(Estragon to Vladimir in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Act II, 59). Image: Jim Dine, "A Tree that Shatters the Dancing," 1980, MoMa.
On Beckett & Waiting for Godot:
Samuel Barclay Beckett (1906-1989), born in Dublin, he studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin, teaching first in Belfast and then at the École Normale Supérier in Paris (where he met and became close with James Joyce), and back to Dublin to Trinity College. In the 1920-30’s, he travelled Europe, began psychotherapy, and continued publishing profusely (essays, reviews, stories, and poems). During WWII, he joined the French Resistance, working as a courier, later being awareded the Croix de guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. His famous Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot) was written in 1952 (first in French, then translated himself to English, although not always literally, minor details are changed throughout) and performed in 1953, which was exceedingly well-received and controversial in its Paris opening with critique remarking how it was spell-binding, despite nothing happening in the first act, and then nothing more happening in the second. Its London open in 1955 was more negatively reviewed, although eventually became popular (as with its Miami opening in the U.S. being a failure and its NYC performance a success). In 1969, Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Waiting for Godot is considered his iconic work, and representative of his “middle period” of writing (alongside three other full-length plays, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Happy Days), which is characterized as founding the “Theatre of the Absurd,” for its representation of Camus’ idea of absurdity (with synchronicities to existentialism’s absurdity and despair as developed across Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, etc., although with a generally stronger will to live throughout than in Camus’ works). It is also profitable to consider the play in accord with aesthetic notions of minimalism.
Innumerable interpretations have been made. Some read the play as an allegory for the French resistance to the Germans in WWII, some for the cold war, some for Irish-English relations; some say the play’s three main characters (Vladimir, Estragon, and Pozzo) represent the three parts of Freud’s psyche (ego, super ego, id); some say it portrays Jung’s four archetypes (ego, shadow, persona, animus); some say Vladimir and Estragon act like an old married couple (Beckett angrily refused stagings that included women actors, even ending up in Dutch court). The existential reading has rich material to work from, including the meaning of existence, the necessity of creating it for the self, waiting for others to make meaning, the role and place of God, subjective ethics, and, of course, absurdity—there being no essential meaning to existence.
Vladimir: always standing, restless, but always remembers and insists on waiting, musing on philosophic and religious ideas (nickname: Didi)
Estragon: often sitting, desiring food, always forgetting, always wants to go, must be reminded they are waiting; (nickname: Gogo; gives his name to Pozzo as Adam, 28).
Lucky: the slave to Pozzo, for the last 60 years, does not set down the bags or do anything not commanded by Pozzo (except to kick ; (Beckett, in an interview, claimed his name might mean that “he is luck to have no more expectations”).
Boy: The boy may be the same in the two acts, although claims to be running a message for the first time each.
Godot: he for whom they wait. Possibly having a white beard. Does nothing. [Pronunciation, according to Beckett: GOD-oh, although the standard American pronunciation is gu-DOH] Beckett, asked numerous times who was Godot, elliptically responds that it is not Pozzo, it might be a variant of the French slang godillot, godasse, for boot, and that it is not God, although he liked the similarity to God when he translated it into English, and perhaps took the name from a French cyclist. On French radio, in 1952, Beckett sent a letter to preface a reading of his play: “I don’t know who Godot is. I don’t even know (above all don’t know) if he exists. And I don’t know if they believe in him or not—those two who are waiting for him.”
Themes in & Analysis of ... Waiting for Godot ...:
--Notice the tremendous repetition of “nothing,” especially as in “Nothing to do” or “Nothing to be done,” pp. 1, 3, 11, 13, 14, 16, 58, 64, 82, etc.
--Repetition can also be seen in the reminder of the fact that they are waiting for Godot (often from Vladimir to Estragon), Vladimir’s frequent reminders of all things for Estragon, references to feet and boots, references to happiness and unhappiness, etc.
--Estragon Remembers (p.79)
--Repent being born (p.3), give thanks for mercies (p.54)
--Tears and laughter (p.24) constant quantity
--Lucky ordered to think (pp.33-5); talking as prevention from thinking (pp.52-56)
Analysis: Estragon remembers (cf., Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, p.79):
Is page 79’s moment when Estragon remembers (first time he does, all play, & happening very near to the end) a possible turning point? Is it a point from which on could look at its context in comparison to the many other contexts around the many, many other points in the text where Estragon wants to leave or asks why they don’t leave and is reminded by Vladimir that they must stay for they are waiting for Godot? On p.79, Estragon is asked by Vladimir and Pozzo what he is waiting for, and he asserts, he is waiting for Godot.
