GENETIC JOYCE STUDIES - Issue 6 (Spring 2006)



Molloy, Part II, Where the Shit Hits the Fan

Ballyba's Economy and the Worth of the World


édouard Magessa O'Reilly


I would like to begin by thanking the organisers of this workshop, Dirk van Hulle and Geert Lernout, for their indulgence in printing what may to some be an offensive title, even though I would have willingly let the more scholarly sub-title stand alone. My title is not meant to be provocative: though I'm not by any means a prude, the offending word is not one I happen to like nor do I use it spontaneously. But I hope to convince you that the expression in my title is the most apt image for something that happens in the manuscript of Molloy with regards to the subject matter in question.

When I was contacted about this workshop, I decided to talk about a lengthy variant in the manuscript of the French-language Molloy, possibly the only major variant with regards to content that can be found in what is generally assumed to be the first draft of Molloy. The manuscript comprises four notebooks held at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Though the manuscript contains many variants, they are arguably all of a (predominantly) stylistic nature. Only this one adds any significant semantic content.

The variant in question occurs in Molloy, part II, where Moran, – who has been charged with finding Molloy – reviews in his mind everything he knows about Molloy and his country before setting out on his quest. He makes this review in two phases, first what he knows of Molloy himself: how Moran came to know of him, Molloy's mother, his name, his movements, age, face and the nature of his existence (Beckett 1955, p. 111-15). Later, he briefly reviews what he knows of Molloy's country: its name (Ballyba), its geography and agriculture (p. 133-34). Before concluding this review of molloyana, and this is the deleted passage, he explains that the economy of Ballyba is based on its citizens' stools, which are recycled as fertilizer and account for the region's high agricultural productivity and for its wealth. There follows a lengthy discussion of a wide range of societal issues that are impacted by Ballyba's preoccupation with faecal matter.

I summarize the passage, beginning with a quotation from the English-language novel as published by Grove Press: "What then was the source of Ballyba's [riches]. I'll tell you. No, I'll tell you nothing. Nothing" (p. 134). The phrases I have underlined are a later insertion to replace the much longer passage, which begins with the sentence (I translate from the French) : "From its citizens' stools." (ms, notebook III, p. 131 [page numbers inscribed in the ms]).

There follow a couple of opening jibes about local colour and its unique bouquet. Moran then goes on to discuss the luxurious vegetable production that is achieved thanks to the shit of Ballyba's citizens. Producing shit is, in fact, a civic duty. Each citizen has a quota of shit to produce, as determined by a committee. Trips away have to be compensated, a regulation which explains why citizens prefer to stay home.

Government officials, on the other hand, are exempt from the requirement to compensate for faeces not contributed to the community during an absence. It is the duty of a particular official, apparently of very high status, the Odibil, to determine who must compensate for trips away. Moran then discusses the selection process by which the Obidil is designated and the lifestyle that results for the individual who is chosen. He plans to say more about the Odibil later but, as we know, he doesn't. (Obidil is mentioned in passing and without explanation in the published work, p. 162).

Next, Moran outlines some of the scientific research that has been done on faeces, in particular on the influence of one's profession on one's stools. Thanks to this research it has become well known that clergyman's stool makes the best fertilizer. Shit is also the motivation for certain technological developments. Moran cites the admirable technology involving septic tanks arranged around cultivated land for the purposes of distributing the shit.

Shit has had an impact on language as well. In Ballyba's dialect there exists an expression, "Ballyba weekend," which designates a brief respite in an ailment, certain to be followed by a relapse. A metaphysical poet by the name of Clark has made poetic use of the expression to apply it to the time that elapses between meeting one's love and the lovemaking.

Folklore and tradition also bear shit's mark. The shit to be collected is placed by the citizenry in trashcans and it is a matter of civic pride to have shiny trashcans with nametags. There are in fact fines for those whose trashcans are tarnished. Shit collection is done in the morning and the afternoon of that day is devoted to celebration and festival.

At the end of every year, totals are calculated and diplomas are awarded to those whose contribution exceeded their quota. The diplomas are colour coded according to the amount of the excess. These diplomas are very much sought after and are particularly useful when one is seeking employment.

Moran then mentions a certain Colbert who became rich by eating and defecating. He produced so much shit that he was able to sell his excess to those who could not meet their quota. Though some suspect him of mixing bird shit in with his own, others have recommended him for sainthood in recognition of his valuable contribution.

