Saturday, July 07, 2007

Ontological Fulfillment vs. Negative Capability: A Division in the Reception of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

I've got a lot going on, so I thought I'd post an essay I wrote awhile back on how critics have perceived Waiting for Godot over the years. I think Beckett would appreciate the randomness of the gesture:

An enduring stereotype of the academic, of the intellectual, is of one who pursues knowledge at all times, pursues knowledge for its own sake, and values knowledge over experience. How often has the public rejoined a controversial scholarly reading of a film, for instance, with the mocking cry “It’s only a movie, don’t read so much into it.”

In an extreme irony, when it comes to the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, the situation is often reversed. A sampling of critical reaction in the popular press indicates a desire to hone in on ideology, to give a semiotic account of the play. Meanwhile, there exists a chorus of critics from academia who perhaps don’t directly say “It’s only a play, don’t read so much into it,” come pretty close to the spirit of this statement. Such critics favor an experience of the play over a reading of it. The play has been around for 50 years now, and such a split reaction between academia and the general public has for the most part remained the same over the entire length of time, with critical conversations being maintained but not intersecting.

The Early Conversation

In a 1956 review of the play’s opening run in New York, New York Times reviewer Brooks Atkinson calls the play “a mystery wrapped in an enigma (para 1),” a phrase that hopefully didn’t carry as clichéd a status as it does today. From this phrase, Atkinson segues into the following statement: “But you can expect witness to the strange power this drama has to convey the impression of some melancholy truths about the hopeless destiny of the human race (para 2).” What these “truths” may be is up for grabs, since Atkinson also says “Don’t expect this column to explain [the play] (para 1).” So while you can expect to witness truths, it is beyond the scope of the reviewer to relay them. Depending on how generous one feels, this could either be referred to as a paradox or as a contradiction. In either event, Atkinson muddies the situation even further by stating that “’Waiting for Godot’ has no simple meaning (para 3).’”

Atkinson eventually runs out of adjectives to describe the confusion one feels in viewing the play; he’s forced to use both “puzzling” and “a puzzlement,” placing two paragraphs in between with the hope that the reader will not notice. Yet despite all his hand wringing, Atkinson is firm that there is a meaning, that it must be allegorical: “It seems fairly certain that Godot stands for God….The rest of the symbolism is more elusive. But it is not a pose (paras 5-6).” He goes on to say in the final paragraph that “Mr. Beckett is no charltatan” and concludes with the rather strange praise that “Mr. Beckett is a valid writer (para 10)” (though in the end perhaps a writer can attain no higher honor than validity).

How can Atkinson be so certain that Beckett is “valid?” He’ll actually go the “puzzle” well a third time to launch his best defense: “’Waiting for Godot’ is all feeling. Perhaps that is why it is puzzling and convincing at the same time (para 10).’” Feelings can be awfully puzzling, after all. Perhaps that’s why it would be best to not think too hard about them. At least, that’s the direction Atkinson seems to be gesturing towards, and that’s the direction seized upon by Beckett critic Alec Reid in his 1968 scholarly book All I Can Manage, More Than I Could: An Approach to the Plays of Samuel Beckett. Reid chooses the word “approach” in his title, because:

The area of experience with which Beckett is dealing is a place where reason does not operate, a province of the emotions not to be entered by intellectual analysis, but by direct, sensuous response. Therefore it is as pointless to look for a logical, universal ‘message’ behind Beckett’s work as it is to look for such a message behind a symphony or a sunset (30).

Obviously, this speaks directly to Atkinson’s vain attempt to locate a message (and also provides an explanation as to why Atkinson couldn’t find one). It also serves as a response to Atkinson’s attempt to universalize the experience. And for Reid, the experience is what matters: “The great danger in seeking some non-existent meaning in Beckett’s plays is that we shall miss the experience that is actually there” (30-31).

Reid further addresses Atkinson’s attempt to recognize the play as essentially semiotic: “Beckett suggested that the early success of Waiting for Godot was based on a fundamental misunderstanding, critics and public alike insisting on interpreting in allegorical or symbolical terms a play which was striving all the time to avoid definition” (30-31). Reid then launches into a lengthy analysis of why Beckett chose not to specify anything about the road in which the play takes place. His assertion is that Beckett’s minimalism is an attempt to avoid creating signs.

If there is one area in which Reid and Atkinson are in total agreement, it is that Beckett is a “valid writer.” Atkinson’s defensiveness when speaking about the author is likely a response to an existing sentiment that Beckett was in fact, not valid. In stating that Beckett was “not a charlatan” he was likely addressing an audience that was convinced of the opposite. Likewise, Reid finds himself defensive when speaking about Beckett’s genius, so much so in fact that he begins his book with a significant portion devoted to biography. His attempt isn’t so much to defend Beckett’s validity, though, as it is to defend his integrity against assaults of intellectual elitism. He plays up Beckett’s role in the French resistance and related anecdotes that valorized his moral characters, such as a story about Beckett paying off all of a friend’s debts. “A nicer sense of priorities would be hard to imagine” (15).

