Joyce→ /Beckett/Joyce


David Hayman


The question of Beckett in relation to Joyce could be a fine test case for Harold Bloom’s theory about the anxiety of influence and creative misreading. In terms of that theory the later Beckett will occult and sublimate the Joycean roots, disclose himself by distorting his former model. It is already recognized that the early Beckett was influenced, reacting to, reflecting upon Joyce, that he was capable by the time he wrote Watt of beginning the ‘writing off’ process, a process of rejection followed more or less consciously by Joyce himself in relation to his own early influences. Recently, Barbara Gluck has written a whole book on the topic, confirming earlier findings but uncovering relatively little that is new or revealing about either Joyce or Beckett.1 I propose only to rediscover the topic in a general way, pointing up Joyce’s place in a panoply of influential writers, indicating similarities, and examining briefly two unexplored shared traits: the use of a complex voice and of self-generating texts.


Apart from the obvious use of puns, the tendency to call upon an encyclopedic range of associations, the more or less obvious allusions to moments in Joyce’s work, the occasional use of opposite equivalence (as in the obvious case of Molloy and Moran), apart from these what are the marks of Joyce’s impact on the later Beckett? Gluck has pointed to his use of cyclical development, a trait too common to have specifically Joycean roots, and I myself have spoken of his tendency toward inclusiveness, his archetypal thrust and, rightly or not, connected this with the Wake.2 But surely it is possible to go further than this. We might say that along with Céline, Kafka and Proust, though in a radically different way, Joyce gave Beckett a precedent for the sort of intercraneal discourse that characterizes the later prose. The locus of Finnegans wake, like Beckett’s trilogy, is the individual psyche of a stylized individual and by extension that of the reader. The Joycean theatre is clearly the human brain in which civilization sleeps. Though his vision of that situation is perhaps more positive than Beckett’s, it is noteworthy that neither of them sees it as a heroic arena, that both find in it the detritus of life and of the living process, the picnic litter of past times’ pastimes. In both cases the reader is obliged to create his/her own space in the inner universe, to participate in a sort of intransitive discourse, one that bears no fixed meaning in relation to external reality, which tends in fact to destroy referentiality and with it the reader’s sense of balance.


Along these lines, Joyce also provided a model for a major attribute of Beckett’s work, the suspension of the suspension of disbelief or better the unwilling suspension of belief. This is a deliberate play upon the reader’s urge or impulse to accept as valid that which is presented as a controlled fiction. Beginning with the headlines in ‘ ‘Æolus’, Joyce, like Sterne and few other writers since the eighteenth century, has refused to play the reader’s game, has insisted on violating the apparent decorum of his own work by introducing non-conforming literary techniques into the fabric of his discourse. Beckett, has always found ways to undermine credibility, to underscore artifice. We might point to the Sternian narrators of More pricks, Murphy and Watt with their recurrent interpolations, or to the underlying narrative strategies of the trilogy and the later fictions. But in neither Joyce nor Beckett is suspension of the suspension of disbelief dependent only on narrative hi-jinks. The Beckettian circumstance itself undermines credulity. If Molloy seems to some a viable character, what do we make of Moran taking up in his wake, a palpable music-hall straight man, an absurd private eye whose discourse turns him gradually into a clown? It is the attainment of belief on another, deeper level of awareness that characterizes both Beckett and Joyce, the affirmation of flux as an essential component of our experience. While affirming this, we must not overlook the obvious differences: the amplitude of Joyce’s vision, the minimal-art quality in Beckett’s; the fact that the post-war Beckett chooses to write pellucid prose while Joyce deliberately squidscreens his very language; that Beckett develops a starkly human situation while Joyce, in the later work, lets experience shine darkly through his text. Still, both seem to achieve by means that are not unrelated a double reversal; the suspension of the suspension of disbelief imposes yet another suspension of disbelief.


To my mind, two other shared traits are even more striking than those listed above: firstly, self-generation/autodestruction, secondly the voice as medley. Joyce did not invent self-generation as a procedure, since almost any aesthetically viable text can be seen on inspection to grow out of its own inner needs. But Joyce’s later texts do seem to foreground their processes, to evolve not so much out of the necessity of plot, situation, or character as out of their own rhythmic and associative flux: ‘One word burrowing on another’ as Joyce puts it (Finnegans wake, 275). Beckett must have been aware of this when he collaborated in the translation of ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ or when he participated in the composition and revision of Finnegans wake. But in applying it to Molloy, for example, he had different ends in view. Joyce was building a world; Beckett was dismantling one, proving the verbal nature of the known, shaping the void. Beckett’s prime task was and is the evolving text which by its very progress denies its own existence and validity and which by means of such denials affirms its own existence in the presence of absence. The method in both cases is farcical. That is, in both cases language reenforces or subverts action by taking pratfalls. Life and language are held up to a ridicule which the reader experiences and in which he/she participates. Our laughter destroys not only the world we inhabit but also the language of the text that projects an image of that world. Take the following passage from Finnegans wake in which the thunder clap of parental applause/authority disperses the children at play in the chapter called by Joyce ‘The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies’:



            ‘For the Clearer of the Air from on high has spoken in tumbuldum

            tambaldam to his tembledim tombaldoom worrild and, moguphon-

            oised by that phonemanon, the unhappitents of the earth have

            terrerumbled from fimament unto fundament and from tweedledee-

            dums down to twiddledeedees.

