Saturday, December 4, 2010

Waiting for Godot—A Parable of the Pointlessness of Existence

The Play, a Fable
Waiting for Godot is undoubtedly a parable, a parable that has variously been interpreted. What Godot stands for is not quite clear. He may stand for “death,” or “the meaning of life,” or “God,” or something else.
The play is a fable about a kind of life that has no longer any point which could be presented in the form of a fable. The very weakness and failure of the fable here becomes its point. In order to present a fable about a kind of existence, which has lost both form and principle and in which life no longer goes forward, Beckett destroys both the form and the principle which have always been characteristic of fables. The destroyed fable, the fable which does not go forward, becomes the adequate representation of stagnant life; the meaningless parable about man stands for the parable of meaningless man. If this fable suffers from lack of cohesion, it is so because lack of cohesion is its subject matter. If this fable does not relate an action, it is so because the action it relates is life without action. If this fable defies convention by no longer offering a story, it is so because it describes man eliminated from, and deprived of history. The apparent lack of motivation here is motivated by the subject matter; and this subject matter is a form of life without a motive principle and without motivation.
The Two Tramps as Representative Figures
Waiting for Godot represents formlessness as such. Not only is this formlessness, which is its subject matter, an abstraction; the characters are also abstractions: the play’s “heroes,” Vladimir and Estragon, are clearly men in general; they are abstract in the most literal sense of the word. The characters have been pulled out of the world, and they no longer have anything to do with it. The world too has, for them, become empty. Hence the world of the play too is an abstraction: an empty stage, empty except for one prop necessary to the meaning of the fable. That prop is the tree, which defines the world as a permanent instrument for suicide, or life as the non-committing of suicide. The two heroes thus are merely alive, but no longer living in a world. And this concept is carried through, with a merciless consequence. The two heroes are alive in a non-world. Where a world no longer exists, there can no longer be a possibility of a collision with the world, and therefore the very possibility of tragedy has been forfeited. Or to put it more precisely: the tragedy of this kind of existence lies in the fact that it does not even have a chance of tragedy, that it must always, at the same time, in its totality be farce. But Beckett produces his farcical effects, not by placing people in a world or a situation which they do not want to accept and with which they therefore clash, but by placing them in a place that is no place at all. This turns them into clowns, for the metaphysical comicality of clowns does, after all, consist in their being unable to distinguish between being and non-being, by falling down non-existent stairs, or by treating real stairs as though they did not exist. But in contrast to such clowns, Beckett’s heroes are indolent or paralysed clowns because, for them, it is not just this or that object (such as stairs) but the world itself that does not exist. These clowns no longer concern themselves with the world. Thus the persons whom Beckett selects as representatives of today’s mind can only be clochards, creatures who have nothing to do any longer. In our world today millions of people have begun increasingly to feel that they live in a world in which they do not act but are acted upon, that they are active without themselves deciding on the purpose of their action, without even being able to perceive the nature of that purpose. In other words action has lost so much of its independence that it itself has become a form of passivity, and even where action is deadly strenuous or actually deadly, it has assumed the character of futile action or inaction. Obviously Estragon and Vladimir, who do absolutely nothing, are representatives of millions of such people.
A Pointless Existence
Inspite of their inaction and the pointlessness of their existence, these two men still want to go on. Millions of people today do not after all give up living even when their life becomes pointless; even the nihilists wish to go on living. And it is not in spite of the pointlessness of their life that the Estragons and Viadimirs of the world wish to go on living but, on the contrary, just because their life has become pointless. Ruined by their habit of inaction or of acting without their own initiative, they have lost their will-power to decide not to go on. Or ultimately, they go on living merely because they happen to exist, and because existence does not know of any other alternative but to exist.
The Theme of Despair
Beckett’s play then deals with this kind of life; it deals with man who continues existing because he happens to exist. But it deals with this theme in a manner which is different from all previous treatments of despair in literature. The attitude of the traditional desperate character might be stated thus: “I have no more to expect; therefore I shall not remain.” Estragon and Vladimir, on the other hand, represent an inversion of this formula. They seem to say: “We remain; therefore we must be waiting for something. We are waiting; therefore there must be something we are waiting for.”
Waiting for Nothing in Particular
It cannot be said that the two tramps are waiting for anything in particular. They even have to remind each other of the very fact that they are waiting and of what they are waiting for. Thus, actually, they are not waiting for anything. But, exposed as they are to the daily continuation of their existence, they cannot help concluding that they must be waiting; and, exposed to their continued waiting, they cannot help assuming that they are waiting for something. It is meaningless to ask who or what the expected Godot is. Godot is nothing but the name for the fact that life which goes on pointlessly is wrongly interpreted to mean as “waiting”, or as “waiting for something.” What appears to be a positive attitude of the two tramps amounts to a double negation: their existence is pointless, and they are incapable of recognising the pointlessness of their existence. (Beckett himself said that he was not so much concerned with “Godot”, as with “waiting”.)
Not Nihilists, But Incurable, Funny Optimists
The two heroes of this play neither recognise their own existence as contingent, nor think of transforming it into something positive with which they can identify themselves. They are incapable of doing without “the concept of meaning”. From the fact of their existence they conclude that there must be something for which they are waiting. They are champions of the view that life must have a meaning even in an evidently meaningless situation. We cannot say that they represent “nihilists”. Since they do not lose hope, and are even incapable of losing hope, they are incurably optimistic ideologists. What Beckett presents is not nihilism, but the inability of a man to be a nihilist even in a situation of utter hopelessness. The compassionate sadness of this play is due not so much to its hopeless situation as to another fact: the two heroes, through their waiting, show that they are not able to cope with this situation; they are not nihilists. It is this defect which makes them so very funny. Nothing is funnier than utterly unjustified total confidence. The cuckold remains, despite all evidence to the contrary, incapable of distrust. Vladimir and Estragon may be regarded as brothers to the traditional cuckold. They are like men who, despite living on a desert island and never having been married, continuously expect the return of their wives. And in Beckett’s eyes we are all like them.

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