Four saints in two acts: a note on the Saints Macarius and the canonization of Gogo and Didi
There are some obvious explanations (in Beckett’s terms, that is), for the choice of St Macarius’ Day as the starting point of Mercier and Camier’s journey—‘Marcarius’ begins with Beckett’s favorite letter, ‘M’ (or, for that matter, with ‘Mac’ to give it a proper Irish flavour), and its meaning—‘happy’ in Greek—is an ironic comment on the condition of Mercier and Camier. The outlook of St Macarius the Elder would certainly appeal to Beckett, for the saint taught that we must not be moved by reproach or praise. Beckett’s work, of course, is full of such obscure, erudite references. In the main, they are specific, ironic comments on the distance between the unnameable situation of his characters and the world of ‘ivory tower’ knowledge. There are, however, some references, such as those to Descartes and Geulincx, which have wide reverberations in his work. It seems reasonable to ask, therefore, if there are any further ironic resonances and parallels in Beckett’s writing to the lives of the five saints named Macarius, who are listed in Butler’s lives of the Saints.
We know from Carrier’s notebook that his appointment with Mercier was on ‘Monday 15, St Macarius.’1 St Marcarius the Elder is the only one of the five whose Day falls on the fifteenth of a month (January), and he is the most important of these saints. St Macarius the Elder once made a journey with St Macarius the Younger, and, since they were contemporaries who led very similar lives, they would seem a likely pair to be contrasted with Mercier and Camier. These two happy saints present ironic parallels to many of Beckett’s faltering pairs as well they were silent for long periods of time (an approximation, at least, to the ultimate goal of Beckett’s work), rather than trying to overcome silence; they performed miracles of abstinence, rather than being forever waylaid by the need for food and drink; they prayed constantly to God for help, rather than denying the possibility of help. Since happiness is the distinguishing characteristic of the two saints, there may be a closer parallel to Gogo and Didi—who are similar to Mercier and Camier in so many ways. For Godot is punctuated by discussions of whether or not Gogo and Didi are happy, while Mercier and Camier seem to have relegated happiness to the past. Gogo’s disgust with his enforced abstinence is an ironic parallel to the saints’ willing austerities, and the Younger once lived on small amounts of raw vegetables and beans for seven years.
Other details of the saints’ lives also seem suggestive of Gogo and Didi. The Elder was banished to a little island in the Nile delta surrounded by marshes. The happy saint, living among the marshes (and of course the Nile reeds), would add another level of irony to the Dantesque bogs and reeds of Gogo and Didi’s lonely waiting place. While on a boat crossing the Nile, the two saints once encountered a group of Roman officers. One officer asked about their cheerfulness in the face of poverty. The Younger answered, ‘You have reason to call us happy, for this is our name. But if we are happy in despising the world, are not you miserable who live slaves to it?’2 The officer gave all he had to the poor and became a hermit. The contrast between the saints’ spiritual happiness in their physical poverty and the situation in Godot, adds depth to Gogo and Didi’s radical poverty of body and spirit. The saints’ conversion of a fellow traveller to a hermit’s life of retreat from the world is in ironic contrast to Gogo and Didi’s relationship with the travellers, Pozzo and Lucky. For not only do Pozzo and Lucky cling to the world, even in their final state of advanced degeneration, but the aim of Gogo and Didi’s only altruistic act is to speed them back to the world.
The most obvious irony is, of course, the contrast between the saints’ happiness, rooted in their firm faith and knowledge of salvation, and the world of Godot where these qualities do not exist. When Didi tries to talk about Hell and Salvation, just before he tells the story of the two thieves in Act I, it becomes evident that these concepts have no meaning at all for Gogo. According to Butler, the Elder Macarius believed that the continuous repetition of short prayers such as, ‘Lord, show me mercy as thou knowest best.’ and ‘O God, come to my assistance.’ was a step toward Salvation. The idea that mercy or help could come from God is often a cause of sour merriment for Gogo and Didi, because it is so incongruous with their purgatorial situation. The saint’s blissful repetition of these prayers adds a further ironic nuance to the characteristic repetitions of Godot.
‘We are not saints,’ says Didi, ‘but we have kept our appointment.’3 Gogo and Didi have lived by the precepts of their purgatorial situation, where happiness, faith and knowledge can only be argued but never verified. The two Macariuses each spent sixty years in a cell in the desert, happy in the assurance that they lived in a kind of earthly Purgatory, an anteroom to Purgatory and Paradise. The lives and happy faith of the Macarius pair offer an ironic foil to the world of Godot, and suggest still another way to perceive Gogo and Didi—they are saints of an earthly Purgatory, without time-without-End.
1 Mercier and Camier, New York, Grove Press, 1974. 13.
2 Quotations from Butler’s lives of the Saints are taken from the Complete Edition, ed., rev., and supplemented by Herbert Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwatter, New York, P.J. Kenedy and Sons, 1956.
3 Waiting for Godot, New York, Grove Press, 1954, 51 (facing).