‘Dialogues on Beckett’ is a collection of 12 conversations about 12 plays by Samuel Beckett, discussions about the meaning of life and the universe between an agnostic and a Christian, based on a close reading of the text. It is also based on the thesis that Beckett’s main concern in his plays is Christian theology or, more broadly, the religious interpretation of the world. All his plays are an argument with that interpretation; in particular, they question the idea of theodicy and the philosophy of consolation. The aim of ‘Dialogues on Beckett’ is to make the reader aware of this essential theme in the playwright’s work, to interpret it in this light and to show his original approach to the subject. Beckett argues that we live in a post-Christian era. But for him this knowledge is no reason for joy; rather, it is a source of sadness, fear and even despair.
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About the Author
Antoni Libera is a writer, translator and stage director. Among his translations into Polish are all of Samuel Beckett’s plays and much of his prose. He has also directed many of Beckett’s plays, both in Poland and abroad, and has presented them at various international theatre festivals.
Janusz Pyda OP is a Dominican friar and lecturer in philosophy and theology at the Polish Dominican College of Philosophy and Theology.
Read an Excerpt
MESSIANISM: PROS AND CONS WAITING FOR GODOT (1949)
Janusz Pyda OP: Let's start with the fundamental question: Who is Godot? The play's protagonists seem unsure. In fact, they have no idea. Estragon is clueless, while Vladimir, the only character in favour of waiting for Godot, is incapable of describing what he looks like, let alone explaining the circumstances of their meeting or the reason for his conviction that Godot can change their destiny. He nevertheless claims that they have both met Godot once before and that Godot promised to meet them again. In short, Vladimir is not credible and gives one nothing to go on.
When Beckett was asked the same question, he would reply indirectly or by negation: 'If I knew, I wouldn't have written the play' was his standard answer. He is also on record as saying, 'If I knew, I would have said so in the play,' or again, 'If by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God and not Godot.' For me the most interesting of his very few comments on the subject is the following: 'I do not know who Godot is. I do not even know if he exists. And I do not know if they believe he does, these two who are waiting for him.' One thing emerges clearly from all this: the author does not place himself above the reader/ audience; there is nothing that only he knows and wants to conceal from them. He does not even place himself in a privileged position in relation to his own text. Like the audience/ reader, he knows only what can be deduced from the text, nothing more.
So the text is all we have. And the text, full as it is of uncertainties and unknowns, things murky and obliquely hinted at, does seem to tell us one thing with certainty, namely, that whether or not Godot exists, whether or not he really did meet the protagonists somewhere or is merely a figment of their imagination, he is a person. The protagonists are not waiting for an event or a thing, like manna from heaven; they are waiting for a person. Is this really something we can be certain of? And if so, what does it entail?
Antoni Libera: Yes, that is definitely something we can be certain of, and it entails a number of important things. What the protagonists hope for from Godot is some sort of improvement in their lives: food, a roof over their heads and above all a goal to strive towards, something to stave off boredom and give meaning to their existence. But whatever they expect from him, their hopes are bound up not with a miracle, a piece of luck or some natural event, but with a human being – someone like them. And the fact that they personify their potential benefactor in this way tell us quite a lot about them. It tells us how deep their dependence is on human nature, on the human perspective: even a radical transformation of their lives must come about through the mediation of a human being. In the sphere of human affairs the mediator must be their fellow man; they cannot even imagine anything else. But that someone, although – as they imagine – a human being like them, differs from them in a fundamental way, for he has power. He has power because he has wealth – possessions, a house, perhaps a farm – and that wealth gives him the power to help them: to assure their safety and deliver them.
But at this point we come up against a problem: Does such a person exist in Beckett's world, a world governed by laws so different from our own? Is it even conceivable that such a person could exist in that world?
We know that our own world contains rich and poor, great and small, masters and servants, the powerful and those who do their bidding, guardians and wards, and that the former have the means to help the latter. But in the world of Beckett's plays the same principle holds as in any fictional world, in any work of art: what you see is what you get. What we are told (or shown) is all there is. And what are we shown in the world of this play? Two vagrants, Estragon and Vladimir, talking under a tree; two travellers, Pozzo and Lucky, whose physical capacities are gradually declining; and a pair of twins, young boys, probably shepherds, since one of them 'minds the sheep' while the other 'minds the goats'. That completes the list of the inhabitants of Beckett's universe in Godot. There is no one else here, nothing that might correspond to Godot, the character whose existence is deduced. The closest to him would be Pozzo, because of his wealth and status, which is why the naive Estragon suspects that he is Godot. But Vladimir disabuses him of this notion – though with rather less conviction the second and third time round:
ESTRAGON: Are you sure it wasn't him?
VLADIMIR: But who?
VLADIMIR: Not at all! (Less sure.) Not at all. (Still less sure.) Not at all!
We are thus led to the conclusion that though Godot may be a person, he is an impossible one, in that while he is deduced from the world of the protagonists (and assumed to be someone like Pozzo), he is endowed, by Vladimir's imagination, with traits which are not from that world. He is a kind of centaur: a hybrid being, half man, half –
J. P.: God?
A. L.: The two components of his name, God plus the French diminutive ending -ot, suggest a little God; a godlet. The combination of French and English makes it possible for the name to resonate in both languages. But it will only resonate only a purely intellectual level, with the reader who knows both languages and is aware of the two components. In any case, certainly no person called by any such name would have a divine nature.
J. P.: I agree that there are no grounds for attributing a divine nature to him, at least not in the sense of that term in classic Christian theology. But it's hard to ignore the fact that the distinctive features of the awaited Godot are very close to the most important features of God. Godot is both a person and a possessor of power, and he is not of the world of those who are waiting for him. God, too, is a person, and He is, moreover, both omnipotent (interestingly, this is the only attribute of God mentioned in the Christian Creed) and Other – in relation both to man and to the world. He is transcendent. St Paul said on the Areopagus in Athens, 'Whom therefore ye worship in ignorance, Him I declare unto you' (Acts 17:23).
But I'd like to take a closer look at something else: the world of Beckett's play. It is a world that is not only empty and mute. For the characters in it, its most important feature is that it is alien, if not actually hostile. Estragon feels uncomfortable in his shoes, Vladimir in his hat. Estragon is eternally hungry; Vladimir has problems with his prostate. Estragon imagines that someone beat him up; he escapes into dreams and it is only then that he is 'happy'. Vladimir thinks of suicide and feels 'lonely'. Both are homeless; they have not even built themselves a hut, though they could have done, since there is a tree. They are cold and constantly frightened. All this indicates that this is a world in which they do not feel at home.
To a Christian such an idea is unacceptable for at least three reasons. First, because he believes the world was created for him, as his home, and given to him as his dominion. Second, this world clearly indicates the existence of a transcendent being. To quote St Paul once again, 'For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse' (Romans 1:20). Finally, although for the Christian this world is not the 'last word', for it is not our permanent home, just a place we pass through, nevertheless, for all its imperfections and disadvantages, it is a good thing: a blessing, not a curse.
Beckett's world is quite different. The world of Waiting for Godot is not a home but a place of exile. 'The earth abode of stones', Lucky calls it in his monologue that is, not a place for people. And it seems to be a world devoid of sense or meaning, or at least of any trace of a higher power. This is made clear in a striking and highly effective passage in Pozzo's last monologue:
One day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second [...] They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.
Why is Beckett's world such a terrible place for man?
A. L.: With that question you have gone right to the heart of the matter.
Godot, like most of Beckett's work, is part of an extended argument with Christian theology, especially with the philosophy of consolation.
Beckett's initial premise is in agreement with the Judaeo-Christian tradition: our world is a place of transit, full of evil, cruelty and pain. It is – as the Book of Genesis tells us – a land of exile, a vale of tears in which the woman suffers ('in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children'), while the husband must toil for his bread in the sweat of his brow ('in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread'). The savagery and greed of human nature causes suffering not only to our fellow men but also to ourselves, for our passions and lusts can never be assuaged: no sooner are they satisfied than they reawaken. And when at last they pass, in old age, we are left with boredom and emptiness, and a longing for lost passion, even though it was a source of pain.
Up to this point Beckett shares the Christian view of man and his place in the world. But from here on their ways diverge. Christianity offers the prospect of salvation as a way of overcoming the miserable condition of man and the world. Beckett rejects this; he rejects theodicy and eschatological hopes. But his tone – unlike, for example, Nietzsche's – is not triumphalist; it is rather one of sadness and regret. And remember when this discussion takes place: almost two thousand years after the Christian Revelation and after several centuries during which the scientistic consciousness developed and took shape, leading, willy-nilly, to the disenchantment of the religious view of man and the world.
Nor is Beckett's tone one of self-satisfaction or contempt. He does not declare in pitying tones that all the promises of the Judaeo-Christian tradition are nothing but fairy tales for soothing restive children, morphine for our pain, a pathetic delusion. He says rather that in our time, something, some vital spark, has been extinguished, and the religious view has lost its power or is in the process of losing it. Two thousand years of experience tells us that there is no Consolation and no Great Promise. The world has neither come to an end, as it was supposed to soon after Christ, nor changed for the better. There is still suffering, perhaps more than before. And there is no help, no comfort, no sign. The only remedy for our Weltschmerz is to stifle our needs and desires and adopt a strict asceticism. But that is not really an answer, and besides, it is possible only for a few.
In short: yes to Job, yes to the Cross, yes to pain, fear and abandonment. But no to consolation. And no to salvation and eternal light.
This is said almost explicitly in the famous dialogue at the beginning of Act I, where Beckett alludes to St Augustine's 'Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned'. Beckett loved the way this was expressed and thought there was a deeper meaning to be found in its symmetry. He was fascinated by the 50-50 idea. Here, in this dialogue, he undermines that balance, in a spirit of contrariness and with a kind of perverse glee at the thought that he has achieved this through arithmetic:
VLADIMIR: One of the thieves was saved. It's reasonable percentage [...] Suppose we repented.
ESTRAGON: Repented what?
