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Moran as Secret Agent The Intertextual Play Space

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Moran as Secret Agent

The Intertextual Play Space
Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept.

Samuel Beckett, Molloy

‘Intertextuality’ creates a play space, an interstitial play space between the text in question and other texts. Julia Kristeva follows Mikhail Bakhtin in describing the “‘literary word’ as an intersection of textual surfaces,” and “any text” as “constructed as a mosaic of quotations” and as an “absorption and transformation of another” (Kristeva 1989, 65-66). With her descriptions of a text “as an absorption of and a reply to another text” and as “a constant dialogue with the preceding literary corpus [and] a perpetual challenge of past writing” there is a strong sense of contestation: an agonistic play between a text and pre-existent texts (Kristeva 1989, 66). In Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence this same agonistic stance is recognized; he speaks of the writers’ “struggle with their strong precursors” (Bloom 1983, 5). And in Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism he considers that “the love of poetry is another variant of the love of power. ... the power of usurpation” (Bloom 1982, 17).

But is the intertextual play space that opens up between the texts and other texts always one of contestation and a struggle for power? Kristeva stresses that any text is inevitably replicating previous texts: a literary text is unable to avoid reproducing, echoing and transforming the already written. As Judith Still and Michael Worton have put it:

the work of art is inevitably shot through with references, quotation and influences of every kind. ... This repetition of past or contemporary texts can range from the most conscious and sophisticated elaboration of other poet’s work, to a scholarly use of sources, or the quotation (with or without the use of quotation marks) of snatches of conversation typical of a certain social milieu at a certain historical moment (Still 1993,1).
Intertextuality, then, is inescapable, but it would be wrong to see it always as a power struggle. Still and Worton’s words point to an inevitability which could be seen as passive, or at least unavoidable, rather than necessarily agonistic. Simon Dentith recognizes another, different form of intertextual play in which the writer’s stance is not one of contestation, but within which
the very notion of subjectivity is dissolved, in the first instance with respect to aesthetic activity alone, but eventually with respect to any subjectivity; we are not subjects so much as sites in which the various interactions and transpositions of the multiple texts of society are affected (Dentith 1995, 95-96).
From this point of view Bloom’s egoistic struggle is an attempt to save the subject which intertextuality seems to threaten.

Traditionally critical discussion of allusions to past literature within texts has been concerned largely with source hunting. The later text is often described as commenting ironically on the “primary” text. Sources are found, discussed, and often spoken of in terms of parody, either in homage or in mockery, and have been considered in reference to changing tastes and fashions. Cervantes’ devastating parody of the chilvaric Romances of knight errants and derring-do in Don Quixote; Austen’s far more playful and gentle parody of the Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey, have both been considered as symptomatic of the fading of one set of conventions and their replacement by alternatives: in other words keeping the novel novel. The text is seen as being stacked vertically with layers of references which encourage the reader to bring to her or his reading other texts that s/he has read and then to decide, or more precisely, to construct, a relationship between them.

Bloom takes these ideas further and reads intertextuality in relation to the writer’s anxiety: a Freudian interpretation based on the Oedipal conflict and “Freud’s investigations of the mechanisms of defence and their ambivalent functionings” (Bloom 1983, 10). For Bloom “every poet begins (however ‘unconsciously’) by rebelling more strongly against the consciousness of death’s necessity than all other men and women do (Bloom 1983, 10). Bloom sees intertextuality as part of a fight for survival, for immortality.

Parody is a form of intertextuality which is pre-eminently ludic in nature. In Thomas R Frosch’s discussion of parody, which he describes as a “representation of a representation, a confrontation with a prior text or type of text”: the parody is seen as agonistic (Frosch 1987, 137). But Frosch considers that “the mood of confrontation varies” from “parody for its own sake” to “parody for the purpose of critique — satirical parody.”1 What Frosch stresses is the difference parody introduces into the voice of the other: “Parody is at once an impersonation and an affirmation of identity, both an identification with and a detachment from the other” (Frosch 1987, 137). This follows on from Kristeva’s discussion of Bakhtin, which foregrounds the polyphonic nature of intertextuality; the “distance and relationship” which are simultaneously created between the voice of the text and other voices (Kristeva 1989, 71). It is an ambivalent movement which tends to assimilate the previous texts by ‘claiming and appropriating’ (Kristeva 1989, 73) the voice of the other, rather than accommodating itself to the already written.

The search for the already written within Molloy has been thorough and extensive. Beckett scholars have trawled through Molloy for literary precedents. These include Freud,2 Jung,3 the Odyssey,4 the Bible,5 Dante,6 Bunyan,7 Proust (Gray 1994, 162), the detective story,8 the mystery or spy story (Abbott 1973, 93), and tales of secret agents (Coe 1964, 55). It is quite an impressive list, but these intertextual references in Molloy are not present in the same prominent way, and with the same prominence of effect, as they are in Lolita. H. Porter Abbott suggests caution when approaching Molloy’s intertextuality. He recognizes that “Molloy is thick with allusions and parallels. Hermes, Odysseus, Aeneas, Christ, Christian, Yahweh, and Otto Rank are all present in one form or another” (Abbott 1973, 93), but at the same time he decides that what Beckett is doing “is really quite clear. He has communicated concealment” (Abbott 1973, 10). Beckett presents the reader with shadowy traces which conceal rather than reveal. In Abbott’s words “we are given keys which fail to unlock,” as “in every case it is not the absence of relation but the mystery of relation which is evoked” (Abbott 1973, 98).

Hugh Kenner points to the “hints of detective-story format” and to the Bible or to epics like the Odyssey, which are ways

for imparting to the narrative a sense of near-familiarity, near intelligibility. To hint at numerous patterns that do not really fit ... is a device among many for installing us in a world that dissolves (Kenner 1988, 35).
Allen Thiher calls “Molloy’s unsuccessful journey an epic reduction of all epics from the Odyssey to Ulysses” (Thiher 1984, 106). Molloy presents us with a reductive movement, which has the tendency to reduce meaning both in itself and in the texts it hints at, glancingly. Thiher describes “the novel’s movement” as “an infinite play of mirroring regressions as one metalinguistic act attempts to explain another, in the infinite regress of language’s failure to designate anything except, fleetingly, itself” (Thiher 1984, 106-7).

Beckett is of the opinion that “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion” (Beckett 1983, 145). There is no sense in his words of Bloom’s equation of poetry as the “love of power, the power of usurpation”; he is aiming for a “literature of the unword” (Beckett 1983, 173), moving away from power and mastery, into the dissolution of subjectivity.

Intertextual play is characterized, like all forms of play, by movement: Iser comments that “transitoriness” is the “hall mark of playing” (Iser 1993, 224). The play space of the text is a fluid, amorphous space, with the play process enacting constant change and transformation. Allusions to preceding literature produce the tension that is always present in play: “each quotation is a breach and a trace”:
Inevitably a fragment and a displacement, every quotation distorts and redefines the “primary” utterance by relocating it within another linguistic and cultural context (Still 1993, 11).
The intertextual play is “at least double” (Kristeva 1989, 66) and will never settle for one, fixed position, but swings between the “supplementary” text and the “primary” text or texts, playing to-and-fro through a plurality of possibilities. The movement of play disturbs and blurs the neat, sharp lines that could be seen to separate texts from other texts.

Play, with its activity of moving to-and-fro, can interrogate another text or texts, but intertextual play does not only concern specific literary texts. As John Frow suggests, it “ranges from the explicit to the implicit,” and intertextual activity

may be highly particular or highly general; they may be of the order of a message or of the order of the code. Texts are made out of cultural and ideological norms; out of the conventions of genre; out of styles and idioms embedded in the language; out of connotations and collocative sets; out of clichés, formulae, or proverbs; and out of other texts (Frow 1993, 145).
A Beckett text can be seen to be playing with cultural and ideological norms, conventions of genre, styles and idioms in a manner that defamiliarizes them, makes them strange, and in a sense makes them lose their power to convey meaning in the way they are conventionally able to do. Beckett’s ludic strategy is a play of subversion, of evasion, a “discontinuity” and an “emptying out” (Bloom 1983, 14) of pre-existing norms, conventions and styles. It is a subtractive movement: something has been withdrawn: a play space is opened up by the lack of something; it becomes a space of interrogation of the very things that are lacking, and made more noticeable by their absence. In a sense Beckett is undoing the kind of art in which “all is settled” in favour of an art that fails to settle things, a “form that accommodates the mess” (Driver 1961, 23). S. E. Gontarski describes Beckett’s own working method as “the deliberate undoing of the work’s origins,” a process that becomes very apparent on studying his manuscripts. Gontarski points to the way the
Revision is often toward a patterned disconnection as motifs are organized not by causality by some application of near symmetry. The process often entails the conscious destruction of logical relations, the fracturing of consistent narrative, [and] the abandonment of linear argument (Gontarski 1983, 7).
The movement is a movement away from conventional form; the “destruction,” “fragmentation” and “abandonment” all leading away from a controlling logic, to avoid the text being “distorted into intelligibility in order to be forced into a chain of cause and effect” (Beckett 1987, 86).

