The Identity of Godot: A Derridean Reading


Waiting for Godot is an absurd play by Samuel Beckett which explores a static situation in which two tramps Estragon and Vladimir wait indefinitely by a willow tree on a country road for an enigmatic being named Godot. Godot constitutes the centre of their life though he does not arrive in the end of the play and there is no hint that he will, even after the play ends. So there is an implication that the tramps will go on waiting for this elusive being who is like a mirage in the desert. The title of the French original En attendant Godot meaning ‘while waiting for Godot’ is less ambiguous than the English one. Descriptive as it is, it gives an impression that the play is more about the act of waiting than about the arrival or identity of Godot. However, in a postmodernist context in which the idea of decentering is important, it would be relevant to critique the Godot-centric universe of Estragon and Vladimir. When asked who or what Godot stands for, Beckett stated ‘If I knew, I would have said so in the play’. (Beckett 44) This Beckettian statement could be understood with reference to the play-text which does indicate who Godot might be, but only through diverse, unrelated references to Godot, references which do not help one arrive at any ultimate conclusion about the identity of Godot. In other words, when Beckett says ‘If I knew, I would have said so in the play’, this statement might indicate this inconclusiveness, plural connotations or ‘polysemy’ about the identity of Godot. The diverse textual references to the polysemy about the identity of Godot are instrumental in explaining that the idea of centre is an illusion in the Godot-centric universe of Waiting for Godot. Before a close analysis of the textual references to Godot is made, it would be relevant to discuss some of the major concepts of Jacques Derrida who has written in detail about the notions of decentering and polysemy. In his seminal lecture ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences’, Derrida talks about the concepts of ‘centre’ and ‘rupture’. Philosophers in the early times have built their discourses around some kind of ‘centre’ or ‘logos’. For example, in the theological discourses and belief systems, God has been posited as a centre of the universe. The idea of centre, however, is a ‘necessary hypothesis’. The centre is a hypothesis because one cannot prove its existence. And it is a necessary hypothesis because it helps people to put things in order, to create a cosmos out of chaos. Belief in a centre, albeit false, gives people a sense of security. In the same lecture, Derrida points out three thinkers – Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger – who brought out a kind of ‘rupture’ or interrogating and decentering of this centre. Freud, for example, critiqued the idea of reason and sense-perception as the means to explain the reality around us and talked about the irrational domain of the human mind related to the notion of the unconscious. Consequently the idea of realism and rationalism was turned upside down and new form of artistic movement came into existence, namely, surrealism. Heidegger too indicated how our sense of being is always already covered by interpretation. Heidegger defined truth as ‘aletheia’ or ‘unconcealment’ and suggested that one needs to uncover the interpretations to discover the truth about being. Truth about being is non-being as the goal of every life is death. Life in itself is meaningless; people give meaning to life in their own way. In other words, though life in itself is meaningless, in order for people to exist, life is ascribed diverse meanings. The idea of plurality could be understood also as an absence of any absolute meaning of life. Indeed, this is a point that Derrida himself emphasizes throughout the essay, and most evidently in the epigraph of the essay ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences’. The epigraph is taken from the French essayist Montaigne and it reads as ‘One needs to interpret the interpretations more than the things’. In other words, Derrida is indicating the need to interrogate the existing interpretations or philosophical systems (which have, for example, foregrounded the idea of ‘centre’) which is exactly what constitutes Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction. The idea plurality of centres, absence of any absolute centres, or the notion that centre is a myth are some of the observations that would, for Derrida, constitute the concepts of indeterminacy and inconclusiveness, the hallmarks of postmodernism. The critiquing of the idea of centre would also be the basis of Derrida’s interrogating of logocentrism (logos or reason, presence, speech as superior to unreason, absence, and writing) and phallogocentrism (phallus as symbolic of the power of men or patriarchy over women). In this context, Derrida’s critique of ‘metaphysics of presence’ is important. Metaphysics of presence has