Samuel Beckett and the Folly of Language
Following the near apocalyptic end of the Second World War, an overwhelming state of fear and confusion would go on to cause a major shift in the artistic expression of the day. Nothing remained sacred as doubt replaced any virtue of knowledge, hope, or stability. Artistic conventions were also replaced in favor of the new, radical unorthodoxy and basic realities of human thought were either questioned or abandoned completely. In particular, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot illuminates the “tragicomic” folly of language and communication on the center stage with profound implications against the need to communicate in the first place. Shameless yet dignified, Beckett mocks the inefficacy of language and human communication.
Primarily, Beckett’s dialogue bathes in repetition and irrationality, acting as a vehicle for both comedy and critique. Waiting for Godot is characterized by verbal exchanges that achieve very little in terms of traditional development and leave behind more confusion than there was before anyone had decided to bother opening their mouth. The most compelling example of this is Estragon’s fascination with Lucky’s bags throughout Act I.
Estragon: Why doesn’t he put down his bags?
Pozzo: But that would surprise me.
Vladimir: You’re being asked a question.
Pozzo: (delighted) A question! Who? What! (28)
Here, Beckett presents the primary distraction of Act I, Estragon and Vladimir’s inquisitive interest in Pozzo and Lucky. However, a seemingly fundamental question regarding the servant’s cargo takes ages to get across to Pozzo amid endless chatter of nonsense and confusion. Ironically enough, Pozzo immediately goes on to predict that “no good will come” from ominous activities such as asking questions. In a sense, Pozzo is correct. The question is repeated several times, tempers flare slightly, and a significant amount of time is wasted with no answer or explanation to show for it. The cause of this string of mishaps is unexpected– Estragon’s mere proposition of a simple question is the impetus for this miniature disaster.
This grand failure of communication is just one example of Beckett’s keen deconstruction of language. In fact, Pozzo & Lucky eventually leave with Estragon and Vladimir not an ounce wiser than they were before. They know less now than they did when the first act began. Finally, to compound this frustration, the major source of any resemblance to “driving action” or “narrative” has exited the stage, as well as Estragon and Vladimir’s lives. The language which one would assume to be the source of any fundamental drama is actually nothing more than a catalyst of the absurd. Language is the biggest barrier between absurdity and reality. Indeed, Beckett’s perception of language asserts that language works to reinforce this barrier rather than find ways around it. This is evident as Gogo & Didi continue to parrot each other and draw circles in their speech, reflecting the delicate cycle of their apparently pointless lives.
Furthermore, Beckett’s most blatant critique of language can be seen during the play’s most nonsensical and verbose point: Lucky’s speech. Previously regarded by cast and audience to be nothing beyond a mute slave, Lucky is received like an oracle or prophet. He begins, “Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly…” (45).
Here, Lucky’s regurgitations are met with fixed attention. However, this enthrallment soon decays to derision and finally to frenzied terror and a frantic tackle to end it all. This all occurs as the result of one seemingly harmless command: “Think!” Interestingly enough, despite “saying” so much, Lucky actually conveyed very little tangible information throughout his prolonged session of thought. Even worse, this information is nearly indiscernible, lost upon verbal manifestations of Lucky’s passion and confusion. Certainly, a topic of “divine” profoundness is at hand with a white-bearded “God” receiving several mentions. This topic is also tethered to Earthly affairs as well. Lucky goes on to mention various schools of thought, a handful of philosophers, and even tennis and other Earthly ventures. However, despite all this content which would give Lucky’s speech the appearance of intellect and profundity, the slave spends all his time thinking aloud about nothing at all. Although interrupted, Lucky even inadvertently punctuates his speech with the word “unfinished.” Ultimately, nothing was said. Language, once again, fails to serve its sole purpose. In fact, language is even seen here to be a threat to stability and well-being – Beckett displays language’s ability to stir fear and even aggression in others. Lucky’s speech had such a negative impact on the three men listening that they appeared to go mad. This is especially frightening due to the fact that all they were hearing was essentially the articulation of “nothing.” Lucky’s ramblings on “quaquaquaqua” could be easily replaced with a high frequency dog whistle and cause the same effect. Lucky’s speech is merely a showcase of language’s flaws and inefficacy. The words amount to nothing more than noise and hot air.
Finally, when compared to other works which recognize similar faults in communication, Beckett’s reflections on language are far more monumental in their futility and absurdity. William Falkner’s As I Lay Dying, for example, dictates that human communication is impaired because perceptions of truth vary from person to person, and that language is incapable of portraying any universal truth. Waiting for Godot, on the other hand, dictates that there is no universal truth to convey, and that any attempts to communicate absurdity will only result in frustration, confusion, and more absurdness. In fact, the action of communication through spoken or written language is absurd within itself. This point in particular is the reason behind Waiting for Godot’s quirky, nonsensical attitude. This void is exemplified by the play’s ending.
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move, (109).
The communication of nonsense elicits only nonsense in return. Here, Gogo and Didi once again surrender to this dogma of absurdity. They say they will go and fail to move. At this point, it’s as if Beckett’s characters completely fail to recognize the intention behind the words they speak. Attempts of verbal communication through language fall flat, almost signifying an abandonment of language altogether. Now, they accept absurdity, a world absent of communication that’s meaningful or worthwhile.
Ultimately, Beckett’s critique, fully veiled in irrationality, does well to illuminate the absurdity of language and communication. In this light, the artistic medium which once depended on language abandons it outright, and the conventions of drama are twisted and distorted. This upheaval is an understandable outcome; Waiting for Godot is an expression of the confusion of the post-World War II world. Certainly, Beckett acknowledges that this new world is one devoid of language, where communication is just as absurd as the situations which beget its necessity.
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