Bloom describes the parodist as like the quester “who finds all space filled with his precursor’s visions’ and feels impelled to ‘clear a mental space for himself” (Bloom 1983, 66). The masculine, competitive quality of Bloom’s version of agon does not explain the far quieter, more passive intertextual play position which is characteristic of the intertextual referencing in Molloy. Both Molloy and Moran are questers who fail, and who seem to welcome their failure. Rather than clearing a “mental space” for themselves, they end by seeming to merge with their surroundings. In a sense this is what the narratives of Molloy do with the intertextual allusions: the already-written tends to merge with the protagonists’ quests, indistinguishable, undifferentiated, and becomes contaminated with the failure that characterizes the narrative play in this text.

Heinz Kohut, who has published widely on psychoanalytic theories of narcissism, speaks about creativity in relation to ‘the still unrestricted narcissism of early childhood’ (Kohut 1978, 447). For Kohut, narcissism is not necessarily negative; it has positive elements. He follows Freud in recognizing “a primary narcissism in everyone” (Freud 1991, 82), and points to “the narcissistic nature of the creative act” (Kohut 1071, 315). “Under optimimal circumstances”
the infantile grandiosity becomes gradually built into the ambitions and purposes of the personality and lends not only vigor to a person’s mature strivings but also a sustaining positive feeling of the right to success (Kohut 1971, 299).
When Beckett’s contrasting emphasis on failure is considered, however, it may well be that, in his case, the “savage loving” of his mother has produced a very different attitude to creativity. “Creative artists ... try to control and shape [their work] .... They are attempting to re-create ... perfection” (Kohut 1978, 450). Beckett’s contention that he is what his mother’s “savage loving has made me” (Knowlson 1996, 272) is a way of placing the control and shaping of his life in an other’s hands. Kohut writes of a client of his who suffered from “a pervasive feeling that he was not fully alive,” a feeling Beckett shared (Cronin 1996, 221). Kohut’s client also has “a tendency towards a brooding worrisomeness about his physical and mental functions” (Kohut, 1978, 193), again recognizable in Beckett’s own life.9 Without the necessary encouragement and attention during childhood Kohut documents how, rather than feeling ‘the right to success’ (Kohut 1971, 299) the adult can feel “acute shame,” “self-destructive depression” and “psychosomatic illness” (Kohut, 1978, 657). Beckett’s approach seems more passive, less obtrusive than Bloom’s description of an agonistic parodist; Beckett is, in a sense, a representative of Echo rather than Narcissus. He is repeating rather than competing; albeit repeating in a softer tone than the original, and the repetition is partial. As with the Echo figure as portrayed in Ovid’s myth, only a trace of the original remains.10
The Secret Agent

I will now consider Molloy in terms of the conventions associated with the thriller or spy story in order to examine further the question of the “undoing” of pre-existent models. It will also allow an appreciation of the kind of dark comedy which can result from a reworking of rigid and rule-bound formulae into something very different. A discussion of Part Two of Molloy, for instance, in terms of the specific sub-genre of the secret agent story, highlights the fact that many fundamental generic elements are present, albeit only as traces, and in subverted and parodic forms.

In a recent study of secret agent fiction Lars Ole Sauerberg points out the romance pattern which forms the underlying matrix of the spy thriller, in common with adventure stories generally (Sauerberg 1984, 25). The discussion identifies two basic structural formulae which the secret agent story shares with romance, which are termed the episodic ordeal structure and the dichotomy structure. The latter term Sauerberg sees as “revealed most evidently in the opposition of the hero with his adversary,” but he also perceives it “in terms of plot development, the dichotomy structure appears as a journey (the quest of romance) of a cyclical nature: home — abroad — home” (Sauerberg 1984, 25). What needs to be added here is that alongside an opposition between adversaries, the hunter and the hunted, there can grow a sense of identification. The pursuer begins to plot the likely course of the pursued, to imaginatively think himself into the mind of the other: to put himself, as it were, in the other’s shoes.