been central to western philosophical tradition since the time of Plato. The word metaphysics refers to the question of being, and the transcendentality of the presence of truth. It points to the presence and utterance of thought simultaneously at one point of time. Aristotle creates a hierarchy between speech and writing because for him thought is represented by speech which is in turn represented by writing. Thought is the first order reality that resides in the domain of the ideal while speech is the first order representation of the ideal. Plato also takes the same standpoint. He says that the domain of the metaphysical is the domain of the ideal and physical being is the representation of metaphysicality. Just as Aristotle creates a hierarchy between speech and writing, Plato places philosophy over poetry. For him poetry is flawed because it represents the physical not the metaphysical, whereas philosophy deals with transcendental signified (truth) that resides in the metaphysical domain. To be precise, this is how Derrida defines metaphysics in the ‘Afterword” to Limited Inc: The enterprise of returning ‘strategically’, ‘ideally’, to an origin or to a priority thought to be simple, intact, normal, pure, standard, self identical, in order then to think in terms of derivation, complication, Deterioration, accident, etc. All metaphysicians, from Plato to Rousseau, Descartes to Husserl, have proceeded in this way, conceiving good to be before evil, the positive before the negative, the pure before the impure, the simple before the complex, the essential before the accidental, the imitated before the imitation, etc. And this is not just one metaphysical gesture among others, it is the metaphysical exigency, that which has been the most constant, most profound and most potent (LI 236).( Reynolds 4) Derrida would systematically critique the notion of ‘metaphysics of presence’ by interrogating and blurring the binaries of speech/writing, interiority/exteriority, and presence/absence. How could one know the Socratic ‘dialogues’ if Plato did not ‘write’ those down? Can we isolate the interior from the exterior, aren’t they mutually constitutive? Why should presence be considered superior to absence? Derrida’s point of course is that such binary hierarchies serve the interest certain groups of people. For example, the notion of phallogocetrism which is based on the centrality of man in the world and the idea of inherent superiority of men over women, serves the interest of patriarchy. The superiority of the white over the black in the black/white binary served the interest of the colonizers, and so on. Derridean theory of deconstruction is based thus on questioning the idea of absolute centre or even the idea of a centre per se and to blur the binary oppositions in order to prove their false hierarchy. Plural Identities of Godot In order to make sense of what Godot stands for it would be useful to investigate the diverse textual references to Godot throughout the text of Waiting for Godot. The step by step explanation of Godot’s multiple possible identities and the negation of each of these being absolute (as I will expound in the following paragraphs) are crucial to making a Derridean critique of the idea of centre. Is Godot God? Since the text is steeped in scriptural allusion and deals with the pertinent issues of hope, desire and salvation one would be inclined to identify Godot as God. Significantly, the themes of the two thieves on the cross, of the uncertainty of salvation, the chance bestowal of the grace reinforce the idea. Kristine Morrison is of the opinion that Vladimir’s emphasis on the story of the two thieves dwelling on its textual uncertainties, betrays his own conflicting hope and despair. Beckett’s placement of this story early in the play indicates his authorial concern with establishing the theme of blighted hope. Bored to death for the delay of the arrival of Godot, Vladimir says: ‘Hope deferred maketh the something sick’ (Beckett 2) which calls to our mind Proverb 13:12 i.e. ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick’. What is more concrete evidence of Godot’s being God is the claim of the boy who appears at the end of each act. When asked about the physical features of Godot, he says that Godot has a long beard which matches with the pictorial representation of God as a father-figure in the West. The following conversation would illustrate this point: VLADIMIR: (softly). Has he a beard, Mr. Godot? BOY: Yes Sir. VLADIMIR: Fair or . . . (he hesitates) . . . or black? BOY: I think it’s white, Sir. Silence. VLADIMIR: Christ have mercy on us! (Beckett 85) The very name Godot implicitly offers the suggestion that he may be God. In French, the addition of the suffix “-ot” at the end of the word changes it into a diminutive with an endearing tone. So the coinage of the word “God-ot” signifies that he may be thought of an endearing little God. Irish language further offers a testimony to Godot’s being God for in spoken English “gogo” stands for God. The soft voice and hesitation in Vladimir’s question quoted above has the undertone of Godot’s standing for God and the anxiety of meeting with him for either grace or salvation. Mary Bryden observes that for Estragon and Vladimir Godot is the hypothesized God – a God that emerges from Beckett’s text – who is cursed both for his perverse absence and surveillant presence.