Dermot Moran believes that “Samuel Barclay Beckett (1906–89) is the most philosophical of twentieth-century writers.”
His characters exult in endless, pointless, yet entertaining, metaphysical arguments. His work exudes an atmosphere of existential Angst, hopelessness and human abandonment to the relentless course of the world. Beckett’s characters portray a rootless, homeless, alienated humanity. One no longer at home in the world; one lost in a meaningless void. (3)
Peter Gay (many thanks to “a piece of monologue“) asserts:
“Beckett’s principal message, then, learned less from Sartre than from Schopenhauer and his own experience, was that life is a catastrophe from birth, that isolation is a necessary element in the human condition, and that salvation, even though promised, will never come. Nor will self knowledge. Whatever one undertakes, Beckett noted in one of his much-quoted sayings, one must fail, and one’s only recourse is to fail again, of better next time.” (8)
My favorite play of his is “Waiting for Godot”, which was written in French in 1948 and was first performed in Paris as En Attendant Godot.
Today’s post is about Lucky’s monologue in Act I of the play.
Lucky is the old slave of a pompous old man, Pozzo.
Lucky is a wreck of a man. As personal slave to Pozzo, he is forced to endure insults and indignity. He has lost all his ability to be human.
The speech is delivered by Lucky wearing his hat and having a rope around his neck.
Lucky cannot think without wearing his hat. And the rope is what his master Pozzo uses to lead him around.
Vladimir puts an end to the monologue (that apparently nobody understands) by removing Lucky’s hat.
I have read this monologue many times.
At first it looked like it is sheer nonsense. Delivered beautifully of course, but nonsense nevertheless.
But is it?
Having read it again and again, I now have my doubts.
I will start by presenting the monologue in English, continue with some thoughts on various aspects of the monologue, and conclude with notes on some of the words used.
Given the existence as uttered forth
in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann (a)
of a personal God
with white beard
outside time without extension
who from the heights of divine apathia (b) divine athambia (c) divine aphasia (d)
loves us dearly with some exceptions
for reasons unknown but time will tell
and suffers like the divine Miranda (e) with those
who for reasons unknown but time will tell
are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues
and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven
so blue still and calm so calm
with a calm which even though intermittent
is better than nothing but not so fast
and considering what is more that as a result of the labors left unfinished
crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-en-Possy (f) of Testew and Cunard (g)
it is established beyond all doubt all other doubt
than that which clings to the labors of men
that as a result of the labors unfinished of Testew and Cunard
it is established as hereinafter but not so fast for reasons unknown
that as a result of the public works of Puncher and Wattmann
it is established beyond all doubt
that in view of the labors of Fartov and Belcher (h)
left unfinished for reasons unknown of Testew and Cunard
left unfinished it is established what many deny
that man in Possy of Testew and Cunard
that man in Essy
that man in short
that man in brief
in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation
wastes and pines
wastes and pines
and concurrently simultaneously
what is more for reasons unknown
in spite of the strides of physical culture
the practice of sports such as tennis football
running cycling swimming flying floating riding gliding conating (i) camogie skating tennis of all kinds
dying flying sports of all sorts
autumn summer winter winter tennis of all kinds
hockey of all sorts penicillin and succedanea in a word I resume
flying gliding golf over nine and eighteen holes tennis of all sorts
in a word for reasons unknown in Feckham Peckham
Fulham Clapham namely concurrently simultaneously
what is more for reasons unknown but time will tell
fades away I resume Fulham Clapham
in a word the dead loss per head since the death of Bishop Berkeley
being to the tune of one inch four ounce per head approximately
by and large more or less to the nearest decimal
good measure round figures stark naked in the stockinged feet in Connemara
in a word for reasons unknown
no matter what matter the facts are there
and considering what is more much more grave
that in the light of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman
it appears what is more much more grave
that in the light the light the light
of the labors lost of Steinweg and Peterman
that in the plains in the mountains
by the seas by the rivers running water running fire
the air is the same and then the earth namely the air
and then the earth in the great cold the great dark the air
and the earth abode of stones in the great cold
alas alas in the year of their Lord
six hundred and something
the air the earth the sea the earth abode of stones in the great deeps
the great cold on sea on land and in the air
I resume for reasons unknown
in spite of the tennis the facts are there but time will tell
I resume alas alas
on on in short in fine
on on abode of stones who can doubt it
I resume but not so fast
I resume the skull fading fading fading
and concurrently simultaneously
what is more for reasons unknown
in spite of the tennis
on on the beard the flames the tears the stones
so blue so calm
alas alas on on the skull the skull the skull the skull in Connemara
in spite of the tennis
the labors abandoned
graver still abode of stones in a word
I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull the skull in Connemara
in spite of the tennis the skull
alas the stones Cunard
(mêlée, final vociferations)
. . . tennis . . . the stones . . . so calm . . . Cunard . . . unfinished . . .
