Murphy , probably more than any other of Beckett's fictional works, offers an explicit social analysis of its eponymous hero's tendency to regress—supposedly into pure consciousness—as a doomed form of symbolic resistance analogous to that of modernist art. Beckett establishes this analogy through his general depiction of Murphy as a pompous, worthless bohemian intellectual, but also in the book's specific meditations on form, abstraction, and beauty. In the character of Murphy, Beckett skeptically explores a trend that, even after World War II, he would champion in his few critical essays on the visual arts: modern art's increasing tendency to become abstract or even purely conceptual.
Murphy, bluntly put, is a portrait of the artist who no longer works, from whom works should not be expected. For Murphy's art is expressed not in works but in not working. Celia, his Irish prostitute girlfriend, represents a kind of aesthetic halfway station for Murphy, on the way to the pure conceptuality of his inner world. She offers him a potentially harmonious compromise between embodied sensuality and abstraction, the "music" of her sexual rhythms. Similarly, briefly spared by her relation to Murphy from selling her beauty on the streets, Celia is able to share with him for a short time the aesthetic life. Yet Murphy is torn between the cash nexus, sensual beauty, and pure conceptuality as competing claims on the modern artist. His eventual attempt, in his job as an attendant at the mental asylum, to satisfy his needs for money while pursuing his conceptual utopia fails ludicrously. Yet not without a paradoxical outcome: aesthetic beauty is thrown back out on the street, for after Murphy's untimely death, Celia must resume her prostitution. As if by a kind of dialectical cunning, Murphy's absolutism, his pursuit of total autonomy from any shared, socially determined world, destroys the aesthetic life and subordinates it in the most brutal way to economic necessity.
Beckett situates Murphy within a definite ensemble of social institutions and forces, and his regressive withdrawal can be seen as a response to increasing pressures threatening the presumably autonomous subject of consciousness. His character, then, viewed in relation to this social background, provides an index of Beckett's doubts about consciousness as a basis of artistic value. In turn, by openly airing Beckett's late modernist skepticism toward the modernist investment in art, Murphy offers
a perspective from which the historical meaning of Beckett's later, more contextually reticent works might be reconstructed.
The novel begins with Murphy naked in his rocking chair, in a West End (West Brompton) fiat that has been condemned. After six months of residence, "he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping, and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings." Outside a newsboy is plying his wares, and his shouts sound to the abstracted Murphy like "Quid pro quo!" Already by the end of the first paragraph, Beckett has suggested a good deal of contextual information: Murphy is a resident of London, a metropolis that is undergoing rapid change, and that in turn subjects its denizens to sudden, involuntary, and frequent adjustment to "alien surroundings." This environment is unified by the cash nexus, the exchange principle, the quid pro quo of money and institutional power.
Later in the book, Beckett returns to the neighborhood of this first apartment to provide still more precise information. Cooper, a detective engaged by the Dublin trio of Neary, Wylie, and Miss Counihan to find Murphy, picks up Murphy's trail and follows him to West Brompton. At the corner of Murphy's mew, he sees "a glorious gin-palace," a pub "superior to any he had ever seen" (Mur , 120). Cooper goes in and drinks until closing time, when "doors closed, the shutters rattled down, the wings of the grille came together. The defence of West Brompton, against West Brompton, was taking no chances" (Mur , 120). Besides providing a joke at the expense of the hapless native of Cork, this information also gives a point of reference for the condemning of Murphy's flat. The neighborhood is being "gentrified." Thus, when Cooper returns to Brompton after a weeklong dipsomaniac binge to take up the track of Murphy, he finds a disconcerting scene: "The ruins of the mew were being carted away, to make room for an architecture more in keeping with the palace on the corner" (Mur , 122).
In his first apartment, Murphy had an agreement with the landlady, whereby the rent bill to be paid by his uncle in Holland (his "Dutch uncle") would be "cooked": they would charge him higher than the actual rent and split the difference (Mur , 19). With the small' income this scheme provided, Murphy could survive without working. But the landlady of his new apartment, significantly situated between the Cattle
Market and the Pentonville prison, refuses to participate. Murphy is forced by circumstances and the blandishments of his prostitute-companion Celia to seek work. Although he avoids it assiduously, work eventually finds him, in the form of a plea by the Dublin pot-poet Austin Ticklepenny, who accosts Murphy in the British Museum, to serve as a replacement for him as an attendant at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat sanatorium. Murphy's final transplantation, into a tiny garret in the M.M.M., eventually leads to his accidental death, after a gas heating contraption rigged up by Ticklepenny goes wrong. Murphy's narrative course is not simply a comic distortion of a quite ordinary urban experience, frequent changes of rented residences; it is explicitly the contingencies of urban speculation and development, the quid pro quo of city life, that is the "prime mover" of Murphy's story. To put it bluntly, urban capitalism, and not the epistemological dilemmas of mind and body, is the motivating force behind Murphy's perilous course from West Brompton to Islington to the suburban mental institution where he meets his death. Murphy's mind/body drama, so heavily the focus of critics, is at best a defensive protest against the contingent social forces that constantly undermine his illusory autonomy.
