Although Samuel Beckett claimed his works were not philosophical, his pieces display a collection of philosophical ideas, exuding his take on the human condition; essence and existence. Dermot Moran makes a vital point, “To address the theme of philosophy in Beckett one must do more than rattle off the occasions where philosophy appears in his work, ” he is suggesting that in order to reach an understanding of Beckett’s philosophical themes regarding the human condition, one must have the ability to comprehend the multitude of complexities involved (Moran 100). This paper will elaborate on the portrayal of existentialistic themes seen in Beckett’s art by diving into some of the complex elements surrounding the human condition: cognition, perspective, the concept of time, self-expression, and spiritual disillusion. You will see references to the plays “Waiting for Godot” and “Play” for philosophical supplementation as they congruently display common elements of existentialism in the actions and characters themselves clearly above all else.
Beckett said in his interview with Tom Driver, “When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don’t know, but their language is too philosophical for me. I am not a philosopher” (Cohn 33). Beckett refuses the question of philosophy in his works with the claim of not understanding philosophers, strongly resisting any attempts at implying an underlying philosophical imposed interpretation within the meanings of his works. “His work in one way or another undoubtedly engages in the great themes of philosophy – the meaning of life in the absence of God, suffering, the nature of hope and disappointment, human nature, the condition of embodiment, the experience of being born, dying and just living, the search for value, the human capacity for thought and action or inaction, the nature of time, the poverty of language, the failure of art, and so on” (Moran 102). Beckett’s eloquent use of language in his work repetitively points to the ultimate question of the accuracy in the perceptions of our experiences; whether the physical world exists independently of the human existence, or if it’s just a skewed perception by the individual.
Existentialism is the philosophy interpreting the concreteness and problematic foundational character in the world of human existence, advocating in favor of the idea that we find the meaning in life through personal responsibility, choice, and freewill. Existence in itself is problematic because existing is the mode of being, and so the search for the meaning of being needs to be explored. The characters in “Play” exhibit coexistence through the intense use of persistent dialogue articulating their physical being while simultaneously alluding to the self-entrapment. The play is an incomplete comic with no beginning or ending since it is repeated endlessly. The rhythmic repetition can be seen as symbolic in the endless agonizing reminiscence of the events the characters experienced. In “Waiting for Godot,” we see essence revealed through the transcendent dramatization of Lucky’s speech in his physical exertions demonstrating the burden of the mind trapped inside the body, to then go back to just existing when he collapsed – absent of life. This alludes to the idea that people waste their lives in self-entrapment through the absence of action, living immanently. It is up to the individual to choose to either live essentially or fundamentally exist as an entity.
Cognition involves knowing, remembering, understanding, communication, and to a certain extent, learning. In the plotless play “Waiting for Godot,” the characters Vladimir and Estragon seem to represent the innate internal dialogue, or inner thoughts, with Estragon as the representation of the conscious mind and Vladimir representing the subconscious. The conscious mind involves our higher thinking capacity where we can be more mindful and considerate in what we think, feel, and do. “Ideas console, edify, bemuse and entertain, but they are always also misrepresentations, illusions, exaggerations, blinkers, detours that take us blithely beyond the real and pathetic circumstances of our own conditions. Thought is a pleasant distraction, but it essentially misleads” (Moran 94). The vast majority of human behaviors and reactions happen through the subconscious. The subconscious mind records and stores our experiences and knowledge, forming our memories like photos in a photo album. The way we think and feel about these experiences forms a frame around the photo, this is how our attitudes develop over time giving meaning to people, objects, and events. Consciousness encompasses the rational mental processing of our awareness, perceptions, and feelings. We can stay in the cycle of the same patterns of behavior or we can consciously choose to live authentically.
In order to dig deeper into Beckett’s works we have to understand the many dynamic layers of perception and perspective. “Philosophical interest in perception stems largely from questions about the sources and validity of what is called human knowledge” (West). The functions of perception and perspective are extremely interesting because they are extremely contradictory and unreliable, resulting in a distorted perspective of the reality. We are both the perceiver and the perceiving – the perceiver of our thoughts, words, and actions, as well as perceiving all of the external stimulus around us. “To be is to be perceived. Everything that is is an idea in the mind” (Moran 97). According to the psychological definition, perception is a single unified awareness derived from sensory processes while a stimulus is present. Sensory stimulation through the experience of the physical world around us gets translated into a perception or mental image, regardless of whether they came from: the body’s sensory functions, (observed) learned behaviors, biological make-up, or the impacts of societal influences. Over time people naturally develop their own set of beliefs, which is the foundation to perceiving meaning. An individual’s perspective is derived through the process of perception, hence one’s way of viewing things stems from how they initially perceived the circumstance(s) or situation(s). The human knowledge surrounding the reality depends on the individual’s identity, two completely different individuals may have entirely different reactions after enduring the exact same experience. Everything that we perceive in our experiences is the result of the brain interpreting the incoming sensory information, through the lense of each individual’s perception. Perceiving is believing, what we perceive as being real is just a creation of the brain. A skewed perspective becomes a skewed reality.
