Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review of Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

I really enjoyed reading this play. It keeps you on your toes, and takes a lot of brainwork to get through it and detect the author’s meaning behind the decoy of ‘meaninglessness’. It is an excellent challenge to a simplistic and dogmatic world view. Do you see the hilarity of borrowing traditions that others have established for you but really have become defunct for our time? Do you secretly laugh at the tangle of logic and ideas that philosophers, theologians, and intellectuals bandy around solely in order to impress each other with words and concepts that don’t matter in real life?  Do you find cliché’s to be exaggerated generalizations that are often contradictory though consoling. Do you question the role of logic in emotionally-driven beings? Do you question your part in the human ‘rat-race’, the meaning of the universe in general, and do question your questioning of the meaning of the universe? Then this play will play havoc on your brain, and it’s great fun.

Samuel Beckett wrote plays questioning logic and meaning, and became associated with what was labeled the “Theater Of The Absurd” with some other playwrights of the mid-twentieth century.  In many ways it is a quite understandable reaction to the mind-numbing horrors perpetuated on a scale never before as comprehensively realized and publicized as during WWI and WWII. Restarting the quest to learn the direction and meaning of history, and our place within it, might have been a good place to start. ‘Square One’ can make a lot of sense in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. However, be not deceived you dilettante readers of absurdism, intentional randomness might be more difficult to produce, and therefore more intrinsically brilliant, than patent order. There is much treasure buried in Beckett’s seeming wilderness of thought. This play, is, I believe, genius, but for many passerby’s and the I-had-to-read-that-for-a-class types it may be dismissed as nonsense. Right, and Alice In Wonderland was written by a schizoid. It only goes to show, “To the true alone will the truth be known” (G. Macdonald).

When it comes right down to it, Waiting For Godot is a naked commentary on the phenomena of day-to-day life, our habits and customs, and our normal way of dealing with it. If you’ve ever stopped to ask what it all means, without quickly slurping some religious truism to smother your curiosity, then you may have noticed that there is often a nagging feeling of repetition, banality, and inertia that wells up in the spleen when one begins to question the meaning of existence like only a human can. Staring this nagging feeling straight on, and suffering through it long enough to describe it, is, as author Paul Tillich has put it, a “courageous expression of decay” in that our fear has been magnified, systematically catalogued, and finally reconstituted in illustration to discover if our worry is a chimera, or a ‘real’ nightmare. Attempting to dismiss existential angst is tantamount to denial. The only real way to deal with it, is to deal with it. Beckett masterfully captures the postmodern zeitgeist by creating a scene of sickeningly mundane and purposeless existence which is accepted with minimal struggle by the characters with a passivity, an act of the will however feeble, which succumbs to the overrated force of drift in the material universe.

The play begins at a fresh cycle of another day in which the characters “resume the struggle”, as they will do several times in the play, simply because they feel they have no other option. Of course, we find later that they do have options—they could leave, or hang themselves—but they tacitly decide that to live is better, which tells us that living must not be so bad after all, no matter how hard Beckett tries to convince us otherwise. The story revolves around two guys waiting for someone named Godot to arrive. They actually have no idea as to why they are waiting, who Godot really is, or if he will ever really come. They get caught up in speculation about their life, about things they heard about life, about the past, about the present. They speculate on the meaning of the wisdom they’ve heard in their lifetime from others, including religious teachings. They find all traditional logic to crash at the end. Even their personal logic begins to reveal fissures in their normal conversation, and before they know it, they’ve lost their way back to the original subject that got them talking in the first place. The dialogue is all over the place, and actually quite funny. I was very surprised at the amount of humor. The play’s subtitle is “A Tragicomedy In Two Acts”, but I had underestimated how funny it was going to be. Some of it is vulgar, which was also a surprise (like the moment one character yells out randomly with “who farted?”, to which no answer is provided), but it was well-placed and hard-thought, as strange as it may sound to someone who hasn’t read it. So, again, the reader has to keep in mind not to mistake satire for actual nonsense. I especially loved the rambling monologue of the servant named Lucky which seemed very characteristic of the type of ideas and phrases academics and professionals use in jostling at the trough for prestige.

In the end, the characters are mildly satisfied with a pseudo-answer to the meaning of their lives, as people generally are. “What we are doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.” The answer practically amounts to ‘because’, which functions as a distraction from feeling the need to search any further. “We have kept our appointment and that’s an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?/ Billions./ You think so?/ I don’t know./ You may be right.” It’s pretty evident that Beckett’s “Godot” is a semi-eponym for God (“Do you think God sees me?”). Many people are following after, and waiting for, a God that gives them a sense of purpose, because they would rather have a pat excuse for existence than none (“We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?”). How many people are trying to get through life, waiting for God to come and take them to a better place, because they still haven’t found any other reason for this world other than the fact that God is trying to save us from it? “Billions.”  And what is to be said for this kind of attitude that Nietzsche a century earlier exposed as an ‘earth-wearyness’? The faithful boast in their faithfulness to a God(ot) they don’t see, and may never see, because it frees them from having to think further. Author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi summarizes the precarious situation of the religious in his book Flow, “Metaphysical goals may never be achieved, but then again, failure is often impossible to prove.”Living Pascal’s Wager has its cons to be sure.

