Skip to main content
Skip to main content

“Wrong, very rightly wrong”: Being wrong in Beckett’s Trilogy and How It Is

About the Author: Rebecca Menmuir

Rebecca Menmuir is a third-year undergraduate at Royal Holloway, University of London, studying English Literature. Her academic interest is primarily in Medieval literature, particularly Chaucer’s dream visions. Other interests range from Ovid to Beckett, and she enjoys the unique challenges that different texts present. Rebecca plans to apply for the MSt 650-1550 in the fall, and hopes to work in manuscript conservation.

By Rebecca Menmuir | General Essays

And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. (Molloy 27)

Wrong, very rightly wrong. Such contradictions thrive in Beckett’s works, and none more so than the inexplicable rightness of the wrong. An “incomprehensible uneasiness” (The Unnamable 289) permeates Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable and How It Is, deliberately vague and calculatedly present; it insists on being noticed. Whether with the refrain of “something wrong there” (How It Is 4) or narrators struggling for the right word, expression is constantly compromized by some kind of dissonance, an uneasiness with the world and word on the page. Kathryn Schultz suggests that “we tend to view [being wrong] as rare and bizarre – an inexplicable aberration in the normal order of things” (7); whilst the wrong in Beckett is often bizarre and inexplicable, his “natural order” (How It Is 3) embraces the wrong, and it exists throughout without serious attempt at redemption. Thus, while Schultz goes on to view error as an opportunity to revise ourselves and amend to “rightness”, Beckett refuses to transform wrong to right, but hails it as human achievement. Error is celebrated because ultimately, to be wrong is to be human: si enim fallor, sum [for if I am mistaken, I am] (Augustine 11.26). To be precise, mechanical and correct, as several narrators attempt to become, is to do so at the nullification of the humanity in their voices. Through the texts, readers are forced to accept that wrong is not a vehicle to right, but that the uncanny sense of the alien, the not quite right, is an achievement of humanity.

The “incomprehensible uneasiness” that The Unnamable’s voice refers to is present throughout the novels often grouped together as a trilogy, with a vague, supposed otherness haunting the characters. “The floor is whitening,” Malone worries, “I struck it several blows with my stick and the sound it gave forth was at once sharp and dull, wrong in fact” (Malone Dies 216-7). There is something wrong with sound, the “sharp . . .  dull” a literally oxymoronic disjuncture that nags the narrator and causes “some trepidation” (217). Beckett’s synaesthesic description strengthens the insistent incongruity of sound, drawing the reader into Malone’s trepidation, unsure of the appropriate reaction. Similarly, Molloy states that “in reality I said nothing at all, but I heard a murmur, something gone wrong with the silence” (Molloy 82), and finds it “mortifying” (83). However, it then transpires that it is Molloy himself who does the murmuring, allowing it to grow “with . . . a little imagination” (83) to a mortifying gong. The scene of the odd, strange wrongness is actually within the self, and Molloy attempts to distance himself from it by placing it as an external object. Beckett told Gabriel D’Aubarèdein 1961 that, “Molloy and the others came to me the day I became aware of my own folly” (“le jour où j’ai pris conscience de ma bêtise”), a recognition of inwards impotence and ignorance (Beckett 217). Molloy himself, crawling on his belly through the dark (84-5), does not possess that self-awareness, that distinction between his own functions and the external. The relationship between characters and the wrong is of a growing awareness, and a growing murmur that they themselves might be the cause of it. When Malone says “here I go none the less, mistakenly” (193), he begins to perceive that relationship where Molloy cannot.

Things that seem wrong and other, then, actually tend to originate within the narrators themselves, from their inconsistencies and human nature. The narrator of The Unnamable initially frets over the lights that he perceives in his hazy landscape:

These lights for instance . . . what is there so strange about them, so wrong? Is it their irregularity, their instability, their shining strong one minute and weak the next . . . ? But the play of lights is truly unpredictable. (288)

The lights’ movements are imprecise and nebulous, flickering and moving without the “clockwork” (288) that his other characters achieve. Once again it is the vague that is unsettling, as with the sharp-dull sound and the “something” that imposes upon silence. Their only constancy is in their unpredictability. Yet doubt then encroaches upon the voice, transferring the wrong from other to self: “They are perhaps unwavering and fixed and my fitful perceiving the cause of their inconstancy” (288), and human error is revealed as the cause of such disorder. Human perception is the filter which causes things to be perceived as wrong, and “the disorder of the lights perhaps an illusion” (289). It is the very writing of the text that is “something gone wrong with the silence”, their murmurings that mutate fixed objects into twisted shapes, a distorted reflection of reality. Beckett later presents it as a distinctly human trait to perceive things as wrong: “they don’t know why . . . everything is going so badly . . . So they build up hypotheses that collapse on top of one another, it’s human, a lobster couldn’t do it” (365). This declaration – a lobster couldn’t achieve what us humans can – is distinctly triumphant, creating a disjuncture between the act of “building up hypotheses” (365) badly and the sense of achievement accompanying it.