At this point, Moran mentions that he meant to write a paragraph about the public restrooms in Ballyba but that desire has left him, he hopes it will return. He then asks himself if the state of public health in Ballyba is any the worse for this preoccupation with faecal matter and concludes that such would not seem to be the case. When one is born in excrement, he surmises, and passes one's life there, one can get used to it.

Finally, Moran recalls the case of a scientist named Kottman who suggested shit baths to alleviate certain nervous disorders. According to a detailed plan he submitted to the appropriate committee, none of the shit would be lost to fertilization as it would all be recycled. His plan was turned down, however, for fear the bathers would pollute the shit.

The variant passage ends with: "That then is a part of what I thought I knew about Ballyba when I left home" (p. 135), a sentence which appears in the published text to cap off the review of molloyana. In creating Ballyba's economy, Beckett has touched upon matters of civic duty and civic pride, of bureaucracy, folklore and tradition, science and technology, poetry, celebrity, social status and sainthood. In Ballyba, it would appear, all these are built on shit.

Why was this section dealing with Ballyba's economy taken out of the novel? The obvious answer seems to be linked to issues of public decency and would be the result of some sort of (self-)censorship. Given that, a decade later, the printer of Comment c'est would balk at the content of that novel (Bair, 524), one can easily imagine, at the time Molloy was being considered, urging toward self-censorship emanating from les éditions de Minuit.  I hope to shed some light on this shortly in consulting archival material, particularly the correspondence between Minuit and Beckett.

But (self-)censorship or no, a development of this importance still calls for some sort of interpretation in its own right. The passage I have summarized takes up some 13 rectos in the third notebook of the manuscript (132-156, the text being generally on the recto of the leaf – even numbers). Even after cancellations we are left with a variant passage of some 2400 words. It was written in (at least) two writing sessions as there is a date and a change of venue in the middle. We know from the three biographies that the major part of Molloy was written in the Menton region (Bair, p. 366 ; Cronin, p. 371-372 ; Knowlson, p. 332), but on p. 143 (dating the text on the facing recto) Beckett indicates that he is now writing in Paris. This second writing session ends with the conclusion of the passage I have summarized, suggesting that completing it had been that day's task. All in all, the composition of this particular passage required no insignificant amount of time and energy on Beckett's part and it seems likely that it occupied a specific place in Beckett's original plan.[1]

So, besides the historical reason for its deletion, another interesting question is why it was written in the first place. What's it doing there? What was Beckett aiming at as he was writing it? In answering this question we might shed another light on why it was deleted. Perhaps for reasons more profound than simple censorship. In other words, if and when Jérôme Lindon or someone else may have asked it be removed for reasons of public decency (to ease relations with printers, booksellers, reviewers), Beckett might have agreed for his own reasons of thematic coherence. (Unless a French-language typescript comes to light to show that Beckett had already cancelled the whole section for those very reasons.)

So, having told you about the variant, I would now like to consider what Beckett may have been doing with this faecal imagery. The first obvious place to look is Freudian psychoanalysis, especially in light of J.D. O'Hara's magnificent Samuel Beckett's Hidden Drives (1997) much of which is devoted to an in depth commentary on Molloy. It will be remembered that for O'Hara, Molloy, part I is a systematic exploration of Jungian themes, while Moran's part II is an exploration of Freudian themes.[2] If one accepts O'Hara's premise that Beckett is consciously working with Freudian theory and Freudian themes, he may have decided that faeces took on, in the Freudian framework, an inappropriate valence.

Very briefly, in Freudian literature, shit is seen as gift and linked to issues of control (retention); as the source of erotic pleasure; and linked to the character trait miserliness. Carl Jung's work would later emphasize the first interpretation in particular, associating shit even more closely with money, and emphasizing the fusion of the highest with the lowest (shit as a mark of veneration) (p. 189). Such interpretations are of course possible. On the level of the fiction, the passage under consideration explicitly deals with the economy and wealth of Ballyba. On the level of utterance, we can see Beckett enacting the gifting, then the retention of this passage. But, as much as I am an admirer of Freud, in this case I do not find this line of interpretation compelling and I turn elsewhere to find a more promising perspective. I find it in Paul Davies' recent Beckett and Eros (2000), devoted to an exploration of Buddhist themes in Beckett's work.

