Molloy, part 1: Beckett’s ‘Discourse on method’


Michael E. Mooney


In the light of Edouard Morot-Sir’s recent synthesis, there would appear to be little to add to the discussion about Samuel Beckett’s alleged ‘Cartesian’ or ‘anti-Cartesian’ stance in his work.1 First given impetus by the seminal investigations of Hugh Kenner, Ruby Cohn and Samuel I. Mintz, and spurred by the valuable contributions of John Fletcher, Lawrence Harvey, Michael Robinson and David Hesla, the ‘Cartesian’ approach to Beckett seems now to have been redirected by Morot-Sir’s resolution of the Cartesian debate in terms of the Manichaean duality of light and darkness.2 It must be acknowledged, however, that Morot-Sir raises as many issues about Cartesian influence as he resolves, especially about Beckett’s use of Descartes’s methodology, his concept of intelligence and will, and his idea of movement. Keeping in mind the importance of Beckett’s consistent use of light and dark imagery, I should like to reconsider here the question of his ‘anti-Cartesianism’ as it applies to Molloy, part one. For I believe that Molloy, part one, is Samuel Beckett’s Discourse on method, not in a philosophical sense but in an aesthetic one. As Beckett himself readily admits, he is not a philosopher; if anything, he displays a fascination with the form and style of philosophical utterance rather than with the content. When he uses biographical bits and pieces from Adrien Baillet’s La vie de Monsieur Descartes, he does so aesthetically: in ‘Whoroscope,’ Descartes is a fictional character.3 When he utilizes Cartesian ideas, he transforms them into fictions which bear his own message. For Beckett, I think, employs René Descartes predominantly as a perfect exemplar of the rational mind, set in motion and directed by purposeful, ‘enlightened’ and dogmatic inquiry. As we envision Molloy thrashing about in the forest, on the other hand, we see an intentionally ignorant ‘man in the dark,’ a ‘suffering Cartesian,’ paralyzed by the inability of Cartesian rationalism to order his life and seeking the consolation of philosophy according to a mode of thought which, although apparently couched in Cartesian terminology, has its genesis in scepticism. In fact, in Molloy, Beckett turns Descartes’s strong dismissal of philosophical scepticism on its head; we see the paradigmatic rationalist become what David Hesla calls the ‘Zetetic, whose nature is aporetic and whose “method” is ephetic.’4 Descartes’s statement in the First meditation, that ‘it is possible that God has wished that I should be deceived every time I add two or three or count the sides of a square, or form some judgment even simpler, if anything simpler than that can be imagined,’ will no longer be a rhetorical ploy.5 In Molloy, this literal statement is both symptomatic and symbolic: symptomatic of the Cartesian system’s failure to approach ‘truth,’ and symbolic of Beckett’s transformation of the Discourse into a philosophic myth. Indeed, when viewed as a myth, as a received, fantastic idea, rationalist philosophy assumes chimerical proportions. To Molloy, such a statement is a tragicomic ‘truth,’ and the problems which he faces in weighing the logical possibilities of distributing sixteen stones in four pockets become a Cartesian nightmare.


In a deeper sense, Molloy can be seen as a disturbingly humorous inversion of the Discourse; the novel asserts the impracticality of the Cartesian ‘spirit of system’ by utilizing the identical technical procedure—aporia, or doubt—employed by Descartes.6 Molloy’s position in the ‘Cartesian room’ writing his story, added to his very unperipatetic wanderings in the forest, becomes Beckett’s denial of man’s ability ‘to know’ anything or to accept the premises of literary or philosophic realism.7 Although Beckett pushes traditional themes and structures to extremes, the procedure is not, of course, new. Both Swift and Sterne—in A tale of a tub and Tristram Shandy—exhumed the exhalted air of Descartes in the eighteenth century; as an exercise in anti-form, Molloy achieves the same goal in the twentieth.8 However, Beckett has the advantage of standing at the end of the philosophical and literary traditions which had culminated in modern science and in the Victorian novel.


There is ample precedent for this argument in Beckett’s first novel, Murphy, where Cartesian ideas are refracted through the lens of the Occasionalist philosopher, Arnold Geulincx, who advocated ‘indifference’ as a means for confronting the contingencies of the contingent world. Although scholars may still debate the extent of Beckett’s ‘Cartesianism’ or ‘anti-Cartesianism’ in the novel, a strictly Cartesian approach to Murphy is now untenable. Cartesian dogmatism is just as unacceptable a solution to Murphy’s dilemmas as are the solutions of the Newtonians, Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan, with their continual movement and closed circle of desire begetting desire. The point is that Beckett had already modified his Cartesian views in the light of the Occasionalist philosophy of Geulincx, whose Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis may well have led Beckett to admire Democritus’s ‘Nothing is more real than nothing.’9 No finer example of this shift can be found than when, at the opening of Murphy, Neary offers the bawdy suggestion that Murphy’s ‘conarium has shrunk to nothing’ (6).10 Indeed, Murphy’s wish to become ‘a mote in the dark of absolute freedom . . . caught up in the tumult of non-Newtonian motion’ in the third ‘dark’ world of ‘will-lessness’ (112-13), anticipates the moment when Molloy falls ‘blindly, in the dark’ (91) in a ditch.