Time also refuses to align itself, and is constantly problematic. Beckett’s work suffers from a constant polychronicity, a desire “to be present past future and conditional of to be and not to be” (How It Is 31). In How It Is, the voice tracks “myriads of hours” (17), “vast tracts of time” (3) and “the unforgiving seconds” (51) across the three sections, beginning with “how it was” (3), only to end with “how it is” (129). There is a sense of time stretching out ad infinitum in order to represent a collective moment of mankind. In the first part, the phrase “suffering failing bungling achieving” (17) is emphasized by way of repetition, and is immediately striking due to the placement of four present participles directly after one another. It exists perpetually, never ceasing to suffer, fail, bungle and achieve. The placement of “achieving” directly after the tricolon of the negative “suffering failing bungling” inextricably entwines being wrong with achievement, and they continue perpetually. Even more fractured is the repetition of “the panting stops” (3). Over and over again the action purports to end, but the continuous echoing of the phrase and the use of the present tense extends stopping to infinity, just as Malone dies, and keeps on dying, never dead. It is through this structural echoing and words contradicting their grammatical nature that How It Is exists outside of time and within all of it at once, beguiling the reader and aiding the defamiliarisation process. There is something inherently wrong with the passing of time: “vast stretch of time very pretty but not right something wrong something very wrong” (96), and there is no reconciliation, no “try again in another present” (The Unnamable 300). There is no alternative for these voices, nor reprieve from the unwelcome inconstancy of time.

When characters attempt to become right, to escape that vague wrongness that eludes definition, the effort threatens to dehumanize them. In Malone Dies, the narrator articulates the desire to ascend to abhuman precision. “I should be sorry to let slip . . . something suspiciously like a true statement at last. I might feel I had failed in my duty! I want this matter to be free from all trace of approximation.” (190). Immediately, approximations arise: the phrase “let slip” is characteristically ambiguous, perhaps meaning that the narrator wouldn’t wish to let go of a chance to speak the truth, or otherwise that he should be in fact sorry to let the truth slip from his mouth. Characterized as an obsession, Malone seems to wish to remove all blunderings, any chance of there being “something wrong there” in his calculated inventory. “I want . . . to be in a position to enounce clearly, without addition or omission” (190), he continues. When it comes to it, however, the excitement of imprecise mystery restates his humanity, in the fact that he cannot bear to make precise that “little packet tied up in age-yellowed newspaper” (191). His inherent inertia confines him to relegating the packet to the unknown, and his inventory remains incomplete. How It Is expresses the same desires in its third part, attempting to pinpoint the emotions of loss, torture and abandonment into mathematical figures. “as for example our course a closed curve and let us be numbered 1 to 1000000 then number 1000000 on leaving his tormentor number 999999” (102), the voice lectures, stating “correct . . . correct . . . correct” (101). The torture of Pim in part two is cold, precise and austere: “he cries I withdraw it thump on skull the cries cease it’s mechanical end of first lesson” (57). Here, it becomes easier to navigate between clauses, and it is clearer who is subject and who is object: “he cries / I withdraw it / thump on skull / the cries cease”. The structure of sentences have become mechanical, sterilising the highly emotive subject being discussed. The issue of identity takes on the voice of a grammar lesson, “YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom” (p.65), “me Bem he Bem we Bem” (95), an unsettling defamiliarization of recognisable elements. When things are right, cold and precise, they are dehumanized.