Of a personal God [The (non)existence or the loss of God or the loss of the World]
The opening part of the monologue is a reference to the (non)existence of God.
It is a personal God.
In the predecessor to modern Hinduism, Vedism, God is believed to have many aspects. The impersonal aspect of God is called the Brahman, while the very personal nature of the Supreme, called Bhagavan.
There is a distinct difference between the two major Islamic sects, Shia and Sunni, regarding belief in a personal god. Sunni Muslims believe in a personal god, Shia Muslims do not.
In Christianity, God exists in the context of the Holy Trinity and the Holy Mother. The “personal” aspect of deity applies to Christ, and to a large extent to the Holy Mother, whereas the Father is a more distant, more obscure figure. In this respect, it is not strange that Beckett chooses God to be the one who is (will be) lost to Man.
God’s (non)existence is open to multiple interpretations.
The (non)existence of God may be a point at which we arrive having traveled on a path.
One potential route for the path is that we arrive at the (non)existence of God having started from the (non)existence of God.
In this scenario, nothing changes.
It is just that we confirm at the end of the route that God does not exist, more or less like when we started.
Another potential route is that we arrive at the (non)existence of god having started from the existence of God.
In this scenario things are worse.
At the end of the route we are faced with the loss of God.
Thinking about it, it may read like a loss of God, but at another layer, this may be about the loss of the world.
We project the loss of the world to God, and make it look like a loss of God.
Estragon says at some point: “There’s no lack of void”.
Gunther Anders comments on the scenario of the “loss of the world”:
That this real loss of a world requires special means if it is to be represented in literature or on the stage goes without saying. Where a world no longer exists, there can no longer be a possibility of a collision with the world, and therefore the very possibility of tragedy has been forfeited. Or to put it more precisely: the tragedy of this kind of existence lies in the fact that it does not even have a chance of tragedy, that it must always, at the same time, in its totality be farce…and that therefore it can only be represented as farce, as ontological farce, not as comedy. (2)
unfinished [The Eschaton]
And this is not the end…. It can get a lot worse with the following interpretation:
Vladimir and Estragon conclude from the fact of their existence that there must be something for which they are waiting; they are champions of the doctrine that life must have meaning even in a manifestly meaningless situation…What Beckett presents is not nihilism, but the inability of man to be a nihilist even in a situation of utter hopelessness. (2)
In his essay John Valentine claims that ‘This is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s claim that “Any meaning is better than none at all.”’ (4)
…for Nietzsche, a nihilist is not one who believes in nothing, but one who abandons belief in this world in favor of another world that is (according to Nietzsche) idealized, fictitious, and the product of the mechanisms of ressentiment .12 Nietzsche finds the source of such nihilism in the Platonic/Judeo-Christian worldview, and vigorously exposes this in many works using his genealogical method of analysis. Although Nietzsche does not use the word as such, the idea of a critique of eschatology—and specifically the Platonic/Judeo-Christian idea of the eschaton—figures prominently in his philosophy.
so calm [Man wastes and pines, shrinks and dwindles: The Beckett – Heidegger connection]
All four verbs are translations of the German verb “schwinden” (5, G C Barnard).
In this part of the monologue, Man is faced with a predicament that is worse than the “loss” of God.
When I Read it, I associated the verb “schwinden” to the verb “verfallen” (expire, lapse, decay, deteriorate), which brings me to Heidegger’s Fall.
“Dasein has fallen into the World.”