At the centre of this discussion lies a fundamental question about the relationship between art and philosophy, long a thorn in the side of Beckett critics. It is a question posed again and again with regard to Beckett’s work, most recently and carefully by Vivian Mercier, who soundly reasons that Beckett employs ‘philosophic theory . .  . as a structural and dramatic convenience.’11 I think, however, that in the case of the Beckett-Descartes relationship, there are closer fictional affinities. As Hugh Kenner first suggested, ‘the philosophy which has stood behind all subsequent philosophies, and which makes the whole of intelligible reality depend on the mental processes of a solitary man, came into being at the same time as the curious literary form called the novel, which has since infected all other literary genres.’12 Implicit in this statement, as Michael Robinson realized, is the recognition that ‘the World of the novelist which is limited to the mental processes of man in a room is founded on Cartesianism.’13 But while this much is now clear enough to all readers of Beckett, what has not been seen is the way in which the Discourse on method itself provides a model for Molloy. In this sense it is important to recall that Kenner also considered Descartes’s original intention to call the Discourse ‘A history of my life’ as providing substance for the claim that the Discourse on method may be regarded as an early novel, a spiritual autobiography much like Molloy, with its own insistent narrative ‘I’ and confessional nature. As Robinson went on to say: ‘Beckett . . . is probably the first to read it (the Discourse) as it should be read—as a novel which, like Beckett’s own works, desciibes the progress of a mind through layers of ignorance.’14 In terms of my own argument, however, such a footnote requires a qualification: if the Discourse may be read as the chronicle of a mind’s passage towards knowledge and of the ability of one man to create a world out of language, Molloy examines the potentialities of ignorance and the inability of language to describe reality. In this sense, Molloy may be regarded as a demythologized, anti-novelistic rendering of the Discourse on method.


In reading the Discourse on method as a novel, we can immediately recognize the way in which Descartes creates a world out of words. The Discourse, we know, is Descartes’s exposition of the ‘method’ by which he fathoms the whole of intelligible reality by mathematical means. Through the rhetorical use of aporia, he was able to deny empirical and Aristotelian notions about the ‘truth’ of sense impressions and to reinforce his own rejection of the external world as having an existence other than in his mind’s apprehension of it. This led him to postulate a split between his mind and his bodily machine and to create an inner world, bounded by the mind’s limits: as Beckett calls it in Murphy, a ‘hermetically closed’ chamber.15 His solipsistic, eight-year stay inside a room epitomizes this denial of the external world. Written when Descartes was forty-one, the Discourse surveys his life; in it he transforms his experiences into the paradigm of a ‘method.’


Beckett’s own five-year, post-war stay in his room is an obvious biographical point of comparison; it was a time when the trilogy (Molloy, Malone dies, and The unnamable), Waiting for Godot and several other pieces were written—the bulk of what we regard as Beckett’s major work. Yet the difference in epistemological focus between the two men is absolute. In calling his narrative ‘an historical account, or, if you prefer, a fable’ (29), Descartes directs his rhetoric to the reader, much as Molloy does in his own embedded addresses. Yet Molloy admits, ‘all I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead’ (31), while Descartes’s dogmatism never wavers: ‘. . . I shall not hesitate to say that I consider myself very fortunate to have found myself, from my early youth, on certain paths which led me to considerations and maxims out of which I have constructed a method . . . 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, so that each may judge it . . .’ (28).16 Representative of the shift in confidence, in Molloy the recurring metaphor of life as a ‘path,’ a certain right ‘path,’ undergoes an inversion: ‘For I did not know if it was the right road. All roads were right for me, a wrong road was an event, for me. But when I was on my way to my mother, only one road was right, the one that led to her, or one of those that led to her, for all did not lead to her. I did not know if I was on one of those right roads and that disturbed me, like all recall to life’ (30-1). Indeed, for Molloy there is no ‘certain path,’ but only a number of equally misleading alternative ‘roads.’