Ultimately, both Malone and the voice of How It Is cannot reconcile this cold precision to their humanity, and recant their attempts. “I have just calculated time, if I have calculated right, and if I have calculated wrong so much the better, I ask nothing better, besides I haven’t calculated anything” (Malone Dies 230). To calculate right is to forfeit error, and somehow calculating wrong is preferable. The last phrase, “besides I haven’t calculated anything”, is a reminder of the human potential for action but tendency towards inertia; it is suggested that humans have the ability to be right if necessary, but tend towards error and complacency because it is simply easier. How It Is takes a slightly altered stance: “life because of cry that’s the proof good and deep no more is needed a little cry all is not dead” (106). The proof, an ironically mathematical term, lies in crying, in showing emotions and proving that human potential for error remains. Humans do things wrong not simply because they are lazy, but to prove that they have the capacity to explore their minds for emotion. The refrain of “something wrong there” therefore becomes a reminder of humanity. “Let us therefore act as the mad mathematician,” Beckett says in Disjecta, “who used a different principle of measurement at each step of his calculation” (173). Each principle individually is precise, correct, and flawless, but combined it transforms into something profoundly incorrect, and it is the processes of the human mind utilising these pure principles that pollute them into wrongness – and here, these human processes are celebrated because the principles in themselves could not achieve such error.

Above all, it is words that are wrong for Beckett, and counterintuitively right for the very nature of their wrongness. Caught between “the inability to speak and the inability to be silent” (154), as Critchley asserts, words become impotent and inert, unable to articulate speech or silence. Where words are static and unchanging, human experience and expression is constantly mobile, and time and time again do characters in Beckett express frustration at the limitations of words. “It was not quite the right word” (Murphy 39), Murphy puzzles, and by the trilogy, the unsure “not quite” is transformed into an absolute nullification of sound. “I am lost. Not a word.” (Malone Dies 256). Expression is empty, as Molloy states at the outset of the novel:

you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery (Molloy 9)

Therein lies the unfulfilled desires of Molloy and those before and after him – for all to be “blank and flat”, to be “senseless, speechless, issueless”, to be freed of words and, in this instance, to obliterate existence. “Obliterate” is in itself an apt word for the destruction of words, a literal ob litera, warring against the very letters themselves. From his nihilistic view, expression is as meaningless as the silence it purports to fill. Malone’s “notes have a curious tendency, as [he realizes] at last, to annihilate all they purport to record” (252). Words do not issue meaning, or adequately reflect life, but annihilate, better off obliterated and lost.

In How It Is, processes of words and naming are mocked: “what more can you ask a possible thing see it name it name it see it enough now rest” (91). Here a fresh name is given to something upon experience with the object, a chiastic entrenching of seeing and naming. “what more can you ask”, the voice declares, tongue in cheek. This process almost immediately sours, breaking down with images of age and incompetence. “no more I’ll hear no more see no more yes I must to make an end a few more old words” (92); as life continues and changes, words become instantly outdated, “a few old images always the same no more blue the blue is done” (92). In this instance we are told precisely why this is wrong, “wrong for never twice the same” (92); how can the same words be used when things never occur the same way twice? “The same old mouldy words buttered around the same old mouldy ideas”, Beckett complains to MacGreevy, the same words souring upon excessive use. Words are therefore doomed to fail for Beckett, never enough, always wrong.

Words, as Critchley aptly says, are “liars . . . they are too engraved with memory, significance, associations and habits – the sticky surface of words” (153). He quotes Deleuze’s words of, “Elle colle. Elle nous imprisonne et nous étouffe” (“It sticks. It imprisons and stifles us”) (153), and there are indeed moments in Beckett when words imprison us in associations and with questions that are confusing and misleading. For instance, in part three of How It Is: “a million then if a million strong a million Pims now motionless agglutinated two by two in the interests of torment” (100). “Agglutinated” bewilders the reader, a polysyllabic, unfamiliar word which seems wrong amongst the endless repetitions of the same phrases and words. Has it been used, as Ricks suggests of Beckett’s uses of Latin, for its “foreign chill, the alienation, the living death incarnate in a word from a dead language which lives on” (100)? It certainly seems wrong, an incomprehensible choice of word that is difficult to understand.

Yet “agglutinated”, though sticking out of the perpetual chatter like a sore thumb, indeed reveals itself as precisely the right word for the moment, encompassing several layers of meaning. “Agglutinate” has general, literary and medical definitions, all of which cohere to build a specific, terrifying image of torment: “to cause to stick firmly”; “to combine or join together simple words so as to express compound ideas”; and “to cause agglutination of (cells, microorganisms, or particles)” (OED 1a; 3; 4). The image of millions upon millions of bodies coupled together, not merely stuck, but bound at a cellular level purely for the purpose of torture and torment is horrifying. It is therefore precisely the right word for a deeply wrong image. The word is simultaneously not enough and too much, mirroring the voice’s commentary: “all these words too strong almost all a little too strong” (100), but at the same time, “how these words not weak enough most of them not quite enough” (111). The example of this one word that seems not quite enough, a misuse of a word, is in fact too strong, too precise, and it is simply with a little understanding that the jarring quality of words come to befit their purpose.

