J. C. Eade
There is a particuliarity as to place and time in Murphy which has provoked reactions varying from slightly puzzled irritation to that monument of ingenious overkill, Sighle Kennedy’s Murphy’s bed. Since much of the particularity verifiable for the most part in Whitaker’s almanac for 1935—is astronomical in character, it is odd if not indeed reprehensible that Murphy’s horoscope, the Thema Coeli Celia brings from Suit, has not been examined in the scrupulous detail that would determine whether it has a grounding in ‘fact’ similar to the novel’s locations in time and place.
Certainly the wording of the horoscope (‘Mercury sesquiquadrate with the Anarete’) exhibits a command of the language of astrology, but what of its details—those details, at least, which are capable of verification? Is it possible to deduce, for instance, what is the unfortunate native’s age, or to determine that an actual configuration lies behind Suk’s handiwork? Or was Beckett simply playing with the apparatus of astrology? In Suk’s thirteen paragraphs there are seven items which are open to astrological analysis in a positional sense:
1. At time of Birth . . . four degrees of the GOAT was rising . . .
2. The Moon twenty-three degrees of the Serpent . . .
3. Mars having just set in the East . . .
4. Mercury sesquiquadrate with the Anarete . . .
5. The Square of Moon and Solar Orb afflicts the Hyleg.
6. Herschel in Aquarius . . .
7. Neptune and Venus in the Bull . . .1
Can these details be combined into a coherent picture? It is, after all, one of the virtues of astrological analysis as an analytical tool that a ‘rational’ depiction of a given configuration will provide its own checks and balances. The details in a configuration of any complexity should square with each other. In this case, however, one element at least proves to be self-betraying, even when taken in isolation. To say with Kennedy (255) that Mars’ ‘having just set’ intimates no more than that the planet is (inertly) ‘placed below the eastern horizon’ would be to blind oneself to plain language, let alone to astrology/astronomy. The astronomical impossibility here is as flagrant as Henryson’s in the opening of the Testament of Cresseid, where he has Venus rising and the sun setting in the same sky.
Further evidence of Suk’s unorthodoxy appears in his substitutions of ‘the Serpent’ for Scorpio (item 2) and in his use of ‘Herschel’ for Uranus (item 6); but it is the supposed positions of Uranus and Neptune which clinch the issue as regards actuality—in the sense that one need proceed no further than there. Suk places Uranus in Aquarius (item 6) and Neptune in Taurus (item 7)—positions that the two planets had not occupied simultaneously since about 1885. Suk’s Thema, then, is not grounded in fact in the same way as are the locational details of the narrative. Do they nonetheless have a fictitious but still astrologically ‘rational’ base? Celia knew only the (undisclosed) year and date of Murphy’s birth (23), not the time or place: Suk’s Thema, however, begins ‘At time of Birth . . ..’ On the face of it this assertion could be taken in two ways: as authorially inconsistent (deliberately or inconsciously) with the information Celia provides, or as representing an arbitrary assumption made by Suk—that in the absence of a specified time of birth Murphy must be presumed to have been born when the degree of the zodiac occupied by the Sun lay in the ascendant. Beckett’s wry comment (ibid.) that ‘The science that had got over Jacob and Esau would not insist on the precise moment of vagitus’ would seemingly tend to favour the latter alternative (and on the strength of this we could conclude that Murphy was born on a Boxing Day). But having placed the sun in four degrees of Capricorn by this means, we are now obliged to examine whether that position will square with the explicit statements that the sun and moon are in quartile aspect (item 5) and that the moon is in 23 degrees of Scorpio (item 2). It quickly appears that it will not. If the Sun is at Capricorn 4 degrees and the moon at Scorpio 23, they will be a mere 41 degrees apart—less than half the explicitly stated distance between the two planets. Even astrologers will not round off or approximate to this gross extent, and we must therefore retreat from erroneous supposition (that the sun can legitimately be placed in the ascendant for lack of evidence to the contrary), and entertain, instead, the plain facts: the ascendant is defined by Capricorn 4 degrees, the moon is in Scorpio 23 degrees, and the sun is 90 degrees away from the moon. These specific conditions determine that the sun should be either in Leo 23 degrees or in Aquarius 23 degrees, depending on the direction in which the aspect is read. Can we, then, determine further in which direction the aspect should be taken? We could, if another detail could be satisfied. It will follow, if the moon is in Scorpio 23 degrees and the sun 90 degrees away in one direction or the other, that the positions which her maximum elongation from the Sun makes it possible for Venus to occupy must lie between Cancer 6 degrees and Libra 10 degrees (the sun being in Leo 23 degrees), or between Capricorn 6 degrees and Aries 10 degrees (the sun being in Aquarius 23 degrees). And from this elementary deduction it can be seen that neither of the two inferred positions for the sun will allow Venus to be located in Taurus. Thus, even on the slender evidence provided by Suk we can firmly deduce that the scheme is not ‘rational’ astrologically—even when we discount the absurdity of Mars’ behaviour.
Responsible critical accounts of the part played in the novel by the Thema should accommodate these considerations. The Thema has neither an actual nor a rational astrological base. It must be regarded, instead, as a poetically apt reflection of Murphy’s ill-starred condition. Were it possible for Mars to exhibit such ill-conditioned behaviour as to set in the East, it would do so for Murphy; and for him the presence of a planet in Aquarius ‘stops the water.’
Beckett later leaves it to the ‘curious reader’ to calculate how many seconds there are ‘in one dark night’ (224), the night which Neary thinks will be his last. A similar curiosity would here lead the reader to discover that Aquarius in fact belongs to the ‘airy,’ not to the ‘watery’ triplicity—this is one of Beckett’s several sleights of hand. Indeed, the novel begins with one, though it is not astrological. Murphy has seven scarves: ‘Two fastened his shins . . . one his thighs . . . two his breast and belly . . . one his wrists.’ Perhaps he should have throttled the phone with the seventh.
1 The Grove Press edition (1957), 32-3.