(I) Is this assertion, an expression that shows us for the first time Estragon remembers what he is doing, a statement not of what is remembered, but a pronouncement of choice, of what is and will be done, which may say something about authenticity?
Think through (a) a sketch of the context, and then (b) consider three possibilities concerning authenticity:
The context around his assertion is that Estragon and Vladimir are showing themselves to be Pozzo’s friend (75), because they are helping him, Pozzo, who has been struck blind; Pozzo cannot find Lucky (who has been struck dumb), he asks one of the two to go find Lucky; Estragon refuses to go out of fear? revenge?, remembering that Lucky had kicked him; when Pozzo and Vladimir ask what he is waiting for (why does he not go?), Estragon remembers/says he is waiting for Godot.
(b) (Three Possibilities of Authenticity):
(1) Authentic: Estragon’s “I’m waiting for Godot” is an affirmation of Estragon making a choice, a choice not to go, not to leave, but to freely commit to staying because he is waiting for Godot. This choice shows an authenticity because his decision to stay, to wait where he is, is his free choice to stay and wait where and within his current activity—which is helping the blind Pozzo. This act fulfills the command given by Vladimir: “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! … Let us do something, while we still have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed” (70). Estragon’s assertion of “I’m waiting for Godot” demonstrates his genuine and resolute answer to the call to act.
(2) Inauthentic: Estragon’s “I’m waiting for Godot” is a demonstration of his inauthenticity. His seeming to remember is just a parroting of what he has been told repeatedly (‘we can’t leave, we are waiting for Godot’) that he is now saying in order to refuse responsibility to go help find Lucky. Waiting, then, is fleeing from responsibility; he remembers, but just as an act of forgetting what he was called to do.
(3) Either and/or Neither:
(a) Estragon’s “I’m waiting for Godot” is an expression of affirmation or resignation to the nothingness of it all: it is meaningless to go, just as it is meaningless to stay. If this is an affirmation (an affirmative resignation in the Kierkegaardian sense of a freely chosen commitment to the impossibility) of the nothingness of it all, this may be an authentic recognition of the Nothing; if this is a giving up hope resignation of the nothingness of it all, this may be an inauthentic paralysis in the face of the Nothing and nothing more than an evasion of choice.
(b) Is he waiting because he is afraid? If fear is prompting his memory, is this illustrative of a (Nietzschean) point about pain (kicked in the shins by Lucky being what he fears) being the best way to remember something? And, is this fear productive in the development of morality (if his act is authentic, he waits because he is doing good helping Pozzo)? Or, is fear keeping him there (if his act is inauthentic, he waits because he won’t go do something good in finding Lucky) and hence he is fleeing moral project?
(c) Is he waiting because he is acknowledging either he cannot leave or is choosing not to leave Vladimir? These ideas could suggest that Estragon and Vladimir are one—a single consciousness that also posits its own otherness. This could be read as inauthentic, considering Sartre’s depiction of bad faith as a the for-itself desiring its flight back into the in-itself, or as authentic if this is a recognition of oneself as what one is also not, that Being and Nothingness are different, yet the same.
Deciding which possibility is most productive may entirely hinge upon freedom. Are they free? Free to go, free to wait? Or, do they have to wait? If there is no freedom, then there is no choice that is true choice. If there is freedom, then he could have chosen or refused to choose, hence could be determined to be either authentic or inauthentic. Textual evidence conflicts:
p.11: “We’ve no rights anymore … We’ve lost our rights? … We got rid of them. … We’re not tied? … We’re not— …”
p.22: “Has he not the right to? Certainly he has. It follows that he doesn’t want to. There’s reasoning for you.”
p.12-3: “Ah yes, now I remember. … Well? … “We’re not tied? … I’m asking you if we’re tied. … To Godot? Tied to Godot! What an idea! No question of it. [Pause.] For the moment. … No use struggling. … One is what one is. … No use wriggling. … The essential doesn’t change.”
p.21: “[he, Godot] who has your future in his hands …”
(II) Besides authenticity, does this ‘turning point’ of Estragon remembering what he is doing—waiting for Godot—suggest other existential insights … specifically concerning memory, forgetting, and time?