Beckett underscores this tension between Murphy's striving for pure consciousness and the rationalizing dynamics of urban "progress" in two other scenes, framing his fateful encounter with Ticklepenny. Not wishing to lose Celia, who goads him to seek work, Murphy applies for a "smart boy" position at a chandlery in Gray's Inn Road. He is not just turned down; he is brutalized with insult and scorn:
" 'E ain't smart," said the chandler, "not by a long chork 'e ain't."
"Nor 'e ain't a boy," said the chandler's semi-private convenience, "not to my mind 'e ain't."
" 'E don't look tightly human to me," said the chandler's eldest waste product, "not rightly." (Mur , 77)
Worn down by his tribulations, Murphy looks for a place to sit down:
There was nowhere. There had once been a small public garden south of the Royal Free Hospital, but now part of it lay buried under one of those malignant proliferations of urban tissue know as service flats and the rest was reserved for the bacteria. (Mur , 77)
Service flats are something like protocondominiums, in which services, especially domestic, are paid for in the price of the rent. (Clearly such upscale housing is out of the reach of the seedy bohemian Murphy, the emigrée prostitute Celia, and their ilk.) Speculative development, in
league with the institutional iron cage of market, hospital, asylum, and prison, is closing in on Murphy's mental refuge. His regressive fantasy explicitly unfolds as a protest against social rationalization:
He leaned weakly against the railings of the Royal Free Hospital, multiplying his vows to erase this vision of Zion's antipodes for ever from his repertory if only he were immediately wafted to his rocking-chair and allowed to rock for five minutes. To sit down was no longer enough, he must insist now on lying down. Any old clod of the well-known English turf would do, on which he might lie down, cease to take notice and enter the landscapes where there were no chandlers and no exclusive residential cancers, but only himself improved out of all knowledge. (Mur , 79)
Nevertheless, Murphy is foiled in this desire by his own weariness and the lack of public space in the city. Having nowhere to lie down, he has no choice but to have tea "an hour before he was due to salivate" (Mur , 79) and go to the British Museum to contemplate the antiquities. After his encounter at the museum with Ticklepenny, who convinces Murphy to take over his post at the mental institution, and further adventures with Miss Rosie Dew, whose dog eats the cookies Murphy has laid out on the grass, Murphy finally gets his long-needed chance to regress. After some vain attempts to think through his situation, he lets go:
He . . . disconnected his mind from the gross importunities of sensation and reflection and composed himself on the hollow of his back for the torpor he had been craving to enter for the past five hours. . . . Nothing can stop me now, was his last thought before he lapsed into consciousness, and nothing will stop me. In effect, nothing did turn up to stop him and he slipped away, from the pensums and prizes, from Celia, chandlers, public highways, etc., from Celia, buses, public gardens, etc., to where there were no pensums and no prizes, but only Murphy himself, improved out of all knowledge. (Mur , 105)
This time, Beckett's repetition of the cliché "improved out of all knowledge" and his punning suggestion of the phrase "(col)lapsed into (un)consciousness" underscore that Murphy's mental autonomy is really a lapse from consciousness, a jettisoning of knowledge so as to deny the alterity of a social world that may cause suffering. Yet subtly, Beckett also suggests the fragile and illusory nature of Murphy's defense. When he writes that "in effect, nothing did turn up to stop him," he implies that Murphy's success was a contingent one. Something could have just as easily happened along to disturb him: like the policeman that keeps Murphy's precursor Belacqua moving along in the story "A Wet Night," for instance.
For a short while, Murphy will consider the mental asylum where he works as a refuge from the outer world of service fiats, cops, and the quid pro quo. Perhaps here, in the solipsistic enclosure of madness, he can achieve his long-sought mental autonomy from the contingencies of everyday life. Yet Beckett subtly exposes the shadow of a heteronomous social power darkening even the arcadian glades of the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat—on the one hand, in the economic privilege of the patients, which allows them to live in a private, relatively benign institution; on the other, through the bullying head nurses Tom "Bim" and Tim "Bom" Clinch. These latter figures are highly significant, because, through a largely occulted allusion, Beckett mocks not just the comic face of social domination but also his own quixotic search for a modernist utopia in the Joycean "revolution of the word."
