‘Among those whom we call great artists,’ remarked Samuel Beckett in dialogue with art critic Georges Duthuit, ‘I can think of none whose concern was not predominantly with his expressive possibilities, those of his vehicle, those of humanity’. Here, Beckett connects the expressive interests of the writer (‘artist’) with the interpretive responsibility of the reader (‘humanity’), suggesting that the writer’s duty to express is met by the reader’s duty to interpret. This intimate connection between writer and reader, between teller and tale, between narrator and story, is central to Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), and Beckett’s own Trilogy (1951-53). The meaning in each of these texts surfaces not simply through the consciousness of a first-person narrator, but how that consciousness manifests itself to the reader (a strategy that David Herman has labelled, ‘the nexus of narrative and mind’). In Hunger, Andrea’s physical decomposition results in a narrative decomposition. In As I Lay Dying, Darl’s breakdown of sanity results the breakdown of his narrative voice. While in The Trilogy, the narrators come to view written expression as an obstacle any such coherent utterance of consciousness. Though Hamsun, Faulkner, and Beckett do not share an inherent faith in language’s capacity to articulate ‘being’, they do share a central interest in the integration of expression and identity. Indeed, each of these texts fits the teller to the tale in order to allow the reader to recognise that the emergence of ‘being’ in language may be shattered by the very medium responsible for its origination.
Knut Hamsun had steadfast faith in the capacity of fiction to conjure individual consciousness, and believed this was the key achieving a heightened form of ‘reality’ in the minds of his readers. Indeed, Paul Auster refers to his work as, ‘art that is the direct expression of the effort to express itself’. Hamsun was obsessed with the mysterious and insoluble moods and perceptions that flash through the mind (which he saw as ultimately constituting a consciousness), things ‘too transitory to be grasped and held securely, they last a second, a minute, they come and go like flashed; but they leave a mark, make an impression before they disappear’. By focussing on such phenomena of life, the reader might, ‘experience a little of the secret movements which are made unnoticed in the remote places of the soul, the capricious disorder of perception, the delicate life of fantasy held under the magnifying glass’. His first published novel, Hunger, focuses on the effects of hunger on the psyche of one man. Hamsun fits Andrea’s narration to his story, allowing the reader to witness the simultaneous psychological and linguistic breakdown that occurs in response to a devastating physiological ordeal.
The reader begins to experience this breakdown from the very outset of Hunger, whose opening reads: ‘It during the time I wandered about and starved in Christiania; Christiania, singular city, from which no man departs without carrying away the traces of his sojourn there’. This first sentence immediately establishes two temporally divided versions of Andrea: the ‘narrating’ and the ‘narrated’ self. Both of these versions constitute the same mind, but at different moments in time: a mind that once wandered hungry in Christiania, but which now writes about that former hunger. The implications of this division for the reader emerge later in the work, when the narrator invents the word ‘Kuboa’ and posits its possible meanings:
I had fully formed an opinion as to what it should not signify, but had come to no conclusion as to what it should signify. “That is quite a matter of detail,” I said aloud to myself […] The word was found, God be praised! and that was the principal thing. But ideas besiege me without end and hinder me from falling asleep. Nothing seemed good enough from for usually rare word. (p. 102)
The shifting tenses in this passage upset the reader’s effort to incorporate the two versions of the self into a single coherent consciousness. Indeed, the (past) events and (present) reflections blur in a way that makes it impossible for the reader to keep them separate. Throughout Hunger, these ‘narrated’ and ‘narrating’ versions of Andrea are endlessly converging, and the reader experiences a mind which could not exist reality: the manifestation of that mind ravaged and turned to chaos by hunger.