            ‘Loud, hear us!’

            ‘Loud, graciously hear us!’3


Among the generating principles operating here beyond the situation of parental applause/command is a cluster of oppositions: between the elevated and the debased, the serious and the comic, the divine and the mundane, the sad or even catastrophic and the hilarious. Thus we have references to the Egyptian Book of the Dead (‘For the Clearer of the Air from on high’), to Carroll’s Through the looking glass (‘tweedledeedumms’ etc.), to the Fall (‘tumbuldum’ etc.), to a prayer to the Christian God, to the rumbling of bowels (‘terrerumbled from firmament unto fundament’), to human misery (‘unhappitents of the earth’), etc. etc. These references tend to interlock and perpetuate themselves in such a way that the Tweedledee allusion calls forth its echo syllables and derives from the fall which is also that of Humpty Dumpty/HCE, another Carrollian figure. The expression ‘the unhappitents of the earth’ (which itself conceals self-generated details like ‘tent’ and ‘inhabitants’) leads quite openly to the pun on earth/terre in ‘terre-rumbled,’ a word that contains both the fear of the terrians and the rumble of the thunder-god while at the same time preparing for the rumble of the bowels mentioned earlier. Not only are joy and terror united, but practically every element in the passage conceals its own negation, or finds a precise negative echo. Statement in Joyce is always ready to give way to anti-statement, although no true synthesis is elicited and the dynamic of the word persists. This is of course only the sketchiest possible treatment of Joycean auto-generation/destruction, but it will enable us to compare and contrast it with Beckett’s use of a similar device for very different ends, noting that both writers draw much of their material from a text that perceptibly folds in on itself.


Self-generation/auto-destruction in Beckett is perhaps best illustrated by the Unnamable’s telling and untelling of its self. But, even earlier, the voice of Molloy provides us with many examples of telling ex nihilo, of words generating words which are later erased. The following passage shows him in the process of generating the details of a landscape out of the concept of the men A and C and finally out of the language itself. The conventions of Naturalist discourse are under fire here as a Naturalist text responds to its own givens, and each phrase calls forth amplification:


            Each went on his way, A back towards the town, C on by ways he

            seemed hardly to know, or not at all, for he went with uncertain step

            and often stopped to look about him, like someone trying to fix

            landmarks in his mind, for one day perhaps he may have to retrace

            his steps, you never know. The treacherous hills where fearfully he

            ventured were no doubt only known to him from afar, seen perhaps

            from his bedroom window or from the summit of a monument which,

            one black day, having nothing in particular to do and turning to height

            for solace, he had paid his few coppers to climb, slower and slower,

            up the winding stones. From there he must have seen it all, the plain,

            the sea, and then these selfsame hills that some call mountains,

            indigo in places in the evening light, their serried ranges crowding to

            the skyline, cloven with hidden valleys that the eye divines from

            sudden shifts of colour and then from other signs for which there are

            no words, nor even thoughts.4


Molloy continues by calling forth other tropes, but this may be enough to make the point, especially if we see that the passage which generates the experience of a third party is, in many respects, similar to the locus classicus of Joycean composition of place, the ‘Parable of the Plums,’ another selfgenerating narrative. It is to Stephen Dedalus’s method that reference is covertly being made here. But Molloy goes further (much as Stephen does in ‘Scylla and Charybdis’), making the accidents of this passage the essentials of what follows. A is dismissed from the narrative, brushed off by the pursuit of a history and motivation for C who quickly takes on the density of a novelistic persona; the sea eventually generates the seashore at which Molloy spends time later in the narrative. But the sea reference itself seems to derive from the liquid component in Molloy’s description of the rolling landscape.


In this same passage we have inklings of what I mean by ‘the voice as medley,’ a technique introduced early in Finnegans wake and especially evident in passages seemingly in a single voice. In such monologues, although the register seems stable, we find fragments in various voices run together with borrowings from literature and even popular discourse. The procedure is a modification of formulaic composition and as such is not rare in fiction. It is a continuation of the style indirecte libre which inserts the persona’s voice into the texture of the narrator’s discourse. The difference here is that the alien voice penetrates the discourse of a seemingly stable persona. Both Beckett and Joyce foreground the disjunctions, under-cutting the seamless discourse of the unified persona. A certain coherence persists, but only within a random field as a quality among others and then largely through the tenacious efforts of the reader who must at all costs make sense of the verbal experience. The prime example of this in the Wake is the inquisition chapter of Book III where all voices emanate from the recumbent Shaun. But perhaps more interesting is the following passage from Book I, section 6, in which the young Issy lectures her ambiguous (androgynous?) lover:


            I know, pepette, of course, dear, but listen precious! Thanks pette,

            those are lovely, pitounette, delicious! But mind the wind, sweet!

            What exquisite hands you have, you angiol, if you did’nt gnaw your

            nails, isn’t it a wonder you’re not achamed of me, you pig, you

            perfect little pigaleen! I’ll nudge you in a minute! I bet you use her

            best Persian smear off her vanity table to make them look so rosetop

            glowstop nostoI know her. Slight me, would she? For every got I

            care! Three creamings a day, the first during her shower and wipe off

            with tissue. Then after cleanup and of course before retiring. Beme

            shawl, when I think of that espos of a Clancarbry, the foodbrawler, of

            the sociationist party with hiss blackleaded chest, hello, Prendregast!

that you, Innkipper, and all his fourteen other fullback maulers or

            hurling stars or whatever the dagos they are, baiting at my Lord

            Ornery’s, just becups they won the egg and spoon there so ovally

            provencial at Balldole. (Finnegans wake, 144)


At first glance this seems a fairly unified voice, if outrageously flirtatious and coy. But closer study shows it to be an amalgam of (or perhaps we should say that it tends to alternate between) the childish Issy voice and the mature voice of ALP, between Issy’s sweet voice and her dark and sadistic one. In short it contains elements from several, if not all, aspects of the female persona plus a variety of literary and popular voices. The tone shifts from pleasant to angry, from sweet to perverse, and even includes a fully developed commercial for a skin cream. But the principal shift is from the childish voice to an echo of the mature one, of ALP as letter writer. The final sentence is a clear reference to the style of her famous missive, the apologetic ‘Letter’ that the reader will first encounter only at the end of the book, some 470 pages later. We note, among other things, the direct address to the absent one whose ‘hiss’ links him to the serpent in ALP’s garden: ‘Wriggling reptiles take notice,’ she says, after describing her beloved and benighted husband as ‘hairy of chest’ (Finnegans Wake, 616). But it is the general tonality with its direct address that points up the relationship between our passages, though Issy is at this point less emphatic than ALP, being, after all, one of the ‘two Peris’ (see the ‘best Perisian smear’) or temptresses who caused the fall in the Phoenix Park encounter of which ALP speaks in the following extract:


            How delitious for the three Sulvans of Dulkey and what a sellpriceget

            the two Peris of Monacheena! Sugars of lead for the chloras ashpots!

            Peace! He possessing from a child of highest valency for our privi-

            leged beholdings ever complete hairy of chest, hamps and eyebags

            in pursuance to salesladies’ affectionate company. His real devotes.

            Wriggling reptiles, take notice! Whereas we exgust all such sprink-

            ling snigs. They are pestituting the whole time never with standing . . .

            (Finnegans wake, 616).


Both discourses contain all sorts of foreign matter, of course. Song tags, citations, clichés and bits of formal discourse mingle with commercials, echoes from within the text itself, etc. But note particularly the expressions of anger and outrage. The reference to ‘sellpriceget’ is a citation from Issy, whose presence infiltrates this passage as the seductress of the fall. The full range of tonalities cannot be studied here, but it is clear that as sentence follows sentence we dip into a variety of shifting masks as well as moods.


In the Beckett passage cited earlier, there is an inkling of the medley effect, although one would need a much longer sample to make its nature transparent. Here again the register seems stable even though, on a second reading, we may begin to recognize amongst the tonalities of Molloy the intonations of Moran. In Molloy Beckett has challenged himself to undermine and maintain the oldest and solidest pillar of narrative discourse, the first-person speaker (reliable and unreliable), and has done this without recourse to an obviously heterogeneous overarching style (like Joyce’s in the Wake). In this passage the matter-of-fact voice of the narrator is interspersed with a variety of elevated and cliched utterances. Typically there is the heavily qualified aside: ‘for one day perhaps he may have to retrace his steps, you never know”. This uncertainty is generated by the imagined uncertainty of C, who ‘seemed hardly to know’. In a radically different and comically more assured voice, Molloy falls into the lyrical clichés of the composition of place generated by the ‘treacherous hills’. A little later on the same page we find a remarkable sentence alliterating in s, n and r and broken by random ejaculations:


            He looks old and it is a sorry sight to see him solitary after so many

            years, so many days and nights unthinkingly given to that rumour

            rising at birth and even earlier. What shall I do? What shall I do? now

            low, a murmur, now precise as the headwaiter’s And to follow? and

            often rising to a scream. (Molloy, 11)


Here the sentence melts at one point into the utterance of the imaginary persona, and it is of course to such internally motivated modifications of voice that the text owes much of its interest. Ultimately, by virtue of Molloy’s intransigence, they define the speaker so well that we tend to overlook the heterogeneous texture and to assume a nonexistent coherence. This is one of the miracles and joys of both the Beckettian and the Joycean text, the stillness comprised of motion.


1 Beckett and Joyce: friendship and fiction, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

2 ‘Some Writers in the Wake of the Wake’ in Writers in the wake of the WAKE, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978, 12-18.

3 Finnegans wake, New York: Viking Press, 1958, 258. Future references in the text are to this edition.

4 Molloy, New York: Grove Press, 1955, 10-11.