Faeces is mentioned occasionally both in Davies (particularly in relation to the radio play All That Fall, of which more in a few minutes) and in Buddhist literature. In Buddhist tradition, faeces is one of the impurities that accumulate in the body. More importantly, shit is the symbol of the transience of all things, as they break down into faeces. The material world is likened to faeces as something of no intrinsic value and unworthy of attention beyond the satisfaction of physical need for food, shelter and the like. As a matter of fact the notion of the fundamental identity of food and faeces, which is the basis of the passage in Beckett, is mentioned in Buddhist literature. I am, in the main, speaking of popularizations of Buddhism in writings aimed at the Western lay person (Stearns, p. 226 ; Carter, p. 272).

The tongue-in-cheek treatise on Ballyba's economy metonymically reduces that material and social world (bureaucracy, technology, social status, etc.) to shit. This is in keeping with Beckett's lifelong preoccupation with the inward search for the source of voice and self.

But is this just an interesting coincidence? In other words, besides Davies' book, on what basis might we claim to recognize traces of Buddhist themes and thought in Beckett's work? Is the presence of Buddhism biographically determined or are the works of Foster, Davies and others simply revealing parallel readings? Buddhism was not ignored by Anglo-Irish intellectual circles of the time and H. G. Wells in his 1920 work The Outline of History counts Gotama Buddha as "one of the most penetrating intelligences the world has ever known" (vol. 1, 315). Yet, there is no reference to Buddhism or of any interest in Buddhist thought (nor to Wells nor to any of several authors of monographs on Buddhism in circulation at the time) in any of the existing biographies of Beckett (Bair, Cronin, Knowlson). However Beckett's fondness for Schopenhauer is well documented. We know from Knowlson's biography (p. 122) that Beckett, who returned to Schopenhauer throughout his life, was already reading him in 1930. The impact of Schopenhauer's thought on Beckett's early work, especially Proust (1931), has also been discussed at some length by critics (O'Hara and James Acheson on Proust ; Knowlson on Eleutheria). As we know, the German philosopher praises Buddhist thought throughout The World as Will and Representation, particularly in the supplementary materials to the first volume. Schopenhauer says that Buddhism has "pre-eminence over" (vol. II, 169) other religions on the basis of the truth-value of its teachings. References to Buddhism can be found in at least two places in the Beckett corpus : at the beginning of "Henri Hayden, homme-peintre" (1952) and the tribute to the renouncer who can be no one but Gotama Buddha in How it is (Comment c'est, 1961). It is the mention of the bo tree that makes the allusion unequivocal.

A few highly revealing intuitions on the part of Richard N. Coe (1964), though unsubstantiated in terms of biography or corpus, have evolved into detailed parallel readings such as Davies'. Yet the textual references, though rarely mentioned,[3] show that such parallels are not fanciful and that we are not stretching matters too much when we claim to recognize Buddhist themes in Beckett's work. And it is interesting to note that Vilas Sarang, who self-identifies as Indian (52), in an article about Eastern influences in Western writers (particularly Camus) considers Beckett and others close to the East through their "passivity, acceptance and pessimism" (ibidem). We nonetheless must remember that Beckett's (like Schopenhauer's) use of Buddhist themes remains quite superficial. Both authors use Buddhist themes for their own purposes.

I'll end now with a brief genealogy of shit, interpreted as a Buddhist theme, in Beckett's work in order to see where the deleted passage from Molloy, part II fits in.

Before appearing in the first draft of Molloy in 1947, shit is mentioned briefly in his earlier works, in particular as fleeting parody in discussions of love. Some will recall the puzzlingly libidinal opening scene of Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932), where the child Belacqua works himself up into a lather peddling, comes up even with a set of horse's buttocks that are being cropped and switched by the coachman and verbalizes an identification with them. Then there is a gasp of satisfaction (from Belacqua? from the buttocks?) as they release "a gush of mard" (1932, p. 1). (That anglicized form of merde also appears in the poem "Dortmunder," 1935.)

In Watt (1942), it will be remembered, one of Watt's duties is to distribute Knott's faeces in the garden, giving it to whatever plant is producing, according to the season. There is explicit mention of flowers, fruit, and vegetables. Once again we see the puerile fascination with this particular example of the life cycle (food to shit to food).