The Discourse on method, like Molloy, also traces the course of a life; both Descartes and Molloy write their narratives late in life, from the rooms into which each retires. Yet again the two treatments differ: Descartes divides the six discourses which comprise his autobiography into segments of linear time: section one recalls his childhood, schooldays, graduation and travels; section two records Descartes’s first ‘whole day shut up in a room heated by an enclosed stove’ (35), states the ‘method’ by which he decides to live, and brings the narrative up to the age of twenty-three; section three outlines his four-point moral code and announces his decision to travel again: ‘through all the nine years which followed I did nothing but wander here and there in the world’ (49) (reminding us of Molloy’s wanderings)17; section four presents Descartes’s return to his room for the next eight years, to learn finally the truth of ‘cogito, ergo sum’; and sections five and six review the discoveries he made and rehearse the reasons which prompted him to write. Balanced against this linear sequence is Molloy’s circular narrative: the novel beings (in his mother’s room) at its end: ‘I begin at the beginning, like an old ballocks, can you imagine that? Here’s my beginning . . . Here it is. It gave me a lot of trouble. It was the beginning, do you understand? Wheras now it’s nearly the end’ (8). In Molloy there is no beginning or ending, only absurd, infinite repetition without direction. From the start Molloy asserts only ‘I don’t know’ and ‘What I’d like now is to speak of the things that are left, say my goodbyes, finish dying’ (7).


But the matter goes deeper than questions of linear progression or circular organization, and deeper than saying ‘I know’ or ‘I don’t know.’ Descartes’s celebrated Discourse—the seminal statement of the rationalist philosophy that views the world as orderable through deductive laws—was not conceptualized by the accumulation of knowledge; as is well known, Descartes methodically eliminated his previous knowledge as a preliminary step. As he tells us, he ‘rid’ himself of his opinions ‘to replace them afterwards either by better ones, or even by the same, once I had adjusted them to the plumb line of reason’ (37). In taking ‘to be tantamount to false everything which was merely probable’ (32), Descartes built on what was left: his ability to doubt. But, in undermining the philosophical sceptics, who equally rely upon doubt and with whom, we are more and more realizing, Beckett is closely allied, Descartes took the ground from beneath scepticism’s feet by reasoning that if one doubts, one at least thinks; hence ‘cogito, ergo sum.’


The much modified and maligned Cartesian equation, however, undergoes a new metamorphosis in Molloy: Descartes’s lockstep, syllogistic logic—I doubt; therefore I think; therefore I am; therefore I am a res cogitans; therefore someone exists, God, who has created me—is inverted and simplified, with terms deleted. Beginning at the point of doubt (‘The truth is, I don’t know much’ [7]), Molloy takes the Cartesian argument in a new direction, towards the inner peace of undogmatic will-lessness: ‘The truth is I haven’t much will left’ (7). These two ‘truths,’ expressed in parallel sentences at the opening of the novel, determine the intentionally aimless direction that Molloy will take in his narrative. All he will acknowledge is that he ‘thinks’ in words, and for him thinking implies doubting; moreover, he refuses to choose among the many possible explanations for events that are open to him. As a result, Molloy ‘goes on’ repetitively, exhausting the alternative solutions to a problem, never positively able to act or to know. In an epistemological sense, knowing and not-knowing become the obverse sides of the same coin. The celebrated discourse on the sucking stones provides one example of the different reasoning Molloy uses; other examples appear in the ‘screwing scene,’ where he humorously decides: ‘She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop . . . But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so’ (56, italics mine); and in his compilation of the number of ‘farts’ he emits:


            The Times Literary supplement was admirably adapted to

            this purpose, of a never-failing toughness and imperme-

            ability. Even farts made no impression on it. 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 six-

            teen 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 never have mentioned it. Extraordinary how

            mathematics help you to know yourself (30).


The last sentence in this richly comic passage constitutes Molloy’s most damaging comment on the philosophical position which holds that intelligible reality may be explained by recourse to mathematical reasoning.


