The Devil’s in the Details: Aesthetics, Epistemology, and Religion in Beckett’s ‘Malone Dies’

‘Accordingly, he took the paper and lowered his spectacles, measured the space at his command, reached his pen and examined it, dipped it in the ink and examined it again, then pushed the paper a little way from him, lifted up his spectacles again, showed a deepened depression in the outer angle of his bushy eyebrows, which gave his face a peculiar mildness (pardon these details for once – you would have learned to love them if you had known Caleb Garth), and said in a comfortable tone – ’ (George Eliot, Middlemarch)

Typically one expects of an item of fiction a certain degree of world-building, a certain vividness and depth within the fictional world that eases the suspension of disbelief and allows the reader to access the story. To build a vivid world necessitates the inclusion of detail and to include detail is to run the risk, as Eliot’s narrator suggests, of overburdening the reader with detail that is unnecessary to conveying the point of the story. Beckett’s ‘Malone Dies’, however, serves as a counterpoint to the notion that a fictional world should be breathed into existence as if it were a real one through its philosophical references and literary technique. The novel presents a myriad of views on what it means to create fiction, or as Beckett puts it ‘Live and cause to live’ which I have simplified down to three fundamental counter-positions to the traditional stance of fiction writers. The first is that the entirety of aesthetics is self indulgent and childish, and that, rather than simply apologise for detail, one should apologise for fiction entirely, this view being championed by Malone’s allusions to Kierkegaard and his theories regarding aesthetics. The second stance of misanthropic nihilism presents fiction and, indeed, all other facets of mundane human existence as nothing more than ‘tedium’ which is to be endured only for the sake of continued existence: ‘What am I doing now, I wonder, losing time or gaining it?’. This reading demonstrates aesthetics as not necessarily sinful, as the previous suggests, but merely a necessary evil and to include superfluous detail is merely to ‘play’ badly, a crime so menial as to not be worth apologising for. The third view is that, while the suspension of disbelief and the notion of building a fiction world apart from our own is a mere pretension and there is no objectively right way to tell or interpret a story, since a story is so fundamentally subjective a thing, a story can still be held to have meaning. The difference between this view and the traditional stance espoused by Eliot’s narrator lies, as it were, in the details. For Beckett, accepting this reading of the text, to over-build your world is to defeat what allows the story to have meaning, that being the reader’s ability to interpret it and to see meaning where he or she wishes. In short, Beckett says it best himself: ‘but to hell with all this fucking scenery.’

One of the central ideas regarding Beckett’s presentation of the concept of detail is the idea that the act of creating fiction is quite simply an act of childish escapism. Malone refers to what he is doing by recording his tale of Sapo as ‘a game’ in the same way he refers to all acts of socialising as ‘play’ or ‘coming and going’: something which is done merely to the point of surviving. In fact, Malone treats the entire exercise of what he is doing as little more than futile escapism: ‘I knew there would be an end to the long blind road… No matter. It is playtime now.’. Malone finds something within this act of survival to be childish, however, in attempting to remain alive through his old age by means of play, forces himself to be subject to it. This is evidenced by his reference to old age as ‘second childishness’ and his description of the book in which he is recording his story as ‘this big child’s exercise-book’. This attitude towards aesthetics as being something naive and meaningless is again suggested by Beckett’s repeated allusions to the works of Kierkegaard and, specifically, the three stages of existence. According to Kierkegaard, the first stage, the aesthetic stage, is the stage of naivety and childishness, within which the being is attached to nothing more than the world around it and holds no attachment to moral or religious belief. Beckett directly references the first stage of existence when Macmann is interned into the asylum: ‘Let us then first consider this first phase of Macmann’s stay… We shall then pass on to the second, and even to the third’. Malone later describes this stage as that of the bed, referring to the relationship between Moll and Macmann, a superficial and, by Kierkegaard’s definition, aesthetically minded chapter in a superficial and aesthetic story of no greater purpose than to continue the existence of Malone. In other words, the only purpose of the detail, with regards to this view presented by the novel, is to ‘cause to live’ in the most mundane sense. One cannot survive without ‘play’ and so it is very easy to mistake play as something of value, when it, in fact, is nothing more than what it is: play. Therefore, to apologise for detail is only as absurd as to write fiction in the first place. There is no measure of importance to separate the important details from the wastes of time; No specific part of the story is ‘fucking scenery’, simply put, the whole thing is.

Beckett, however does not leave this extreme view of fiction unchallenged. Still using Kierkegaard’s stages of existence as a guideline to explore this idea, Malone describes a personal view of what it means to reject humanity, or ‘play’, in favour of the divine through a chapter in the life of his own character, Macmann: ‘And without knowing exactly what his sin was he felt full well that living was not a sufficient atonement… as if there could be anything but life, for the living’. This description perfectly mirrors Kierkegaard’s conception of the rejection of aestheticism and the, as Kierkegaard puts it, ‘leap of faith’ required to reach the third and final stage of existence, the religious stage. In his book ‘Fear and Trembling’ (which Beckett references in this part of the book: ‘And it was often in fear and trembling that he suffered’) Kierkegaard describes the ascension to the third stage of existence as an ultimate surrendering of all earthly things, body included, to a greater power motivated only by faith, and links this leap of faith to Abraham sacrificing Isaac. However, the religious stage of existence is characterised by more than surrender, it is also characterised by the recognition of sin and, as Kierkegaard himself puts it when he says ‘suffering is the religious category’, suffering for sins beyond the human comprehension, as reflected by Macmann seeking to atone for sins he does not recognise. This conflict between the human, as espoused by the act of creating fiction, and divine, as espoused by the act of indiscriminate suffering, and not the greatness and self-understanding Kierkegaard predicts, puts the question of detail into a new light; The life above and beyond the superficial is no life at all and yet the world of the mundane leaves Malone ‘groaning with tedium’ and so Malone finds himself caught between divine apathy and a humanity that is, in and of itself, entirely uninteresting. And yet somehow, caught between these two extremes, Malone seems convinced he had a meaningful existence: ‘yet it sometimes seems to me I did get born and had a long life and met Jackson and wandered in the towns’ and despite the fact that Jackson (who Macmann and Sapo are likely analogues of) was only a man like any other, for some reason Malone attaches great importance to him, venturing so far as to spend two pages describing his clothing after acknowledging ‘clothes don’t matter, I know, I know’. But by what standard does Malone decide that clothes don’t matter when they evidently matter to him and what principle leads him to this contradiction? In other words, since Beckett seems to be suggesting that life can have meaning, the mundane details like clothing included, what is the source of this?