It is with the beginning of Beckett's French writing that the theme takes on its full esoteric meaning. In the story "La fin" (1946), his first sustained prose piece in French, Beckett makes reference to "la merde universelle," later rendered in English as "the universal muck" ("The End"). He will strive to illustrate this fully in some of his later works. In "Premier amour" (1946), the narrator discovers love in a cow pie, as it were (mentioned twice: as it occurs in the chronology and in a later recollection). In the more elaborate context of a novel, shit appears sporadically in Mercier et Camier, most significantly in conjunction with notions of love and sex (p. 13, 122) and in an allusion to the universal muck (p. 130).

Apart from the "universal muck," shit has up to now been linked to a particular theme, love or food. But in Molloy, part II, the shit hits the fan and gets plastered on everything: from technology to tradition, to sainthood and social status. In the tradition of parallel readings, O'Hara shows us Beckett consciously using Jungian and Freudian themes in his work, especially Molloy, and Thomas Cousineau points out Beckett's notes on his readings in physics and how they are used in The Unnameable. In a similar manner, we might in this case see Beckett using a theme acquired through his exposure to Buddhism – however indirect. In the manuscript of Molloy, part II, we see Beckett's first attempt at applying this Buddhist theme to the letter: the world is of no worth (the world of phenomena, in Schopenhauer's terms).

The attempt was judged to be inappropriate and the passage about Ballyba's economy was deleted, probably for a number of reasons. Most obviously, for reasons of public decency. The device might also be thought to be crude or puerile: the cycle of shit to food to shit is one of those paradoxes of life that we all understand at some point, then move on. But perhaps most importantly, as I have mentioned, Beckett may have felt that inappropriate connotations derived from the Freudian context when he was trying to illustrate a Buddhist (or Schopenhauerian) theme.

It is in his later writing that the theme of world-as-faeces was more successfully, and more artfully, incorporated into his works. The radio play All That Fall (1956) is pointedly analysed by Davies in this respect. Occasional and lightly comical turns of phrase have the effect of reducing the material world to faeces. The play is framed by references to faeces: Christy, a carter, asks Maddy if she is in need of load of dung (p. 13), an inquiry she transmits to her husband near the end of the play (p. 37). Between these two references, Maddy's makes this description of herself : "Oh let me just flop down flat on the road [...]. A great big slop thick with grit and dust and flies, they would have to scoop me up with a shovel" (p. 14, see Davies, p. 152-65). And the world of mud in How it is, elaborately constructed and maintained by the narrator as a place of dark unknowing is, with one brief stroke, suddenly rendered to unredeemable worthlessness of shit. (One might also mention Saposcat in Malone dies and, of course, Krapp's Last Tape).

As the 1960s approached, Beckett got beyond the scatological and in order to figure the worthlessness of the world, faecal imagery becomes sublimated as desert, dust and ruins in works like Endgame and "For to end yet again." One may also think of the tunnel in "He is barehead" (and perhaps the cylinder of The Lost Ones, though that is a more complex space) as spatial representations of the renunciation of the outside world in favour of the inward search. All these blank decors can be said to figure at one and the same time the worthless emptiness of the outside world and the apparent featurelessness of the as-yet-unexplored inner world.




James Acheson, Samuel Beckett's Artistic Theory and Practice: Criticism, Drama, and Early Fiction, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett. A Biography, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Samuel Beckett, Proust [1931] in Proust and Three Dialogues, London, Calder & Boyars, 1970, 7-93.

-----, Dream of Fair to Middling Women [1932], New York, Arcade Publishing in association with Riverrun Press, 1992.

-----, "Dortmunder" [1935] in Collected Poems in English and French, London, John Calder, 1977, 16.

-----, Watt [1942], London, John Calder, Calderbook, 1976.

-----, "La fin" [1946] in Nouvelles et textes pour rien, Paris, éditions de Minuit, 1958, 71-112.

-----, Premier amour [1946], Paris, éditions de Minuit, 1970.

-----, Mercier et Camier [1946], Paris, éditions de Minuit, collection 10/18, 1970.

-----, Eleutheria [1947], Paris, éditions de Minuit, 1995.

-----, Molloy, manuscript, 4 notebooks, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, [1947].

-----, "Henri Hayden, homme-peintre" [1952], in Disjecta, Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, London, John Calder, 1983, 146-47.

-----, "The End" [1954] in Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980, London, John Calder, 1984, 51-70.

-----, Molloy, Paris, éditions de Minuit, 1951.

-----, Molloy [1955], Malone Dies [1956], The Unnamable [1958], New York, Grove Press, Black Cat Edition, 1965.