Importantly, when faced with such deliberations, what Molloy achieves is a kind of calm resignation, what the sages from Brahma to Leopardi wisely termed apatheia.18 Speaking of the sucking stones, Molloy decides, ‘But to suck stones in the way I have described, not haphazard, but with method, was also I think a bodily need . . . But deep down I didn’t give a tinker’s curse about being off my balance . . .’ (74, italics mine). Indeed, ‘method,’ ‘to know’ and ‘I think’ are key coordinates upon the philosophical grid of Molloy’s movements. But in piling up the explanatory possibilities for a phenomenon, exhausting the pluralities by mentioning each explanation for an event, Molloy stands as an intellectual sage; his procedure of reasoning subsumes Cartesian methodology by moving from doubt to scepticism to nothingness: precisely the way sceptics like Pyrrho of Elis, Timon, and Sextus Empiricus felt that one could approach inner peace.19 In this way, Beckett suggests a new method of reasoning: the negatives which form the novel’s backbone (echoed in the ‘I don’t care,’ and ‘I don’t know’ phrases which thread through and conclude Molloy’s assessments of phenomena) state the condition of ‘calm’ indifference, of scepticism become inner peace, of ataraxy.20 This indifference is true both of Molloy’s speculations about the moon: ‘it was at all events with the aid of these considerations that I grew calm again and was restored, in the face of nature’s pranks, to my old ataraxy, for what it was worth’ (42), and of his much-quoted response to the ‘knife-rest’ stolen from Lousse’s house: ‘For to know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, to know you are beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters in, to the soul of the incurious seeker’ (64). Predictably, Molloy’s fondness for anthropology comes precisely because of ‘its inexhaustible faculty of negation’ (39).


As Louis Martz has demonstrated, the intention of a meditative process such as Descartes underwent was self-knowledge and an awareness of God.21 At the core of this process lies the infinitive ‘to know.’ But while it is true that for Descartes knowledge was a measure of what his mind possessed, for Molloy to say ‘I know’ is to reveal the extent of his ignorance.22 What is crucial here is the rhetoric of one’s focus. In the seventeenth century, Descartes imposed a rational order, a mythic coherence, on what he viewed as an understandable and a decipherable world; for Molloy, on the other hand, the world is a cipher, an unorderable ‘booming, buzzing confusion.’23 The naturalistic world of objects, phenomena and ideas is a Gestaulten configuration of unknowns.


It is important to recall that Descartes approaches such a view in the Discourse on method. As a rhetorical strategy, Descartes’s intention in the Discourse was to proceed in sceptical fashion, denying what he previously accepted in order to assert the truth of his new method. As we might expect, such passages remind us of similar statements made by Molloy. Consider, for instance, Descartes’s pronouncement on his education: ‘I was so assailed by so many doubts and errors that the only profit I appeared to have drawn from trying to become educated, was progressively to have discovered my ignorance’ (29). In much the same way, Molloy, an educated man by his own admission, reviews his education:


            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. What I liked in anthropology was

            its inexhaustible faculty of negation, its relentless defini-

            tion of man, as though he were no better than God, in

            terms of what he is not. But my ideas on this subject

            were horribly confused, for my knowledge of men

            was scant and the meaning of being beyond me (39).


Here, in preparation for his later statement that peace may be found when one is ‘beyond knowing’ (64), Molloy denies the pursuit of learning. But, unlike Descartes, who strengthens his denial of previous knowledge with such admissions, Molloy accepts confusion; he does not, in any conventional sense, build a new methodology out of the ruins of an old system of learning. Aware of his own ignorance about both his fellow men and himself, Molloy conducts an incurious search for inner peace in the domain of the irrational. ‘Then,’ he tells us, ‘the true division begins, of twenty-two by seven for example, and the pages fill with the true ciphers at last’ (64).


The conflict between dogmatism and scepticism, between what we might call the light of knowledgeable inquiry and the darkness of ignorance, provides the chief difference between the Discourse on method and Molloy. In keeping with two statements Beckett has made, first, that ‘it is there, in the dark, that one begins to see . . . In the dark that enlightens the spirit’; and second, that ‘I conceived of Molloy and the rest the day I became aware of my stupidity,’ this view adds a new dimension to the discussion about Beckett’s use of light imagery.24 As Morot-Sir points out, we often forget ‘that Descartes is also the philosopher of clarity and light,’ and consequently we are liable to underestimate ‘the symbolic significance of the duality of light and darkness with its possible moral and aesthetic overtones.’25 But if we are correct in assuming that Samuel Beckett utilizes these aspects of Cartesian thought as a fictional source for his own sceptical view, we should expect to uncover passages in the Discourse which are refocussed in Molloy. It is crucial, in this sense, to return to the Discourse for proof of Beckett’s technique of transforming philosophy into myth.


