K R I S T I N C Z A R N E C K I
Signs I Dont Understand:Language and Abjection
Characters in Molloy, as in many of Becketts works, slide towardphysical, psychic, and narrative oblivion yet continue existing.Throughout their journeys, their self-reflexive narratives exposethe revulsion of being that is inherent in abjection, conceived ofby Julia Kristeva as the repulsion and attraction felt for that whichmenaces our sense of order, threatening the boundaries we tryto construct between psychosis and ourselves. Abjection, Kristevastates in Powers of Horror (1980), is our terror of and obsessionwith horror. Molloy, in the novels first section, and Jacques Moran,in the second, become abject by suppressing or rejecting ratherthan confronting what appalls and fascinates them, including eachother. Kristeva explains, I experience abjection only if an Other hassettled in place and stead of what will be me. Not at all an otherwith whom I identify and incorporate, but an Other who precedesand possesses me, and through such possession causes me to be(Kristeva, 1980, 10). Only then does the human perceive itself asheterogeneous, with his or her newfound subjectivity engendering[d]iscomfort, unease, dizziness stemming from an ambiguity that,through the violence of a revolt against, demarcates a space outof which signs and objects arise (Kristeva, 1980, 10).1 Closelytied to language, then, abjection also ties together Molloy andMoran, clarifying the parallels between them and their narrative
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endurance even as they encounter an inevitable process of fictionaldisintegration (Abbott, 1).2
From the start, Molloy manifests the multifaceted nature ofabjection, his opening words linking himself, his mother, andthe convoluted dynamics of language and narration. I am in mymothers room, he says from his bed, questioning his current statewhile longing to finish dying (Beckett, 1965, 7). First he musttell his story, so he writes pages collected and paid for each weekby an editor of sorts, perhaps more than one. The arrangementperplexes him, for when this person comes for the fresh pages,he brings back the previous weeks. They are marked with signsI dont understand. Anyway I dont read them, he claims (Beckett,1965, 7), establishing a narrative impasse even before his supposednarrative proper begins of his search for a lost mother, of crip-pled legs and defunct bicycles, of sucking stones and unsettlingskirmishes with language and words. He once had lovers andmay have a son, he says, in a monologue conflating the pretensesof narrative with bodily degeneration, as he struggles to recovermemories while detailing his torturous walk, his crutches, and theworsening stiffness in his legs.
Molloy also obsesses over his whereabouts. Leaving his mothershouse, he is arrested for being without papers and stands stiffly(sitting is painful) in a police station for a time. Upon his releasehe ends up in a ditch. Later he falls in with a woman, perhapsnamed Lousse, after accidentally killing her dog. Lousse invitesMolloy into her home, which might be a sanitarium, for his clothesare taken away, the windows are barred, and shards of glass linethe walls encircling the building. Unable to recall fourteen days ofhis life, a gap revealed to him by the phases of the moon (perhapstwo moons), he panics and wonders how he might reconstructthe time.3 Ultimately, he tells of wandering in open spaces, acrosshillsides and through forests, desperately trying to recall the nameof his town, as the abject asks, Where am I? instead of Who am I?,for the space that engrosses him is never one, nor homogeneous,nor totalisable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic(Kristeva, 1980, 8). The principal elements of abjection the mother,the body, language, and narrative comprise Molloys experience.
Using the first- and second-person to tell his story and pepperinghis narrative with questions, Molloy would seemingly affirm his
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existence by presuming that of an Other in the form of a reader orlistener. Language, and only language, instantiates an I, writesElin Diamond, by assuming, relationally, a you (Diamond,209). Indeed Molloys narrative assumes the form of a dialogue,if disjointed and one-sided, as he states, I dont work for money.For what then? I dont know. The truth is I dont know much.For example my mothers death. Was she already dead when Icame? he asks. A little more and youll go blind, he says, warningof the consequence of reflecting on the past (Beckett, 1965, 7).You go dumb as well and sounds fade. [. . . ] Its my fault. Fault?That was the word. But what fault? he wonders, one of manyquestions amid his disconnected observations (Beckett, 1965, 8). AsKristeva explains in her 1976 essay on Beckett, The Father, Love,and Banishment, Questioning is the supreme judicial act, for the Iwho asks questions, through the very act of asking these questions[. . . ] postulates the existence of the other (1980, 153).