Certainly How It Is seems intrinsically wrong at its linguistic core, a harsh defamiliarisation process with its segments, unpunctuated language and incomprehensible speech. Chevaillier contends that “the narrative, full of misstatements and misleading declarations, builds on an inadequate transcription of the oral”, suggesting that something wrong is that transfer from ancient voice to the voice we hear, from the oral to the written; even in the translation from French to English lies a certainty that things will never be absolutely right (134). Words being passed over and over again from mouth to mouth, hand to paper, will become fragmented, and the voice knows this, bewailing his “lack of attention want of memory . . . I hear wrong or the voice says wrong” (100). There are so many instances for language to become defunct – yet it never truly fails. For “baffling at first, the unpunctuated sequence of words organizes itself into an unfolding and coherent network of cross-reference”, as O’Reilly states (xi). By the time the voice asks “HOW WAS IT” (126), we have become somewhat accustomed to this dissociative language, and it becomes fitting for the text’s purposes (or lack thereof). It is a bewildering way to experience a text, but ultimately intelligible.

Thus the contradiction arises of Molloy’s “rightly wrong”, wherein words are always wrong, but for that reason become for Beckett the right words, and we must understand that wrongness is not a means to be right, but an achievement in itself. The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett asserts that “[things] are ill seen and ill said because the right word is always the wrong word” (271), always “ill-said ill-heard ill-recaptured ill-murmured” (How It Is 3). We might continue this logic to the conclusion that it is precisely the wrongness of the word that makes it Beckett’s right word, as with Molloy using “obliterate” to describe the destruction of words themselves. Things that jar, irreconcilable opposites that cannot make sense, are necessary to create the atmosphere of inertia, impotence and therefore humanity. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (The Unnamable 407) captures this essence of antithetical ideas that are wrong becoming complementary. Words are wrong, expression is therefore wrong, things around characters are never quite right, but nevertheless one must keep speaking, keep expressing, keep “[building] up hypotheses that collapse on top of each other”, because “it’s human, a lobster couldn’t do it” (365).

Being wrong, then, is never a catalyst for being right, and whilst things are undoubtedly out of sync with their surroundings, characters often express contentment with their achievements in error. “If I have calculated wrong so much the better” (Malone Dies 230), Malone says, aligning with Schultz’s idea that “truth is uniform and narrow… But error is endlessly diversified; it has no reality, but is the pure and simple creation of the mind that invents it” (4). We might link this idea with Karla Shultz’s interpretation of negative dialectics: “there is no closure, no synthesis of reality and dream, because both are false . . . But [the dream] can and does open up a distance, a space for reflecting on the reality that shaped it” (314). Calculating wrong is so much the better because it is pure invention; one way to be correct, but infinite ways to be wrong. For all the horror surrounding error in the trilogy and How It Is, characters sometimes express satisfaction when discussing ignorance, error and impotence. “hands tense in the mud something wrong there . . . signifying I am saying have succeeded in saying something to myself” (How It Is 35). Is it wrong that the voice has succeeded in creating meaning, or is he revelling in the ability of the wrong to create meaning, finally signifying something? Further, upon witnessing and studying the dance of the bees, Molloy is entranced by its natural beauty, though he cannot understand its complexities or secrets. “And I said, with rapture, Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand” (163, my italics). Though the urge arises to dismiss it as “frivolous and meaningless” (163), Molloy is convinced that there is hidden natural knowledge, and is content, even rapturous in his inability to understand. The possibility of being wrong opens up infinite dimensions of thought, and creates a distance for self-scrutiny.

Beckett often utilizes a self-satirising voice, one that tells us that the static quality of truth, the perfect word, would never be enough. After enacting another “left right leg right arm push pull flat on face” (How It Is 33), crawling about in the mud, the voice declares, “no sound not an iota to be changed in this description” (33). Not a single iota – again returning to the cellular level, the words must remain in perfection eternally – that is, until a few pages later, when the same words are repeated with slight alterations (40).