Descartes’s second moral maxim and its figurative illustration provide a case in point. Here, in a near definition of dogmatism, Descartes presents an argument which will be lifted and inserted in Molloy, setting up a set of reader expectations which will be denied again and again:


            My second maxim was to be as firm and resolute in my

            actions as I could and to follow no less constantly the

            most doubtful opinions, once I had determined on them,

            than I would if they were very assured, imitating in this

            travellers who, finding themselves astray in some forest,

            must not stop in one place, but must walk always as

            straight as they can in a given direction, and not change

            direction for weak reasons, even though it was perhaps

            only chance in the first place which made them choose

            it; for, by this means, if they do not go exactly where

            they wish to go they will very likely be better off than

            in the middle of a forest. And so it is that, the actions

            of life often brooking no delay, it is a certain truth that,

            when we are powerless to discern the truest opinions,

            we must follow the most probable, and althought we

            see no more probability in some than in others, we must

            nevertheless settle on some and consider them after-

            wards no longer as being doubtful, in so far as they

            relate to practice, but as very true and very certain,

            because the reason which has caused us to settle upon

            them is itself such (46-7, italics mine).26


Here, two serpentine, winding, presumably logical sentences create a world of words. The excerpt is, however, a deliberate obfuscation which means to clarify Descartes’s methodology! To Beckett, this passage, with its series of qualifying clauses, is not an unequivocal statement of resolution but a maze of indirection. Balanced against this view of purposeful movement is Molloy’s inability to travel in a ‘straight line’ or to be ‘resolute’ in his actions; Molloy, who cannot escape from the forest and who, when he returns to town, is harassed and jailed for committing an offence unknown to him. In a passage which strikingly recalls Descartes, Molloy admits that the forest is the only proper place to live:


.  .  . forests abound in good things. And having heard,

            or more probably read somewhere, in the days when

            I thought I would be well advised to educate myself,

            or stupefy myself, or kill time, that when a man in a

            forest thinks he is going forward in a straight line, in

            reality he is going in a circle, I did my best to go in a

            circle, hoping in this way to go in a straight line. For

            I stopped being half-witted and became sly, whenever

            I took the trouble. And my head was a storehouse of

            useful knowledge. And if I did not go in a rigorously

            straight line, with my system of going in a circle, at

            least I did not go in a circle, and that was something.

            And by going on doing this, day after day, and night

            after night, I looked forward to getting out of the

            forest some day . . . For it was not bad being in the

            forest, I could imagine worse, and I could have stayed

            there till I died, unrepining, yes, without pining for

            the light and the plain and the other amenities of my

            region, and I considered that the forest was no worse



Similarly, Descartes’s description of how he ‘resolved to go slowly’ assumes comic and mythic proportions in Molloy. The difference in focus is absolute. We move from Descartes’s figurative statement of his ‘method’ of making progress: ‘But like a man who walks alone, and in the dark, I resolved to go slowly, and to use such caution in all things that, even when I went forward only a little, I would at least avoid falling’ (39)27 to Molloy’s stumbling, entropic, never-ending movements toward a ditch. Let us listen to him:


            So I said, yet a little while, at the rate things are going,

            and I won’t be able to move, but will have to stay,

            where I happened to be, unless some kind person comes

            and carries me. For my marches got shorter and shorter

            and my halts in consequence more and more frequent

            and I may add prolonged . . . And I still remember the

            day when, flat on my face by way of rest, in defiance of

            the rules, I suddenly cried, striking my brow, Christ,

            there’s crawling, I never thought of that. But could I

crawl, with legs in such a state, and my trunk? . . .

            And now, let us have done. Flat on my belly, using

            my crutches like grapnels I plunged them ahead of me

            into the undergrowth, and when I felt they had a hold,

            I pulled myself forward, with an effort of the wrists . . .

            And in this way I moved onward in the forest, slowly,

            but with a certain regularity, and I covered fifteen

            paces, day in, day out, without killing myself. And I

            even crawled on my back, plunging my crutches

            blindly behind me into the thickets, and with the

            black boughs for sky to my closing eyes. I was on my

            way to mother . . . But there was always present to

            my mind, which was still working, if laboriously, the

            need to turn, to keep on turning, and every three or

            four jerks I altered course, which permitted me to

            describe, if not a circle, at least a great polygon, per-

            fection is not of this world, and to hope that I was

            going forward in a straight line, in spite of everything

            day and night, towards my mother . . . And even my

            little changes of course were made blindly, in the dark.

            The forest ended in a ditch, I don’t know why, and it

            was in this ditch that I became aware of what had

            happened to me. I supposed it was the fall into the

            ditch that opened my eyes, for why would they have     

            opened otherwise? (88-91)


There are several points worth noting about this comparison. In terms of technique, Beckett seizes upon Descartes’s deceptively simple rhetoric and expands its figurative use by linking physical movement with the quest for knowledge. Molloy’s language, that is, is not only shot through with philosophic echoes; it also uses the language of Cartesian philosophy to describe physical and mental progress. In terms of form, on the other hand, it is not difficult to see that Beckett may well have patterned much of Molloy from Descartes’s statements. It is crucial, however, to realize that the Cartesian quest is resolved in sceptical fashion. Although Molloy’s progress recalls Descartes’s programme for cautious advance, it is also comically reminiscent of the movement of the archetypal philosopher Thales, who fell into a ditch while rapt in gazing contemplatively at the stars. Molloy, who recalls so many philosophers in both his words and actions, himself becomes a mythic and archetypal philosopher on a quest for peace. And, sceptic that he is, he attempts, aporetically, to square a circle, in the ironic hope of moving forward in a straight line. While his spiraling movements bring him to ‘the light, the light of the plain,’ exactly as he ‘had forseen’ (90), he admits that the struggle into the light ‘meant nothing to me now’ (78).


Molloy’s sceptical stance also allows us to understand his distinction between the two sorts of presentiments he has concerning what may happen to him. These two kinds of foresight, of expecting to happen what one feels will occur, are divided into the true and the false presentiment: the ‘true,’ which Molloy tells us, made ‘no sense,’ and the ‘false,’ which he thinks may make more sense. ‘But can any more sense be made of false presentiments? I think so, yes, I think that all that is false may more readily be reduced, to notions clear and distinct, distinct from all other notions’ (82). Making an oblique comment on Cartesian ‘clear and distinct’ ideas in particular, and on philosophical language in general, Beckett here has Molloy condemn the self-satisfying Cartesian process of validating what one has already projected as true. As we might expect, when Molloy continues this process of reasoning from ‘false’ clear and distinct notions, he regains his ignorance: ‘For I knew in advance, which made all presentiment superfluous. I will even go further (what can I lose?), I knew only in advance, for when the time came I knew no longer, you may have noticed it, or only when I made a superhuman effort, and when the time was past I no longer knew either, I regained my ignorance. And all that taken together, if that is possible, should serve to explain many things . . .’(82). In fact, each time Molloy tries to act or to reason with method—as when he murders the charcoal-burner, applying himself ‘with method’ to kicking him on the other side of his body (84); or when he ‘methodically’ turns to face each of the ‘radiating paths’ leading from a forest crossroads (83)—he exposes the valuelessness of method.


In each of these cases, Beckett transposes Descartes’s statements onto a symbolic framework. The man ‘who walks alone and in the dark’ of ignorance, not ‘pining for the light’ of knowledge, is Molloy, sage of nothingness and indifference, who can never ‘avoid falling,’ whose progress is retarded by the deterioration of his bodily machine, and whose quest for truth has acquainted him with his own ignorance. In Molloy, Beckett reads Descartes’s metaphoric statements literally, creating an absurdity from a figure of speech, destroying Descartes’s world of words. By collapsing the distinction between philosophy and literature, Beckett is able to view the Discourse on method as a fiction in which rhetoric creates reality: he makes rational philosophy a mythology which exorcizes the unexplainable. By plotting Molloy’s movements on a Cartesian graph in a physical and logical infinite regress, Beckett makes a troubling assertion of man’s ability to ‘progress’ toward epistemological or ontological goals, to gain knowledge about himself or his place in a naturalistic world. ‘Yes, my progress reduced me to stopping more and more often,’ Molloy comically admits, ‘it was the only way to progress, to stop’ (78).


Beckett’s transformation of philosophy into myth, moreover, is central to his anti- formalistic ‘method.’ While comedy and parody play no small role in this process, form and content coalesce when philosophic fact becomes a mythic fiction. For just as the circular structure of Molloy is organized according to what one critic has called the principle of permutative form, which depends on repetition and reduction,28 so the ‘truth’ of philosophical inquiry is again and again subject to question. By suspending his judgment on each issue that is posed, Molloy can continue to ‘go on’ with sceptical indifference, using his vague desire to return to his mother as a frame of reference. He becomes an incurious seeker, who fills his pages with ‘true ciphers.’ The loadstones of his compass are precisely these: the irrational, the unknown, and the infinite.


1 ‘Samuel Beckett and Cartesian emblems’ in Samuel Beckett: the art of rhetoric ed. by  Edouard Morot-Sir, Howard Harper and Dougald McMillan, Chapel Hill, 1976, 25-104.

2 H. Kenner, Samuel Beckett: a critical study, Berkeley, 1961; R. Cohn, Samuel Beckett. the comic gamut, New Brunswick, 1962; S. Mintz, ‘Beckett’s Murphy: a “Cartesian” novel,’ Perspective, Autumn, 1959; J. Fletcher, The novels of Samuel Beckett, New York, 1964; L.Harvey, Samuel Beckett: poet and critic, Princeton, 1970; M. Robinson, The long sonata of the dead, New York, 1969; D. Hesla, The shape of chaos, Minneapolis, 1971. Morot-Sir’s argument is that Cartesian emblems are, ultimately, part of a larger complex of light and dark imagery, the source of which is Gnosticism. His analysis builds from a two-page facsimile from Beckett’s notebook on light and dark emblems in Krapp’s last tape, given to James Knowlson for Reading University; see J. Knowlson, Light and darkness in the theatre of Samuel Beckett, London, 1972, 40, 47.

3 As Lawrence Harvey demonstrates in his analysis of the poem. Also see Morot-Sir, 47, 56, 62-4, where he suggests that the ‘Descartes of Whoroscope’ is ‘the first character created by Beckett’ and that Descartes’s ‘life gives form and behavior-patterns to the Beckettian heroes.’

4 D. Hesla, 85. He quotes from R.D. Hicks, trans., Diogenes Laertius, Lives of eminent philosophers, New York, 1925, II, 483: ‘All these [men] were called Pyrrhoneans after the name of their master, but Aporetics, Sceptics, Ephetics and even Zetetics, from their principles, if we may call them such—Zetetics or seekers because they were ever seeking truth, Sceptics or inquirers because they were always looking for a solution and never finding one, Ephetics or doubters because of the state of mind which followed their inquiry, I mean, suspense of judgement, and finally Aporetics or those in perplexity, for not only they but even the dogmatic philosophers themselves in their turn were often perplexed’ (italics mine). See Charlotte Stough, Greek scepticism, Berkeley, 1969, for a full discussion of Pyrrhonism. it is important to recall that from Cicero’s Academica onward, Pre-Socratics like Parmenides, Zeno, Democritus and Diogenes were viewed as proto-sceptics, the movement coming to a climax in the aporia of Socrates. See Steven Rosen, Samuel Beckett and the pessimistic tradition, New Brunswick, 1976, 71-92, and Hicks, II, 485.

5 Discourse on method and The meditations references are from the Penguin edition, Harmondsworth, 1968, trans., by R.E. Sutcliffe, with the original French provided for quotations in which Descartes’s use of metaphor is crucial. The standard translation is by E.S. Haldane and G.T.R. Ross, The philosophic works of Descartes, Cambridge, 1911-12. See Richard H. Popkin, The history of scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes, Assen, 1960, 197-217, ‘Descartes: sceptique malgré lui,’ for a history of the attacks made against Descartes for the overt scepticism of the First meditation and the Discourse.

6 ‘Aporia’ as John Pilling, in Samuel Beckett, London, Henley, Boston, 1976, 27, makes clear, is the ‘technical rhetorical term for what Descartes elevated into a method.’ For a fine analysis of Descartes’s aporia and the resultant crise Pyrrhonienne, central to this paper, see Popkin, 175-217. The quotation is from The unnamable, 292, in Samuel Beckett, Three novels, New York, 1955; all Molloy references are taken from this edition. It is worth noting here that Ruby Cohn, in ‘Philosophical fragments in the works of Samuel Beckett,’ in Samuel Beckett: A collection of critical essays, Englewood Cliffs, 1965, 172, suggests the The unnamable’s ‘monologue is virtually a Discourse on lack of method, on the impossibility of method.’

7 Vivian Mercier, in Beckett/Beckett, New York, 1977, 161, adds a new biographical dimension to the idea of a ‘Cartesian room’; he quotes from a conversation with Beckett in April, 1973, about the genesis of Molloy: ‘I realized that I knew nothing. I sat down in my mother’s little house in Ireland and began to write Molloy’ (italics mine).

8 Swift’s attack on Descartes is contained in section ten of A tale of a tub; there he suggests the Aeolists suffer from hypochondriacal ‘flatulence.’ See Miriam Starkman, Swift’s satire on learning in ‘A tale of a tub,’ New York, 1968, chapter one, for background; also see Edith Kern, ‘Black humor: The pockets of Lemuel Gulliver and Samuel Beckett,’ reprinted in Melvin J. Friedman’s Samuel Beckett now, Chicago, 1970, 89-102, for similarities between Beckettian and Swiftian humour. Ian Watt, in The rise of the novel, Berkeley, 1957, 1971, 291, suggests Tristram Shandy is ‘not so much a novel as a parody of a novel.’

9 Beckett himself told Lawrence Harvey that, if he were a critic, he would begin a study of Samuel Beckett with these two quotations; see Harvey, 267. See Murphy, New York, 1959, 178, for the quotation from Geulincx; and Murphy, 246, and Malone dies, 192, for references to Democritus’s statement. Democritus’s ‘nothing,’ according to G.S. Kirk and J.E. Raven, The Presocratic philosophers, Cambridge, 1957, 407, means the ‘void.’