Although Beckett never explicitly referenced Heidegger, some critical literature has attempted to connect the two writers. Steven Barfield, argues that, between these two writers there exists an “uncanny and unsettling relationship…which shows similar preoccupations but does not necessarily mean any influence of one to the other” (6)
M Hunnicutt comments on the Beckett – Heidegger connection:
Both Beckett’s characters and Heidegger’s Dasein are fundamentally Beings-in-the-wor1d. As such, they are subject to anxiety, a basic state-of-mind capable of opening possibilities of authentic action. But Beckett’s characters fail to grasp onto this offered freedom, thus they remain waiting in a death-in-life, inauthentic existence. (7)
the stones [Connemara]
Connemara is the western tip of country Galway in Ireland, an area of outstanding beauty.
The “skull” in Connemara is a stone, the Turoe Stone, a piece of granite about four feet high. The Turoe stone is National Monument of Ireland Nr. 327.
This may explain the “adobe of stones” and the many times the word “stones” is used in the speech.
The names Steinway and Peterman may also be relevant to stones.
Stein in German is stone, whereas Peter comes from the Greek word Petros, originating from Petra, which means stone.
A well-rounded athlete, Beckett excelled especially in cricket, tennis, and boxing in his school days.
In the monologue Beckett makes continuous and in a sense excessive reference to sports.
Towards the end it is tennis and stones in some sort of a dialogue.
Taking a long shot, I suggest that the “stones” is a metaphor for Nature, while “tennis” is a metaphor for human endeavor that “passes the time”.
It is as if Man is inside Time, whereas Nature is outside Time.
The torture of being inside Time might be eased off by playing games like tennis.
In such a reading, tennis is the escape route, but it does not really work.
Man remains chained inside time.
Delivering the speech
Some actors make the mistake of delivering it at breakneck speed as written in the text as a single sentence without punctuation. However if delivered slowly and thoughtfully, the bleak meaning of the lines becomes clear; no matter what we do, we shall eventually fade away and die, and our labours will be left unfinished. It is perhaps significant that the last line of the speech before the others silence him is the single word “unfinished …”. (1)
Notes on the words
(a) Puncher and Wattmann: German sounding names, perhapds Beckett refers to the fact that most “heavy” philosophers were German. But there are other interpretations. Wattman in French is a tramdriver. Puncher would then be the conductor, the one who punches holes in the tickets to invalidate them. Note also the duplicity of the meaning of “public works”. They can be works (e.g. books, essays, theories) made public by their publication, or they can be literally roads, bridges, and so on.
(b)Apathy: A state of indifference, or the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation and passion. Apathy is a Greek word. It literally means the lack of “pathos”, which could be interpreted as covering the spectrum from simple emotion or passion.
(c) Athambia is a word unknown to me. The “Samuel Beckett net” interprets it as” Imperturbability”, which is a state of calm, unruffled self-assurance; aplomb, composure. However, the word appears to me to have a Greek root, a-thambia, this is the state that results from the lack of thambos which in Greek means a bright light, or shining. Therefore, I could interpret the word as meaning a state where no shining can make an impression on you.
(d) Muteness: inability to speak. Aphasia is a Greek word. It can go as far as refer to a person or a state in which there is no understanding whatsoever of the spoken or written word.
(e) Miranda is the daughter of Prospero; the name means “admirable”.
(f) Berne-en-Bresse in the original French. Bourg-en-Bresse is a town in Eastern France, famous for its poultry. Beckett has replaced Bourg with the Swiss Berne. “Essy” and “Possy” are English pronunciations of esse and posse—”being” and “being able”. Taken from the Scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages. (5)
(g) The original play was written in French. We may have a ply with words in the French original: Testu et Conard. Testicule is the testicle in French, while “con” is slang for vagina.
(h) Obvious association with “fart” and “belch”.
(i) conating—word coined by Beckett, using his favorite word con (stupid asshole) as a root; in this context, it refers to being a dumb asshole for sport. (5)
(1) Lucky the Suffering Servant – thoughts on Waiting For Godot, Iain Strachan
(2) Gunther Anders, Being without Time: on Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”
(3) Dermot Moran, Beckett and Philosophy
(4) John Valentine, Nihilism and the Eschaton in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
(5) Beckett-net: Pozzo/Lucky
(7) M Hunnicutt, Inauthenticity, Anxiety, Waiting: or, The Unnamable Design
(8) Peter Gay, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond