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Waiting for Godot: Philosophical Contexts. When considered in terms of twentieth-century secular philosophy, Waiting for Godot seems particularly congruent.

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Presentation on theme: "Waiting for Godot: Philosophical Contexts. When considered in terms of twentieth-century secular philosophy, Waiting for Godot seems particularly congruent."— Presentation transcript:

1 Waiting for Godot: Philosophical Contexts

2 When considered in terms of twentieth-century secular philosophy, Waiting for Godot seems particularly congruent with the tenets of existentialism, which gained popularity (and notoriety) in the decades following World War II. Although origins can be traced back at least to the mid- nineteenth century in the writings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the fiction for Fyodor Doestoyevsky, its foremost twentieth century proponent was Jean Paul Sartre, whose major work Being and Nothingness was published in 1943 in France and translated into English in 1956.

3 Controversial because it was perceived as undermining the basis of Western philosophy since Plato and subverting virtually all traditional religions, existentialism asserted that human existence precedes any form of “essence”. There is, therefore, no preexistent spiritual realm, no soul, no god (Christian or otherwise), no cosmic compassion for or interest in human life, no afterlife, no eternal life, no heaven, no hell, no everlasting rewards or punishment for earthly deeds, no transcendence of worldly existence, no cosmic metanarrative, no angels and devils vying for human allegiance, no divine will, no salvation, no redemption (and no agency to perform it), no preset destiny, no inevitable fate, no revealed truth,

4 And no immutable commandments or other permanent but externally imposed rules. All of that is simply human invention or, as Nietzsche termed it, ‘superstition’, a culturally determined and socially enforced fiction that, in its effectiveness, fundamentally constricts human freedom and allows human beings to evade their own responsibility for the conditions of existence throughout the world. The best concise introductory explanation of Sartre’s doctrine is his essay now titled “The Humanism of Existentialism”. Although he briefly acknowledges the existence of Christian existentialism, he insists that the first principle of (his own atheistic) existentialism is that “there is no human nature since there is no God to

5 Conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but…man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” Because each individual must bear full responsibility for whatever he or she becomes and whoever he or she is (since it is not predetermined, shaped by God’s will, or otherwise from outside oneself, a constant state of anxiety is a defining human characteristic – the first of three that Sartre identifies. Many people, however, seek desperately to avoid taking such responsibility for themselves, palliating (however dishonestly) their anxiety and trying to place responsibility on anyone or anything but themselves- an institution, a religion, even a Godot.

6 Yet such an evasion is itself an act of self-definition,a free choice for which they remain responsible, even if they consider it an obligation by which they are bound or a worldview not of their own design (or indeed, of their own liking.) The second of Sartre’s defining characteristics is forlornness, a term that he traces particularly to the philosopher Martin Heidegger, by which he “means only that God does not exist and we have to face the consequences of this”. Among the foremost of these is that there are no transcendent or a priori standards of goodness, virtue, or justice, just as there is no God to conceive or sanction them, “as a result, man is forlorn, for neither within him now without does he find anything to cling to”.

7 Neither is there any core ‘human nature’ or other form of determinism, instead “man is free, man is freedom”. In an empty universe that is devoid of meaning, purpose, design or care – the ‘existential void’ represented by the coldness of interstellar space, the featureless Beckettian landscape, or simply darkness in Beckett’s later stage works- human beings are, Sartre contends, “alone, with no excuses” and “condemned to be free.” This situation leads to the third of his defining characteristics, despair, which is widely if wrongly alleged by Beckett’s detractors against his works as well. For Sartre, the term “means that we shall confine ourselves to reckoning with what depends on our will, or on the ensemble of probabilities which make our action

