Michael Kinnucan

Beckett and Failure



In the years before he wrote his great trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett composed a series of imagined conversations between himself and a friend of his, George Duthuit, in which they discussed three contemporary painters. This work, Three Dialogues, begins as follows:

Beckett: Total object, complete with missing parts, instead of partial object. Question of degree.
Beckett elaborates:
Beckett: By nature I mean here, like the naïvest realist, a composite of perceiver and perceived, not a datum, an experience. All I wish to suggest is that the tendency and accomplishment of this painting are fundamentally those of previous painting, straining to enlarge the statement of a compromise.
“A question of degree,” “the statement of a compromise”—this observation on the painter Tal Coat may be taken as Beckett’s wry comment on all those modernisms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century which took as their task the full, rich expression of human experience. The novels of Joyce and Woolf, for example, which cleave close to the inner lives of their characters in an effort to watch the world blossom out through the open mind—in an effort, in Beckett’s words, to include the “total object, complete with missing parts”—such attempts are merely a matter of degree, a better representation of reality, perhaps, an advance in technique to be sure, but one which, in Beckett’s view, misses something.

Pushed by his frustrated interlocutor to explain what more he could possibly want from a work of art, he elaborates:

Beckett: [...] What we have to consider in the case of [traditional painters] is not that they surveyed the world with the eyes of building-contractors, a mere means like any other, but that they never stirred from the field of the possible, however much they may have enlarged it. The only thing disturbed by the revolutionaries Matisse and Tal Coat is a certain order on the plane of the feasible.
Duthuit: What other plane can there be for the maker?
Beckett: Logically none. Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.
In the vast treasure-house of ways and means, bright colors and apt phrases with which the history of literature has revealed the human world, Beckett finds something missing: failure. The art which brings worlds to light doesn’t want to know what will always remain in darkness; it doesn’t want to hear of the impossible. Beckett asks, almost paradoxically, for an art which would be
The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
Two questions are posed here: First, why is it obligatory to express? Second, how can it be impossible?


Perhaps Beckett’s novels may be taken as a wry riposte to the sentiment expressed in Joan Didion’s line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This phrase has been quoted to death because it expresses in succinct form a theory of fiction which, for whatever reason, comes naturally to us these days: fiction is a sort of lie, but an essential sort, since it organizes the dull incoherence of ordinary suffering by impressing it with what one might for lack of a better word call meaning. Language, the work of naming and giving form, cannot cure us of suffering, but it provides palliative care, catharsis or working-through to render it bearable.

Beckett shows that such a view lets language off the hook rather too easily. After all, what else are we sick of? The endless internal monologue, what’s going on, how do I feel, what can I do, what shall I do, why this, why that and the other, isn’t this the recalcitrant and ubiquitous substance of ordinary suffering? Behind our species’ many estimable accomplishments looms the single massive incapacity so well diagnosed by Pascal: “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” Emphasis on the quietly. A man who achieved in this sphere the degree of proficiency with which housecats are endowed would be a kind of saint. And to what do we owe this daily misfortune but language? The capacity to name, to describe, to endlessly repeat with more or mostly less accuracy the world of things, to account for ourselves and give risibly delusory reasons for our every incomprehensible move, isn’t this more obligation than ability and more disease than cure? We live a good deal of the time in more or less explicit flight from a sort of insomniac’s boredom which always threatens to veer off into anxiety, eyes wide open and wishing only to sleep, having nothing to say and unable to stop saying. Even absent more earthly sources of dysphoria, this restless ghost in our machine would surely suffice to guarantee our collective unhappiness.

It is a fact, then, that we must express, must speak, describe and explain. This is not quite all, however, for such speech is endowed with an inherent and mysterious teleology: we must say properly, express well, know and give the right reasons. We are obligated to tell the truth about ourselves, at least to ourselves; we must get it right. It is this aim which renders the fact of ceaseless speech into an obligation: the obligation is to say once and for all, to say the truth about what happened and why in order to be able to be silent, to forget. We tell stories, then, in order to have done with stories. We speak in order to die—or to be born.