The systematic concept of time is consistent in measurement: twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. With that being said, when we are just passively waiting, we are forced into confrontation with the ticking clock and time itself. “Waiting for Godot” and “Play” are completely empty of action, predicated on the idea that we live in a senseless world, an individual’s reactions to living in a world without meaning. Although the title of the play is “Waiting for Godot” it has nothing to do with Godot. The focal subject of the play is about the human condition in the act of waiting. Vladimir and Estragon waste their time searching for distractions and being distracted with entertainment with no beneficial values for the characters in their continuous anticipation of waiting. The uncomfortable idleness of the lingering time is not meant to be processed logically, it is to be felt, allowing a complex multitude of open interpretations. “The flow of time confronts us with the basic problem of being—the problem of the nature of the self, which, being subject to constant change in time, is in constant flux and therefore ever outside our grasp…. The ceaseless activity of time is self-defeating, purposeless, and therefore null and void. The more things change, the more they are the same. That is the terrible stability of the world…. One day is like another, and when we die, we might never have existed.” (Esslin 5). If we may have never existed after we die, then what does it mean to exist when we are alive? This is precisely Beckett’s fascination. The popular saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ could not be any more true. When we are actively engaged, we forget about the actual flow of time passing by during those moments. Beckett’s literature alludes us to question how we understand our lives as being meaningful.
The loose writing style seen in Theatre of the Absurd reject’s realism and was popularized by the tragicomedy “Waiting for Godot.” How can something be both tragic and comical at the same time? “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think” (Horace Walpole had the Right Foresight). Absurdism is defined as being a philosophy based on the belief that the universe is irrational and meaningless. “Man, in this literature, is viewed as attempting to function in an environment continually steeped in contradiction from which there is no possible meaningful resolution” (Goodwin 3). Beckett’s method of blending tragic and comic elements into his works show the understanding that the search for order in an irrational world brings the individual into conflict with themselves and the universe. This forces us to take a step back and analyze our own perspectives on our existence regarding how we live and function within life and society. Theatre of the Absurd revolves around life being senseless, devoid of purpose. When an individual is disconnected from their religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, they are lost. (Moran 102)
Beckett’s ideas surrounding the human condition is clearly displayed in both “Waiting for Godot” and “Play.” The fixation on waiting and nothingness in “Waiting for Godot” is precisely the characters self-fixation. As Lydia Rainford explains the aim of Beckett’s art, she quoted Beckett himself, “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express together with the obligation to express” (18). Beckett’s literature shows his consistent exploration in finding various ways of expressing himself. The idea that self-investigation is a plunge into the abyss of nothingness and the investigation for which one cannot discover meaning. Many people react to the idea or sense of nothingness by turning to spiritual or religious practices to find comfort in the notion of the unknown beyond life. The outpour of religious allusions in “Waiting for Godot” point to the individual’s relationship with God while living in the disillusionment of the characters metaphorical isolated world. We see the conflict between living existentially versus living under the religious or spiritual belief system.
Beckett claims to not understand philosophers and philosophy, yet the vast majority, if not all, of his works allude to various philosophical ideas and ideals. Beckett was preoccupied with the dilemma that we have no choice but to face the human condition – that the root of our existence is nothingness, this in itself is a philosophical existentialistic outlook. “It is important to note that man does not solve the problem of his absurd existence – he only transcends it. In essence, meaning may be a quest for the consciously realized unattainable” (Turner 845). The grand paradox for Beckett is that this direct immersion in the world is not the promise of fulfillment and meaning so much as it is the ultimate emptying of all intrinsic meaning. Beckett’s use of absurdism stresses the human condition by presenting the human tendency of placing importance on superficial aspects, deviating our attention away from the issues and problems within our lives and existence. Beckett’s style of writing challenges us to philosophically look beyond our narrow views concerning our existence in the world with the conscious realization that it is the individual’s personal responsibility to find meaning in this absurd life.