8 Possible.” For Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot, however, it is precisely the probabilities that are uncertain, the decisive action that is impossible (other than waiting, which is, of course, itself an action, and the “will” (including but not limited to their consideration of suicide) that remains paralyzed. To Sartre, however, existentialism “can not be taken for a philosophy of quietism, since it defines man in terms of action, not for a pessimistic determination of man, for … man’s destiny is within himself.” An equally important Sartrean concept was set forth in Part One of Sartre’s major work Being and Nothingness. As Vladimir and Estragon base their lives on the arrival (and indeed the existence) of Godot, the exemplify what

9 Sartre defines as ‘bad faith’, it prevents them from being ‘sincere’ in Sartre’s sense, in that they cannot “be what they are” because they are preoccupied with the transcendent Other (Godot) that remains an absence rather than a presence in their lives. Action, by which existential man defines himself, is therefore precluded or perhaps endlessly deferred, any suggestion that they might actually do something (even depart or commit suicide) is countered by yet another reiteration of the core fact of their existence, that they must continue to await Godot. If this motive is considered to be like one of the “drives” that Sartre describges, this enterprise of waiting is itself “realized only with their consent” Furthermore, it must be

10 Realized that such drives “are not forces of nature” or innate within mankind, instead, the tramps “lend the drives the efficacy by making a perpetually renewed decision concerning their value” Such is, in effect, the plot of Waiting for Godot. Moreover, Sartre asserts that “assuredly a man in bad faith who borders on the comic” is one who “acknowledges all the facts which are imputed to him (but still) he refuses to draw from them the conclusion which they impose…the crushing view that his mistakes constitute for him a destiny. The facts, in Beckett’s play, are to be found in Vladimir’s admissions of multiple uncertainties- that they are in the right place, that it is the right day and time, even that they would recognize Godot if he came. Their crushing

11 Conclusion is that their purpose is futile, that Godot will never come, or that their lives have been in vain. Against such despair, they continue, unreasonably and implicitly, to hope, to wait, and idly pass the time- actions that do indeed “border on the comic” in a play that its author labeled a tragicomedy. Ultimately, however, as Sartre argues, “the true problem of bad faith stems evidently from the fact that bad faith is faith.” (Sartre’s emphasis). In other words, it bases one’s existence on a sustained belief in and sustaining reliance on someone or something external to the self. To a Sartrean existentialist, such a being that transcends and transforms lives is by definition nonexistent- and thus not fundamentally unlike Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, wish-granting genies, leprechauns, fairies, and all other

12 Such fictions, however pleasant, popular, entertaining, or consoling belief in them might be among the credulous. Accordingly, those who consider Waiting for Godot an existential play tend to assume (with often aggressive and sometimes condescending certainty) that Godot does not actually exist – that he will never come for the simple reason that he can never come, that there is no “he” to come, even if Vladimir and Estragon were to wait for all eternity. In this view, the play’s many Christian allusions are little more than shards of a culture, signifiers of little or nothing, distractions or delusions that merely help to pass the time. Notwithstanding the striking congruencies between Sartre’s philosophy and Beckett’s play, to read Waiting

13 For Godot as nothing more than a dramatic illustration of a Sartrean thesis is no less reductive and simplistic than to regard it as a modern-day version of Christian allegory; the committed atheist and the religious zealot have in common an unyielding ontological certainty, despite their irreconciliably opposite beliefs. Theirs is, however, a conviction that neither Beckett himself nor any of his characters seem to share. When, in 1937, Samuel Beckett was asked in a courtroom whether he was a Christian, a Jew, or an atheist, he replied “None of the three”, each presumably, was too certain about

14 Everything for Beckett to affirm anything that they believed. Beckett’s characters, “non-knowers and non- caners” as he himself described them, would be totally daunted by the prospect of having to be constantly commited (engage, in existential terms, continually self- defining, and wholly responsible for both themselves and the state of the world, as Sartre’s ideology contends that they must be. Their concerns are far more mundane: hurting feet, lapsing memories, the scarcity of carrots, the protocols of hanging, their appointment with the unknown Godot. Although existential issues are

15 Unmistakeably present throughout Waiting for Godot, they are no less the subject of skepticism and humor than the precepts of Christianity.


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