a sense of humor, we might as well just wait
Philosophy and Nonsense
(Thoughts about writing, education, and experience.) Presented by Forrest D. Poston
The first goal of teaching is to strengthen, deepen and refine our intrinsic love of learning. All other goals and all methods must stem from that idea. Any that do not support that goal must at least be questioned and adjusted, if not eliminated. Otherwise, we are not teaching but training.
Think, I dare you.
|Many of the great 20th century philosophers are cartoonists or animators.|
|Godot and the Great
Forrest D. Poston
(originally presented at the University of Louisville 20th Century Literature Conference, Feb. 2002)
Near the end of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," Sally's patience ends with, "I spent the whole night waiting for the Great Pumpkin, and all that came was a stupid beagle." My initial reaction to Waiting for Godot was much the same as Sally's unsatisfactory Halloween, but when dealing with trick or treat, you sometimes get the trick. As a result, I spent several years feeling grumpy at the mention of Samuel Beckett, but I was never quite convinced that the darkness was quite so absolute or necessary. The more someone quotes "there's nothing to be done," though more I look for something to be done. When I realized that the Great Pumpkin equals Godot in absurdity, but we respond to the two stories differently, I knew that I'd found some wiggle room to alter the perspective, interpretation, and application.
I've come to suspect that we're at least as fond of absurdity as we are of order, and of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is it fair to assume that absurdity is intrinsically bad or that order is intrinsically good. We want order, and meaning to offer direction, but we also want freedom and creativity to offer possibilities. We may not expect the Great Pumpkin, but neither despair nor stoicism off a satisfactory substitute for some form of hope. Somehow we have to balance those desires, and so we get two stories about absurdity, but our differing reactions to the stories suggest variables in our relationship with absurdity. We have some choice. Life may or may not have meaning, but it most assuredly has absurdity. In that we have no choice, but we can choose or manipulate our attitude.
That idea itself isn't overwhelmingly new. There are two choices running through reactions to Beckett's work, two extremes. The primary camp goes with a "nasty, brutish," and not short enough pose best summarized with the now politically incorrect, "Life's a bitch, and then you die." Oh, yes, and "There's nothing to be done." In juxtaposition is the human spirit camp. By not giving in to the utter meaninglessness, waiting each day in spite of the pointlessness of it, our down-trodden non-heroes somehow glorify the human spirit. This would be, "You're born, you live, you die" attitude, and "there's nothing to be done." I'm not after a cotton candy, Pollyanna world, either/or absolutes tend to conceal "Choice C."
Since it was watching Charlie Brown that helped me see another option, I'll start there. The first question is simply what is it that's absurd in The Great Pumpkin. There's the Great Pumpkin himself/itself, and his Santa Claus competitor. There's Charlie Brown trying to kick the football no matter how well he knows Lucy, and there's Charlie Brown always getting a rock in place of a treat. Of course there's Snoopy, the WWI flying ace. But what of that would we ever want to change? Of course, we play the game differently with an animated children's story. We don't read this story with quite the high seriousness of a critic. It's okay to enjoy the story, and so waiting for the Great Pumpkin becomes cute, not tragic. After all, children grow up and put such silliness behind them all in due time, but we don't want them to trade innocence and wonder for stoicism in the face of the void. Even if we believe in darkness, we somehow want children to hold onto something for us, some hope that we might become like children. We want Charlie Brown to keep trying to kick the football because maybe once he'll put one over on Lucy, and we'll have a reason to get up in the morning with a possibility, not merely a full bladder.
The real absurdity in the Great Pumpkin is the absolute quality in Linus's philosophy. First, he has to find the "most sincere" pumpkin patch. Very sincere isn't sincere enough, and when he lets a single "if" slip out, he's "doomed." In that black and white perspective, there's no room for human error, no room for the oops that's alwayscoming sooner or later. Nothing is quite so absurd as perfection, whether that's perfect goodness or perfect darkness. Absolutes become utterly static, and it is at such extremes that there is "nothing to be done."
Turning back to Godot, what then is absurd in that story? Two men wait for a man who may or may not come, and they don't know what he'll do if he does come. This cycle goes on indefinitely, and it appears to be the central absurdity, especially since it's the action (or non-action) named in the title. However, this may be the most reasonable action in the play because it creates possibility. It's not much of a possibility, but it's a sliver anyway, and it's certainly more than anything else we're shown. Other than that, we have quite a bit of violence. Estragon and Vladimir are beaten and do their share of beating.