This identification of the seeker with his prey is a prominent feature of Moran’s narrative. The first place he attempts to “discern his quarry” is within himself (Beckett 1979, 101). He goes beyond realistically motivated assimilation, however, by suggesting “Perhaps I invented him, I mean found him ready-made in my head” (Beckett 1979, 103). It is a strange formulation: on the one hand it dissolves the idea of a “real” Molloy existing “out there,” waiting to be found, while on the other it suggests an imposition from outside (“found him ready-made in my head”) which recalls the idea of the inevitability of intertextual reference. In place of originality and autonomy of thought and imagination, this is suggesting that when we enter our thoughts all that will be discovered is the “already made,” as if we are only ever quoting others (accommodated by others), which recalls Molloy’s words: “All I know is what the words know .... You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out a lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten ...” (Beckett 1979, 31). When Moran describes the man he attacks there is again this sense of identification between victim and aggressor: “The face ... I regret to say resembled my own” (Beckett 1979, 139) — a ploy which again subtly subverts the sense of the “reality” of this other.

Moran’s narrative exaggerates the cyclical “home — abroad — home” of the formula pattern by ending with the same words that began his narrative, but of course jarring the neatness of the cycle by immediately contradicting this statement. This has the effect of contradicting the whole of his narrative; it is a movement of erasure which recalls the Cretan paradox. If Moran is to be believed now he must be misbelieved in relation to everything he has said that leads up to his negating conclusion. Moran’s narrative, with its preoccupation with describing the weather and his attire (ridiculously loud and conspicuous for a man in his profession), parodies the kind of description that opens Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939):
It was eleven o’clock in the morning, in mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them (Chandler 1970, 9).
Sauerberg characterizes the initial “home” stage of the secret agent narrative as a “comfortable security ... regularly accompanied by a good measure of boredom” (Sauerberg 1984, 27), a description which fits with precision the situation Moran describes at the beginning of his narrative. Into this static setting the assignment is introduced: in Moran’s case Gaber transgresses the peaceful garden, upsetting the Sunday routine, and thus begins what Sauerberg describes as the “transitional phase” between home, the known and predictable, and abroad, the unknown and alien (Sauerberg 1984, 28). The disturbance caused by Gaber’s entrance and his communication of the assignment continues to reverberate throughout Moran’s extended “transitional phase,” and his departure is accompanied by uneasiness, and a sense of unpreparedness which bodes ill for the successful achievement of his goal.

Indeed, from these inauspicious preliminaries the quest shows a consistent decline as it disintegrates further into farce and failure. The distance between the blueprint of the spy story and Moran’s narrative widens as his journey becomes a long ordeal of deterioration, both physical and mental. Moran’s identification with his quarry inexplicably involves the stiffening of his legs: “a local and painless paralysis” (Beckett 1979, 129), which brings all progress to a halt. He also fails to “reconstruct” his assignment: “What was I looking for exactly? It is hard to say” (Beckett 1979, 125); and whatever outcome is proposed remains a well-kept secret: Moran cannot remember and he fails to reach the climactic point of encounter. All through his narrative he presents a continuous undoing or unravelling of the tightly shaped secret agent story formula. Moran declines to relate the ordeals which usually form such a prominent feature of adventure narratives; he finds that the desire to do so has deserted him: “I shall not tell of the obstacles we had to surmount, the fiends we had to circumvent, the misdemeanours of my son, the disintegration of the father” (Beckett 1979, 145). And so the narrative deals instead with the ignominy of a return without triumph, without any sense of a world put to rights. Moran’s home is sadly changed, paralleling his own decline and disintegration. The conventional expectations of a return to a restored “normality” are belied. No dragons have been slain, no arch-villains have been brought to justice, but then no such valiant exploits have ever seemed a possibility. The narrative has not returned to a sense of renewed security, but has descended into a state of disquiet and unease. Beckett has simultaneously brought into the reader’s mind the already read, the secret agent story, and erased most of the conventional narrative interest and effects; traces remain, but these only tend to highlight the subtractive quality of the procedure.

