THE THEMES OF JOURNEY AND TIME IN BECKETT'S 'WAITING FOR GODOT'

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THE THEMES OF JOURNEY AND TIME IN WAITING FOR GODOT

I would like to begin my paper with one of the most touching conversations, in my view, that happens right in the beginning of the text between Vladimir and Estragon, as boots become the means to bring to the fore their helpless sense of pathos-
Vladimir : It hurts?
Estragon : Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!
Vladimir : (Angrily)No one ever suffers but you. I don’t count. I’d like to hear what you’d say if you had what I have.
A tragic cynicism, a “Dionysian rapture of tragic acceptance” (as Nietzsche would term it in Zarathustra),of one’s fate, of life’s “eternal recurrences”, so to say, impregnates the core of this play; a “hurt” that is unfathomably deep and incurable, preys on human spirit throughout.
Like the character of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Caroll’s Wonderland [Through the Looking Glass] ,the tramps too are in an egg of existence, perched at the brink of a narrow wall, braving the violent winds, even though they know in their heart of hearts that a final fall to nullity is inevitable. And as Alice would exclaim about Humpty Dumpty, “Of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met…” the final annihilation would melt out any redemptive attempts at mastery over language or life.

In this paper I intend to delve on the metaphor of the road and journey that I see as subtly predominating the play. Then I would go on to try and comprehend the much-discussed themes of time and memory that seem intriguingly fresh to my imagination.

Though the play depicts the arrival and departure of Pozzo and Lucky (the archetypal wanderers) and the Boy messengers, the play essentially begins and ends with a nauseating stasis. Even the departure that Pozzo and Lucky enact appears to be a random, almost forced act, “I don’t seem to be able…to depart”, says Pozzo, and Estragon cynically replies, “Such is life.”
Philosophically speaking, a journey is supposed to signify an ontological quest for both action as well as repose, for sinning as well as redemption. However, I think that the traditional concept in Hinduism of a voyage being a quest for knowledge and wisdom, and consequently liberation, is inverted here to suggest that it is instead merely a diversion, a venture for forgetfulness and evasion of responsibility. It is the phantasmagoria of ropes, of sacks, of chicken bones, that greets Lucky and Pozzo at every ‘milestone’, and goes on to harden them for further adventures, experiences and revelations, both tragically comic and thereby painfully benumbing. As a critic calls it in another context in her essay, “Two Types of Existential Experience in Moby Dick, it is the “fundamental loneliness of the existential hero”, that also ails the despair-prone predicament of the Beckettian characters.
The road in the play typifies boundlessness, the spatial counterpart of the temporal principle that pricks every character in the play. In philosopher Bersani’s words, the road, like a work of art, celebrates an originating extensibility of all objects and creatures into space. The road propels ambition, however meagre and transcient that may be, an addiction to movement, pseudo though movement is; an opposing principle of fluidity as against the fixity that the tramps are trapped into. As Estragon says,” They all change. Only we can’t.”; and even if that change for Lucky and Pozzo means going dumb and blind some day, and perhaps becoming other selves on other days, on other roads of their journey. It is this Freudian anticipation of repetition, monotony and loss that fuels their desire to go “On”.
On the road, Pozzo and Lucky seek not adventure but a psychic and sensory stimulation, a kind of security that the landscapes around are not totally devoid of meaning, that a push upwards may not always topple them back to ground zero(ref.-Myth of Sisyphus). Their split subjectivity enables them to exploit language and thought to the most absurd dimensions, something that would have invited outright dismissal from Lacanian followers. They are like surviving pawns on a chess board who aspire to advance and improve their lot (the Kierkegaardian ‘Knights of Good Faith’) ,even though they know in their heart of hearts that queening or no queening, a heart-breaking defeat is impending.