VLADIMIR: Oh [...] We wouldn't have to go into the details.
ESTRAGON: Our being born?
(Vladimir breaks into a hearty laugh.)
And they continue:
VLADIMIR: And yet [...] how is it that of the four Evangelists only one speaks of a thief being saved. The four of them were there [...] Of the other three two don't mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him [...]
ESTRAGON: Well what of it?
VLADIMIR: Then the two of them must have been damned.
ESTRAGON: And why not?
VLADIMIR: But one of the four says that one of the two was saved.
ESTRAGON: Well? They don't agree, and that's all there is to it.
VLADIMIR: But all four were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?
ESTRAGON: Who believes him?
VLADIMIR: Everybody. It's the only version they know.
ESTRAGON: People are bloody ignorant apes.
The calculation is as follows: if there is a 50-50 chance, as Augustine claims, but only one of the Evangelists mentions it, then the chances are four times smaller: not one in two but one in eight.
J. P.: I'm not sure if Beckett does share the view of the Judaeo-Christian tradition even up to that point, as you say. Yes, the world in the Book of Genesis is a place of transit, full of evil and suffering, but that is not the world that was given to us; it is a world we have corrupted. We were given the Garden of Eden, and then came the Fall: through our own fault – through original sin, the bad use we made of our free will – we ended up in a land of exile. But Beckett does not mention Paradise; his world is the world just after the Fall. So the question arises if for Beckett, in this play, the Fall is acknowledged to have taken place at all. Waiting for Godot does not provide a clear answer; it does not even hint at an answer. In the fragment of dialogue you quoted just now, Estragon says that if the two protagonists, that is, the human race, have anything to regret, it is only to have been born at all; we can hardly consider this to be an adequate answer – especially if, as I suppose, Estragon is being ironic. Does the category of free will have any place at all in Beckett's world?
I could concede that up to that point Beckett's view agrees with the Christian tradition only if we took the Christian tradition to include ideas from outside its main currents which forced the Church, à rebours, to issue more precise definitions of its dogmas. That was the case with the two main heresies of early Christianity: Marcionism and the gnosticism of Valentinius and Basilides, which later gave rise to Manichaeism. According to Irenaeus of Lyon, Marcion saw God the Creator as the 'author of evils' (Adversus Haereses, 1.27.2); according to Tertullian, he identified Him with the devil (Adversus Marcionem, 5.18.12). For the gnostics and the Manichaeans, man's creation and his fall were indeed one and the same.
I realise that Beckett never speaks explicitly about God or Creation. But his world is evil tout court; it was not its corruption by man, through the exercise of his free will, that made it so. It was just cursed from the start. That is why for me Beckett brings to mind the early Christian heresies.
I confess to an urge to protest when Beckett's work is described as an antitheodicy. I associate that more with something like Candide – Voltaire's scathing but superficial reply to Leibniz's intellectual theodicy. Beckett does not go in for that kind of glib mockery and iconoclasm. He puts me in mind rather of a very serious and ascetic heresiarch of the first centuries of Christianity. I don't know if this is to accuse or to defend him; I should like to defend him. But perhaps I'm wrong: perhaps Beckett does have a conception of the Fall and of free will?
A. L.: I think you're right. As far as I can tell, the question of free will does not arise in Beckett's work, either as the cause of the Fall or in any other context. As you say, Beckett's world is somehow cursed, bound by a fate as unfathomable as it is ineluctable; it is not the result of a choice, an act of free will that might, had it been different, have changed that fate even to a small extent, let alone brought about the radical change we call Revelation.
Cleansing, for Beckett, invariably means cleansing oneself of life. Life is not an accumulation of virtue and sin, a sort of school in which our behaviour is punished or rewarded, but simply a stretch of time we must serve, like a prison sentence, before attaining the longed-for state of non-being. And non-being is not a positive state; it does not bring happiness or freedom. It is purely negative; it merely puts an end to something worse, namely being.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dialogues on Beckett"
Copyright © 2019 Antoni Libera and Janusz Pyda OP.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Authors’ Note, Samuel Beckett – The Last Literary Giant; Dialogue I: Messianism: Pros and Cons, ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1949); Dialogue II: The Tyranny of the Emancipated Mind, ‘Endgame’ (1956); Dialogue III: The Fiasco of Self-Creation, ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ (1958); Dialogue IV: Incorrigible Optimism, ‘Happy Days’ (1961); Dialogue V: The Comic Side of Pessimism, ‘Rough for Theatre II’ (Late 1950s); Dialogue VI: Life as Purgatory, ‘Play’ (1962); Dialogue VII: Darkness and Forms of Speech, ‘Not I’ (1972); Dialogue VIII: Inventing Oneself, ‘That Time’ (1974); Dialogue IX: Life without a Father, ‘Footfalls’ (1975); Dialogue X: Creatures of the Night, ‘… But the Clouds …’ (1976); Dialogue XI: The Abyss of the Unconscious, ‘Ohio Impromptu’ (1981); Dialogue XII: Catastrophe with No Tragedy, ‘Catastrophe’ (1982).