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Waiting for Godot: Philosophical Contexts

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Title: Waiting for Godot: Philosophical Contexts


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
    Sartres 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, butman 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 Gods 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 Sartres 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 Becketts 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 Becketts 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 Becketts 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 mans
    destiny is within himself.
  • An equally important Sartrean concept was set
    forth in Part One of Sartres 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 Sartres 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
    imposethe crushing view that his mistakes
    constitute for him a destiny.
  • The facts, in Becketts play, are to be found in
    Vladimirs 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. (Sartres
    emphasis). In other words, it bases ones
    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 plays 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
    Sartres philosophy and Becketts 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. Becketts 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 Sartres 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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