“Murphy” and Beckett’s Terror of Non-Existence

Reading “Murphy” without firstly carefully reading into Beckett’s own philosophy, ideas, and intentions regarding art would be a foolish endeavor. For a reader not acquainted with modernist literature, “Murphy” is  an attempt to destroy every pillar supporting the elements needed for the novel, or literature for that matter, to exist; it seems to be a perfect chaos. However, “Murphy” is merely the first step towards what I will name from this point onward Beckett’s terror of non-existence (which will also be perfectly mirrored later on in his “Waiting For Godot”, for example).  The novel (or the anti-novel) must be understood as an embodiment of this entire corpus of ideas which constitutes Beckett’s obsession with nothingness, non-existence and the chaos of reality. This essay shall outline the author’s pseudo-philosophy and consider the novel “Murphy” in that paradigm with the aim of offering fixed points with the help of which the reader may see through the universal darkness that shrouds it.

Along with the obsession for nothingness, the attack on reality comes as a second major preoccupation in “Murphy” and in Beckett’s system of ideas. The two go extremely well together, since behind the deconstruction of reality lies the ultimate truth of Nothing. He describes surrounding reality (the one which can be perceived – beyond empiricism- only when we “open our eyes and see”) as being a “mess”. Moreover, “it is not a mess you can make sense of”. The reality of the novel does not make sense because Beckett no longer believes in the capability of our reality to make sense. We are left with no other choice than to accept the “mess” as a given, normal element in the fictional universe, because, as he says a few lines later, there is need of literature that “admits the chaos”. Transcendence is empty, God is dead, all of reality is subjective and tradition is no longer capable of fulfilling the needs of men. Modernism is thus confronted with the destruction and/or fragmentation of everything that was held true before it. Naturally, everything needed to be changed; including literature. Considering this, it is no surprise that Beckett will go on and affirm: “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now”. We arrived at a kind of manifesto. His literary work will not deal with something, but with the fragmented reality; the chaos; the non-existence.

Bearing in mind the answer that the author gives as to the purpose of literature, it may prove fruitful for our understanding to go back to an interview he gives in 1956, where we find him defining his own, personal direction in literature: “My little exploration is that whole zone of being that has always been set aside by artists as something unusable – as something by definition incompatible with art”.  In his desire to try and set himself aside, Beckett wants to take the reader out of the areas with which they are accustomed. This may account for why “Murphy” seldom uses conventional elements on any level and why nothing much actually happens and Murphy’s intentions are obscure. (Beckett does characterize Murphy himself in a letter to McGreevy in 1936 as a “break down between his ubi nihil vales ibi nihil velis [where you are worth nothing, there you should want nothing] (positive) and Malraux’s Il est difficile a celui qui vit hors du monde de ne pas recherché les siens [it is difficult for someone who lives outside society not to seek his own] (negative)”).

Another important aspect that needs explaining is why we are not given necessary information all throughout the novel. Fortunately enough, Beckett reveals: “I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding”.  Georges Bataille describes his writing as “an exercise in subtraction”, “progress towards ruin”, and “full of holes”. We are being withheld the information we need or want due to that being part of the conventional, of the zone that has been explored by the other artists. In order to stay true to his direction in literature, Beckett will replace the information we need in order to make sense of the fictional universe with redundant information, leg-pulling or holes. His response to his publishers reproaching that the narrative is hard to follow, he states: “of course the narrative is hard to follow, and of course deliberately so”.

Regarding his obsession for nothingness, we can easily discover that it influences both the content and the form of his work: “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express”.  

Having considered all these ideas expressed by Beckett, we have all the necessary elements to easily build a system of interpretation (if it may be called that way) suitable for the novel “Murphy”. However, one must keep in mind that the novel will prove to confirm with this system of thought, without being deciphered by it in the full, proper sense. It does help reveal themes and ideas but it will not reveal why Beckett wanted to explore those themes and ideas in their particular contexts in the economy of the fictional universe.

The novel opens with “The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new”. The author immediately deconstructs the cliché and announces his preoccupation with non-existence: nothing is more real than nothing; look for and expect nothing. All Murphy wants to do is nothing.  He uses the most peculiar of excuses (such as: “But you wouldn’t have me go against the diagram”) just so he can do nothing. He will come to be identified with the very abstract concept of nothingness. As such, when we read “Both these lines led to Murphy (everything led to Murphy)” it safe to interpret it in the sense that everything leads to nothing. The terror of non-existence and obsession for nothingness is the first major theme in “Murphy” and in Beckett’s pseudo-philosophical system.

The text says that Murphy was bound to his rocking chair by seven scarves, but only accounts for six. The clock strikes three. An entire passage presents the anatomy of one, singular gesture. We are being given redundant information (“ ‘rather than cordial. Tired. Cork. County. Depraved.’ “). Much of the discourse is characterized by nonsense (“ ‘all men talk, when talk they must, the same tripe’ “) and the absurd (“he hoped for better things, without exactly knowing why or what things or in what way better”).  Thus, we come into contact with an abundance of more minor ideas and themes such as the attack on sense, the preference for the absurd, subtraction and the attack on expectation. The text does not make sense because the author does not believe that there is sense left in our reality. This also accounts for the absurd element involved with a large deal of the discourse. Even more, subtraction and the destruction of the reader’s expectations are techniques deployed by Beckett for the purpose of achieving his goal of exploring the unexplored zone set aside by other artists.

A careful reader shall also remark an interesting attack on positivism and its futility. In reference to this, we must consider that Celia has the body measurements of Venus. Despite the exact numbers, the creation of an image for the character is prevented. It is highly probable that Beckett considered positivism unable to render the true nature of things, as modernism has indeed attacked the philosophy of the enlightenment.  

We also experience a great deal of mocking and leg-pulling. Instances like this include the author speaking out of the text, attacking the censors (“This phrase is chosen with care”), or syntagms such as “the County of Dublin”, or even directly mocking the description of unimportant characters with sentences such as: “this creature does not merit any particular description”.

The second (and last) major problem present in the novel is Beckett’s attack on reality.  In Chapter 6, we come across a phrase which I believe represents the core of the entire work: “parody of rational behavior”.  Since reality is simply a mess which no longer presents itself with sense, rational behavior and rational approach to reality lose their credibility. Both reality and rationality are seen as damaging illusions. “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”. Modernism renders reality to subjectivity and breaks it into seldom comprehensible fragments, thus losing its authority. Regarding the patients of the mental hospital, he says: “think of the patients not as banished from a system of benefits but as escaped from a colossal fiasco”.

“Murphy” should be read and considered a mirror into Samuel Beckett’s system of ideas on the world, art and literature in general, and his terror of non-existence in particular. The purpose of the work’s content is more important than the content itself. The novel is indeed a chaos, but it is supposed to help us reconsider the order of our reality.


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