To emphasize the latent dependence these narrators have on their error, we might look to the later works of Ill Seen Ill Said and Worstward Ho. Both express a deep desire to find the wrong word, as opposed to previous narrators lamenting over the loss of the right word. So says the narrator at the close of Ill Seen Ill Said:

Decision no sooner reached or rather long after than what is the wrong word? For the last time at last for to end yet again what is the wrong word? (77-8)

There is an active search for the word which worst befits the situation, to cause that tug away from coherence into dissonant uncertainty. These narrators understand the need for the wrong in a way that the trilogy’s and How It Is’ narrators never fully express. When confronted with things not being wrong, these voices articulate the sensation in the language of one bereft, always in the tone of loss. Things are never rightly wrong, there is always “something there badly not wrong”, as in Worstward Ho (98). Not wrong is now discomfiting: “Something there still far so far from wrong. So far far far from wrong” (98-9), the narrator continues. The incessant repetition of “far” extends the distance between correct and incorrect, between the normality of right and the wrongness that the narrators desire to situate themselves in. In retrospect, the phrase of “something wrong there” in How It Is becomes an affirmation of achievement, a reminder that one can celebrate in the fact that there is something to be identified as erroneous. “something lost there” (How It Is 100) in these later works is that there is not something wrong here.

To return, then, to Molloy’s “very rightly wrong”, the explicit contradiction in his statement can begin to be seen as an implicit synthesis. When he asserts that “it little matters what I say”, because “saying is inventing”, the suggestion is that the meaning of what is said, written, quoted or recalled is a moot point, because it will always be wrong. Speech is reduced to lies, and words are liars, as Critchley says. They jar with our understanding and sense of meaning, and set the reader off balance with the atmosphere on the page. Yet that is precisely the effect that is intended, and so the disjointed, incongruous, bathetic nature of words and things become central to their genetic makeup, and wrong becomes incorporated into Beckett’s worlds. Malone speaks of “little phrases” which, “once you let them in, pollute the whole of speech” (186), and “rightly wrong” comes to encapsulate Beckett’s word, polluting all the wrong, never in order to transform it to right, but to negotiate with our understanding of the concept. “Invent. It is not the word. Neither is live. No matter. I have tried” (189), Malone continues, clarifying the sense that whatever is said matters little. Malone has gone about things mistakenly, said the wrong thing, existed wrong, but he has tried, so the result does not matter. The truce that is made with error is an acceptance of humanity, a desire to excel in the ability to create, invent, even when it is not right. Being is portrayed wrong because expression is wrong, but “what the fuck I quote does it matter” (How It Is 111), because something is nevertheless being expressed. The desire for silence is overtaken by the desire to express oneself as human, and characters in Beckett claw and shout through mud and wrongness to express at all costs.

Works Cited

Ackerley, Chris, and Gontarski, S. E. The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett: A Reader’s Guide to his Works, Life, and Thought. New York: Grove Press, 2004. Print.

Augustine. De Civitate Dei. 11:26. Web. 10 December 2014.

“Beckett-MacGreevy letters”. Undated, between March and July 1930. Trinity College Dublin. MS10402 / 6.

Beckett, Samuel. Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, Stirrings Still. Ed. Dirk van Hulle. London: Faber, 2012. Print.

Beckett, Samuel. Disjecta. London: John Calder, 1983. Print.

Beckett, Samuel. How It Is. Ed. Edouard Magessa O’Reilly. London: Faber, 2009. Print.

Beckett, Samuel. Murphy. London: Calder Publications, 1993. Print.

Beckett, Samuel. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. New York: Grove Press, 2009. Print.

Chevaillier, Flore. “‘Something Wrong There’: Punning in Comment C’est.” Journal of Modern Literature 31.2 (2008): 133-142. Print.

Critchley, Simon. “Lecture 3, ‘Know Happiness’.” Very Little… Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature. London: Routledge, 1997. 141-81. Print.

“agglutinate, v.” (1a; 3; 4). OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2014. Web. 12 December 2014.

Ricks, Christopher. Beckett’s Dying Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman. London: Routledge, 1979. Print.

Schultz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. London: Portobello Books, 2010. Print.

Shultz, Karla. “Utopias from Hell: Brecht’s Mahagonny and Adorno’s Treasure of Indian Joe”, Monatshefte 90.3 (1998): 307-316. Print.