Language, Consciousness and Experience in Waiting for Godot and Ulysses
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and James Joyce’s Ulysses are strikingly similar in style, content, and most significantly a philosophy of life. The idea of language as doubly futile and liberating is central to both works. It is found in the playfulness of language in Beckett’s dialogue and Joyce’s description. Every aspect of each form is carefully utilized in communicating this point. Language is only one institution among many that control and confine the individual. But its many flaws and contributions to our lives can represent a larger realm of meaning. Both works strive consistently to define, however subtly or indirectly, the meaning of life and the self. Like language, consciousness and experience are factors in the frustrations of existence, and therefore central to both works.
In both works, experience is reduced to its simplest meaning, its briefest form. This can be seen in the setting and dialogue in Beckett’s play and Joyce’s attention to extreme detail in each moment of one day. Beckett reduces the setting of his play to simply “A country road. A tree. Evening.” (Beckett, 1) And Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing inside of Leopold Bloom’s head piles detail upon detail. These are the units of experience that are then stretched out again to expand time and examine its passing. In the human consciousness, these units are experiences. In the English language, the building blocks are the words themselves, even down to the different letters that make them up. (Philip Fisher, in lecture, 10/25/99)
Words trigger recognition in the mind of the reader or human being, in the same way experience serves the consciousness. And letters, until combined in a certain way, are absurd symbols without meaning. Like human life, the use of letters and words to create meaningful language is a process in question by both of these authors. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom explains the meaning of the word “metempsychosis” to his wife Molly when she points it out in a book. (Joyce, 52) Much later in Bloom’s day, he identifies the word as “met him pike hoses” because that is what “she called it till [he] told her…” (Joyce, 126) Here, the word becomes four words and although it means the same to Bloom, it has been dissected and expanded for the reader. Molly’s naïve blundering in pronouncing a large word makes a commentary on both the excesses and capacity for growth of the English language. And Bloom further conveys this subtle message with “She’s right after all. Only big words for ordinary things on account of the sound.” (Joyce, 126) This is dually a unit of experience and of language that is being explored. Joyce illuminates one word to propose ideas about language, and reveals one moment in Bloom’s consciousness to show an aspect of his relationship with his wife.
The examination of language is different in Waiting for Godot because it must occur in dialogue, or an audience cannot see it. Beckett clearly doesn’t have Joyce’s freedom in printing words on a page for readers to examine, letter by letter. Instead, he must achieve the same effect in the spoken form. Language survives a kind of transformation when it is actually spoken. The effect of speaking is noted when Vladimir shortens the question “You want to get rid of him?” to one word, “You waagerrim?” (Beckett, 31) In the same way metempsychosis became four words, Vladimir can make one word out of many. But language also transforms in different ways. To communicate this, Beckett makes use of repetition in dialogue. Characters say the same thing in different ways, and the audience is reminded of the capacity of language. When Vladimir asks the Boy “Does he give you enough to eat?” and “The Boy hesitates,” the question is simply rephrased as “Does he feed you well?” (Beckett, 56) Although these two sentences could seem to be the same question, they are not asking the same thing. This is illustrated by the fact that the boy responds to the second one, though he had hesitated to the first. There are many moments of renaming in this manner.
The back-and-forth banter of Vladimir and Estragon creates the perfect form for reducing to smaller units and then repeating. The brief, nearly incomplete sentences of the two men mean something when they are said together, each component equally completing the expression. The simple observation of a tree brings about such a moment:
ESTRAGON: What is it?
VLADIMIR: I don’t know. A willow.
ESTRAGON: Where are the leaves?
VLADIMIR: It must be dead.
ESTRAGON: No more weeping.
VLADIMIR: Or perhaps its not the season.
ESTRAGON: Looks more like a bush.
VLADIMIR: A shrub.
ESTRAGON: A bush.
Here, one idea is fragmented into smaller pieces, but still communicated. Beckett zooms consistently into the language until arriving finally at two simple words. And the argument over “shrub” and “bush” when they are actually talking about a tree notes the frustration with language’s limitations. Repetition illustrates this idea as much as showing the freedom of language. A spectator realizes the futility and frustration of language by hearing the same phrases repeated again and again and again throughout the play.
Both authors take standard phrases and turns of speech, especially those considered polite or required in communication, and present them for their audience to be reconsidered. In Beckett, this critique is found in a moment of saying goodbye. In being polite, one must say goodbye, and enter in a standard accepted course of interaction before leaving. This interaction’s silly repetition is illustrated when Pozzo wants to leave Estragon and Vladimir, in Act I:
ESTRAGON: Then Adieu
Silence. No one moves.
POZZO: And thank you.
VLADIMIR: Thank you.
POZZO. Not at all.
ESTRAGON: Yes yes.
POZZO: No no.
VLADIMIR: Yes yes.
ESTRAGON: No no.
It is unclear who is saying goodbye or who should be thanked. But the exchange is strikingly familiar. And the fact that no one moves points to the ability to separate words from their standard purpose. Goodbye is connected to the act of leaving because we agree to use it in this way. But it can be as meaningless at it is common and useful.
This sort of comedy is not simply funny. It illustrates the absurd in real life by highlighting the silliness in things we do every day. It also communicates the stasis of life and language, ending finally in the double “yes” and “no” sequence, once again whittling the interaction down to its simplest words and meaning. The word “yes” is at the heart of Ulysses’ final chapter. It begins this chapter and even ends the novel. (Joyce, 644) It becomes a motif in this final chapter inside of Molly Bloom’s consciousness. Here, one word is used to explain a character, a relationship, and even the nature of gender roles. By repeating it throughout the only female-perspective narrative in the entire story Joyce is suggesting that “yes,” a one-syllable common word, is at the core of the female character. And the repetition itself contributes to her character by making “yes” into a large-scale kind of acquiescence, and acceptance, even an invitation. This is an incredible expansion of one small word, taken so for granted. Once again, language expresses so much and too little.
Language is not simply examined through small units and repetition, or social critique. Both Beckett and Joyce choose to play with language and words in a variety of ways. This often involves demonstrating the absurdity and flexibility of language as it is used every day. This is often comical, in both texts, as these are rituals an audience can surely recognize and relate to. Joyce includes this playfulness in his use of nonsense. Throughout Ulysses, he inserts words and sounds made up of recognizable letters in no recognizable order. For example, as Bloom sits in a carriage, the narration is taken to a situation outside by bracketing a sentence with: “Oot: a dullgarbed old man from the curbstone tendered his wares, his mouth opening: oot.” (Joyce, 77) This is one of countless moments involving nonsense words such as “oot.” What Joyce achieves with comical stream-of-consciousness, Beckett relates with vaudeville-inspired action on stage. An argument ensues between Vladimir and Estragon for no apparent reason, and becomes a funny play with words. After being called a moron, Estragon retaliates with “That’s the idea, let’s abuse each other,” and the following purposeless argument occurs:
ESTRAGON: (with finality) Crritic!
Within moments they’ve embraced and made up, and repeated words are used again. In a similar back-and-forth manner, the phrase “our exercises” is repeated as “our movements,” “our elevations,” and “our relaxations,” (Beckett, 86) While an audience is laughing, they are also witnessing the wide range of the English language.
These meditations on language are not only funny. They also serve to illuminate aspects of human life through words. Joyce is concerned with the larger picture of everyday interaction and language. The phrases and rituals of daily life are interspersed throughout Ulysses, as they are in Waiting for Godot. In a chapter where food is the central theme, Joyce relates countless common phrases to food or the process of eating. In Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness, terms like “Eat you out of house and home,” (Joyce, 124) “Have a finger in the pie,” (Joyce, 127) “I was souped,” (Joyce, 133) or “Bitten off more than he can chew,”(Joyce, 139) are thrown together in an outpouring of food-related thoughts. They serve to highlight food in our lives, as something important enough to invade even our language. Here, Joyce is making significance out of the seemingly insignificant in life. Like the intersection of memory and experience to create consciousness, language and human needs cross to create everyday communication, an interaction we take for granted. Our shared understanding of hunger allows us to create a language that so generously refers to food in a metaphorical sense. Once again, the smaller units of life have been separated and re-unified through language.
This method of creating significant commentary out of seemingly insignificant events is extremely important in examining the details of life. Both authors are able to address the larger picture through its tiniest components. Whether it be food or insulting language, or simply the word ?yes,’ both texts refer back to the endless cycles of life. Most importantly, they illustrate the giant web in which each individual is operating, highlighting the relative insignificance of one being in the universe. Joyce speculates closely on the cyclical nature of the universe in Chapter IV when Bloom buys, cooks, eats, and expels a kidney. During the course of this chapter, endless references are made to the inevitable death in life and the making of life out of death. When Bloom is buying the kidney, he imagines the actual slaughtering of animals with “those mornings in the cattlemarket, the beasts lowing in their pens, branded sheep, flop and fall of dung, the breeders hobnailed boots trudging through the litter, slapping a palm on a ripemeated hindquarter….” (Joyce, 48) After he cooks his kidney, and eats it, he naturally “[feels] heavy, full: then a gentle loosening of his bowels,” (Joyce, 55) in the natural human cycle of digestion. As he goes to the bathroom, he walks through his garden, his train of thought alluding to excrement and its purpose: “Make a summerhouse here…Want to manure the whole place over, scabby soil…All soil like that without dung. Household slops. Loam, what is this that is? The hens in the next garden: their droppings are very good top dressing. Best of all though are the cattle, especially when they are fed on those oilcakes.” (Joyce, 55) Here, within an everyday human process, Joyce uses imagery of fertilization with excrement to illustrate constantly the bigger picture, the larger cycle happening all the time. The last word of this chapter is “Dignam,” (Joyce, 57) the name of a friend who has just died, in one final reminder of human mortality.
Beckett illustrates his vision of a cyclical universe in many aspects of his play. The redundancy of Vladimir and Estragon’s wait, in the same unidentifiable place, every day is one large symbol of this idea. But within dialogue and action, Beckett refers to the cycles so apparent in Joyce’s worldview. Pozzo explodes with “One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?…They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” (Beckett, 103) Beyond the idea of brief human life so clear in this chilling vision, is the unit of “one day” as a significant event. Like the words that make up language, the days that make up a human life are worth examining. This inspires the entire structure of Ulysses in following one day, the same as any other but important in its details.
Waiting for Godot goes beyond any particular single day to claim that every day is the same, unrecognizable from the one before. Like language, the labeling of days is another man-made institution that requires conformity. When Vladimir and Estragon realize that Godot asked for them on a Saturday, Estragon wonders “But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it rather Sunday? (Pause). Or Monday? (Pause). Or Friday?” (Beckett, 10) Like people’s names, the names of days actually mean nothing beyond time cycling forward. Beckett’s characters experience moments of clarity where they can vocally consider this expanse of existence. Like Pozzo’s outburst, Vladimir later strengthens the same ideas with a dismal vision of the world: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.” (Beckett, 104) Both works consider the role of the individual in their brief, and relatively insignificant time on earth.
The unimportance of single human beings is an idea alluded to in the use of names. There is the notion that names are simply labels, like so many public rituals and formalities. In Waiting for Godot, there are many nicknames and even incorrect names used to refer to the characters. Vladimir and Estragon often become “Didi” and “Gogo.” Both of these versions play with meaning and language. There is a hint of action with “go” and stasis with “did.” Moreover, the only thing separating one man from the next is his name. Characters do not recognize each other without names. And even once the names are known, they are more insignificant language. This is emphasized when Pozzo introduces himself to Vladimir and Estragon:
POZZO: I present myself: Pozzo.
VLADIMIR: (to Estragon). Not at all!
ESTRAGON: He said Godot.
VLADIMIR: Not at all!
ESTRAGON: (timidly, to Pozzo). You’re not Mr. Godot, Sir?
POZZO: (terrifying voice). I am Pozzo! (silence) Pozzo! (Silence.) Does that name mean nothing to you? (silence) I say does that name mean nothing to you?
Vladimir and Estragon look at each other questioningly
ESTRAGON: (pretending to search). Bozzo…Bozzo…
VLADIMIR: (ditto) Pozzo…Pozzo…
ESTRAGON: Ah! Pozzo…let me see…Pozzo…
VLADIMIR: Is it Pozzo or Bozzo?
ESTRAGON: Pozzo…no…I’m afraid I…no…I don’t seem to…
Pozzo advances threateningly
VLADIMIR: (conciliating). I once knew a family called Gozzo. The mother had the clap.
What seems another comic episode is once again a commentary on the stupidity of relying on names to identify people. Names can symbolize words and language, and thus the futility of language is alluded to again. Most of all, considering a name important relies on considering an individual important, an idea contradicted often in both works.
In examining the place of the individual, both authors create characters and relationships to state their ideas. There are several themes that are considered in both texts through characterization. One of the most apparent is the slave/master relationship. Lucky and Pozzo serve as a vehicle to consider this manifestation in human relations. Bloom is essentially slave to Molly, as is revealed in the course of his thoughts during a normal day. Neither of these “slave” characters fits a traditional interpretation of slavery as a purely negative or imposed state. Pozzo explains Lucky’s position as a slave-by-choice: “Ah! Why couldn’t you say so before? Why he doesn’t make himself comfortable? Let’s try and get this clear. Has he not the right to? Certainly he has. It follows that he doesn’t want to. There’s reasoning for you. And why doesn’t he want to? (Pause) Gentlemen, the reason is this…He wants to impress me.” (Beckett, 30) It appears that slavery is as plausible a choice as freedom, in this life where one is slave to so many institutions regardless of their position.
Bloom’s enslavement to Molly is less directly addressed, but certainly central to the novel. In Chapter fifteen, there is a strange sequence written in the form of a play. In this strange conglomeration of characters, Bloom confronts his mother and father, a bar of soap, many street characters, and even Stephen Dedalus. When Molly appears, having only heard a voice, his first words to her are “At your service,” (Joyce, 359) a clue to how he subconsciously views his relationship with her. References to Molly fill his day, invading his consciousness in a true mastery over his mind. His attempt at an affair with another woman does not go beyond an exchange of letters, under an assumed name. (Joyce, 63) He buys her a scented bar of soap (Joyce, 69) that he touches nervously when someone asks of her. This object operates like Lucky’s rope, a chosen tether to his master. What ties him most to Lucky is his choice in the matter. He remains married to her, and serves her, despite her infidelities. It seems to be for Lucky’s reasons as well. He cannot lose her, and so makes her master. Perhaps the most striking indication of the true power Molly holds over Bloom is his sense of his own body, an image devoid of strength or agency: “He foresaw his pale body reclined in [a bath] at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap…and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.” (Joyce, 71) Bloom is Molly’s servant to a point of physical decay. This weak vision of his masculinity is a part of his preoccupation with her, a woman who is clearly confident in her sexuality, and her power over her husband.
The striking similarity between Joyce and Beckett is not simply coincidence, but the sign of a deep friendship and understanding between these men. Surely their obsession with the futility of the English language was involved with their shared status as expatriates. Both Irishmen exiled themselves to write in countries other than their own. They spent time together in Paris, and Beckett even wrote in French. At the end of Ulysses, Joyce notes “Trieste-Zurich-Paris,” (Joyce, 645) careful to identify his separation from Ireland. The lack of location or nationality in Waiting for Godot creates an isolation and desolation that must stem from his self-imposed exile. Their similar frustration can be found in the use of silences or pauses in both texts. Though Joyce fills these spaces with the constant flow of Bloom’s consciousness, Beckett emphasizes many words by placing a pause after them. The directions “pause,” or simply “silence,” appear on nearly every page of Waiting for Godot, and create meaning as well as comic rhythm. In his famous Joyce biography, Richard Ellman explains this tendency with the friendship of the two men: “Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversation which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.” (Ellman, 661) It is clear that these artists learned from each other, and suffused their work with events and conditions of their actual lives.
As disappointed in the English language as these two men may have been, they certainly succeed in manipulating it to share their ideas. Perhaps their distance from their native tongue allowed an objective reconsideration of its strengths and flaws. Whatever the reason, they shared a vision of the world, and an ability to communicate it with language. It is strange that two of the most famous and central literary works attack the very form they have taken. Beckett and Joyce use the English language to analyze itself. Their detachment from Ireland perhaps allowed them the distance necessary for this sort of view. Although they present dismal visions of the typical human life, they also create intricate relationships that justify life in some sense. The slave, in all his misery, has at least found purpose. Just as the husband, though defeated and weak in the face of a woman’s lust, can discover warmth and comfort in their own dependency. Most of all, one becomes adequately convinced of life’s inevitable paradoxes, and entranced by an institution so confusing as language itself.
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