(3) He is often dismissed, satirised or ignored but he is never fully discarded. All these readings have been refuted by Beckett himself who said: ‘If by Godot I meant God I [would] have said God not Godot’. (“Waiting for Godot”) The most significant twist that Beckett puts forward in the play in this regard is a contrast between God and Godot in the following passage: BOY: …Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow… VLADIMIR: You work for Mr. Godot? BOY: Yes Sir. VLADIMIR: What do you do? BOY: I mind the goats, Sir. VLADIMIR: Is he good to you? BOY: Yes Sir. VLADIMIR: He doesn’t beat you? BOY: No Sir, not me. VLADIMIR: Whom does he beat? BOY: He beats my brother, Sir. VLADIMIR: Ah, you have a brother? BOY: Yes Sir. VLADIMIR: What does he do? BOY: He minds the sheep, Sir. VLADIMIR: And why doesn’t he beat you? BOY: I don’t know, Sir. (Beckett 44) Here there is an allusion to the following biblical parable: When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations; and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. . . . Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. . . . And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (Matthew 25:31-46) A careful reading of the play shows that unlike the God of the Bible, Godot does not protect the sheep. While God protects the sheep and curses the goats; Godot protects the boy who takes care of the goats and beats the boy who takes care of the sheep. Godot might have a saviour-like significance in the tramps’ life, but he is no biblical God. Though Beckett dismisses the idea that Godot is God, I have explained several textual references to Godot as God to highlight every possible interpretation of Godot’s identity. Is Godot a Rich Businessman? At another point in the text, Godot is described as a man with correspondents, bank accounts, books, agents, a family and a cosy home: ESTRAGON: What exactly did we ask him for? VLADIMIR: Were you not there? ESTRAGON: I can’t have been listening. VLADIMIR: Oh . . . Nothing very definite. ESTRAGON: A kind of prayer. VLADIMIR: Precisely. ESTRAGON: A vague supplication. VLADIMIR: Exactly. ESTRAGON: And what did he reply? VLADIMIR: That he’d see. ESTRAGON: That he couldn’t promise anything. VLADIMIR: That he’d have to think it over. ESTRAGON: In the quiet of his home. VLADIMIR: Consult his family. ESTRAGON: His friends. VLADIMIR: His agents. ESTRAGON: His correspondents. VLADIMIR: His books. ESTRAGON: His bank account. VLADIMIR: Before taking a decision. ESTRAGON: It’s the normal thing. (Beckett 11) What pervades the conversation of Estragon and Vladimir is uncertainty and vagueness about Godot and the tramps’ relation to Godot. Apparently Estragon and Vladimir are waiting for Godot because they wanted to get something from Godot. But how uncertain they are about their demand! The expression ‘vague supplication’ might refer to the class difference between Godot and the tramps; Godot is like their boss with agents working for him. Yet, we cannot be very sure about Godot’s identity even though he appears to be a rich businessman. A similar reference is found at another point in the text when the tramps are not very sure if they are ‘tied’ to Godot. ESTRAGON: (chews, swallows). I’m asking you if we’re tied. VLADIMIR: Tied? ESTRAGON: Ti-ed. VLADIMIR: How do you mean tied? ESTRAGON: Down. VLADIMIR: But to whom? By whom? ESTRAGON: To your man. VLADIMIR: To Godot? Tied to Godot! What an idea! No question of it. (Pause.) For the moment. ( Beckett 13) But we know it for certain that the tramps are waiting for Godot, that they would continue coming to the same place until they meet Godot. Is Godot Pozzo? When Estragon asks Vladimir whether they are tied to Godot this question ironically foreshadows the entrance of Pozzo and Lucky- tied to each other- into the scene. The relation which the wilful master Pozzo has to his submissive slave is quite similar to the one Estragon and Vladimir have with Godot. Although Godot is absent, he appears to be an all-powerful persona since he keeps Estragon and Vladimir in constant uncertainty about his arrival. And they are left with no other option than waiting. The confusion regarding Godot’s identity is intensified further when Estragon mistakes Pozzo for Godot. Pozzo’s overbearance quite matches with the idea Estragon and Vladimir have constructed of Godot: POZZO: I present myself: Pozzo VLADIMIR: (to Estragon). Not at all! ESTRAGON: He said Godot. VLADIMIR: Not at all! ESTRAGON: (timidly, to Pozzo). You’re not Mr. Godot, Sir? POZZO: (terrifying voice). I am Pozzo! (Silence.) Pozzo! (Silence.) Does that name mean nothing to you? (Silence.) I say does that name mean nothing to you?