Failing again with Samuel Beckett: Godot and the inability to communicate.

BeckettMy last article dealt with the meaning that suffuses ‘asemic’ poetry and art. This time I want to reverse that process and ask whether identifiable words can be shorn of their semantic or semic value. I am focusing on Samuel Beckett, and in particular Waiting for Godot.

Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson stated that “true communication is only possible between equals” (9). In Waiting for Godot, equality does not exist among the characters. Of the two down-and-outs, Vladimir usually appears to be the more dominant. Pozzo and Lucky have a master-and-slave relationship, even though it is hinted that Lucky was once Pozzo’s teacher (25). In the first act, Pozzo appears to be Vladimir’s and Estragon’s social superior. When Pozzo is brought low by blindness Lucky has become mute (78); the master-and-slave relationship remains, however. In their fallen state their relationship to Vladimir and Estragon is ambiguous. In Pozzo’s fury there is still something of the injured gentilhomme, but when Vladimir mimics their offstage fall it is almost as though he assumes the role of a superior onlooker (ibid.). In any case, arguably, this lack of equality lays a foundation for the characters’ inability to communicate.

Revision and translation gave Beckett the opportunity to pare meaning. Beckett himself spoke of a “loss” (of meaning perhaps) in translating from French to English (Bair, 485) and of his preference for the 1954 Grove Press edition, which is closer to the final version, over the French-language original (577)[1]. The original title, En Attendant Godot, has the sense of “whilst waiting for Godot”, implying that the play is ‘about’ what happens whilst waiting. It also enables Beckett to play with the sound of words – “on attend Godot” (En Attendant, 8) – “en” and “on” being near homophones in French; the Samuel French version has “We’re waiting for Godot” (Waiting, 5) but the phrase could as easily have been translated as “one waits for Godot”, implying that that is simply what one does, it is one’s fate to wait. Beckett used such puns deliberately. For example the title of his novel Comment c’est, is a pun on the verb “commencer”, “to begin” (Critchley, 123), which was discarded, losing the punning power, on its translation into English as How It Is; by the same token, ambiguous En attendant Godot becomes unambiguous Waiting for Godot, its meaning pared.

More stripping away occurs within the play. In the first act, Vladimir and Estragon indulge in a little small-talk whilst Pozzo searches for his pipe; Colin Duckworth’s introduction (En Attendant, lix) draws attention to the first edition of the play, in which the dialogue ran:

– On se croirait au spectacle.
– Au music-hall.
– Avec Bim et Bom.
– Les comiques staliniens.

The political overtone was struck out and the “Stalinist comedians” became “Russian comedians;” but eventually even the observation that Pozzo and Lucky were like a comic turn was pared away, and what was left was nothing more than one of Vladimir’s and Estragon’s antiphonal, contradictory exchanges, all of which happened under the strict authorial control of Beckett himself:

Vladimir  Worse than the pantomime.
Estragon  The circus.
Vladimir  The music hall.
Estragon  The circus.
(Waiting, 26-27)

Likewise his use of the nonsense-word “knook” (25); the explanatory exchange is entirely missing from the English text, and meaning takes yet another backward step.

Vladimir  Qu’est-ce que c’est, un knouk?
Pozzo  Vous n’êtes pas d’ici. Etes-vous seulement du siècle? Autrefois on avait des bouffons. Maintenant on a des knouks.
(En Attendant, 27)

godot 2 pozzo lucky

Throughout the text, no exchange comes to any concrete conclusion, from the smallest, such as the following, which teases critics looking for a Christian interpretation,

Vladimir  Suppose we repented.
Estragon  Repented what?
Vladimir  Oh… (He reflects) We wouldn’t have to go into details.
(Waiting, 3)

to longer passages of dialogue such as the “dead voices” exchange (52-53). This inconclusiveness is another device to pare meaning, as is contradiction. “Let us try and converse calmly,” says Estragon, “since we are incapable of keeping silent” (52), despite which supposed incapability the pair subject themselves to ten protracted silences within the next four pages, the contradiction cancelling out the initial statement. From the point where Estragon suggests conversation, the exchange alters its direction seamlessly:

Vladimir  You’re right, we’re inexhaustible.
Estragon  It’s so we won’t think.
Vladimir  We have that excuse.
Estragon  It’s so we won’t hear.
Vladimir  We have our reasons.
Estragon  All the dead voices.
Vladimir  They make a noise like wings.
Estragon  Like leaves.
Vladimir  Like sand.
Estragon  Like leaves.
(ibid.)

This, and the passages punctuated by the first four silences, are actually beautiful, in sprung rhythm – “They listen to the dead voices while we listen to the poetry” (McDonald, 146), but it is poetry to no effect, petering out into more silences broken by Vladimir’s desperate “Say something! […] Say anything at all! […] This is awful! […] Help me!” (Waiting, 53). Eventually they find their flow again, but once more the nature of the exchange is altered, becoming a stichomythia where they intend to contradict each other but, perversely, superficially agree.

