William S. Haney II
Eastern Mediterranean University
The Theatre of the Absurd has been said by Martin Esslin (399-405), Peter Brook (65) and others to be a quest for a way to live in a modem world deprived of generally accepted ultimate values. Faced with the loss of confidence in the traditional narratives that explain the mysteries of the human condition, the Theatre of the Absurd presents its audiences with what Esslin calls a double absurdity: that of "the deadness and mechanical senselessness of half-unconscious lives" (400), and that "of the human condition itself in a world where the decline of religious belief has deprived man of certainties" (401). Playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter write in a context where traditional narratives, or what Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition calls the grand or meta-narrative (31-35), can no longer inspire confidence. Yet nevertheless society is still confronted with a cosmic anguish and wonder for the ultimate realities of its condition. Regardless of whether or not the ultimate mysteries of reality are exp lamed by grand narratives or recuperative metaphysical Systems such as Platonism, religion, the Hegelian dialectic of Spirit, Marxism, or a hermeneutics of meaning, the grand mysteries themselves stubbornly persist. They don't disappear when people choose to ignore or repress them; if anything, they manifest as the repressed returned in disguised forms.
In the Theatre of the Absurd this return appears as the concern with
immediate experience - the element of "pure, abstract theatre" involved
in the physical embodiment of the characters on stage in spite of the absence
of discursive meaning (Esslin 328). As critics have pointed out, the concern
with immediate experience, with turning away from the medium of language
and from a reliance on meaning or conceptuality in communication is not
unique to the Theatre of the Absurd but belongs to a long tradition in
the history of Western literature involving pantomime and the carnivalesque
(Esslin 328-29, Bloom 493-514). It focuses on the individual's basic circumstances
rather than the ideological make-up of his social identity. As portrayed
in drama by Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg and in fiction by James
Joyce, it explores the reality of the mind and its direct contact with
phenomenal experience prior to the interpretive strategies of any particular
narrative. In other words, the fundamental experience of what it is like
to be conscious of our existence. Each play of the Theatre of the Absurd
addresses this basic phenomenon. As Esslin puts it, it answers the questions,
"How does this individual feel when confronted with the human condition?
What is the basic mood in which he faces the world? What does it feel like
to be he?" (405) These questions deal with the basic experience of being
conscious, which is perhaps the ultimate mystery of human existence above
and beyond any possible meaning of that existence. But what does it mean
to be conscious? As David Chalmers says in The Conscious Mind:
The devices used by Beckett to break through temporal, discursive barriers toward the trans-temporal experience of pure being are well-known to theatre goers, even though they may find the effects of these absurdist devices difficult to explain after the fact. Beckett dispenses with narrative sequence, character development and psychology in the conventional sense in order to convey the qualia of an experience within a specific historical context that nevertheless takes the conscious mind beyond the limits of space and time. These devices are intended to convey an intuitive experience of what it is like to be in a single moment, as opposed to what it is like merely to follow the discursive patterns of thought that substitute for being. The primary device used by Beckett to express this intuitive moment is the poetic image. In Waiting for Godot, the juxtaposition of a series of poetic images, which substitutes for a conventional plot, results for the audience in a series of epiphanies related to the nature of experience itself. These poetic images and the flashes of consciousness they induce resemble the "total experience" or "feeling of wholeness" that results from the "polyphonic montage" in the film theory of Sergei Eisenstein (Andrew 61-63). In Kantian terms, the poetic image, as distinct from the linear rationality and coherence of a narrative sequence, takes the conscious mind of the spectator from the experience of the phenomenal world to a suggestion of the noumenal or intuitive realm beyond. Through an intersection of these poles of experience, Beckett's drama results in a re-discovery of ultimate realities, whether or not these realities can be logically interpreted. Indeed Beckett is less concerned with meaning than with the structure of experience. Even in the absence of ultimate meaning, the Theatre of the Absurd can confront the spectator with the presence of ultimate realities by taking the conscious mind beyond the limits of space, time and causality. This alienation effect - the ideal of Brecht, the Russian formalists, the Natya Shastra in Indian aesthetics, and Keats's negative capability - does not simply replace one set of mental contents for another, but rather empties the awareness of all contents to elicit an experience of what is known as pure consciousness.
Before analysing the plays in detail for their production of this direct experience, I shall briefly elaborate on the witnessing quality of consciousness. In his essay "'I' = Awareness," the psychiatrist Arthur Deikman makes the distinction between the "I" as observer or witnessing faculty of the conscious mind, and the conscious contents of the mind which the "I" precedes (350-56). The "I" of awareness is the ground of all experience and thus distinct from the contents of awareness, all sensations, thoughts, memories, images and emotions that the conscious mind may entertain. Awareness itself differs from the sensations, emotions, ideas and memories that comprise our social identity. The contents of awareness are temporal, while the "I" of awareness is beyond space, time and causality, even though connected to the physical body functioning within time and space. This distinction helps to explain why the Theatre of the Absurd abandons ordinary characterisation based on conventional motives; Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot are nearly without attributes, ageing tramps locked in a love-hate relationship and full of uncertainty about the time, place and purpose of their existence. Those who directly experience the "I" of awareness transcend from their personal and social identities into a state that in Eastern cultures is known by various terms, such as formless selt purusha, turiya (or the fourth state of consciousness beyond ordinary waking, deep sleep and dream), and pure consciousness. As stated in the Mandulya Upanishad, "(Turiya (pure consciousness] is) not ... cognition, not non-cognition ... [It is] the essence of the knowledge of the one self ... the non-dual" (Radhakrishnan, 7, 698). Because it is experienced as a state of being as opposed to an observation or thought, the experience of pure consciousness cannot lead to the infinite regress of the self observing itself, and then another more comprehensive internal self observing that self, etc., ad infinitum. One experiences pure consciousness by being it, not by observing it. This experience of being is also recorded in the West by figures such as St. John of the Cross, St. Simeon (Malekin and Yarrow 25) and many others of all walks of life, and has become the subject of increasing research in the humanities and sciences, as evidence by periodicals like the Journal of Consciousness Studies (see Güzeldere).
In his book Mysticism and Philosophy, W.T. Stace gives
an apt description of pure consciousness as experienced in what he calls
1957 the prisoners in San Quentin, California, were enthralled by a performance of Waiting for Godot reveals the inadequacy of a strictly intellectual approach for appreciating the play.
From a thematic perspective, the metaphysical and practical uncertainties of Beckett's play, with its pseudo-climaxes and non arrivals of Godot, do not necessarily render it nihilistic or totally pessimistic. As Peter Brook says, "Beckett's dark plays are plays full of light" (65). In fact the uncertainties of the play provide a vehicle for going beyond the conceptual boundaries that characterise the contents of awareness and glimpsing the freedom associated with the "I" as awareness. In the play-within-the-play, the speculation on Godot's identity when Pozzo says, "Godin Godet Godot anyhow you see who I mean" (24), suggests that one's true identity does not reside on the level of thought or language, which are effective only for identifying and reporting the qualia of human experience. In the Shankara's non-dual Vedanta, as Eliot Deutsch notes, "A person's essence is unapproachable through his name; and in the Spirit, in the Absolute where pure silence reigns, all names are rejected" (47). Rather, human identity has its real basis in the witnessing observer, the "I" of awareness, which can be glimpsed instantaneously only as a "total experience" or a "feeling of the whole." Godot will never be apprehended through cognition or fully expressed through discursive language, which unfolds in time. As Beckett was well aware, the notion of any ultimate, non-changing reality can only be rendered at best through the suggestion of a poetic image and apprehended intuitively in an instant of time. Hence, the play can only allude to the possibility of being saved by Godot, since no explicit rendering of what it means to be saved is possible. As Beckett shows, the ultimate reality of the subjective mind is beyond logical meaning and cannot be known by objective means alone.
Beckett's mastery of the poetic image and other devices that stop the flow of thought and objective observation moves the spectator beyond spatio-temporal limits toward a direct experience of pure consciousness. The features of the anti-play such as the lack of logical movement; the digressions and nonsense; the fact that, as stated by one critic, "nothing happens, twice"; the repetition of endless cycles of action-in-non-action; and Vladimir s circular song at the opening of Act II ("And dug the dog a tomb") have the effect, as Andrew Kennedy observers, of conveying a sense of "eternal return" (20, 24). This cyclical self-referral of the text can also be seen in the ironic reference to what is happening in the theatre, especially in Act II. The self-referral portrayed when Estragon says, "That wasn't such a bad little canter" (42), or when Vladimir looks out into the audience and says, "There! Not a soul in sight" (47), or later when he asks, "What are we doing here, that is the question" (51), creates a series of conceptual gaps through which the conscious mind can witness its cognitive activity. With a gap between word and referent, the seif-referentiality of the text also induces a corresponding self-referral in the mind of the audience. As Harold Bloom says, "Self-consciousness is one element in Beckett's vision of our vertigo," and "excessive consciousness negates action," as with Hamlet (498). While Bloom is referring more to a daily consciousness on the level of discursive thought rather than to a witnessing of thought from pure awareness, any subjective reflexivity highlights the "I" of awareness over the contents of awareness and thereby conjures up in the audience a taste of "extra-daily" consciousness (Haney, "Deconstruction't 134-6). This noumenal being, though typically rendered absent by the failure of language, is suggested on the stage and even rendered present through the self-referral embodiment of Beckett's characters.
In "Ways of Waiting in Waiting for Godot", James Calderwood notes that waiting is a kind of non-activity which is self-erasing (33). This non-activity again empties out the contents of awareness to promote the experience of an extra-daily state of mind. In this way non-activity parallels the experience of pure being. The act of waiting, although indiscernible to an outside observer, disrupts the illusion of time by erasing the past, diminishing the present and aggrandising the future when that which is waited for is expected to appear (Calderwood 33). The movement toward the appointment with Godot constitutes a movement from the activity of "becoming" toward an experience of "being," a non-movement in which nothing happens yet from which all activity emerges. Estragon: "Let's go." Vladimir: "We can't." "Why not?" "We're waiting for Godot." In the emptiness of meaning, as Malekin and Yarrow note, waiting is "the ever-repeated moment which precedes beginning. The moment in which beginning is possible; the moment, as at the beginning of the play, when performers and spectators are most awake to the newness of it all. Godot hauls its participants back again and again to this launching-place, from which, as in life, everything always has to be improvised anew" (139). From the perspective of Eastern cultures (Deutsch, 2745), activity is an illusion, and the one reality is the stasis of pure being, which is omnipresent, as suggested in part when Vladimir says, "We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?" And Estragon replies, "Billions" (51). Everyone has the potential for this experience, which is latent everywhere. If Vladimir and Estragon are unique, it is only because for them, as tramps, travel is an end in itself (Calderwood 35), and the destination (being) is immanent in the process of becoming. Calderwood refers to the paradox of their appointment as similar to the sound of one hand clapping (34). As a Zen koan, this statement has no rational meaning and serves as a vehicle for taking the awareness beyond the limits of thought and meaning - and in so doing is a synecdoche for Beckett's play.
It has often been noted that the word Godot is a Joycean word with hidden shapes. Reversed it spells Tod-dog, or death-dog. Dog in reverse spells god. As such, Vladimir's song at the beginning of Act II, "And dug the dog a tomb," alludes to the death of god. The word Godot embodies a coexistence of opposites: mortality and immortality, becoming and being, thought and pure consciousness. While God may seem to exist only as a possibility just beyond the tramps' reach (Calderwood 38), the mystery if not the real nature of Godot is always at hand. As a coexistence of opposites it is immanent in the conscious mind, since all language and thought emerges from the ground of pure consciousness. The fact that the spectator is suspended between the opposite poles of death and god is significant in preventing the mind from dwelling on any particular meaning, from stagnating in its flow toward its own essential nature as an all-encompassing witness beyond the subject-object, space-time duality of thought. When Beckett says, "I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe in them It is the shape that matters" (qtd in Calderwood 38), he intimates that the "I" of awareness impartially subsumes all phenomena. The fuller the consciousness, the more dispersed the phenomena unified by its wholeness.
The extent to which the play arrives to the waiting spectator, and in turn the spectator to the waiting play, depends finally on the degree to which the actors and audience have access to the ground of consciousness. This relation between the spectator and actor is the subject of the Natya Shastra, the Indian treatise on dramaturgy, which holds that there are several levels of the mind involved in the transformation of the audience. The word mind here is used in two senses: the diverse levels of consciousness on the one hand, and the thinking mind within that structure on the other (Alexander 290). The overall levels of the mind comprise the senses, the thinking mind, the discriminating intellect, feeling and intuition, the individual ego, and pure consciousness. For the Natya Shastra, aesthetic rapture (rasa, defined as a taste or flavour of pure consciousness) affects the audience primarily through the emotions, and the actors whose performance can evoke the strongest emotional response are the most effective (Bharatamuni 375-86) Since, however, the emotions are closely linked with pure consciousness, the more the actors can tap into this silent witnessing faculty underlying all mental activity, the more transformative the effect of their performance Godot surely does not arrive for the waiting audience if interpreted as a transcendental signified experienced merely as a thought by the thinking mind. He may possibly arrive, however, if interpreted aesthetically as an emotional flavour (rasa) of the observer knowing herself that is, of the awareness moving from the boundaries of sensations and thoughts through the aesthetically evoked emotions toward the experience of the extra-daily. If Godot arrives, therefore, it will most likely be trough the spectators' experience of aesthetic rapture as induced through the medium of Beckett's art, wit its self-referral gaps, pauses and ever-repeated moments that precede activity. What happens in the play, then, depends ultimately on the quality of the interaction between the actors and the spectators in each performance.
For a post-modernist critic, Waiting for Godot has modernist
overtones, and Godot himself represents a meta-narrative that prevents
the tramps from ever achieving the freedom they so desperately seek. Jeffrey
Nealon argues that Estragon and Vladimir are tricksters engaged in the
play of language games, that all their games point to one meta-game, the
grand narrative centred on Godot, and that they are content to play their
comfortable modernist games within this grand narrative, rather than attempt
to break out through a post-modernist misuse of language for the sake of
progress and discovery (46-7). The best example of a post-modernist language
game, he claims, is Lucky's think, which transgresses and disrupts the
limits of the ultimate meta-game, namely Western metaphysics. Lucky is
right, of course, to deconstruet and expose the limits of objective thought:
This critical misunderstanding occurs because the actual practice of metaphysics, the movement beyond thought as observation toward the direct experience of pure consciousness, is rare in the West outside of aesthetic experience (and inadvertently certain kinds of theory) (Haney, Literary Theory 1-65).
For Godot to be a metagame, as Nealon claims he is, he would have to
be a known or finite quantity, yet in the play he remains unknown and infinite.
Even Beckett, when asked about the meaning of Godot, replied that had he
known he would have told us in the play. Moreover, Nealon notes that as
a truly post-modernist play Waiting for Godot involves not the lack
of meaning but an excess of meaning produced by the liberating play of
language (51). Yet the deconstructive free play of language is liberating
only in a finite sense, since the movement of differance remains
within the boundaries of thought without intentionally giving access to
the unboundedness of pure consciousness, which it indeed rejects as an
illusion. To say that Beckett's play presents a totalising modernist view
in an infinite post-modernist world, therefore, is to (mis)identity what
it is like to be conscious - with its unboundedness and infinite possibilities
- with the boundaries of the thinking mind, and to belie the true impact
of Waiting for Godot as a complex aesthetic vehicle for expanding
consciousness. Beckett's work brilliantly illuminates the dual nature of
the self, a co-existence of the everyday thinking mind and the underlying
witnessing pure awareness, the source of all play, all beginnings and repetitions.
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