Saturday, December 4, 2010

Who Is Godot?

The Mysterious Godot
What baffles us most in reading this play is the identity of Godot. Godot is a mysterious personality. The two tramps wait for him in a state of twilight, occasionally lit up by a fleeting vision of a rescuer. They have vague notions that they will be taken to his farm where they will be able to “sleep, warm and dry, with a full stomach, on straw.”
But Godot seems to be a kind of distant mirage. At the end of each day, a messenger-boy arrives in his stead with the promise that Godot will come tomorrow. In Act I, we hear that he does not beat the messenger-boy, who is a goat-herd, but that lie beats his brother, who is a shepherd. The two tramps feel uneasy about Godot. When the time comes to meet him, they will have to approach him “on their hands and knees”, and if they stopped waiting for him he would punish them. At the end of Act II, we learn that Godot does nothing and that his beard is probably white.
The Image of God as Depicted in the Bible
From all this we may gather that Godot has several traits in common with the image of God as depicted in the Old and the New Testaments. His white beard reminds us of the image of the old-father aspect of God. His irrational preference for one of the two brothers recalls Jehovah’s treatment of Cain and Abel; so does his power to punish those who would dare to ignore him. The discrimination between the goat-herd and the shepherd is reminiscent of the Son of God as the ultimate judge: as a saviour for whom men wait and wait; he might well be meant as a cynical comment on the second coming of Christ, while his doing nothing might be an equally cynical reflection concerning man’s forlorn state. This last feature seems to show that Beckett points to the sterility of a consciousness that expects and waits for the old activity of God or gods. Whereas St. Matthew says: “And he shall seat the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left,” in the play it is the shepherd who is beaten and the goat-herd who is favoured. What Vladimir and Estragon expect from Godot is food and shelter, and goats are motherly, milk-providing animals.
Godot, an Empty Promise
We hear that, once, Vladimir and Estragon had seen Godot. But they do not remember him quite clearly, and the vague promises he seems to have given them are treated with a light-heartedness born of doubt. In fact, it seems to them as if God, Godot, and Pozzo were sometimes merging into one blurred picture. When, in Act II, they talk of God, Pozzo appears and is mistaken by Estragon for Godot. Here the implication perhaps is that religion altogether is based on indistinct desires in which spiritual and material needs remain mixed. Godot is explicity vague, merely an empty promise, corresponding to lukewarm piety and absence of suffering in the tramps. Waiting for Godot has become a habit with them, a habit which is a “guarantee of dull inviolability”, and an adaptation to the meaninglessness of life.
Pozzo’s Utterance, and Vladimir’s Speculations
In one of his more lucid moments, Vladimir tries to make Estragon participate in his own fears about the question of salvation, damnation, or mere death, but Estragon remains unmoved. Vladimir talks about the two thieves who were crucified beside Christ and he ponders the fact that only one of the four Evangelists mentions that one of the thieves was going to be saved: “One out of four. Of the other three two don’t mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him.......And only one speaks of a thief being saved”. Passages like the one where Vladimir discusses this problem with the uncomprehending Estragon show why Beckett is presenting us with a state in modern man in which fear and resort, to some recognised deity of the past are mixed with doubt and bitterness on the one hand, and with tired indifference on the other. This becomes highly probable when we remember that a deeper awareness of the spiritual void of our time is a central issue in the works of the existentialists. This fear of the void behind the feelings of doubt and bitterness alternating with resignation, is the realm of existence where the “suffering of being” might lead to transition. In one of his speeches Pozzo says to Vladimir:
Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you ? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.       (Page 89)
This passage might be called Pozzo’s lietmotif. The hopeless vision of life as a brilliant moment between the womb and the tomb is stressed and explained by the words, “one day like any other”. If one day is like any other, there is nothing but fruitless repetition, and no transition can take place. Pozzo only deteriorates. But, towards the end of the play, Vladimir sinks into a reverie in which Pozzo’s vision re-emerges with important additions. Vladimir asks himself:
Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I have waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? He’ll know nothing. He’ll tell me about the blows he received and I’ll give him a carrot. 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. But hope is a great deadener. At me too, someone is looking, of me too someone is saying: he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. I can’t go on! What have I said?         (Page 91)
Here, most movingly, Vladimir becomes aware of a difference between two possible ways of living: one in a state of wakefulness, and the other in a state of twilight. And he even realises that he cannot go on with an existence in which the womb and the tomb seem to fit together like two halves of one whole. But at this very moment, when Vladimir is about to wake up, Godot’s messenger-boy appears and destroys the process that was about to take place in Vladimir. Godot’s function seems to be to keep his dependants unconscious. His messenger-boy does not know anything either: he does not know whether he is unhappy or not, or why Godot is kinder to him than to his brother, or, for certain, whether Godot’s beard is white. He even fails to recognise the tramps he had seen the day before.