…(Beckett 15) Things take an uncertain turn as Pozzo sternly interrogates them about Godot. Once again it is proved how little they know of him: POZZO: Who is he? VLADIMIR: Oh he’s a . . . he’s a kind of acquaintance. ESTRAGON: Nothing of the kind, we hardly know him. VLADIMIR: True . . . we don’t know him very well . . . but all the same . . . ESTRAGON: Personally, I wouldn’t even know him if I saw him. (Beckett 16) The gaps, hesitations and silences in their answers undercut the tentativeness of their position. Since the two names Godot and Pozzo sound alike and for the reasons explained in the earlier paragraphs, Godot might be identified as Pozzo but Beckett himself dismisses the idea. In answer to the question “Is Godot Pozzo?” Beckett retorts, “No. It just implied in the text but is not true” (Waiting for Godot) Though Pozzo is not Godot, he is “one who gives Lucky a sense of purpose, a place in the world order… Lucky is luckier than Vladimir and Estragon because he has found a better way of feeling time than go through the unbearable anxiety and tedium of waiting.”(Prasad, xxiv) Indeed, they engaged in a tremendous amount of action including remembering their past, thinking about committing suicide, eating carrots, losing their boots. But, paradoxically, these actions do not get them anywhere. When they run out of speech, they frantically try to fill up silence which is unbearable and which threatens the validity of their existence. Conclusion In the above discussion, three major textual references to Godot have been isolated and analysed. None of these references posits any absolute identity for Godot. Although Godot is a saviour-like figure for the tramps, he is no biblical God. Equally, although Godot is described with features of a rich businessman, we cannot be sure about the authenticity of such descriptions since the tramps who apparently had met Godot cannot themselves be very certain about Godot. In Pozzo one could perhaps find a Godot; but the hypothesis does not go too far. Keeping this in mind, one could probably understand Godot not as ‘who’ but as ‘what’. Godot could be understood as an experience. Godot could be understood as the experience of waiting itself, or even life itself. If Godot has no existence outside the text of Waiting for Godot – as Beckett insisted whatever he had to say about Godot is there in the text- then Godot could be understood as a posited entity, any posited entity that helps one go on waiting, or for that matter, living. To live is to create the purpose of life, and Godot is such a purpose for which the tramps wait and thereby live on. It is in this context that, in a Derridean sense, Godot can be understood as a required hypothesis. Godot is certainly a hypothesis which is yet to be proved. Even if Godot’s identity cannot be ascertained and there are multiple opinions about his possible identity (i.e. the uncertainty and inconclusiveness about the identity of Godot), still Estragon and Vladimir need to posit Godot. Positing Godot gives a reason for them to wait, assuming the existence of somebody called Godot, gives them a sense of safety and security in an otherwise meaningless and therefore unsettling universe. Even if Godot does not exist, Godot is to be posited because Godot is a necessity in the life of the tramps. Alongside representing the Derridean notion of polysemy (multiple meanings) and indeterminacy (no absolute referent), the identity of Godot also overturns the binary of presence/absence. In Western philosophy, presence has always received a metaphysical, transcendental, superior status over absence. In Waiting for Godot, an absent figure has a tremendous impact on the entire play-text. An entire discourse is built around a centre that is absent. This could also be understood in terms of Derrida’s familiar statement ‘There is nothing outside the text’ (Spivak 163) It can be argued that Godot exists only as a linguistic sign as part of the larger signifying system called language, or to be more precise as part of a literary system called Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s indication that whatever he had to say about Godot he had mentioned in the text could be understood precisely in a Derridean sense of sign systems of language and literature. To imagine Godot as somebody who exists outside the text or somebody who would arrive sometime after the play ends would be misleading. This is because Godot cannot be an extra-textual entity or what Derrida would prefer to call a ‘transcendental signified’. Probably Godot can have multiple implications only the way a signifier in the process of ‘différance’ would refer to other signifiers or diverse signifiers, without ever pointing to any one fixed signified, for in Derrida there cannot be a signified; that which is considered to be a signified is just another signifier

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