“Nothing to Be Done:” Empty Gestures and Hollow Semantics in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”

A scene from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Beckett” as part of the series “Beckett Directs Beckett.” (Source: http://mubi.com/films/beckett-directs-beckett-waiting-for-godot-by-samuel-beckett.)

In the absence of any better way to begin talking about language in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (the last play I finished reading, just two weeks ago), I’ll start with two quotes instead before jumping in:

Don’t expect this column to explain Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”….It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times (1956)

Reading Beckett for the first time is an experience like no other in modern literature.

– Paul Auster

Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, 1977. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

First, some disclaimers. I’ve never seen a full live performance of any of Beckett’s plays on stage (though I did just discover the quite remarkable Beckett Directs Beckett series – YouTube links here (Act I) and here (Act II)). I’m also not going to approach his plays with the critical eye of, say, Atkinson or any one of the scores of critics and scholars who have approached his work with what Paul Davies describes as “more or less equal proportions of fascination, devotion and horror.” That said, I do want to talk a little about what I think it means to read Beckett – more so than to watch his plays being performed on stage – in this day and age, because I’ve found the play to be particularly resonant with ideas I’ve been floating around in my head for some time.  And being the “hapless reader” I am, I’m going to flail around as I write this, and I’ll probably fail when it comes to making my observations.  (Such are the joys of reading and writing…)

The title of this post pretty much states what I admire the most in Godot: its characters’ empty gestures.  I call them empty because they are meaningless in and of themselves – after all, we are never told exactly why Vladimir removes his hat so many times – and also because they convey a particularly human emptiness, the kind that we cover up (consciously or otherwise) with our own vocabulary of linguistic and physical reflexes.  Here’s a scene from Act I that I find particularly memorable, and not just for the litany of motions that accompany Vladimir’s quasi-monologue:

VLADIMIR: Sometimes I feel it [the “last moment”] coming all the same. Then I go all queer. (He takes off his hat, peers inside it, feels about inside it, shakes it, puts it on again.) How shall I say? Relieved and at the same time…(he searches for the word)…appalled. (With emphasis.) AP-PALLED. (He takes off his hat again, peers inside it.) Funny. (He knocks on the crown as though to dislodge a foreign body, peers into it again, puts it on again.) Nothing to be done. (Estragon with a supreme effort succeeds in pulling off his boot. He peers inside it, feels about inside it, turns it upside down, shakes it, looks on the ground to see if anything has fallen out, finds nothing, feels inside it again, staring sightlessly before him.) Well?

ESTRAGON: Nothing.

VLADIMIR: Show.

ESTRAGON: There’s nothing to show.

It may be a very naive analogy, but Vladimir and Estragon’s absurdities with the hat and boot pretty much mirror (I’m not sure if “satirize” is the appropriate word) our own attempts to drive away the “last moment” we dread, and all the emptiness that comes with it.  It’s like talking with a group of friends or acquaintances in short bursts of conversation – “Did you watch The Walking Dead last night?” “No, I don’t watch that show…” – and listening to the exchanges die out. Someone sighs and clears his throat; someone else pulls out her phone to check something, anything; then the conversation begins anew.  In fact, I think that’s how I was able to finish reading Godot at all, simply by imagining I was sitting in a circle with others (lunch at work), punctuating our mutual silence with anything and everything to drive it away.  You could easily replace the hat with an iPhone or <insert device/screen you prefer> and the connotation would go unnoticed.

Then there’s the semantic hollowness of the language itself: Vladimir voices his reaction to the inevitable “last moment” as being queer, then (simultaneously) relieved and appalled, before looking into his hat only to find it “funny.” Most of us, I wager, hardly want to imagine, let alone verbalize, death in such terms. Yet it would be difficult to argue against the idea that such a framework makes death precisely what it is: a natural end to all things, the silence that fills the holes where thought and conversation have left.  Death can be as hollow in its destruction of semantics as it is pathetic in the emotional response it brings out in us.

There are plenty of other scenes in Godot that can probably draw out similar reflections with greater thrust – Lucky’s rambling monologue at the end of Act I, the ridiculous hat exchange sequence in Act II, and of course the search for Godot himself – but I find one in particular to be deeply (and ironically) moving, and that’s Vladimir’s monologue in Act II amidst the blind and injured Pozzo’s ignored pleas for help:

VLADIMIR: Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! (Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed.[…]But at this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? (Estragon says nothing.) It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species.[…]But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come –

ESTRAGON: Ah!

POZZO: Help!

VLADIMIR: Or for night to fall.

Vladimir’s “idle discourse” is both an amalgam of voices – priest, philosopher, politician (an American one, certainly) – and a grand, empty linguistic gesture. It’s not just our all-too-human failure to carpe diem, or our all-too-human failure to define the reasons for our existence, but also our all-too-human failure to translate language into action: to generate meaning from the assemblages of letters, syllables, and morphemes we call words. To me, and as Davies put in much better words, Beckett’s work materializes “the gulf between our desires and the language in which they find expression” by using near-meaningless or hollow language. That Estragon fails to respond, and that neither seize the opportunity to help Pozzo then and there, demonstrate how inadequate language often is when it comes to expressing precisely (or what we believe is precisely) what we mean. Vladimir reduces his grandiose rhetoric into a worthless loop: either Godot comes* or night falls, in which case the test repeats itself.  Since no one knows what Godot’s arrival could possibly mean, the entire cycle has no meaning.

Based on all of this ’empty’ text, it would be easy to conclude that Beckett had no affinity – or rather, found none – for the idea of salvation, or life purpose, or human bonding. His biographical details do more than enough to suggest otherwise, but I also think that beyond the superficial meaningless and “mystery” of Waiting for Godot, there are traces of a tender sympathy (certainly some kind of emotional connection) for the human condition. Vladimir and Estragon may have seemingly intelligible conversations and their gestures are undoubtedly erratic and abrupt, but the moments where they hug or reveal their fears are as human as we would expect of ourselves. Pozzo’s enslavement of Lucky and exchanges with the other two men vary wildly in cruelty, confusion, and desperation, yet they are all recognizable as human gestures, even if we don’t always wish to see those aspects within ourselves. And then there are the grandest gestures of all – the endless waiting for a mysterious and possibly meaningless figure; the attendant cycles of anguish and ecstasy that fill in the emptiness of a life otherwise; and the deeply human impulse to wait, and keep waiting, for something to happen.

*He never comes.

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About csquaredetc

I'm a graduate student in English at the University of Pennsylvania (or "Penn" for short). My most prolific writing is on The Hong Kong Project, a blog about my former experience as an exchange student: thehkproject.wordpress.com
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2 Responses to “Nothing to Be Done:” Empty Gestures and Hollow Semantics in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks: 11/24 – 12/15 | Shelf Reflections

  2. Pingback: Waiting for [A New Post] | Shelf Reflections

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