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  • Writer's pictureBryson Edward Howe

Dread States: Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot

Listen to this week's text:
Samuel Beckett, 1981 by Hugo Jehle

“terrified again

of not loving

of loving and not you

of being loved and not by you”

— Samuel Becket, Cascando


I’ve been fascinated by the weight of absence recently, and the things that are not-quite-there yet still linger heavily, huffing like the smoke that outlasts the fire, or the limb lopped off and still craving sensation phantom-like on your agony torso, and the dry moss that patches your drooling mouth under the blurry umbra of a flushed dawn. Samuel Beckett’s slow-motion language fixes itself to this absence through tales that border nothingness in order to attempt a drawing of its unimaginable shape. Born on Good Friday in Ireland in 1906, Beckett’s birthday feels appropriate given the prolepsis of the formless, dead hours lost to anticipation nearly two-thousand years earlier. The Saturday after Christ’s crucifixion must have been a long, slow day.


In A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Roland Barthes’ threnody to “the site of someone speaking within himself, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak,” definitions of absence and presence are unwoven and the threads laid bare. He recounts the story of a mandarin who fell in love with a courtesan: “I shall be yours,” she told him, “when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.” But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away. I recently told a girl who had broken my heart that I would imbibe the pain she was putting me through, that I would patiently wait for her to fall back in love with me. Waiting to fall, where the ‘falling’ sinks the weight that love carries until you are no longer the self you once were; you are the self in love. Nestled in the light of nostalgia, I felt like I could only wait for either the person or the experience to arrive again, but waiting is still and powerless. Waiting for someone to fall in love is the ultimate torture, where there is an illusion of comfort in this protensive inertia, and in palming the responsibility off onto the other. But is absence a lack of something, or a refusal to see what’s there? Like the mandarin realising on the ninety-ninth night that by choosing to wait he was inflicting this pain on himself, a week after I told this past love of mine that I would patiently wait for her, I decided I would never speak to her again. Though finality always just seems so preposterous.


What made Christ’s crucifixion so salient wasn’t that it was a sacrifice, but a rebirth. Yet those days in between, waiting for an arrival, a return, a promised sign, must have seemed so pathetic. Singeing eidolons into old text messages, poems on the back of a postcard, or even creating and re-creating a mnemonic torrent in the half-empty-bed of once-lovers, when the making of the bed is an unmaking of my memory of who used to lie in it. Silence pierces my charcoal organs. The left side of my bed stays cold, yet maybe this is the very essence of the experience of being, of not what is but what it is not—a via negativa burial ground—each word that pierces the blankness of a page Beckett gorges on, as if filling an emptiness is the same thing as fulfilment.


Waiting for Godot, Théâtre de l'Odéon, Paris 1961 (set designed by Alberto Giacometti)

Unrequited love sends you flinging yourself towards anything that might fill that void; the words are never crazed (at most, perverse) but underneath each sentence there is a verbal hallucination, a mutilated vision of what a “sentence” is becomes tempestuous, and explodes, vibrating in and out of itself like a sound severed from any rhythm or tune—or repeated to satiety, like the ventriloquism of a disembodied voice that hovers and where logic stirs, collides, subsides, returns, vanishes, orderless, endless. Becket turns language against itself, attempting to reach silence (or, more than silence, nothingness) through its most ardent enemy: the word. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “In art, it is hard to say anything as good as saying nothing.” Trying to find meaning amongst Beckett’s double-jointed lines that mash and bite at the vestigial feelings that pulse in rheumatic temples and stain sulfuric tastes on swollen tongues is a hermeneutics of laconic privation. He untangles a Joycean voyage through the contours of grief where logic drowns in a murky famine of meaning and it becomes a stain on silence itself.

Famously described as a play in which “nothing happens, twice”, Waiting for Godot has no plot, no climax, no denouement, no beginning, no middle, and no end (as Barthes said about waiting—“no transcendence, no deliverance”). The 1953 play observes two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, as they wait for the apocryphal Godot, who never arrives. Godot’s absence forms the weight of the“waiting” itself. “What will happen when the day arrives,” they might wonder, and suddenly all the adrenaline of that anticipation has a question mark around it. For, in the end, there is always a beginning. When we look at notions of ‘the end’ in this way, we see that the only full stop is death. Everything else is a pregnant pause as we slowly lean into the next sentence, the next act. Maybe that pause, that dot dot dot, is what challenges us rather than the full stop which, beyond the abstract, doesn’t really exist. To give mortality (or any sort of loss, whether that be an ex-lover, a dead friend, an absent father, etc.) shape is a battle you only wage when you desperately want to gesture that you're alive. This urge to deny the implicit limitations of human capacity has traditionally led us to the excesses of transcendence, where you have to wear your heart in your mouth and find glittering purpose in a limboic fool’s paradise. How inconvenient to be made of desire. Want rises up in me like a hot oil. I want so much that it scares me—not the weight of the body but the fact of the body. Not the shape of the body but the need of the body. Absence isn’t a drought, but a puncture, a reverberation, that slowly drains away: I’m locked out of Eden and slowly forgetting what the air in there was like to breathe.

Oh-God oh-God oh-God-oh. He’ll come. Tomorrow.


All the dead voices. They make a noise like wings. Like leaves. Like sand. Like leaves. [Silence.] They all speak together. Each one to itself. [Silence.] Rather they whisper. They rustle. They murmur. They rustle. [Silence.] What do they say? They talk about their lives. To have lived is not enough for them. They have to talk about it. To be dead is not enough for them. It is not sufficient. [Silence.] They make a noise like feathers. Like leaves. Like ashes. Like leaves. [Long silence.] Say something!

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