In analyzing Kierkegaard’s ‘Fear and Trembling’ (1843), Lalita Subbu points to the paradox implicit in all relations that the individual might want to forge with the universe, how in only connecting to the Absolute can he formulate any connection with the universe. Apart from detecting an obvious similarity with the ancient Hindu philosopher Shankaracharya’s doctrines, one can suggest that most Beckettian characters seem to be lurking in the dark, groping for a evasive Godot, an essence; as the world around continues to blur in “all light and dark, famine and feasting”, as Krapp would view it in Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’.
The road is a “sterile promontory”, as Hamlet would call it. The best the road can reflect to hopefuls like Pozzo is its own circularity, its lack of any real historical and religious authenticity. Yet unlike Gogo and Didi, for whom polarities of existence are either in death or death-in life, Pozzo and Lucky, and many other travellers like them, are governed almost obsessively by phrases like “On” and “Back to the road”(-as Chichikov puts in ‘Dead Souls’).
“I’d wait till it was black night before I gave up”, says Pozzo. Only that he refuses to register the descent of black night on the world post the two World Wars and the rise of autocratic movements like Nazism and Fascism. Like Chichikov in Gogol’s Dead Souls, he has not yet asked himself, “Did I give up my soul on the road?”. Like those of the gravemaker’s in Hamlet, he seems to assume (perhaps only superficially but he assumes nevertheless) that the illusory houses that he has built through his journeys are going to last till doomsday.
The road Pozzo and Lucky have been travelling, and which Gogo and Didi have given up is the war-trodden road, the instigator as well as the battleground for the conflicts in human ambitions and hopes. The journey then becomes the quest for national and imperialistic victory. In that case, Pozzo may personify the triumphant nation and Lucky the conquered land, though evidently both the victor and the loser are in shattered, hopeless condition. The road then ultimately is an embodiment of universal grotesquerie.
A journey brings the two travelers closer, owing to their common paths and common destinations. The fellow travelers begin to feel alienation from the world they are going away from and bond very endearingly on both mental and emotional level. A journey is when one can truly empathise with the psychic states and necessities of the other. Thus love, care and realization of the other’s invincible presence paves way through the road. And it is this love that spells both a reluctant zest for survival as well as a glorious disaster for their ontological existence.
Therefore, I argue that when Pozzo claims his desperation to get rid of Lucky, in the depths of his heart, he is well aware of his importance as a fellow traveler who restitutes, time and again, his falling hopes and tiredness, as someone who obeys Pozzo in order to reaffirm his pseudo sense of power and control in the essentially sterile journeys they take. Pozzo, who “cannot go for long” without the society of his “likes”, finds his likeness only in Lucky. Strung together by a rope, Lucky becomes his emotional pillar, and walking stick when he goes “as blind as Fortune”, endeavoring, as well and as long as he can, to continue Pozzo’s obsession with moving on.
This is perhaps why Lucky chooses not to put down his bags he has journeyed with through life, because he is aware that once he drops that “burden”, he may not again gather the courage and inclination to lift it again.
One can argue that while Pozzo is a traveler, a kind of mobile essence, Estragon and Vladimir can be called static travelers. Having journeyed enough, they have realized, and reconciled themselves to the essential stasis of life. Pozzo, on the other hand, is still insistent on moving on, refusing to acknowledge that no meaningful movement is concretely possible: rather all his journeys are doomed to end on that desolate road, around that brazen tree and in that barren, murky evening. While Gogo and Didi have realized the cyclical tragic inviolability inherent in both the metaphorical and literal aspect of a journey, Lucky and Pozzo have yet not attained this disconcerting revelation. So much so, that one suspects that someday Pozzo and Lucky too any get fixed on a similar road, waiting for their own Godot (after all, “The road is free to all”), though their master-slave relationship offers an even more disastrous prospect of human pathos, “Made in God’s image” (-Pozzo).
If we assume the road and the tree, that sustain d tramps’ fixity, as the starting point, the womb for the journeys of Pozzo and Lucky, then one can also assert that out of their own lack of will and owing to their consolatory beliefs in the sustaining productivity of the road they have taken, they are unable to reach the real end of the road that is the tomb, and rather they choose to return back to the womb in the delusion that certain milestones have definitely been covered in the way. Perhaps, their obstinacy would someday force the end of the road to travel backwards to this womb in order warp them into annihilation. So just like the alphabets G,D and T(in GODOT) are separated by zeroes in the middle, similarly the beginning and the end of the road act as the boundaries of an existence that, like a zero, cannot be added, subtracted, multiplied or divided into anything semantically sustaining.
