Peter Murphy (Thompson Rivers University)
Re-Joyce-ing Murphy: A Revisionist Reading
This paper will challenge the two most commonly invoked versions of Joyce’s “influence” in Murphy: namely, Harold Bloom’s view that this novel represents “Beckett at his most Joycean” (although just what “Joycean” exactly entails is never made clear) and C.J. Ackerley’s that “Joyce was a major force, but Beckett’s response to the maestro may be defined as much in terms of resistance as influence”. Ackerley goes on to add in Demented Particulars that “borrowings in Murphy from Joyce are relatively few, and those from Ulysses are mostly from ‘Ithaca’ and” ‘Eumaeus’ where style obfuscates certainty” (xvi). In his estimation, Joyce figures nowhere in his list of “big five” sources (Schopenhauer, Geulincx, Burnet, Woodworth, Whitaker). The much-vaunted references to Geulincx (the “Ubi nihil vales..”) and Democritus (the “Naught is more real…”) which Beckett himself promoted to critics as the “points of departure” for his own work, as well as the host of associated ideas and references which Ackerley has so thoroughly annotated – all are, finally, secondary manifestations of an underlying and more fundamental on-going debate with Joyce’s theory of art as developed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, one which runs through all the early works, “Assumption”, Dream of Fair to Middling Women and Murphy, and which Beckett only really begins to move beyond in terms of forging his own way in Watt.
Major points to support this thesis are as follows:
- The opening scene of Murphy in which the protagonist hides from the sun “as though he were free” is set in contrast with Stephen Dedalus’ “as though he were soaring sunward” in the scene preceding the birdgirl epiphany at the end of Chapter IV of Portrait.
- Beckett has stated that the Round Pond scene was “very early on” in his mind “as the necessary end” of his novel. Chapter 13, the last chapter, is in fact a complex rewriting of the birdgirl epiphany referred to above.
- The Round Pond scene was most likely in Beckett’s mind so early on in writing Murphy because of a number of other key references to Joyce in the opening two chapters, namely: Murphy being “detained” in the market place in his search for Beauty (unlike Stephen Dedalus who distinguishes between the literary and commercial senses of the word). Murphy’s first encounter with Celia echoes the language used to describe Stephen’s holy vision of the birdgirl/”mortal angel”: “[Murphy] arrested the movement and gazed at Celia. For perhaps two minutes she suffered this gladly”.
- Celia as Venus/Beauty incarnate is caught in a tug-of-war between Mr. Willoughby Kelly (a composite Joyce figure) and Murphy (Beckett-like in his exploration of morphé). Mr. Kelly, invoking Leopold Bloom’s words to Stephen in “Ithaca”, advises Celia to “sever the connexion” with Murphy.
- Moreover, in Murphy Beckett deploys a literary triangulation whereby his relationship with Joyce’s theory of art is mediated by a third party, in this instance George Meredith’s The Egoist. Ackerley has stated the best short description of Murphy is still Ludovic Janvier’s “Andromaque jouée par les Marx Brothers.” The awareness of the underlying Meredithian patterning in Murphy affords another phrasing, one which, moreover, addresses the central plot of the novel, and not simply the sub-plot machinations of Neary and co. as Janvier’s does: namely, Murphy is a rewriting of The Egoist, Sir Willougby Patterne having been split in two as Mr. Willoughby Kelly and Murphy (pattern, morphé), with Celia in the middle as a variation on the Clara Middleton figure of The Egoist. What this loses in brevity it gains in an encompassing complexity that will afford a new way of critically engaging Murphy. Or, if an attempt at a wittily memorable phrase is de rigueur: “Murphy is The Egoist replayed by Joyce and Beckett, minus the comic resolution”.
- Indeed, even the (in)famous Chapter 6 (Murphy’s mind) might be dealt with in terms of Beckett’s dark “flux of forms” being played off against Joyce’s “radiance” (claritas): “the luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure”. The epigraph of Chapter 6 (“Amor intellectualis quo Murphy se ipsum amat”) could also be profitably set in conjunction with the “epitaph” to Meredith’s “Prelude” to The Egoist: “Through very love of self himself he slew.”
In the revisionist reading I am proposing – and only some of the major points have been alluded to above – the most illuminating and memorable feature of Murphy is the extent, depth, and complexity of Beckett’s critical dialogue with Joyce. This is a crucial issue which has by no means been thoroughly investigated, one which would indeed benefit greatly from a “new perspective”.