreover, the reference to the help of mathematics is clearly a reference to Descartes’ method. It is well-known, that Descartes looked to mathematics for the best example of clear and precise thinking. The philosopher wanted to make all of knowledge a "universal mathematics". So as we saw earlier, this short, but very sarcastic allusion is such as to make his idea ridiculous and call it in question.

Not only the rationalist self conception is suspicious for Beckett, but something which is connected to it: the concept of dualism. In the structure of Descartes’ ideas it seems evident that there are two different kinds of substances in nature. In his opinion we know a substance by its attribute, and since we clearly and distinctly know two quite different attributes, namely, thought and extension, there must be two different substances, the spiritual and the corporeal, mind and body. He says:

"I thereby concluded that I was a substance, of which the whole essence or nature consist in thinking, and which, in order to exist, needs no place and depends on no material thing; so that this ’I’, that is to say, the mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, and even that it is easier to know, than the body, and moreover, that even if the body were not, it would not cease to be all that it is." (35.p.)

So he considers each substance as thoroughly independent of the other. To know something about the mind, therefore, we need make no reference to the body, and similarly, the body can be thoroughly understood without any reference to mind. Molloy is a protagonist, who can’t connect the outside world, who is totally isolated. His body almost doesn’t exist, he is already a wreck, he can’t see, can’t hear, hasn’t got any teeth, can’t walk without his crutches. He can’s sit, because his leg is unable to move, his fingers are falling off. Physically he is in utter destruction, almost dead, his life is just a vegetation. (The most radical protagonist is the voice of The Unnameable, who hasn’t got legs, hasn’t got arms, can’t move at all, from the physical point of view, he almost doesn’t exist. But even if he does, we can hardly talk about a body in this case.) Nevertheless all of these protagonists are reflecting upon everything and thinking all the time. Just as Molloy, who has got an unusable body and a mind, which can’t stop thinking (of course he hasn’t got smart ideas, he is thinking about strange things, but anyway, he is doing it without a break). This incompatibility, the huge gap between his physical and mental condition can be interpreted as an overworked version of the idea of dualism, of course in a sarcastic, ironic view. The Cartesian thought and extension, mind and body problem is connected to a special object in Molloy (and not just in Molloy, but in almost all of his other works). In this reductive universe the cycling protagonist is a returning occurrence, so I think it must be an important metaphor. In his monograph, Hugh Kenner discusses this problem in a complete chapter. Its title is The Cartesian Centaur. As indicated by its name he turns the centaur man-horse duality into man-bicycle duality, which visual form can be quite similar, but the essence of the opposition is that he has changed the man-animal opposition into man-machine opposition and connected this opposition in one, and made one structure of it. Indeed Beckett’s protagonists are not only cycling heroes, they are almost the same as their bicycle, because they make such a tight union. Molloy is fond of his bicycle, he sticks to it very much and he is talking about it with love:

"Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation. I don’t know why. It is a pleasure to meet it again. To describe it at length would be a pleasure." (24.p.)

For Molloy, cycling is not just a hobby, but almost the only way to get ahead, an indispensable accessory. In the images of Beckett, man and machine are almost one. Molloy can’t even rest without his bicycle, which is almost one with his body, makes it faster and skilful. So Molloy does not just get on his bike, but fixes himself to it, and it will be the elongation, the complementary of his unusable body:

"Which enables me to remark that, crippled though I was, I was no mean cyclist, at that period. This is how I went about it. I fastened my crutches to the cross-bar, one on either side, I propped the foot of my stiff leg (I forget which, now they’re both stiff) on the projecting front axle and I pedalled with the other." (23.p.)

The body is substituted for a machine, the ’res extensa’ is not a body anymore. This method can be read as a radical and sarcastic allusion to the ideas of Descartes.

From the problem of the self and body-mind relationship we arrive to the problem of understanding and knowing the world. Some of them were already discussed.

The question is that, if the mind is so far from the extended things and there isn’t any connection between them, then how is the mind able to interpret and understand the world of objects? In the Discourse it doesn’t seem to be a problem.

He believed, that the mind is able to apprehend directly and clearly certain basic truths. Moreover, mathematical reasoning showed him that we are able to discover what we do not know by progressing in an orderly way from what we do know. That main thing is that we have to use our '’good sense'’ and use it well, as he teaches us in the Discourse.

So Descartes believes that we can understand and rule the world, we can see how it works. This idea, - which seems too naive for Beckett - is connected with the real nature of the human language. In the Discourse on Method we don’t find even one sentence which refers to the problems of expressing things by language. Descartes never doubted the possibilities the language, he thought it is a transparent medium, and he presumed that the ideas can be communicated from one person to another without any questions or misunderstandings or mistakes. He never analysed ideas about language, but it’s easy to find sentences, which set forth his opinion. For example:

"For it is particularly noteworthy that there are no men so dull-witted and stupid, not even imbeciles, who are incapable of arranging together different words, and of composing discourse by which to make their thoughts understood..." (41.p.)