Naturally, they talk quite a bit, but there is little conversation. Rather than talking to one another, they talk at one another. Two, perhaps even three lines will connect to one another, then it's non-sequitur time again. Characters act upon each other, not with each other, increasing the sense of isolation and chaos. While conversation may often seem disjointed, it has a tendency toward pattern, a building of ideas. Break the conversation, and you emphasize the Cartesian world in which everything is separate and incapable of interaction. After all, Descartes was never able to come up with a satisfactory explanation for how we see any object when there is a separation to cross. He came up with some fascinating attempts, but nothing to satisfactorily overcome the mechanistic view. For the west, that had to wait for Heisenberg and the quantum approach to a fully interconnected system, for Chaos Theory that says apparent chaos is really just a pattern too complex to see.
So life is absurd, but Waiting for Godot doesn't show that life is absurd nearly as much as it shows that we live absurdly. Whether live has meaning or not, is it better to act in ways that increase our sense of isolation or take pleasure in the delight of creating conversation? Now there is a special absurdity or paradox. Even if there is no meaning, we can create patterns, and patterns are at least the ingredients of meaning. A Deconstructionist may point out, quite correctly, that words have no intrinsic meaning, but we cannot talk about the meaninglessness shown by Waiting for Godot unless Beckett creates a shape we can interpret as meaning meaninglessness.
Beckett said, "I take no sides. I am interested in the shape of ideas." Unless we want to argue with Beckett, there must then be sides to be taken, and there must be ideas and forms. Be there meaning, be there no meaning, we are still seekers of meaning, creators of meaning, interpreters of forms, so the shapes Beckett creates become Rorschach tests. If we're feeling more playful, they become cloud-watching games. In that case, the question becomes why we interpret the shapes the way we do. I don't really want to use "should" or "right" along with interpretation, but are there better or worse ways to approach interpretation?
Critical approaches are more numerous than fleas of late, and there even remain strong traces of the New Critical approach looking for a correct interpretation with authorial intent and all the problems that entails. My first critical approach to reading is to switch the critic off as completely as possible because I'm a firm believer in reading for simple pleasure first and for the intellectual gymnastics afterward. That second stage revolves around a single question: how can I use these ideas to alter or refine my perception of and relationship to myself and the world? That creates a trinity that isn't all that new, consisting of myself, the very real text (including authorial intent and accident), and the social or even broader context we share. Who am I, and how do I relate to the universe? Nothing big.
If I wanted to name my approach, I guess I'd call it Utilitarian Creative Interpretation, and it's roots go back to my high school days, that time when many students start thinking that the word symbolism is pretty harsh profanity. For me, it peaked when we read To Kill a Mockingbird and got to the scene when the sheriff suggested Atticus, the father and lawyer, should be the one to shoot the mad dog. Not surprisingly, Atticus's young children were quite surprised to find out that their father had been champion shot of the county in his youth. My well-intentioned teacher explained to us that this was the symbol of justice shooting down the mad dog of prejudice. In those younger days, I didn't use profanity, and I simply sat there thinking how silly that was, though I had no other interpretation to offer at the time.
Only after years of teaching and individual conferences did I realize how common this scene really was. We all have to go through various stages of realizing that these giants we call Mom and Dad are really just people. They were just as small as us and even have pasts that go beyond us. It's when we begin to realize a simple truth that we can believe in our own future and accept our parents mistakes. People are allowed to make mistakes, but gods are not.
When we read as critics, we have a tendency to go for something big. Whether we're trying to impress ourselves, our colleagues or the tenure committee, we tend to jump from ground zero to Platonic ideals all in one superhuman bound, but bypassing everything in between is another way we strengthen the appearance of separation, disconnectedness. My teacher took people and turned them into non-human symbols grounded only in ethereal concepts. That's the kind of jump that makes authors either groan or laugh (and sometimes look for other ways to make critics jump). It certainly isn't fair to readers trying to understand (even if not consciously) their own experience. It takes meaning and turns it into meaninglessness. I'd go so far as to call it absurd. Rather than turning a human into a symbol, the most effective and powerful symbols will most often humanize an idea, not "idealize" a human.
Idealists are accused of having their heads in the clouds, but that's just so they can watch the critics who are floating in the stratosphere, too. Of course, both earth and clouds are important to continuing life, whether it's absurd or not, but our ability to understand experience or philosophy in useful ways comes when the two are grounded. When the symbol is grounded in experience, lightning strikes. In literary terms, that's a good thing even if we get quite a shock.