Samuel Beckett’s 1951 novel Molloy is split down the middle. The first part is the story of Molloy’s life as written by Molloy the old man, a formerly wandering hobo who is now confined to a bed awaiting death. It opens with the protagonist’s efforts to mount a bicycle (a difficult task, since his legs are too stiff to bend at the knees, and one described at some length). When he’s aboard, he proceeds to ride the bicycle into town, where he rests astride his bike with his head in his hands. He is immediately accosted by a policeman:

What are you doing here? he said. I’m used to that question, I understood it immediately. Resting, I said. Resting, he said. Resting, I said. Will you answer my question? he cried. So it always is when I’m reduced to confabulation, I honestly believe I have answered the question I am asked and in reality I do nothing of the kind. I won’t reconstruct the conversation in all its meanderings. It ended in my understanding that my way of resting, my attitude when at rest, astride my bicycle, my arms on the handlebars, my head on my arms, was a violation of I don’t know what, public order, public decency.
Molloy is hauled off to the police station, but he’s not the sort to complain: he acknowledges the policeman’s point, he really is a violation of decency.
What is certain is this, that I never rested in that way again, my feet obscenely resting on the earth, my arms on the handlebars and on my arms my head, rocking and abandoned. It is indeed a deplorable sight, a deplorable example, for the people, who so need to be encouraged, in their bitter toil, and to have before their eyes manifestations of strength, only, of courage and of joy, without which they might collapse, at the end of the day, and roll on the ground.
But he himself is scarcely to blame, since though he does his best, avoiding this sort of public obscenity requires an education he was never lucky enough to receive:
As far as good will is concerned, I had it to overflowing... so that my repertory of permitted attitudes has never ceased to grow, from my first steps until my last, executed last year. And if I have always behaved like a pig, the fault lies not with me but with my superiors, who corrected me only on points of detail instead of showing me the essence of the system, after the manner of the great English schools, and the guiding principles of good manners, and how to proceed, without going wrong, from the former to the latter, and how to trace back to its ultimate source a given comportment. For that would have allowed me, before parading in public certain habits such as the finger in the nose, the scratching of the balls, digital emunction and the peripatetic piss, to refer them to the first rules of a reasoned theory. On this subject I had only negative and empirical notions, which means that I was in the dark, most of the time, and all the more completely as a lifetime of observations had left me doubting the possibility of systematic decorum, even within a limited area. But it is only since I have ceased to live that I think of these things and the other things. It is in the tranquility of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life, and that I judge it, as it is said that God will judge me, and with no less impertinence.
This episode contains much of Beckett’s theory of the novel, or rather his attack on the novel—first of all in the policeman’s original question, which in Beckett’s world is how writing begins. In most novels we can answer with complete confidence the question of what the characters are doing, why they’re doing it, how they came to be here, and this epistemological homelikeness is one of the pleasures of reading, because of course life is not so luxurious with its reasons. In life, the question of just what exactly you think you’re doing here is liable to bring you to a complete staring halt before its impossibility. Yet it seems necessary to have such an answer—the police are, as it were, always present—and so you begin to confabulate.1

Molloy’s wish for a systematic decorum, and his skepticism about the possibility of such a system, say the same thing another way: it’s a question of the reasoned justification for the disposition of one’s body, of reasons to clothe the body with. But the body is stiff, or weary, it eats and sucks and shits, and such a demand is laughable. Beckett likes to place his characters in situations of radical physical constraint—in Endgame two of the characters are in trashcans, in Happiness they find themselves buried up to their necks in a hill—and this emphasis on the trivial but omnipresent troubles of physicality renders prominent the almost total absence of such troubles from the history of the novel. In most novels the disposition of the body is merely a metaphor for the disposition of its soul; in Beckett the body shows up as a machine in its own right, breaking down constantly, in need of management.

Oddly, though, Beckett is never more comforting, never warmer and funnier, than when he describes the physical decay of his characters. They are peripatetic cripples nearly to the man, and they keep going nonetheless. When they can’t walk they hobble, when they can’t hobble they crawl, when they can’t crawl they drag themselves along the ground by grabbing at the underbrush ahead of them, and when they can’t manage that anymore they roll along the ground in great graceful arcs. They are deterred neither by their deep uncertainty about where they want to go nor by the manifest impossibility, given physical limitations, of ever getting there. They are endowed with a technical resourcefulness made comically futile by their physical decay and a kind of bloody-minded persistence which has nothing to do with courage. Beckett’s admiration for this quality in human beings—it is, I think, what he loves best in us—echoes Melville’s: what could be more touching in us than the craft and madness with which we project our puny bodies out over the deep, toward futile goals or none at all?

