The guffaw of the Abderite: “Murphy” and the Democritean universe


Sylvie Debevec Henning


            . . .Democritus, thought by the ancients to be Plato’s equal and, so

            far as ingenuity is concerned, his superior...

            Nietzsche, Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks


Most critics seem ready to agree that Murphy is “an illustration of philosophic principles” or, more precisely, of a particular set of philosophic principles, viz., those of Arnold Geulincx, the Belgian disciple of Descartes.1 This essay will argue, however, that the novel, rather than illustrating a particular philosophical system, is instead a satire on what is perhaps the dominant strain of the Western tradition: “monism,” understood as a general term for the belief in the possibility of ultimate totalization and identity. Monism, then, would take in the extreme singularism of Parmenides and Spinoza, the realism of William of Champeaux and Oswald Külpe, Gestalt psychology, as well as the monadism of Leibniz, to mention only a few of the doctrines alluded to in the novel itself.


It might be objected that many prominent philosophical systems are dualist rather than monist (e.g., the Platonic dualism of intelligible and sensible world, the Cartesian dualism of thinking and extended substance, or the Hegelian dualism of subject and object (or Geist and Natur). Yet, in the end, the difference between monism and dualism is perhaps more apparent than real, since the latter, like the former, posits as its ultimate goal self-identity. This may be attained in two basic ways. The two elements of the dyad may be considered complementary so that together they form a basic, unified totality. This approach involves a denial (most often implicit) of all similarity between the two elements and an effort to treat them as opposites. The elements are thus rendered completely different so that the opposition may be subsequently overcome in a synthesizing or sublimating moment. This is the case in the Hegelian dialectical process. Alternately, one element may dominate to the total exclusion or elimination of the other. In this way, both the Platonic and the Cartesian dualisms, for example, come to privilege mind, in one form or another, over matter.


All these systems, whether monist or dualist, seem to manifest a desire to reduce or suppress whatever is deemed incapable of being completely integrated into an all encompassing union. These frightening elements, like the traces of similarity within supposed opposites or those of difference within apparent identities, resist complete assimilation, thereby thwarting the ancient desire for plenitude and perfect self-perception.’2 They may be seen as contributing to what Beckett has called the “mess” that “invades our experience at every moment.” The task of the artist (or the thinker), he continues, is “to find a form that accommodates the mess.”3


Returning to Murphy, this essay will argue, moreover, that it may be seen as a particular kind of philosophical satire—a Menippean satire—for it engages us in the adventures of an idea in the world. These adventures challenge a philosophical “truth” by embodying it in a seeker or seekers who quest after this “truth.” It should be emphasized that the various episodes are not meant as positive illustrations of the idea, but instead as situations in which the idea can be provoked and, most importantly, tested.4 We might here recall the statement that follows a series of philosophical references at the beginning of the screenplay to Film: “No truth value attaches to above, regarded as merely of structural or dramatic convenience.”5 Murphy himself, the “seedy solipsist,” appears, of course, as the principal seeker in this Menippea, yet he is not alone. All the characters, with the possible exception of Celia, are also monists of one sort or another. They are all Morphe, the various forms of monism found in the dream of Western metaphysics, a dream expressing the inextinguishable desire for unity and ultimate reconciliation.


But what of Democritus? How does the Abderite and his theory fit into this Menippean satire? Democritean Atomism directly confronts the issue of the relation between monism and dualism in the domain of natural philosophy, or what would today be called natural science. Rejecting, at least in principle, Parmenidean monism, Leucippus, the founder of the Atomist theory, had posited a dualism of atom and void. This dualism, however, was really a monism in disguise, for the atom, the basic building block, was still perceived as a plenum like the Eleatic sphere of Being. Although surrounded by void, it contained no void itself and was, therefore, an indivisible unity. Democritus, however, dissatisfied with his teacher’s theory, attempted to set up what might be described, after Schopenhauer’s scornful comment, as truly a system of physics without metaphysical implications.6 Democritean Atomism thwarts any attempt to synthesize the dyad or make its elements completely complementary by the way in which it defines atoms and space. Furthermore, the dynamic relation between these two elements, as well as within atoms or groups of atoms, appears to allow for that “messy” (some might say “chaotic”) interplay which disturbs more traditional systems. The Abderite did not, however, limit himself to the elaboration of a physics, but also wrote, among other treatises, an epistemology and an ethics. All these theories can be seen as interconnected, since it was assumed that the human being was a. microcosm whose structure paralleled that of the macrocosm.7 It is therefore not as strange as one might think to find the laughing philosopher of antiquity commenting ironically on Murphy’s quest for wholeness.


