Saturday, December 4, 2010

Themes of Habit, the Suffering of Being, How to Get Through Life

How to Pass the Time
Waiting for Godot begins bleakly enough: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” That is to say, the stage is bare except for a tree, and the light is subdued. The opening words fit the setting and are, it so happens, the theme of the play:

Estragon. Nothing to be done.
Vladimir. I’ m beginning to come round to that opinion.
Estragon is, in fact, referring to his boots. A little later Vladimir repeats the phrase twice, first referring to his hat, then to the uselessness of mirth. But essentially they are both talking about their lives. The subject of the play is how to pass the time, given the fact that the situation is hopeless. In other words, the play is a dramatisation of the themes first touched upon in Beckett’s essay on Proust and then repeated continually throughout Beckett’s novels—the themes of habit, boredom, and “the suffering of being.” Towards the close of the play, for instance, Vladimir says: “Habit is a great deadener,” By then he and Estragon have had two hours on the stage to prove it. Although there are moments in the play when “the suffering of being” has pierced them both, neither of them comments on those moments. When Vladimir tries to laugh, he stops immediately, “his face convulsed”; when the little boy comes to tell them Godot will not appear that evening, Estragon attacks him, then relapses, covering his face with his hands; when he drops his hands, “his face is convulsed;” all that he can manage to say is “I’m unhappy.” The rest is mostly ritual, filling the emptiness and silence. “It’ll pass the time,” exclaims Vladimir, offering to tell the story of the Crucifixion: In fact, passing the time is their mutual obsession. When Pozzo and Lucky go off after their first appearance, there is a long silence. Then:
Vladimir. That passed the time.
Estragon. It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir. Yes, but not so rapidly.
Yet immediately Estragon, too, joins in the game: “That’s the idea, let’s make a little conversation.” Estragon keeps at it fervently at the beginning of the second Act: “That’s the idea, let’s contradict each other;” “That’s the idea’ let’s ask each other questions;” “That wasn’t such a bad little canter.” To this Vladimir replies, “Yes, but now we’ll have to find something else.” No one understands as pointedly and clearly as the tramps themselves that this is a play in which “nothing happens, twice. "Nothingness is what the tramps are fighting against, and nothingness is the reason why they are talking.
Deficiency of Plot, Characterization, Etc.
Since Beckett’s subject in this play was habit and boredom, he could dispense with plot. Since his characters were, like the characters in his novels, without history, he could dispense with background. All that was left was a skeleton language, logic, and wit. The dialogue is maintained even though there is nothing to say, and it is maintained by the simple device of instant forgetfulness. Estragon, who quotes poetry, claiming to be a poet and pointing to his rags to prove it, is unable or unwilling to recognise the evidence of his senses until Vladimir patiently explains it to him detail by detail. More important, he can remember nothing for two minutes together and can refer back no further than to the last phrase uttered:
Estragon. That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.
VladimirAnd Pozzo and Lucky, have you forgotten them too?
Estragon. Pozzo and Lucky?
VladimirHe’s forgotten everything!
It is as if a thick fog of boredom surrounded every event and every word the moment it occurs or is spoken. Estragon’s reply to each appeal to his common sense and experience is a variation of “Don’t ask me. I’m not a historian.” Vladimir’s despairing refrain is: “Try and remember,” and, “Do you not remember?” But perhaps Estragon’s forgetfulness is the cement binding their relationship together. He continually forgets, and Vladimir continually reminds him; between them they pass the time. This forgetfulness also keeps them talking, which is essential to their minimal sanity.
No Certainty in the Play
The sound of their own voices reassures them of their own existence, of which they are not otherwise always certain since the evidence of their senses is so dubious. They are, in fact, in constant need of a re-assurance they never get. When Pozzo re-appears in Act II he cannot remember having met them, the day before. The little boy who is Godot’s messenger flatly denies ever having seen them before. Just before the boy makes his first exit Vladimir asks him anxiously, “You did see us, didn’t you?” as if he, too, were not certain, and with reason too, because the boy remembers nothing of them on his next appearance. And again, Vladimir asks him as he is leaving, “You’re sure you saw me, eh, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me before?” But it is a question without hope, like all the others.
Towards Poetic Drama