Vladimir  That prevents you from thinking.
Estragon  You think all the same.
Vladimir  No, no, impossible.
Estragon  That’s the idea, let’s contradict each other.
Vladimir  Impossible.
Estragon  You think so?
Vladimir  We’re in no danger of ever thinking any more.
Estragon  Then what are we complaining about?
(ibid.)

godot 3 didi & gogo large

At last their exchange becomes nonsensical:

Estragon  We should turn resolutely towards nature.
Vladimir  We’ve tried that.
Estragon  True.
Vladimir  Oh, it’s not the worst, I know.
Estragon  What?
Vladimir  To have thought.
Estragon  Obviously.
Vladimir  But we could have done without it.
Estragon  Que voulez-vous?
Vladimir  I beg your pardon?
Estragon  Que voulez-vous?
Vladimir  Ah! que voulez-vous. Exactly.
(54)

Estragon’s assessment is “That wasn’t a bad little canter” (ibid.), indicating that the exchange was intended to pass the time, “so we won’t think […] so we won’t hear” (52). Words normally express thoughts, spoken words are understood by hearing them, so when they are used to prevent thought and hearing and merely to expend time, they are robbed completely of meaning.

Lucky’s declamation (34-36) seems to introduce many of what commentators assume to be themes of the play, but does so incoherently. No thought, throughout the passage, reaches any rational or grammatical conclusion, it becomes “an incoherent Jeremiad” (Coe, 1), and the other characters throw themselves upon him, actively preventing any chance of communication. Suman Gupta suggests that it could be nothing but nonsense:

[It] is so clearly designed to defeat clear construction and sequential development that one cannot help feeling that to try to interpret it is to distort its effect. I do not think that Lucky’s speech is open to any single conclusive interpretation of an argument or a structure – it would well be taken as nonsense.
(241)

Not only nonsense but mockery of sense, perhaps. Lucky’s “quaquaquaqua” (Waiting, 34) mocks his master’s “Qua sky” (29). The fact that his rant seems to flow is of no significance; so did the “big thinks” of Doctor Moreau’s monkey-man (Wells, 178), so did the “quack-quack-quacking” of the “duckspeaker” (Orwell, 57), and so will the “quaqua” in Bom’s thoughts (How It Is, 3, 109, 127). Lucky’s scatological “Acacacacademy” and “Anthropopopometry” are akin to the “sex” sound in Finnegan’s subconscious “Exexex! COMMUNICATED!” (Joyce, 172). None of these makes actual ‘sense’ any more than Lucky’s speech does.

godot 5 lucky

Beckett illustrates how the meaning of a single word can be imperiled in repetition. The blind Pozzo calls for help some eighteen times (Waiting, 67-73), most often with that specific, single word. Vladimir and Estragon effectively ignore it, arguing over his identity, speculating about Godot, falling over themselves, and so on. The fact that they eventually say almost seems to be divorced from his cries for help up to that point.

Vladimir  What about helping him?
Estragon  What does he want?
Vladimir  He wants to get up.
Estragon  Then why doesn’t he?
Vladimir  He wants us to help him to get up.
Estragon  Then why don’t we? What are we waiting for?
(73)

Perhaps the most telling examples of the inability to communicate come in the last minutes of the play. In the final exchange between Vladimir and the boy (80), the boy actually communicates nothing. Vladimir supplies his own ready-made assumptions. It is impossible to know whether they are in fact correct – the boy’s affirmations are not necessarily to be trusted. We are left with the feeling that if Vladimir had said instead that Godot was on his way and would be there at any minute, the boy would still have answered ‘Yes, sir’, that Vladimir’s assumptions either way are arbitrary and would not affect whether Godot would come. The limits that Vladimir puts on the outcome are delusional, products perhaps of existentialist dread, but as meaningless as the words themselves.

The final exchange and stage direction bring non-communication to a poignant conclusion:

Vladimir  Well? Shall we go?
Estragon  Yes, let’s go.
They do not move
(83)

Where words bear no relation to action, they have no meaning at all. In each of the characters’ lines the operative verb is “go,” and yet “they do not move;” these words, then, have no meaning, nothing is communicated, thus nothingness is communicated. This divorce of words and action could therefore be said to expand the quip that in Waiting for Godot “nothing happens, twice” (Mercier, 9) to “nothing is communicated, twice”. This may well be a challenge to theatrical convention, and Suman Gupta repeatedly makes the point that “[p]lays that question theatrical conventions and compel renegotiation and readjustment from the audience are inevitably, therefore, about theatre […]” (218). However, it is possible to contradict Gupta by simply considering statements made by Beckett himself: “I’m not interested in the theatre […] I’m not interested in the effect my plays have on the audience. I simply produce an object. What people think of it is not my concern.” (Duckworth, 17).

