Thursday, 31 January 2008

Pinning down Godot

We're not beginning to... to... mean something?
Mean something! You and I, mean something!
(Brief laugh.)
Ah that's a good one!
Endgame by Samuel Beckett
While in negotiations to take the part of Pozzo in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Ralph Richardson asked the writer if Godot, the absent figure for whom Estragon and Vladimir perpetually wait, was a symbol for God. Beckett replied ‘that if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot. This seemed to disappoint him greatly.’ Beckett was exasperated throughout his life by his commentators’ attempts to attribute symbols and meanings to his plays. Despite Beckett’s (often vociferous) denials, the trend continues: the Wikipedia entry for the play includes a section devoted to different interpretations, including everything from political allegories to homosexual subtexts.

When it comes to ‘appreciating’ great works of art, our culture seems to suffer from a strange cognitive dissonance. In ordinary circumstances—that is, when we’re actually sat in the theatre or we have the book in our hands—I doubt that there are many of us that have trouble simply enjoying themselves. Few would surely claim that Waiting for Godot is not a funny and moving play. But as soon as the work is to be considered as something important and valuable, being funny and moving suddenly becomes inadequate. In order to be important and valuable, it must mean something. But what does it mean to ‘mean something?’ And why is it so important anyway?

In practice, ‘meaning’ in this context seems to refer almost exclusively to abstract symbolism of one kind or another: ‘Godot’ equals ‘God,’ ‘Pozzo’ equals ‘the British Empire,’ and so on. There is something perverse about applying this kind of symbol hunting to a work of art. As an approach to art, it has a remarkable capacity for rendering the amusing dull and the transcendent drab. Like a steamroller, it crushes the colour and infinite variety of art into a homogenous grey plane of political disputes and biographical minutiae. (Here’s another recent example.) But it is perhaps this homogenising tendency that ultimately makes it so appealing. After all, to approach a work of art as an aesthetic object requires a great deal of sensitivity: the reader must essentially reinvent her critical framework for each text, intuiting the substance and technique of each specific author. But the symbolic-didactic approach requires no such thing: instead of tailoring her approach to suit the work, the critic can hammer at the work until it fits her approach. And in the blink of an eye, art—once the protected reserve of the emotional experience—is conquered by the over-confident rational mind.

But as Beckett said, if he wanted to talk about God, why wouldn’t he just do so? Why is the simple transposition of one thing (God) for another (Godot) seen as so clever and important? It seems to me that Godot represents something far more mysterious than mere God: he’s the MacGuffin. This was Alfred Hitchcock’s name for an object in his films that all the characters want but is of no real importance. The MacGuffin—a microfilm, a statue, a secret message—is a blank slate on which the audience places its own significance. The protagonist’s struggle for the object is thus universalised in a way that would be impossible if he were chasing after something specific. Like Hitchcock, Beckett strived to create universal experience, and I think this is why he fought these symbolic associations so strenuously.

The symbolist, seeking to rationalise Godot, says, ‘this play is about God,’ smiles at his own cleverness, and never thinks about it again. To rationalise the play is to kill it, to rob it of everything that made it interesting in the first place. It is the Cliffs Notes approach to literature: great for producing essay responses, but terrible for anything else. Waiting for Godot is not an argument; it is an experience. It is true that faith in God and biblical imagery are evoked during the course of the play, but that doesn’t mean that the play symbolises Man’s relationship with God: in fact it means the opposite, that Man’s relationship with God symbolises the play.

The word ‘symbol’ is confusing here; instead we might requisition T.S. Eliot’s phrase, ‘the objective correlative.’ To say that Pozzo symbolises the British Empire, for example, is to create an abstract association, like that between the colour red and the command to stop. It is not intrinsic, but conventional. In contrast, Vladimir’s theological musings and the tramps’ endlessly postponed meeting with Godot both produce the same paradoxical feelings about one’s essential pointlessness and existential hopelessness: they are objective correlatives of the same emotion. (It may be pointed out that my definition of the effects produced by these objective correlatives is rather vague and unimaginative; this is true, but it misses the point: no definition would be satisfactory, because if you could simply put the effect of Waiting for Godot into words then the play would be redundant.)

To say that art’s purpose is to entertain is anathema to the scholar, ‘entertainment’ being associated with frivolous distractions like roller coasters or Mills and Boon. But there is more than one kind of entertainment. To be sure, this frivolous kind exists and holds the world in its sway: how else could one describe the pleasures afforded by American Idol or Big Brother? But the spiritual nourishment that one receives from a great work of art like Waiting for Godot (previously discussed here) is entertainment also, albeit entertainment of quite different and superior kind. Beauty and spiritual consolation: are these not sufficient reasons for a work of art to earn its place?

Image taken from Waiting for Godot directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy, available as part of the Beckett on Film series.

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