Molloy’s crippled body functions, then, as a reductio ad absurdum of the kind of misanthropy and Weltschmerz which complains of humans’ contingency, the “absurdity” of their position, their ignorance of death. Nothing is more encouraging than the way human beings take such false problems in stride and hobble along despite them.


The problem lies elsewhere, as Molloy notes as he’s getting under way:

It came back to my mind, from nowhere, as a moment before my name, that I had set out to see my mother, at the beginning of this ending day. My reasons? I had forgotten them. But I knew them, I must have known them, I had only to find them again and I would sweep, with the clipped wings of necessity, to my mother. Yes, it’s all easy when you know why, a mere matter of magic. Yes, the whole thing is to know what saint to implore, any fool can implore him. For the particulars, if you are interested in particulars, there is no need to despair, you may scrabble on the right door, in the right way, in the end. It’s for the whole there seems to be no spell. Perhaps there is no whole, before you’re dead.
By reducing the physical capacities and aims of his characters to a bare minimum—they can do nothing more than keep moving, and they seem to desire little else—Beckett lets us see another, deeper problem. Getting from one place to another, getting around, is merely unspeakably difficult; this is not a disaster. It is reasons, accounts, and (hence) speech that are, properly speaking, impossible, and it is from this fact that his narrators suffer. To write is, as Molloy says, an impertinence: “It is in the tranquility of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life, and that I judge it, as it is said that God will judge me, and with no less impertinence.” He adds: “To decompose is to live too, I know, I know, don’t torment me, but one sometimes forgets.”

Nietzsche writes, in Twilight of the Idols: “The value of life cannot be estimated: not by the living, for they are interested parties; and not by the dead, for another reason.” Beckett suggests that in writing something like a judgment, a final accounting, is always at stake; to write is to know where the story begins and where it ends, to be out beyond the “long confused emotion that was my life.” For a god to assume such a position would be frankly impertinent—what, after all, does he know about it? For a human, it is simply impossible. One is never dead enough to write. The narrators of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable are all half-dead, and they all long for death, but none are dead enough to write, and so none can ever finish. The narrator of The Unnamable, for example, is under the strange delusion that if he merely manages to speak truly about himself, if he finds the right words or the right formula, he will be allowed to die. It’s a telling illusion, but it isn’t of course true: the end of the story isn’t the end of life, one never reaches the end of the story, one simply dies. Likewise, the narrator of Malone plans throughout the book to write an inventory of his few remaining possessions, a sort of testament, but of course he can’t do it until the very end, when he’s sure that he won’t lose or gain anything more, that the list will be final. Of course he never writes it.

Molloy, who spends more or less the whole book digressing from his search for his mother, finds her eventually, as we know from the outset: he writes from his mother’s room, lying in the very bed where she lay before her death. His quest—the only thing he does for a reason in his long, meandering life—is to find his mother, to get back before the beginning, to the origin of reasons, and as a matter of fact he gets there. He comes to rest and begins to write. But his success is a failure, even a disaster; it is possible to move, to get somewhere, but it is not possible to find the beginning or achieve the end. He writes and cannot stop writing and cannot write. Beckett’s novels wander a wide circuit, but they recur to this problem—the failure of their narrators, the failure of writing.


Well, and what of it? What are we supposed to “get” from a book about not writing a book? That Beckett’s novels have nothing to do with the pallid introversion of self-conscious formalism, no reader will doubt; the impossibility we encounter here is by no means a parochial problem of the novelist. This makes the question all the more pressing: if one must fail, why call attention to it?