However, the blind religious are not the only ones who suffer, though they may suffer to a different degree, and I don’t think Beckett felt that the rest of humanity is much better off. We all employ the potency of habit which deadens thought and may save us in the end from over-thinking and over-feeling our anxiety and the confusing ache of our existential meaninglessness, boredom and inertia. Together, habits and a convenient stock of ‘reasons’ keep us moving, and offers us bliss through ignorance regarding our purpose. “It’s so we won’t think./ It’s so we won’t hear./ We have our reasons./ All the dead voices./ They make a noise like wings. / Like leaves./ Like sand…All I know is that the hours are long, under these conditions, and constrain us to beguile them with proceedings which—how shall I say—which may at first sight seem reasonable, until they become a habit.” But habits and reasons only work so well. The suppressed Question regarding the meaning of one’s own existence, which the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre said is the very nature of consciousness in that “it’s own being is in question”, bubbles up again, regardless of the precautions against it. One can’t escape it, and the effect can be maddening. “You may say [habit] is to prevent our reason from foundering. No doubt. But has it not long been straying in the night without end of the abyssal depths? That’s what I sometimes wonder. You follow my reasoning?” The reply offers only a slight ray of hope, “We are all born mad. Some remain so.” Nothing in the play frames the grotesqueness of the human struggle any better than the following lines which is sure to disturb anyone who hasn’t been too deeply anesthetized by habit: “[We come into this life] Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens). But habit is a great deadener.”

The universe is big. The universe has been here for a long time. The universe will be here for a long time after us. The universe provides no easy answers to the meaning of my existence. The universe actually seems at times disposed to resist me and my sense of order. And the universe will not allow me to change its mind about it. Yeah, so what. I am here, and I am the center. All things bend their shape around me. I make things small or big, near or far, here or there, loved or hated, good or bad, me or not me. The universe may be, but there is no color, no hardness, no distance, no weight, no motion without me. “Through me it moves and lives and has it’s being, for it is my offspring.”In Ted Hughes’ poem, Examination At the Womb Door, humanity’s final triumph is put in sharp contrast.

“Who owns those scrawny little feet? Death.

Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.

Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.

Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.

Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.

Who owns these questionable brains? Death.

All this messy blood? Death.

These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death.

This wicked little tongue? Death.

This occasional wakefulness? Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial? Held.

Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth? Death.

Who owns all of space? Death.

Who is stronger than hope? Death.

Who is stronger than the will? Death.

Stronger than love? Death.

Stronger than life? Death.

But who is stronger than Death?

Me, evidently.

Pass, Crow.

Bam. Mr. Beckett, take two of these with water, and you’ll feel much better the next morning.

For those who aren’t comfortable with the post-modern problem Beckett is tackling, I would respond with: are you surprised that we in our era have different questions to answer than did the Egyptians, Romans, or early American pioneers? Our world is different, some old solutions have succeeded while others have failed, and some old problems are continuing while new ones are being generated all the time. It should come as no surprise that new questions are being asked. As long as the boundaries of knowledge and exploration are pushed further back, there will continue to be new problems, and new thrilling challenges. Isn’t that what life is all about: growth? I think it feels exhausting to those who are tired and want to settle, but not all of us are ready to go back to sleep so soon after just waking up from eternity. I want my eyes open and blood pumping for as long as they can. This is my time. I don’t want it to go to waste, and books like this help me to keep asking the questions and pushing forward. For some, Beckett’s characters’ wail of “I can’t go on like this” feels justified. To others, like myself, the reply from his friend is a mot juste, “That’s what you think.”

It probably should be mentioned that the absurdist movement, closely associated with Dadaism in the same period, is an offshoot of existentialism in general, and does not characterize all existentialist thought. While the core of existentialist thought centers on the idea that all of the sense in the world is the sense we make of it, absurdism explores the limits of logic, even the logic of the authors of this very exploration itself. The real heart and power of absurdism is in the protest against the claim of infallibility of any one form or expression of logic and positivism, while existentialism works towards establishing the foundation of reliable experience and deeper intuition that subsume the fluctuating landscape and edifices of human reason. For those interested, Paul Tillich did a wonderful job identifying the redeeming characteristics of existentialism and even adsurdism in his inspiring book, “The Courage To Be.” It is well worth the read.

And for those of you who really dig the play and want to see how it plays out on the stage, or maybe you’re just a glutton for punishment, here’s a brilliant performance of Waiting For Godot: