Reflections on “Waiting for Godot”

I went to the Stratford Festival Tuesday night and saw their production of “Waiting for Godot”. It was the first time for Beckett’s play for me.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what the message of this play where nothing much happens, no resolutions are obtained, and you get the feeling after it’s over that you came in in the middle and left before the end.

No doubt there will be those who sniff and say the following lacks depth, betrays a degree of cultural philistinism, and so on. Oh well, life’s too short not to take a chance or two.

Being in the middle of things is precisely what “Waiting for Godot” is about.

Lewis Carroll said “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”. That’s useful if you’re at a junction and have a choice to make.

But the course of a life isn’t like that. You pass junctions, but you’re basically born onto a road (Heidegger called it, and us, “Being-unto-death”) and you leave it only when you pass away. In between, here you are.

But where is here? Ancient Chinese called it the “Middle Kingdom”, between Heaven and Earth; Plato called it the Metaxy, or the middle between formless matter and the pure world of the forms, from which our souls had descended into matter and would return.

Labels, however, are not the same as knowing. Aristotle, in his works on logic, reminded us that there is operational causality, the kind that says “if you do x, then y happens”, and there is grammatical causality, where the most we can do is manipulate the terms.

Physicists have pushed back the limits of the terms: we stopped at one time with the grammar of atoms, then we went to the grammar of sub-atomic particles and the operations of atoms, now we can give you operational causality for these but have the grammar of quarks and bosons. Biologists have pushed back the grammar of species names by observed characteristics into genome types, but there still is at the end only a series of labels.

The set of “Waiting for Godot” is a road, with no obvious “place” at either end, and which contains a tree and a rock, set in a nothing. Is it a swamp? Is it beside fields? Your imagination fills that in, for the road is all.

Do you go down the road? Then where are you going? Do you return up the road? Then where are you going?

You can move the labels around, but never understand the journey through them.

Vladimir and Estragon, those waiting, reflect two sides of the same coin. One talks, the other has little to say. One stands, the other sits. One is restless, the other rests. Neither is complete without the other.

This is surely our lives, especially in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Much movement, much restlessness, much dissatisfaction, and simultaneously much sitting, being entertained, “resting”. Far too few of us have a purpose which animates us taking away both the restless flurry of activity (i.e. it can be paced, and measured, and isn’t being done simply to accumulate money, or fame, or at another’s call) and the ennui of idleness (surely sitting in front of the screen or television is the epitome of going nowhere).

Both are given to us as having effectively nothing. Pozzo’s entrance is the counterpoint: for all his pomp and circumstance (and all his possessions lugged about by Lucky) he is no different. The cleanliness of his kit in Act One, and the dirt he carries in Act Two, shows us that.

Pozzo apparently is going somewhere — for him the road is a road from and to, whereas for Vladimir and Estragon it is not. Yet you are made to feel that Pozzo, too, does not know precisely where he came from or where he is going; he is simply unable to sit and wait to resolve it.

But then, the whole point of “waiting” is not to wait for someone or something, but merely to wait, is it not? In other words, we are left with the notion that were not Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot, they, too, would be in motion, if only to keep moving.

Some motion (here lies the significance of the carrot, and the refused turnip and radish) is surely essential: our basic needs to stay alive cannot be found in one place. But random motion is sufficient for that. Anything else we tell ourselves about purpose is, as Nietzsche noted, a myth we tell ourselves to make sense of the endless cycles of the recurrence of the same.

That the Boy tells us Godot always comes tomorrow but not today is an indication that the road (apparently a line) might be a circle. We do not know. Labelling “birth” and “death” as journey points, or “heaven” (or “hell”) as destinations, is as unsatisfactory as labelling the places “village ahead” and “town behind”. It is all just grammar masquerading as knowledge.

The few steps taken off the road into the “beyond the road” are symbolic of how difficult it is for all of us to shake off the horizons we live in. None of us, of course, are free from the zeitgeist and the framework of knowing it sets up, nor our own subjective horizons of interpretation, which can be gently shifted but never dispensed with. To know causal, discrete, linear time, for instance, is to step away from destined, flowing, cyclical or field time.

Our time sees our lives as linear, our journey as living beings as having purposes, as requiring achievements, as “going somewhere”. We all live in a “spirit of the age” of progression. We deny the purposelessness of it all. Getting off the road, and staying off the road, is as viable as sitting on a rock in the road, or walking down the road, but to those who live within the framework of the road the “not road” is a horror.

But then, if you are one who steps off past the horizons others seem to share, you often see what you left as a horror, too.

There is so much more I could say, but then, I’d be trying to convince you that I know something I do not. So I’ll close this reflection by saying that “Waiting for Godot” has had the effect of shaking me loose, and, on the side the road I am supposed to walk, the not-road beckons, at least for a while.

And that will have to be enough, being in the middle as I am.

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