The names "Bim" and "Bom" allude to a pair of clowns, first played in 1891 by Ivan Radunskii and Felix Kortezi. While Bim remained the exclusive property of Radunskii for the more than half century that Bim-Bom was active, Kortezi's Bom was replaced by four different partners up through 1946. Radunskii and his partners were formerly jesters in the circuses of czarist Petersburg and Moscow, latterly made to perform in public spectacles in the Soviet Union. Throughout their career, they combined satire and publicistic commentary with song and acrobatic clowning, using brooms, saws, flying pans, visiting cards, and reading stands as improbable musical instruments. They toured in Paris, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, and other European capitals and were frequently recorded on gramophone and film. After the revolution, their act spawned numerous imitators whose names reproduced their model's original phonemic stammer in countless new guises: Din-Don, Bib-Bob, Fis-Dis, Viis-Vais, and Rim-Rom.
Bim and Bom were, in effect, the fools of despotic power. They were known for their absurdist antihumor, their banal non-sequiturs concealing a sly social satire. In Alexander Serafimovich's novel of the Russian Revolution, a gramophone recording of Bim-Bom's play The Laugh grips the advancing Red Army troops in a paralyzing spasm of laughter, nearly bringing the revolution to a halt. It is only when a grimly determined Bolshevik smashes the reactionary gramophone that the day is saved. Yet despite Bim-Bom's "counterrevolutionary activities" (at least in literature) during the civil war and their topical satire of Bolshevik foibles, they flourished even during the dark years of Stalinist terror. Radunskii died at the age of eighty-two in 1955.
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The Russian clowns seem to have captured Beckett's imagination enough that, fifteen years after their premiere appearance in his work in Murphy , he considered using their names again for the two clowns of Waiting for Godot , where early drafts refer to Didi and Gogo as "Bim" and "Bom," the "Stalinist comedians"; he also used the names for two characters in the late play What Where . It is possible that Beckett may have first encountered them in the epilogue of Richard Aldington's novel The Colonel's Daughter , where, inexplicably finding themselves in a postwar English landscape, they engage in some metafictional jesting. When Aldington's Bim betrays his nervousness about being in the land of "Baldwin the Boujois," with its roving bands of bloodthirsty, fox-hunting Whites, Bom offers him a peculiarly Beckettian reassurance: " 'We're under diplomatic protection—for what that's worth from the Whites. We're the Epilogue.' " Bim and Bom, however, had earlier circulation in the English-speaking world in Fülüp-Miller's 1926 account of the communist revolution in culture and everyday life, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism , which in turn Wyndham Lewis recounted in a significant polemic in the second issue of his journal The Enemy (September 1927), the leading edge of Lewis's pitched battle in the late twenties with transition , Joyce, Stein, and others of the modernist vanguard. In the first issue (January 1927), Lewis had published the first version of his critique of Joyce, "An Analysis of the Mind of James Joyce," included shortly after as a chapter in Time and Western Man . Given that Beckett's initial involvement with both Joyce and the transition circle dates from these years, it is difficult to imagine he would not have been familiar with the venomous attacks of Lewis on his master and idol and on his new literary acquaintances. This intertextual web thus forms a crucial part of the historical meaning of Beckett's later employment of Bim and Bom in Murphy , and to a brief reconstruction of it I now turn.
The Enemy ran for three issues from 1927 to 1929 and was almost exclusively an instrument for Lewis's attacks on rivals, critics, and ex-friends. The first issue carried Lewis's notorious savaging of Pound, Stein, and Joyce, "The Revolutionary Simpleton," which later constituted the first part of Time and Western Man . This attack was answered by the editors of transition ("First Aid to the Enemy") and by Joyce ("The Mookses and the Gripes" episode of Finnegans Wake ) in transition . Lewis returned to the attack in full force in the spring of 1929, with his third and final issue's blast against transition , "The Diabolical Principle." This polemic appeared while transition's defense of Joyce's Work in Progress, Our Examination Round His Factification for Incamination
of Work in Progress , to which Beckett contributed his "Dante . . . Bruno. Vico. . Joyce" essay, was in preparation. In "The Diabolical Principle," Lewis sharpened his previous attack on transition's favored circle of artists, arguing that their "revolution of the word," far from transcending and transfiguring the degraded social world, delusively reflected the leveling of language and thought resulting from social rationalization and massification. The aesthetic anarchism of transition was, in Lewis's view, little more than a fig leaf for collectivization. (I offer here a much-cooled-down summary of Lewis's wild, scattershot argument.)
