Estragon: He’s crying
Pozzo: ...Comfort him since you pity him…
…[Estragon approaches Lucky and makes to wipe his eyes. Lucky kicks him violently in the shins…]
Estragon: Oh the swine! He’s crippled me.
Vladimir [to Estragon] Show. [Estragon shows his leg. To Pozzo, angrily.] He’s bleeding!
Pozzo: It’s a good sign.
Estragon: [on one leg] I’ll never walk again.
Vladimir: [tenderly] I’ll carry you. [Pause.] If necessary
Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Ian McKellan as Estragon in Waiting for Godot (via)
Beckett’s "Waiting for Godot." The scene is one of despair, absurdity, boredom, impotence, and the eternal recurrence of the never consummated. Despite the moments of levity and slapstick that make these heavy themes bearable, Beckett’s masterpiece, apiece his entire corpus, leaves little room for hope or anything rose-colored. Godot is about the stagnation of time, a play about the impossibility of tomorrow, because tomorrow is today, and today is yesterday. The tramps Didi and Gogo live in an eternal now, a present that is not the negating bliss of the Buddhist’s or the joyous affirmation of Nietzsche’s amor fati, but the desolate here of a country road, a tree, evening. The way is desolate, the worn shoes are too tight or too big, the only thing to eat are carrots and turnips mixed with pocket lint, the branch beckons suicide, and the inevitability of setting sun is the only thing that makes the silence of day tolerable (Godot as night?).
“Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.” Nothing to be done.
And yet, somehow, we manage to laugh. Somehow, we find in this tender relationship between these old and tattered clowns that which allows us to...wait.
Godot has been categorized as absurdist, existential, and tragicomic, but between the laughter and the tears, the screaming and the silence, the day and the night, there is a profound and important ethical dimension. Perhaps the central theme is relationship, conversation, helping others, and, that most foundational of ethical moments, friendship.
Beckett writes in his essay “Proust:” “Friendship... is the negation of that irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned.” In his biography of Beckett Damned to Fame (Grove, 2004), Samuel Knowlson discusses the relationship between Beckett and painter Henri Hayden, whom Beckett met while hiding from the Gestapo in 1942 in the French village of Rousillon. “Soon Beckett was meeting Hayden fairly regularly in the café for a drink and it was not long before the two men found that they shared a love of chess as well as of painting… This marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship.” Knowlson continues: “Common sense suggests that snatches of dialogue did emerge from similar little ‘canters… Beckett has conceded as much privately to friends.”
Friendship is central to many ethical philosophies, the condition of possibility of not only ethics, but politics, love, and perhaps philosophy itself. Aristotle devotes two entire chapters to friendship in his foundational Nicomachean Ethics. He begins Book VIII by writing: “For without friends, no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” Three types of friendship are described: the friendship of utility, the friendship of pleasure, and the friendship of virtue. The first two, are “easily dissolved,” and the last is enduring, reciprocal, and concerned with nothing more than the mutual achievement of virtue in and through the relationship. For Aristotle, this type of friendship is the model of justice and the essential ground for the realization of happiness (eudaimonia). “[T]he happy man needs friends.”
A generation after Aristotle, Epicurus’s apolitical materialist philosophy strived for a simple and natural ordering of desires that led to tranquility (ataraxia), and even though his prescriptions end in a withdrawal into “the Garden,” he insisted that this happiness minimally involved two. “Of the things that wisdom prepares for insuring lifelong happiness, by far the greatest is the possession of friends.” In the 16th century, the prolific philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne writes in “Of Friendship:” “...our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that join them, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.”
What is the status of friendship in our “socially wired” world, when a “friend” is identified by the click of button? Where we meet people and within a few minutes say “friend me,” throwing their “face,” like corn for cattle, into the hundreds of other “faces” that are part of our “feed.” Precisely so we don’t have to face their Face! Precisely so we do not have to be their Friend!
Currently, ”Waiting for Godot” is being performed on Broadway by two longtime friends: Sir Patrick Stewart as Didi (Vladimir) and Sir Ian McKellan as Gogo (Estragon). In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, McKellan says:
I think our Didi and Gogo may be more friends than others in the past. We hold onto each other with affection. The hugs are genuine. The exchanges are done with regard and a longstanding relationship. It’s possible to play these to two as if they don’t really like each other or even know each other. But, they’ve been together for fifty years. They know each other inside and out, and I think that may be our contribution, rather than making it funny we brought a real friendship onto the stage.
What is a friend? How is the friend? Estragon: “I’ll never walk again.” Vladimir: “I’ll carry you.” Yes, the friend is the one who carries you. The friend picks you up.
Estragon: I'm going.
Vladimir: Help me up first, then we'll go together.
Estragon: You promise?
Vladimir: I swear it!
Estragon: And we'll never come back?
Estragon: We'll go to the Pyrenees.
Vladimir: Wherever you like.
But, the friend also weighs you down. The friend will, if called upon, offer you his belt, not only to hold up your pants, but to make your final noose.
Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree.
They stand motionless before it. Silence.
Estragon: Why don't we hang ourselves?
Vladimir: With what?
Estragon: You haven't got a bit of rope?
Estragon: Then we can't.
Vladimir: Let's go.
Estragon: Wait, there's my belt.
Vladimir: It's too short.
Estragon: You could hang onto my legs.
Vladimir: And who'd hang onto mine?
The friend bears weight. The friend is weight. The friend waits.
The relationship of Vladimir and Estragon is contrasted with that of Pozzo and Lucky, who represent the antithesis of friendship. Theirs is also a relationship of intertwinement and dependence, but one of servitude, inequality, and dominance. The metaphor of seeing is important here, perhaps helping to explain Pozzo’s blindness and suffering in Act 2. Worse than waiting is waiting alone, and loneliness is a form of blindness and invisibility, not seeing or being seen. Didi and Gogo hold Pozzo up after finally getting him to his feet:
Pozzo: I used to have wonderful sight— but are you friends?
Estragon: (laughing noisily). He wants to know if we are friends!
Vladimir: No, he means friends of his.
Vladimir: We've proved we are, by helping him.
Estragon: Exactly. Would we have helped him if we weren't his friends?
Vladimir: Don't let's quibble about that now.
Didi knows the importance of being seen, of how unbearable the waiting of existence would be without that minimal recognition. In the final moments of the play, he questions the boy urgently: “You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me tomorrow that you never saw me!”
The friend is the one who sees you, and in this seeing bears part of the weight of “you,” thus allowing you to wait. Levinas writes that ethics is “optics,” a way of seeing and being whereby the Other remains other, but is recognized and “seen” in and through that radical alterity. The play emphasizes the fact that the minimal unit of the human is not the one, but the two, and though the picture is a bleak, unsettling, and painful meditation upon our shared loneliness in the absence of “Godot, the fact that we share this loneliness, this eternal waiting, with our friend is what can possibly turn our cries into laughter and our ontological loneliness into love.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like MacBeth: A Soliloquy of Madness
February 12, 2014
Eric Anthamatten is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the New School for Social Research in New York City. His work focuses on philosophy, education, and social justice, more specifically on issues surrounding education in marginal, non-traditional, and non-academic settings: the prison, adult education, the homeless. Eric received an M.A. in Philosophy from Texas A&M University as well as a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and a minor in electronic music. He has taught philosophy since 2001 at various institutions in Texas and New York, ranging from community colleges to small privates schools, from major public universities to maximum security prisons in rural Texas. He is also an instructor of martial arts in Manhattan, where he teaches students ranging from age three to sixty-three, a pedagogical scene that he sees as continuous with his philosophical work. Follow Eric on Twitter @eAnthamatten.