But by the time of Beckett, this will be one of the biggest problems. The twentieth century and its various philosophers of language show that it is not an instrument, rather something which can influence our knowledge, and its use is not as unambiguous, as it seemed earlier. Descartes leaves this problem out of consideration, he makes no explicit account of it. But Beckett doesn’t skirt the issue. Molloy’s monologue contains many references to this question. With his interruptions he shows us how unstable and shaky his narration is. He calls our attention to the fact, so we can clearly see it, that his narration is incompetent. Like:

"For I always say either too much or too little, which is a terrible thing for a man with a passion for truth like mine." (65.p.)

"Oh I did not say it in such limpid language. And when I say I said, etc., all I mean is that I knew confusedly things were so, without knowing exactly what it was all about." (42.o.)

While Descartes believed that if we seek the truth by his method, at the end we can find it, Beckett has made a joke of it. Molloy is starting from a sceptical starting-point, just as Descartes, but he can never arrive at clarity, he can’t find the truth. However methodically (ironic allusions to the Method of Descartes) he is going about it during his wanderings he can’t understand or interpret the world and his own self. He is not able to express it, either:

"It’s too difficult to say, for me. And even my sense of identity was wrapped in a namelessness often hard to penetrate, as we have just seen I think. And so on for all the other things which made merry with my senses. Yes, even then, when already all was fading, waves and particles, there could be no things but nameless things, no names but thingless names. I say that now, but after all, what to do I know now about then, now when the icy words hail down upon me, the icy meanings, and the world dies too, foully named." (95.p.)

In spite of Descartes, Beckett saw the world as an unknowable, chaotic object, in which the individual wanders and can’t find his purpose, his origin and the sense of his life. He denies the ideas of rationalism, but when situating himself in the opposite position, he still stays in the structure, stays within the logical construction of it. He produces the bitterly ironic counterpoint of the western philosophical tradition. And beyond it, he also produces the counterpoint of the main, realistic literary novel tradition. In the trilogy, he radically liquidates the plot, the traditional heroes. So his opposition is productive in a literary way.

© Orsolya Kolozsi (Szeged)


(1) Samuel Beckett: Molloy. In: Three Novels by Samuel Beckett. Grove Press, London, 1995.

(2) René Descartes: Discourse On Method and the Meditations (transleted by: F. E. Sutcliffe). Penguin Books, London, 1998.

(3) In: Vivian Mercier: Beckett/Beckett. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977. 160.p.

(4) In: David Hesla: The Shape of Chaos: An Interpretation of the Art of Samuel Beckett. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1971. 15.p.

(5) In: John Fletcher: The Novels of Samuel Beckett. Chatto and Windus LTD, London, 1964. 150.p.

(6) It is citated in John Fletcher’s book, The Novels of Samuel Beckett, on page 142

(7) In: Vivian Mercier: Beckett/Beckett. 163.p.

(8) In: Hugh Kenner: Samuel Beckett - A Critical Study. Grove Press, New York, 1961. 176. p.

(9) Sutcliffe’s Discourse-translation, 9.p.

(10) In: Michael M. Mooney: Molloy, part I.: Beckett"s ’Discourse on Method’. In: Journal of Beckett Studies, No. 3. 1978, Summer. 62. p.

(11) In: Michael M. Mooney: Molloy, part I.: Beckett’s ’Discourse on Method’. 64. p.

(12) Bényei Tamás: A méhek nyelve: Irodalom, filozófia és Beckett trilógiája. In: Bényei Tamás: Archívumok. Csokonai Kiadó, Debrecen, 2004. 66.p. (my own translation-K.O.)

(13) Bényei Tamás: A méhek nyelve: Irodalom, filozófia és Beckett trilógiája. 55.p.


Samuel Beckett: Molloy. In: Three Novels by Samuel Beckett. Grove Press, London, 1995.

Bényei Tamás: A méhek nyelve: Irodalom, filozófia és Beckett trilógiája. In: Bényei Tamás: Archívumok. Csokonai Kiadó, Debrecen, 2004

René Descartes: Discourse On Method and the Meditations (transleted by: F. E. Sutcliffe). Penguin Books, London, 1998.

John Fletcher: The Novels of Samuel Beckett. Chatto and Windus LTD, London, 1964.

David Hesla: The Shape of Chaos: An Interpretation of the Art of Samuel Beckett. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1971

Hugh Kenner: Samuel Beckett - A Critical Study. Grove Press, New York, 1961.

Vivian Mercier: Beckett/Beckett. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977.

Michael M. Mooney: Molloy, part I.: Beckett"s ’Discourse on Method’. In: Journal of Beckett Studies, No. 3. 1978, Summer.

4.3. Die inter- und transdisziplinären Verhältnisse kultureller Vermittlung

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  16 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Orsolya Kolozsi (Szeged): Beckett and Descartes (The influence of Descartes’ philosophy on the first part of Beckett’s Molloy). In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 31.7.2006     INST