One theory Beckett explores as to what importance the mundane can have is the concept that what lends a story meaning and quality is not the content of the story, in other words the reality of the fictional world, but what can be taken away from it by a reader. One way this is done is by challenging the objectivity of reality. One sees evidence of this in his scathing and comical mocking of concept empiricism (the philosophical notion every concept within the human mind has its genesis in the outside world). The character of Jackson is described as having a parrot whom he attempts to teach the peripatetic axiom (‘nihil in intellectu nisi prius in sensu’ or ‘there is nothing in the mind which was not first in the senses’) however the parrot is only able to repeat back the first three words, ‘nihil in intellectu’, literally meaning ‘there is nothing in the mind’. What Beckett seems to mean by this quip is that the view of the world which thinks of reality as the only source of knowledge leaves us with no knowledge that is certain or meaningful. This appears to be a very bold stance to take, however Beckett explores too the psychology behind this notion; Often Malone hypothesises and invents an imaginary world around him, only occasionally able to tell what is real and what he has convinced himself of: ‘Perhaps she is dead’ he muses about his carer, later he presumes that a man in a black suit came to visit him, stood by his bed for ‘several hours’ and then hit him on the head and left, he speaks frequently of a french pencil ‘in the bed with me somewhere I think.’ which, despite his other pencil being reduced to a nub of lead and being lost for forty-eight hours he never considers using. The list continues, but, in short, Malone’s relationship with reality is complicated and, where he lacks knowledge, he is much more entertained by filling in the gaps than only permitting himself to believe what he knows, despite insisting that he is ‘done with feelings and hypotheses’.

This philosophy, that the details should not serve the reality of the fiction but should only serve the imagination of the reader is further demonstrated in the fiction of Malone himself who often directly asks the reader to substitute whatever description has the makes the most sense to him or her. One example of this is Malone’s account of the grey hen with which Sapo becomes acquainted who is described as being ‘the grey hen … or one of the grey hens if you prefer.’ This detail, which entirely changes the meaning of this chapter of the life of Sapo, is left entirely in the hands of whatever the reader would find more compelling. There is no reality in this fiction for in the story the grey hen is both one and many identical hens and only becomes one or the other in the mind of the reader. The grey hen(s) either symbolise(s) individuality and the pursuit of something beyond the mundanity of normal life, or it/they symbolise(s) the futility of trying to live something more meaningful than life and the onus is left entirely on the reader to decide what the story is. Another case of this is his reference to the story of the Penitent Thief from the Bible, one of two thieves who were crucified with Jesus who, by repenting on the cross was saved: ‘For why be discouraged, one of the thieves was saved’. What is interesting about the story of the Penitent Thief is that, in the gospels of Matthew and Mark both of the thieves mocked Jesus and neither were saved, in John they are not mentioned, and only in Luke is the Penitent Thief saved. Much like with the grey hen(s), the story is only so much as whatever is made of it. Whether the thief is saved or not is a matter of taste and so even in the Bible there is no objective reality in which the fiction exists. These stories can be taken as symbolic of the idea that the objective reality of a work of fiction existing solely in the mind of the author (or even existing at all) is a false construct. Therefore the act of overbuilding one’s world seems entirely futile. The story which gives the greatest meaning seems not to be the one which forces its minutiae and meaning upon readers, but, in fact, the one which presents enough to relate the basic concept cogently and lets the reader interpret and ‘hypothesise and feel’ whatever he or she chooses to.

‘Malone Dies’ presents many conflicting views of what it means to mean something. One might ascribe to it Kierkegaardian apathy towards the entire notion of fiction and the rest of the novel and claim that the suffering of Malone is a metaphor for the act of trying to find meaning in play and mundanity where there is none to be found. One may then follow this to its logical conclusion and declare that, not only should one apologise for detail but one should apologise for fiction in and of itself, since it is merely the recounting of that which is intrinsically meaningless, since meaning can only come from surrender to that which is greater than the petty mundanity of human life. One might ascribe to it a more nihilistic, misanthropic apathy that concludes not that fiction must be surrendered in favour of God but instead that, if fiction is what is needed to pass the time and hence survive, to add or withdraw superfluous detail from a work a fiction is largely irrelevant, since death is inevitable and therefore to apologise for it is similarly irrelevant. Or one may read from it what I choose to read from it; The book that lets the reader write it is the book which the reader will feel is best written and that a well written book may be nothing of value intrinsically, but its ability to convey meaning is somehow important, if only by virtue of the importance it can have to the individual reader. Therefore to burden the reader with detail for one’s own sake or to burden oneself with detail for the apparent sake of a reader when it is not necessary to conveying the story serves only to hem in the imagination of the reader and waste time constructing a reality that intrudes on the reader’s view of the meaning of the story, resulting only in overwriting and ‘tedium’.