Estragon’s “I’m waiting for Godot” expresses itself as a statement of consciousness’ inherent intentionality (Husserl and Sartre: all consciousness is consciousness of something): I am waiting for = I am directed towards something. What is the something? What is “Godot”? Is this something that is the other? Is this God, the utterly Other? Is this Being? Is this nothing?
Since “Godot” never comes, Godot may be the no-thing to which Estragon/Vladimir are directed. But, does “Godot” never come, or has he not-yet come? If so, this sounds like “Godot” is death—in the Heideggerian sense, this is the absolutely certain uncertainty: it will come to us all, but it will never be experienced for oneself, hence, never known. This is suggestive of Bataille’s non-knowledge.
However, thinking about what phenomenology tells us about time, everything may be further complicated.
A brief review of time …
Time in Augustine’s Confessions, Bk.X:
The ‘now’ of the present is nothing, but also something: a composition of three intuitions:
The present intuition of a thing to come (expectation);
The present intuition of thing here and now (presentation);
The present intuition of thing no longer (past, as re-presentation of no-longer-present presentation).
Husserl’s reconfiguration of Augustine in his Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness:
The natural attitude concerning time: time as a succession of nows;
The phenomenological attitude concerning internal time consciousness: time is experienced as the living present.
The living present is a synthetic consciousness of impressions in retainment and protention; hence, Husserl eliminates Augustine’s ‘now,’ instead making presentation into the giving forth of nothing but primal impressions, these are synthetically unified with (1) the intuitions in retention (an automatic stretching of any ‘now’ as a holding of various ‘nows,’ which is a part of Augustine’s ‘past’ reconceived), and with (2) the intuitions from protention (a stretching forth and reaching into the future to pull it to us), and with (3) the intuitions in recollection (memory, which is an act, hence mediated; the impressions of the past pulled up to us, which is the other part of Augustine’s past here reconceived).
Heidegger on Anticipation (a sort of reworking of Husserl’s protention to more firmly synthesize it with the other intuitions of the lived present):
Heidegger's Basic Concepts commands we must learn to listen in the right way to the incipient (the inception or beginning of a happening, an event (Ereignis, arrive-t-il?)); to listen rightly, we think towards it; anticipation is a thinking towards in so far as it is a thinking essence, a grasping of essence, and, as its etymology shows (ante-, before, plus capere, taking care of), anticipation is a taking care (a hold of) something ahead of time, wherein it is a taking into possession ahead of time, ahead of possession. Anticipation is the “… grasping something that comes upon us, whose long held sway, except that we overlook it” (BC 10).
If we supplement this with Heidegger’s depiction of anticipation in Being and Time, it is that which reveals our lost-ness in the ‘they’ when it yanks us (Da-sein) out of ourselves so as to bring us face-to-face with ourselves, with our ownmost potentiality of being (which is the utter potential we are not-yet), hence face-to-face with our nothingness. If we couple anticipation with a resoluteness, then we can be authentic in the face of our being-towards-death. Anticipation surfaces as a response to the feeling of not-being-at-home with ourselves in everydayness, but is most properly initiated when one most acutely feels the most intense, deepest grip of anxiety initiated as a call of and from and to Being, a call that says nothing, yet commands us—anticipation’s authenticity comes to be with the coming to be of resolute response to this anxiety. This supplement can connect us back to the question of authenticity previously discussed.
However, these insights on time and anticipation can suggest something else, too …
Act II starts with Vladimir and Estragon noticing there are leaves on the tree … they had not been there the day before; they affirm spring has come. In one day …? Does this sudden appearance of leaves on the tree make us doubt that only a single day has gone by? Perhaps everyday is basically the same nothingness of the previous day, and like an eternal return of the same, any act of counting days is absurd, they are only days in that it is all the same “day” over and over. And/Or, perhaps this tells us that time herein is not operating in the Husserlian natural attitude as a mere succession of now’s, a linear chain from past to future all in order, one after another. Instead, maybe this is Beckett’s grotesquery of the lived present …
Maybe this place/time of their waiting is nothing … it is the ‘now’ that has been obliterated