As Andrea’s hunger intensifies, he breaks down physically and psychologically, resulting, too, in the breakdown of his language. Reality becomes a tangle of mismatched signifieds and signifiers. In this turmoil, he continues to try and define his new word: ‘No; in reality the word is fitted to signify something psychical, a feeling, a state. Could I not apprehend it? and I reflect profoundly in order to find something psychical’ (pp. 102-3). But before he can find any satisfactory solutions to the problem he has conceived for himself, terrifying images begin to encroach and bewilder, and he descends further into disorder and internal anarchy:
I am carried back in thought to the sea and the dark monsters that lie in wait for me. They would draw me to them, and clutch me tightly and bear me away by land and sea, through dark realms that no soul has seen. I feel myself on board, drawn through waters, hovering in clouds, sinking – sinking. (p. 104)
Again, Andrea’s tenses shift without any perceivable pattern. Here, and throughout Hunger, the reader strives to find coherence but is left with only an insurmountable linguistic discontinuity as the gulf between Andrea and his language opens in time with his own physical decay. As his body becomes diseased, so too do his words. Andrea states, with some finality, the ultimate problem for the reader: ‘“If I found the word, am I not absolutely within my right to decide myself what it is to signify?”’ (p. 105).
Like Hamsun in Hunger, in As I Lay Dying, Faulkner directs the reader to observe not simply a character’s individual experience, but the consciousness capable of that experience. He wishes readers to examine ‘the atmosphere of the mind’ of his narrators, but, in addition, he wishes them to observe the dangers of trying to escape the pure subjectivity of first-person narration. Mikhail Bakhtin asserts that ‘the word does not exist in neutral and impersonal language […] but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions’, and this assertion resonates throughout As I Lay Dying. As Addie Bundren acknowledges: ‘words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at’. Darl, her son, and the novel’s most prominent speaker, denies this inescapable subjectivity of his language. While exhibiting the insight and omniscience usually associated with a narrator, he also embodies the (mistaken) belief his own language can create a purely objective reality. In his third narrated passage, Darl describes walking into the house where his mother lies dying: ‘I enter the hall, hearing the voice before I reach the door’, and just a few lines later: ‘As you enter the hall, they sound as though they were speaking our of the air about your head’ (p. 16). Here, Darl sees from two positions simultaneously: not only his own entering the hall, but also the experience of entering the hall for the reader, from outside himself. However, for an individual consciousness, such a position is unfeasible, and his attempt to hold onto the stability and total objectivity of language crumbles, in time with Darl’s own sanity.
Darl’s act of setting to fire to the barn, and his subsequent descriptions of the blaze, expose readers to the dangers of believing so staunchly in the stability of language. He describes Jewel running into the fire like a ‘figure cut from tin’ (p. 207), and from inside the barn, ‘he looks up and out at us through the rain of burning hay like a portière of flaming bead’ (p. 207-8). Here, Darl positions himself as a spectator, entirely away from the action, despite being its ‘author’. He uses metaphor to transform the fire into a strange tableau of which he is not a part, seeing Addie’s coffin with ‘the widening crimson-edged holes that bloom like flowers in his undershirt’ (p. 208). Because Darl inhabits the words he speaks with far more adherence than any other character, when they fail him, Darl’s own self begins to shatter. As Michel Delville asserts, Darl is ‘ruthlessly torn between two rival and irreconcilable forces, voice and vision’, and as those forces break down in his narrative, Darl’s sanity breaks down with them.
The breakdown reaches its culmination in the Darl’s final passage of the narration, when he is on the train to the state asylum: ‘Darl has gone to Jackson. They put him on the train, laughing, down the long car laughing, the heads turning like the heads of owls when he passed.’ (p. 241). Speaking in the third-person, Darl ironically become his own author, the role he has inhabited on behalf of his siblings and father throughout the text. Earlier, Tull describes Darl as looking at people ‘like somehow you was looking at yourself and your doing outen his eyes’ (p. 223), highlighting the uncanny omniscience that Darl exhibits. However, it is this amplified awareness of the pathetic and absurd nature of his family’s plight, and his desperate attempt to transpose this plight into a objective narrative, that results in Darl’s madness. His language cannot succeed in being objective because he lives the trauma of story that he tries to relate so dispassionately. A greater degree of objectivity is possible only once Darl removes himself from that story, but its price is insanity: the essential cancellation of himself.
Beckett places the entropic nature of language, which Addie acknowledges and which Darl disputes, at the foreground his narrative in The Trilogy. He remains highly cynical of the capacity of any individual’s language to speak the truth, seeing that each individual is ‘the seat of a constant process of decantation, decantation from the vessel containing the fluid of future time, sluggish, pale and monochrome, to the vessel containing the fluid of past time, agitated and multicoloured by the phenomena of its hours’. Beckett conceives the individual as being full of incongruity, in a constant cycle of definition and redefinition, and ‘reality’ for individuals as being conditional upon their altering perspectives. Thus, regardless of whether they are speaking in the first, second, or third person, the language of narrators cannot be relied upon, for their identity is never immune to transformation. Beckett states the solution to this problem in the unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932): ‘the experience of my readers shall be between the phrases, in the silence, communicated by the intervals, not the terms, of the statement […] his experience shall by the menace, the miracle, the memory, of an unspeakable trajectory’. Throughout The Trilogy, Beckett’s narrators display a total lack of faith in the validity of language, suggesting to the reader that the only real truth can emerge those moments ‘between the phrases, in the silence’.
Where Andreas and Darl use language to attempt convey their very identity, Beckett’s narrators understand language to be barriers to such ineffable truths. Where Hamsun and Faulkner suggest that the style of a character’s narration reveal the prejudices, or limitations, of that character’s perception, Beckett suggests that all language, whatever its style, necessarily perverts reality. Throughout Molloy, the eponymous narrator berates his own failed manipulation of language – ‘[t]hat last sentence is not clear, it does not say what I hoped it would’ – and halfway through the novel, disavows his speech completely: ‘And I did not say, Yet a little while at the rate things are going, etc. but that resembled perhaps what I would have said, if I had been able. In reality I said nothing at all’ (p. 88). In a single stroke, Molloy impugns the truth of the story he has been telling to to this point. Of course, the reader may resent being informed that the real truth of the story cannot be found in the words printed before them. However, such resentment should not eclipse the argument at work within the novel. Beckett means for the reader to see this underlying paradox: that silence, the ultimate truth, can only fully materialise out of language itself.
In The Unnamable, the final volume of the Trilogy, Beckett’s narrating characters from Molloy and Malone Dies fuse and finally dissolve into silence. Much like Andrea’s narrating and narrated self, the various voices become a single narrator who speaks ‘no words but the words of others’ (p. 316). The space between teller and tale narrows to such an extent that this conglomerate narrator claims to be both ‘the teller and the told’ (p. 312). However, by permitting these ‘others’ to speak, the narrator acknowledges that he himself has been forced to distort the truth: ‘All these Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me. They have made me waste my time, suffer for nothing, speak of them when, in order to stop speaking, I should have spoken of me and me alone’ (p. 305). Thus, he not only re-formulates their stories, he erases them, dismantling their narrative strategies and reducing them to silence, as Jonathan Boutler asserts: ‘language composes itself simultaneously to erase its representational force’. In Hunger and As I Lay Dying, characters – however real or coherent – emerge after they have spoken. In Beckett’s Trilogy, the narrators deny this possibility, asserting rather that identity occupies the ‘truthful’ silence following speech’s termination: ‘and upon us all the silence will fall again, and settle, like dust of sand, on the arena, after the massacres’ (p. 379).
In Hunger, As I Lay Dying, and The Trilogy, each teller is carefully constructed to fit the tale. In Hunger, the disjunct between Andrea the narrator and Andrea the narrated, and his subsequent linguistic deterioration, enacts the disintegration that Andrea experiences in the throws of deepest poverty. In As I Lay Dying, the breakdown of Darl’s narration from the false objectivity in the first-person, to the (near) total objectivity of third-person narration, demonstrates to the reader Darl’s mental decay as he attempts to dispassionately convey the trauma of losing his mother. While the narrators in The Trilogy linguistically enact the idea that existence through language is futile, for language is incessantly and hopelessly entropic to begin with, and that the only truth can be found in silence. Hamsun, Faulkner, and Beckett do not share the conviction that language is able to generate a whole narrated consciousness, but they each successfully construct narrators which place the perennial issue of how to synthesise world, self, and language at the very forefront of the reader’s mind.
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