Tzvetan Todorov distinguishes sharply between the curiosity aroused in by the detective story which “proceeds from effect to cause” and the suspense of the thriller which moves in the opposite direction “from cause to effect” (Todorov 1977, 47). Peter Brooks suggests a definition of plot as “a combination of the proairetic [the code of action] and the hermeneutic, or better, an overcoding of the proairetic by the hermenuetic” (Brooks 1984, 287). The “what happens next” of the thriller narrative could be said to stress the proairetic over the hermeneutic, and the detective (the “who done it”) to emphasise the latter over the former. Beckett, in the second part of Molloy, can be seen to be undoing the movement “from cause to effect” of the thriller format by erasing the logical connections between the two.

By undoing a pre-existent form (or forms) Beckett has, unavoidably, created another, but one that seems hell bent on reducing or eliminating all those things that are traditionally associated with an achieved work of art, stressing in their place failure, inconsistency, discontinuity and contradiction. Beckett’s aim is not to contest past literature, but to accept its unavoidable presence. Yet his stance is not one of defeat exactly; he plays with the already written and the already read both within the text and within the mind of the reader. His texts are in a sense controlled by rather than controlling the intrusions of the other; the narratives chart the failure, the incomplete control of “the remnants ... one day got by heart but long forgotten” (Beckett 1979, 31).

Beckett plays with the existing conventions of the Secret-Agent genre, and in doing so is playing with his readers as well as with the texts he references. Readers will be participating in the intertextual play by expecting certain recognizable formulae to be adhered to. A great deal of the reader’s experience involves anticipating what is to come, and it is this activity of guessing, of making connections, of making sense of the narrative, which is an important focus of the narrative play. By summoning up past reading in the readers’ minds a system is set up only to be subverted. A great deal of the pleasure in the intertextual play is in the disappointment of reading the texts through a pre-existent system which is shown to be inappropriate, but at the same time a necessary adjunct of the play procedure. The reading becomes pleasurable in that there are always surprises, unexpected twists, and a continuing sense of mystery. Beckett “undoes” the familiar designs until the barest traces remain, but in both cases the sense of enduring mystery remains, This text does not present solutions, but gives pleasure in its confusion of effects. The intertextual play charts a constant movement between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the clarity of a pre-existent system and its denial.

Still and Worton characterize “every literary imitation [as] a supplement which seeks to complete and supplant the original” (Still 1993, 7). But this is not the method discernible in Molloy. Beckett’s strategy is to subtract from the texts he alludes to; he foregrounds the incompleteness, the fragmentation, the failure to connect with the precursors. His method is not to supplant, but to reduce. His play is the play of failure, the ‘raglimp stasis’ (Beckett 1979, 26) of inconsequentiality and the comedy of dissolution.


  1. This is a concept that I have some difficulty with, and which is in line with the dismissive attitude to much ludic activity when it is described as “just play.” If lacking a utilitarian purpose, “parody for its own sake” will still be written for the purpose of bringing pleasure, both to the reader and the writer (and in many cases the pleasure could be shared by the writer of the “primary” text as well).

  2. Hesla 1971, 94; Abbott 1973, 93; Hayman 1975, 3; Pilling 1976, 42; Moorjani 1991, 56.

  3. Pilling 1997, 42; O’Hara 1982, 19.

  4. Wellershoff 1965, 96; Fletcher 1964, 152-153; Hesla 1971, 94; J. D. O’Hara 1982, 26-27; Phillips, 1984, 19-24.

  5. Wellershoff 1965, 96; Fletcher 1964, 148; Hesla 1971, 92.

  6. Hokenson 1975, 77; Millar 1992, 88.

  7. Fletcher 1964, 152-153; O’Hara 1982, 45; Millar 1992, 88; Eyal Amiran 1993, 1.

  8. Hokenson 1975, 77; Millar 1992, 88.

  9. See Knowlson (1996) and Cronin (1996) for many details in relation to Beckett’s depression and psychosomatic problems.

  10. A good translation of the Narcissus and Echo story, trans. Frank Justus Miller, from Ovid’s Metamorphosis can be found in Louise Vinge, The Narcissus Theme in Western European Literature up to the Early 19th Century, trans. Robert Dewsnap and Lisbeth Grönlund; Nigel Reeves and Ingrid Söderberg Reeves (Skånska Centraltrykeriet, Lund: Gleerups, 1967), 7-11. On the topic of Echo, see John Hollander, The Figure of Echo (Berkeley, Los Angeles: U of California P, 1981).

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Julie Campbell

University of Southampton New College

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