10 Referring to the pineal gland which, for Descartes, was the seat of the soul and the place where mind and body were in conjunction. It is tempting to think of ‘nothing’ here as an echo of Democritus.

11 Beckett/Beckett, New York, 1977, 171.

12 Samuel Beckett, 17.

13 The long sonata of the dead, 142.

14 The long sonata of the dead, 312 n. Also see Kenner’s discussion of the Discourse proper, 81-2.

15 Murphy, 107.

16 Original French from Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, Oeuvres de Descartes: Discours de la méthode & essais, Paris, 1902: ‘Mais je ne craindray pas de dire qua je pense auoir eu beaucoup d’heur, de m’estre rencontre des ma jeunesse en certains chemins, qui m’ont conduit a des considerations & des maximes, dont j’ay forme vne Methode, par laquelle il me semble que j’ay moyen d’augmenter par degres ma connoissance, & de l’eslever peu a peu au plus haut point, auquel la mediocrite de mon esprit & la courte duree de me vie luy pourront permettre d’atteindre,’ 3.

17 Kenner, 81.

18 Described by Beckett in his essay on Proust, New York, 1957, 18: ‘the wisdom of all the sages, from Brahma to Leopardi, the wisdom that consists not in the satisfaction but in the ablation of desire.’ Pilling, 61, sees this as the point that Watt has reached; see Watt, New York, 1959, 147.

19 This is the desired end-point of the Sceptics, who deny knowledge as a means to achieve psychic quietude, or ataraxia; see Stough, 4-5, and Popkin, 3, where he quotes Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism on the logical infinite regress sceptics forced dogmatists into. This kind of peace, which is the result of aporia, requires the ephetic suspension of judgment; it is the goal of the sceptical inquirer, and reminds one of the ‘peace’ Murphy feels, momentarily, after the chess game with Mr Endon: ‘Murphy began to see nothing . . . His other senses also found themselves at peace, an unexpected pleasure. Not the dumb peace of their own suspension, but the positive peace that comes when the somethings give way, or perhaps simply add up, to the Nothing, than which in the guffaw of the Abderite [Democritus] naught is more real’ (246). Endon’s ‘ringing the changes’ (247) on the way the light switch may be turned on and off anticipates Watt’s exhaustive enumerations and Molloy’s exhaustion of possible explanations for phenomena. I regard Moran, also, as a character who learns of his own ignorance; c.f. his response to the bees (p168-9) and his statement that ‘I found it painful at that period not to understand’ (102).

20 As my argument implies, calm indifference is sceptical in nature, and is to be distinguished from Geulincx’s ‘indifference,’ which I think appeals to Beckett because it formulates, in Cartesian terminology, a sceptical view.

21 The poetry of meditation, New Haven, 1965, 13- 20.

22 I do not see the alternation between ‘I know’ and ‘I don’t know’ as either the elaboration of an empty paradox or as an example of the paradox of the Cretan Liar, but as the essence of the conflict between dogmatism and scepticism.

23 The quotation from William James appears in Murphy, on p4, 29 and, importantly, on 245. The phrase perfectly expresses what Beckett has again and again termed the ‘mess’ or the ‘confusion.’

24 The first quotation is from the essay, ‘La peinture des van Velde,’ typescript, 7, trans. by Vivian Mercier in Beckett/Beckett, 102. The second is from the interview with Gabriel d’Aubarède, ‘Waiting for Beckett,’ Nouvelles littéraires, 16 February 1961. As the two pages of notes Beckett gave to James Knowlson clarify, Beckett was thinking of light and dark in gnostic terms. While I think the analysis of Krapp’s last tape in these terms is sound, I agree with Vivian Mercier, who ‘finds it hard to believe that Beckett habitually equates the dark with the sensual.’ He suggests that irrationality, ignorance and impotence are also meaningfully associated with the dark. See Beckett/Beckett, 5-8. As my own argument contends, irrationality and ignorance are sceptical in nature, and are imagistically rendered by ‘dark’ emblems.

25 ‘Samuel Beckett and Cartesian emblems,’ 46.

26 Both Ruby Cohn (141) and Hugh Kenner (p81-2) mention parts of this passage in passing, but neither of them notes the way the excerpt prefigures the action of Molloy. See Adam and Tannery, 24-5, for the original French.

27 Adam and Tannery: ‘Mais, comme vn homme qui marche seul & dans les tenebres, je me resolu d’aller si lentement, & d’vser de tant de circonspection en toutes choses, que, si je n’avancois que fort peu, je me garderois bien, au moins, de tomber,’ 16-17.

28 Pilling, 29.