If Waiting for Godot is not ‘theatre about theatre’, it is easy to argue that it is about nothing, or “nothingness,” conveyed by the deliberately non-communicative dialogue. It is the “object” created when Beckett realizes that “[…] more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it” (Gupta, 232). For Beckett “words are the chief ingredient of failure” (Coe, 11) and “the only certain answer is that there is no answer” (93) – perhaps the only certain answer being uncertainty itself.

Where does this leave my own dictum that “we read everything” then? (Thompson)

The challenge for the images I cited in my previous article, and for those like them, is that we cannot help but grant them semic content. For all the ostensibly semic and semantic value, for all the sense that each sentence might make in the play, Waiting for Godot challenges us by making that value slip away, so that we question anything semantic or semic even if we attribute it ourselves. I can’t claim that Beckett actually pulls this off, this trick on us, but if he fails in Godot, he goes on to “fail better” (Worstward Ho, 7) in works like Sans, where he uses a smaller and smaller lexicon to express changelessness, endlessness, and the annihilation of time – perhaps a subject for a further article.

Footnote:

[1] I’m sorry to have to ask you to read carefully – the original text of Waiting for Godot was, of course, in French, and the version I am mainly referring to in this article is published by Samuel French. I have had to read it over a few times myself to be sure I know what I’m saying – an objective lesson in the perils to meaning!

Editorial note:

Images with this article are from various stagings of Waiting for Godot  by the Gate Theatre, Dublin.

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Works cited:

Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: a biography. Summit, 1990.

Beckett, Samuel. En Attendant Godot. Ed. Colin Duckworth, George G.

Harrap & Co., 1966.

—. How It Is. Faber & Faber 2009.

—. Waiting for Godot. Samuel French, 2004.

—. Worstward Ho. John Calder, 1983.

Coe, Richard N. Beckett. Oliver & Boyd, 1964.

Critchley, Simon. “Who Speaks in the Work of Samuel Beckett?” Yale

French Studies, No.93, pp.114-130. tinyurl.com/SCBeckett. Accessed

21st January 2019.

Duckworth, Colin. Angels of Darkness: dramatic effect in Samuel Beckett

with special reference to Eugène Ionesco. Allen and Unwin, 1972.

Gupta, Suman. “Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot.” The Popular & The

Canonical: Debating Twentieth-Century Literature 1940-2000, ed.

David Johnson, Routledge, pp.210-261, 2005.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Oxford World Classics, Oxford UP, 2012.

McDonald, Ronan. Tragedy and Irish Literature: Synge, O’Casey, Beckett.

Palgrave, 2002.

Mercier, Vivian. “The Uneventful Event.” The Irish Times, 18th February

1956, p.6. tinyurl.com/MercierGodot. Accessed 21st January 2019.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1990.

Shea, Robert, & Robert Anton Wilson. The Golden Apple. Sphere, 1976.

Thompson, Paul. “Image and meaning: some thoughts on the term

‘asemic’.” Taxonomy Domine 10th January 2019.

tinyurl.com/Asemic. Accessed 21st January 2019.

Wells, Herbert George. The Island of Doctor Moreau. Harmondsworth,

Penguin, 1964.

Image and meaning: some thoughts on the term ‘asemic’

Today I’m looking at the term ‘asemic’ with the help of three visual presentations, two by Johannes Berg and one by Marie Marshall.

A short definition of ‘asemic’, offered by Johannes Berg, is that the word refers to “[…] writing, scratchings, glyphs, etc., without semantic content.” It was coined in 1997 by visual poets Tim Gaze and Jim Leftwich, to refer to their quasi-calligraphic presentations, but has been extended to any presentation that mimics or displays as a recognisable symbol or recognisable symbols, but has no specific semantic content. The word ‘asemic’ means seme-less, or not having the smallest unit of meaning. In a manner similar to abstract art, such a presentation leaves the viewer or reader free to interpret or supply meaning. This is not the same as ‘not having the smallest unit of meaning’, as the meaning is supplied; the viewer’s or reader’s supplying that meaning is an integral and inevitable part of the creative process. A better term would be ‘asemantic’, because that might more adequately convey the notion of its being “without semantic content,” or at least without deliberate, intentionally semantic content. In fact, Jim Leftwich has himself questioned the validity of the word ‘asemic’, and the term ‘pansemic’ has been coined as an alternative – pansemic being, essentially, at the extreme opposite of the scale from asemic, as it contains all possible meanings. (Giovenale)