Kristevas essay on Beckett warrants further attention for bothanticipating Powers of Horror and elucidating filial relationshipsin Molloy. Focusing on Becketts novella First Love (Beckett, 1974)and play Not I (Beckett, 1974), Kristeva posits the sons ritualbanishment of the father as an essential step in establishing hisidentity, for both texts model and criticise the construction ofmodern identity within the limits set by the repressive Father(Birkett, 1997, 4). With its Christian imagery of a fathers deathand the arrival of a child (First Love) along with a theme of oralitystripped of its ostentation the mouth of a lonely woman, face toface with God, face to face with nothing (Not I) (Kristeva, 1980,148), separation from the father in patriarchal society brings forththe waste and decay of abjection, as Molloy and Moran illustrate.Molloys uncertainty regarding the existence of a son exacerbateshis unsteady sense of self, while Morans son leaves him afterenduring years of humiliation at his hands.
In addition, Molloy and Moran are themselves without fathers,a condition further reflecting Kristevan duality: Father and Deathare united, she states, but still split and separate (Kristeva, 1980,149). Seeking the mother, then, Molloy could encounter abjectionspurification and repression, the other facet of religious, moral, andideological codes on which rest the sleep of individuals and thebreathing spells of societies (Kristeva, 1980, 209). Focusing on his
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mother may even lead him to love, for To love is to survive paternalmeaning. It demands that one travel far to discover the futile butexciting presence of a waste-object [. . . ]. This act of loving andits incumbent writing spring from the Death of the Father fromthe Death of the third person (Kristeva, 1980, 150) an entendrepointing to the first- and second-person narration of Molloy.Kristeva states:
the sons have given up any hope of either annexing,incorporating, or introjecting the fathers power and/or Death.They will remain forever separated from him; but, foreversubject to his hold, they will experience its fascination andterror, which continues to infuse meaning, dispersed as itmight be, into their absurd existence as wastrels. The onlypossible community is then centered in a ritual of decay, ofruin, of the corpse-universe of Molloy, Watt, and the rest oftheir company [. . . ]. (1980, 155)
Yet Molloys narrative method fails to ease his confusion, sinceseparating from the mother rather than merging with her isparamount to achieving subjectivity within patriarchy. His senseof an Other and the attendant forward momentum of narrativeclash with his concurrent drive to regress to the semiotic chora,defined by Kristeva in The Semiotic and the Symbolic (1974) andin Powers of Horror as the prelinguistic state of the womb wherelanguage, identity, and threats to identity do not yet exist; the chora,she explains, is the receptacle, the maternal body whose primaryprocesses swirl through and around the as yet unconstituted subject(Kristeva, 2002, 34). From this pregendered space of unifiedexistence (Hinnov, 175), we emerge into the symbolic, the realmof structured language and social order. Once there, recovering thesemiotic is impossible; we cannot go back. Because our capacityfor language our existence within the symbolic is what allowsus to conceive of and therefore desire a prelinguistic condition inthe first place, however, we face the unbearable and endless taskof finding a language to express our longing for prelanguage. Thesemiotic and the symbolic duel in Molloy, inseparable [as theyare] in the signifying process that constitutes language (Kristeva,1980, 34).4
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Molloy confronts the enigmatic nature of language early in hisnarrative. Describing a meeting between two strangers he seesor envisions, he mentions one of them overlooking a landscape,noting amid the colors numerous signs for which there are nowords, nor even thoughts (Beckett, 1965, 10). He admits a momentlater, however, that What I need now is stories (Beckett, 1965, 13),for as Kristeva says, Our discourse all discourse moves withand against the chora in the sense that it simultaneously dependsupon it and refuses it (Kristeva, 2002, 35), establishing thesemiotics coexistence with the symbolic. Throughout his narrative,Molloy encounters this simultaneity but fails to accept it, believinghe can eradicate language and especially metaphor when in fact hecan only reconceive them from within the symbolic.5
The difficulty in creating boundaries between linked entitiesbecomes clearer in Molloys visit with his mother. While languagecasts a pall on him wherever he goes, it breaks d