The road and the landscapes that Pozzo and Lucky journey on keep on rhythmically expanding and contracting to accommodate both their occasional exuberances as well as mounting dissatisfactions, owing to their weariness from travel, and therefore a consequent retreat to the inert, immobile (atleast in the literal sense)zone of Vladimir and Estragon.
And it is interesting to note the absence of water in this play. While the characters eat something or the other, even it be carrots, they do not ever drink water. And even though they save themselves from the tormentingly warping capacity of the arid earth, depicted explicitly in Happy Days (“The earth is very tight today”, says Winnie)by Beckett, theirs too is a quenchless thirst for limitless aridity. Water, the potent source of life, the symbol of those life-nourishing amniotic fluids, seems to have dried up as the characters take up a journey on an arid land. It is a land where the road cannot even retain fallen tears, where the tree is leafless because the withering effects of memories would never let any tree to flower, and even when four or five leaves, within a single night, spring up, they metamorphose into the remaining fragments of a life forced away from its source (water, and also Godot or God) and from the end of the road.
Pozzo and Lucky apparently choose to face the existential angst differently than Gogo and Didi. The ninety degrees (the road and the tree) of ruthless torture that Gogo and Didi have taken upon themselves for ever can only be endured by compulsive travellers Pozzo and Lucky for a short while. Their lot is the one eighty degrees flux of time and movement, sights and sounds,that both hurt and give no delight (unlike those of Caliban’s island in TheTempest). Change, however insignificant and menial, impregnates their lives, whereas the tramps’ is a world where “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes”.
As Ahab in ‘Moby Dick’ would lament his destined doom, “By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world like yonder windless, and Fate is the handspike; analogously while Gogo and Didi are “turned round and round” on that barren piece of land which they never “stir” from, Pozzo and Lucky are fatally propelled into endless journeys in concentric circles that however seem to extend into infinite miles, yet experience the indomitable centripetal pulls towards annihilation.
Unlike Vladimir who finds this struggle “too much for one man”, Lucky cries, “I resume for reasons unknown…”. Having roamed about in twilights that have intoxicated and lulled them into unreasonable resumptions, Pozzo and Lucky, time and again, clutch to the road hoping that someday it might lead them somewhere. Like Milton’s Satan, the characters, especially Pozzo and Lucky, flung themselves “headlong” (-‘Paradise Lost’) onto the existential inferno- the road and its ditches. Like Derridean difference, they are in a pathetically dislocated state, whose origins are lost forever, yet pointless circulation, and sometimes descending in free fall, in a wounded spacial zone itself is a treasured pleasure, however incomprehensible this word may sound. Estragon sardonically tells Pozzo, “But take the weight off your feet, I implore you, you’ll catch your death.” So, movement for Pozzo and Lucky has become a habit, a necessity; Estragon’s feet, on the hand, stink and stagnate out of inaction. Like Estragon, Pozzo confesses that he’d very much like to sit down but he does not know “how to go about it”. Such is the irony of life.

Functioning as the Signifier for the Signified-memory, time, for both Gogo and Didi, is static. What happened ‘yesterday’ has been happening since fifty years. As Jose Buendia laments in One Hundred Years of Solitude, “This is disaster…the same as yesterday and the day before. Today is Monday too”. Their subjective consciousness of time allies with Bergson’s formulation of time not being chronometric always. Evening or dawn, the tramps cannot decide. They wait everyday for nightfall, and night does ‘fall’ on all days but “all of a sudden”, and before they can formulate the agency and will to go to sleep permanently, the day rises to haunt them again with an amorphous sense of time that neither frees them nor can they fathom its intricacies.
