Friday, December 7, 2007


"Wylie came a little closer to Murphy, but his way of looking was as different from Murphy's as a voyeur's from a voyant's, though Wylie was no more the one in the indecent sense than Murphy was the other in the supradecent sense. The terms are only taken to distinguish between the vision that depends on light, object, viewpoint, etc., and the vision that all those things embarrass."
--Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

The key word here is "embarrass": Beckett is invoking its French meaning: to obstruct, to hinder, even to burden. But as a word in our more common English sense it floats into conjunction with "indecent," as one might be "embarrassed" (made uncomfortable) by what one sees. In other words, and Beckett's writing is so precise that it becomes a struggle to imagine "other words," the voyeur is the one who sees objects and is not hindered or encumbered by them -- and, though Wylie's view is not indecent, a voyeur of what is indecent is not embarrassed by what he sees, insofar as he wishes to see it, that "seeing it" is the point. The voyant, however, cannot but be encumbered and burdened by any object of vision -- and, indeed, made uncomfortable by it. Because Murphy, as voyant, doesn't want to see anything, particularly. His ideal state is one of monadic solipsism. The world, that "embarrassment of riches" to borrow someone's phrase, only encumbers us. But it's well to note that Beckett insists that Murphy is no voyant in the sense of "a visionary." He is not seeing, in place of the mundane world, a spiritual world of true forms, or essences, or the veritable Ding an Sich. Murphy's vision -- or the vision he tries to maintain -- is only and ever of himself: ". . . before he could see it had to be not merely dark, but his own dark. Murphy believed there was no dark quite like his own dark."

Reading this book, Beckett's first novel, after break, it struck me that what Beckett formulates in that distinction between voyeur and voyant is the difference between the novelist of what Joyce calls somewhere "the sensible, edible, gnosible world" and the novelist of his own dark -- it could be, indeed, the difference between the early Joyce and the Joyce of Finnegans Wake. The one for whom light and object and viewpoint are the controlling dynamic, the design-giving factors, of the representation of something like life; the one for whom only the play of verbal pattern has any ability to captivate -- and not because it makes the fictive seem real, but because it keeps at bay the real, makes the real beg admittance to the mind through only one portal: not sight, but language.

"Were such things here as we do talk about?" Banquo asks Macbeth after the encounter with the three weird sisters. Whether they were or not, they are no longer there when they become the topic of conversation. And generally whatever we speak of is not in fact in the room with us, is not happening at that moment, except maybe conceptually. And so what we would clarify, with our words, is, in Murphy's terms, our sense of our own dark. We must find words to convey the phantoms that cloud our minds. If we succeed, the persons we speak to will go away beclouded by the phantoms we have caused to inhabit their minds, if only fleetingly. They will be embarrassed, in the French sense, by our words and may even chose to see (if they be realist novelists, perhaps) our words as objects seen from a "certain point of view" -- as the saying goes (approximating the idea that any pair of eyes which encounters the world must encounter it from a unique vantage point).

For the Wylies of the world, one's vantage point is simply the accidental position from which one views the object of one's attention. One may move about to find other views, one may try to imagine the viewpoints of others. For the Murphies of the world, there is only one object: Murphy. What he looks at matters very little for it is always Murphy who looks, and that viewpoint, in its emphatic acceptance of the Murphyness of its vision, makes of the world not a reflection of Murphy but a "not Murphy" that Murphy must reflect upon, in his dark.

Beckett's fiction goes further and further into that dark. It's one of the most striking odysseys in all of literature. In the novel, Murphy finds use as an attendant in an insane asylum. Murphy envies his charges their species of dark, seeing that only the mind that is lost has a chance of escaping the world.

"The function of 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."

If we cannot lose our minds, perhaps at least we can make up our own world. If only for the fiction of it.

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