Beckett is sometimes read as a sort of existentialist, associated with Camus and Sartre—presenting the dark truth of finitude to us so that, knowing it, we will be freed to live in its light. Such a project may perhaps be adequate to the problem of death; it is facile with regard to Beckett’s problem, that of expression. Beckett’s narrators know very well the ridiculousness of telling stories, and this in no sense frees them from the task of doing so. As long as there is speech and reason, there remains the task of achieving clarity and speaking well, and this task does not disappear. Merely revealing it would do nothing, a fact of which the Beckett of Three Dialogues is keenly aware:

Duthuit: But might it not be suggested... that [the work] is expressive of the impossibility to express?
Beckett: No more ingenious method could be devised for restoring [the artist], safe and sound, to the bosom of Saint Luke. But let us, for once, be foolish enough not to turn tail. All have turned wisely tail, before the ultimate penury, back to the mere misery where destitute virtuous mothers may steal bread for their starving brats. There is more than a difference of degree between being short, short of the world, short of self, and being without these esteemed commodities. The one is a predicament, the other not.
What might it mean to complete one’s destitution here? Particularly given that the task of expression will not disappear?

The answer is suggested by Molloy’s second narrator, Moran. While Molloy is off seeking his mother, Moran is seeking Molloy. Moran is some sort of private investigator in the pay of a mysterious boss, ordered to seek out various individuals for obscure reasons. At the beginning of his story, Moran as a narrator presents a painful contrast to Molloy; while Molloy’s story is an unbroken stream of obscure digressions and half-thought jokes (no paragraph breaks for a hundred pages), Moran’s prose is painfully clear and correct, full of explanations and reasons of the most mundane kind. Moran will tell you why he chose, on that particular day, to wear boots instead of loafers; Molloy scarcely knows if he’s naked. Molloy knows judgment to be an impertinence, while Moran is a man of judgment; on the pleasures of leisure, he has this to say:

I’ve always loved doing nothing [...] Seeing something done which I could have done better myself, if I had wished, and did do better whenever I put my mind to it, I had the impression of discharging a function to which no form of activity could have exalted me.
Moran can assume such a position, can write clearly, because he has a boss, and because he does not ask too many questions. His boss is utterly mysterious, they have never met, he does not know the reasons for his orders or what they result in, or whether he is part of a large organization or the sole investigator. He simply receives verbal orders and carries them out to the letter. The problems of expression are handled elsewhere, above his pay grade. Moran is an observant if somewhat hypocritical Catholic.

He is such a man until he sets out on foot after Molloy. A week into his quest his knee goes stiff, he can barely walk, and he finds he cannot complete his task. He is forced into an idleness which is no longer that of judgment but that of impotence, and something breaks in him. Something breaks in his prose, too—his reasons flee, and what replaces them, the shocked wonder into which he descends, is strangely beautiful. The contingency of his body’s weakness somehow releases him.

I cannot quite describe what makes the end of Molloy quietly revelatory, but I would like to remark on one moment toward the end of the book, as Moran hobbles slowly home. He asks himself what it is he thought of while he was dragging himself, at a rate of ten paces a day, for months, toward his house. He answers that he thought a great deal about the bees he keeps; he had been watching their dances. He explains that every element of the dance seems to have a meaning—not only the figures danced, but the sound made, the height at which the dance occurs, the time of day... It’s endlessly signifying. But of course he has no idea what it means, and can never know. Moran plans, when he arrives, to continue his observations, to live out his days as a watcher of bees:

And I admitted with good grace the possibility that this dance was after all no better than the dances of the people of the West, frivolous and meaningless. But for me, sitting near my sun-drenched hives, it would always be a noble thing to contemplate, too noble ever to be sullied by the cogitations of a man like me, exiled in his manhood. And I would never do my bees the wrong I had done my God, to whom I had been taught to ascribe my angers, fears, desires, and even my body.
Moran finds here a significance that he will never grasp, that he will never get right or almost right or entirely wrong, and in this sees not an excuse to abandon it but a freedom to remain in effort, in exile, at peace, to continue looking. It’s a strange, small, signifying version of the Kantian sublime: what draws us because we cannot master it, because we are free from our efforts at mastery.

Beckett wishes in Three Dialogues “to admit that to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living.” To acknowledge failure is not to be freed from effort, not at all, effort is only human. If there is something to be gained from knowing that one’s efforts to speak the world are doomed to failure, Molloy suggests that it is the capacity to maintain oneself in the space of incomprehension, the capacity not to flee—in short, the capacity for wonder.

1 A friend of mine recalls that as a child she was always afraid that if she were accused of a murder she would certainly be convicted, because she would never have an alibi: she would never be able to account for her time, to provide a convincing account of where she was on the evening of June 5th, because much of her time was spent in unaccountable drifting.