According to the nineteenth century philosopher Henri Bergson, time, as an entity, is characterized by movement and variability, and it is through one’s intuition, through one’s mental perception, that the reality or one’s subjective fabrication of it is realized. Similarly the concocted (as would generally be argued) reality of Godot is juxtaposed with the ever-moving yet dangerously static time of the tramps, such that what is perceived inside, within the mind, continually serves as the mode to interpret what is outside, attempting an “intermingling”, to use Bergson’s term, of what seemed as the beginning and what approaches but never culminates into the ending. That is to say that the nearer one gets towards the end, the slower does the movement towards it becomes, such that there seems to be an endless repetition of the dying moments.
Thus, one can sense a kind of ceaseless, irreversible mobility of time on the one hand, while on the other there is what Nietzsche would term the idea of Eternal Recurrance – “existence in its most terrifying form”. So while Beckettian tramps might not remember what all they went through yesterday and other events because memories are killing and unending, paving their way in the human mind “little by little”, as Beckett stated once, there is also the prospect of memories repeating themselves through the same monotony and stupor on every new day. That is, everything has been done time and again, and repeated ad nauseam.
Pozzo losing his watch after Lucky’s speech signifies his sense of loss of time and linearity. His attempt to “hear the tick-tick” in his stomach is symbolic of his desperation to eat and destroy time. A watch that indicates to him a lapse as long as sixty years, really his “half-hunter”, is bound to habitually return to him, as time ultimately is the most sickening yet the most insuperable and concrete aspect of life.
The bag that Lucky carries, Pozzo tells Didi, carries sand, a potent symbol of the passage of time. Interestingly, in Act 1, Pozzo carries chicken with him and the leftover bones come to suggestively imply human carcass; the usage of the sand metaphor is also symbolic of human form both rising and then collapsing in this sand.
The characters in ‘Waiting for Godot’ appear to be obsessively preoccupied with time and memory. Time, a devastating force, is transformed into a malleable element which the characters play with and manipulate appropriately as per the milieu of their existence in oblivion. So while 'yesterday' may be wiped off the memory on the one hand, they also acknowledge that “Things have changed here since yesterday” (-Vladimir). Thus like the temporality of human consciousness in Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’ memory is active generally and not passive; the mind shapes the materials and perceptions it absorbs, working and reworking them into epiphanies and “spots of time”, to use Wordworth’s term again.
There is evident an underlying tormenting fear of being forgotten in all of them, a fear of a complete erasure from the memories of others; Estragon complains to Vladimir, “nobody ever recognizes us”, Vladimir asks the Boy messenger, “You did see us, didn’t you?”. So they struggle to remind each-other, and also themselves, “Let us persevere in what we have resolved, before we forget” (-Vladimir to Estragon). The dwindling memories and a rising consciousness of it creates a pathos that culminates into frantic searching and fruitless waiting. As Vladimir would cynically remark, “Extraordinary the trick that memory plays”.
There is visibly pulsating, in the existential man, an overwhelming desire “to engross the present and dominate memory” (as WB Yeats frames it in his poem, ‘The Circus Animal’s Desertion’), even if one is aware of what Vladimir puts across bluntly, “The essential doesn’t change”. The absurdist notion of time that Beckettian characters follow might defy human intellect but there is implicit in it the Descartesian individualism in human experience.
Here I feel tempted to talk about the figure of the Sibyl in ‘The Wasteland’ by T.S Eliot. Even though her destiny propels her away from time and the turn of leaves that spell of mortality, she is forever yearning for a fall into this time, its sickening and decaying effects aspects being worthier than than the tragic glory of an endless futurity. In a similar fashion, Pozzo and Lucky set themselves on an ever-expanding, ever-indecipherable road; a similar path spreads itself out in the minds of Gogo and Didi, concocted with the dismembered memories of bloody wars, demoniac human fury and a cultural amnesia that is both forcingly ordained as well as willingly sustained.
Time, therefore, serves as the driving agent in the loss of cultural memories, enacting a desperate desire to erase the relics of the past, getting rid of what Krapp in Beckett’s ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ called “a dog’s moments”.