So far, I've given my reading style a name and made fun of literary critics, but where is the so what behind it all? For me, that comes as a teacher. If I want to re-interpret myself through a Dick Francis mystery in my own living room, that's my business, but if I have the nerve to stand in front of other people and try to influence their lives, I'd better consider what influence I'm going to have. At least as far back as high school, my teachers were trying to get me to read as a critic. Certainly every graduate school I've had contact with has created the same atmosphere. The more I talk to my colleagues, the more I wonder when some of them last read as readers, read for the simple pleasure of words, ideas, and action, without wondering if they could get an article out of this to improve job security.
I know it's not just me. Too many of my students come in with a hatred of symbolism. Far too many have told me that they are avoiding majoring in art, music, or English because that's the field they love, and they're afraid that studying it will destroy the love. The fear isn't unjustified, especially if they have teachers who have divorced literature and married criticism.
I really don't want to tell my students that "there's nothing to be done." I don't want to tell them that the glory is in not committing suicide when the situation seems to call for it, that the only reason not to commit suicide is because suicide and living are equally pointless. There's no point to life, but read this assignment anyway. It seems that some critics and philosophers want to tell us that it isn't cool to hope; it isn't "in" to laugh, except with cynicism. These stories are our contemporary mythology, part of how we form opinions about the working of the universe, how to live and how to die. As we read and interpret them, we read and create ourselves.
So how can I read Waiting for Godot to alter or refine my perception of and relationship to myself and the world? Grounding the ideas in experience, is life absurd in terms of paradox and unpredictability? Whether love is chemical, psychological or spiritual, it surely proves absurdity. Do the characters in the play behave absurdly? Certainly. Do people frequently act in such absurd ways? Any daily newspaper provides ample evidence. Do I want to live in imitation of these characters if I have a choice? Not hardly. If life is absurd, and the characters and real people live absurdly, does the play tell me that I must live in such an absurd manner? Ah, the crux. There is the possibility of a negative example. Even a mirror held to nature would reverse the image. So there is the possibility, but is there anything in the play itself that can justify a reversal of attitude? After all, even if we're cloud-watching, we don't want to claim that a round cloud looks like a square.
Vladimir raises a question for us, and questions introduce possibilities because we don't have to give the pat answer. In one gospel, one thief is saved, and it's that story that's remembered. "Why believe him rather than the others?" According to Estragon, it's because "People are bloody ignorant apes" and we're all too ready to settle for that answer because it has just enough truth to satisfy our grumpier nature. Still, the question sits there for the reader. Why believe that story rather than another or none?
If all are saved, what's the point? Whatever we do, the end is the same. If none are saved, what's the point? At either extreme, there are no choices, no possibilities. It's not only a religious question but also a matter of meaning or meaningless, a matter of the difference between absurdity and real chaos. If one was saved, then we can affect our lives and move out of the realm of mere chance. Why believe that story? Because it's neither all cotton candy nor cyanide. It offers no promises but possibilities, yes.
It's also Vladimir who says, "There's man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet." Perhaps when we find only darkness in absurdity, it isn't Beckett or reality but ourselves who are responsible. Of course, that's the temptation to believe that all were saved or none were saved. If there's nothing to be done, then we can deny responsibility entirely.
Beckett shows us the absurdity around us, and he shows us people living absurdly, but the simple fact that life is absurd doesn't mean that we have to live absurdly in all its worst incarnations. Just because life can be that way, doesn't mean the play insists life MUST be that way, or that we have to accept such lives. After all, if words had inherent meaning, we couldn't treat them like the glorious Silly Putty they are. If life weren't absurd, we wouldn't have puns. Perhaps we need to watch and read more like we do when we watch The Great Pumpkin. Numerous philosophers have told us to become more like children, but that doesn't mean we become lemmings blindly following one idea or one authority. It means that somehow we have to blend wisdom painfully gained with simplicity; match the cynicism that gives us caution with the innocence that gives us abandon; pair our doubt with wonder; balance our pre-revelation Scrooge with our Tiny Tim.
I've been accused of being an idealist and unrealistic. Fine. I confess. And I don't want to stop you from reading as you wish, but we also need to maintain some humor and humanity. Mostly, we need to remember that realistic and pessimistic aren't really synonymous. The third approach in place of life's a bitch or stoicism is one I encountered long before I heard of Samuel Beckett, the Theater of the Absurd, or existentialism, and I've long forgotten where I first saw, "Why take life so seriously? You'll never get out of it alive anyway get out of it alive anyway?"
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