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As I sometimes — or quite a lot of the time — find myself disposed to avoid the demands of work and household, my favorite dodge is perusing much read books for those “juicy” parts that I’ve doted over for years. Samuel Beckett’s Murphy is just the right book for this kind of time wasting: It’s a novel about an indolent, hapless, emotionally paralyzed man. He’s a loner, out of step with the world, torn between desire for his mistress and the wish to sink further in a self-involved fantasy world. The eponymous un-hero Murphy (he really can’t be called an anti-hero as his chief aspiration — a catatonic state achieved by rocking in his rocking chair — barely qualifies as anti-anything) is securely held by what Blake called “mind forg’d manacles.”
A thoroughly modern figure, yet one who, when confronted with the complexities of modernity, retreats into books and reveries about Dante, Murphy epitomizes the passive tense: always acted upon, never acting. In the last pages, he’s blown to bits by a gas explosion (accident? suicide? Beckett is deliberately unclear) in his garret. His ashes end up strewn about the floor of a bar. This is not, to paraphrase evangelist/huckster Joel Osteen, anyone’s best life. It is, however, one lived consistently. Murphy remains — he always remains — true to his own inclinations: ceaseless self-inquiry, self-evisceration, and equivocation.
The first two sentences aptly set the stage for this story, if you can call this 300-page ode to stasis such. And it is precisely this bittersweet morsel that I return to again and again: The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. The familiar typeface, the wide spacing between words in the right-justified text, the ball-point check-mark unfaded after thirty-five years.
Distinctly oracular, the first sentence; its tone unmistakably biblical. Ecclesiastes: “Then I looked on it all, and behold all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.” Beckett echoes these verses, but not what follows — the biblical preacher’s call to faith. The passage in Ecclesiastes invokes emptiness in order to predicate more substantive redemption; Beckett’s opening line is a call to … just emptiness.
“The sun shone, having no alternative.” Off-handedly epigrammatic, this is Beckett’s encompassing idea about existence, about the universe. Things are simply here. Atoms, rocks, planets, the sun — each proceeds in its cycle lacking agency and more importantly, the author implies, without purpose.
Of course, the dearth of agency is no surprise. No one expects self-determination from inanimate matter, but Beckett’s formulation still evokes an irreducible fatalism. The lack of purpose strikes a sharper note: “Having no alternative” refutes our admitted belief or unspoken hope that the sun shines because it (or god, or a beneficent cosmos) wants us to be warm, wishes us to revel in its splendors, to see all the world around us. Instead, our solar system’s star is defined by a negative — we are told it has no choice, and thus the question is raised: How dare we think we might have any choice ourselves?
The next phrase, “on the nothing new” involves us. We are the “nothing new,” our births and deaths, trials and triumphs. It’s all shopworn. Old hat. So the sun, fixed in an inescapable chore, shines on the ceaselessly repetitive doings of humans. Sunshine at the outset of a tale usually bodes well; Beckett’s having none of that.
Crucial here, I think, is the article’s particularizing effect; all that’s not new is presented as an entity, the nothing new. More than the mere sum of worldly stuff, it’s a concept. An abstraction more real than factories, stones, or ironing boards. The sounding of this fastidious, faintly academic note is, for me, the comedy I’m seeking when I fetch Murphy down from the high shelf (those “B”s on the very top!) risking a fall as I totter on my swivel chair, of course, too lazy to grab a step stool from the closet.
The next sentence introduces our un-hero. And he arrives with considerable promise: “Murphy sat out of it” we are told. Yes, Murphy has escaped this awful mess. He’s no deterministic cipher. The verb choice is revealing, though. He’s not bursting out of it. Hardly dashing. Or even stepping. He’s sitting out of it.
Then the twist — “as though he were free.” So, it turns out, Murphy has not escaped. He may think he has; he may look like he has. Ah, what a fool. What fools are readers to raise hopes even the slightest. Murphy, it turns out, cannot sit out of himself.
But he isn’t special, no different from you or me. Not an existential exemplar or symbolic figure. He’s the fellow down the block, the guy around the corner. He’s “in a mew in West Brompton.”
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton.
In little more than two dozen words, Beckett articulates a worldview, a theology, establishes an Everyman, probes his soul, and gives him an address. And whenever I return to those sentences — bored, duties in pursuit — I feel like it’s my address. Or at least a place I would like to live, if only for a while.