P.B.Shelley’s fascinating poem, Alastor, talks about a man who loved a woman he saw in his dreams and could not bring himself to love any living woman. Similarly Gogo and Lucky, in the brief naps they take, see the vague visage of Godot, “of a personal God”(as Lucky chooses to call him), and consequently devote their lives on him, practicing a Freudian fetishism; sometimes wandering with the girdle of their life’s memories and the thought of a God outside time haunting them around their necks, and sometimes in inertness, filling their excess of “void” with excess of Godot.
The tramps’ Godot is a metafiction that they would fain dispose off, and as Plato’s famous Theory of Reminiscence posits, His transcendental state, as it were, would instigate, or atleast they hope that it does, a recollection of times or consciousness wherin their forlorn state is offered routes out of illusory states, whether they embark on them or not is an entirely different matter for debate.
Samuel Beckett descends from a continually varying, ever-growing literary tradition of Modernist writers and philosophers who struggled with the labyrinths of time as much as Beckett did. So while Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus (-‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’) would say, “Time is, time was, but time shall be no more”, Eliot’s Prufrock (-‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’) would contradict his fictional rival, “There will be time to murder and create”. Whereas Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway (-‘Mrs Dalloway’) possessed the gift to “sum it all up in the moment”, Yeats in ‘The Winding Stair’ suggests that “the innocent and beautiful have no enemy but time”.
In this play, I see the characters as taking on the erosive or decaying effects of time not just mentally but also bodily. It is almost as if the decadent, painful strokes of time compel them to “slice like a knife through everything”(-Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway). Didi has stinking breath, Gogo has stinking feet; the “weary” travellers , Pozzo and Lucky go blind and dumb respectively; Gogo gorges on carrots and radishes, Pozzo on chicken; Gogo pounces on the bones(the leftover of time), Lucky on his “burdens”…;Didi kicks Pozzo, Gogo kicks Lucky. And all this passes the time the time that “would have passed in any case”. Such is the paradox of life!
GJV Prasad notes in his essay on ‘Waiting for Godot’ titled ‘Reading Between the Lines’ that the characters in the text seem to fill in the time between birth and death in the bodily world of eating and excreting. I see something more than that in the component of time that surrounds the characters. The language games they play, the philosophical enquiries they posit allows them to rise, atleast in some instances, above their animalistic existence. Yet I would agree with professor Prasad that one role is as good as the other, just like one day is as devastating as the other.
It is the winding wheel of time that induces uncontrollable restlessness and anguish in the characters, such that they, without inhibition, go on to mount filthy swearing and reproaching language on things around them. So “puke of a life”, “bitch of an earth”, “abominable”, “accursed time”, a long desired “erection”….all seep in their verbal routine. And the irony is that inspite of exchanging absurd verbatims and actions, the characters are essentially rendered sterile existentially.
It is noteworthy that memory and the sense of memory in ‘Waiting for Godot’ seems to be intensely energetic yet directionless. When Vladimir asks Estragon since when is he sad, Estragon nonchalantly replies, “I’d forgotten”. While he can not remember the tree he saw yesterday, he dreamily recollects about the about the Macon country where he must have been some years ago. As Heideggar’s “cosmic orphans”, encountering the same directionlessness both individually and collectively, Beckett’s tramps ultimately tread the dissolving line between remembering and forgetting, between past and present, between happiness and sorrow.
Time and its withering effects grant almost a ghostly appearance to the characters in the text; shorn of vitality, they are constantly haunted by the past and its present manifestations in the form of reminiscences, regrets and yearnings. Proust’s idealized involuntary memory comes into play when the very look at The Dead Sea in the Bible makes Estragon thirsty. On another instance, their contemplation the possibility of suicide by a rope reminds Estragon of his attempted suicide in the Rhone several years ago.
As a fellow traveler, time continues to blaze in the eyes of the characters, sometimes setting in like nightfall, often quickly rising again, such that they feel that it “constrains them to beguile (it) with proceedings”. It may be the destructive force yet it is also the sustaining force. So, if “Things have changed since yesterday”, it is owing to its apparent movement that consoles one even in misery that atleast “It’s never the same pus from one second to another”.