Later Conversation

Although Reid’s moves toward a Beckett hagiography haven’t been seized upon by later generations of Beckett critics, in another sense the author has been canonized. Therefore, it is not as necessary for critics to argue for his “validity” or his morality. However, today’s commentators are still not shy about lavishing praise upon him. One such scholar is Raymond Federman, who delivered a lecture about Beckett in 2000 (“The Imagery Museum of Samuel Beckett”) at the opening of a Beckett exhibit at an Austrian museum. Federman tells his audience: “Samuel Beckett was, above all, an artist. Perhaps the last of the great artists of the 20th Century” (2).

Federman goes on to, in large part, channel Reid’s message of 30+ years prior: “…I want to take you through some of Beckett’s books, not to explain what they ‘mean’ but to show you what there is to see in the books” (2). His emphasis on the visual aspect of Beckett conjures up Reid’s comparisons to a sunset, and like Reid, the idea that Beckett be read for a meaning is almost mocked. The quotation marks around the word meaning serve a particular purpose, and show an extension of Reid’s argument: in this critical era, not only Beckett’s plays, but any text may not have a “meaning.”

Federman speaks of his own personal critical reception history: “I started reading Beckett in 1956 after I saw the Broadway production of Waiting for Godot, and like everyone else back then I wanted to know what this work of Beckett meant and I watned to try and understand the universal truths of his books” (emphasis author’s, 6). Federman speaks of following this drive through 15 years, a doctoral dissertation, a book, numerous articles, and the teaching of seminars. In a bold move, he disavows all this history, saying of his work and others “It made a mockery of criticism. The more one tried to situate, to pigeon-hole Beckett’s work, the more it escaped historical and critical interpretation” (8).

Federman’s “conversion” was in 1971, three year’s after the publication of Reid’s book. Federman makes no mention of Reid, but in echoing his rhetoric one wonders what if any impact Reid’s book had on him. One striking similarity is the degree to which both of them attempt to compare Beckett’s work to production of art outside of letters. Federman compares Beckett to a master painter: “I want to take you on a visit to the imagery museum of Samuel Beckett, for you may not know this but Beckett was a great artist, yes, a great painter. No, he did not paint with a brush, he painted tableaux (or tableaus) with words” (emphasis author’s, 2). Compare this with Reid’s metaphor: “Beckett executes elaborate fugues of point and counter-point, strophe and anti-strophe, silence and sound. The comparison with music is inescapable” (28). (Perhaps another critic could come along and synthesize these and say Beckett paints pictures that perform music).

Also, Federman echoes Reid’s distrust of locating a symbolism in Beckett’s work: “Yes, all along Beckett warned us that it was useless to try and find meaning in his work, especially symbolic meaning. Remember: No Symbols Where None Intended”. (emphasis author’s 8). (This last sentence is a quotation of the final sentence of Beckett’s novel Watt). The idea that the play is symbolic in nature may be resisted by academics of today and yesterday, but the popular press still follows the tradition of Atkinson. In a 2005 review, David Finkle discusses a New York production of Godot commemorating the 50th anniversary of the play. He begins the review with two paragraphs describing a real life scene in New York he witnessed in which several people tripped over each other, comparing this to a scene from the play. He finds great significance in this: “Fore me, the overlapping of these scenes…led to an epiphany….sequences lifted from life need only be slightly skewed to make a Theater of the Absurd playwright’s existential statement.” He can’t help but see the action of the play as symbolic of real life action, only “slightly skewed.”

Such absolute faith in the semiotic nature of the play not only persists for Finkle in spite of the existence of critics like Reid and Federman metaphorically screaming for him to ignore that path, but also alongside his own knowledge that Beckett contributed nothing to the motion. He writes, “Pozzo leads Luck around on a rope. (Don’t ask what the master-slave dynamic symbolizes; Beckett never said.)” (para 4). It’s ironic that Finkle reads Pozzo and Lucky as a sign (for master-slave) without even realizing it. He thinks master-slave is the original signifier, but that since the author doesn’t tells us what it signifies, we can never know.

Still, Finkle sees no such limitations when it comes to reading the entire play as a signifier, and is content to do what none of the other three critics dare do by offering a one sentence interpretation of the meaning of the play: “Waiting for Godot is about the boredom of everyday living” (para 6). Of the multiple (perhaps some would argue infinite) possibilities offered by the text, he even goes so far as to declare the one other meaning: “[Vladimir and Estragon] behave with the love-and-short-fuse affect common to men friends, male bonding being the important secondary theme of the play” (para 5).

Obviously, Finkle is not content not knowing what the play “means.” This contrasts with Atkinson who is content not knowing what the meaning is so long as he knows that one exists. Further along the continuum, Reid and Federman, who are content knowing that there is no meaning. To witness the conversation among them is not unlike witnessing the conversations of four other characters, namely Gogo, Didi, Lucky, and Pozzo.


Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

I must confess I didn't read this post. I'm just letting you know I'm alive. Not sure about Heidi, I believe she's working at a camp or something. I'm in the big city working as a dishwasher. I'm going on a trip to France and Spain next year.

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yah, I'm alive, too. 'Sup?

5:30 PM  

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