Although Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan are clearly aggregates of atoms, they nonetheless aspire to be Leucippean plena—totally corporeal and homogenous. Murphy too seeks such unity. Yet he is somewhat different in that his sought-after plenitude is mental rather than physical. The similarity of these quests should not, however, be underestimated.


Murphy would like to be a mental plenum, mere mind unencumbered by body. His passion for this life of the little world, as he calls it, is the result of his belief in a radical mind/body dichotomy. The mind, he asserts, is “bodytight” and only in this hollow sphere, far from the turmoil and emotions of the big world, can the self truly come “alive.” Murphy does not seem to prefer any particular philosophical means to attaining his end; in fact, “any solution would do,” the narrator tells us, “that did not clash with the feeling, one that grew stronger as he grew older, that his mind was a closed system, subject to no principle of change but its own, selfsufficient and impermeable to the vicissitudes of the body” (109).8 Samuel Mintz has discussed the relation between Murphy’s quest and the “Geulincxian solution” that calls for a renunciation of the world and a cultivation of the mind as the only place where the self can be free and effectual. And Murphy does not shrink from such ascetic requirements; indeed, his whole life is a series of attempts, only fitfully successful, to withdraw into the mind.9


At this point Democritus’s first guffaw breaks in to disturb Murphy’s attempt to follow Geulincx in repudiating the world in order to cultivate the mind. The Abderite, a confirmed materialist, finds the idea quite amusing and would like to set Murphy straight about this supposed mind/body dualism. Inheriting from Leucippus the general conception that the soul or vital principle is corporeal, he believes both body and soul to be made up of atoms. These atoms differ only in their rhythms, soul-atoms having the same rhythm as fire-atoms and being consequently more mobile than body-atoms. The soul, he asserts, is distributed all over the body. Indeed Democritus tells us that “the soul moves the body in which it is situated, even as it is moved itself.” Soul, not body, is the agent, for it is the cause of sensation and movement. This does not, however, constitute a dualism. Although Democritus describes the body as the soul’s “instrument” or “tent,” he nonetheless perceives it as absolutely essential to the integrity of the soul. Unlike the Aristotelian nous, “which is itself only when separated” or the Platonic soul for which the body is a moral nuisance, the Democritean soul would dissolve if deprived of the body. It is, therefore, not “bodytight,” nor the body “soultight.” But what of mind? It and the soul are the same, only the mind is considered an aggregate of unmixed soul-atoms situated, it appears, in or near the heart. It is the cause and seat of thought. Thought, however, cannot survive without sensation, for conceptions or mental constructs are only refined sensual perceptions. In an important fragment, attributed to Democritus by Galen, the senses respond to the mind’s desire to acquire knowledge alone: “Wretched mind, do you, who get your evidence from us, yet try to overthrow us? Our overthrow will be your downfall.” An early warning to those who, like Murphy, would seek to retreat into the little world unfortunately goes unheeded.10


But Murphy’s retort is ready: even in the materialism of the Atomist, the mind (or, more precisely, the soul) appears to most commentators to have priority.11 The Democritean man, no less than the Cartesian, seeks to reduce the bodily desires so that he can attain the kresis of “well-being.” It is of course true that the cheerfulness for which the Abderite was famous throughout the ancient world is a result of a condition of mind not of body, although, as we have seen, the two cannot really be separated. He conceives of the ultimate good in the moral world as a ‘self-sufficiency’ resulting from “moderation of enjoyment and harmony of life.” “Undismay” he calls it. Self-centered and cautious inactivity, rather than frantic activity, seems one way to such inner kreisis, for it is “great movements” or “movements over large intervals” in the soul which prevent it from being “cheerful” and “steadfast.” Steadfast is said here to build a verbal bridge between moral stability and physical order. Motions of wide amplitude are excluded from both realms as prejudicial to the soul. It was, in fact, a common idea among the ancients that violent organic motion was injurious to health in general and mental health in particular: “A man is in the best possible condition where there is complete coction and rest.” Rest is here associated with “coction” and related, by some commentators, to “balance” and “blending.’12