-----, All That Fall [1957] in Collected Shorter Plays, New York, Grove Press, 9-39.

-----, Endgame [1958], New York, Grove Press, 1970.

-----, Krapp's Last Tape [1958], ibidem, 53-63.

-----, Comment c'est, Paris, éditions de Minuit, 1961.

-----, How it is, New York, Grove Press, Evergreen edition, 1964.

-----, The Lost Ones [1972], in Collected Shorter Prose, op. cit., 159-78.

-----, "For To End Yet Again" and "He is barehead" [1976], ibidem, 179-82, 187-91.

Robert E. Carter, "God and Nothingness: Two Sides of the Same Coin?", in Jeremiah Hackett and Jerald Wallulis, eds., Philosophy of Religion for a New Century – Essays in Honor of Eugene Thomas Long, Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004, p. 261-278.

Richard N. Coe, Beckett, Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd,1964.

Thomas Cousineau, "Anti-Oedipal Tendencies in The Trilogy", in Beckett And Beyond, Bruce Stewart, ed., Buckinghamshire, Colin Smythe Limited, 1999, p. 70-77.

Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett The Last Modernist, London, Harper Collins, 1996.

Paul Davies, Beckett and Eros. Death Of Humanism, Houndsmills, MacMillan Press and New York, St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Paul Foster, Beckett and Zen A Study of Dilemma in the Novels of Samuel Beckett, London, Wisdom Publications, 1989.

Sigmund Freud, Trois essais sur la théorie sexuelle [1905], Paris, Gallimard, 1987, traduction de Philippe Koeppel.

-----, "Character and Anal Erotism" [1908], in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 9, London, Hogarth Press, 1959, p. 169-175.

-----, "Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism" [1917] ibid, vol. 17, London, Hogarth Press, 1955.

-----, L'homme aux loups [1918], Paris, Quadrige / PUF, 1990, traduction de Janine Altounian et Pierre Cotet.

Wilhelm Halbfass, "Schelling and Schopenhauer" [1988], in Eastern Influences On Western Philosophy. A Reader, Alexander Lyon Macfie, ed., Edinburgh, Edinburgh U P, 2003, p. 161-86.

Carl Gustave Jung, Symbols of Transformation, An analysis of the Prelude to a Case of Schizophrenia, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956, translated by R. F. C. Hull.

James Knowlson, Damned To Fame. The Life Of Samuel Beckett, London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Moira Nicholls, "The Influences of Eastern Thought On Schopenhauer's Doctrine Of The Thing-In-Itself" [1999], in Eastern Influences On Western Philosophy. A Reader, Alexander Lyon Macfie, ed., Edinburgh, Edinburgh U P, 2003, p. 187-219.

J. D. O'Hara, Samuel Beckett's Hidden Drives. Structural Uses Of Depth Psychology, Gainsville, U P of Florida, 1997.

Vilas Sarang, "A Brother To The Stranger," in Adele King, ed., Camus's L'étranger: Fifty Years On, London, Macmillan, 1992, p. 51-58.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, New York, Dover Publications, 1966, translated by E.F.J. Payne.

Cyrus Stearns, The Buddha from Dolpo – A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1999.

H. G. Wells, The Outline of History Being A Plain History Of Life And Mankind [1920], Garden City, Garden City Books, 1961.


[1] It is reasonable to assume that all of the writing sessions are dated although in one case the output for that day (7 September 1947) is so much greater than any other day's (ms, III, p. 6-92, i.e. 43 rectos) that Beckett might have neglected to inscribe the date on one or two occasions. With regards to the variant passage, notebook III was begun on 5 September 1947 in Menton (ms, III, inside front cover). The writing session dated 27 September (ms, III, p. 106) includes the first part of the variant passage. The next writing session was in Paris and is dated 9 October (ms, III, p. 144). The next date (at the end of the variant passage) is 11 October (ms, III, p. 156).

[2] I will not here go into the issue of Beckett's familiarity with depth psychology, both as an analisand and as a reader, but I wish to thank Matthew Feldman for pointing out to me his transcription of Beckett's reading notes in depth psychology included as an annex to his thesis, Sourcing 'Aporetics': An Empirical Study on Philosophical Influences in the Development of Samuel Beckett's Writings (Oxford Brookes University, PhD Thesis: 2004).

[3] Foster mentions both (p. 27, 293).


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