Time, as a passage of years, a symbol of decrepitude and the consequent onset of old age, is a crucial element in Beckettian corpus- Vladimir and Estragon are in their fifties, Krapp again is in his fifties, and Winnie and Willie too are in their fifties- a suggestive descent of decay, wherein the laments of what has been ‘lost’ is most acutely felt. As Keats moans in his grand poem ‘Hyperion’, “ O aching time! O moments big as years!”.
That is to say, Beckettian characters are mostly symbolically in the ‘twilight zone’, as I would call it, when memories of the immediate past are both consciously and unconsciously blurred away so that an affinity, though most of the times superficial, is established with the bliss and potency of what is long past. Thus this exercise is both satisfying as well as psychologically fatal; so Pozzo puts it, “…you don’t know what our twilights can do”.
Time, for Beckettian characters, is a fated force which they cannot disentangle from its doom. Like the Sisyphian rock, like the Promethean rock, they are tied to it for years and years of both fear and security. As Asia moans in Prometheus Unbound, “How like death-worms the wingless moments crawl.” And as one looks back on these flown moments, all one can see is one’s reflected self-desolate, deprived of both love and hope- the rest of the journey, the rest of the moments seem so very distant, so very dream-like, and always fragmented.
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting”, says Wordsworth. Thus the past dries up and runs in our veins like dried blood, the dreams that continually oscillate in and out of you everyday, warp life into that bubble of nothingness, from where you may, once in a while, shriek out to the adjoining bubble, “Will night never come?”(-Vladimir)
One is ready to surrender the rest of one’s life in exchange for a few days of happiness and satisfaction; the agony of life being so long, often longer than bearable, yet moments of happiness are so brief that by the time one comprehends them, they have already passed. As Virginia Woolf writes in Orlando, “The moment is brief. They sang. The moment is over. One long night is then to be slept by all”, and this long night, in life, is impregnated by both an ennui yet a restlessness. Gogo, Didi, Pozzo, Lucky, all are warped deep into this black night but the final night of death that takes its hue from the “firmament” that Pozzo talks about still evades them.
The first thing one learns after an ouster from the cocooned womb is a tough living and trying to stitch together experiences and memories because they appear to be the only joyous and redeeming elements, yet abruptly, one fragments them brutally because one is aware that this joy and coherence of what is past is never really attainable.
In such circumstances, Pozzo and Lucky have chosen a feasible option of going “blind as Fortune”. Since the blind have no notion of time, as Pozzo tells us, they can, or atleast assume, that they have hidden themselves from the maddening strokes of time, from the “violet hour”(-TS Eliot, The Wasteland). Here I shall like to quote what Kate Chopin’s heroine said in ‘The Awakening’, “The years that are gone seem like dream…”.

I am reminded of Ashvathama, the son of Dronacharya, in Mahabharata who was cursed by Lord Krishna to wander aimlessly and helplessly in jungles forever. The madness that grips Beckettian characters in this play to ‘wander’(even Estragon and Vladimir wander mentally ceaselessly) is similar to Ashvathama’s madness, before his punishment when he undertakes to destroy the family of the Pandavas, and the madness that sets in him later for having ventured, having sinned and having failed. And theirs is not the Platonic inspired madness but a madness that Foucault talks about in his brilliant essay, ‘Don Quixote As Hero of the Same’, a madness that brings together signs and similitudes simply to erase them in the course of time.
Those who realize the validity of this Ashvathama’s curse on mankind even today, like Beckettian characters do, lament like Estragon, “I am accursed” and plead with Him, “God have mercy on me”; they have understood the essential sterility that characterizes life, and the superficial physical and mental restlessness that sets in from the moment one is born, because one is able to conquer neither the temporality that encircles one’s living space nor the the memories that go on accumulating, reshaping and reasserting themselves as one tries to go “On” in life.

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modernist studies
twentieth_century_and_beyond