Could this not perhaps describe the balanced rhythm of Murphy’s rocking chair? As it moves to and fro, he slowly begins to feel better. The rocking carries Murphy through the first zone of his mind, that of light and reprisal, into the half-light of the second: ‘Here the pleasure was contemplation . . . . Here was the Belacqua bliss and others scarcely less precise’ (111). In this zone, Murphy ‘felt sovereign and free . . . to move as he pleased from one unparalleled beatitude to another’ (112).


Here we must stop to allow Democritus to speak again. He is quite annoyed at the mess Murphy has made of his notion of rhythmic kresis. Democritean ‘undismay’ has little to do, despite some superficial similarities, with the vegetation of Ante-Purgatory.”13 The doxographers were mistaken to equate it with an imperturbability that blocks action by denying the very existence of all stimuli.’14 Undismay, on the contrary, does not deny the new but rather goes toward it, investigating it in order to adapt it to the wise man’s needs. Consequently, it is not a passive state at all but rather the dynamic quality that enables the soul to withstand external shock without disturbing its ‘balance’ or ‘well-being.’15


In order to understand what the Atomist means by dynamic kresis, then, we must look at what he means by ‘being,’ i.e., the nature of the atom. Democritus maintains that atoms are characterized by ‘rhythm,’ ‘touching,’ and ‘turning.’ Atoms, he suggests, are like letters of the alphabet: A differs from N in ‘rhythm,’ AN from NA in ‘touching,’ and Z from N in ‘turning.’”


Recent studies have pointed out the difficulties of interpreting the word ‘rhythm.’ It appears, however, from the example of the letters, that rhythm refers to the internal arrangement of parts. A and N share two similar legs; only the third is different, being interior in A and exterior in N.17 Thus the atoms seem to be composed of parts, perhaps not actually separable (the pre-Socratic Atomists could not conceive of splitting the atom), but surely somehow articulated. (This does not appear to have been made explicit by Democritus, but it follows from his discussion of the internal motion of atoms.) If the atom were not somehow articulated, there would be no way of accounting for the inner motion that the Abderite considered its basic inherent quality. Atomic rhythm also suggests that a kind of space exists within the atom, since motion is only possible where there is separation. The atom, therefore, is not a rigid entity, a fixed static form or morphe as Aristotle contended. It is not, in other words, the product of a process. Rather, the atom appears as the process by which it perpetually fashions itself out of itself. Neither does Democritus appear to equate rhythm with eidos, i.e., the visible Gestalt insofar as it is perceived. Rhythm here seems instead to indicate the manner of the atom’s endless self-fashioning. The atom, then, ‘is’ not; it is constantly becoming. It never was nor ever will be at rest; it exists as eternally in motion.18


Rhythm kresis describes, then, not so much a ‘well-being,’ as a ‘wellbecoming.’ It is a dynamic condition that necessarly involves movement and, therefore, inner space.19 Consequently, it disturbs the Leucippean conception of the atom as a self-identical plenum and, at the same time, Murphy’s quest for oneness. And our solipsist seems to have sensed as much. Even when he retreats into the microcosm of his mind, he finds that there, too, he is not one with himself. Murphy’s mind, after all, is described as a miniature of the macrocosm, including, therefore, both empty space and perpetual becoming (107). Moreover, Murphy’s mind has levels, and he is constantly moving among them as among his treasures (111). Such movement, no matter how pleasureful, is a persistent reminder of the existence of the space within.


We have already considered the first of the three atomic characteristics. Let us now look at the second, ‘turning.’ The Abderite would not have agreed with Aristotle’s rendering of ‘turning’ as position. If the atom were fixed or set in place, it, and by analogy Murphy, would never have to move or change. Instead, the atom appears to be self-turning. It moves by itself out of itself into empty space. This suggests that just as the atom is not fixed, neither is space static. They are but moments in an enduring motion, both internal and in relation to other spaces and atoms. The result of such turning is touching; or more precisely touching is not a fixed resultant arrangement of atoms, but rather a moment in a process of perpetual self-motion in conjunction with others. This process is more one of dovetailing than of simple superficial contact. So, the atom finds itself in a perpetual condition of having already dovetailed itself with other atoms. It is, in other words, always engaged or entangled with others; it cannot exist in isolation. Atoms, then, are but moments in an eternal process of agitation or motion. Moving about hither and thither, up and down and in every which way, they are always colliding and jostling—like ‘motes in a sunbeam’ says Democritus or like the kites in Mr Kelly’s sky (152)—as they pass about and through one another. In this process they sometimes come together to form aggregates and eventually worlds. These aggregates and worlds are themselves (in) a process of perpetual agitation.