This is where I come in, with my oft-stated principle, “we read everything.” Human observation is a constant process of interpretation, although this is not necessarily at a prominent level in our consciousness, nor to any great depth, nor necessarily anything more than a fleeting thing. No matter what the intention of the presenter of an object may be – it doesn’t have to be a work of art, it can be a table or anything – no matter whether the presenter attempts to give it meaning or none, significance will be brought to it by the viewer or reader. It will instantly be interpreted, or will call up associations, interpretations, meanings from elsewhere in the viewer’s mind. Once again I fall back on the following quotation from Maurice Merleau-Ponty:

[…] this table bears traces of my past life, for I have carved my initials on it and spilt ink on it. But these traces in themselves do not refer to the past; they are present; and in so far as I find in them signs of some ‘previous’ event, it is because I derive my sense of the past from elsewhere, because I carry this particular significance within myself.
(Merleau-Ponty 413, my emphasis)

Let’s look at the visual presentations, all three of which occur online. The presenters are primarily known as poets; as such they are both well aware of the value and potency of words, and words are their prime medium and mode. Both are playful with words, when they use them. Thus they are aware of the potency of paring away obvious meaning. Inevitably, when they present something with the label ‘asemic’, each is aware of the debatable area in which they are playing.

Johannes Berg’s first presentation (fig.1) came with the suggestion “Instruction?” I use the term ‘suggestion’ rather than ‘title’, but the very fact that there is a semantic prompt challenges the assumption of being seme-less. Responding to that prompt we make something out of the three rectangles, with their internal symbols suggesting (perhaps) diodes, resistors, and capacitors, each suggestion opening up further interpretation. Their positioning in the body of the presentation suggests that there is something in the rest of the presentation that refers to them. The lines of apparent text suggest Georgian or Glagolitic writing as much as calligraphy from East Asia, bringing along ideas and impressions of orientalism and liturgical scripture; this collides with the notion of a technical manual and sets off all kinds of semic counter-waves in the mind of the viewer/reader.

berg 1 an instruction?
fig.1

You will already have noticed that, in common with the other two presentations, this one obeys other conventions. Its rectangular ‘portrait’ shape is that of a page, or of a hung portrait, or of a hand-held tablet or smartphone. Presenters of ‘asemic’ work are, by virtue of the use of and development from quasi-calligraphy, aware of the conventional modes of their challenges to conventionality!

Berg’s second piece (fig.2) nods at an italic-based cursive hand, but gives it a concrete shape on the page – concrete shapes evoke their own associations. The ‘text’ is dense. The intrusion of odd lines in blue, rather than black, suggest a palimpsest. From the upper slope of the text, a figure, part human and part avian, launches itself as though in ungainly flight or dive. The intrusion of an image into an ‘asemic’ presentation produces what Enzo Patti calls “figurazioneasemica.” [At this point I must apologise for having no information about Enzo Patti, beyond having seen a handful of his presentations.] The image, of course, calls up a whole host of associations for the viewer, and turns the lower portion of ‘text’ into a waiting body of water and the ‘script’ into wavelets.

berg 2
fig.2

The third presentation is entirely different (fig.3), and was produced in answer to my request. Poet Marie Marshall claims no pretentions to great art, nor to the originality of her experiments, but has been occasionally giving out examples of what she calls ‘impact art’. It is a highly visual style, making use of day-glo colours and computer technology, in which she acknowledges Robert Indiana’s 1966 work Love and the imitative 1987 work Imagevirus by General Idea as well as early 20c paintings such as Composition IX by Theo van Doesburg.

item
fig.3

This piece is also titled – ‘item’. It appears to be playing with very simple block symbols, unlike the quasi-cursive of Berg’s presentations, but because the symbols have no direct value it can be seen as an attempt at the ‘asemic’. Asking the question, “Which is background and which is object?” seems to be central to this piece. Are the coloured shapes which suggest the letter ‘H’ objects on a black background, or are the black shapes which do not quite say ‘5’, ‘3’, or ‘c’ objects on a coloured background? There appears to be a slight but deliberate roughness to the shapes and colours, teasing us to decide where to consider the edge of each object/background to be.

The important consideration in all three presentations, is that I  have been supplying meaning based on something at the very least suggested in each piece. That my interpretation is inevitable, is part of the everyday human mental function, makes dubious any claim to divest any artistic presentation of meaning. Each presenter at the very least approaches meaning, sails close to imbuing the presentation deliberately with meaning even though that meaning might be up for grabs; image and text is in the mind of each presenter – they too go through life observing, reacting, interpreting, they too are influenced by text, alphabet, and symbol that is used for conveying meaning, and try as they might the pull of meaning is in the intertextuality of their work.

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Works cited:

Giovenale, Marco. “Asemic-Pansemic.” Asemic Writing: Definitions &

Contexts: 1998-2016, compiled by Jim Leftwich, TLPress online,

2016. tinyurl.com/GiovenaleLeftwich. Accessed 10thJanuary 2019.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. Translated

by Colin Smith. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.