Lewis announced and anticipated at length his forthcoming pillory of transition in the editorial note of the previous issue, which featured his slap at the "Paleface" of modernist primitivism. In "Paleface," under the chapter heading " 'Black Laughter' in Russia," Lewis introduces, through a long quotation from Fülüp-Miller's book on Soviet Russia, the Bolshevik clowns Bim and Bom. After the triumphantly announced social experiments of the Bolsheviks had begun to fail, the story goes, a mocking irony began to emerge among the people. Soon, the report explains,
the dreaded masters of the Red Kremlin themselves trembled at this rising of laughers and jokers. In order to prevent an elemental outburst of all-dissolving universal mirth and to deprive this grave danger of all significance, the authorities hit on the clever idea of having recourse to an old institution, which has always been inseparably bound up with despotism, the office of the court fool. . . .
. . . "Bim" and "Born" were the names of the two "merry councilors" of the new tsar, the mass man; they alone among the hundred millions of Russians were granted the fight to express their opinions freely; they might mock, criticise, and deride the rulers at a time when the most rigorous persecution and terrorism prevailed throughout the whole country.
. . . In spite of their impudent criticisms, Bim and Bom were nevertheless one of the chief supports of the Bolshevik régime: the universal discontent would have burst all bounds if it had not been dissolved by the two clowns. . . . Their attacks were never directed against the whole, but only against details, and thus they contrived to divert attention from essentials. Besides, every one of their jokes contained a hidden warning to the laughter lovers: "Take care: Look out, we know you! We are aware of what you are thinking and feeling!"
Read through the prism of this passage and the context of the debate between Lewis and transition in which it is embedded, Beckett's choice of Bim and Born for his twin male nurses takes on a deeper and more
unsettling resonance. First, it sharpens and politicizes Beckett's antiutopian debunking of Murphy's failed solidarity with the inhabitants of the asylum. In the context of the midthirties, it allegorically depicts the often grotesque futility and self-delusion of many artists' attempt to embrace communism. Beckett satirically exposes the regime of domination behind the rhymed depersonalized self of madness (Murphy's utopia) and the super-personal self (the communist utopia) of the militant intellectual.
Second, it humorously seconds Lewis's contention that the modernist revolution of the word subtly conforms to the social order it professes to transcend. For oddly enough, though apparently opposed to the vulgar managerial mentality of his clownish bosses, Murphy does their work far more efficiently than a more conventional warder: "His success with the patients was little short of scandalous. . . . [T]he patients should have identified Murphy with Bom & Co. . . . The great majority failed to do so. . . . Whatever they were in the habit of doing for Born & Co., they did more readily for Murphy. And in certain matters where Born & Co. were obliged to coerce them, or restrain them, they would suffer Murphy to persuade them" (Mur , 182). If the mental asylum is, in fact, a microcosmic society, then Beckett depicts here one of the cruxes of modern politics: the relation between force and consent in the governing of society. Like the radical artist whose oppositional gestures are exhibited as evidence of the state's tolerance, Murphy represents for the asylum a margin of dissidence recuperated by the system of power, fostering consent rather than provoking repression. The oppositional intellectual, represented by Murphy, becomes the unwitting tool of the "art of being ruled." To put it somewhat differently: if the mental patients represent a general withdrawal from the discourse and activin, of "normal" life, they "suffer" Murphy to persuade them, to bring them back into the discursive fold, where power may be more subtly effectuated on bodies. Murphy, in his aesthetic longing for a transfiguration of everyday experience, becomes the happy colonizer of social heterogeneity. Where before existed only the crude subdialogue of rejection and answering violence, Murphy establishes a con-sensual discourse, thus converting brute power to perlocutionary speech.
Finally, the specter of "repressive tolerance" conjured by the Soviet clowns Bim and Born haunts Beckett's own literary project, as he himself was painfully aware. Late modernist fiction recognizes its own fatal complicity with the fallen world it explores; it offers not a utopian exit
but a riant expression of impasse. Laughter, Beckett suggests, occupies the thin edge between subversion and recuperation, between the freedom to dissent and the imperfect surveillance that anticipates and preempts that freedom. There is, he suggests in Murphy , no longer any clearly defined inside or outside of social power, and hence no lasting asylum from it in art, madness, Proustian remembrance, or any other modernist locus of transcendence. No clear-cut opposition of society and its carceral institutions, and hence no utopian exteriors. Only resistances and withdrawals, stations in the relay between forest and hospital, beachhead and holding cell: neutral points—the crossroads, the waiting room, the ditch, the bed—where a stiffening burst of laughter might sound, for a moment, to lend relief.