The hopelessness of Vladimir’s situation, after the coming of the messenger, is as terrible as that of Pozzo’s vision of life as a flash between the womb and the tomb. Vladimir’s flash of consciousness dies between his question “what have I said?” and his relapse into his reliance upon the coming of Godot.
No Female Character
This episode probably explains why there is no woman in this play, woman on the human level, that is. There is, of course, the reference to the mother-goddess, who is both the womb and the tomb, and who envelops all and everything with her dread power.
Godot’s Ambiguity
Godot is merely ambiguous. As a farmer who promises food and shelter, he is obviously of the earth. As one who reminds us of the God of the Old and the New Testaments, he seems to be inclined to rule from above. Furthermore, he beats the guardian of the sheep, that is, of the submissive, gentle creatures, and prefers the guardian of the goats, of the wayward, self-willed animals; and yet he obviously expects unconditional patience and obedience from those who depend upon him and prevents their waking up to an awareness of their own centre. In this duplicity of his nature, Godot is the counterpart of her who envelops the world of living beings as womb and tomb.
Regression of the Human Mind
It seems, then, that Beckett in this play leads us into a deep regression from all civilised tradition; he leads us into a state in which consciousness sinks back into an earlier state of its development. Such a regression is compared by Jung to a descent into Hades, a descent which is connected with the dissolution of the conscious personality into its functional components. Accordingly, many people have remarked that the play strikes them as a product of schizophrenia and as lacking in all coherence, (and Beckett himself is reported to have said that his play was about nothing).
Godot’s Non-arrival
Although the name Godot undoubtedly intrudes the word, “God”, the play does not deal with God but merely with the concept of God. No wonder therefore that God’s image is left vague. The theological passages in the play tell us that what God does is unknown. It appears that he does nothing at all; and the only information conveyed by the messenger-boy is that, alas, Godot will not be coming today but tomorrow. Beckett clearly indicates that it is precisely Godot’s non-arrival which keeps the two tramps waiting for him, and their faith in him alive. “Let’s go.”—We can’t.”—”Why not?”—”We’re waiting for Godot.”—“Ah!” According to some philosophers, the proof of God’s existence lies in His very absence. This is the proof ex absentia. Beckett is not such a philosopher. Beckett puts the conclusion (about the non-arrival of Godot as being a proof of Godot’s existence) into the mouths of his characters, and does not himself share this belief; in fact, Beckett even derides this belief. Beckett’s play is therefore certainly not a religious play; at most it deals with religion.
Godot Powerful and Possibly Hostile
It hardly matters in what sense Godot stands for God, but it is difficult to interpret him in any other way. He is the external figure who can bring a change in the immobility of the two tramps for whom he certainly exists. The idea of grace—the possibility of salvation—is prominent in the play, from the moment when Vladimir expresses his puzzlement over the different accounts given in the four Gospels of the late of the two thieves crucified with Christ. According to one evangelist, one of the two thieves was saved and the other damned. As Vladimir remarks: “It’s a reasonable percentage.” A religious, indeed theological, motif runs through this near-static farce, and it is not surprising that critics should have found some similarity between Beckett and Pascal. The Pascalian picture of the misery of man abandoned to himself is Beckett’s picture in this play, and one has only to develop Anouilh’s description of the play as “a music-hall sketch of the Pensees performed by the Fratellini clowns,” in order to perceive the similarity of their views on the human condition. But there are some differences. Pascal’s God was the Supreme Good or at least included the Supreme Good. There was no doubt at all that union with God would mean total happiness and solve every problem. There was little doubt either of God’s goodwill towards men. Waiting for him was very likely to be rewarded. Godot, on the other hand, inspires much less confidence. Apart from his refusal to make a definite promise to do anything, there is also doubt about the nature of his offer. Will it be advantageous and, if not, are the tramps free to “take it or leave it,” as Vladimir suggests? They feel uneasily that they may not be. Whoever Godot may be, he is a powerful and possibly hostile person. He has some hold over the tramps which prevents them from cancelling their appointment with him. They must wait, on purely compulsive grounds:
Estragon. And if we dropped him?