Such agitation reminds one of Schopenhauer’s conception of the world-as-will. The world-as-will is the world of becoming and passing away. It is a world of obstinate, blind, impetuous desire which objectifies itself in progressive stages, beginning with the forces of nature and terminating with the will-to-live and tile products of its urges. Will is insatiable, for it has no precise goal, but rather drives on blindly towards ever changing objects. Will might then be said to resemble the continuous movement of atoms towards and into one another through space (itself neither static nor absolute). If will or desire is analogous to striving or moving toward, then it is an inherent quality of the Democritean atom no less than of the Schopenhauerian world.20 So desire can never be totally satisfied; stasis never attained. The quantum of wantum, after all, never varies.


Murphy, then, like the atom, ‘is’ not. He exists in a constant inner process of becoming. Not only is his mind perpetually in motion, but he also cannot eliminate the (at least partial) congruence of mind and body. He finds it impossible to deny his ‘small but implacable appetite’ (81), as well as ‘his deplorable susceptibility to Celia, ginger, and so on’ (179). Murphy, it seems, is particularly susceptible to those things that are most destined to disturb his closed system, e.g., ginger and Celia. Both are stimulants and both are, oddly enough, connected with the chaos of gas, ginger as a carminative and Celia as a celestial whore (176). ‘Willfulness,’ it seems, is a fundamental part of Murphy’s nature.


Clearly Murphy would never be satisfied with such a conception, and it is inevitable that he should reject it in favour of something more stable and more precisely determined. The rhythm of the rocking chair, no matter how misunderstood, is not enough. He finds that the freedom of the half-light still requires too great’an element of effort’ (113). For Murphy is addicted to the dark (26), to the darkness of that will-lessness he believes he has attained when, the rocking chair dead still, he enters the third zone of his mind. Geulincxian asceticism had suggested ‘the desired direction’ in ‘beautiful Belgo-Latin: Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis’ (178). ‘But it was not enough,’ the narrator goes on, ‘to want nothing where he was worth nothing, nor even to take the further step of renouncing all that lay outside the intellectual love in which he alone could love himself, because there alone he was lovable. It had not been enough and showed no signs of being enough’ (179). Murphy has to find a better way of quieting his will, of eliminating all his desires and preferences, of arresting the movement within him.


The only way to quiet the will entirely is to deny it categorically by retreating from the world. Having rejected Democritus, Murphy turns, in his own misguided way, to the Abderite’s enemy, Schopenhauer. In order to strip away (he thinks) the world-as-will, Murphy takes employment in an insane asylum.21 There, among the inmates, he finds a truly will-less man, or so it seems, Mr Endon. Murphy would like to imagine himself as (one with) Endon. To this end, i.e., in order to penetrate Endon’s solitude, to force Endon to admit him into the inner sanctum of his will-less mind, Murphy confronts him across a chessboard. The result is the curious game known as Endon’s Affence or Zweispringerspott. What interests us here is Murphy’s withdrawal at the crucial moment. With the forty-third move he surrenders. The next move would have told Murphy whether Endon perceives him or not, whether Murphy exists for Endon or not. Faced with an either/or choice, with a sort of boundary situation, Murphy refuses to choose. He denies his will to know and, at that moment, with all the possibilities before him, like all the possible permutations of the five cookies in the park, Murphy experiences the nothingness that Schopenhauer describes as the Nirvana of will-lessness:


            . . .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 naught is more real. Time did not cease, that would be asking too much, but the wheel of rounds and pauses did, as Murphy with his head among the armies continued to suck in, through all the posterns of his withered soul, the accidentless One-and-Only, conveniently called Nothing (246).23


Murphy’s moment of peace, however, is short-lived and later, staring into Mr Endon’s eyes, he understands why. Deirdre Bair has suggested one possible interpretation. Endon’s mind appears to be closed; he needs nothing, he wants nothing. But Murphy has not been able to give up wanting to reach Endon.24 Now having found his last desire, Murphy has perhaps also found the solution. Rushing to his garret, he attempts to set his mind at rest one last time. Inadvertently, without willing it, he commits suicide: the perfect Schopenhauerian act.25


Here the Abderite’s guffaw rings out again, louder than before. Murphy has gone to his death for misinterpreting the famous Democritean pun: ‘Nothing is more real than nothing.’ The Atomist theory, it should be recalled, is founded on the conception of infinite particles in an infinite void. This means that Democritus had to tackle the problem of empty space, whose existence the Eleatics had denied. His solution, like that of Leucippus, is to assert that the atom has the only existence. Atoms are ‘the real things,’ and to describe them he invented the word ‘thing’ (or ‘hing’) as the opposite of nothing (‘no-thing’ or ‘not-hing’). Furthermore, he insists that the void does exist. Consequently, Leucippus’s defense of the existence of the void appears in Democritus as ‘the thing does not exist any more than the void.’ The Abderite went on to modify his teacher’s theory in order to clarify this conception. Leucippus had spoken of the void as the ‘not-real’ or the ‘non-existent.’ Democritus, by taking advantage of the distinction between the two Greek negatives, is able to distinguish the void whose existence he affirms from absolute nonexistence or nothingness which he denies. The void or space is not ‘the real,’ i.e., atom, neither is it the ‘not-real,’ i.e., nothingness, that which does not exist at all; it is only ‘unreal.’26 He thus seems to be saying that the ‘space’ between things or atoms, i.e., the no-thing, the gap, exists just as does the thing itself. It does not have ‘being,’ anymore than the atom does.27 If it did, it would ‘be’ although negatively, absolute fullness and absolute nothingness coming to the same thing in the end.


Stated in another way, the Atomist’s aphorism becomes, ‘no-thing, i.e., space or ‘void,’ is more real than nothing, i.e., nothingness.’ Or, as Murphy’s narrator puts it: ‘Naught is more real than nothing’ (246). Naught, zero, absence, space—these may be said to exist (although never absolutely); nothingness does not. Murphy’s quest for integral peace seems consequently a quest after an illusion. What he may find is an ‘absence’ of sorts, but surely not ‘nothingness.’ Let us look again carefully at Murphy’s experience of nothingness. After surrendering in the chess game, Murphy swoons onto the board and then begins ‘to see nothing, that colourlessness which is such a rare postnatal treat, being the absence (to abuse a nice distinction) not of percipere but of percipi’ (my emphasis added). Murphy seeing nothing is Murphy not being seen by Endon. It is also, however, Murphy seeing ‘that Mr Endon was missing’ (246). Seeing nothing, then, is really seeing no-thing, i.e., ‘seeing’ and ‘absence,’ seeing that something is missing. This distinction between space (as ‘absence’) and nothingness is emphasized throughout the novel. We often find that an expression like ‘not a thing escaped him’ (23) is repeated several pages later as ‘Mr Kelly missed nothing’ (25). And, as if in response to the Schopenhauerian quest for the positive annihilation of Nirvana, Murphy does not end with the word Nothing, as does The world as will and representation, but with ‘all out.’


So ‘the legitimate knowledge of the mind’ acquired by Murphy as he stares into Endon’s eyes—‘the last at last seen by him/himself unseen by him/and of himself’ (250)—this ‘sight of things unseen,’ to borrow an expression from Anaxagoras,28 may be said to be that the final realities are atoms and space. As a speck in Endon’s unseen, in other words, Murphy is still a ‘thing’ separated from Endon by (a) ‘space.’ Murphy had already sensed this and it had caused him great pain: ‘In short there was nothing but he, the unintelligible gulf and they. That was all. All. ALL’ (240).


Furthermore, a similar space had already appeared within Murphy’s own mind when, in the third zone, he found himself ‘a mote in the darkness of absolute freedom.’ It was in an attempt to eliminate this space which separated him from the dark that he abandoned his rocking chair for the rounds of the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. Yet the space still remains. At first it is covered up by ‘the vicarious autology’ he enjoys ‘in little Mr Endon and all the other proxies’ (189) during his daytime duty. During the night shift, however, he has to face once again his divided self, his ‘unredeemed split self, now more than ever the best he could do and less than ever good enough’ (188). Thus it might be suggested that what Murphy realizes when he looks into Endon’s eyes is that he is both seen and unseen. Murphy sees himself, and at the same time sees himself unseen by Endon. In other words, he again sees himself as split, doubly split: as an ‘atom’ split from Endon with a ‘space’ between, and as an ‘atom’ split from itself, with ‘space’ within. Not only will he never be one with Endon, he will never be one with himself.


As he runs to his garret after this disturbing experience, Murphy’s mind is full of ‘scraps of bodies, of landscapes, hands, eyes, lines and colours evoking nothing’ (252). This ‘flux of forms’ could be described as chaos. Murphy, however, prefers to equate it with nothingness (‘evoking nothing’). Can nothingness and chaos be synonymous? The problem is not simply Murphy’s. The ancient world seems to have been of two minds on the subject. Hesiod speaks of chaos only as the ‘first arising.’ Since Aristotle this has been understood as empty or unlimited space, the void. In this sense it could be taken to mean the will-lessness or nothingness that Murphy seeks, although here again the Democritean denial of nothingness must be taken into account. Ovid, on the other hand, understands chaos differently as formless matter.29 This paradoxical expression suggests a general blending of apparent opposites, a blurring of distinctions, or a constant movement of one thing into another. We find another example of such dovetailing in the third zone of Murphy’s mind:


            The third, the dark, was a flux of forms, a perpetual coming together

and falling asunder of forms... [T]he dark [contained] neither

            elements nor states, nothing but forms becoming and crumbling into

            the fragments of a new becoming, without love or hate or any

            intelligible principle of change. Here there was nothing but commo-

            tion and the pure form of commotion (112).


This continuous becoming, which resembles the ‘rhythm,’ ‘touching’ and ‘turning’ of the Democritean atoms is described as ‘a tumult of non-Newtonian motion’ (113). The comparison is not gratuitous, for the pre-Socratic atomist theory seems closer to that of modern atomic physics than is generally believed.


The flux of opposites brings to mind Murphy both seen and unseen by Endon and by himself. What Murphy perceives here is not nothingness, but rather the ‘chaos’ of becoming. It is this ‘chaos,’ then, that destroys the possibility of plenitude, whether positive or negative. Moreover, ‘chaos,’ in the form of gas -’for him henceforth gas would be chaos, and chaos gas’ (175)—in the end destroys Murphy as well. Yet this is only the physical manifestation of that flow of ‘chaos’ which any closed system like Murphy’s cannot accommodate.


Returning to an earlier discussion, it seems possible to maintain that the continuous becoming that characterizes the Atomist universe includes a certain degree of ‘chaos,’ understood as the constant motion of one thing into another that blurs all clear distinctions. This ‘morsel of chaos’ (48), however, does not mean that the system is given over completely to random movement,30 but only that it allows for some playful leeway (or Spielraum) in accord with the characteristics of its constituent elements. Thus atomic ‘form,’ ‘position,’ and ‘arrangement’ in Aristotle’s terminology, may be experienced as static, but are actually conditions or moments (‘rhythm,’ ‘touching,’ and ‘turning’) in an ongoing process. Or rather they are true undecidables, to borow Gödel’s term, neither dynamic nor static but something in between.31 The Abderite’s theory, it appears, finds room, within the cosmological structure it proposes, to accommodate what Beckett described as ‘the mess.’


‘Chaos,’ then, thwarts all attempts to attain eternal plenitude and absolute stasis. It is the irrationality of the √2 which plays havoc with Pythagorean harmony, overturning as it does the settled belief that the rational domain will suffice to contain all conceivable entities and all practical operations. It is consequently related to that will-ful desire that so troubles all the monists of the novel, particularly Murphy himself. Murphy has, in fact, ‘such an irrational heart that no physician would get to the root of it’ (3). And like his inextinguishable passions, his ab-surd heart can intervene to disturb his retreat into the mind by literally bowling him over (30).


