Unbearable Godot: How an Existentialist Can Make Meaning and Find Happiness in Repetition

By Irwin, William | Philosophy Today, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Unbearable Godot: How an Existentialist Can Make Meaning and Find Happiness in Repetition


Irwin, William, Philosophy Today


Waiting is the greatest drudgery in life, and watching a performance of Waiting for Godot drives this home. Rather than reward us for waiting, the play frustrates us. There is no big pay-off or resolution. Waiting requires diversion to combat boredom. As the theatergoer may fidget in his seat, twiddle his mumbs, look at the program, or send text messages, so too Vladimir and Estragon must find ways to pass die time. They abuse each other; ask each other questions; contradict each other; consider repenting; consider suicide; and so on. Perhaps most comically they pass hats back and forth in an attempt to pass the time.

But they did this yesterday and most likely will play the hat game again tomorrow. Indeed, tìiey are just filling the time and repeating yesterday's actions as a way to get through. So for them, is repetition a curse or a boon? If we can imagine Sisyphus happy, can we imagine Vladimir and Estragon happy? With its unique take on Nietzsche's eternal return, Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being helps us to deal with the weight and the wait both in Godot and in life. No, it is not an argument that will prove it, but, with a little help from Camus, looking through Nietzschean lenses at Beckett and Kundera will show how an existentiahst can make a heaven of me hell of repetition. The key, as we shall see, is to avoid a pernicious form of self-reflection by cultivating absorption in the activity of the moment.

Estragon is impressed with the duo's resourcefulness in dealing with the wait, saying "We don't manage too badly, eh, Didi, between the two of us? . . . We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist"?1 Vladimir is less impressed, saying:

All I know is that the hours are long, under these conditions, and constrain us to beguile them with proceedings which - how shall I say - which may at first sight seem reasonable, until they become a habit. You may say it is to prevent our reason from foundering. No doubt. But has it not long been straying in the night without end of the abyssal depths? That's what I sometimes wonder. You follow my reasoning? (51)

Vladimir also observes that "What is terrible is to have thought" (41). As the punishment of Sisyphus is most truly a punishment because of his consciousness of his situation, the situation of Vladimir and Estragon is so awful because of their consciousness of it. People need to have something to do; some meaning, some purpose or plan. Waiting can be worthwhile if we are waiting for something worthwhile. Unfortunately, Vladimir and Estragon do not quite know what they are waiting for, except that he is named Godot. But who is he? They do not really know. They Öiink he will save them. But what will he do for them? What will he bring? What will he tell them? What does Godot have to offer? What did they ask for? Whose fault is it that Godot does not show? They fear punishment from Godot if they do not show up, but Godot escapes blame for not showing up himself. Godot does send a messenger, though without any real explanation, just the promise that he will surely meet them tomorrow.

Though Vladimir and Estragon flirt with me idea of suicide, hanging from the tree by a belt, we know Üiey will not go through with it. Despite their abysmal circumstances, they are confident that Godot will surely come tomorrow. But as with the gag sign in the pub that reads "free beer tomorrow," tomorrow never comes - meaning never comes, Godot never comes. Vladimir and Estragon lack meaning and purpose, which will never arrive, because, for the existentialist, meaning is made, not discovered. Existence precedes essence; we make ourselves and we make our meaning. Some philosophers will claim there is an objective meaning by appealing to God, a Platonic realm, or an Aristotelian telos, but these sources are rejected by the existentialist, for whom existence precedes essence and meaning.

Vladimir and Estragon barely remember yesterday and they look forward to tomorrow. …

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