Vladimir. He’d punish us.
If he comes, he may bring a change in their present meaningless condition, although they are not sure that it will be a change for the better. The last few lines of the play suggest salvation:
VladimirWe’ll hang ourselves tomorrow unless Godot comes.
Estragon. And if he comes?
VladimirWe’ll be saved.
But, in view of all that has gone before, this can hardly be accepted as a firm conclusion. Vladimir’s tendency is to look on the bright side, mainly because he cannot quite accept the alternative. His remark is hardly inspired by the man of conviction which Pascal called “faith”.
Godot’s Image Not Really Acceptable
Godot bears a sinister resemblance to Nobodaddy. He may in fact be Nobodaddy—for the tramps, if not for some other department of the universe—and this is the shadow which haunts the play from the religious point of view. Beckett’s characters grope to construct an acceptable image of Godot/God. One of them appears in Lucky’s celebrated monologue (a “think-piece”) in Act I: “Given the existence.......of a personal God with a white beard outside time.......who from the heights of divine apathia.......loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell.......” If Godot is like this there is not much left to hope for, and it must be admitted that the description given by the second messenger-boy is not reassuring. What if he is the old Jehovah-daddy all over again? When the messenger-boy tells Vladimir that Mr. Godot does nothing and that he has a white beard, Vladimir exclaims: “Christ have mercy on us!” Vladimir’s exclamation of horror arises from the obvious truth that a twentieth century mentality can draw little comfort from the image of God of the Old Testament type. The kind of salvation which a white-bearded Godot is likely to offer will hardly satisfy even Vladimir and Estragon, impoverished though they are. From the religious point of view, this play might well have been given the sub-title: “Nobodaddy’s Revenge”.
Godot As Seen By The Tramps
Although Godot fails to appear in the play, he is as real a character as any of those whom we actually see. Godot very much exists for the tramps, and he directs the course of the evening for them. The tramps need Godot to give a meaning to their universe: they depend on his arrival; and so long as Godot does not come to resolve their waiting (and he does not come at all), everything that happens is only provisional. Godot’s very absence demonstrates his presence, and he dominates the play in which he fails to appear. Although he is, at best, a dimiy remembered acquaintance and Estragon says that he would not even know him if he saw him, a general image of Godot does emerge during the evening. To the tramps he lives in the capitalist world of “family”, “agents”, “correspondents”, and a “bank account”. They identify his power with what is most familiar to them in the only world they have experience of authority. But to the boy who brings his message, Godot has a white beard and his life is occupied by his mastery over the sheep and the goats. In another of the contradictory divisions of punishment and grace which occur in this play Godot beats the brother who cares for the sheep and favours the goat-herd. His behaviour, though not strictly accurate, has a precedent: “And he shall seat the sheep on his right hand but the goats on his left.”
Godot as God
This, among other allusions, suggests an interpretation of Godot in terms of the first three letters (G-o-d) of his name. (The name “Godot” is a bilingual pun on God and water, the two needs of the hero in his isolation and spiritual thirst. But though the play is rich in Christian imagery and symbolism it is not more prevalent than, for example in Beckett’s novels, Molloy or The Unnamable. If Godot is God then Beckett’s irony is unusually happy and besides, Beckett’s characters are all certain that God, as such, does not exist. The proof of Godot’s existence is another mockery of the rational determination to find a meaning. He is because he is not:
Estragon. Let’s go.
Vladimir. We can’t.
Estragon. Why not?
Vladimir. We’re waiting for Godot.

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