‘Chaos,’ moreover, intervenes not only to destroy Murphy’s closed system, but, in the form of gas, to destroy the integrity of its protagonist as well. A curious similarity can be noted between the set-up of Murphy’s radiator and the make-up of Murphy himself: ‘Infinite riches in a w.c.’ connected by a ‘psychosomatic fistula’ (218-19). Murphy cannot control the flow of gas from the w.c. into his garret. And it is an unexpected flow of gas that, when ignited by his candle, sets him aflame. This is only the concrete manifestation of that ‘flow of chaos’ released by the perception of Murphy both seen and unseen. The narrator describes the revelation Murphy receives when he stares into Endon’s eyes as an ‘afflatulence’ (250). While this denotes an inspired communication of knowledge, it also seems an ironic or carnivalizing comment on that inspiration, because of its proximity to flatulence and consequently to gas/chaos. (Such flatulence bothered the Pythagoreans as much as the √2, as is suggested by their refusal to eat beans. It might also be recalled that the suit Murphy wore ‘allowed none of Murphy’s own vapours to escape’ so that his bodily spirit might not be lost.) This perceptual or epistemological gas/chaos, when ignited by Murphy’s inner fire, leaves him ‘incandescent’ (250). He rushes to his rocking chair in an attempt to put out the flame before it causes him to explode (252). Murphy’s fire: fire associated with passions and desires; fire associated by the ancients with visual perception; fire associated with the Heraclitean interplay of opposites; fire, finally, associated with the Democritean soul with which it shares the same rhythm.32 Murphy, it appears, is destroyed when the gas/chaos of the big world comes into contact with the fire/chaos of the little world. His system, unlike that of the Abderite, simply cannot accommodate such a blow.


And so Democritus, who had warned Murphy that the mind was not a plenum, who had told him that his ‘willless suicide’ would not bring him to either fullness or nothingness, continues to laugh after his demise. Murphy’s quest has only led him to the crematorium where he is reduced mind, body and soul to ashes—ashes to be scattered on the bar-room floor by a drunken Cooper, atoms to be scattered about the big world (275).


Democritus the Abderite, it might be said in conclusion, attacked the foundations of monism through a radical redefinition of the nature of the universe. The revolutionary aspects of his theory, however, were unfortunately obscured by Plato and his disciples as they translated his works into their own ontologizing terms. Nevertheless the laughing philosopher survived, not only in the extant fragments of his treatises and the writings of commentators, but also in the Menippean satire. Long before his appearance in Beckett’s works, More pricks than kicks and Murphy, he figured prominently, for example, in the Hippocratean novel of the Renaissance.


Murphy, however, does more than simply parody the dominant Western tradition of monism (with all its possible morphe) by placing it in a kind of implicit dialogue with the pre-Socratic Atomist. It casts this dialogue in the form of a particular literary strain that the tradition has attempted to repress, i.e., the carnivalizing Menippean satire. This form is particularly appropriate since it makes room within its very structure for that dynamic play of possibilities, that perpetual change and motion which characterize the Democritean universe. It might then be said of Beckett what he said of Joyce: ‘His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” If Murphy appears as a farrago of philosophical systems, it may be in order to criticize those very systems for their inability to deal with such a ‘messy excess’ of vitality.



1 Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: a biography, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980, p219-229; Samuel Mintz, ‘Beckett’s Murphy a “Cartesian” Novel,’ Perspective, XI, Autumn, 1959, 156-165; Hugh Kenner, Samuel Beckett:   a critical study, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973, 83-91.

2 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. G. Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1976, 71.

3Beckett, quoted by Tom F. Driver in ‘Beckett by the Madeleine,’ Columbia University Forum, IV,  Summer, 1961, 23.

4 Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoievsky’s poetics, trans. R.W. Rotsel, Ann Arbor, Ardis, 1978, 94.

5 Samuel Beckett, Film, New York, Grove Press, 1969, 11

6 Arthur Schopenhauer, The world as will and representation, Vol. II, trans. E.F.J. Payne (1958; rpt. New York, Dover Publications, 1969), 174, 315-17.

7Kurt von Fritz, Philosophie and Sprachlicher Ausdruck bet Demokrit, Plato and Aristoteles (1938; rpt. Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgestellschaft, 1963, 12-38. I would like to thank Prof. Demetrius Moutsos for his help in interpreting the passages from Democritus in von Fritz’s text.

8Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938; rpt. New York, Grove Press, 1957). References will be made in the body of the text. U.K. edition John Calder.

9Mintz, 159.

10Cyril Bailey, The Greek Atomists arid Epicurus, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1928, 156, 157, 160, 179; Gregory Vlastos, ‘Ethics and Physics in Democritus,’ Philosophical review, 54, 1945), 579-80; Von Fritz, 22-3.

11 Bailey, 191, 194-5; Vlastos, 579.

12Vlastos, 583. The term kresis is a very difficult one to render. Vlastos translates it as balance, yet itseems closer to mixture. Similarly, ‘coction’ or pepsis refers to digestion and has therefore been linkedwith cooking. Neither term necessarily denotes perfect proportion. Instead, what is suggested is an aggregate of several substances not united chemically and which exist in no fixed proportion to one another. If this should seem to take us far from Murphy, we should simply recall that ‘few minds are better concocted then this Native’s’ (32) and that Murphy was in the habit of 'cooking' the rental bills he had sent to Mr Quigley. In both cases, 'coction' cannot simply be equated with balance and equilibrium.

13 Samuel Beckett, 'Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . .Joyce' in Our exagmination round his factification for incamination of work in Progress (1929; rpt. London: Faber and Faber, 1961), p. 21.

14 This may be viewed as an example of what Derrida has called in Positions (Paris, Minuit, 1972) the tendency to 'ontologize' the work of Democritus in the direction of Platonic concepts (p. 100), a tendency noticeable in both Bailey and Vlastos. Von Fritz, however, does not appear to share this Platonic prejudice and, therefore, his interpretation of the Abderite is strikingly different.

15 Von Fritz, p. 32; Vlastos, p. 583.

16 G.S. Kirk and J.E. Raven, The Presocratic philosophers (1957; rpt. Cambridge University Press, 1962), p. 407.

17 Emile Benveniste, 'La notion de "rhythme" dans son expression linguistique', in Problemes de linguistique generale, Paris, Gallimard, 1966, pp. 329-30.

18 Von Fritz, pp. 19, 26.

19 Ibid., pp. 27-8.

20 Cf. Bailey, p. 125, Schopenhauer, The world as will, Vol. I, pp. 117-18.

21 Murphy's retreat into the insane asylum is a misguided Schopenhauerian act because it misconstrues the nature of the insane. The insane, suggests Schopenhauer, attempt to turn their back on the world-as-will by repressing it. Yet this attempt to deny the will is a self-delusion because it is itself an act of will. It is 'the last resource of worried and tormented nature', i.e., of the will (World as will II, p. 401). Murphy, too, refuses to admit that the 'will-lessness' of the inmates is less than perfect (pp. 179-80).

23 The relationship between nothingness and plenitude is made apparent when this passage is compared with that of the biscuits (p. 97). There the refusal to choose, i.e., the abnegation of the will, leads to a sense of the fullness of possibility.

24 Bair, p. 226.

25 Murphy makes no attempt to hide his desire for death (e.g., after 'the Old Boy' commits suicide, p. 136) and appears to realize that his desire for peace is in fact a death-wish (p. 180). Yet a death-wish is still a wish, an act of the will. Schopenhauer is quite explicit in his condemnation of suicide as a way out of this world-as-will, for it is not a way out. Suicide is an act of the will that affirms one's Being-as-will at the moment when paradoxically it is being negated, precisely through that very act of negation. Schopenhauer's solution is a kind of wasting away in which one refuses to choose between life and death (World as will, vol. 1, pp. 398-402). Murphy's solution is similar. He makes no choice. Someone else will turn on the gas or not, this time or another.

26 Bailey, p. 118.

27 Von Fritz, p. 27.

28 Vlastos, pp. 589-90.

29 Hjalmar Frisk, Griechisches Etyrnologisches worterbuch, Band III, Heidelberg, Carl Winter Univesitatsverlag, 1970, pp. 1072-73.

30 Jean Bollack, Empedocles, Vol. I, Paris, Miriuit, 1965, p. 91, n. 4.

31 Von Fritz, p. 79.

32 Bollack, pp. 232, 83; Bailey, p. 102.

33 Beckett, 'Dante . . .', p. 14.