The tramps have another reason also to keep talking. They are drowning out those voices that assail them in the silence, just as they assailed nearly all Beckett’s heroes in the novels. These are “the dead voices,” which, according to Vladimir, make a noise like leaves. Vladimir says that these voices “all speak together,” and Estragon adds: “Each one to itself.” Vladimir says that these voices “whisper” and “murmur,” while Estragon says that they “rustle.” Vladimir asks what the voices say, and Estragon replies: “They talk about their lives.” And thus the talk goes on till Estragon says: “What do we do now ?” and Vladimir replies: “Wait for Godot[7].” This conversation of the tramps on “all the dead voices” is a brilliant and wholly original piece of theatrical writing. The combination of austerity straining against imaginative wealth would make this dialogue, isolated from the rest of the play, as good a poem in its own right as anything written at the time this play was produced. And this is another facet of Beckett’s importance in modern literature: he has forced a way through to authentic poetic drama.
Two Great Speeches
There are two great speeches, both at the end of the play, both variations on the same theme and both focusing on the same image:
Pozzo.  Have you not been tormenting me with your accursed time? It’s abominable. When? When? One day, is not that enough for you......? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.                                                    (Page 89)
Moments later Vladimir echoes Pozzo’s words as he broods over the sleeping Estragon:
Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole,....But habit is a great deadener.  (Pages 90-91)
Both are speeches of great conviction, and show Beckett at his most powerful. Yet they also repeat the same theme and the same image as Beckett had earlier expanded:
The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day. Habit then is the generic term for the countless treaties concluded between the countless subjects that constitute the individual and their countless correlative objects. The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations (because by no expedient of macabre transubstantiation can the grave-sheets serve as swaddling-clothes) represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.[8]
Apparently, the only real change in Beckett’s thinking over all those years is in understanding that the “macabre transubstantiation of swaddling-clothes into grave-sheets” does, in fact, take place. Otherwise it is the same image and the same predicament: Pozzo and Vladimir have both entered “the perilous zone when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.” Neither of them likes what he sees, but both know that there is nothing to be done. “On!” cries Pozzo to Lucky as they make their last exit. “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” says the Unnamable. “I can’t go on,” repeats Vladimir. “I can’t go on,” says Estragon in his turn. And Vladimir answers, “That’s what you think.”
Two Kinds of Human Relationships Depicted
Beckett’s habit of repeating the same themes and images and even characters from work to work is a strong way of emphasising that this is how it is in his world. Whoever the characters, whatever the situation there is nothing beyond habit, boredom, forgetfulness, and suffering. In other words, “no symbols where none intended.” This is why the many and elaborate interpretations that have been offered of Wailing for Godot seem superfluous. Pozzo and Lucky may be Body and Intellect, Master and Slave, Capitalist and Proletarian, Coloniser and Colonised, Cain and Abel, Sadist and Masochist, even Joyce and Beckett. But essentially, and more simply, they represent one way of getting through life with someone else, just as Vladimir and Estragon more sympathetically represent another way of doing so. “At this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not[9],” says Vladimir, and like many of his comments it is two-edged, “this place” meaning also the stage on which he is acting. A little later Estragon pays Pozzo a similar compliment “He’s all humanity[10].” It is a gloomy thought, considering Pozzo’s blind and intense obstinacy and Estragon’s ironical language. But in the situation on stage at that moment he is speaking the truth. In the same way, the mysterious Godot is what he sounds like; he is just another diminutive god like all the other little gods—some divine, some political, some intellectual, some personal—for whom men wait, hopefully and in fear, to solve their problems and bring point to their pointless lives, and for whose sake they sacrifice the only real gift they have, namely, their free will. “We’ve lost our rights asks Estragon. “We got rid of them,” Vladimir replies.
How to Get Through Life ?
Waiting for Godct is the fullest statement of the problem that afflicted Beckett. The problem is: how do you get through life? Beckett’s answer is simple and not encouraging: by force of habit, by going on in spite of boredom and pain, by talking, by not listening to the silence, absurdly and without hope. On these terms Christ was lucky because “where he lived, it was warm and dry, and they crucified quick.” Beckett and his characters in northern Europe have a longer, chillier wait. That is why the tramps continually flirt with the idea of suicide and look back wistfully, almost tenderly, to the time when Estragon jumped into a river to kill himself. They know now that such quick and easy solutions are no longer available to them. When they try to hang themselves the rope breaks and Estragon’s trousers fall down. All they can do is to continue: “We are not saints but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?” And how many dramatists have stated such a simple truth so powerfully and so wittily.

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