rench students study French literature in a curious way. They are given an excerpt of a French literary text, a couple of chapters of a novel, for example, or a few poems. The teacher then supplies a one-sheet biography along with a summary of the work, and any other important information. To study, the students prepare what are called “fiches,” or flashcards. French literature reduced to the flash card. Perhaps, coincidentally, if you have had it with something, you say, “Je m’en fiche.” This phrase, I am sure, reminds French people of those God awful fiches they had to make as students.
French people love word play. So Je m’en fiche, becomes Je m’en fish. The pronunciation of fiche and fish being the same for a French person. They are kind of making fun of themselves and their terrible accent in English.
I was trained to study literature quite differently. As English majors at Cornell University, we read the whole text, quite closely, without much ado for the author, never mind the time period. Literary analysis has changed since then, and in the next few posts I’d like to give you a feel for what that means, so we can understand Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, more fully.
In the spirit of the French approach, let me offer a summary. (Don’t forget to make your fiches.)
Two men, Estragon and Vladimir, wait by a tree for Godot. They banter, in something like a vaudeville act, but with more desperation. Two men arrive, Pozzo, the apparent master, and his slave Lucky, although we learn that at one point the roles had been reversed. A boy appears with a message from Godot, who is not able to make it, but assuredly will come tomorrow. Act II is a repetition with variations.
The play begins with Estragon, Gogo, trying unsuccessfully to pull his boot off. His first words to his friend are, “Nothing to be done.” (Rien à faire in French) And the last line belongs to Estragon as well. When his friend Vladimir, Didi, asks the question: “Well? Shall we go?” Estragon replies, “Yes, let’s go.” But in the most famous stage direction, we learn, “They do not move.” (“Ils ne bougent pas.”) How satisfying that is, when they don’t do what they’re going to do. This is freedom, right? No! I won’t. Or, yes, I will, but I don’t.
Here’s a three-minute visual recap of the play.
WHY OH WHY
By now, you might be wondering why in the world is this so famous? Basically, the large philosophical questions occur, such as, what are we doing in this world? And what are we going to do about what we are doing (or not doing)? Friendship, suffering, boredom—all are tossed into an absurd salad of existential quandary. Much is made, for example, of taking off boots. Vladimir remarks, “There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet.” Not a lofty register of discussing “What’s it all about, Alfie?” as the song would have it, but a discussion nonetheless.
Song: “What’s it all about, when you sort it out, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?”
And here is Whitney Houston singing this existential song.
BACK TO BECKETT’S PLAY
Here is a visual interpretation of why read this play.
An ideal I would call something of value, that may or may not be attainable, but that we cast out upon our horizon. The unqualified ideal does not carry full-throated accolades after World War II, given the horrors of that time. In fact, our idealism has gone into hiding. When asked what “Godot” meant, all Beckett could say he knew for sure was that they all wore bowler hats. And when asked point blank if Godot meant God, he said that if he had meant God, he would have said it.
I would like to say that authors are notoriously shifty about interpreting their work. Early on in the play there’s a discussion of the thieves crucified with our Saviour, one of whom was saved. “Our what?” Estragon asks. And then, “Saved from what?” “Hell,” is the answer.
So, it is not too much of a stretch to at least consider that the God in Godot could actually refer to God. The “ot” is a French way of saying a diminutive, something small. For example, un chiot is the word for puppy. Perhaps what we have here is a bilingual word, in which English and French are combined, a word that is not really translatable, which probably pleased Beckett. How could we put it? Something smaller in stature than the grand bearded God sitting on a cloud in heaven. And in fact, there is a boy who is a messenger from Godot, twice relaying messages that Godot will come the following day. Perhaps the emissary is the best we can hope for, the closest to Godot that we have.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
In keeping with the idea of the absurd, there is another story about the name. There was once a French pro-cyclist whose name was pronounced in the same way. One person in the crowd said they were waiting for him. He was an older cyclist and apparently quite slow, finishing hours after the others. In French they would have said, nous attendons Godeau. We are waiting for Godeau. We are waiting for Godot got shortened to En Attendant Godot. Waiting for Godot, which was first written in French and then translated by Beckett himself into English.
Another related word is godillot, which is a huge shoe, worn out and deformed, used by the military. As you see, the title is slippery and the meaning as well.
Joan Silber’s book Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories (nominated for the National Book Award) incorporates longing for something more than pedestrian daily life right into the middle of that so called pedestrian daily life. Although this image is not from the book cover, it captures something of what these ideas are for.
Here’s how the group of stories begins:
“I had my own ideas about a higher purpose, but not enough ideas. I could have used more. When I was in my early teens, I used to go to the bus station in my city and think about panhandling money to get a ticket to Las Vegas. A wide sky of nightclubs glittering in the middle of the desert sounded beautiful to me. I wanted beauty. I’d sit on a bench and do my homework in the bus station, and then I’d go home.”
I love this because discussing the ideals in our lives can veer off toward the sanctimonious, where we compartmentalize our highest values away from our lived experience. We’ve got to look at where the rubber hits the road, as a great friend used to say.
Silber’s book tackles the all too human straight on, including religion, sexual desire and that vague longing we have all experienced, leavening even self-imposed suffering with the grace of something better.
More about the play to follow.